Yoshikichi Furui: 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody)
This is one of those novels that do not have much of a plot but are a real joy to read because of the superb writing and the fascinating ideas. The main theme, as the title indicates, is ageing and death but Furui discusses other things as well. The unnamed narrator, a writer who knows some German, therefore presumably at least based on Furui himself, and his two friends are all aged fifty-seven which, in this day and age, is not particularly old. However, they tend to look back at the past rather than forward to the future and illness, accidents, death and even a ghost story seem to surround them. Despite this, they all three seem to be physically quite fit (despite the odd illness), as they themselves point out when they go out walking. Though the narrator has had health problems, he now seems to have more or less recovered. Accordingly, though death and ill health are around, they are seen as there but not overwhelmingly threatening, as they might be in a book by a Western author, perhaps just part of life, as indeed they are.
However, the book, in good Japanese style, opens with food, albeit food related to death. The narrator spends some time wondering when the idea of serving sushi at funerals was introduced. It used to be the case that hot food was served but, gradually, sushi seems to be the favourite choice. He wonders about asking other older people but the ones he would have asked have all died (lots of people have died in this book.) Finally, a younger man asks him when they started serving sushi at funerals and he feels he has to take a position on this and mentions the early 1950s. This younger man is Yamagoe. He met Yamagoe in hospital. He himself was in for a back operation and, unable to sleep, went wandering to the lounge at night, where Yamagoe was sitting. Yamagoe had had a motorcycle accident, which nearly killed him. It is from Yamagoe that we hear more about death than from anyone else. Yamagoe had nearly killed himself on his motorbike. His two siblings and his father are already dead. His mother dies during the course of the book. She will die without telling him a key secret about her relationship with her husband, Yamagoe’s father, which seemed to have had a profound effect on their marriage, though it seems she did tell Yamagoe’s girlfriend who was caring for the mother while Yamagoe was in hospital. The girlfriend has not told Yamagoe. Yamagoe tells the narrator that almost all of his family were born on the same day as some major disaster in Japan – a plane crash, a natural disaster or some major industrial accident. Indeed, throughout the book, we will get references to and descriptions of such incidents. It is Yamagoe who first tells the narrator about the Tokyo poison gas attack on the metro.
Part of growing old is the idea of memory and this is key to this book. The narrator remembers things that happened in the past, of course, but he also has false memories. For example, a road near his house was built on top of an old canal. This had been built in the seventeenth century and had been a major water supply canal. However, it had fallen into disuse and people had thrown rubbish into it and it had then been filled in. He seems to remember having seen it in its glory when a child but realises that this was impossible. He will have other such memories. For example, he is walking in a relatively quiet area and comes to an intersection. It reminds him of the old traditional crossroads of the past, which are now rarely found. Each one used to have a mile marker. He looks for such a marker and, indeed, does find one obscured. He then looks up and sees a man looking down at him from a house. He will later realise that there was no house. He had just imagined a house there where there was no house. The man, however, does exist and recognises the narrator. He calls him Sugaike. The man is Fujisato and the pair had been at school together.
Fujisato and the narrator had not seen each other for forty years but will become friends, once Fujisato realises the narrator is not Sugaike. Fujisato, of course, carries death with him. He had almost been killed in a plane crash. He will later tell the narrator about his neighbour, an old man. The old man was getting senile but came every day to visit Fujisato and his daughter. (Fujisato’s wife is, of course, dead and Fujisato had had mental health problems caused by a stressful job.) Eventually, the old man died but his visits continued, coming through the side gate and slowly walking across the garden. They reminisce about their school days. Fujisato mentions that their year was the first year that no-one died of tuberculosis. He also mentions the boy that jumped off the roof and killed himself. Fujisato did not see the suicide but did see the body in the school yard, covered by a cloth.
Sugaike is an old friend of the narrator and they meet for a drink every two or three years. However, the narrator cannot understand how Fujisato knows him as they were not at school together. (All is later explained.) Sugaike, of course, has his tale to tell. During the war, there was an air raid and he was separated from his mother. A bomb falls near the entrance to the shelter and he sees dead bodies but does eventually find his mother. The three do become friends and reminisce together, though often recounting gruesome tales of death and destruction. Indeed, as they say, that is what old Japanese gentlemen do, sit around and talk of illness.
Other aspects of ageing are touched on. He mentions how he has many friends but they have more or less lost touch. He comments that it was though they were dead for him and he was dead for them. Both he and Fujisato have a sense that, when they were younger, they had things to do but now what they had to do has been completed; in other words they a sense of peace with life. The narrator does not appear to have lost his hearing but, at times, when he is talking to people, he can hear them, indeed hear every word they say, yet he has a sense that the voice is coming from a distance. He also keeps seeing people that he thinks he knows but they turn out to be complete strangers. And, inevitably, time seems to be more fluid now he is getting old.
Death certainly permeates this novel. Indeed, in one short section, we get a plane crash, a major hotel fire, a major earthquake, another plane crash, the story of Yamagoe’s siblings’ fatal accidents, a suicide, the poison gas attack and the death of the narrator’s father-in-law. While some deaths are certainly gruesome, such as the Tokyo poison gas attack on the metro, the Kobe earthquake and various wartime deaths, the characters seem to take all of it in their stride. Death is natural. However, what makes this book such a superb read is Furui’s writing. We are not waiting for any particular plot development, except perhaps to learn of Yamagoe’s mother’s secret. However, we follow the narrator, Yamagoe, Fujisato and Sugaike as they deal with death and ageing, they deal with relationships and they deal with family issues and the way Furui writes about these things can only make us regret that more of his work is not available in English.
First published in 1996 by Shinchōsha
First English translation by Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan in 2007
Translated by Meredith McKinney