Sunday, April 20, 2014

"The Eventual Event"

"It began very simply, nothing of deliberation, nothing of vanity or pride but simply the eventual event coming as the phenomenon of chance."-- Toshio Mori, Yokohama, California (1949)

Yesterday afternoon I read Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori.  It's a collection of short stories that was originally supposed to be published in 1942, but with the outbreak of World War II, publication was delayed.  The book eventually appeared in 1949.

After the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor, Toshio Mori and his mother were incarcerated in the Relocation Camp in Topaz, Utah.  Mori's brother, who was a serviceman in the US Army prior to the war, remained in the army and was injured in Europe--while the remainder of his family lived in the relocation camps in the US.  (Both Toshio Mori and his brother were born in the United States and lived just outside of Oakland, CA.)

When Yokohama, California was finally published, it quickly went out of print and, by the mid-1950's, had virtually disappeared from circulation.

It really is an interesting and beautiful collection of stories.  Two of the tales, "Tomorrow is Coming, Children" and "Slant-Eyed Americans" were added in 1949: they were written during the war, and not envisioned as part of the initial collection.

Mori's style reminds me a bit of Steinbeck's, at times: I'm not sure if it's because I know that they're both California writers (like Joan Didion), but there's a spare simplicity to the style that strikes me as very similar.

Yokohama, California focuses on the ways in which characters define place (it has been compared to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio--which personally, I didn't really care for, actually).

I think what I like best about Mori's very short stories is that they don't try to do too much: he doesn't feel a need to spell everything out, and he often leaves you to wonder exactly what is happening in the minds of his characters.

This then allows the reader to connect the threads between stories, and creaes a narrative fabric in which the space of Yokohama (a fictional town in California) is not only literal, but existential.  It is quintessentially "American" even though its occupants will soon be in the process of being denied their status as "Americans."

It's a wonderfully philosophical text as well, with beautiful, elliptical phrasing in which complex ideas are interwoven with everyday existence.  As the narrator of story, "He Who Has the Laughing Face" explains, "Every little observation, every little banal talk or laughing matter springs from the sadness of the earth that is reality; every meeting between individuals, every meeting of society, every meeting of a gathering, of gaiety or sorrow, springs from sadness that is the bed of earth and truth" (125).

Many of the stories in Toshio Mori's collection are about work, truth, life and happiness.  My favorite is the story, "The Trees," in which a man named Fukushima asks his friend, Hashimoto, for the secret of his happiness.  Fukushima was once a wealthy man who "owned stocks and properties," but in the last year, "fate overtook" him and he lost everything he had.

He arrives at Hashimoto's home one morning to walk with him among the pine trees because, he says, "people tell me you have your trees, and that is why you are happy" (138).  In response, Hashimoto says, "there is really nothing in it.  I simply see the trees.  That is all" (137).

The two friends walk together among the pine trees, but Fukushima insists, "still I don't see anything in the trees.  Why is that?" (137).  He grows angry and tells Hashimoto, "anyone could see the trees."

To which Hashimoto responds, "They could and should" (137).

In an effort to elaborate, Hashimoto asks Fukushima, "Did you not say you were cold a few minutes ago?  ... Look at yourself now... You are warm and perspiring.  You are very warm. ... The difference between warmth and cold is movement... And movement makes warmth and cold" (137).

Fukushima, for his part, cannot understand, and simply insists that Hashimoto "explain the trees."

When Hashimoto tells him, "I cannot explain the trees... But listen, friend. The warmth and cold I talk about is in the trees" (137-138), Fukushima becomes angry and severs their friendship.  He leaves, never to return.

This is the constant refrain of Mori's beautiful collection of stories.  As the narrator of "Tomorrow and Today" observes, "When one has been around the neighborhood a while, the routine is familiar and not emphasized.  It appears dull and colorless.  But in this routine there is the breath-taking suspense that is alive and enormous, although the outcome and prospect of it is a pretty obvious thing" (165).

In the end, this phrase perfectly sums up Yokohama, California.   In his descriptions of things that are "pretty obvious," Mori captures the enormous, breath-taking suspense of familiar routines.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."