The seaside landscape of ancient rural Japan depicted in Shipwrecks makes the moors of Wuthering Heights seem downright inviting. What little beach exists is surrounded by rocky shoals, and the villagers unfortunate enough to live there eke out an existence either by fishing or evaporating sea water to make salt. Both such enterprises are barely enough to sustain single families, let alone an entire community; small wonder one of the few ways to escape — and to provide for one’s family at the same time — involves selling one’s self to be a bonded servant.
The central character of Shipwrecks is nine-year-old Isaku, who sees all this with the clear-eyed, sad understanding that is common among children of hardscrabble life. When we first meet him, he’s fishing driftwood out from between the rocks to create a funeral pyre for one of the village’s recent dead. His thoughts are less on the one who has died than on how good wood like that would be put to better use heating their own hut. His own father has sold himself off for a three-year stint, leaving him, his mother and his little sister to fend for themselves — and forcing him to grow up that much more quickly. There is no childhood in a place like this, only infancy and then whatever grueling work a boy can perform at his age.
The one bright spot in their lives is something that comes at the cost of others’ suffering. Every now and then a ship of some kind attempts to pass near the rocks, and is dashed against it by sudden wind. The cargo and the raw timber from the ship float ashore; the locals loot everything they can find; and what few survivors remain from such a wreck are quietly killed and thrown into a nearby cave. A few treasures from the last such shipwreck adorn Isaku’s own home, and he watches with fascinated eyes when a local girl is selected to appease and beg for the return of O-fune-sama (roughly, “The Great Ship”) with nothing less than her pregnant body. The calamity of others has become their patron deity, and soon it will deliver another calamity to them that they could have never anticipated.
Like Akira Yoshimura’s other novel On Parole, Shipwrecks looks at the lives of its characters through the accumulation of the minute details of their days. Because Yoshimura makes every detail add up and go somewhere — allegorically, factually, what have you — it has the same cumulatively riveting effect that On Parole created. The passing of the seasons, the changes in the land and the sky, the harvests from the ocean are all described in language so careful and spare it takes on the quality of a prayer. Everything that comes slips away in its own turn, and the old cliché about much Japanese literature being saturated with a sense of how life is loss takes on very unclichéd life here.
The hardships are manifold. Agents from the shogunate come by looking for plundered goods, which if found would mean the death of everyone in the village. What little grain the villagers can afford from further inland has to be hoarded and doled out in strictly controlled amounts. And then one evening, another shipwreck spills its treasures across the beach — along with its already-dead crew, whose corpses carry a smallpox infection that the village is woefully incapable of fending off. It brings not just death but disfigurement and ostracism, the latter being as good as death in this world. Soon the rapidly-maturing Isokichi is left with nothing but one painful alternative for survival after another. And yet there is a note of hope in the ending: we don’t get the same absolute plunge into the abyss that Yoshimura gave us in Parole, but like that book he also constructs his story carefully enough that no easy predictions about the characters’ choices are possible. These people may live tiny, difficult, marginal lives, but they are alive all the same, and have the power to choose some sliver of destiny for themselves.
I’m growing fonder of the Japanese mode of historical novel, which is as lean and spare as the Western variety is elongated and verbose. The former method trusts the reader to bring his intelligence and imagination, and so a book like Shipwrecks evokes more in 180 pages, and with more immediacy and vividness, than many books four times its length or more. An immersive story doesn’t have to be a long one, and this story is just that much more proof of same.