“Territory of Light” by Yuko Tsushima [Why This Book Should Win]
Check in daily for new Why This Book Should Win posts covering all thirty-five titles longlisted for the 2020 Best Translated Book Awards.
Kári Tulinius is an Icelandic poet and novelist. He and his family move back and forth between Iceland and Finland like a flock of migratory birds confused about the whole “warmer climes” business.
Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt (FSG)
Writers cannot choose the moment in which they are read. They may imagine the circumstances their readers will find themselves in, or the concerns and preconceptions that are brought to the work, but even at a writer’s most perceptive, it is just a vague generality. This goes exponentially once a text has been translated and is even further compounded as decades and centuries pass. All of which is a fairly circuitous way of saying that Yūko Tsushima almost certainly never thought that her novel, if it’s even correct to call it a novel, would be read by an Icelander during a pandemic in the year 2020.
When I was contacted by Patrick Smith about writing a “Why This Book Should Win the Best Translated Book Award” post, I asked if I could write about Territory of Light. I hadn’t read it, but had the idea that it was something akin to one of my absolute favorite films, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a portrait of a single mother slowly cracking under the pressures of a sexist society. That is, of course, a reductive summary of a deep, brilliant film, and while I would not balk at a similar description of Territory of Light, the situation in which I found myself reading Tsushima’s book made me focus on very different aspects of it.
Before getting into the content, I need to discuss structure. Territory of Light is one of those books that asks its readers to think about what a novel is. This is partly an accident of how it was first created. Territory of Light was originally published as a monthly series of short stories in a magazine from July 1978 to June 1979, following the travails of its divorcing protagonist in real time. When collected as a single book, the month forward jump between each chapter, each of which are a similar length, gives the book a strong formalist rigor. The effect is Oulipian, anticipating in novel form Jacques Jouet’s “metro poems,” where each line is composed while the train is moving, and written down while it waits at the station.
Each chapter is therefore episodic, following its own inner logic, with its own cast of characters, some of whom appear in other chapters, but many who do not. This gives the book the feel of real life—random people show up, events lead to nothing, significance found just as often in happenstance as well-laid plans. I have no idea whether Tsushima had worked out the structure before she started, but it certainly doesn’t feel like there is a plan. Which is remarkable and refreshing in a novel.
Another aspect of the structure feels much older than OuLiPo. The protagonist’s dreams are part of the narrative in a way that reminded me more of medieval literature than modern. To reach for an obscure term from my university days, I was specifically put in mind of the prosimetrum form, which mixes prose and poetry. In Territory of Light, the protagonist’s dreams read more like poems than fiction, which both opens the world of the story up, and comments on it from an angle askew from realism, which is otherwise the book’s dominant mode.
Though it is not the rule-bound realism found in most fiction, I cannot remember the last time I read a novel where I never felt like I knew where the story was going. At first, it was a bit confounding—my empathetic faculties started expecting that awful things were about to happen, as is generally the case in chaotic stories, and sometimes they did, but then they were over, and soon enough, another month had gone by in the protagonist’s life and the cares of the previous month were long gone. It was remarkably soothing, because I could let go of my readerly need to recognize patterns and guess what was coming. Because nothing was coming; only life, only everything.
Over the last eight weeks, the entirety of my social life has been reduced to ten people: my immediate family and the staff of the bookstore and bakery near my apartment. I haven’t talked, in person, to anyone else. My social life had been reduced to that of a character in a novel. Though not a character in Territory of Light, which reproduces the randomness of normal life more faithfully than daily existence during the pandemic. Life has no need to be realistic, after all. While I move in my restricted fashion around my world, the protagonist strikes up an acquaintance with another parent at her daughter’s daycare, has a heart-to-heart with a woman at a bar, gets into a dispute with a neighbor; all the incidental encounters that make up one’s day-to-day existence in non-pestilential times.
So what I focused on as I read the book was all that randomness, those run-ins with strangers: being at a crowded neighborhood festival, going about the city in your day to day, taking a child to kindergarten. Experiencing all these events with the protagonist was deeply pleasurable—it was like going on a holiday in normal life, though 1970s Tokyo is far removed in time and space from Iceland in 2020. Quite a few scenes that probably would have made me feel nothing but anxious if I had read the book in normal circumstances—such as when the protagonist leaves her child sleeping alone in their apartment to go out for a drink—were tinged with nostalgia now that the simple act of going out for a drink is impossible.
In some cases, this mix of readerly nostalgia and anxiety would throw some of Tsushima’s themes into an even starker relief. One reoccurring trope in the tale involves random people, strangers even, telling the protagonist that she should get back together with her estranged husband. The way society pushes and constrains her, while making every excuse for her husband, is a good reminder that, as much as not being able to meet people is awful, people are awful.
Incidentally, her husband, Fujino is awful. He’s the sort of fuckboi that deserves at least a paragraph’s worth of ranting, but Tsushima skewers him—and his ilk—beautifully enough that I’ll limit myself to just quoting in brief: “Before he left, Fujino did some explaining: he wouldn’t be able to repay the money he owed me for some time yet; he meant to pay child support when he was able to, but this too was impossible for the present; he didn’t want to let people down by abandoning his dreams of making a movie and creating a small theatre company.” And though I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of Geraldine Harcourt’s translation, I hope this short excerpt shows how smoothly the text flows, and how well-wrought the sentences are.
Territory of Light should win because it is the right book for right now. Not only because it has absolutely nothing to do with pandemics, thankfully, but because the way it portrays reality feels genuinely fresh, making most novels seem overly restricted by contemporary storytelling conventions. That it achieves this using formal constraints somehow makes it even more appropriate. And the way it handles social ills, especially everyday sexism, is a reminder that once the pandemic is past, the human species still has to reckon with a lot of awfulness.
The one definition of the term “classic novel” I have found to have a ring of truth to it is that some books find a way to speak strongly to people in all kinds of different circumstances and eras. Territory of Light spoke very strongly to me at a remove of forty years and thousands of miles. It should win the Best Translated Book Award because it is a novel for every sort of time and place.