|There’s that sound again. That sound— I hear it. But I don’t know if it’s in my ears or in my mind. I don’t know if it’s inside me or outside. I don’t know when it was or who it was either. Is that important? Was it? Who was it?"|
"Tokyo Ueno Station" is a Japanese novel by Yu Miri translated by Morgan Giles. It is the winner of 2020 National Book Award in Translated Literature. It's a memoir of sorts of a man who lived his last years as a homeless person in Tokyo's Ueno Park.
I was surprised to learn Tokyo even had homeless people when I visited in the 1990s and saw one myself. I also visited Ueno Park, where I didn't witness any homeless persons. I was impressed by the cherry trees and the pond and the museums and the zoo, all of which are mentioned in Miri's novel. Ueno Park is a great park in the middle of a major metropolitan city. That's what attracted me to the novel in the first place.
What caused me to like it is its style. It's short and lean. It's haunting. At times it reads like poetry. "As I retreated into the future, the only thing I could ever see was the past."
Kazu was born in 1933, the same year as Emperor Akihito. Kazu's son Koichi was born in 1960, the same year as Emperor Naruhito. Kazu's life was accompanied by tragedy. "Koichi was dead. And he would be tomorrow, too. From now on he would always be dead." When the emperor visits a museum or monument in Ueno Park, police temporarily clear the park of homeless encampments. Kazu stands by as the emperor's limousine passes. Only a stone's throw away, he could think of nothing to say to this man who was the same age as himself, but whose life was so different. "To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past while still being in full view of everyone."
Kazu's life also intersects with the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, the city where Kazu was born and where he still have family in 2011. And the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Kazu was a laborer on the main stadium. His life ends as Tokyo is bidding on the 2020 Olympics. Kazu spends much of the novel reminiscing about his long life. And his current predicament.
"I thought that once I was dead, I would be reunited with the dead. That I would see, close up, those who were far away, touch them, and feel them at all times. I thought something would be resolved by death. I believed that at the final moment the meaning of life and death would appear to me clearly, like a fog lifting— But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside life looking in, as someone who has lost the capacity to exist, now ceaselessly thinking, ceaselessly feeling—"
It's a sad novel, but it's not morose. Kazu doesn't feel sorry for himself, only unlucky. "I kept chewing over what my mother had said when Koichi died: 'You never did have any luck, did you?'" Kazu is a modern everyman worth getting to know.