Floating Clouds (1951) – HAYASHI Fumiko

原文名: 浮曇
筆者: 林 芙美子
発行年: 昭和26 (1951年)

It’s hard to overestimate just how much of an impact the war—and perhaps more importantly, the defeat—had on Japan, and its national psyche. Obviously Japan had a huge impact on, well, most of Asia, really, but the defeat really sent Japan questioning. And in the past 60 years, some of the best art to come out of Japan has dealt with the way in which the war has shaped and created modern Japan. Floating Clouds is one such piece.

No more obvious in Floating Clouds is this than in the character of Kano, all full of verve and boisterous self-righteousness in Dalat, reduced to a consumptive wreck on his return to Japan. The defeat has meant he has literally fallen ill.

In other places, too, though the effects are not quite so stark, they are there. For Fumiko and Tomioka, their attempts to reassimilate into the lives they led before the war are almost comically futile. For Tomioka, though, this manifests itself in an inability to be faithful to his wife, and then, an inability to be faithful to the women with whom he is conducting affairs. Seriously, he sleeps with at least four women in the course of the novel, all the while purporting to be married to a poor woman who lives hundreds of miles away. He’s a terrible person.

Fumiko, too, must learn to live in a world where her skills are no longer required. Haunted by the uncle who sexually abused her as a child, she longs for her time in Dalat, where she and Tomioka began their relationship. There, free of the burden of ‘proper’ society, they were able to be together with no particular issue. Now, though, with Tomioka trying to put up a front with his wife, she finds herself listless and directionless, resorting to selling stolen goods from her family home to get by.

It is apt, then, that, in the end, the two of them escape to Yakushima, an island so far removed from Tokyo (that is, the symbol of contemporary Japan) that it is almost not actually in Japan (indeed, in 1951, it was the end of the line). They must remove themselves from the trappings of Japanese society in order to try and rebuild a new life, but even then, it is too late. Fumiko has fallen ill, and the uneasy feeling of death that has been following her might finally catch up.

As the two main characters find themselves isolated and disoriented in this brave new world, so too does the reader. Hayashi’s chapters are short and sharp—most are only three or four pages. And yet, the chapters do not represent discrece scenes in the novel—some time jumps take place in the middle of chapters, and many are barely signposted at all. Though told in a linear fashion, these jumps make it hard to get a grip on the characters, leaving you, as they are, trying to find an identity to cling to.

From all of this, it might sound like Floating Clouds is a bleak novel. That would be an apt description. It is almost suffocatingly so. At no stage does the overwhelming sense of defeat and resignation let up. From the rundown shacks and inns in which Tomioka and Fumiko rendezvous, to the depressingly clockwork-like nature of their relationship—she comes to him, he tries to reject her, they sleep together, then don’t see each other for some time—Hayashi does not portray post-war Japan as a place of hope and glory. Tomioka and Fumiko’s struggle to reassert themselves in this world is symptomatic of a country on its knees, a society that no longer knows where it is going. Floating Clouds is a novel that gets inside you.

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5 thoughts on “Floating Clouds (1951) – HAYASHI Fumiko

  1. Tony says:

    A writer I’d like to try more of (I’ve only read a couple of stories from anthologies), and this sounds like a good one to try. Did you read it in English or Japanese?

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I read it in English because I’m super lazy. (Fun fact: all of my posts this month are things I’m reading in translation.)

      As far as I can tell, this is her only major work to be translated into English (and not by what I would term a mainstream publisher). Why, I have no idea. (If I were a more cynical man, I would politely suggest that the publishing industry is full of dicks who ignored her for so long the moment’s passed.) But yeah, definitely check it out if you can.

  2. David H says:

    From the way you describe the structure of this book, the title sounds apt – nebulous almost-fragments that threaten to drift apart as you look at them. Definitely a book I’d like to try: thanks for the review.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I think you’re absolutely correct – clouds have no control over where they go or what shape they take. It’s a nice metaphor.

      Hope you enjoy it when you get around to it!

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