Dreams of empire
Nakajima Atsushi (1909–1942) spent part of his childhood in Japan’s continental empire (Korea) and almost-empire (Manchuria). His father and grandfather were scholars of China, and passed some of their knowledge on to Atsushi, too — so it is not surprising that many of his famous novellas, such as “The Moon over the Mountain” (Sangetsuki, 1942) are based on Chinese sources or set in China or Korea.
Later, towards the end of his short life, Atsushi traveled as a government official to the Southern Islands (then under Japanese mandate) to do research for a Japanese language textbook set to be published and used in Palau at schools for the native children. During his nine months in the Southern Seas he wrote several pieces about life at the tropics, published as Atolls — Records of my tour of Micronesia. (Kanshō — Mikuroneshia juntō kishō). These autobiographical pieces, more like essays or diary entries than novellas, give one a glimpse of Atsushi’s rather thinly veiled racism, surprisingly paired with a keen awareness of the colonial gaze which perfectly internalises Western orientalism: in “High Noon” (Mahiru), the protagonist asks himself how much of what he sees is real, and how much is shaped by his reading of “The Marriage of Loti” (1889; a semi-autobiographical novel by French naval officer Pierre Loti, set in Tahiti and describing the protagonist’s romantic relation with a local girl) or seeing Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women (early 1890s).
I think I need a separate post to talk about Atsushi’s paradoxical take on the Southern Islands and their women, in which to perhaps give more details about Pierre Loti, especially his pieces about Japan, i.e., the famous “Madame Chrysantheme” and the slightly less famous “A Ball in Edo,” and then link it to “The Ball,” an Akutagawa rewrite that gives voice to the nameless Japanese girl Loti had made up mostly of thin air and desire as an embodiment of the Orient’s exoticism.
For today, here is my own translation of one of Nakajima’s Micronesian stories included in “Atolls,” “The Woman in the House with Oleanders” (Kyōchikutō no ie no onna).
The Woman in the House with Oleanders
Afternoon. The wind has completely stopped.
Under the sky covered with a thin layer of clouds, the air hangs humid and still. It’s hot, a heat that’s absolutely impossible to escape.
I walk slowly, one heavy footstep after another, dragging my feet with the sluggishness of someone who’s perhaps spent too much time in a steam bath. My feet are heavy also because of the dengue that has kept me in bed for about a week, and of which I am not yet completely cured. I’m tired. It’s like I can’t breathe.
Feeling dizzy, I stop walking. I stretch out my hand, lean against a ucar tree, and close my eyes. I’m afraid the hallucinations I was suffering from a few days ago, while afloat on the 40 degrees of the dengue fever, might make their appearance again behind my closed eyelids. Just like before, a burning silver whirlpool, giving out a blinding light in the darkness, starts turning and turning. This won’t do! I quickly open my eyes.
The ucar’s thin leaves aren’t moving at all. I can clearly feel a big drop of sweat forming right under my shoulder blade and sliding down my back. It’s so very quiet! Is everyone in the village asleep, I wonder? People and pigs, birds and lizards, the sea and the trees — not a peep.
After resting a while, I start walking again. It’s one of those stone-paved roads, typical of Palau. On a day like today, if I were to walk barefoot like the islanders normally do, I’m sure it wouldn’t feel too cold. When I arrive under a huge, luxuriant banian tree, covered in climbers that look like a giant’s beard, I hear sound for the first time — the sound of water splashing. A bathing place, I think, and look around; from the paved road, a narrow path branches down, towards the water. I part the big potato leaves and ferns; just as I think I might have glimpsed some naked bodies, several merry voices of women suddenly reverberate. Next, there is the sound of splashing and running through the water, accompanied by stifled laughter. Soon these sounds fade, and all returns to stillness. I am so tired I don’t feel like joking around with the young girls who came down for an afternoon swim. I continue my walk along the stone-paved slope.
By the time I got to the house with red oleanders in its front yard, my fatigue (or my dullness, should I say) was becoming unbearable. I should probably take a break. In front of the house there is a big slab of stone, about the size of six tatami mats, 30 centimetres in height — the ancestors’ grave. I go past it and look inside the dark room; no one. Only a white cat, sleeping on the floor made up of thick bamboos. The cat opens its eyes and looks in my direction; wrinkles form on its nose in a critical growl of sorts, but then it closes its eyes again and goes back to sleep. On the island people don’t usually stand on ceremony about this kind of things, so I just sit down on the porch to rest.
I light up a cigarette and look around, at the big flat grave and the trunks of the six or seven thin and tall Chinese fan palm trees. The people of Palau — not only Palau actually; all the inhabitants of the Caroline Islands except for the Pompeians — neutralise the palm seeds with limestone and enjoy chewing them at all times. That’s why you’ll always find several Chinese palms in front of every house around here. They’re smoother than the coconut trees, and their slender trunks look so elegant. Much lower than these palm trees, three or four oleanders are also growing nearby, full of flowers. Some of the pink flowers have fallen on the tombstone. A strong sweet smell is drifting in the air — probably some Indian jasmine is planted behind the house. Today this smell does nothing but exacerbate my headache.
As before, there is no wind. The air has turned into a thick and heavy liquid, clinging to one’s skin like lukewarm glue. This lukewarm glue has made its way inside my brain too, and envelops it in a grey mist. My body feels completely disjointed.
Just as I finish my cigarette and am about to throw away the butt, I turn to look inside the house. Surprise — there is someone there now! A woman. When and from where did she come? There was no-one here until a minute ago. Come to think of it, the white cat has disappeared. Perhaps she’s turned into this woman right here? (I am definitely losing it…) For a moment there, I was actually convinced that’s what happened.
The woman looks at my surprised face without blinking. Her expression shows no surprise. She looks as if she’s been staring at me this whole time, I thought.
The woman is bare-chested, cradling a baby in her lap. The baby is very small — probably less than two months old. Asleep, it hasn’t let go of the mother’s breast, even though it doesn’t seem to be suckling. Because of the shock, and also because I can’t really speak the language, I fail to make any excuses for my barging in, and just look at the woman’s face in silence. Surprisingly, she doesn’t look away. She is staring back intently. There is something feverish and strange in the way her eyes almost seem to sparkle. I start to feel uneasy.
I didn’t run away, because, while her eyes seemed strange, there was no glimmer of danger in them. Also, I should add, as we were staring at each other quietly, my senses were vaguely titillated by something of an erotic nature. Indeed, one could say the young mother was quite beautiful. She had clear cut features — something rare among the Palau people, so perhaps she had some Japanese blood? Her face didn’t shine black, as it would with other islanders, but instead had a lighter, matte tone. She also had no tattoos, which means that, given her age, she had probably been educated in a Japanese school. She was holding her baby with her right arm, while the left was stretched diagonally backward, against the bamboo floor, to support her body. At the elbow, the left arm was bent outward (not inward, as is common); this is something you can only see in the women of this region. She just sat there in this rather warped position, absentmindedly looking at me with her eyes shaded by long lashes and mouth half open. I couldn’t break away from the spell of her gaze.
It might sound like an excuse, but it was all probably because of the heat, and the humidity, and the intense smell of Indian jasmine.
I finally understood why she was looking at me like that. I can’t be sure why a young woman from the island (and one who has just given birth, at that) would feel that way, or whether my body, still recovering from the dengue, could have this kind of value in a woman’s eyes, or even if this was common on the island — of one thing I am sure, though, and that is the meaning of her gaze. I could also see the blood slowly raising to her dark face. My brain in a stupor, I did have a sense of growing danger, but I was also certain I could laugh my way out of it. Soon, though, I started to feel like I was slowly being tied down.
It certainly sounds silly, and thinking back at the weird inebriation that had taken hold of my body at that time I can only say that I was probably under the magic spell of the island. What saved me from the danger was actually the weakness of my sick body. As I was sitting on the porch with my feet dangling, in order to look at the woman I had to twist my body, and holding this pose exhausted me. The muscles in my flank and my neck became extremely painful after a while, and I had to turn and face the yard. When I did that, a deep sigh of relief came out from the bottom of my chest, unawares. That’s when the spell lifted.
My own state from just a moment before made me smile a forced smile. I stood up from the porch and, with the same smile on my face, I looked at the woman inside the house and said sayonara in Japanese. She didn’t reply. As if she had been terribly shamed, she stared at me with angry eyes, without moving. Turning my back on her, I started walking towards the oleanders. I passed under the huge mango and almond trees along the stone-paved street and returned to my lodgings, my body and mind utterly exhausted. When I say my lodgings, I mean the house of the village mayor, where I was staying.
I asked Madarei, the woman who prepares my meals (and who also speaks Japanese) about my earlier encounter (without going into too many details, of course). She laughed, showing two rows of white teeth against the blackness of her face, and said: “Ah, the pretty one!” adding, “That one, she likes men. If they’re from the mainland, she likes them all.” Remembering the poor display I had made of myself, I once again forced a smile.
Laying my tired body down on the rush mat spread on the wooden floor, I fell asleep enveloped by the still and humid air of the afternoon. It must have been thirty or so minutes later that I was awakened by a cool sensation. I sat up and looked out: all the leaves in the breadfruit tree nearby were aflutter, showing their white undersides. What a blessing, I thought, and gazed up at the sky, now completely dark; soon enough, a powerful squall was raging outside. The rain rapped on the roofs, on the stone pavements, on the palm tree leaves; it knocked the flowers out of the oleander trees, and washed clean the earth, all the while making a frightening noise. Men, beasts and trees, all came back to life. The smell of wet soil came drifting in from somewhere afar. While looking at the thick white columns of rain, I was reminded of the freshness of the word “ginchiku” (silver bamboo), used by the Chinese people of old.
After the rain stopped, I went outside; along the stone-paved street, still wet, the woman from the house with oleanders came walking my way. She must have left her baby at home, sleeping. When she passed by me, she didn’t look at me. Her face wasn’t angry; as if she didn’t even acknowledge my presence, she kept walking, serene and expressionless.