Meisei Goto - Shot by Both Sides
A man stands on a bridge, waiting. Akaky Akakievich, the protagonist from Gogol's short story, The Overcoat, he too has stood upon a bridge, despairing. Meisei Goto's protagonist, Akaki, is searching for his overcoat; Gogol's Akaky has his stolen, and dies from the shock of it. The parallels between Akaky and Akaki are numerous, and we are made aware of them mostly thanks to Akaki's wandering thoughts – like Russian writers from the nineteenth century, Akaki, it seems, comes from Gogol's Overcoat.
Meisei Goto's Shot by Both Sides is unafraid to examine the stricken soul of Japan in the immediate post-war period. Akaki is a man bowled over by life, the splinters of his identity scattered by the traumatic events of World War II and its aftermath. He spends the entirety of the novel standing on a bridge, waiting (for whom? We only find out, and then in the typically loose, gossamer-thin manner we have come to expect from Goto), allowing his thoughts to wander where they may, the errant hopscotching indicative of a man in crisis, both for himself and for his country.
Of course I'm not Gogol. I have no Overcoat in me, no Nose, no Diary of a Madman, no Nevsky Prospect, no Government Inspector, no Dead Souls. Probably the only respect in which I can hope to catch up with Gogol is lifespan – he died at forty-two and I'll reach that age in a couple more years.
Akaki woke up this morning and decided, for reasons he cannot fathom, to search for his greatcoat, missing these last twenty years. The coat bears the insignia, markings, and style of Imperial Japan, which makes it something of a taboo, but it is the memory of it, and the memories it can inspire, which most interests Akaki. Our hero is a literary man, a thinker in the most idle, romanticised sense, but he is very likable. Akaki ranges from his friends, to his family, to his desires and dreams, most of all to his childhood, and more than that, even, to Gogol.
To me, Gogol wasn't just some Russian guy who lived over a hundred years ago. And he wasn't just a “great writer” of nineteenth century Russia. Nor the “mother of Russian literature” nor the “founder of realism”. You might say he was my fate. By which I mean that twenty years ago when I set out for Tokyo from the little country town of Chikuzen I felt that I was him
Akaki's free association creates a whirl of blending stories, some that end, but most don't – they simply lead on to the next, much the same way recollection takes us from one strong memory to another. Goto allows Akaki to dredge all manner of memories from the blackness of oblivion, and what surfaces, suffices.
Still and all, what a boringly long, straight road, it was this single road leading out from Warabi station to the junction with the old Nakasendo highway! Actually this may be something that applies generally to staging posts on the old highways. In the Meiji era they laid down the track for the railways, but often, apparently, a long way away from the old highways. It's a bit like that in Soka too. Admittedly Soka is served by a private line rather than JNR, but there's a similar straight road...
And away we go. But then, like most of us, childhood is a touchstone, and it is to his childhood that Akaki relentlessly returns. His young adulthood, and his adult years, are amorphous, they blend and shift together because he, like Japan, lost his way. But his childhood? No! There was purpose, a sense of destiny, and a feeling that all was tied together, though not always nicely.
My own grandmother has died. The war was lost, and the house with the ondol room where the old ladies of the Sixteenth Night used to party was impounded. My grandmother was put in a concentration camp for Japanese nationals, and at that point she started to lose her mind. She ran away from the concentration camp and sneaked back to the impounded house to get something. She was found by some Korean civil guards and was sent back to the camp, clutching a single jar of pickled plums. Then, when we were on our way to Japan to be repatriated, we had to sit out the winter in some unknown hamlet, and that's where she died, and became part of the soil of northern Korea.
The novel touches lightly on the war, but at the same time the text is saturated with it. Scenes are rarely about World War II and its aftermath, or include references to it, but Akaki has been immensely affected by it. His search for his greatcoat, and his hazy memories of that time, speaks to Japan's own search for national identity following the war, and the very odd way in which much of the nation was able to forget about the trauma of the war and move on. Like Germany, the war left shards from poorly mended broken bones within the nation of Japan; and like Germany, the citizens, artists, politicians and intellectuals, on the whole and overwhelmingly, elected to look forward instead of back. W. G. Sebald, writing about Germany, thought that this desire to forget the past was a crime of equal magnitude to the horrors committed during the war, and he devoted his writing life to remembering these misdeeds. While Goto refrains from deliberately framing his novel as a condemnation, it is difficult to avoid reading Shot by Both Sides without noticing these themes.
A day later I could confirm with my own eyes that something had ended before I even knew it. I finished a breakfast of miso soup and fried eggs, the first I'd had cooked for me by my mother in several weeks. Immediately afterwards, a foolish illusion came to me: namely, that with the passing of August 15, the students of Wonsan Middle School has finally been allowed to have a summer holiday – a holiday that was to have been sacrificed to the cause of annihilating the Americans and the British. Maybe that was why I'd come home from the dormitory. Was it the miso soup and fried eggs that brought on this exceedingly foolish illusion? Maybe. After all, during the last month I'd lived at the dormitory, both breakfast and the midday lunchbox had consisted of nothing but pickled bracken and cod roe. My father owned several cod-fishing boats too, and I guess there was more cod to be had in the Sea of Japan than you could possibly plow through – whole rotting mountains of cod.
The war wriggles its way into the small holes present in Akaki's memories and his conscience, but a matter such as this needs a direct gaze, and not the peripheral glance of the contemporary Japanese. Blink at the wrong spot in the paragraph quoted above, and you miss the allusion to the war – but it's there and, carefully reading, the entire quoted text is saturated with war. You can't get away fro it, and neither can Akaki. Goto's characters are giant jigsaw puzzles with the edges and boundaries complete, but the further into the centre one explores, the more pieces are missing. It's an emptiness brought about by guilt, certainly, but also shame – it is not by accident that Goto has Akaki note that the word Imperial has been dropped from the name of a high school.
Meisei Goto is an author who hates straight lines. His characters, all of them, meander, as though unwilling to commit to a determined course. Akaki is the prime offender in this case, but his erratic digressions serve a purpose, which is to highlight the kinks in the Japanese psyche. Akaki's life is best imagined as a frayed rope. Before the fraying, when Akaki was young and Japan had a clear destiny and a sense of purpose and pride, the rope is strong, the strands wound tight. But afterwards, when Japan is defeated and two of its cities lie smoking in ruins the destruction of which has never been equalled? The strands tangle and split, and nothing can hold. When Akaki explores his childhood recollections, the narration takes on a strong, robust tone, with a coherent narrative that strives to capture the essence of the time. As an adult, he is a jumble, and obsessed with a Russian author, and unable to properly focus – what we would call a failure, in the traditional sense. This is no accident, and Goto quite cleverly delineates the two Akaki's through his use of language and concrete narration.
Toward the end of the novel Akaki, who remains standing on the bridge in wait, has this to say of himself:
I am a person who is profoundly ignorant of the history of every country, east or west. Though it's not something I'm proud to admit, Japan is no exception. I'm also very poorly read when it comes to historical novels. I'm almost totally ignorant of anything that has to do with fortifications, needless to say, and the same goes for swords and armor. I don't know what the Komoro clan used to get up to in the Edo era, and I don't have any idea what Toshogu Shrine in Nikko was built for. Why is it, then, that despite my ignorance I just cannot deliberately ignore places like that? Does it have something to do with adhering to convention? Or is it because I'm a country boy? That's probably got something to do with it too. But whatever the reason, you can be that I'm the sort of person who in Moscow would head straight for the cemetery behind Novodevichy Convent where you find Gogol's grave.
For all the above, Goto's novel is exceptionally easy to read, and entertaining throughout. The memories cascade and tumble amongst one another, but Goto is skilled enough as an author to keep the narrative flowing along nicely. We should be overwhelmed, but we aren't. Goto is the type of writer who threatens, on ever page, to drop all the balls he is juggling, but it never happens and he just keeps on adding more. Thematically, this novel is deep and dense, and stylistically there is a lot going on. Yet he makes it look so effortless. A master.