As I noted over at Bookphilia back in 2010, finding anything by Osamu Dazai around here is a real challenge. A few months ago, I found his novel of post-war upheaval, The Setting Sun, in the delightful Ten Editions. Knowing that I might suffer from another years-long Dazai drought, I tried to hold off on reading this novel, but rationing just isn’t feasible sometimes.
Dazai was, I think, one of the greatest Japanese writers of the twentieth century–so good, in fact, that he single-handedly made me fall back in love with short stories, after having that part of my soul burnt and shriveled by too much Henry James. (A doubly tragic loss given that some of the best short stories I’ve ever read have been by Japanese authors; besides Dazai’s Blue Bamboo, Yukio Mishima’s Acts of Worship, Haruki Murakami’s after the quake, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales really stand out.)
I’ve now read two Dazai novels (the other being No Longer Human) and one story collection, and I prefer the stories. I do not mean to imply that The Setting Sun isn’t absolutely brilliant–because it is. I just think Dazai’s incredibly dense style works best in more compact pieces. Generally, I like my short stories so packed as to be almost overwhelming and my novels to be sprawling and chatty; but this is an issue of personal taste and no doubt a failing on my part.
The Setting Sun, ably translated by Donald Keene, is set after the end of World War II in a Japan that no longer recognizes itself. Its cultural and moral beliefs are crumbling in the face of its terrible defeat at the hands of the Allies, and its economy is ruins. How to continue life is a philosophical and practical conundrum for which no one seems to have an answer. Dazai focuses his exploration of this mass floundering in the story of Kazuko (the narrator), her brother Naoji, and their elderly mother.
Kazuko and her family comprise formerly wealthy upper class Tokyoites forced to move to the country just to be able to make ends meet. When the novel begins, Kazuko and her mother are alone, Naoji having been missing after going off to war several years earlier. Kazuko’s mother is gentle and kind but also fragile, finding her new life very difficult to adapt to. Kazuko, though much younger, is initially no better able to shift gears, and in her ineptitude, almost burns the house–and the whole village!–to the ground. She is properly rebuked by one of the locals: “I’ve been watching with my heart in my mouth the way you two have been living, like children playing house. It’s a miracle you haven’t had a fire before…”
Children indeed. Up until everything familiar to them was destroyed, Kazuko and her family had everything difficult done for them. Learning how to live self-sufficiently is a painful rebirth into a nightmare of deprivation and humiliation and incompetence. Kazuko’s brother returns from the war a hopeless drug addict and is capable only of making things more difficult for them, stealing what little money they have and increasing their shame. Theirs is a tragedy in which the personal and the familial are completely indistinguishable from the national. A broken country means a broken family in Dazai’s elegy for “the people of the setting sun.”
Kazuko and Naoji’s “beautiful mother, who was the last lady in Japan” eventually finds the world to be too much for her and dies in her bed. Naoji, too, succumbs to the despair of modern rootlessness and takes his own life. Kazuko, however, while struggling vainly at first has been adapting all along; before she loses her remaining family members, she sees this in herself:
Mother’s health has shockingly deteriorated while I, quite on the contrary, feel as though I am steadily turning into a coarse, low-class woman. I can’t escape the feeling that it is by sucking the life-breath out of Mother that I am fattening.
Kazuko’s survival is built entirely upon sacrificing her cultural past–which, for her, resides most perfectly in her elegant and lovely mother–and embracing a new reality that can be described only as hard-scrabble and sordid. Kazuko is heart-broken and desperate, and believes she must either embrace the new order of things totally or perish. And so, not only does she become increasingly adept at working the fields, she purposefully haunts the most dissipated, amoral/immoral, disgusting man she can find until he agrees to impregnate her–in order not merely to survive, but also to perpetuate this new reality.
Her mother and brother are tragic casualties of the war and its fallout, but so is Kazuko’s sense of either dignity or self-respect. Survival becomes all, and the terrible sense that only the most bottom-dwelling have any real chance is Dazai’s gruesome literary legacy in The Setting Sun–a gruesomeness made more painful by his beautiful, controlled, and sophisticated writing. This is a book it almost hurts to read, but it is more beautiful and enriching than painful; nonetheless, I think it should only be read in the full light of a fresh spring day.