The action of Shipwrecks takes place entirely in a small, isolated village on the coast of Japan. The villagers are dependent on what the sea provide for sustenance. Every winter brings possible starvation with it. There’s a village tradition of family members going into indentured servitude in order to earn money to buy grain. This is what Isaku’s (the novel’s nine-year-old protagonist’s) father does. His last words to his wife and son are: “I’ll be back in three years. Don’t let the children starve while I am away.”
And that is what Isaku and his mother attempt to do – with predictable results. The money the family receives for their father quickly runs out and Isaku, forced to take on the responsibilities of an adult, learns about another village tradition: the O-fune-sama.
In winter large salt cauldrons are set along the coast and fires lit, under the pretext of making salt from the seawater. Their true purpose is much more disturbing. They are there to lure in passing ships and wreck them on the reefs. The villagers kill the survivors. The ships are then quickly dismantled and their cargo distributed amongst the families. O-fune-sama allows a respite from hunger and eliminates the need for family members to sell themselves.
The villagers are wreckers. And if you’ve read your Daphne du Maurier you know that this makes them bad people. What’s so intriguing about Shipwrecks is that its author doesn’t seem to ascribe to that black & white world. Akira Yoshimura immerses his readers in the daily life of the village: work and the rituals, births and deaths, – until you can almost imagine yourself among neighbors. He ensures that you are invested in the daily struggle. More importantly, he convincingly conveys the deep desperation which transforms something so awful as a shipwreck and the murder of men into a blessing.
Shipwrecks is very similar to works by Edgar Allen Poe and Saki, in whose stories fate takes strange turns. Their influence is particularly apparent in the novel’s macabre ending. To this add the simple prose that we’ve all come to expect from Japanese novelists. And lovely imagery, which somehow manages to channel the muted colors used in silk paintings. (In fact, I couldn’t help but contrast the tranquil village in Shipwrecks to the dirt and bustle of Dejima, the Dutch East Indies Trading Post off the coast of Japan which is the setting of David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. They are complete opposites, yet both are credibly rendered. It’s easy to visualize these two worlds existing side-by-side). The combination – of the macabre, the simple prose and that muted imagery – creates a tight coherence that is a characteristic of short stories. It is less common, in my experience, in novels. Which makes Shipwrecks a happy discovery.
The men who set rabbit traps in the woods returned to the valley saying they had seen blossom on the ume trees in the valley.
The only way the villagers could see flowers was to go into the mountains; the salt winds that lashed the village prevented any flowering plants or trees from surviving on the coast.The next morning the village chief instructed them to guide one of the village elders to the valley. When their find had been confirmed, the chief ordered salt production stopped. The blooming of plum trees signified the end of winter and their hopes of O-fune-sama‘s appearing. The men suspended the cauldrons from poles and carried them form the beach to the village chief’s house, where they were washed with fresh water and coated with fish oil before being stores away.
The village was shrouded in gloom. When the villagers passed each other on the path, they said little, often merely nodding a tentative greeting.
Akira Yoshimura’s Shipwrecks had everything I was looking for: a foreign setting, thickly atmospheric prose, a haunting story, appealing characters and an ending that resonated. It satisfied in every way. I was also happy to find that Yoshimura has several books – both fiction and nonfiction – translated into English. Among them: Storm Rider, On Parole, One Man’s Justice and Zero Fighter. They span the timeline from medieval Japan (in Shipwrecks) up to present day Tokyo (On Parole).
Publisher: A Harvest Book / Harcourt, Inc., New York (2000)
ISBN: 978 0 156 00835 8