Ono, Masatsugu (2018), Lion Cross Point, Two Lines Press
Translated by Angus Turvill
Lion Cross Point is a gentle little book about how to deal with violence, trauma and memory. Its author, acclaimed novelist Masatsugu Ono, offers us a fractured narrative of a boy’s past and present – and maybe his future. The novel has an incomplete set of details about the events that shaped its protagonist – because it relies on that protagonist to furnish these details. In many ways, the novel is a description of a process of memory recovery, as Takeru, the ten year old boy at the heart of the story, slowly dredges up more and more details about his past, as revelations about his family – and a ghostly apparition, serve as catalysts, telling him it is ok to share his story, to go on, to be. The book is short – and uses its space extraordinarily well. There are no wasted lines, no throwaway observations. As with all translations, it’s hard to judge it stylistically, and it has a few oddities in how it deals with Takeru’s interior monologue that could be either stylistic choices by Ono, or translation artifacts. Overall, however, the novel’s simple language works remarkably well and never lends itself to a certain blandness or coldness that many lesser practitioners of literary minimalism exhibit. I have complained about them on the blog before. This is an enormous little book, and I have to thank the translator Angus Turvill, as well as the publisher, for bringing this writer into English of whom I had never before heard. Neither, to be honest, had I been aware of the publisher, Two Lines Press, which has done a remarkable job here, on all levels.
Like an orchid, Lion Cross Point has many layers and opens itself slowly and languorously, as we read through it. As least that was my experience. Ono has an interesting preoccupation with names and places and structure, and he doesn’t ease us into the book. In fact, in some ways, reading the first third or fourth of the book is a process of learning, of understanding how to read the book and its events. In this, we follow in the footsteps of Ono’s protagonist, who slowly learns how to read his own life. How do we understand kindness if we were raised in a harsh, impoverished, cruel environment? In these situations we might be confused about the forces that make people care about us, bring us food, for example, or protect us against violence. Takeru’s examination of his life and his past slowly unearths these acts of kindness and the people who offered them, and we see him slowly move from – not suspicion, but confusion – to a kind of acceptance. It is ok. Right up to his own acts of neglect and violence, Takeru looks at his hands and his heart and struggles to accept himself and his place in the world. He’s not the only person in the book who struggles, and through Takeru’s fractured memories, we see the other people – not clearly, but outlined sharply. There’s his mother, who suffered a great deal of abuse and wasn’t able to protect Takeru and his brother. And there’s his brother, whose affliction forms a central element of the book, but is never misused by the author for easy emotional points.
As we meet Takeru, he’s visiting his family’s village over the summer. It is the friendly kindness of the villagers that serves as a catalyst for Takeru’s journey to understanding and speech and self expression, particularly a trip to a local aquarium. Twice, Takeru frames his understanding of a past event as sprung from something he witnessed in the village. One of the more interesting aspects of the translation is also tied into the village – dialect. I think we who read translations are all aware of the pitfalls of translating dialect, or not translating it. The German translation of Kelman’s masterful How Late It Was, How Late, a novel written wholly in Scottish dialect, is rendered entirely in standard German. A difficult decision, but what dialect would you pick to mimic Scottish? There are many more examples like this. In Lion Cross Point, translator Angus Turvill has opted for a clever middle ground between dialect and standard English. He uses small contractions, and “g-dropping,” to signify country dialect. The way it is employed makes the fact of dialect very clear – g-dropping is today a particularly clear sign of down-to-earth, lower-class usage of English- without committing to any specific dialect. It’s not a perfect solution (I have a personal obsession with the topic of translating dialect), but I found it an unusually brilliant and effective one. It also has the additional advantage of helping us wade through Takeru’s sometimes chaotic montage of perception and memory.
This chaos, however, is more than just a result of Takeru’s fractured and traumatized mind. There’s also, I feel, an underlying discourse about names and meaning and identity that vacillates somewhere between Searle, Kripke and Wittgenstein. Early in the novel, a character insists on the similarity of two names and what that means for the bearers of those two names. What does a name mean, what does it signify? Where do the lines between the two entities blur? Ono does this repeatedly, but with particular emphasis in two places: one is the one I just described. The purpose of that character’s comparison of names is, I think, to help Takeru find a place in the village and understand that he is part of that village’s past. Part of the cluster of descriptions that mean “Takeru,” to talk about it in Searle’s terms, have to include the surprisingly mysterious history of the village and the landmark that gave the novel its name. The other instance of this is a loose association of Haiti, the country of origin of one of Takeru’s benefactors, with Heidi, Johanna Spyris character (though in this case more specifically the anime incarnation of it) and Haiji, a classmate of Takeru. The purpose of this second chain of family resemblances is a bit more complicated, I think, but there are other cases throughout the novel that are not so obviously marked. If you started this novel with a mild irritation at the many names that are introduced in short order (some characters are introduced multiple times), these passages show you why Ono built his book around these names and places.
Indeed, the fact that Takeru doesn’t learn to read his past in a clearer and more benevolent way until he is “home,” i.e. in the countryside where his family is from, says something to the importance of places. As with other aspects, we as readers are also primed to understand this book as being centrally concerned with place by several early scenes, including a prayer to the shrine of the ancestors in the house Takeru arrives at. There is an implied preference for the countryside as a locus of understanding yourself that’s common in world literature, but has particular significance in much Japanese literature I’ve read, and so seems heightened. Family, land and self seem linked – with our current self not much more than the topmost inscription on a complicated palimpsest, and older layers occasionally shining through in the form of ghosts and visitations.
The central topic is indeed meaning, and I think both in a more abstract sense, and in the sense of memory interpretation: how do we give meaning to the various parts in our life and the people therein? Who are we? Speaking of ourselves means balancing the pain and the joy and accepting who we are. It’s okay. Masatsugu Ono’s novel is a remarkable achievement which brilliantly deals with complicated questions and always remains emotional and humane throughout. I have, in this review, skipped over many plot details, particularly of the ghostly apparition, but they rely on the same mechanisms that I sketched above, and since I think you should read this book, I didn’t want to deprive anyone of the joy of discovery, of the journey through the folds of Lion Cross Point.
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