Shame in the Blood by Tetsuo Miura (1964, translated by Andrew Driver, 2007 from Japanese, 216 pages)
It seems to me that this book was published and marketed in a misleading fashion. It is marketed as a novel consisting of six interrelated stories about the same family. In fact it is five stories about the same married couple and a final forty five page story that has nothing at all to do with the first five stories. The first five stories are very interrelated and are in fact repetitious. It seems almost like the author went back and rewrote the stories so they could be marketed as a novel. The book was a great success when it was first published. It sold over a million copies and the author won the very prestigious Akutagawa Price for Literature, among other awards. Of course, that the book is collection of short stories published separately and then assembled as a novel does not take away from the literary merit of the work but it does seem a bit opportunistic.
The narrator of Shame in the Blood has six siblings. Four them have already killed themselves and one of the survivors is nearly blind and his brother disappeared many years ago. The narrator's family is poor and he is a struggling writer without a real job. He meets a waitress, they are in their early twenties, they marry and she ends up as the main source of income for the family. We are not really provided any clear explanation for why four of his siblings committed suicide. His mother died when he was young and we do meet his elderly father when they go back for a visit. The father laments that he has no accomplishments in life and that he is a complete failure and disgrace as a father. We see nothing overtly wrong with him. He is just a very sad old man. When his son comes back for a visit the wife is pregnant. The father is so happy he begins to make in secret a list of names for the as of yet unborn child. In short sequence the father dies (the family lingering over the dying father is very well relayed and is a very well done account of a meaningless life coming to an end), the wife miscarries. The family finds the list of names the father was making along with a note saying he prays the birth of his first grandchild will redeem his life somehow and give him a new start.
The stories do show some temporal confusion until you realize it not really a novel. In one story we are somehow back in mid 1944 WWII Japan with the then 15 or so year old narrator. He regrets he is a year too young to join the military. When the bombs fall all around him he wishes he will be killed so he can die an honorable death. He suggests many put themselves intentionally in harms way when the bombing raids begin (they happen often enough so the residents know what to expect) as a form of suicide. The suggestion is made that Japan has made at that point the decision to commit suicide as a nation.
This a death obsessed work. A feeling of futile sadness permeates it. We do feel we know the narrator and his wife well.
We see what it was like to be poor in Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s. The stories are well told and each of the five stories about the couple give us some new information about them. There is a lot of repeated material in the book which is a by product of the fact that the chapters were first published as stand alone stories. The author is a talented story teller and clearly knows how family history effects individuals in ways deeper than they may know.
There is not a lot of information on Tetsuo Miura on the internet in English. He was born in Aomori, Japan in 1931. I could not confirm if he is still alive. Several of his own siblings did kill themselves.
As to my endorsement of the book, I would say read it after your have read twenty or so of the better known Japanese novelists first. This is his only work translated into English, though he does have a lot of other novels and stories. The stories are very well told in a straightforward fashion. A number of the Goodreads.com commentators on Shame in the Blood did dislike the put together collection of stories marketed as novel feel that this work for sure has. In spite of this, it is well written. I would say buy it used or better yet get a library copy of this work as it was marketed in a perhaps deceitful way. I think if it were published now by a living author it would be condemned as a dishonest marketing ploy.
I have a long way to go in reading twenty better-known Japanese novelists first! Am about to start on the second (Murakami) and know who the third will be (Tanizaki). This is going to take a while...
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