Happy Are The Amnesiacs
Fifty-six year old meteorologist Shimura Kobo lives a quiet, unassuming life alone in his house in the Nagasaki prefecture of Japan. Alone, or at least he thinks so. What he doesn’t know is that for the past year an intruder has been secretly cohabiting with him. She only dares to venture out from the cramped confines of the cupboard space where she hides herself at night after he leaves for work each morning. While he’s gone she uses his bathroom to freshen up, browses his library of paperbacks to discover her next great read, drinks his tea, and eats sparingly from his refrigerator. How did she get there? What does she want? More importantly, how will Shimura react when he finally discovers her uninvited presence in his home?
French author Eric Faye’s short, arresting novel uses a true story from 2008 as it’s jumping off point to eloquently explore a multitude of subjects ranging all the way from loneliness, isolation, homelessness, and solitude to the elusive nature of happiness, family, collapse, forgiveness, and nuclear war. It’s an impressive feat, attempting to pack so much into something that’s only 112 pages in length, but Faye neither embellishes nor does he let a single word be wasted as he brings the story to life in affecting detail, delivering a thoughtful meditation on the trappings of our modern day existence by exploring how intricately tied to the past we each are, and how technology pushes us ever forward, regardless of whether or not we’re always ready and willing to embrace the direct effects (both intentional and otherwise) that it has on our lives.
It was advances in technology that lead to the creation of the atomic bomb, a devastating weapon of mass destruction that was last unleashed on the citizens of Nagasaki during the Second World War in 1945, ending the lives of over 50,000 people in the blink of an eye. It’s these same advances in technology that continually improve workplace efficiencies, leading to more redundancies and more layoffs. It’s these same advances in technology that ultimately lead the previously unseen interloper in Shimura Kobo’s house to be caught by a hidden webcam streaming real-time, ghost-like images of her moving about the kitchen to his computer screen miles away at work.
I must have been inclined towards strange thoughts that evening, because it seemed to me that Nagasaki had for a long time remained a kind of closet right at the far end of the vast apartment that was Japan, with its four adjoining main rooms – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu; and for all of those two hundred and fifty years, the empire had, as it were, pretended not to notice that a stowaway – that is to say, Europe – had moved into this wardrobe.
Shimura is rightfully startled by what he sees staring back at him and quickly rings the police to send them to his house to investigate, but as he watches the middle-aged woman move gracefully about his kitchen, he is suddenly struck with second thoughts, and in a strange fit of what’s best described as a form of societal guilt, he calls the house to warn her of what’s about to transpire. She’s visibly startled by the ringing phone, but of course, does not dare answer its monotonous ring. In the end she’s busted, leading Shimura to eventually learn the full truth about what led her to his house, how long she’s been there, and just what she’s been getting up to while he’s been away at work.
The first half of the novel is told from Shimura’s point of view, but just as quickly as the reader becomes accustomed to his daily rituals, peculiar habits, and isolating personality quirks, the story shifts to the perspective of the homeless woman. Powered by a deep sense of gratitude and respect, once she finishes serving her punishment she seeks out her former housemate in an attempt to explain, but not excuse, her actions. What she finds however is not what she expected, and the story closes with a sense of sadness and a question mark hanging over the heads of both of its subjects. Their futures remain uncertain, but they are forever changed by the brief, silent intersection of their lives.
What stands out most in Nagasaki is the delicate, touching way in which the depths of loneliness are explored, the way that they’re expounded upon and are gradually transformed from an issue affecting only two people to one that has major implications on the larger world stage. Emily Boyce’s translation has a remarkably quiet, beautifully understated quality to it. What’s most impressive though is that it never betrays the fact that its author is in fact French, not Japanese. With excellent phrasing, pacing, and tone, the story moves along effortlessly, striking directly at the reader’s heart, forcing them to ask tough, unshakable questions about how they would act if they ever found themselves facing down a similar set of circumstances. Examining the situation from the perspective of either the homeowner or the homeless person, what’s ultimately revealed is that there are no simple solutions to the deceptively complex, socially significant issues that are raised.