Parks are a window into the soul of a city. Sitting on a bench and looking at the people, the living and breathing heart of the city unfolds before you: a parent pushes a stroller on the path, an elderly couple walks slowly arm in arm, someone is pacing back and forth talking animatedly on the phone, another is sitting in the grass reading a book and at least in Ueno Park, forgotten ghosts linger on the fringes.
In Yu Miri’s “Tokyo Ueno Station”, the stark inequalities of one of the world’s most developed cities are highlighted with a touch of magical realism. While the book’s central character, Kazu, is an appearance, his experiences in the city are carefully drawn from reality.
When the story begins, Kazu is already invisibly wandering the trails of Ueno Park. As the book unfolds, Miri tells you how he got there; what emerges is a tragically realistic portrait of the disintegration of a life.
In a reverse timeline that slowly takes the reader back into Kazu’s life, the heartbreaking path that led him to his tattered tent in Ueno Park is revealed. The book sheds light on the serious subject of homelessness in a city revered for its futurism without tactlessly slapping the reader with the issues at hand – it is calm and unassuming but ultimately powerful.
“Tokyo Ueno Station” is a slim book: 180 small pages compiled in an almost lightweight package that could easily fit into a jacket pocket. It is a spectacular marriage of beauty and economy.
This is why it took me so by surprise. Miri brings together a surprisingly vivid world in an impossibly brief window. In the first ten pages, the landscape of Ueno Park erupts in the reader’s mind as Miri describes the bustling train station, the groves of ginkgo trees, the man “sleeping with a large translucent bag of aluminum cans collected between her legs, “or the woman”[sleeping] lying down, using a brown backpack as a futon and her arms as a pillow, her white hair tied with a rubber band.
It is a book so deeply rooted in one particular place that it could not have been written with such clarity and grace elsewhere. Miry, a Korean Zainichi novelist and playwright, has lived in Japan her entire life, and it is her insightful outlook and keen awareness of the country’s complexities that give “Tokyo Ueno Station” its power and intensity.
In Ali Smith’s introduction to “The Door”, she begins with a somber and quite shocking fact: “The proportion of books published in the English-speaking world which are translations, of all languages (including the most popular detective novels). most sold), is currently around three percent. While a surprisingly small portion on its own, this statistic was even more glaring after reading “Tokyo Ueno Station”.
“Tokyo Ueno Station” was originally released in Japan in 2014, but was translated from Japanese to English last year. Miri’s novel won the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2020, an award that was just revived three years ago.
With the rebirth of the prize after 38 years of inactivity, one would hope that the literary world is heading towards some kind of renaissance of translated literature. While the numbers remain woefully low at the moment, smaller presses like the New York Review of Books are sparking increased interest in the genre, giving hope for change in the future.
In the meantime, “Tokyo Ueno Station” is a worthy ambassador of the genre. Miri chooses a small part of Japan and uses it as a canvas to paint all of the dazzling beauty, overwhelming grief and quiet moments that make up a life.
In every way, “Tokyo Ueno Station” is a decidedly melancholy book, and yet it is not the first emotion that remains with the reader. In the face of immense loss, the reader also encounters the simple, unadorned beauty of life’s most ordinary moments, spent alongside the people we feel so comfortable with. Simple, everyday rituals like cleaning the house, making breakfast or walking in a park, which are now quite commonplace, become infinitely precious once gone forever – to be cherished all the more now for their fleetingness.
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. He’s putting together an over-ambitious list of books to read over the Thanksgiving holiday.