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Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation (detail)
Review Fiction

Factual Fiction

Roy Peachey

Sono Ayako, Miracles: A Novel, translated by Kevin Doak (MerwinAsia, 2016)

I once attended a Welsh evensong at which the celebrant and preacher was Rowan Williams, long before he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The evening had a powerful impact on me, mainly, no doubt, because Cwm Rhondda was belted out with true Welsh gusto. But the sermon was memorable too. Rowan Williams spoke about the importance not just of Welsh but of all languages, however small their geographical or linguistic bases. His argument was that the greatness of God is too vast for any one language (or even all languages combined) to describe. In response to the sheer overwhelming majesty of the eternal Word, each language has its own unique, though limited, perception to offer.

Much the same could be said of literature from around the world. It is too easy for us to confirm our own prejudices, to see God and the world from our own limited linguistic perspective. What we need, constantly, is the shock of the new (and the shock of the old); perceptions that are different from ours; perspectives that bring us up short. We should, therefore, be grateful to Kevin Doak of Georgetown University for bringing us Sono Ayako’s Miracles, almost fifty years after its first publication in Japan.

Although Catholics make up less than one percent of Japan’s population, they have had a disproportionate impact in the Arts and in other areas of Japanese life. Shusaku Endo may be the best known Japanese Catholic novelist but his was certainly not a lone voice. Sono Ayako, who burst onto the Japanese literary scene in 1954, is a prolific and occasionally controversial author who has covered everything from the construction of power stations to abortion, from Japanese migrants to the life of Jesus during her sixty-year writing career.

Educated by Sacred Heart nuns in Tokyo, she became a Catholic herself in her teens and has returned to religious themes in a number of her novels. She is well known for her female narrators and for her unflinching portrayal of dark incidents in her homeland and across the world. However, with only a tiny number of her works being translated into English and most of them now out of print, she has not achieved the recognition outside Japan that her work deserves. The publication of Kevin Doak’s translation of Miracles, then, is an important literary event.

Miracles is an extremely difficult novel to categorise, partly because it emerges from a literary tradition quite unlike what we are familiar with in the West but partly too because Sono Ayako plays with the genre in some interesting and complicated ways. On the face of it, the novel is an exploration by the narrator (who seems to be Sono herself) of the life and death of St. Maximilian Kolbe. More importantly, it is an exploration of the miracles ascribed to him in the lead up to his beatification. It is a novel that loudly proclaims its non-fictionality.

It is tempting to characterise Miracles as a piece of travel writing or even as a literary pilgrimage, the narrator moving between Poland, Rome, Sicily and Japan (where Maximilian Kolbe lived and worked during the early 1930s). But it’s more complicated than that. As Doak explains in his introduction, “Fact and fiction are hard to distinguish in this work, and Sono takes advantage of the Japanese literary tradition of the 'I-novel' (watakushi shōsetsu) that effectively blends the genres of fiction and non-fiction.”

The Japanese “I-novel” was a 20th century response to Naturalism, a form of confessional literature that took a realistic, usually bleak, view of the world, often while probing the writer’s/narrator’s thoughts and attitudes. It deliberately exploited the conventions of non-fiction, inserting them into the tradition of the novel, as a way of exploring the quotidian world. In other words, it seems a strange choice of genre for a book about the supernatural, for an exploration of miracles.

But that perhaps is the point. The narrator is writing for a skeptical generation, a set of readers for whom Catholic attitudes towards saints and miracles were entirely baffling. By choosing the “I-novel” genre, Sono is able to start where she expects her readers to be, confessing her own confusion and uncertainty, joining her doubts to theirs. At the very start of the book, for instance, she writes about her Catholic education and her dismissive attitude towards the lives of the saints she was made to read: “they were really just a bunch of stories, and I could never think of those saints as real, flesh-and-blood human beings.”

Even after she becomes a Catholic, she remains confused, confessing that:

I was a fickle, common little thing, and since I lived in Japanese society there were times when I even thought it was shameful to think about such concepts as God. I worried that to believe in God was to be sunk in superstition, and to the extent I fell into it people would think me a fool. I even feared that if people knew I was a believer they would consider me stiff and inflexible.

It is against this deeply secular backdrop that her pilgrimage begins. Knowing that her Japanese readers are highly unlikely to visit communist Poland or even Catholic Italy, she leads them from Japan to Poland and on to Italy, acknowledging doubts and confusion throughout.

The focal point of the book, then, is not the life and death of Maximilian Kolbe but the miracles that follow because it is they, rather than Kolbe’s heroic sacrifice, that are the real scandal or stumbling block for modern readers. By exploring in great detail the two miracles that were recognised by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Sono hits the concerns of modern, secular readers head on and so attempts to lead them out of the constrictions imposed by their worldview and her chosen genre into a newly Catholic understanding of the world.

It is something of a shock, therefore, when, towards the end of the book, the narrator makes one final confession in this confessional novel: “The truth is,” she says, “I don’t really believe there is an eternal life. I also don’t think it is possible to meet one’s death filled with the joy of gaining eternal life.”

This, to be frank, is a major disappointment. Having brought us so far, Sono seems to pull the rug from under her own feet. If there is no eternal life, then the beatification ceremony towards which her whole pilgrimage seems to be heading is emptied of meaning. It becomes no more than a memorial, a multi-national gathering with no supernatural significance. As she describes the priests who pour into Rome for the beatification itself, among whom were “a good many hippie padres wearing civilian clothes,” I couldn’t help wondering whether, despite her best efforts, Sono Ayako hadn’t also been badly affected by the spirit of the age, her book seeming suddenly less like a pilgrimage from the secular to the supernatural and more like a memoir of a low point in the modern Church’s history.

But this shocking confession—shocking, at least, in the context of the novel—takes us back to the questions raised by the “I-novel” genre. Is the I who is confessing that she doesn’t believe in eternal life Sono Ayako herself or her fictional narrator? Is the skepticism she confesses what the author believes or is it a fictional stance, a sympathetic appreciation of the views of her imagined readers? We cannot know because the slippery nature of the “I-novel” merges author and narrator in ways that cannot be disentangled. By its nature, the genre raises more questions than answers, forcing us away from easy readings and comfortable assumptions.

The end of the novel, then, can be read in two quite different ways. On the one hand, it could be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the secular pull of modern Japan. The culmination of Sono’s pilgrimage, of her examination of modern miracles, is not Maximilian Kolbe’s beatification but the return to her homeland, to the hard rock on which the seeds of the gospel struggled to take root.

But, on the other hand, this return to roots could be seen as a final ploy by the Catholic writer to get under the skin of her deeply secular readers, for what happens in the final chapter is that the narrator of this quintessentially “I-novel” disappears, effaced by extract from letters written by Kolbe himself in Japan. We are left with the saint now firmly established in his Japanese monastery rather than with the doubting, questioning narrator/author, the change of style enabled by the playfulness of the genre leaving us with a person to be encountered rather than doubts to be resolved.

Miracles has been described by Philip Gabriel, Haruki Murakami’s translator, as a “minor classic”. Each reader will have to make up his or her mind about that but what seems incontrovertible is that, while it may not be the final word on St Maximilian Kolbe or the final piece of the Catholic literary jigsaw, Miracles is a probing and challenging novel that is worthy of our careful attention.

With Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence about to be released, this long overdue translation also reminds us that there is more to Japanese Catholic literature than the works of Shusaku Endo. Like a family photograph recovered from a forgotten drawer, Miracles brings us up short, reminding us of what we have forgotten and teaching us something new about what we had always thought familiar. That, perhaps, is enough to expect from any book.

Roy Peachey is a secondary school teacher in the south of England. He is working on a doctorate with the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, as well as a book about transforming Catholic education.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
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