THE CAKE TREE IN THE RUINS
By Akiyuki Nosaka
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
157 pp. Pushkin Press. Paper, $18.
All of the fable-like stories collected here begin with the same line: “The 15th of August 1945.” That was the day Japan announced its surrender to the Allied forces, effectively ending World War II.
One doesn’t have to strain to see the effect of Nosaka’s biography on his work. When the United States firebombed Kobe, Japan, in 1945, Nosaka lost his adoptive parents in the carnage, and in the aftermath eventually watched his infant sister die of starvation. (Nosaka is best known for “Grave of the Fireflies,” a 1967 story about orphaned siblings in the final months of the war. It was adapted into an anime film in 1988.)
In one story, a boy hides in an air-raid shelter with his parrot after his mother has been killed in a bombing that destroyed their entire neighborhood. In the title story, children form gangs to scavenge for vegetables in the ruins.
We meet a talking turtle and a lovelorn whale that mistakes a submarine for a potential mate. The surface of these details can seem magical, but without fail they give way to the darkest realities. Adults, animals and children die in these stories with an austere matter-of-factness.
The stories are mostly told in a distant-gazing narration with shades of “once upon a time,” but Nosaka occasionally breaks the spell with a direct address: “Too many undernourished people and animals appear in these stories, I know, but it was wartime, after all.”
The sum experience of reading these war reports in fairy-tale disguise is devastating. At the same time, there’s a tension in the tone that can be distracting. These stories are most decidedly not for children. But as potent and moving as some of them are, it’s difficult to not occasionally sense Nosaka’s own trauma overpowering the literary effects. There’s an emotional nakedness here, almost a reversion to childhood that is both completely understandable and often wrenching, but at times an impediment to really falling into these stories. You alternate between being dazzled by this author and simply feeling deeply sorry for him.
And Other Stories
By Taeko Kono
Translated by Lucy North, with an additional translation by Lucy Lower
274 pp. New Directions. Paper, $16.95.