By Shimao Toshio
. As the title suggests, this book is an anthology
of six autobiographical short stories. The first two stories, “The Farthest Edge of the Islands
” and “This Time That Summer
,” are about Shimao’s experience as the commanding officer of a suicide squadron
at the close of World War II
. The third story, “Everyday Life in a Dream
,” is about his coming of age as a writer in the postwar era. The last three stories, “The Sting of Death
,” “Out of the Depths
,” and “The Heart that Slips Away
,” are representative of Shimao’s long line of “sick wife
” stories, where his wife Miho
becomes progressively crazier and crazier to the point that Shimao is forced to check into a mental hospital
If we were to draw a line graph, with the first story on the left and the last story on the right, we would be able to see a rising curve of introspection that progresses from the beginning of the book to the end. At first, Shimao talks about himself in the third person, and soon after that he is deep into first-person narrative, fighting his own mind as he struggles with his personal and familial problems. The physical movement and conflict in the book, however, curves downward, from the wartime stories in the beginning where Shimao goes around islands and jungles, all the way to the end where Shimao idles in the white confines of the mental ward.
Each story has its own personal flavor, but they all share a melancholy shadow of uneasiness and guilt, whether it comes from war, illness, or insanity. This is definitely not a book to be read on a sunny day. In the English translation, at least, Shimao’s clunky grammar and his habitual reference to bystanders by initials rather than names, adds to the overpowering effect of depression throughout his stories. Even the typesetting of the book makes it feel bare.
This is not to say, however, that the book is bad. On the contrary, it delves into Shimao’s life headfirst, and his dense prose, paradoxically enough, makes the nature of his dense thoughts clearer. As a whole, the book comes across as a very vivid description of life behind the eyes of a writer. Towards the end, it transforms into an incredible commentary on the nature of mental illness and its effects on love, life, and happiness.
The Sting of Death is not beach reading. It is definitely Literature. Those people who can digest Hawthorne and Dostoyevsky whole-heartedly will love Shimao. His writing is not glamorous, riveting, or inspiring, but it possesses a philosophical eloquence that will ingrain itself in the heart of anyone who cares to really think about what it means.