Book review: The Lion Cross Point by Masatsugu Ono
By Neera Kashyap
Title: Lion Cross Point
Author: Masatsugu Ono
Translated by: Angus Turvil
Lion Cross Point by Masatsugu Ono has been recognised as a lyrical and a psychologically astute novel, lucid but spare, haunting with a tangible evocation of mystery. It has been beautifully captured in translation from Japanese by Angus Turvill, an award-winning translator.
Masatsugu Ono himself is the recipient of the Asahi Award for New Writers, the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honour. Born in 1970 and having first published at the beginning of this century, Ono’s work belongs to the post-Murakami period, strongly marked by the seriousness of modern Japan’s literary tradition.
Lion Cross Point portrays the mind of ten-year-old Takeru, who arrives in his village to live in his mother’s home by the sea. He is haunted by memories of unspeakable atrocities committed against his mother, his older brother and himself in distant Tokyo. As Takeru is befriended by Mitsuko, his new caretaker; by Saki, his spunky neighbour and by Ken Shiomi, his mother’s childhood friend, he discovers his mother’s history and moves inch by inch from the palpable and submerged layers of trauma to a new idea of family and home. The book emphasises the fact that memories and dreams are not individual aspects of one’s personality, but shared by the community and the environment, making it possible to heal through others, and through the forces of dreams and the seascapes that imbue them all. The boy returns to his mother’s roots to find catharsis and truth in a setting by the sea.
Ono successfully depicts the porous world of a ten-year-old — porous because, unlike adults, a young mind is aware of the surrounding elements. They are real to him, though he can never speak of them, for he is equally aware that they are simply not visible to adult eyes. Hence, Bunji, a delicate young boy first seen in an ancestral family photograph on Mitsuko’s altar and who vanished long ago ostensibly by drowning, appears to Takeru in innumerable forms; as a decrepit old man at the local airport; as an expressive monkey in a distant tree; as his mentally challenged older brother whom strangers assume to be younger; as the old arthritic lady in a shopping mall who shares her snacks even as Takeru bears starvation and virtual abandonment by his mother with great dignity. Bunji manifests as a voice that speaks to him too. “It’s okay, it’s okay”, it says and also, “Don’t! Don’t do that!”
In an interview to Reid Bartholomew in World Literature Today (2018/May), Ono explains his choice of the third-person perspective for portraying Takeru’s mind: “I could have written from a first-person perspective, but I didn’t do that because I have never experienced the same hardships as Takeru. Therefore, writing this novel was for me an attempt to get as close as possible to his mind so that I could feel his suffering. I wanted to write in such a way that the reader would understand that there were a lot of things about Takeru that not even the author could grasp. I didn’t feel like I was ‘creating’ a character. To me, Takeru is there just like a real person.”
Another important presence in the book is of ‘the big thing’. It appears as a link in a series of good people who help the brothers with food and succour in their most dire moments. But each of these who help — Sasaki, the worker in the neighbourhood, Joel, the Jamaican neighbour, Haruka, the schoolmate, the old lady in the shopping mall — are transient. They leave. When comforted, Takeru thinks, “Maybe this thing was not just in the atmosphere, wrapping itself around people — perhaps it could come and go freely in people’s hearts.” When abandoned, Takeru knows, “What pushed him now was the big thing. It didn’t wrap him up and keep him warm, though. It didn’t give him strength. It didn’t affirm anything about him. Entirely the opposite. It had forsaken him. He was abandoned. Repulsed by the big thing, swept forward by overwhelming force, he could do nothing but run.”
Ono explains: “I think it is a sort of wholeness that envelops all of us along with all other forms of existence in this universe. It can certainly include a religious dimension. I’m wondering if it may be like a wholeness we feel when we listen to the music of Bach: this music is of course religious, but what we are given always goes beyond.”
The book also provides us a most moving account of Takeru’s feelings for his brother who usually seems asleep, “sleeping on his stomach as always, his cheek flat against the unswept tatami… the black spots on his brother’s calf must have been ants. Takeru was angry. He wanted to squash the ants, but they’d disappeared”. In his interview, Ono also speaks of Takeru being haunted by an unconscious desire to eliminate the distance between him and his brother.
Perhaps the greatest mystery is the way Takeru regards his mother. That she is not like other mothers who cook and clean for their children is obvious to Takeru. But how does a child explain to himself his mother’s compulsion to live dangerously on the edge with a lover who enters and exits their lives using sadistic cruelty and intense sexuality to subdue and haunt both mother and son? “She’s kind!” Takeru says once to Sasaki, a benefactor, “very, very kind”, as though telling himself.
The book is a compelling read with it’s pathos and intensity. The quality of translation is in perfect rhythm with the understated yet powerful nature of feelings and thoughts of a ten-year-old, who has undergone suffering borne of intense neglect to, finally, reach out to grasp the mysteries of voices, both real and surreal in an unconscious attempt to heal.
Neera Kashyap is a published author of a book for young adults titled ‘Daring to dream’ (Rupa & Co.) and has contributed to five prize-winning anthologies published by Children’s Book Trust. Her short fiction, poems and essays have appeared in several literary journals in south Asia including Papercuts, Out of Print Journal & Blog, Earthen Lamp Journal, Muse India, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Pratilipi and Mountain Path. Her poems are forthcoming in Kitaab and short fiction in Indian Literature.
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