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Tuesday 24 June 2014

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

I love Japanese fiction, there’s something about it: a sense of restraint, perhaps, of structured lives held tight by social constraints.  This is the premise on which Fumiko Enchi’s tense and disturbing novel The Waiting Years is built.

The Waiting Years follows the story of Tomo, wife of a government official Yukitomo. After several years of marriage, during which Yukitomo has had several affairs, Tomo is sent to Tokyo to find a concubine for her husband. Without knowing the full context of Japanese social background it is still apparent that sending a wife to find a concubine for her husband is unusual, though the keeping of a concubine by a minor official is not:

“Her mind that under pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having to publicly hand over her husband to another gnawed within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than creed. Tormented by the one-sided love she gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.”

This is the source of the great tension within the book, Enchi’s exploration of the terrible conflict for women in Japanese society as the Meiji era drew to an end, bound by an ‘old’ code in which wives and concubines were forced to compete with each other for their ‘master’s’ attention and in which men were all and women were nothing but chattels of varying degrees. Tomo is an uneducated women, but knows enough to understand that her position is intolerable and her husband’s demands unreasonable. Despite this she is bound by her own ‘honour code’ in which she must serve her husband’s needs however unreasonable they are and however much they cause suffering to her and to others.

Tomo eventually finds a woman that meets her husband’s requirements, as he instructs her: “use your good sense to find a young – as far as possible inexperienced – girl.” Consequently Tomo find’s Suga who is engaged, ostensibly, as her maid although it is understood by both Tomo and Suga’s parents that she is being sold to provide sexual services to Yoshitomo. Suga is young, childish and beautiful and she satisfies Yoshitomo’s desires very much. Tomo stands aside as her husband replaces her for Suga in both his affections and, eventually, his bed. Later Yoshitomo acquires another concubine, Yumi, using Tomo again to source the young flesh to satisfy his appetites.

Yoshitomo is a selfish man, and the women who surround him are trapped, each in their own way. Tomo is trapped by a code which will not permit her to leave her husband for the sake of their children, and in which her situation is somewhat normalised by social etiquette. The emphasis here is that not only does Yoshitomo acquire his concubines at the expense of his wife, but also that he uses his wife to acquire them for him. Later he embarks on an affair with his own son’s wife, which is a matter of great disgrace to the whole family (though somehow the son never uncovers it).

Yet Tomo endures. It is the character of Tomo here, complicit in her own undoing, which creates the most fascination and most tension. In fact it is that very complicity which Enchi seeks to undermine – this is often a charge levelled at women (why don’t they leave their abusive husband, their actions led to their own rape, etc etc) which is often used as a way of ignoring the abusive behaviour of another and the social and economic environment they live within. Though Tomo’s situation is intolerable, no one encourages her to leave it and she understands, instinctively, that no one would support her if she did. She would lose everything, including her ability to protect Suga and Yumi from themselves undergoing abuses in her stead. Though Yoshitomo not longer loves nor cares for his wife, it is also evident that he relies on her, relies on her ability to endure, her strength and her uprightness. There is never any suggestion that he would cast her off and replace her, she is too competent a housekeeper for that. So she endures, she continues to support and protect the husband that treats her so foully, and yet she also desires revenge, hates him for his behaviour. Does she get it in the end? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I found The Waiting Years both excellent and frustrating. There were times I wanted to shake Tomo, to shake her out of the thrall which her husband held over her. And yet the strength in the book is how it shows, openly and without sentimentalism, how many women live in abusive relationships, how women are trapped without economic and social empowerment, without the support of society to prevent such abuses from occurring. Modern Western life may seem miles away from this turn of the century Japanese novel and yet two women are killed in UK alone every week by their male partners, male violence and abusive behaviour goes largely unchallenged (see Twitter and the death and rape threats hurled at women who speak up, if you don’t believe this happens), women are raped and blamed for it (or it’s not counted as rape at all) and women are held culpable for not leaving an abusive relationship despite the fact that the odds of being killed by a partner significantly increase when the abused person takes steps to leave, and regardless of how dependent they, and their children, are on their partner for economic security (because women still earn less than men). Though the circumstances appear somewhat different, it is a story, sadly, that many women can still relate to and which exposes the ways in which violence and abuse of women are propagated and maintained in all societies, not just Japanese.

The Waiting Years receives a disturbing 9 out of 10 Biis. A powerful and relevant read.      

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