[BOOK REVIEW] " THE MOURNER " / by Tendo Arata / Bungei Shunju (2008), Yen1700


This is the probably the first time I have chosen a novel for a book review, and since the author, Tendo Arata, has received the Naoki Award for this best-seller, The Mourner, I should explain why I have chosen to review it here.
Actually, I was moved by an interview of the author on TV. In that interview he said that one reason for writing the book was the 9.11 terror attack in New York. Each one of the victims that died that day was remembered by name and given commemorative services, while nobody knows the names of citizens being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The author found it inexpressibly weird that the daily news gives only the numbers of people killed, and suspects that many other people may also find this strange.
From that starting point the author begins a journey of deep reflection. Can't we commemorate equally all the people that have died? Although we may have cried yesterday over the death of a friend, vowing "I will never forget you," why is it that, with the passing of time, we so easily forget that death? Why and for whom do people mourn? It took 7 full years for the author of this book to reflect on these questions and complete this literary work.
The main character is a young man endowed with rich sensitivity, who is challenged by the deaths of relatives and friends, by children in a hospital where he does volunteer work, and by the death of animals. He confronts all kinds of death and little by little wants to mourn for all the deceased. As a result, using information provided by the media, he sets on out a journey to commemorate at the site of their death all the people throughout Japan that have died from accidents, suicide, criminal incidents, or illnesses.
Along the way three very different people become involved. One is a middle-aged newspaper reporter whose attitude as a child was badly affected when his parents divorced. Later on he himself separates from his own wife and child, but he continues with strange interest to write reports about people dying in accidents or as victims of crimes.
Another person involved is an unfortunate young woman who accepts a proposal to marry a saintly Buddhist monk but is then so manipulated by her suicide-prone husband that she ends up killing him. The third person is the main character's own mother. She is about to die of terminal stomach cancer, but just then her daughter (the main character's younger sister) is deserted by her fiance because of her older brother's morbid behavior. Actually, they were already expecting a child. The main character relates to all three of these as the story unfolds.
Just presenting the mere outline in this way has little meaning with regard to this book. More than any meaning in the story itself, the charm of this book is felt when the three persons who have led totally different lives encounter the main character's strange behavior of "mourning everyone equally" and we see how they understand this and how they change. Nevertheless, it is not a difficult theoretical book. The lives and feelings of the characters are vividly drawn and the story is faultless and enjoyable. However, when I finished reading it, I realized that this literary work forces one to undergo the challenging experience of questioning one's own personal view of life and death, one's outlook on life.
The Mourner has a special interest for me since I am involved in issues concerning capital punishment. Problems regarding the death penalty have forced me to confront the deaths of the assailants' victims and the sufferings of their families. Some common opinions among those who approve of capital punishment are "Without capital punishment the victims (who in most cases are already dead) do not come to public light," or "The emotional sufferings of the victims' relatives cannot be healed except through capital punishment." When people see and hear cold-blooded crimes, they side with the victims (or their families), feel deep anger and call for the assailant's punishment. This is the natural reaction.
Nevertheless, the main character of this novel says, "When you hate the assailant, you are overcome with hatred and forget the victim," and so he keeps himself from becoming concerned with the assailant. If you know "whom the victim loved, by whom the victim was loved, for what the victim was thanked," then, he says, you remember that person and can "mourn." He discovered this without recourse to any religion but while continuing to mourn the deaths of many people. I feel that this is certainly the true way to "remember" the dead and "mourn" their deaths. This is a book I can recommend by all means to those who think seriously about life and death.

(Shibata Yukinori, Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
=====     Copyright ®1997-2007 Jesuit Social Center All Rights Reserved     =====