Imagine you’re a parent who’s always done the right thing, lived life carefully and respectfully, had a decent job, raised a family. Then you see your children’s lives and marriages falling apart. Your son cheats shamelessly on his wife. Your daughter and granddaughter behave in ways you find distasteful.
Are you responsible for the sins and failures of your adult children? If so, what do you do about it?
The questions the book raises about parenting and ageing are complicated by the fact that Shingo, the main character, is not as blameless as he at first seems to be.
For example, Shingo originally fell in love not with his wife Yasuko but with her sister, and he only married Yasuko out of pity after her sister died and she became a kind of servant to her sister’s widower.
He still thinks about the sister, his first love, all the time. It goes so far that when he sees ugliness in his daughter and granddaughter, he attributes it to his original mistake in marrying the wrong sister:
“If Shingo had married Yasuko’s sister, then probably he would have had neither a daughter like Fusako nor a granddaughter like Satoko. This was hardly a proper occasion to stir in him so intense a yearning for a person long dead that he wanted to rush into her arms.”
On top of that, Shingo has feelings for his daughter-in-law Kikuko that seem to go beyond those a father-in-law should have. When the two of them meet and go walking in the Shinjuku Garden, it feels for all the world like a lovers’ assignation.
Shingo never acts on these thoughts and feelings, perhaps because of his traditional upbringing in the country, with its strict codes of morality. His son Shuichi, having grown up in the city in a younger generation, is not so tied to these codes, and so he follows through on his desires. He has an extra-marital affair which he refuses to break off even when his wife knows about it, even when her desperation at his infidelity becomes so intense that she aborts their long-awaited child.
All of these events echo through the life of the father, along with the breakdown of his daughter Fusako’s marriage and his son-in-law’s attempted suicide. People keep urging him to take action, but he doesn’t know what to do, and when he does try to intervene, he is ineffective. He takes refuge in the routine of commuting to the office every day and drinking tea and commenting on flowers in the garden. He takes refuge, perhaps, in the failures of ageing and the sympathy that his increasing forgetfulness brings him, another excuse for inaction.
This is a quiet, subtle book. Dramatic events happen, but mostly off-stage, and the main characters’ reactions to these events are muted, hesitant, incomplete. Most of the action described in the book is domestic and quotidian. It’s not a hero’s journey.
Shingo is no hero, but he’s no villain either. He’s an old man struggling to deal with the mistakes of his own life and to understand what role he should play in the lives of his grown-up children. Is his son’s infidelity an expression of his own repressed desires? Is his daughter correct to say that “you made me what I am by not liking me”?
As Shingo goes about his quiet, inoffensive life, shuttling to and fro on his commuter train and cutting back bushes in his garden to give the cherry tree more room to grow, these questions rumble in the background of the story like the sound of the mountain.
If you want to participate in the Japanese Literature Challenge or read other participants’ reviews, head over to Dolce Bellezza for the details.
You could also read my entries from last year on The Pillow Book and The Great Passage. And for another take on The Sound of the Mountain, read JacquiWine’s excellent review from a previous challenge.