Between writing the “Eclogues” and the “Aeneid,” the Roman poet Virgil composed the “Georgics,” published circa 29 B.C., which deals with rural lives, agriculture and all things bucolic. In the “Inferno,” Virgil acted as Dante’s guide through the nine circles of hell.
Likewise, Mariko Nagai blends the infernal with the rustic, and the damned with the innocent. These are bleak stories but realistic ones, showing the pain and suffering of people in times of famine, war and repression.
Like Angela Carter, Nagai uses myth as a template for the horrors of existence, as a base to explore the violence of history, and as an arena within which human grace battles suffering.
With a prose that is exact and, at times, beautiful in its depiction of loss, the author cajoles emotion rather than bludgeons us with parables, allowing us to engage our own morality rather than provide us with neat lessons on how to read both fiction and history.
In the opening story, “Grafting,” hunger forces a young woman to abandon her elderly mother in the wilderness, the starving villagers must sacrifice the old and young to stay alive.
Babies are born deformed because of the lack of food, pre-pubescent girls sell their bodies for sex, and mothers kill their children rather than have them starve. Grafting is living. Grafting is surviving.
In the chilling “Autobiography,” a woman’s husband is killed in Manchuria during World War II; she is forced to become a prostitute for food and then to sell her baby to return home. Here, Nagai questions the ties and trusts of mother and child, of home and heart, of faithfulness to yourself and your loved ones.
Gender politics arise in the author’s non-naming of her female characters. Victims of history and circumstance, these women are not so much abused by men as tortured by life.
In “Bitter Fruit,” Monkey, a prostitute, raped in a brothel after being sold into it by her parents, assumes the identity of ultimate outcast. Ugly and unwanted, she can be bought for less than the price of a trout.
The stories that follow layer sorrow upon sorrow and explore the variations of physical and psychological horror, as in the Kafkaesque “Confession,” in which a group of villagers murder a downed American pilot.
These stories are traumatic and depressing, but the horrific poetic language in which they are composed allows us to witness death and violence anew. “Bodies began to arrive by the dozen, filling the river banks with bodies of men, bloated, like salmon bulging with eggs they must get rid of, their bodies so tightly stuck in the shallows the water could not come or go.”
In this sentence, taken from the title story “Georgic,” Nagai conjures images of the Sumida during the Tokyo fire bombings of March 9 and 10, 1945, and the experiments of Unit 731 during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
In “Fugue,” reminiscent of Joe Brainard’s “I Remember,” the narrator begins each paragraph with the words, “When I was a child,” and relates a heartbreaking story of hunger, envy and love.
Moving away from visceral realism, “Song” opens with the lines “Once upon a time,” and invokes a world of gods, the Enemy, a storyteller called Hog, of confinement and darkness, of time, birth and death.
Nagai’s “Georgic” explores the harshness of nature, the violent nature of humankind, and does so using the circularity of the savage seasons. An impressive blend of metaphor and history, “Georgic” maintains power and form from sentence level, through paragraph, to the execution of each well-constructed tale.
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