“Lion Cross Point” is a novel of intersections: of memory and dream, past and future, rural and urban, of innocence and tragedy. Masatsugu Ono’s poignant tale spins out in a child-driven stream of consciousness, unwinding from a series of shrouded traumatic events.

Lion Cross Point, by Masatsugu Ono, Translated by Angus Turvill.
128 pages

Released on April 10 by Two Lines Press, it will be the first chance for English readers to experience a full-length work from Ono. Winner of both the Akutagawa Prize (2014) and the Yukio Mishima Prize (2002), Ono has previously published only short stories and poetry in English and French.

“Lion Cross Point” opens with memory, as 10 year old Takeru strains to recall the voice of his mother. The novel gradually unspools Takeru’s recent past as he navigates his new life in the present, recently arrived from Tokyo and living for the summer in his mother’s rural hometown, the small seaside hamlet of Takanoura in Kyushu. There, Takeru initially struggles to adapt to a life without his mother and older brother, whose absences are never clearly explained but remain deeply felt; the lonely boy wonders if “some of the things around him might have lost their shadows too.”

Because Ono filters information from Takeru’s perspective, details unravel deliberately incomplete. “As I became immersed in the writing, I began to see the protagonist not as a character in the story, but as a real person,” says Ono. “I wanted to write as if I knew him. This boy has been deeply traumatized, and the more I wrote, the more I realized that I couldn’t allow myself to go into his mind and touch on things he didn’t want to reveal, or reveal what he had forgotten and was meant to forget.”

For Ono, a professor of modern Francophone literature at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and an accomplished translator of works from French to Japanese, it was natural to draw inspiration from literature. “When I was studying in France, the landlord of the house where I lived for five years was Madame (Helen) Mouchard-Zay, the founder of a memorial museum and research center in Orleans for Jewish children who were persecuted and deported,” Ono explains. “Her husband, Claude Mouchard, is a poet, critic, translator and honorary professor of literature at the University of Paris VIII. He analyzes how literature portrays the victims of genocide and has written unique critical poetry about this topic. I was greatly impressed by their work and began to read the testimonies of children who had survived trauma and read many essays about this issue.”

Although Ono admits he “wanted to write a story about a child who went through a traumatic experience,” it was the voice of the mother that first called to his imagination. Fittingly, the novel starts and ends with important memories of Takeru’s mysteriously vanished caregiver. It was also natural for Ono, a native of Oita Prefecture, to set the novel in Kyushu.

The harsh beauty of the coastal town both reflects and contrasts with Takeru’s earlier experiences within the urban outskirts of Tokyo, where an abandoned Takeru and his mentally and physically disabled brother struggled to survive, depending on the kindness of neighbors who passed them food and drink through open windows, or chance encounters with strangers in the grocery store. Cruelty colors Takeru’s memories, both petty and dangerous, and peppered with violence. Throughout the narrative, Ono weaves a running commentary of Takeru’s inner dialogue: he questions his past as he moves through his present in the hazy Kyushu summer.

This melding of time and merging of boundaries developed spontaneously, as Ono explains, “I guess sometimes you see your own hometown in places abroad, and sometimes your own country feels like a foreign land. Having no distinct lines between “outside” and “inside” — blurred borders — may be a theme in my writing, though I’ve never really been conscious of it.” Although excited to reach new audiences, Ono admits he has no expectations for the book’s reception in English, believing, “the moment a book is placed in the reader’s hands, it becomes their own, and whatever they decide to read into it is up to them.”

Adding to the dream-like quality of the novel is Bunji, an enigmatic character who may or may not be the ghost of one of Takeru’s ancestors. Bunji is a part of Takeru’s new life as soon as he steps off the plane, and it is Bunji’s voice who replaces that of Takeru’s lost mother. Bunji’s uncertain past mirrors Takeru’s own and Bunji’s presence, real or imagined, helps him face the future as he struggles to reconcile complicated feelings of love and guilt for his missing older brother.

The novel never completely answers the many questions it raises, but through his new life in Kyushu, which culminates with an intersection of past and present when Takeru joins his new friends in search of dolphins, the inner turmoil of the child somehow partially resolves. Takeru imaginatively recreates his mother’s history to reach a place of quiet acceptance with his own decisions and the fate of his brother. And, in these tender moments, Ono’s heartrending portrayal of how memory untangles after tragedy smooths the way for Takeru’s growing resilience. “Lion Cross Point” meets at the crossroad of hope and tragedy.

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