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A Painful Past And Ghostly Present Converge In 'Tokyo Ueno Station'

Riverhead Books

Kazu, the narrator of Tokyo Ueno Station, had hoped that his death would bring him some rest, some sense of closure. The man led a life marked with hard work and intense pain; he spent his final years homeless, living in a makeshift shelter in a Tokyo park. But when he dies, he finds the afterlife — such as it is — is nothing like he expected.

"I thought that once I was dead, I would be reunited with the dead," he reflects. "I thought something would be resolved by death ... But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside life looking in, as someone who has lost the capacity to exist, now ceaselessly thinking, ceaselessly feeling --"

Kazu's painful past and ghostly present are the subject of Tokyo Ueno Station, the latest book by Korean-Japanese author Yu Miri to be published in English. It's a relatively slim novel that packs an enormous emotional punch, thanks to Yu's gorgeous, haunting writing and Morgan Giles' wonderful translation.

The novel follows Kazu as he observes the park where he used to live with hundreds of other homeless people. "Before, we had families," Kazu explains. "We had houses. Nobody starts off life in a hovel made of cardboard and tarps, and nobody becomes homeless because they want to be." Kazu listens in on conversations between the park's residents as well as other people who walk by it and the nearby train station.

Through flashbacks, the reader learns of Kazu's earlier years. He grew up in poverty in Fukushima, and worked harvesting kelp and rice before finding work in construction that took him away from his wife, son and daughter: "I think if one were to count all the days I had spent with my wife, Setsuko, after thirty-seven years of marriage with me mainly away from home, they would not even add up to a year."

Kazu's life is rocked when his son dies at 21, and after yet another tragedy, he moves to Tokyo for good, living in the park, finding odd jobs to earn enough money to eat. The government, however, regularly shoos the residents out of the park, which forces the homeless people to live in a state of constant fear: "We were always on edge, dogged by danger and the anxiety that if we had something even for a moment, it could be taken away."

The circumstances behind Kazu's death are revealed late in the book, and they're almost unbearable to read. But while Yu's writing is unsparing, never letting the reader forget the enormities of poverty and loss, it's also quite beautiful, particularly when Kazu describes his current, liminal state: "I was always lost at a point in the past that would never go anywhere now that it had gone, but has time ended? Has it just stopped? Will it someday rewind and start again? Or will I be shut out from time for eternity? I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."

... while Yu's writing is unsparing, never letting the reader forget the enormities of poverty and loss, it's also quite beautiful

Tokyo Ueno Stationis a mournful book, but it's an angry one as well. In one scene, Kazu recalls how his parents would send their young children to answer the door when debt collectors came and tell them their mother and father weren't home. "I thought what a thing of sin poverty was, that there could be nothing more sinful than forcing a small child to lie," he thinks. "The wages of that sin were poverty, a wage that one could not endure, leading one to sin again, and as long as one could not pull oneself out of poverty, the cycle would repeat until death."

Yu emphasizes the unfairness of poverty with some painful contrasts. Kazu's son was born on the same day as the emperor of Japan's son; their lives, of course, turn out quite differently. And one of Kazu's first construction jobs was working on athletic facilities that were being built for the 1965 Tokyo Olympics, while he and his fellow homeless people are forced to leave their park when the city is attempting to impress visitors in a bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

Kazu's personal pain and his poverty are inextricable from each other, and Yu does a magnificent job exploring the effects of all kinds of loss on the human psyche. Tokyo Ueno Stationis a stunning novel, and a harsh, uncompromising look at existential despair. "Light does not illuminate," Kazu reflects at one point. "It only looks for things to illuminate. And I had never been found by the light. I would always be in darkness --"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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