How to describe The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake? What a charming and unusual novel it is, if at some times a trifle confusing. The setting is unusual, post-war Tokyo when the country is being run by the US General MacArthur and at times it reminded me of Rhidian Brook’s wonderful The Aftermath set in post-war Berlin. It is about war and what it does to us, how a broken society can ever begin to heal, how the young will ever be able to live a normal life, when the word normal ceases to exist.
Sensitively written, each page draws a picture of Tokyo from a different point of view – Aya, a Japanese-Canadian schoolgirl feels the odd one out in her new school; her classmate Fumi misses her elder sister who left home to find work; Sumiko has a job in a dance hall dancing with the GIs but is ashamed to tell her family what she is doing; Kondo Sensei, the teacher of the younger girls and also part-time translator and writer of letters; and Matt Matsumoto, the Japanese-American soldier who translates the letters sent to General MacArthur by Japanese citizens.
Letters are an important tool in this story which is essentially a young girl’s quest to find her sister. When Fumi finds out that Aya can write in English, she asks for her to write a letter to General MacArthur asking for his help to find her Sumiko. As the letter changes hands and Matt and a colleague become involved in searching for Sumiko, the story unfolds gently against a terrible backdrop of bomb damage, poverty, starvation, pride, culture clash and above all the determination to survive.
It was a while before all the Japanese characters, and some of the Japanese vocabulary, started to fall into place. A touching story inspired by the letters written by Japanese citizens to MacArthur, it draws a picture of a period in Japanese history of which I knew nothing.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Letters to a general in Tokyo: THE TRANSLATION OF LOVE by @LynneKutsukake #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2cE