Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire by David Mura


"Sometimes late at night I'll hear them, my dead. My mother, Tommy, my father. Perhaps their voices are part of some acid flashback, remnants of my brief psychotropic college days. Certainly, I don't believe in heaven or an afterlife. Tommy might say they were speaking from another dimension, some alternative universe where the history of our family unfolds in another direction, as a new, unexplored possibility.

At any rate, I know they're close by."

– from Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire: A Novel by David Mura

I wonder if I'm particularly insensitive, or just life-focused, but I find myself largely inured to death. Having had it strike close to me a few times, it loses much of its power to frighten me. That's not to say I don't feel sorrow when a loved one dies. I do, but I've grown so tired of being frightened of it, so resigned and even jaded to its inevitability, I look at it as a long period of rest after the wretched mess that is life.

The fact remains, butting our heads against the wall, hoping to receive some sign from beyond, is futile. This I've learned, too.

I don't visit cemeteries, as a general rule. Not those containing the remains of anyone I've known, though I do enjoy wandering through old cemeteries, taking photos and stopping to wonder about the people whose names are on the stones. When I see a string of infants from the same family, dying within a couple years or less of each other, I think of the heartbreak that family knew, wondering if each new pregnancy was celebrated after experiencing so much loss. Or, maybe their hearts had turned to stone, of necessity. So they couldn't be broken again.

I was 25 when I lost my oldest brother. He was eleven years older, meaning we'd had much less in common than if we'd been closer in age. Though I'd had legitimate issues with him, reasons I could have justified feeling less of a loss, it hit me very hard. It just wasn't supposed to be that way. There was no happy ending.

In a way, he was responsible for his own death. In another way, my parents were. I don't mean directly. He wasn't murdered; it was more like a slow suicide, committed over the course of 36 years. Like a lightning storm, you could see it coming, but were powerless to prevent it. The only choice was to weather it.

In many ways, David Mura's book reflects my own experience losing my brother. His "people," the family who left him, were each in some way fractured, but the loss of them still couldn't be neatly packaged and put away on a shelf, like a treasured memento. Having legitimate reasons for feeling resentment against someone can't prepare you for their loss. Once the end is signalled there is no more, ending any potential opportunity to repair broken bridges, or to have that familiar grudge to lean on, as an excuse for your own failures.

And, when death happens within a family, especially if it leaves just one person behind, it's like an echo reverberating in an empty room. There may be others in your life, those with whom you have satisfying relationships, but nothing quite fills the void left by such loss. Nothing is the same as losing those of your blood.

"The more I go over my past, scraping up memories and moments, the more often I feel like I can't remember much at all, that it's all – or the most crucial parts of it – slipped away. That I have no memories. It's like I'm someone other than who I'm supposed to be. Or that I've just woken up and found myself inside the life I'm living, and I've got to use what surrounds me to surmise what my past might be."

Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire is an exploration of the hollowness left after loss, the burden bourne by those left behind. None of the losses in this book are "clean." None of them end with the comfort of having been prepared for, allowing for what some call "closure." Strings are left untied, and questions unanswered. The edges are as ragged as a wound sutured inexpertly, leaving an ugly scar behind as a constant reminder of the violence.

Main character Ben Ohara tries filling the emptiness of his loss by writing a mammoth work that can never be finished – a history of all Japanese figures who have committed suicide in the course of history. This acts both to fill time, and to occupy his mind in a way partially explainable because he is a historian. Yet, the darkness of the subject only serves to keep the curtain of loss enclosed around him, to contain the grief he can't completely let go of.

His absence is felt by his wife – Grace -, and the reader may assume to some extent his children. Though it seems Grace has been patient, at a certain point her anger takes over. She begins to feel some resentment toward Ben for his mental absence, for the feeling he's only going through the motions of being a husband and father:

"But even though I was aware that both she and the boys were tugging at me in their own ways, I couldn't respond. I felt enshrouded by a buble, through which I could barely see them. I couldn't whether the bubble was enclosing me or them, but I knew that membrane, invisible, palpable, and surreal, now seemed to me impenetrable."

Obviously, Ben is very deeply depressed. Becoming easily overwhelmed is – I know all too well – a symptom of this condition. Throughout this novel we see Ben struggling with the ghosts of the past, trying to be there for his family, while at the same time desperately trying to work through his issues as the sole surviving member of a family, one in which two have committed suicide.

Ben is a compelling character, and this story a sensitive take on how difficult it is to come to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition ruled over by depression. Getting through it on your own is theoretically possible, but the road is long. The strength required to do so is monumental, and as the novel progresses we see this illustrated over and over as Ben combats this uphill battle.

A beautiful, often heart-rending novel many will identify with. Yet another example of the very high quality coming out of Coffee House Press.

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Coffee House Press (September 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566892155
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