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When the Emperor Was Divine
Julie Otsuka
London: Viking / Penguin Books, 2002.
£9.99, 144 pages, ISBN 0-670-91263-8.

Mireille Quivy
Université de Rouen

A sunny day in Berkeley in the spring of 1942… “The fourth week of the fifth month of the war.” (9) A woman reads a sign, goes back home and begins to pack. Millet, The Gleaners.

Evacuation order no.19. Japanese families not wanted.
Tiny bonsai trees all of them, clipped close to the sap, roots barbed-wired, isolated, evacuated.

And then, the cutting edge of unsaid razored words, the speechless wounds of plucked blossoming youths, the shameful unconcern of a conceited neighbourhood, the smothering consciousness of disturbing otherness, while yet… the emperor was still divine.

A scene by scene vision of a world in and of black and white; a haunting rhythm, a throbbing dirge telling the reader about a nation’s shame, about a woeful past.

Julie Otsuka’s first novel.

It all starts with the emptying of a world, the eradication of identities. The cat has to go, the chicken is sacrificed, White dog is euthanized. No bird will ever sing “In the mood” again.

The boy shrugged off the blanket and rolled up against the wall where it was cool. In a few hours he and the girl and their mother would wake up and go to the Civil Control Station at the first Congregational Church on Channing Way. Then they would pin their identification numbers to their collars and grab their suitcases and climb up onto the bus and go to wherever it was they had to go. (22)

Paratactic style, juxtaposed facts, no logical sequence relating cause to effect. A painter’s hyperrealistic composition. Snapshots from different angles; disconnected points of view; a general picture forming in the reader’s mind.

Where was it they had to go?

The train journey is endless; the shades are down; dry beds of lakes; heat; scorching sun; an eleven-year-old girl in a pale yellow dress—a good arm at softball; “but now she was going to Utah to live in the desert.” (25) A soldier, with very nice eyes, ordering the shades down; outside the window, the mustangs, wild and fearless; in her mind’s eye, her father, taken away in his slippers, who used to bring back perfume or scarves from Paris and is now in Lordsburg, where no trees grow.

At Delta, armed soldiers with bayonets escorted them off the train […] they climbed onto a bus. (47)

At Topaz the bus stopped. (48)

They had been assigned to a room in a barrack in a block not far from the fence. The boy. The girl. Their mother. (50)

Anonymous characters with personal lives, desires and memories; Japanese-stock Americans lost in a fenced-in wilderness of dust: rattlesnakes, scorpions, a flower. Even the tortoise doesn’t have a name. In the camp, there are rules for everything from trivial to necessary, from religion to food or kites. The only freedom left dwells in the mind and the dreams and recollections of the past. Every detail gains significance in a world devoid of meaning. Every new wrinkle brings its touch of estrangement from the former self.

The characters Otsuka describes are hulls bereft of matter, functions at best (father, mother, daughter, son), allegories perhaps in some naked NO.

The economy, the restraint, the simplicity and the directness of the style mirror the elegance of the people who preserve their dignity in the face of adversity. No emotions are betrayed, no heart-beats pounding to be heard: the watch says six o’clock and will not be wound any more.

Some leave the camp to go and work in farms. Ellipses in time. Ellipses in place. Ellipses filled in by rumours concerning “they-s” ending up in reified “it-s”.

They would be sterilized. They would be stripped of their citizenship. They would be taken out onto the high seas and then shot. […] It was all in the interest of national security. It was all a matter of military necessity. It was an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty. (70)

WW2 atrocities revamped. And yet, school resumes inside the camp. Textbooks, pencils, recess, teacher… all the familiar words inhabit the text but strangely sound alien. They too have been displaced.

In the boy’s dreams, the Emperor appears.

For the Emperor was holy and divine. A god. You could not look him in the eye. In the dream the boy had already opened the first door and his hand was on the second door and any minute now, he was sure of it, he was going to see God. Only something always went wrong. (73)

Which brings back the memory of the father being taken away by FBI men, just after Pearl Harbor. The shame of seeing him leaving in his slippers, “battered and faded”, unworthy of such a man. From then on, the family had known they had better look Chinese, and they knew so little about China!

But the smell of the sagebrush persistently brings the boy back to the country of dust and wind, of snow and fear, to the camp at night and the sound of his mother’s prayer “Our father, who art in heaven…”(82), to the camp in the morning, and the sound of his neighbour chanting the Salute to the Imperial Palace. A mixture of sounds, a fusion of hopes, of individual, lonely voices praying to be heard. Trees appear in the camp, uprooted and transported there; alleyways get names; life is being organized. The mother progressively retreats into her inner world. She loses her voice, loses her touch, loses appetite, closes her eyes or stares at her hands, endlessly. Army recruiters start testing the camp’s inmates’ loyalty. Would they “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America…” etc? Months and seasons succeed one another at a quickening pace and suddenly, the family is back in their home, after the war.

The unexpected shift remains unexplained. It is more sudden than the departure was. Why are they back? What are they back to? The picture is one of desolation, of broken items signifying the fragmentation and deconstruction of all possible reference. After three years and five months. The family is “we” again, a social being recognized as such. Other families reappear in the neighbourhood, men found “more dead than alive, in prison camps in Manchuria and Ofuna at the end of the war.”(119)

Where does the truth lie?

The mother goes back to work and the family can live decently again. Then the father is freed; a father who is no father any more. A moment of expected joy turning into a non-event, a collection of did-nots. The father’s voice is not heard until the end, until it rages wildly into the night. A pamphleteer’s voice, an orator’s words, an angry man’s plea.

The mother, the daughter, the son, the father have all been narrators of this parenthesis in time that transported them into another world, beyond the smooth mirage of the American dream. Across hidden frontiers of guilt buried deep into the American consciousness.

The reader has travelled along and now surfaces: gone the poetic world of motionless stoicism; gone the anonymity of some characters’ fates; gone the pathetic fallacy… When the Emperor Was Divine is genuine here and now, it is our ordinary everyday life ultimately staring us in the face.

Shall we learn?

It would be tempting to consider this novel a moral tale of cosmic dimension warning humanity not to repeat the sins of the fathers so endlessly… It would be so sad if it were only this. The novel is also an experiment in painting snapshots of past experience with words; with everyday words that ring like primary colours.

No commentary, no diluted hues.

Exact and exacting strokes, precise and spare, triggering vision.

No plot.

No story.

A non-expressive picture passing on information.

An author choosing the sobriety of a photographer.

A glazed paper-flower expanding in icy-cold water…

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