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When the Emperor Was Divine
London: Viking / Penguin Books, 2002.
£9.99, 144 pages, ISBN 0-670-91263-8.
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,
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
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 nations shame,
about a woeful past.
Julie Otsukas 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.
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
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)
style, juxtaposed facts, no logical sequence relating cause to
effect. A painters hyperrealistic
composition. Snapshots from different angles; disconnected points
of view; a general picture forming
in the readers
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 dressa
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 minds 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.
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)
characters with personal lives, desires and memories; Japanese-stock
lost in a fenced-in wilderness of dust:
a flower. Even the tortoise doesnt have a name. In the camp,
there are rules for everything from trivial to necessary, from religion
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
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
of adversity. No emotions are betrayed, no heart-beats pounding
to be heard: the
watch says six oclock 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.
would be sterilized. They would be stripped of their citizenship.
They would be taken out
onto the high seas and then
] 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
atrocities revamped. And yet, school resumes inside the camp. Textbooks,
pencils, recess, teacher
familiar words inhabit the text but strangely sound alien.
They too have been displaced.
In the boys dreams, the Emperor appears.
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)
brings back the memory of the father being taken away by FBI
men, just after Pearl Harbor.
The shame of seeing him
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
the sound of
his mothers prayer Our father, who art in heaven
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 camps inmates loyalty. Would they swear
unqualified allegiance to the United States of America
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
back to? The
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
turning into a non-event, a collection of did-nots.
The fathers voice
is not heard until the end, until it rages wildly into the night. A pamphleteers
voice, an orators words, an angry mans plea.
The mother, the daughter, the son, the father have
all been narrators of this parenthesis in time that
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
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
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
No commentary, no diluted hues.
Exact and exacting strokes, precise and spare, triggering
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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