Everyone is drifting in your Floating Clouds (2006, tr. Lane Dunlop. Original: 浮雲, 1951). When the novel opens, WWII has ended and Yukiko is returning to Tokyo. In a fragmented narrative that jumps back and forth between the war period and its immediate aftermath, we learn that she has just been repatriated from Indochina, where she had been working as a typist at an agricultural institute.
Jumping further into the past to the years leading to the war, Yukiko reminisces about the time when she had just come to Tokyo to study, and was staying at the house of a relative, Iba – who, in turn, came to her room every night and systematically raped her, sticking a cloth inside her mouth to prevent his wife from hearing any noise. Eventually, Yukiko manages to get away from this nightmare by accepting a job as a typist in occupied Indochina. Once there, she meets two male colleagues, Tomioka and Kano, and they drift into a love and betrayal triangle. “Both he and Kano were in love with something that was not love.”
Tomioka is a married man and his wife is in Japan, waiting for him. For the past couple of months, he has been sexually involved with his Vietnamese maid, Hu, who gets pregnant during his stay there. Kano, on the other hand, is single and perhaps a better match for Yukiko – but, needless to say, she will fall head over heels for Tomioka, and the two will become lovers. The war is at its tail end and they are suspended in its unreality, away from home and from its demands, and desperately deluding themselves over the future (or lack thereof).
We follow Yukiko and Tomioka’s on-and-off relationship, as they separately leave Indochina and try to make a living in defeated Japan. Tomioka returns to his wife and soon forgets his promises to Yukiko. She, in turn, keeps seeking him out, and he can never bring himself to let her go: “The fact that I love you seems very sad to me“, Yukiko tells Tomioka at some point. Both feel miserable, as though their doomed affair were a destiny from which they are unable to escape, or some form of expiation – much like the bleak atmosphere and collective mood in post-war Japan.
In their struggles to make a new beginning for themselves, both Yukiko and Tomioka will be haunted by the ghostlike memories of their happiness, their “brightly coloured memories of Indochina, like scenes on a revolving lantern”. They will never truly be able to let go of those memories and to admit defeat. They will go through life like a pair of sleepwalkers dazed inside a cloud, as if their shared dream were their only reality. “We’re like floating weeds with no roots“.
Yukiko will have an affair with an American soldier in return for money, only to dump him a few months later, to travel with Tomioka to Ikaho, then a holiday location known for its hot springs. In this paradisiac setting, the two doomed lovers will toy with the idea of committing suicide together. Instead, Tomioka-the-womaniser will strike up a friendship with a local tavern owner, and later repay the guy’s kindness by having an affair with his wife – who, in turn, will eventually follow Tomioka to Tokyo, only to be murdered by her jealous husband.
Overcome by guilt for having eloped with the guy’s wife, Tomioka decides to (guess what) help him in his murder trial. Yep, you read it correctly – our womaniser deeply sympathizes with the murderer, not with the poor misguided girl whom he seduced. Soon after, Tomioka learns that his own wife has died, abandoned, alone, and in poverty – and this piece of news leave him feeling somewhat… liberated.
Meanwhile, Yukiko has had enough of Tomioka’s nonsense (for now). She is pregnant with his child, and decides to break free from him by having an abortion. This has terrible consequences upon her health, and her feelings for Tomioka will become bleaker and bleaker. As she will reflect later, “They ought to have, and in a way they had, died in Ikaho.”
The writing feels dry and a bit off at some points, and, according to the “Note to the Reader” in this edition, the original text has been abridged – which may explain some odd gaps in the story. Much like the characters themselves, we are often left trying to get a grip on what is going on, as if we were clinging to air. “He was just a floating cloud — appearing, disappearing, then appearing again — it did not matter when or where.”
This is a bleak story about defeat; about people holding on to their own illusions, and how claustrophobic that can be. I like the way you play with the characters’ self-delusions and changing perspectives. We feel as though we were jumping not only from a timeframe to another or between each of the characters, but also from one version of the same character to another, as their feelings develop and unfold in a fragmented, meandering way – much like clouds, floating.
“Yukiko was digging her fingernails into his shoulder impatiently. But already Tomioka’s passion had started to fade. A smal wild white peacock flapped through the forest, and was gone.” – Fumiko Hayashi, Floating Clouds
“She wanted him to stay, so her loneliness would be shared.” – Fumiko Hayashi, Floating Clouds
About the book
- Columbia University Press, 2006, 328 p. Goodreads
- Original: 浮雲 [Ukigumo], 1951
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- Projects: The Classics Club; Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Meredith; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; Invisible Cities, hosted by Yamini (shakespeareandspice); Nicole (nicole is here to learn); Natalie (Curious Reader); Stephanie (time to read!); Michael (Knowledge Lost); Wil (MyBookishEmpire); and Agnese (Beyond the Epilogue)
- The novel was made into a movie in 1955 (IMDb), directed by Mikio Naruse.