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Through a child’s eyes: Mystery and longing in Masatsugu Ono’s Lion Cross Point

By Tara Cheesman-Olmsted.

Masatsugu Ono, Lion Cross Point (Two Lines Press, 2018)

The stories left untold are the ones that create the atmosphere of mystery and yearning that permeate the pages of Lion Cross Point. Masatsugu Ono never explains how Takeru, his ten-year-old protagonist, comes to live with Mitsuko, the elderly woman who has taken him into her home and kindly tells him “If you wanna stay, you can, long as you like.” He doesn’t tell us why she was willing to travel so far—by automobile, train, airplane and automobile again—“all the way to Tokyo to pick him up and bring him to his mother’s old village by the sea”.  She barely knows the boy and he has no memory of her. Was she contacted by child welfare? Or did the call come from one of the many strangers whose kindness allowed Takeru and his brother to survive after being abandoned in a condemned apartment building without food, heat or money? Or was it his mother who reached out to Mitsuko, begging this distant relative to take her son? The mother, Takeru tells us, hated the village where she grew up and vowed never to return for reasons which remain unexplained and ultimately unknown, even after we’ve read the last few paragraphs of this book, laden as they are with sadness.

When we meet him, Takeru is already living with Mitsuko in his mother’s village. He is already acquainted with Bunji, the ghost of a young boy who becomes his guardian spirit.  Bunji, who speaks in a “bizarre, high-pitched, strangled” voice (represented on the page by exclamatory italics) appears when Takeru is at his most emotionally fragile. Theirs is a one-sided interaction. Takeru never attempts to approach Bunji or engage him in conversation. He suspects but never verifies that his friend Saki, the little girl who lives next door, can also see Bunji. None of the adults around them show an awareness of the spirit’s presence.  And Bunji seems compelled to shout his instructions only to Takeru:

He knew the person whose voice it was would be there when he opened his eyes. He was always there. Bunji. His face, with its little eyes and nose, forming its usual expression—a smile? confusion?—looking down at Takeru. Or perhaps Bunji wasn’t looking at Takeru. To Takeru, those eyes seemed to look inward, inside Bunji. But how can somebody’s eyes, that only ever point outward, look within?

Bunji reassures Takeru, encouraging him to trust his new family. When Takeru hesitates to accept ice cream from a neighbor, he hears Bunji’s voice, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Let him!” But when he attempts to show off in a conversation, Bunji frantically tells him to stop talking about things he doesn’t know. Though obviously well-meaning, the ghost boy moves awkwardly and acts oddly. When Takeru recognizes Bunji in an old photograph on the family altar he asks Mitsuko about him. She doesn’t remember much, but what she does is devastating:

Mitsuko said he hadn’t been bright, hadn’t gone to school. If you’ve got nowhere to go in reality, then at least you’d want your mind to take you somewhere. But if you don’t understand what people say, if you can’t read or write, how could you imagine another world?

What occupies unoccupied space?  Mediums claim to be able to detect the presence of spirits where most of us see nothing. Lion Cross Point is narrated from the close third person, filtered through the emotional state of a hurt child—raw and without logic—and told mostly through flashbacks. Takeru’s memories are mostly about his brother, whose existence everyone else has mysteriously forgotten. The villagers who grew up with his mother aren’t shy about sharing their memories of her and some, like Mitsuko, even claim to remember Takeru as a baby—but no one speaks of the brother and we never learn the boy’s name. His absence haunts Takeru, who constantly fights back tears even as he, too, begins the process of forgetting:

The expression in Bunji’s eye was stuck fast in the surface of its lens. Clear but at the same time blurred. It was just the same as… whom? Takeru must have known from the start. But he would only realize later that every time a word for that person, or an image of them, came into his mind, he tried to get rid of it immediately, as though crumpling up a yellowing scrap of paper on which it had appeared.

Takeru slowly comes to associate his brother with Bunji, conflating the two boys in his heart and mind. Both have/had severe learning disabilities. So severe in the case of his older brother that when they lived in Tokyo everyone assumed Takeru, the younger by two years, was the elder. Their mother failed to provide the basic necessities for her children, let alone get her one son the additional care he needed, forcing Takeru into the role of his brother’s caretaker, a role he doesn’t have the maturity or emotional resources to fill. Both mother and brother haunt Takeru, but it is his separation from his brother more than their mother’s final abandonment, which is the source of the ten-year-old’s trauma.

Masatsugu Ono is a prolific Japanese writer and professor of French literature who, in 2015, won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s premiere literary award. He is also a translator of contemporary French authors like Marie NDiaye and the Martinique writer, poet, critic and philosopher Edouard Glissant into Japanese. Lion Cross Point is his second novel to be translated into English. It is also the one which may grow his English language audience, in large part due to Angus Turvill’s graceful and nuanced translation. Indeed, Turvill has done an admirable job at what I imagine is the unenviable task of translating the prose of a fellow-translator steeped in French literature—prose which is deceptively straightforward, belying the novel’s sophisticated construction:

It wasn’t her family’s big house. It wasn’t all the land they owned. It was something much bigger than either of those, so big it didn’t even stand comparison. It must be Haruka’s mother, Takeru thought. And it must be something in the church they went to together on Sundays. If Takeru had been told to take lunch for one of his classmates he’d have refused, thinking it was stupid, that he’d look stupid. But luckily (was it really lucky?) he didn’t have the kind of mother who’d prepare lunch for his classmates and make him bring it in. In fact, he didn’t even have a mother who made lunch for her own child. Not having that kind of mother, Takeru didn’t recognize that big thing at all. He had no way of knowing. It’s reasonable to say that, isn’t it? Because to Takeru this big thing was maternal, something that was bound up with motherhood.

Masatsugu Ono is a keen stylist whose minimalist, though ever so slightly mannered, handling of language allows him to make the unbearable, tolerable. His use of a close third person narrator to tell Takeru’s story, rather than the more obvious choice of the first person, child narrator, is inspired. It allows him to present the world through Takeru’s eyes, and then interpret the same events from an adult perspective. His transitions between the past and present show a cinematic approach to plot development. It’s easy to imagine the film adaptation of Lion Cross Point (think The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete or the more recent The Florida Project), and yet the actual writing is full of subtle movements, signals and projections which set a pace that is entirely literary.

However, Ono’s greatest achievement is the character of Takeru himself, a ten-year-old boy who is exactly what he should be—a child. Not precocious or wise beyond his years, but one who experiences first-hand the Buddhist maxim that life is suffering. The answer to the question of how Takeru comes to live in the village without his brother is a stone Masatsugu Ono drops into the still pool of this story long before we enter it. We encounter the concentric ripples of grief and regret radiating outwards in the text from that original point of impact without understanding what caused them. And when the revelation comes, it is clear that at the heart of Lion Cross Point lies a tragedy. A tragedy made all the more heart-breaking because it is punctuated by acts of human decency performed by strangers. Those acts of kindness are what remain tangible and corporeal for readers, scattered as they are among so many intangibles in Masatsugu Ono’s storytelling.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tara Cheesman-Olmsted is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member & 2018 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Judge.  Her reviews can be found at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quarterly Conversation. Since 2009 she’s written the blog Reader At Large (formerly BookSexy Review).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 26th, 2018.