Ben Ohara, narrator of David Mura’s debut novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire (Coffeehouse Books, 469 pages, $12.95), grows up as a boy who, hearth and heart, is stuck halfway between his hard-knocks home neighborhood in Chicago and an Imperial Japan buried two generations back. This of course mirrors many millions of lives and stories in what is, after all—still only about 200 years since its official inception—a country of immigrants. The character’s name is a sly nod to this; but for a spare apostrophe, the name could have been not Japanese but second-generation Irish, another nationality that had a rough go at being accepted in the New World.
Ohara, as an adult, has become an “itinerant” (i.e., untenured) historian, would-be author of a perpetually unfinished tome that bears the title of the novel. The story of Ohara’s childhood takes the form of a remembrance, his effort to redeem his father’s own suicide and brother’s willful disappearance by means of revisiting and re-enacting his and their lives.
If this framing is at first a little awkward, the story of Ben’s ill-at-ease juvie years too familiar, it is perhaps because Mura, an accomplished poet and memoirist, is at first holding his gifts too much in check. It is as if he is worried about being understood. Accordingly, his book contains a few too many nods to the readers, a few too many self-consciously helpful sidebars about our country’s shameful treatment of Japanese immigrants in the past century. Nonetheless, it is the least easily assimilated part of the novel—the near-metaphysical, scattershot anger of Ben’s overbright, once virtuous and fearful brother Tommy—that takes on most compellingly the aspect of real, large-as-life-could-be humanity, in all its ecstasy and terribly vital disappointment. That is to say, Mura seems to find his true home in the things that cannot be known or had.
So while Ben may or may not find his redemption, the novel itself eventually does find a powerful adult voice that turns the narrator’s occasional scholarly excerpts on ancient suicides into a form of the obsessive letter-writing of Saul Bellow’s Herzog: a call out into the void. Although, in this case it is not a cry of impotent anger against indignity but rather an elegiac meditation on absence.
Mura’s book takes as its epigraph Walter Benjamin’s oft-repeated statement that history is a tale told by the victors, but the novel shows up this line as a lie. History belongs not to the winners but to the writers and the survivors, who never really win. All they can ever do is attempt to recover what’s been lost.
READ: David Mura reads from Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire at Powell’s on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Oct. 16. Free.