In Yūka Ishii’s slender debut novel, The Mud of a Century, a girl sweeps resentment off a pillow where it had come to rest. Wealthy Indians fly above Chennai’s gnarled traffic on mechanical wings, staring at their phones. People sink into blanketing mud or riotous flowerbeds to hide or sleep until someone scoldingly retrieves them. Lost objects resurface like memories in impossible places. Mermaids might be real and perhaps the mother of Nogawa, the novel’s narrator, was one.
A once-in-a-century flood has swept through Chennai, leaving the city coated in a thick mud that is now rushing down the normally torpid Adyar River. Nogawa is just months into a job teaching English to employees of a tech company in Chennai that will last for who knows – four years, seven? It will end when she has paid off her debts to her irate ex-husband, debts incurred on behalf of feckless other lovers. As a “half-hearted teacher”, taking the job is a deal tantamount to “karmic perdition”. Her best student, Devaraj, is also her most vexing one: “I had developed a bald spot around the size of a ten-yen coin in the top of my head, at least eight yen of which was due to this young man.”
To reveal more about the narrative and characters of this wryly humorous and enchanting novel might give the misleading impression that it has a plot in the usual sense of the word. The Mud of a Century is rather a trickster of a tale, a metaphorical mudflow from which the narrator extracts stories in the same way that the people around her pull sons and friends from the sludge.
Magical realism and the traditional multi-threaded style of storytelling called rakugo inform The Mud of a Century, which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Its themes of loneliness and the difficulties of human connection contain echoes of Haruki Murakami, though Ishii’s is a distinctly female sensibility. She keeps returning to stories of silent women in a world ruled by men, women who can only marvel at their ability to leave footprints in soil and sand. A life, her narrator tells us, can be understood as the place where a single “stone thrown among the infinite possibilities of the universe had simply happened to make contact” and caused a “nosebleed”. Yet, she seems to be telling us, we are all stuck in the same mire, providing the chance to react with grace, gratitude and wonder.
Gazebo Books, 120pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "The Mud of a Century".
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