Friday, December 3, 2021

How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino, translated from the Japanese by Bruno Navasky

How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino,
translated by Bruno Navasky
Algonquin Young Readers, 1937, 2021, 288 pages

How Do You Live? may be the most unusual coming-of-age story I've ever read. It was originally written in Japan in 1937, which, you may remember, was the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. This war is never mentioned, and yet, the book very philosophically explores the question: how do you live your life in order to make it your best life?

Readers are introduced to 15-year-old Honda Jun'ichi, nicknamed Copper. His father has passed away and he lives with his mother in Tokyo, not far from an uncle who has taken Copper under his wing. Copper often visits his uncle in the evenings to play chess and indulge in some very philosophical discussions, which are then followed up with some thoughts written by his uncle about what they had talked about on a particular evening. The story, then, unfolds in alternating voices - on the one hand, the events and experiences in Copper's home and school life are told in the third person, on the other, there are the thoughts his uncles writes down for Copper on the first person.

Copper got his nickname after a long discussion with his uncle about Copernicus and this theory that the earth revolves around the sun which is at the center of the universe rather than the previously long help belief that the sun moves around the earth and that earth was the center of the universe. It doesn't take a philosophy degree to see that Uncle is telling Copper that he is one human among many. 

At school, Copper has two friends in his class, Mizutani, whom he has known since elementary school, and Kitami whom he has met in junior high school. There is also another boy in their class, Uragawa, a poorer student who, because his grades are low and he always smells like the fried tofu his parents sell, is nicknamed Fried Tofu and subject to many cruel pranks. 

When Uragawa is absent from school for a number of days, Copper takes it upon himself to visit him and see what's wrong and when he will return to school. Seeing what his family life is like, and Uragawa cleverness at making the fried tofu causes Copper to see him in a different light. He begins to help him with his homework and Uragawa's grades really improve. Pretty soon, Mizutani and Kitami come around and begin to include Uragawa in their group.

When some seniors at school set their sights on Katami, Copper, Mizutani, and Uragawa promise to stand with him if they threaten to beat him up. But when the time comes for this courageous act to happen, Copper finds that he can't move and join his friends in defending Katami. Crestfallen by his lack of action and loyalty, Copper becomes ill. Can he ever face his friends again? Or will he be shunned by them for his cowardice? 

In the end of Copper's ordeal, he has learned much about himself and about human nature, including how he wishes to live his life, while at the same time, realizing there is still much more to learn.

How Do You Live? in a very interesting school story and I would love to know what motivated the author to write it. I have to admit that, even though I was a philosophy major, I found myself more interested in Copper's story than in his uncle's treatises on life. And yet, the two parts make a very complex whole, supporting each other to make it all understandable for their teenage audience. Copper's story, written in 1937, is still relevant in 2021 because he goes through the same growing pains most younger teenagers experience. 

I believe the translation is faithful to the original Japanese and I felt author and translator had captured the themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and shame in such a way that readers will ask themselves the same questions the Copper was forced to ask himself. There is a forward by Neil Gaiman, who was interested in it because he knew it was a favorite book of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and whose next film will be based on this book. 

How Do You Live? may not be a book for everyone, but for those who do read it, it is a very satisfying coming-of-age story from another era. 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was gratefully received from Amanda Dissinger at Algonquin Books

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