What if they really are out to get you? In novelist Saiichi Maruya’s Grass for My Pillow, seemingly ordinary salaryman Shokichi Hamada’s worst fears are confirmed. Maruya, now 76, won the 1972 Tanizaki Prize for Singular Rebellion, a novel spoofing the absurdities of life in a fast-modernizing Japan; his four other books include A Mature Woman (1993), widely praised by Kenzaburo Oe, who places Maruya alongside Haruki Murakami as one of Japan’s finest social novelists.
First published in 1966, Grass for My Pillow (cited by Murakami as one of his favorite books) exposes the lingering effects of World War II, 20 years after surrender. The title refers to a bamboo pillow that symbolizes Hamada’s plight: “Almost unbearable, with no place to rest your head.” As a conscientious objector, a crime punishable by death, he roamed the country posing as a street artist. Since then he has lived in denial, not even discussing his experiences with his wife, who is more concerned with their failure to have children. His wartime mistress (with whom he later reunites) shows “a real talent for behaving as if the past no longer existed.” It’s one that Hamada, try as he might, does not have.
Dreamlike flashbacks meld his present in ’60s Tokyo (“an alien landscape of ranged high-rise buildings and the meanders of the elevated expressway”) with a vanished Japan. He obsesses over whether his colleagues know about his secret, and always weighs “the surface meaning and hidden implications of . . . words, turning them over and over in his head.” Maruya treats the office politics with characteristic wryness; it becomes clear that Hamada’s colleagues not only know, but also use their understanding to hinder his career.
Fitting into a recovering society ultimately proves more difficult than draft evasion. Many artists have either idealized pre-surrender Japan as a golden age untainted by Westernization (notably Yukio Mishima) or criticized the blind acceptance of military objectives (as in Nagisa Oshima’s film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), but Maruya refuses to gloss over the former or treat the latter as more enlightened. Grass for My Pillow speaks to any country that would selectively remember its own narrative, and reveals the danger of suppressing the past, which can resurface “like a bomb dropped during an air raid being found now, unexploded.”