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Review: The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake
Doubleday, 2016. 318 pp. $26

Before the Second World War, thirteen-year-old Aya Shimamura and her parents lived in British Columbia, and though they weren’t rich, they had each other and enough to get buy–a house, a little land to farm, a community. But when war came, the government shipped them to an internment camp in the interior, confiscated their property, and drafted Aya’s father to help build the Trans-Canada Highway:

They gave him a pick to dig out the boulders and a shovel to scrape at the earth–only the white foremen could set the dynamite–and they paid him twenty-five cents an hour because, after all, this was Canada where they did not believe in slave labor. . . . But then they deducted the amount he owed for his food and bunk in the road camp, and because he had a wife and child, they further docked his pay to help cover the cost of their internment in a ghost-town camp in the interior mountains that no one had ever heard of.

Matters only get worse. Aya’s mother dies, and in 1946, her father must choose between moving east of the Rockies or “returning” to Japan, the country Aya has never seen. Grieving and distraught, her father signs the paper acquiescing to their deportation, and so they travel to Tokyo, seat of the postwar American occupation, led by General Douglas MacArthur.

From this riveting, heart-breaking premise comes an uneven, scattered novel that nevertheless gives off sparks. You just know that Aya, a quiet, troubled child whose only defense against her father’s (or anyone’s) attacks is to shut down even further, is headed for pain and isolation. And so it happens. Her schoolmates, brutal at the best of times, turn viciously on the shy newcomer, who struggles to learn their ways and routines and to understand their rapid, idiomatic Japanese. Most important, however, as native to the victor’s country–they mistake her for American-born–she’s both the object of envy and a traitor.

A licensed brothel that the Japanese opened for U.S. servicemen, hoping to protect the rest of the female population. MacArthur later closed all licensed brothels (Courtesy Yokosuka City Council, via Wikimedia Commons)

A licensed brothel that the Japanese opened for U.S. servicemen, hoping to protect the rest of the female population. MacArthur later closed all licensed brothels (Courtesy Yokosuka City Council, via Wikimedia Commons).

Kutsukake excels at portraying these cultural divides and ambivalent feelings, which she casts from various perspectives. There’s Matt, an American soldier of Japanese descent who translates the carloads of letters addressed to MacArthur from Japanese of every walk of life, containing gifts, advice, praise, or, most usually, appeals to help trace such-and-such a person or aid in small business matters. Matt takes his job seriously, much to his colleagues’ amusement, because they all know that MacArthur is unlikely to read them and surely won’t act on them. But Matt understands their desperation, pride, and sense of shame, and he feels guilty wearing an American uniform, especially when many soldiers behave badly toward the Japanese, at worst, trading food to a starving population in return for sexual favors.

Then there’s Fumi, a classmate of Aya’s assigned to mentor her but torments her instead. Fumi herself is twisted by loss; her older sister, the only person who has ever given her tenderness or kindness, has disappeared. Fumi wants to write a letter to MacArthur, hoping to trace her sister, and she cultivates Aya to write it, because, after all, the newcomer speaks fluent English.

Where Kutsukake lets the story unfold, the narrative works. But after a while, The Translation of Love begins to feel too much like a collection of vignettes, intended to show different perspectives on cultural and social issues. Part of the problem is the sheer number of narrative voices, which include every character I’ve mentioned plus a raft of others, even–bizarrely–MacArthur’s son. I like Aya’s, Fumi’s, and Matt’s voices, and that of the girls’ schoolteacher, Kendo. But the others sometimes seem like talking heads, contrived to explain the way life was and either to put the characters in hot water or rescue them from it.

All the same, I was glad to read The Translation of Love. I didn’t know that Canada had perpetrated the same bigoted, shameful crime on its Japanese residents as the United States. Kutsukake also renders everyday Japanese society of that time in vivid ways, penetrating the complex social politics of shame, pride, and public persona. Consequently, though The Translation of Love falls short as storytelling, the subject matter compelled me to finish it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.