Well, I started the year with a number of tentative reading plans, which I thought were reasonably modest, but needless to say several have fallen by the wayside… Real Life has made complex reading plans impossible – even coping with one page of Finnegans Wake a day plus Durrell to a schedule wasn’t going to work alongside other reading I wanted to do and hellish times at work (my job is in a school…) So I abandoned those two, but have stuck with the Japanese Literature Challenge, and the first book I’ve read is the subject of today’s post!

I have, in fact, been wracking my brains to work out where I heard about this author; I know the book came to me in November 2020 or thereabouts, but I must have read about her somewhere. No doubt all will become clear at some point… Anyway, the book is The Sound of the Wind and the author is Uno Chiyo (to give her name in the correct way of her country, surname first). Uno was born in 1897 and died at the great age of 98, having lived through most of the 20th century, and during that time she was something of a pioneer. An author, a fashion designer, editor of a magazine and a real trendsetter, she had a considerable impact on the culture of her time and also the women of her time. “The Sound of the Wind”, first published in 1992 (by Peter Owen in this country), brings together an account of her life by Rebecca L. Copeland, together with translations of three of her works (presumably rendered into English by Copeland, although that isn’t made clear). As the book has notes, a bibliography and a section of images of Uno over the years, it therefore should be the perfect introduction to Uno’s life and work.

And in some respects it is… Uno’s life was certainly full of drama; married multiple times, often to younger men; bobbing her hair in a Western style and adopting Western fashions; having lovers, being betrayed and negotiating all manner of business ups and downs; certainly, Uno lived a memorable life! The biographical section of the book covers this in detail, exploring Uno’s early years, her marriages and the traumas they brought, how her life experiences informed her work, and how she negotiated all the changes which took place in the Japan of the 20th century, ending up being recognised by the Emperor which gave her formal status as a writer. Some of the things she had to deal with would have floored the strongest of women, so her story is inspiring.

However, I must admit to struggling a little with the narrative of Uno’s life and if I’m honest I didn’t find that the biography really sparked at any point. The book has an academic dryness, there’s something of a distance between subject and reader, and I did wonder if this was because much of the narrative is drawn from Uno’s own memoirs which are, as Copeland implies, quite selective. I ended up feeling a bit detached from the story Copeland was trying to tell and never really felt as if I got close to the personality of Uno. Of course, when the book was published the author was still alive, and I don’t know whether this impacted at all on how Copeland wrote about her subject – but I would have liked a little more warmth in the story, somehow. However, despite the dryness of the tone, Uno’s story is a compelling one and where the narrative excels is by providing a marvellous overview of the context in which she was writing. That background is particularly useful when considering a woman author during the period, particularly in a country subject to such cultural shifts.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As for the actual works, these are “The Puppet-Maker“, “The Sound of the Wind” and “This Powder Box“. All three are discussed in Copeland’s biography, where she gives the background from Uno’s life which informed them, and certainly it seems that the author drew very much on her own experience for her fictions, barely bothering to conceal the real sources! The first story is of a kind she turned to later in her writing career, an almost journalistic technique where she interviews someone for their life story and frames it with a narrative of her meeting them. “The Sound of the Wind” and “This Powder Box” draw on Uno’s relationships, in particular a scandalous one where she hooked up with a man who had survived a love-suicide pact (the woman survived too). “The Sound of the Wind” is rather shocking in that the narrator is a naive 16 year old who’s married off and suffers for her love, yet never seems capable of recognising the abuse she receives from her husband or how badly she’s being treated. She’s in effect blinded by her illusions of love. Uno’s stories are fascinating reading, and interestingly one of the things which seems to have made her stand out amongst Japanese women authors is her ability to convincingly write in the male voice.

So my first reading of Uno Chiyo, both her biography and her work was interesting, and I’d definitely like to read more of her writing. I’d also be keen on finding a work about her that was a little more lively and engaging; Copeland does tell the tale, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it a wee bit of a slog at times. Intriguing, though – and my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge is one which has definitely left me wanting more! 😀