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Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2000

The mathematics of love and loss

RABBIT OF THE NETHERWORLD, by Reiko Koyanagi. Illustrated by Monica Tamano, translated by Hiroaki Sato. Red Moon Press, 1999, 62 pp., $12 (paper).

"Rabbit of the Netherworld" is a unique and often compelling memoir, a fragmentary poetic recreation of the author's wartime childhood and its many painful events. A lonely girl, traumatized by air raids, relocation to the countryside and one loss after another, searches for connection and comfort amid the ruins. She finds it mainly in spirits from the netherworld -- a parade of dead aunts and uncles, and an odd rabbit that keeps her company on moonlit nights.

The narrative charts the child's loss of innocence and follows the author, as an adult, on her journey to come to terms with her painful past. It begins in 1989, when the narrator takes a train and goes down, almost mythically "through the looking glass," back in time to the house where she grew up.

Raised in poverty by a single father whose love of math is more easily expressed than his love of his daughter, during the air raids she suffers another kind of pain -- rejection, hurt and anger at her father's calculated approach to life through equations that don't factor in the vicissitudes of the heart. When mother leaves them for her lover, she asks, "Father, wasn't there a mathematical expression that would keep Mother's heart moored to yours?"

There isn't, so she conjures an invisible friend, a rabbit who eventually spins his own fable-like tale with humor and a plain-spoken dignity. She cuts him out of a tablecloth. He tells her not to go out during the air raids, ostensibly saving her life.

By the book's end, he says: "It was long ago, there was a war. This town also had an air raid and was surrounded by fires. I tell you, it was terrible. Burning a small rural town like this, well, I bet the other side had an awful lot of excess bombs."

Malnourished and severely ill with tuberculosis, the girl asks her father, who had been commissioned by the Ministry of the Navy in 1944 to make calculations, "Father, your notebook doesn't have any diagram that proves that rabbit, does it? Your formulas can't express any dimension that Rabbit and I can get in. No matter how loud we scream, you can't hear the language of the country of Rabbit and me."

This language is of childhood, of fear. The figure of the rabbit is sure to invite associations with the White Rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland," who was always running late. He usually represents time, that eternal force beyond our control that hangs overhead, absent yet present, like death. Yet, Koyanagi's rabbit is a kind of messenger from the netherworld: a symbol of death. It is interesting to note that in Native American medicine, the rabbit represents fear. The rabbit figure is always running from his hunters, in essence calling them to him by attracting their attention through motion.

Ironically, it is mathematics, the "useless talent" that hurts the daughter, that transports the father away from his everyday difficulties. "When I'm in math," he says, "I can forget that I must keep you alive."

They travel to her father's hometown in the countryside, to the clan in the Valley of Winds, to which he never intended to return. Attempting to steer clear of the air raids and the hideous "frying pan" bombing tactics, her father carries her to the safety of the storehouse, but it has two holes -- one is an entrance to the netherworld down which the girl threatens to slip.

The author imagines the girl's death. In her rendering, the father goes to pay respects to an electronic calculator's last moments instead of being at his daughter's bedside.

In the feverish realm of near-death, the girl speaks to apparitions of her relatives, half-human, half-smoke figures pulling her toward death. With Japan's defeat around the corner and the "fragrance of death" pervading the air, she has befriended the rabbit of death, making peace with the "enemy." By book's end, the rabbit has ascended to the heavens, honored in an imaginary festival.

The various segments, which have titles such as Bread, The Air Raid, I, Constellation Cowherd, The Coffin on the Moonlit Night, August 15, 1945, Father's Resume and Emptiness, comprise verbal scenes from a childhood that resemble family photos spread out on a coffee table. The language is marked by stop-gap shifts in time.

Alternating between adult and child's points of view, the meandering narrative is a mixture of prose-poetry and ephemeral ruminations, a collage of hurt and loneliness marked by a desire to connect with others, and finally, an evocation of the power of imagination to help reconcile with the past.

The young girl survives, having suffered the physical loss of her mother, the loss of her home, and the deaths of various relatives. Yet the author claims her mother "was utter nonsense to her," and that she couldn't hate her because "hatred has the power to bring people together." But the emotional subtext and her anger at her father for failing to write of his daughter -- even though did his best to keep her alive her during the war -- undercut this denial.

In the end, the daughter's search for a numeral "that doesn't exist anywhere in the world" comes down to the search for love. It's not a quantifiable entity. It can't even be explained.

First published as "Yomi no Usagi" by Kashinsha in 1989, this work received the Poet's Club Prize the following year. The author, who runs a Tokyo art gallery, has a highly sensitive eye -- creating a vivid depiction of a "shipwrecked two-story house" in disarray, a child's secret garden, grass-leaf soup, white bombs that fall "even into the ocean" and an uncle that looks like a "skinny European dog."

The atmospheric drawings by Monica Tamano lend a childlike air, and Hiroaki Sato's translation is seamless.

Despite its sobering subject matter, "Rabbit of the Netherworld" is often charming, and at its best evokes the humanistic work of Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

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