The Man Who Turned Into a Buoy

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Award-winning young Japanese writer Masatsugu Ono, whose work has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, joins us in the Bookshop on Friday 13 June, in conversation with Tash Aw. Here's an extract from a story of his that recently appeared in Monkey Business International, translated by Michael Emmerich.

I’ve been told my grandfather was a buoy—or rather, that he became a buoy.

One of those things that bob lightly about on the ocean. Those signposts on the vast and evershifting sea, markers that trace—across an expanse of water that otherwise, with minor variations, looks the same the world over—invisible, imaginary lines (if you see two buoys, you can picture a line connecting them) that help you gauge the distance separating one point from another, whose very presence signals that human hands have been there, affording the illusion that, although we may not be able to inhabit the sea as we do the land, even so we are its masters. That’s the kind of buoy my grandfather became. I heard the story from my grandmother.

We’ve always lived here, on this small inlet. Looking out our window you can see the bay, a bit of ocean bordered by a ring of hills as squat and sorry-looking as a sick cat, so twisty and curvy they could almost be some species of slime mold. For generations, the members of my family have lived out their lives on this spot, on this tiny little inlet stuck to the small, cloudy green bay. It’s quite a narrow patch of land, sandwiched between the meandering shoreline and the hills, and all day long the scent of the tide and, mixed in there somewhere, the stench of rotten fish hang in the air. There’s hardly any land suitable for farming, and the soil in the few likely spots is so poor nothing but sweet potatoes will grow, and even then you can’t expect a good harvest. As a result, the people who live on the inlet have no option but to work either on the ocean or in the hills. And no one gets rich doing jobs they can’t choose not to do. Still, it’s not as if people are living in the most dire poverty, struggling to get by from one day to the next. We can’t afford luxuries, but when you’re focused on living your life, luxuries aren’t really necessary. And I suppose the fact that everyone is equally poor keeps us from being jealous or envious of our neighbors. We may not be completely satisfied with our lives, but neither are we dissatisfied. We do okay. Which explains, perhaps, why you never see anyone leaving the inlet. Never. That’s not an exaggeration. We are born here, we work here, and we die here, as if we’re attracted to this place (or bound to it) by some marvelous magnetic force. My grandfather, too, was like that.

When I say he became a buoy, you may think this is just another way of saying he worked out on the ocean—that he was a fisherman. This would be an entirely reasonable supposition; in fact for a long time I myself thought this was the case. I was wrong. Hehza woodcutcha thatsut at manuz, my grandmother said. It seems he didn’t go near the ocean much, perhaps because his father had died at sea during a storm, or because a friend of his had been swept away by a great wave right before his eyes, or because he himself had nearly drowned once. Presumably he went to work in the hills as a way of avoiding the ocean, of distancing himself from it, of fleeing it. My grandmother says she got that sense. All of us who live here on the inlet have experienced some sort of trouble, more or less serious, involving the ocean (its random violence made all the more terrifying because we have done nothing to deserve its anger). I suspect that those who come to terms with their memories of that terror become fishermen, while those who nurse their spiritual wounds for the rest of their lives become woodcutters as a way of averting their eyes from the sea. Just as my grandfather did.

The truth is, I don’t know why my grandfather became a buoy. One day he was on the veranda fixing the basket he carried on his back when he went up into the hills, when the headman came and told him, out of the blue, that it had been decided he would be the next buoy. “I see,” my grandfather murmured, without so much as a flicker of surprise or anger or grief in his eyes, and then he just went on working as he always did, without saying another word. So I’m told. Evidently my grandmother’s reaction was the same: “Ah well, seems it’s Dad’s turn,” she thought, and that was it; no special emotion surged in her breast.

Read on for the full story...

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