Kaiko Takeshi (開高 健), also known as Kaiko Ken, writes particular stories, propelled by self-loathing, nameless narrators whose intense gazing into their navels results in seeing much of themselves in the mass stored in their lower intestines. They are repulsive individuals, at times, but Kaiko writes them earnestly and honestly. That sincerity keeps the reader from tossing the book in disgust, keeps the reader engaged long enough to appreciate the haunted narrators. In the 1972 novel Darkness in Summer (夏の闇), Kaiko returns to a narrator familiar to the readers of his 1968 masterpiece Into a Black Sun (輝ける闇), both available in very readable translation by Dr. Cecilia Segawa Seigle.
Darkness in Summer has been viewed sometimes as a kind of unofficial sequel to Into a Black Sun. However no explicit connection is made in the text. That said, both novels feature the character depicted above in broad strokes. A man who not so much lives life as tumbles absently through it. Into a Black Sun focused on a search for meaning and redemption, Darkness in Summer on rejuvenation and rebirth. The prevalence of the prefix is significant—here is a man not at peace with his past, but also with very little impetus to sort it out.
Kaiko writes about war, specifically the war in Vietnam, which he experienced first-hand as a correspondent for Asahi. To say that he was strongly affected by this experience would be to indulge in understatement. To be sure, the narrator of Darkness in Summer exhibits what can readily be recognized as symptoms of survivor’s guilt. To quote from Mental Health Matters:
Unresolved guilt, whether for actual or perceived offenses, can result in a multitude of problems including mental health difficulties, negative responses from others, and disrupted relationships. Guilt can immobilize. It can hinder or prevent well-being, trauma recovery, a normal progression through life, productive action and positive relationships. (italics mine)
After traumatic events, guilt may be a part of an ongoing sense of helplessness and/or ineffectualness.
At first glance Darkness in Summer is a romance, a relationship between a Japanese reporter and a Japanese PhD candidate somewhere in France and Berlin, though the names of the characters or even the cities are left unwritten. However to consider this work a love story would be a mistake, that is if one understands love stories to be primarily about love. Kaiko did not write about love here, he wrote about death, and a sense of self-desolation. He wrote about war. Vietnam is a crucial fixture of the novel even when it is not addressed explicitly. But Vietnam is not the only battlefield of Kaiko’s literary production. The ravaged landscape of post-war Japan occupies just as important a distinction as Vietnam. 1960s Vietnam and 1940s Japan are the two mature elephants in the room, and they force out any other preoccupations, such as love. Darkness in Summer is no romance.
Relationships work on the premise of mutual give and take. Such a dynamic proves impossible for Kaiko’s nameless narrator. Everyone bears some cross in this novel, and if one had to pin down the origin of the wounds that afflict the characters, the search would lead to war-torn Japan. At any rate, the narrator cannot heal his own wounds much less anybody else’s. Nor does he try. He rather pokes at them with a dirty finger like Dostoyevsky’s narrator in Notes from Underground tongues an aching tooth. Only in the Russian’s case the motivation lies in self-assertion, he does it to prove he can. Kaiko’s narrator probes his wounds because he cannot help but do so—the wounds are all he has.
Not quite as enjoyable or moving as Into a Black Sun, but worth a read (provided Into a Black Sun is read first). The language is beautiful in parts, in many parts, even in translation. Kaiko has an undeniable gift for description that engages the senses, all of them. He is particularly keen on smell, an often-neglected one. All that said, go and read Into a Black Sun first. Time is short. It has everything good I’ve described above and more—a better story. Word of warning though. If you are sensitive to graphic sexual description you might want to be careful. He wields a very descriptive pen and appeals to many senses, as noted. There, you’ve been warned.