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Her Story : L.A. Writer Foumiko Kometani's Novella 'Passover' Created a Sensation in Japan, Winning an Unprecedented String of Literary Prizes. In This Country, It Created a Sensation of a Different Kind. 'Passover,' Critics Charged, Was a Work of Anti-Semitism.

June 12, 1988|ELLEN HOPKINS | Ellen Hopkins is a contributing editor of New York magazine

AFTER FOUMIKO Kometani's novella, "Passover," was published in Japan, it received no fewer than three important awards: two from highly regarded literary magazines, and the Akutagawa Prize, Japan's most prestigious literary award for new authors. It was the first time any writer had ever won three such laurels in Japan. Given these accolades, it isn't surprising that the book has sold 140,000 copies, and that the writer, who's lived in America for almost 30 years, has appeared on virtually every Japanese television talk show. "Passover" was one of last year's major media events in Japan.

What is surprising is all the attention that's since been lavished on the book in this country--a write-up in Newsweek, a review in World Literature Today, and a series of letters debating aspects of the novella in the New York Times--an astonishing amount of press for a book by a fledgling novelist that has yet to be translated into English.

Why all the fuss? The key lies in the book's subject matter, which has led a handful of American critics to accuse Kometani of anti-Semitism. For most of her adult life, Japanese-born Kometani was best known as the wife of Los Angeles writer Josh Greenfeld, a successful screenwriter (he was nominated for an Academy Award for "Harry and Tonto") and the author of a popular series of books about the couple's severely retarded son, Noah. In those books (which are excerpts drawn from his daily journal), Greenfeld has been searingly honest about the difficulties of living with a handicapped child, including the strain such a child inevitably places on a marriage. During a dissection of one particularly nasty quarrel, he confesses that their "marriage is over."

Actually it isn't. Far from it. But anyone reading the Noah books would consider this a minor miracle. Life with a man who seems more than willing to expose the dirty laundry in one's home can't be the easiest of fates.

Then Kometani published a book of her own. In "Passover," the narrator is a Japanese woman married to an American Jew living in Los Angeles. The couple has a brain-damaged son. So far, the outline could be drawn from any of Greenfeld's Noah books. Except that the setting of the novella is a Passover seder, held by the husband's relatives. And the driving force is the all-encompassing hatred the narrator feels for her Jewish in-laws.

The immediacy of the anger in this work, apparent even in a rough translation, is startling. So is the woman who wrote it. Kometani, an extremely small woman, somehow fills a room with her presence, which has a good deal in common with that of a four-star general. Despite her quiet dress and speech, it is Kometani who rivets the eye, rather than the chattier Greenfeld, a slight man who seems a cross between a stand-up comic and an elf.

Greenfeld barely mentions his own family in the Noah books. And his one passing reference to a seder is a loving one--though he admits that "neither Foumi nor Karl (the couple's other son, who is not handicapped) was so happy about the seder. They kept casting me dirty looks from behind their Haggadas."

Kometani's descriptions of a seder have garnered her more than dirty looks. First there was the letter in the New York Times from David Goodman, an associate professor of Japanese and comparative literature at the University of Illinois. He referred to "Passover" as an anti-Semitic work. This sparked a series of letters debating his charges. An article in Newsweek continued the furor. Today, Goodman says of "Passover": "It's an extraordinarily bad book. She's merciless in her denigration of Passover and its meaning. She goes on from there to attack the Jews and Judaism and finally all of Western civilization, saying the West is corrupt, benighted and ugly. The popularity of this book is indicative of the willingness of the Japanese to give credence to the worst stereotypes of the Jews. It's indicative of how seriously we've deluded ourselves about how much the Japanese have accepted a pluralistic view of the world."

Kometani's response? "First," she says, "no one understand me in English; now people misunderstand me in Japanese."

WHEN FOUMIKO Kometani came to the United States in 1960 at the age of 29, she was seeking the sort of personal freedom that was then unobtainable for women in Japan. Kometani was a talented painter--she had a fellowship from the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire--but her Japanese art teachers were continually after her to stop throwing paint around the canvas.

"They kept saying, 'Not that way, no one uses paint that way. Use the orthodox technique.' I wish I knew then about Jackson Pollock," she says.

The artistic constraints weren't Kometani's only reason for leaving Japan: She was also determined not to have an arranged marriage, an all-but-assured event if she stayed at home. In fact, she had no desire to marry at all.

"I wanted to escape the in-law problem," she explains with quiet irony after glancing at her husband.

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