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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 11, 1996|CHRIS GOODRICH

SHIPWRECKS by Akira Yoshimura, translated by Mark Ealey (Harcourt Brace: $21, 180 pp.). The isolated, medieval Japanese fishing village lives on a single hope; that the O-fune-sama will return and bring respite from years of grinding poverty. The villagers pray, they dream, they hold a special ceremony--and they make sea salt during stormy winter nights, hoping the caldron fires will lure sailing vessels onto the village reef and thus to death and destruction, the spilled cargo becoming O-fune-sama.

That is the chilling premise of Akira Yoshimura's "Shipwrecks," as slowly revealed to Isaku, the 9-year-old fisherboy at the center of the novel. One expects to find Isaku shocked at learning that he lives among killers and later that Isaku's absent father--nearly destitute (he sold himself into three years of indentured servitude)--is an inadvertent victim of O-fune-sama, but that's not the case, for Yoshimura isn't interested in pat moralizing. Or is he? The villagers are thrilled to see a second ship founder on the reef, but it brings not rice and tea and wine but smallpox; fishers of men, the villagers have been gaffed on their own hooks.

"Shipwrecks," as a story, holds few surprises, but its evocation of ancient Japanese fishing culture--catching the wily saury fish by hand in the wet season, octopus with spears in the fall--is extraordinary in detail and verisimilitude. This 1982 work is the first of Yoshimura's 20 novels to be published in English, and it's a haunting read.

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