‘The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda’ is a spiritual tale of hubris and redemption
I have to admit I was a bit leery when I picked up “The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda.” A friend of the author contacted me about the novel, written by Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo of Cape Elizabeth, who died of cancer in 2015 at age 47. A group of friends had rallied to get her book published posthumously. Moved by this labor of love and loyalty, I agreed to take a look, but cynically suspected that it was just that and that, to anyone not clouded by their grief and loss, the book would likely prove to be unexceptional at best.
I was wrong. This spellbinding novel had me on the first page. “I am a reluctant ghost,” says Tsuruda, a man of science who doesn’t believe in the afterlife he finds himself in. He is visiting his home during his first Obon, a Japanese Buddhist festival that honors the spirits of ancestors. “During the Days of the Dead, we spirits are allowed to visit our old lives. We loiter in the living world to watch our family lines dwindle from a torrent to the intermittent drip, drip, drip of water off a cedar bough,” Tsuruda explains.
Tsuruda’s experiences during his first Obon are just one facet of this enlightening spiritual tale of hubris and redemption. Regret is a heavy burden in this story that begins in the 1990s and explores the lives of Tsuruda, his wife, sister-in-law and his modern-minded daughter, whose aspirations have been hijacked. The story seamlessly goes back to the WWII years, including the bombing of Hiroshima. Each character is fallible, each has secrets.
It is Tsuruda’s task in Yamato, a limbo between life and the true rewards of the afterlife, to save his family line. For generations, the Tsurudas have been “hungry ghosts,” unable to move on. If Tsuruda fails, his wife, who is near death, and his daughter will suffer the same fate. He has until his third Obon to do it, but time as he knows it is altered in Yamato, and Tsuruda feels the pressure.
In the afterlife, Tsuruda is told, “the rules are different” than those he previously followed with his logical mind. “You must rely on that which tells you the most vital truths, but which you have ignored for fear of appearing weak or stupid. …Your greed was the greed of ignorance, your selfishness evidenced by your unwillingness to see the truth if it meant your life would be disrupted.” That selfish disregard for loved ones has plagued the Tsurudas. He comes to see, with gratitude, that “even in death one can learn.”
Lombardo lived in Japan for 10 years and her writing is rich with lovely details of Japanese culture, from the goddesses to the landscape, both of the past and the present. “That night, paper lanterns decorated every wall in our neighborhood, forming an illuminated line down the mountain to the sea. The small river beside our house reflected the light of the lanterns that bobbed along its surface. Fireflies blinked and sparked in the night air. Other lanterns seemed to float down the street, carried by unseen hands.”
Tsuruda’s turmoil comes alive even in this flowingly peaceful and gentle writing. “The memory, fresh as green cut melon…More memories come rushing back, swallows to their home, darting inside the cracks of my resolve.”
In “The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda,” Lombardo takes on the meaning of a life well lived and renders it beautifully.
“Beth wrote a novel about the delicate veil between life and death—and now she is herself, dead. Beth would see humor in that. She loved to laugh,” her husband writes in a foreword to her novel. “Beth believed in an afterlife, and through her story of a complex Japanese family—both living and dead—I can see, smell, hear, and taste exactly how that afterlife existed in her mind. Those descriptions comfort me, as well as the other people who knew her best.”
Lombardo’s friends may have set out on a labor of love, but the fruits of their labor are a gift not just to the spirit of Lombardo, but to all.
Amy Canfield is a bibliophile who lives in South Portland.