Ema are decorated votive wooden plaques left hanging up in Japanese shrines. At a distance, they all look the same. But if one is able to read what is written on them, one can take a glimpse of a fascinating number of stories, destinies, wishes, and hopes which emerge from an ostensible uniformity. Laura Imai Messina, in The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, translated from the Italian by Lucy Rand (original title: Quel che affidiamo al vento), does not shy away from giving the sense of a crowded Japan, of stations overflowing with people, and recorded voices announcing train stops. And yet, the voices that give life to her novel are of an utterly different fabric, diverse and intimate as the inscriptions on votive plaques. They are singular, individual human voices, suffering most of the times, but never hopeless; most of the times following undetectable trajectories, but never speaking in vain.
They are the voices of the people visiting Bell Gardia, in the north-east of Japan, where a telephone box in the garden of a house at the foot of Kujira-yama, the Mountain of the Whale, has with time become a place of true spiritual and psychological therapy. Everyone who is even a little aware of the dynamics at the root of modern psychoanalysis, or Socratic dialogue, would not be surprised to read about the healing power of spoken words. But such power is particularly fascinating when prompted, rather than by human beings, by a place – and all but a common place. Indeed, in what is one of the areas worst hit by the tsunami of 11th March 2011, people can find, as one can read in the very beginning of the book, an old black telephone, disconnected, that carries voices into the wind. What is more, people can find other people, stories can encounter other stories, intersect them, mingle with them.
This is what happens to Yui and Takeshi. Yui, a young radio presenter who has lost in the tsunami both her daughter and mother, thus navigating life as a sort of log deprived of roots and branches. Takeshi, a doctor whose wife has succumbed to cancer, leaving him with a small daughter and an old mother. Two complementary destinies, perhaps doomed to match, but only provided that they first reconcile each with their own story. And a reconciliation is indeed what the phone in Bell Gardia provides. It is only by entrusting their voices to the old phone, in an attempt to communicate with their missing loved ones, that they can truly communicate with themselves and with the lives that they try to hold together.
The border that their voices cross is thus the one which separates life and death, in an atmosphere of discreet magic realism that resonates with the best Japanese narrative of this time. “Death, in this place, felt like a beautiful thing. […] A world was emerging where it wasn’t just the survivors who took care of each other, but where the dead also loved one another and carried on, getting older and eventually dying” (65). Different feelings encroach upon one another, too, with the characters gradually learning how to negotiate the threshold between joy and unhappiness, mutual support and distance, personal and plural love, all stirred up in an ever-changing equilibrium, ready to readjust even after the most extreme emotional or factual typhoon.
As the author states in the acknowledgments, it is her hope “that Bell Gardia will be imprinted on our collective memory as one of the world’s strongest sites of resilience” (384). While “resilience”, according to the OED, is “the power of resuming an original shape or position after compression, bending, etc.,” the power of the phone box, and of the book recounting it, might even represent something more, as nobody really goes back to what s/he used to be after speaking to the wind of Kujira-yama. Every character visiting the garden, alongside Yui and Takeshi, is there trying to pin down some meaning in their past and present events. They react to their own grief, turning their emotive burden into a means to know better themselves and their beloved, both the missing and the living ones. So does Shio, talking to his father through the phone box while confronting his own ambitions to become a doctor, aided in this personal quest by his encounter with Takeshi. So does the young Keita, in virtual dialogue with his mother and with her model, following which he manages to pass the selective entrance exams for Tōdai, University of Tōkyō.
What these destinies have in common, apart from their affection for Bell Gardia, is their being connected to the power of the voice. Which is, after all, the common trait joining Laura Imai Messina, author, and Lucy Rand, translator of the book. “Make a story out of it” (193), Yui suggests to Takeshi when he is planning to invite his little daughter to visit the phone box, hoping to encourage her to speak again, as she has not been doing after her mum’s death. Indeed, even the little Hana, intrigued by the story of the enchanted place and accompanied by his dad and Yui, will embark on the challenging and rewarding trip to “give back the gift of words” (223).
This process of crafting stories and returning words seems to symbolise perfectly the work of Imai Messina. An Italian who has been living in Japan for the last 15 years, she has been able to lend her ear to the most indefinite beauty of her adoptive country, at the same time representing it in its everyday reality, beyond any stereotype. A mix that is fostered by the very structure chosen for the novel, which alternates chapters of actual plot with shorter chapters of disparate material, from extracts of radio programmes to contents of lunch-boxes, from details of particular scenes to lists of characters’ phrases, thoughts, favourite songs or candies.
If English readers can now enjoy such an inspired encounter of sensibilities and cultures, it is thanks to Lucy Rand’s translation. Among the borders that narrative crosses, her translation beautifully dissolve the linguistic one, letting the story enter the flow of universal accounts of grief and love, life and death. As though embodying the voices that she translates, Rand’s rests “on things, on normal words, and ma[k]e them vibrate with an exceptional timbre” (212): she is “able to produce such a crystalline voice” (316) that it will always be there, “in the garden of Bell Gardia, tied to the voices of so many others” (72-3).
As the epigraph by Mariangela Gualtieri goes, The Phone Box at the End of the World “is a passing of forms from one life | to another”. A passing of forms. A synesthetic concert where voices become ingredients to season one’s breakfast (222), words take shape to be framed by different points of view, destinies tangle in an entrelacement where what is important is “to tell stories, to talk to people, to talk about people. To listen to people talking about other people. Even to speak with the dead, if it help[s]” (57).
Imai Messina, Laura. The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. Translated by Lucy Rand. Manilla Press, 2020.
Claudia Dellacasa is a PhD student at Durham University (UK), working on the intersection between Japanese culture and Italian literature in the second half of the Twentieth century. She is interested in ecology and trans-cultural dialogue, as well as in post-capitalist and feminist theory.
Thank you so much for bringing this book to my attention. I first heard about the Japanese “grief telephone” located in Otsuchi in a BBC News video feature from last year, and it was one of the most moving things I had heard about in a long time. It is such a poignant way of connecting with those lost in the tsunami, and it speaks so much to the universal experience of love and loss all the world over. I look forward to reading Laura Imai Messina’s book.
And for anyone interested in seeing the BBC video about the grief phone, the direct link is here: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-48559139/a-telephone-for-grief-after-the-japanese-tsunami