Book review by James Cartwright
Finding Monju by Earle Ernst, Key West, Florida: Street Press, Inc., 2000.
If you are attracted to Japanese culture and people, I highly recommend this novel. A little background first before the review of the novel itself. Dr. Earle Ernst was professor of Drama and Theatre at the University of Hawaii at Manoa beginning near the end of World War II. After the surrender of Japan, Dr. Ernst worked a year in Japan, in charge of censorship of dramatic works before they could be presented in Japanese theaters. He returned to the University of Hawaii after his tour of duty and reinstated Japanese theatre at the University where both Chinese and Japanese drama had been presented regularly from the early 1920s along with drama from the Western tradition. In 1997, his survivor donated his papers to the University Archives.
Finding Monju is in two parts both narrated. According to the “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of each part, the narrator and the listener are the same. A subtle difference exists, however. The narrator of the second part is actively the American military person as listed; the narrator of the first part is omniscient and not one of the characters in the events taking place.
What a narrator! Ernst, an American man, has captured so carefully, so sensitively, the emotions and thinking of a middle aged Japanese woman, Yamagiwa-san, recently widowed in the massive air raids on Tokyo. Then the subject shifts to the American military family living in the house in which Yamagiwa-san works as cook and lives with her son, a university student, Hiroshi. When focusing upon the Americans, the narrator equally intuits them, especially Althea and Bud Spencer, the latter a colonel in charge of the motor pool. The first part of the novel is alone a triumph because of this narrator.
Monju is the Japanese God for men who love men. The two characters for Monju, as with all Kanji characters, were derived from the Chinese. The novel, though in two parts, is searching for and finding Monju. One passage describes the narrator’s first night with Kawakami Jun. After comparing their coiling around each other as “a seething nest of serpents” and their following quietude, we read,
“Jun laughed and ran his forefinger down my nose, across my lips. I waited. I waited for the feelings I’d always had at that point. Wanting to pull away, get out of the embrace, move to my side of the bed or go home.
“But my body, enmeshed with Jun’s, had no intention of moving from those accommodating planes of flesh. It wanted to be with Jun all night. It had found a place long looked for in its pursuit of happiness. It would not be argued out of it.
“There was no argument. I wondered why. Jun fell asleep. I lay awake.
“Then, a slight flicker, a flash, a blazing recognition. In this house, during these six hours, for the first time since I began speaking Japanese, I had not, even for a moment, thought in English. My body was free from the tyranny of the language it grew up in. The hate, fear, and revulsion shaped in English couldn’t exist, for Japanese didn’t have the words. Japanese had words for a man loving a man, good words, as good as the words for a man loving a woman. The good words made sex good..
“The English words made sex disgusting. English split me down the middle. In Japanese, I was all of a piece, and all of me, holding Jun, I went to sleep.”
The novel is not in print, but used copies can be purchased via Amazon.com. Regardless of the difficulty in obtaining a copy, it is worth it.