I picked up a lovely hardback edition of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine in a charming little secondhand bookshop at the National Trust’s Cliveden Estate in Buckinghamshire. After reading Otsuka’s most recent novel, The Swimmers, I was keen to read the rest of her small oeuvre. I picked up this, her debut, with delight, and began it just days later.
First published in 2002, When the Emperor Was Divine begins in 1942 in Berkeley, California. At the outset of this slim novel, a Japanese-American woman learns from posters plastered all over the city that she and her family have been ‘reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens’, and face expulsion to the Utah desert. The novel opens: ‘The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue.’
Otsuka uses five different perspectives to tell her story, and has based the happenings on real events. All of these narrative voices are part of the same family, and include the daughter’s experience of the long train ride to the camp, to the family’s return to their Californian home. The first chapter follows the unnamed mother, as she spends all of her time packing up their lives: ‘Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.’ At this point in time, Otsuka notes: ‘It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the women, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules.’
Her husband has already been taken away, arrested some months previously, and taken to Texas: ‘Every few days he was allowed to write her a letter. Usually he told her about the weather.’ We learn a great deal about the father before he takes centre stage in the narrative: ‘He was extremely polite. Whenever he walked into a room he closed the door behind him softly. He was always on time. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. He loved pistachio nuts. He believed that fruit juice was the ideal drink. He liked to doodle. He was especially fond of drawing a box and then making it into three dimensions.’ His presence loops in and out of the narrative, and is often the central thought of his son, particularly.
I have studied the Second World War extensively over the years, but my knowledge about the expulsion of Japanese-American citizens living in the USA is relatively poor. I went into When the Emperor Was Divine in the hope that it would both educate me, and immerse me within a compelling story. I can confirm that it absolutely did both of these things.
Otsuka’s writing is incredibly precise, and she captures so much in just one or two sentences. I really appreciated the amount of detail included, and the sharply observed scenes. Otsuka is highly skilled with regard to managing the time period, and assessing its impact on the central family: ‘Far away, on the other side of the ocean, there was fighting, and at night the boy lay awake on his straw mattress and listened to the bulletins on the radio. Sometimes, in the darkness, he heard noises drifting from other rooms. The heavy thud of footsteps. The shuffling of cards.’ Later, she writes: ‘Mostly, though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.’
As displayed above, there is an incredible poignancy here. Another example is taken from the third chapter, which begins: ‘In the beginning the boy thought he saw his father everywhere. Underneath the showers. Leaning against barrack doorways. Playing go with the other men in their floppy straw hats on the narrow wooden benches after lunch. Above them blue skies. The hot midday sun. No trees. No shade. Birds.’
What made When the Emperor Was Divine even more compelling to me was a simple narrative device; all of the central characters remain unnamed throughout. As well as the story of just a few individuals, Otsuka encapsulates an experience which affected an entire community of people. There are moments of profound sadness scattered throughout this slim novel, and there is also exquisite beauty. When the Emperor Was Divine is an evocative blend of fiction and reality, well executed and skilfully written.