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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Grass for My Pillow

Maruya Saiichi

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To purchase Grass for My Pillow

Title: Grass for My Pillow
Author: Maruya Saiichi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 338 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Grass for My Pillow - US
Grass for My Pillow - UK
Grass for My Pillow - Canada
Grass for My Pillow - India
  • Japanese title: 笹まくら
  • Translated by Dennis Keene

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting character study, and picture of Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 11/11/2002 .
San Francisco Chronicle A 15/9/2002 Christine Thomas
The Village Voice . 29/10/2002 Mary Jacobi

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he inescapably mixed nature of the characters' motives is delineated with wit, economy, and a consistent but ever-surprising compassion. Keene's translation dexterously reflects Maruya's linguistic exuberance." - The New Yorker

  • "This understated yet powerfully effective novel examines Japan after World War II, a sensitive and often misrepresented period in the nation's history. (...) Maruya's restrained prose mirrors the constriction of Hamada's thoughts and experience, while his amazing attention to detail renders an unquestionably real world for the narrative to exist within." - Christine Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Grass for My Pillow speaks to any country that would selectively remember its own narrative, and reveals the danger of suppressing the past" - Mary Jacobi, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Maruya Saiichi's Grass for My Pillow tells the story of a controversial figure: a draft resister. Shokichi Hamada refused to participate in Japan's war efforts during World War II, spending the war-years on the run under an assumed name, Kenji Sugiura.
       The novel is set largely in the present (the book was first published in Japanese in 1966), when Hamada works as an assistant registry clerk at a conservative Tokyo university. He can not leave his old life entirely behind him, however, and the story moves back and forth between his wartime experiences and his current life.
       Maruya allows the story to unfold slowly, beginning with Hamada's fairly unexciting day-to-day life. Hamada has found a niche with his clerk job -- he does it well and is relied on, and he seems content with his lot. It comes as no surprise to the reader to learn that when Hamada goes home: "The apartment where he lived was at the end of a long cul-de-sac", as that pretty much sums up exactly where he is now, a place both safe and yet also pretty much a dead end. He is married, to Yoko, a much younger woman.
       Reminders of his war years come up, especially the death of a woman he was close to then. Despite the dangers of resisting the draft, Hamada was successful at it: "He'd managed to maintain that refusal for five whole years." Maruya recounts some of the close calls, and how Hamada (as Sugiura) made do -- most of the time as an itinerant sand painter. But Maruya only slowly reveals much about Hamada's actions -- for example, recounting the actual initial flight from the draft only towards the very end of the book.
       Not doing one's civil duty by fighting was pretty much the most ignoble thing one could do during the war years. On the run Hamada feels the enmity not just of the military police but of "the total entity known as the country of Japan". It was also very dangerous: "Resistance meant death".
       The two characters -- Hamada and his alter ego Sugiura -- actually seem very different. Each wishes to blend in and appear inconspicuous, but Sugiura's reasons for doing so are very different than Hamada's. For both it is a matter of survival, but for Sugiura it literally was a life and death decision, while in Hamada's case it is closer to mere complacency -- a reflection of the Japan he lives in.
       His past also comes to haunt him in the present. The times are very different, and anti-war sentiment makes the stand he took a more widely admired one, but it is still not something that is completely accepted. Hamada is up for a promotion, but his war-record scuppers his hopes: "What someone in university administration always wants is to avoid being conspicuous in any way", and Hamada can't avoid it here. He is offered a different position, but it is a hopeless one, and outside Tokyo.
       It takes a while for the lesson to sink in, but Hamada concludes:

He had gone against the state, against society, against the establishment, all there was to go against; and a man who has once rebelled in that way has to go on doing so until the very end.
       Grass for My Pillow is a calm, carefully built-up story. Maruya conveys Hamada's life and travails well, and it adds up to a solid character study -- as well as a successful study of Japan both during World War II and in the mid-1960s.
       The stories are well-related, and there's a nice mix of urgency, tension, sacrifice, and even romance. From petty academia to remote corners of wartime Japan, Maruya presents a very rich picture of Japanese life.

       The translation reads quite well for the most part, though there are a few jarring formulations -- such as : "Each night she demanded his male services" ....

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Grass for My Pillow: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Maruya Saiichi (丸谷才一) lived 1925 to 2012.

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