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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura

Christine Wunnicke

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To purchase The Fox and Dr. Shimamura

Title: The Fox and Dr. Shimamura
Author: Christine Wunnicke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 161 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Fox and Dr. Shimamura - US
The Fox and Dr. Shimamura - UK
The Fox and Dr. Shimamura - Canada
Le renard et le Docteur Shimamura - France
Der Fuchs und Dr. Shimamura - Deutschland
  • German title: Der Fuchs und Dr. Shimamura
  • Translated by Philip Boehm

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Our Assessment:

B : decent little exploration of cultural differences and workings of the mind

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/6/2019 Janice P. Nimura
World Lit. Today . Summer/2019 Catherine Venner
Die Zeit A 19/5/2015 Ulrich Rüdenauer

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is little that is fixed in Christine Wunnicke’s glittering, absurdist jewel of a novel, itself a translation from the German. (...) Wunnicke paints nightmarishly hectic European scenes in a palette of absinthe and Toulouse-Lautrec, and alternates them with nightmarishly static scenes of Shimamura’s declining, colorless present in Japan. Connections proliferate like reflections in a house of mirrors, fascinating and also vaguely queasy -- the narrative is disorienting in every sense of the word." - Janice P. Nimura, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Wunnicke’s deftly drawn vignettes of Dr. Shimamura’s life provide tantalizing glimpses into the manifestations of Eastern and Western psychiatry at the turn of the last century as well as a mystery that is slowly revealed throughout this short but moreish book." - Catherine Venner, World Literature Today

  • "Christine Wunnicke (...) ist mit ihrem Dr. Shimamura ein kleines Meisterstück gelungen: Nicht nur von der Geburt der Klinik wird hier aus fremder Perspektive erzählt, sondern auch vom Sich-Verlorengehen in den Lücken des Wissens und vom langsamen Verschwinden aus dem eigenen Körper und der eigenen Zeit -- und das alles in einer verführerischen Sprache, die Zwischentöne kennt und Esprit besitzt." - Ulrich Rüdenauer, Die Zeit

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:

       The Dr. Shimamura who is the central figure in Christine Wunnicke's novel is an historical figure -- Shimamura Shun'ichi (島邨俊一), who lived 1862 to 1923 and was a leading figure of early Japanese neurology. The novel begins near the end of his life, in 1922, but moves back and forth between earlier experiences and the last years of his life, spent in a long and withdrawn retirement surrounded by and attended to by four women: his wife, Sachiko, the daughter of his mentor; her mother, Yukiko; his own mother, Hanako; and a maidservant, Sei -- whom he: "sometimes called Anna but more often Luise" (and who he had brought with him when he retired from the Kyoto asylum he had headed, "as kind of a memento, and because no one there knew for sure whether she was a patient or one of the nurses").
       It's a strange household of slow decline -- Shimamura's clothes, like everything else, slowly wearing out -- and rituals -- like a bucket of water brought to him daily, whose purpose he doesn't understand.
       Shimamura's mother has been working on writing a biography of sorts of her son for years -- originally planned as a Festschrift that had since:

degenerated into a kind of bildungsroman, which in turn evolved into a family saga. And that had bogged down in a pile of lies. And suddenly what Hanako had were her own memoirs, in which her only son Shun'ichi was a marginal figure, even though he was clearly in the center of her life.
       She writes in secret and hides the pages, but even if much is left unspoken in the household there are few secrets:
     "In our house," said Sachiko Shimamura, "everyone has gotten used to hiding things, mostly under the floor, and everyone know where the things are hidden and fingers them in secret."
       Shimamura, too, reads Hanako's secreted pages -- and they seem to influence his own hazy picture of the past, a fictional account that takes on a reality for him. And Sachiko suggests Hanako's endless exercise is part of a self-reïnforcing loop: "You keep rewriting his biography just because you know he keeps reading it".
       Meanwhile, Sachiko -- though already thinking ahead to life after her husband has died -- plays her own little tricks to keep him off-balance, switching out a collection of toys that Shimamura keeps (obviously not very well) hidden, her reasoning being, as she explains:
     "As long as he's on edge," said Sachiko, "he won't lose his will to live.
       Overall, however, Shimamura is less on edge than in a fog -- and that not just in his older age. Whatever clarity he seeks remains elusive.
       As a medical professional, Shimamura gained quite a reputation, but he doesn't take great pride in it, "annoyed at being known solely for psychiatric wall padding and a collection of fox woodcuts". The wall padding was a useful innovation in asylums where patients could hurt themselves on hard surfaces; the woodcuts were a reminder of the pivotal events in his life. First off, there was a trip he was sent on by his mentor and future father in law in 1891, to Shimane Prefecture, to investigate women who were believed to be possessed by a fox-spirit -- presumably a variation on what was psychologically considered 'hysteria' in those times. Shimamura traveled to Shimane with a young student from a wealthy family who was to act as his assistant and photographer. It long seems a waste -- "There was no lack of foxes, but none of the patients displayed neurological symptoms [...] Most of the people had nothing wrong with them" -- and wears Shimamura down, so that his: "own condition had grown into full-blown neuro-asthenia, and his dyspepsia had become so explosive that for one whole day he thought he'd contracted cholera".
       Only at the end of the trip is he pointed to: "Our celebrity. Your reward. The fox princess of Shimane", a more convincing case of fox-spirit-possession, which certainly has an effect on Shimamura. The daily log he otherwise faithfully kept remains blank for the two and half weeks spent with the patient, and at the end, as his mother puts it in her manuscript: "he returned to Tokyo a broken man", traumatized by, among other things, the disappearance of his assistant, who is assumed to have fallen to his death off a cliff.
       Three years later, Shimamura gets the opportunity to go to Europe, and he meets and studies with some of the early masters of the field -- notably Jean-Martin Charcot, in Paris, and Josef Breuer (of Anna O.-case fame) in Vienna. Cultural differences prevent much meeting of minds -- with hurdles at every level, beginning with the linguistic one: Shimamura struggles to communicate in France, while even his fluent German puzzles Breuer: "His German was perfect and at the same time sounded completely Japanese". Similarly, the diagnoses and treatment of patients differs, with Shimamura amazed in Charcot's Salpêtrière-asylum by the (all female) patients:
At first glance they appeared amazingly healthy. In Tokyo, even in Matsue, the insane were much more insane. They also received more visitors.
       As to lessons he could take home, he found:
"The analytic conversation as a healing method for traumatic hysteria," he wrote to the imperial commission, "is of little use for Japan, as it contradicts our sense of politeness, and besides it takes too long."
       Shimamura remains haunted, in a variety of ways, by the fox-spirits, or the idea of them. Whether in the woodcuts he brings to Charcot or the story Breuer interprets as a form of fox-exorcism, he invariably becomes associated with them -- a burden he never entirely adequately comes to terms with (and which lingers nicely in such things like how animals are drawn to him, to the extent he can't experiment on them in the university animal laboratory: "Even in their anesthetized, poisoned, electrocuted or dissected states the lab animals still courted his favor -- they rubbed against him, nibbled at his fingers, clung to his white coat").
       Living out his retirement in withdrawn isolation -- aside from the four women around him -- Shimamura does get one more shock to the system in the novel's concluding turn, a visitor from the past whom he at first can not place, but whose appearance and story fundamentally shift the underpinnings of so much of his own life.
       The Fox and Dr. Shimamura is a novel about mind-games and states of mind, including their interpretations of reality -- mental health, in its broadest form, with the experts in the field when it was at its most wide-open(-to-interpretation) trying to offer different ways of understanding (it). Shimamura's is a story of shaping -- and repeatedly re-shaping -- a life story, in retrospect: much as, late in life, the good doctor is: "annoyed at being known solely for psychiatric wall padding and a collection of fox woodcuts", he can get no better grasp on his own past himself, even as he constantly struggles to come to terms with it. Typically, when he tries to relate his experiences to Breuer: "the words 'I don't remember' made frequent appearances", while the biography his mother writes (and which he stealthily read) is one that is constantly being rewritten, changing the story; typically, the most pivotal event in his life -- the two and half weeks with the patient in Shimane -- is the one period in which his notebooks remain blank.
       Change and re-construction (which includes re-interpretation) are constants in the novel, like the Shinto practice of tearing down shrines and building them anew, from Sachiko's replacing small artefacts with similar ones to keep him on his toes to Hanako's book, to Shimamura's own notebooks, which he ultimately consigns to the flames. (And, of course, Wunnicke's novel is itself a reconstruction of this actual life, based on the limited sources available to her -- based partially on fact, but just as much a creation of the mind (i.e. imagination).)
       The fog of uncertainty that seems to fully envelope Dr. Shimamura -- he doesn't even know (and can't even settle on) the name of the maid (or be certain whether she was a patient at one time) -- is effective, but of course also clouds the narrative as a whole; Wunnicke can never allow Shimamura the clarity that occasionally suggests itself, in Europe or with the visitor he receives towards the end of his life ("Who was that ?" he asks his wife after his guests have left, the enormity of it too much for him to handle).
       It makes for an appealingly haunting novel, slightly off-kilter, suggesting the unknown and the unknowable -- and neatly contrasting a familiar period and understanding of psychology (Shimamura's European experiences) with a much less familiar Japanese world. But even as the fox-spirits may seem typically (and exotically) Japanese, they are also only another variation of the 'hysteria' that Shimamura's European counterparts were exploring at that time.
       The Fox and Dr. Shimamura is an enjoyable little novel -- helped by an occasionally wicked sense of humor (Sachiko, in particular, is an inspired creation) -- but also feels like it bites off more than it can chew, the danger, in particular, of referring to and relying on well-known real life figures certainly coming to the fore here (and that's even with keeping Freud more or less at a distance ...). If not entirely a success, it nevertheless has considerable appeal.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 April 2019

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The Fox and Dr. Shimamura: Reviews: Christine Wunnicke: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       German author Christine Wunnicke was born in 1966.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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