August 1945. A sardine whale swims near the Izu Islands in search of a mate. He is a big whale, too big in fact – for his species, the female is big and the male is not. He is an aberrant whale, though he is, we can tell, reasonably friendly and polite.
He swims. We know what he does not, which is that 1945 in Japanese waters is a portentous time. The first half of Nosaka’s short story, The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine, concerns itself primarily with conveying the idyllic, though somewhat lonely, existence of this whale. He wants a mate, but he’s also pretty happy to eat sardines and enjoy the sun. But we know that this is not a good time to be in the water.
Soon, he spies a Japanese submarine, which he mistakes for a large female sardine whale. He’s enamoured with it, and attempts to get close. The Japanese soldiers inside are quite worried, and also irritated, as they know they are in danger from the Americans, and the last thing they need is a whale harassing them.
Here, the story shifts, and we go back and from the perspective of the whale to the soldiers, both with sufficient authorial distance that the whole story retains a cool, calm poise as matters escalate and violence appears. Americans enter the equation, aggressive, active, powerful, mighty, and the Japanese soldiers panic and determine they will fight.
But the submarine had no intentions of doing any such thing. Having discussed the matter, the crew had decided to fight against America until the bitter end, and were now feverishly making preparations, putting on fresh underwear and writing farewell notes to their loved ones.
But the whale is in the way. It nudges up against the submarine. Its heart is full of love. Here, finally, is a mate worthy of his largeness.
The whale became frantic with worry and swam hysterically around his beloved, but the gathered ships mistook him for the submarine and threw out a depth charge. Shocked by the loud explosion he swam off, but they gave chase.
Soon, parts of the whale are blown away by depth charges and the waters turn red. The Americans believe this is their victory – the submarine is destroyed and the red, bloody water has become like this from the dead and dying Japanese. The Japanese soldiers cannot believe their luck, and acknowledge that the whale had helped them. The day ends with the submarine floating on a clouded red sea.
What to make of all this? The absurdity of both love and war are on display, but there isn’t quite enough meat here to delve too deeply into these concepts (apologies to the whale). Perhaps better would have been also to understand more from the Americans, but as it stands the dispassionate narration acts more as a barrier than an entry-point. It is absurd to enter the mind of a whale, and I will admit to detesting works that purport to come from inside the consciousness of an animal (Kafka aside), but by staying so far away from the true emotions and thoughts of what is happening we’re left with a rather cold scene. But perhaps that is what violence is, or at least it’s aftermath – quiet, red, regretful.
The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine is a short story by Japanese writer Akiyuki Nosaka, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
|Title||The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine|
|Translator||Ginny Tapley Takemori|