This beautiful short novel in German is set in Japan one and a half years after the Fukushima and Tsunami catastrophe, in a province which was devastated by the disaster and where people are slowly trying to put their lives back together. The main protagonist worked for the police before the disaster, drawing Identikit pictures of criminals and his work now consists of drawing the reconstructed faces of Tsunami victims, whose bodies have been found, often battered beyond recognition, and therefore excruciatingly painful if not impossible for relatives to identify. The protagonist works from photographs which only he sees, manages two drawings a day, which he then hangs up in public for people to come along and identify. In enabling the identification of the victims, he is restoring them to humanity, giving them a name, a past and a family, allowing them to be buried and for the relatives to find peace.Running alongside the account of his work is an account of his wife and his relationship with her. They had both escaped the Tsunami because they happened to be in town on the day of the disaster, but return to find their house disappeared and their neighbourhood flattened. Both are struggling to come to terms with their loss.A young woman comes to see the draughtsman, with a photo of her missing brother. Her mother is dying and is anguished because she cannot find her son to bury him before she dies. The young woman asks him to draw her brother to hang out for identification on the basis of the photograph, to help her mother find peace. The protagonist is reluctant to do this, feeling it is a lie as the brother’s body has not been found. This tension and the repeated visits of the young woman asking for this favour in different ways provide the narrative drive for the story. Aspects of loss, of people, home and objects representing the way of life they have lost, pulsate through the book, come and go like waves , so that gradually we build up the picture of both the protagonists’ loss and that of the wider community. The book also depicts their anxiety and uncertainty for the future: can they eat the fish, does the dust kicked up in the playground contain radioactive particles, how should they react to the birth of strangely deformed butterflies? This anxiety is set against a background of untrustworthy information and even misinformation from the authorities.The writing is lyrical, concise and in its repetition of single words and phrases at once reflects the ebb and flow of the sea but also the illustrates the movements of thoughts through the mind. This allows the writer to show the protagonist allowing and then moving away from painful memories, while at the same time allowing the writer to gradually introduce aspects of the plot to the reader.The style and quiet understated tone of this book work together with the simple but moving story to express the sorrow and grief of a community trying to find a way of carrying on after the enormity of the disaster. This explains the book’s title- the long breath which refers at once to the long breath of the sea exhaling over the land and the idiom in German- to have long breath, to show tenacity and perseverance.
Read this book in German if you can- or see my sample translation below:
The Long Breath by Nina Jäckle
Those who were laughing or silent.
It was the eleventh of March and the sea breathed out, right over the land it breathed out and then it breathed in again, deeply. The sea sucked up those who were sitting, those who were playing, those who were sleeping, those who were laughing or silent, those who were still young or already old, lively, lonely or in an embrace. The sea left a border behind. A border that from now on forever marks the place where luck was alive on that eleventh of March at two forty-six in the afternoon and the place where, at that moment, luck had deserted.
The sea’s breath is long, says my wife, you too will have to show how long your breath can be, that you can endure.
The constant scratching of pencil tips on paper.
I have a new filing cabinet where I keep the photos of the tsunami victims who have not yet been identified. There are many photos, there are photos which it’s better not to see. I’m the only person who looks into the filing cabinet; not even my boss wants to look at them.
It’s too much to ask of anyone to look at those photos, it’s too much to ask of those left behind to point to one of those photos and to say yes, yes that’s her, yes that’s him.
At first the numbering and the filing of the photos, that keeping order, that administration of the disfigured dead was unbearable. With time it has become routine. I am an identikit artist. People used to praise my identikit sketches, now they praise the sketches I make of tsunami victims. I reconstruct the faces of those who have been found, I sketch the faces without their horrific injuries, to make it easier for those left behind to identify their relatives. In this way it is not too much, in this way they can point to my sketches, to the intact faces I have sketched, yes, they can then say, yes, that’s her, yes that’s him.
I think of them as individual anatomical cases. I avoid thinking about all the drawers of my filing cabinet at once; my gaze focuses on the one photo coming next, which serves as a template for the one sketch coming next, but despite this the serial numbering of the photos is an undeniable reminder of how many people remain to be identified, of how few of the faces I have sketched and how many remain.
From that day on, one or other of the TV channels has shown over and over again the snow-white ribbon, the broad trim of white foam moving towards the coast. Relentlessly, the wave moves over the sea, relentlessly towards the coast. We have always known how to make a deal with nature, how to tame its destructive strength, we have always lived with the dangerous powers of nature, we have no other choice. Molten rock, unstable ground, the sea all around, we know how to ask protection from spirits and gods, but on that day our experience was that this doesn’t always work. We were trained for evacuation, we were trained not to wait for an alarm, we were trained to help others, but on that day our experience was that this doesn’t always work either. On that day we experienced how important it is that the worst thing that could happen doesn’t happen, and equally we experienced that the worst thing that could happen can really happen. We experienced what relentlessness means; now we are experiencing what it means to let life return in spite of everything, what it’s like to open shops again, to send children back to school, to go fishing again, in spite of everything to trust and to eat the fish, the rice and the algae.
They’re sure to be writing songs soon about the butterflies with their deformed wings, too small for their bodies, and their strange eyes. We haven’t seen the last of those butterflies, says my wife.
When my wife turns the light off at bedtime, I usually lie awake for a long time in the peace and quiet and I have the feeling that my face is glowing in the dark, as if my skin is still reflecting the light from the illuminated layout table, which I bend over day after day for many hours. And in my head I hear the noise of the pencil, the constant scratching of pencil tips on paper. And in front of me the faces appear, the eyes, the nose, the lines of the cheekbones. Again and again I ask myself whether I can sketch the hint of a smile into the faces, whether it is permissible to think of a smile, of laughter lines, to presume an expression of happiness in the faces I am reproducing, the faces of nameless tsunami victims.
We saw a boy on television. Our family, he said, was my mother and my father and my brother and me. Now, it’s my brother and the dog they’ve let us keep, that’s my family. The dog was found in the disaster area like us, he was dirty and lonely, one of his legs was broken. He’s trying not to be sad, he’s a good dog, he’s trying his hardest, he’s brave, said the boy on the television, as if talking about himself.
All day long, as I’m sketching the faces, I hold an eraser in my hand. I get to know the faces as they emerge stroke by stroke. Anatomy helps me to understand logically how they ought to look; I know without hesitation which ill judged pencil stroke to remove right away with my eraser. I always draw the eyes last. I feel nervous about sketching the eyes, as they convey most intensely the assumptions I am making: it is the eyes, the gaze, that give the faces their humour or their severity, their boldness, their disappointment or even their secretiveness. Once I have sketched the eyes, and therefore the gaze, into the faces, then the faces are ready to be identified by those left behind, by those whom the Pacific did not take because they were in the place where luck was alive, by those who escaped the long breath of the sea. My sketches of faces will stay on public display for as long as it takes for someone to point to them, for someone to look them in the eye and pronounce a name and say yes, that’s her, yes that’s him.
From Nina Jäckle, Der lange Atem © Klöpfer & Meyer Verlag Tübingen 2014
Translated by Mandy Wight