The Wild Horses of Hiroshima by Paul Xylinides

Wild Horses cover

The wild horses in The Wild Horses Of Hiroshima (240 pages) are certainly intriguing, as with the title and cover art, and play a strong role at the story’s end by appearing in the streets of Hiroshima to wander about as a healing force, cared for by the citizens. They  derive from the imagination of a novelist who is also a character in the novel, who is also creating a narrative. The horses seem to emphasize purity and nobility, pounding through the city in herds, a shield against nuclear war and against the violent nature of the human species itself.

This novel inside the novel begins approximately half way into the story, following a background beginning with the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima and its hideous devastation. A young American man has been a penpal with a young Japanese girl, and after the war, he goes to Hiroshima to find her. They marry and move to New Hampshire, bearing a son, Yukio. Yukio becomes a strong, husky young man who survives the attack of a bear which kills his father. He and his mother, Miyeko, return to Japan where he becomes a sumo wrestler. Time passes and he retires to write novels. The novel within a novel begins, with occasional returns to the exterior story of Yukio and his mother, plus Yukio’s geisha, Satoko.

This second novel involves a young man, Yoko, growing up to be a gangster, who meets and is influenced by the young and attractive Mura. At one point they are on the run from the Japanese yakuza. She presents to him the vision of wild horses in Hiroshima as making it impossible for the city to be attacked by nuclear power again, and argues that humanity must stop its selfishness and attempts to destroy each other. Wild horses are one kind of answer, as a spiritual, nourishing presence. But Yoko appears doubtful, and, newly reconciled to his gangster boss, engages in an assassination assignment. He emerges from his violence proud and cocky, too proud, while Mura has been conscious of the dead bodies like so much “meat.” Later, Yoko and Mura are protected and must grieve and repent “in great guilt under the forgiveness of the horses” (223).

But Yoko’s assassination job has been prompted by an attempt to assassinate Yukio, the novelist creating the inner story. Seriously injured, Yukio has survived an attack by a yakuza boss, and this man’s name then enters Yukio’s novel as the person his character Yoko must assassinate. Here the two stories merge. The Mura character’s dream of wild horses transfers into the novelist Yukio’s world, so that it too has its own wild horses. At story’s end Yukio, Satoko, and Miyeko watch the horses at “the foot of the garden and [stand] there transfixed at the gate” (222).

Paul Xylinides’ metafiction, with its novel within a novel and the blending of these two stories in the conclusion, is very interesting. Merging the wild horses symbolism tends to draw attention to this work’s emphasis on human arrogance and unthinking brutality, and to its anti-novel approach—or its form as outside a traditional “willing suspension of disbelief.” The reader is challenged to look beyond a plotted, dramatic narrative. Both the emphasis on wild horses and the attention to form suggest The Wild Horses of Hiroshima is a serious foray into the art of the novel.

Overall, the time frame stretches from 1945 to the present. The novel includes numerous characters, and at times tension with these characters suggests development of possible secondary themes. For example, the half American and half Japanese Yukio suffers identity problems both in America where he spends his youth, then in Japan, where he becomes a sumo wrestler. When he meets the geisha Satoko she also is having identity problems, adding to their bond. Exploration and perhaps further development of this identity crisis is a possible direction for the story. But this emphasis dwindles, and the novel within a novel takes over as the story’s focus.

Neither the overarching story, nor the story within it, emphasizes increasing complexity and narrative intrigue around a central problem, such as identity crisis. They do contain elements of drama within specific events, particularly in the interior novel, with the gangster Yoko. But this standard device in developing plot is slight overall. The narrative tends to be episodic and expository, a kind of meditation, its prose lyrical and original. The following passage shows Yukio meeting his geisha, Satoko:

Satoko awaits him. The whole of the evening is reserved, and she enjoys waiting. It is magical to be the focal point in all this perfection she has achieved. The slightest movement of her head or hand increases the charm and is inseparable from it. She is, in every part of her, whether still or in motion, the played notes of a musical score, the brush strokes in a painting, the lifespan of a butterfly whose chrysalis is no more—abandoned and shriveled to nothing on the forest floor. How those moments last!

 Yukio has joined the flow of pedestrians and traffic coursing along the high-banked channel of the commercial street where there is little to distract from the lofty purposes of buying and selling, except for the narrow band of sky that requires craning one’s neck. Even then the second tier of commerce would snag one’s gaze: noodle and sushi shops, martial arts emporia, tea and herb and video and live sex shops. Every few feet, a club distinctly throbs, the patrons clustered outside like exotic animals waiting to be selected for the privilege of display. He has spent his evenings in these places—a favored client he has bestowed status—his ego solar and awash in silk-draped flesh (94-95).

Evocative language is found throughout this story, as with these additional examples: “She [Miyeko] did not see, as many in the city and beyond did, the triumphant mushroom cloud rising upon the stem until it finally poked its obscene head above the sky” (2); “The hypnotic mass of the waters idled by” (29); “Yoko glimpsed a face that carried the shadow of itself” (148). This lyrical, meditative tendency moves the novel toward poetry, which may be its greatest strength.

The experimental nature of this work, however, at times does present challenges. The story has a large number of characters with Japanese names, and its expansion over many decades, especially with the complexity of the novel within the novel, may cause coherence problems in tracking characters and connecting pieces of the narrative. Also, shifts in tense can threaten coherence or distraction. It is not clear, to me anyway, what is gained by sometimes relating the story in present tense, and sometimes past tense. This shifting can occur inconsistently as with, “His mother was at the door, questioning with wide open eyes. She calls him to follow her” (41).

But the inconsistencies are minor against the experience of this novel as a meditation on humanness, and the raw human inadequacy that produces nuclear war and continuing alienation between peoples. Its portrayal of Japanese culture is extensive and interesting. As story, it tends to put character development and suspense in second position to poetic language and introspection. And wild horses, with their energy and purity, are a gentle but beautiful symbolism in the wake of Japan’s tragic history and revival.

-Peter M. Bollington, author of President Citizenfarm, 2016


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