In Seattle author Jay Rubin’s new novel “The Sun Gods,” a marriage is threatened by the Japanese-U. S. conflict in World War II. Rubin reads Friday, May 15, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
‘The Sun Gods’
by Jay Rubin
Chin Music Press, 240 pp., $15
Translators generally don’t garner much attention, but Jay Rubin has distinguished himself as an English-language translator of Japanese literature — he’s particularly acclaimed for his translations of the works of Haruki Murakami.
Rubin taught at the University of Washington for almost two decades before moving to Harvard. Now a professor emeritus, he’s back in the Seattle area, keeping busy with a multitude of translation projects — everything from Murakami’s interviews with conductor Seiji Ozawa, to Kiyoshi Shigematsu’s short stories for use in an Xbox game.
And — this will cheer late-bloomers everywhere — Rubin, in his mid-70s, has just come out with his debut novel.
The author of “The Sun Gods” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, May 15, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
“The Sun Gods” takes place in Seattle, Idaho and Japan over the span of a quarter-century. It is told from the perspectives of three people who come together briefly as a nuclear family, and then are torn apart by the global conflict that introduced nuclear warfare.
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In 1939, Tom Morton is a widower with a young son, Billy. Tom serves as pastor to a Japanese congregation in Seattle.
Mitsuko Fukai, the sister of one of the church members, has come from Japan to escape her abusive ex-husband, and to heal from a personal tragedy.
Looking for a fresh start in Seattle, Mitsuko accepts work as Billy’s nanny. She and the boy bond immediately, and Tom falls in love with her, too, cherishing her exotic beauty and attentive ways. Within a matter of months they marry, despite the trepidation expressed by some that a mixed-race marriage may be difficult.
When one of Mitsuko’s brothers visits from Japan to investigate his sister’s marriage to a Christian, things do not go well.
And as World War II heats up and Japan allies with Germany and Italy, sentiments in Seattle turn against the local Japanese community. Tom is rattled by the enmity toward his wife, and by extension toward him. He advises Mitsuko to change her name — she refuses. He urges her to reject her Japanese customs in favor of an exemplary Christian lifestyle, but she can no more abandon her culture than she can change the color of her skin or the shape of her eyes.
“The Sun Gods” examines the potent impact of war, religion and racism on the most intimate of personal connections. In scrupulously researched scenes, Rubin takes readers through the shock of Pearl Harbor Day and the Japanese community’s mortification and misery upon being forced out of their homes and sent to the Minidoka “Relocation Center.”
The author shares what postwar Japan is like through the eyes of Billy, who as a young adult goes to Tokyo to study and reconnect with his past.
But the story’s most perplexing character, Pastor Tom, is sketched in fairly broad strokes. This is the letdown — that we cannot gain better insight into this man’s breach of faith. For wasn’t it the countless small but cowardly lapses such as his that ultimately allowed our society’s moral failure concerning its Japanese-American citizens?