The road to my house—set atop a wooded hill in the mountains of western Maine—is a living, breathing creature. A bony mile and a half stretch of dirt and rocks and ruts, my road swells and glazes with ice in late fall. When winter snow buries it, we walk or snowmobile to our cars. In spring, it splits open again, ice and muddy water gushing down the hill. We walk until May, and the ground swallows our boots like molasses. My road is a constant reminder that the true pastoral experience is one of powerlessness, of dependence on natural cycles. I submerge my feet in mud and bruise them on rocks and I think of Virgil:
Such the eternal bond
And such the laws by Nature’s hand imposed
On clime and clime, e’er since the primal dawn (Georgic I, 50–52)
In her aptly titled and searing short story collection Georgic, Mariko Nagai delves into the extreme cruelty of the pastoral world with as much brutality and skill as any contemporary author I have yet encountered. These are the stories of people born from their land and completely subject to it. Their landscapes eradicate free will. “The land is unforgiving,” writes Nagai in an interview included at the back of the book. “[N]ot the idyllic notion of the harmonious, the pastoral, but in a Virgilian sense, where tension between men and the land was as real as probable famine, where men’s faces were ravished by the elements, their backs molded by the earth, and their lives bound to the fate of the land.”
Nagai’s stories ride this tension between men and land to the breaking point and beyond. Droughts, famines, and wars force people to make the primal decisions of animals caught in leg traps. Women must sell their children to survive, must abandon their elderly mothers on mountainsides, must sell their bodies to feed their children. In “Love Story,” plague sweeps the village and the doctor must take his own wife and children’s lives: “You brought them into this world, now you are responsible for their lives, whether they are happy, sad; you are responsible for whether they suffer or not, kill them to make their pain go away.” In the title story, corpses float down the river from villages, clogging the river, contaminating the water supply, and causing famine. Eventually, the villagers’ starvation brings them to the inevitable and unthinkable: “And all of us will say, as she said, Yes, yes, I can eat this. Yes, we must, because there is nowhere else, and we must live. This is our land.” There is nothing for Nagai’s characters outside of their homes and their land. Existence, fate, is that which comes collectively to the village. As revealed in “Song,” leaving the village to escape the harshness of the land is a rejection of homeland and community, which brings only the possibility of greater danger, exposing the people to the threat of human enemies, war, and the anger of the gods: “Our Enemy, who built a boat out of curiosity to see a better world, a larger world, a dream that the world was bigger than we gave. There is no mercy for one that breaks the rule.”
The unrelenting, cyclical power of the natural world—of sun and rain and land and disease and hunger—governs not only the fate of Nagai’s characters, but her prose style as well. Her sparse, direct lines, exactingly crafted and arranged, compose a unique linguistic landscape for each story. In the penultimate paragraph of “Bitter Fruit,” the prostitute, Monkey, steps into the icy river, attempting (and failing) to abort her unborn child, and the sentences gush forth, long, slow, and futilely churning with memories of her childhood home. At the end of “Confession,” as the narrator confronts the nature of her crime and the reality of her and her daughter’s situation, short one-or two-line paragraphs sear the darkness like slats of light under the prison door, and Nagai’s repetition and alternating use of parentheses encircle us in surreal hopelessness:
(And is this not a dream? A woman coughs, but only in a dream; another mutters a prayer, but is this really a dream?) I am done for in the darkness, and a woman coughs a dark prayer into the corner of hope. (A prayer; the light; the darkness. Am I done for?)
Each story breathes the next one into existence with tidal force—life and death creating and re-creating one another over and over again—building the inevitable darkness of doomed characters and their landscapes through a language marked by intricate repetitions, echoes, and mutations. In “Fugue,” Nagai plays openly with this concept, recycling phrases and weaving in new ones, each paragraph set in parentheses, until the narrator reaches his ultimate conclusion: “When I was a child, I did not know that a happy life, a happy ending is a lifetime where a heart keeps breaking over and over, where we have too many partings. But this is life.”
This is Georgic too—a collection of raw, terrifying partings. And yet “Drowning Land,” the final story in the collection, concludes in accordance with the cycle of the natural world, on a note of hope, a gesture toward regeneration. A boy becomes the recipient of all the world’s unwanted dreams; day after day, night after night, other people’s dreams, other people’s losses and partings, enter his sleeping head. Finally, after years, a day comes when there are no dreams, and the boy wakes up to discover that his village has been suffering from drought. With knowledge learned in the dream world and an ear tuned to the sounds of the earth, the boy finds a spot and digs: “As the boy strikes the earth one more time, the water begins to seep through, spreading out like a river, spreading out like the sky the boy has once seen in his dream. There is water for the field. The winter will be kind.” With the trickle of this water, Nagai whispers to us the subtlest suggestion that salvation is ever present, running beneath the ground. That enduring the sorrows of the land will teach us to listen, to understand the language of the earth so that the cycle can begin again. That this cycle is both our undoing and our only hope.
About the Reviewer
Julia Bouwsma's poems and reviews have appeared in such journals as Colorado Review, The Progressive, Sugar House Review, and Quay. Bouwsma has received a fellowship from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, an MFA from Goddard College, and currently serves as the Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She is a self-employed writer and farmer in the mountains of western Maine.