Yukiko (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
With his latest novel, Yukiko, MacDonald Harris once again reveals his penchant for weaving historical fact and fantasy into a psychological novel of intrigue and adventure. Inspired in part by the author’s actual experience as a wartime naval officer in the United States Merchant Marines, the story embellishes the authentic maritime jargon and autobiographical detail with the mystifying impact of primitive rituals and primal passions. With its fast-paced progression of first-person confessional monologues and observations, the story ostensibly focuses on the adventures and epiphanies of its protagonist, Augustus Lamont Porter, a Boston “Brahmin” bearing the straight-laced stamp of his privileged class, but whose marital and martial traumas have crushed his confidence and self-esteem. Employing a present-tense narration throughout the text, Harris lends an immediacy to the action by moving it forward without finalizing it. In this manner, he invites our vicarious participation in the psychophysical experiences of his narrator as he encounters the ancient Ainu world, at once foreign, yet familiar. Further, it is this urgent intensity of the living moment which rescues the novel from an otherwise sentimentalized, nostalgic view of the past.
Set in August, 1945, the waning moments of World War II, the linear movement of the plot purports to trace the seemingly dangerous military expedition and escape of an American naval officer forced to land on the Japanese Islands. On this literal level, at least, both historical details and topographical landmarks lend a touch of verisimilitude to the temporal sequence of serious as well as comic events. It is this factual-fictional framework, in fact, which forces the protagonist to destroy his damaged submarine on enemy shores and relinquish what he regards as the “womblike sanctuary” of his ship. Significantly, this incident, which purposefully assists in his apparent goal to destroy the hydroelectric station at Hokkaido, also propels his ulterior goals as well—the inevitable release of repressed desires, fears, frustrations, and the realization of love and truth through self-discovery. While these literal and metaphorical levels are closely combined, the linear plot is occasionally burdened by an abrupt syntax, arid vocabulary, and uninspired dialogue. In fairness to authorial intent, however, this apparent artlessness may well be justified as a deliberate attempt to create the impression of chaos and confusion in a world that is ravaged by war.
On the psychological and metaphorical interiors, however, Harris lavishes his descriptive powers. Here, with the exaltation and lyrical excess of Camus, he establishes a verbal correspondence between man and nature, the transient and eternal. Approaching the unfamiliar island of Hokkaido, for instance, Harris’ protagonist is at once mesmerized by an odd and inexplicable attachment for the “spidery-velvet mass” of lunar landscape. Like the luminous desert of “The Adulterous Woman,” the mysterious mountains juxtapose against a star-filled sky. So too, Harris (like Camus) equates his hero’s fascination for the land with his innate desire and sensual delight. Similarly, Gus also immerses himself in the mystical ecstasy of the moment and imagines the dissolution of his physical form and its diffusion into a thousand particles ascending upward and onward toward land and sky. Unlike the existential characters of Camus, however, Gus is eventually at one with the alien Ainu—a collection of communal aborigines happily engaged in the illegal manufacture and sale of contraceptives to the Japanese. But, in the interim, he is alienated by barriers of custom and language along with the barriers imposed by his involvement in a wartime mission on enemy soil. However, while the military strategy and his escape add an element of suspense and adventure to the novel, they are apparently ancillary to his psychological and spiritual quest. More esoteric, yet enduring, his is a search for the self—for a physical freedom and spiritual salvation apart from the safe, secure, yet stifling strictures of his past. And it is the realization of this quest—metaphoric and meaningful—which overrides the military action and eventually absorbs the reader’s interest.
Consequently, Harris allows his protagonist to grope, earnestly and innocently, toward self-discovery. And, in so doing, he evinces the ease with which he creates a credible character who undergoes a convincing alteration in both physical appearance and emotional aspect. In sharp contrast, however, Gus’s three companions—Angelo, Ikeda, and Havenmeyer—are endowed with relatively static and one-dimensional forms, like allegorical figures in a morality play. Thus, we are denied privileged entry into their innermost thoughts and aspirations and must judge them, at best, through the limited and occasionally biased perspective of the...
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