Mariko Nagai’s Georgic Stories is a book worthy of its acclaim, but that does not necessarily imply that I want to read it again. When I recounted it to a friend once I finished reading it, I did not feel as if I was describing the stories or engaging in critique as much as I was repeating a terrible testimony. The stories demand retelling: they are compelling views of a world where the pinnacle of joy is a child’s possible, but not guaranteed, escape from starvation.
With its title inspired by Virgil’s work on rural life, the tales contained in the pages manifest his observation, “Shameful work conquers all.” The characters and their predicaments are so fundamental that they aren’t even given names. Well, one protagonist is; the prostitute, Monkey, is referred to by the insult given to her by customers when she started her profession.
Nagai’s ten stories unfold in a torn and barren landscape devoid of any poetry other than that of pain and desperation. Virgil’s didactic hexameters provided detailed descriptions of the plow, the merits of the olive tree over the vine, and the virtues of a simple bucolic life over the corrupt bustle of the city. The tales in this Georgic offer a manual on how to survive the unsurvivable in a world where all are corrupted by need.
The narratives brutally manifest Brecht’s “Food before ethics.” “Grafting” starts with words as meager as the village stores: “Harvest. Another failure. Third year in a row.” After the second failure the villagers sold their daughters, now they attempt to reduce want by carrying their elderly off to a mountain to abandon them.
In “Bitter Fruit,” rare kindness is displayed when a bathhouse proprietor advises a prostitute on how she might induce a miscarriage by standing in a freezing river. The attempt fails, and her child is born into prostitution. A woman in a different story adopts the vocation when a plague-stripped land and town desolated by war leave her with no other means of procuring food for her children, and the sole male in the community to serve as client is the village idiot. Some stories come directly from the trials of history; women in Manchuria at the end of WWII, a woman imprisoned for her role in a town’s execution of a downed American pilot. One is inspired by a folktale and contains vicious whimsy.
I can wholly recommend Georgic Stories. Instead of keeping it to reread, perhaps you can give to a friend. Perhaps she will be inspired to write the georgics of China, Darfur, the Ukraine, Argentina, Chile, and all other lands ravaged by flood, drought, and war, lands too many too name.