The Pearl Diver
(Talese/Doubleday)Miss Fuji works in the ancient Japanese trade of pearl diving until, at age seventeen, she is diagnosed with leprosy. She is promptly sent off to the island of Nagashima with hundreds of other lepers for, presumably, the rest of her life.The custom of the day was for lepers to leave all possessions behind, even their name; thus she names herself "Miss Fuji." The hospital is not unlike a prison: one cannot leave, there is no commerce with the outside world, and at the time she arrives (shortly after WW II) there is no cure.The housing is primitive: one sleeps on the floor in dormitories. You do what the staff tells you without question. When Miss Fuji is caught carving soap figurines and leaving them for children on a near-by island, she is put in isolation. When the other patients demonstrate on her behalf, the police are called in, beat many of them senseless, and take away the leaders.We get to follow Miss Fuji's life for the next half-century, as the world of leprosy and its treatment is radically changed by new medications and, especially in Japan and India, a new attitude. Before, the random striking of the disease was seen as a curse of god, and the patients became untouchables, a shame for their families. By the end of the book, it is seen for what it is: an infectious disease caused not by a holy curse, but by a bacillus.
The Pearl Diver is rich in detail on how those who were cursed (both by fate and by Japanese society) lived their day-to-day. The facts are rich and startling: the leprosarium had its own black currency; patients were made responsible for the other patients (Miss Fuji becomes an expert at massage); and, in the most horrifying scene of all, abortion was forcibly performed on all female patients who became pregnant. The abortion scene is one of the most harrowing I've ever come across in my readings, and like poor Miss Fuji, when I was forced to participate, I almost threw up. It is realistic enough that the right-
to- life people could well use it as a propaganda piece. § § §
This is a bleak novel. If one wanted to research attitudes and treatment of lepers in Japan of the 1940s and 1950s, one could do no better than to make this your reference. However, some of us have a thing about novels that are, for their author's own reasons, unrelentingly dark.
I don't suggest that Mr. Talarigo should be giving us Lafftimes in the Leprosarium or Fun and Frolic at Nagashima, but a bit of warmth and sunshine might be of some help to those of us who reluctantly cultivate insomnia, finding ourselves reading novels in the dark of the night. At the very least, when we put down a reading, we want to have a few pleasant memories to dream on, rather than wishing we had left the damn thing over on the bedtable, unread, where it belonged.--- Leslie Withers