E-mail Interview on Novel “Applause”, vol. 2


“I wanted to capture the reality in front of me, as a writer and as a witness to history.” Harada Maha said this in the first part of our e-mail interview discussing her new novel "Applause", which she decided to write while on lockdown in Paris. The interview continues below.

— You were staying in Paris while the city was on lockdown. The change in Paris brought about by the lockdown was worlds apart from what happened in Japan after the declaration of a state of emergency. Being in Paris, where the normally glamorous and vibrant city completely shut down, what sort of emotions did you feel––astonishment, fear?

The most astonishing thing was the way the whole thing abruptly went into effect (Day 5). I was impressed with France’s power to do something thoroughly when they decide to do it, while at the same time it’s a country where people insist that democracy, or sovereignty, is in the hands of the people. It was crucial that while enforcing the lockdown fully, and with lightning speed, they did not neglect to compensate people for the losses they were undergoing. Otherwise, there was no way people would sit quietly at home. It showed me that this is a strongly democratic country with a completely different social structure from Japan.

— You’re someone who frequently travels all over the world, but I believe this was your first experience of not knowing whether you’d be able to return to Japan. As the situation in Paris changed from moment to moment, what kind of anxieties did you experience and how did you overcome them?

As I walked through the city on lockdown, I felt like I was on a perfect movie set, and it is an indescribably beautiful city, but at the same time I felt sadness and emptiness (Day 7). I realized that the city of Paris is really made up of human beings in all their messy glory. It was the people on the streets, and the lively atmosphere, that really made those streets so beautiful.

There was nothing for people to do but hide away at home, and I thought it would actually be a good chance for me to concentrate on work, but in reality I was quite flustered, and I just focused on washing my hands (Day 11). When it struck me that I might not be able to go back to Japan, I felt strangely sentimental to think that I would be around to see the beautiful city of Paris through to the end of the crisis (Day 12). What changed that feeling completely was the news that Shimura Ken had died.

It was an incredible shock to hear that Mr. Shimura, so well-loved by so many people, had not only lost his life to the virus, but had done so alone with no-one to see him off on his final journey. I started seeing similarities between him and me here in Paris. If I fell seriously ill here, I would place a burden on the medical system and cause trouble for my French friends.

If I were to die here, I had no idea where I would be laid to rest, and that would be a tragic situation for my family members, people I know, and readers in Japan. I was unable to take the most basic responsibility for my own affairs. These realizations made me decide I needed to go back as soon as I could (Day 14). In Japan, at least I could take responsibility for myself, and I felt like this was the least I could do.

In effect, it was Mr. Shimura’s untimely death that made up my mind for me. I had never met him, but as the director Yamada Yoji said, he was “a genius of comedy.” I believe we lost a truly wonderful talent.

I did not want his death to have been in vain. I felt Mr. Shimura’s death gave the Japanese people the most powerful warning thus far, that the pandemic is not to be taken lightly. And sure enough, it seems that after he died there was a dramatic change in people’s mentality, including the government’s.

When I came to understand how the title Applause connected to the story, I was profoundly moved. I believe that in that installment of the novel, you were seeking to convey a sense of hope––does that sound accurate?

Shortly after the lockdown started, people started applauding from their balconies at precisely 8:00 PM to show their gratitude to medical personnel, and the practice spread naturally. My study is located next to the Seine, and at eight every evening I would hear bells ringing out, and at the same time I heard the wave of applause. I opened the window and joined in, too (Day 16). The clapping and cheering was a show of appreciation for health care workers who were putting their lives on the line, and at the same time it felt to me like people all over Paris expressing their solidarity and determination, showing that they are alive, all in the same boat, and they would pull through and survive. I was profoundly moved and indelibly affected by the sound of applause resounding around the empty city and over the Seine. I had a strong feeling that I had to put this in words, in order not to forget this experience, so the title was the first thing I decided on.

The Musée Picasso, which Maha visited just before the lockdown went into effect. The usually bustling museum was quiet, all its galleries devoid of visitors.

— You posted Applause along with beautiful photographs of Paris and of paintings. Were those pictures you had taken yourself, and if so did you take them during the lockdown?

They were all pictures I took during lockdown in Paris. The streets of Paris without a single person on them made the most perfect and lovely pictures, but it was also a melancholy sight. All businesses had shut down, the usual noise was gone, the air was wonderfully clear, the skies were blue, the sunsets were breathtaking. I couldn’t get over the irony of it all.

There were two photos of works by Da Vinci (Day 9 / Day 14), which I had taken at the Louvre on February 24. Drapery Study for a Seated Madonna, which I posted on Day 14, is something Leonardo drew when he was in his twenties. It’s a small drawing, just about 30 centimeters square, but it’s just overwhelming. It’s amazing that this could have been drawn 550 years ago by a young man not much older than 20 and (at that point) unknown, but what impresses me even more is the fact that people over the years never lost sight of the drawing’s greatness, and kept it intact over those 550 years so that we can appreciate it all these centuries later. This little work on paper shows us that the essence of human nature remains unchanged. The existence of this drawing gave me courage, and brought home to me that what artists need to do is live, survive, and leave something that will touch people’s hearts in the future.

(Continues in “E-mail Interview on Novel Applause, vol. 3”. Translation by Christopher Stephens )



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