E-mail Interview on Novel “Applause”, vol. 3


In Paris on lockdown, applause erupted as the evening bells rang out right at 8:00 PM each day. This is the last part of an e-mail interview with Harada Maha on her novel "Applause", which she gave its title first, before writing the story, so as not to forget this experience.

— Even when one understands the importance of self-isolating in fighting the spread of COVID-19, actually keeping your distance from people and staying home seems really difficult. But of course by social distancing you protect yourself, other people, and society. What are your thoughts on this?

As time goes by, we’ve been learning more and more about how this virus is transmitted. Airborne saliva and mucus were identified as the main source of infection, and at this point everyone has gotten the message that they should wear a mask, practice social distancing (specifically, keeping 1.5 to 2 meters away from others), and avoid the “3 Cs” (closed spaces, crowds, close contact). But you can go further, avoiding social contact altogether, not speaking to people even if you do encounter them, and staying indoors as much as you possibly can, and this is the most effective way to protect both yourself and others from infection. It has become clear that this is the only way to end the pandemic.

The virus is cunning, so to speak, in that you can be infected but asymptomatic, and you can infect others while in this state. Of course if you have a fever or a cough, you’re going to stay home and rest, but if people feel fine and thus interact normally with others, the virus is going to spread like wildfire, and vulnerable people – like those who have suffered from past illnesses or have pre-existing conditions, and the elderly – are most likely to end up in critical condition. This can happen while the person transmitting the virus remains totally unaware of it. That’s the most terrifying thing about it.

This is why all these countries have been enforcing strict lockdowns. However, governments cannot simply tell people to stay home and keep stores and businesses closed without providing compensation for their lost income. Even if they succeed in reducing the risk of the virus, they will have failed the people if the lockdown increases the risk of people losing their livelihoods. So countries have been enforcing full-fledged lockdowns, but simultaneously implementing compensation measures.

However, the Japanese government was unable to make such a decisive judgment. They can’t promise everyone will get assistance, and nobody is willing to take responsibility, so all they can do is issue a non-binding “request” that people minimize going out, refrain from gathering in groups and so forth. They’ve been wishy-washy from the start. People’s anger in Japan is completely understandable.

I was following what leaders of various countries were saying before and after the lockdowns began, but it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who made the most emotionally affecting speech, put the most sensible policies in place, earned the support of citizens, and made significant progress in slowing the spread of the virus. A Japanese translator translated her speech in real time, and I was able to read it the very next day (on Mikako Hayashi-Husel’s website). This speech showed me Angela Merkel’s outstanding qualities as a leader, and I was also quite moved by the Japanese translator’s keen sensitivity and sense of purpose, which inspired her to translate and post it immediately. I think the translator, who lives in Germany, had an intuition that the Japanese needed to read this speech. Knowing there is someone so gifted and wise playing a role in global communication is very encouraging to me.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night, photographed by Harada Maha at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). This painting is on the cover of #Fluctuat Nec Mergitur."

— You have said that now more than ever, you would like to see people read your book Fluctuat Nec Mergitur. What is the message that you would like to communicate to people right now, while they’re self-isolating at home?

In Paris during the lockdown, every day I watched the Seine flowing outside the window, and when I went outdoors once a day, I also stood on the bridge and watched the Seine. As I gazed at the river, I thought of Vincent van Gogh, the solitary genius. There is no doubt that during his magnificent, too-short life he was continually battling loneliness. On the other hand, I believe he had the courage to face loneliness. There’s proof of this in his finest work, from the last year of his life, when he was loneliest and most marginalized of all.

Van Gogh’s work shows us that when an artist is alone, they can come face to face with themselves and elevate their sensitivity to great heights. However, whatever fruits this loneliness may bear, it only becomes a “work of art” when there is someone there to appreciate it. I believe this is equally true of all art, whether it’s a novel, a piece of music, or a play. Art is a message that needs both someone to transmit it and someone on the other end to receive it.

In Vincent van Gogh’s case, it was his brother Theo. The Van Gogh brothers could never have imagined that a hundred years later Vincent’s work would be loved by so many people around the world. They were like men in a small boat rocked by the fierce waves of a storm, who were swept overboard and never made it to shore. But in the end, after the storm had passed, the work emerged from the waves and was embraced by the world. The title Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, Latin for “[a vessel that is] tossed by waves but never sinks”), hints at what the Van Gogh brothers staked their lives on and accomplished.

This phrase is the motto engraved on the coat of arms of the city of Paris. Since ancient times the Seine, which flows through the center of Paris, has often flooded and was a tribulation to sailors. However, sailors likened the whole of Paris to the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, saying: “During a storm the island resembles a ship, rocked by waves that crash over it, sometimes disappearing from view. But when the storm has passed, it remains unscathed. Paris is like the Île de la Cité. It may be tossed by the waves, but it will never be submerged.” They emblazoned the motto on the bows of their ships as a protective talisman.

No matter how turbulent the waves of the times through which we live, we may be tossed hither and yon but we will not sink. Now is a time when we are navigating rough seas and struggling to stay the course.

However, once the storm is over, our ship will emerge from the waves and continue moving forward. That is why I hope people will read this book, with these words in mind.

I hear that the bookstores that are still open have more customers than usual, and books are selling well. As these days of social distancing continue with no end yet in sight, do you have any advice about what kind of attitude people should maintain?

When I contacted my brother (Harada Munenori) during the lockdown, he said, “Hey, we can help save humanity just by lying around.” That’s just like him [laughs].

Until now, I’ve professed that going from place to place is my hobby, and I’ve always been pressed for time. But now I’m taking it easy, writing, reading, and enjoying homemade food at my own pace.

Not being able to go to the museum or travel certainly makes me sad, but this situation won’t last forever, and it’s not just me, it’s everybody. For the time being, all of us around the world are having our endurance tested. The most important thing is to watch your physical condition so that you will not get sick, and avoid causing the collapse of the medical system, while mentally preparing yourself for this situation to last for a while. Boosting your immune system helps prevent infection, and to do that, you should eat a well-balanced diet, get enough sleep, and try to keep a regular schedule.

Some studies show that exposure to the arts – visual art, music, drama – is effective in enhancing immunity. I think you can see this as a good opportunity to deepen your knowledge by viewing images, watching films, and reading books at home, in anticipation of the day when you’ll be able to reward yourself for all this hard work by engaging with real, live art in a post-coronavirus world.

When you think about it, there’s something wonderful about everyone working together at home to save humanity. It was after the Black Plague had devastated Europe that the Renaissance blossomed. I hope people will seize this chance to renew their appreciation of everyday life, of the things around us that are mundane and yet so wonderful, and be kind to themselves and others, and above all I want everyone to hang in there and pull through this. As one of the countless people living through this, I’m determined to keep on doing what I’m doing, keep writing, and keep communicating with readers and the public.

(End. Translation by Christopher Stephens )



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