A book based on some 800 letters written in Japanese over a 40-year period by a British army officer to a woman he loved would be a rare find. In this case the authors have come upon a real treasure, as the life of the letter-writer, Arthur Hart-Synnot, is as dramatic as any Australian writer could summon up.
I am just going to spill the beans about this book because knowing in advance the basic story of his life did not spoil it for me. (Early on I checked on Hart-Synnot in Wikipedia and learned some of the dramatic turns in his life). Just a little thought would give you the answer to the question of whether they lived happily ever after: 800 letters over 40 years and World War II are a couple of hints.
He was the son in a land-owning military family in Ireland and along with others in his family he went to Sandhurst. He was a good linguist and after serving in the Boer War, he was accepted into a Japanese language program and was sent to Tokyo in 1904 as the British had an alliance with Japan at the time of the Russo-Japanese war. He met Masa Suzuki, a divorced working class woman and they became friends and lovers. They shared a love of nature and had a similar aesthetic sense. They lived together for several years, a situation that was frowned on by the military. His career required that he move to various locations and he was not given several posts that came open in Tokyo, perhaps because of their involvement. They eventually had two sons together and though he begged her many times to join him in England , she would not leave Japan.
He was sent to the front during World War I and just weeks before the end of the war, he lost both legs above the knees. Initially he hoped to recuperate and to live on his pension with Masa in Tokyo. As part of the long process of being fitted for and learning to walk with prosthetic legs, he was sent to Cannes. There he met an English volunteer nurse and having concluded he could not make his way without help, he married Violet. Masa was initially furious and crushed by his betrayal, but finally came to terms with it. After a year or two, their correspondence began again, without the protestations of enduring love. Still, some might say that Violet was an understanding wife. Throughout the years, Arthur and Masa wrote each other constantly though only Arthur’s letters to her have survived. He sent her money until World War II intervened at which time neither money nor letters could get through.
Shortly after Arthur and Violet married, they returned to his estate Ballymora in County Armagh. At this time Ireland was in upheaval and Armagh was a disputed area. He and Violet had to abandon their home and moved to the south of France, which also had a better climate for his health. His home was destroyed, along with his Japanese pictures and keepsakes.
We learn that Arthur’s surviving son Kiyoshi became a student in France while Arthur and Violet were living near Antibes and they met near the end of Kiyoshi’s two years in Paris. When he returned to Tokyo, he married and when war came, he was drafted. As good a linguist as his father, he was sent to the area in China near Russia to learn the language and was captured when Russia invaded and fought 10 days at the end of the war. He died in a prison work-camp in the interior of Russia. His widow had lived with Masa from the time of their marriage and years later cameupon the letters.
The letters had been published some years ago for a Japanese audience. This 2006 book makes them accessible to us and with the fleshing out of the context of their lives by Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams we see a complex picture of two dramatic lives. These two are wonderful storytellers and have created an unforgettable story and along the way, a nuanced history of the period. This will make it into Charlotte’s top 10 favorite books of the year.