‘The fox woman and doctor Shimamura’, foxy complicity

Here is an original work, endowed with an elusive wisdom and that opens a gap in the elusive Japanese spirit by connecting it with the European in the beginnings of modern psychology. Christine Wunnicke’s novel (Munich, 1966) recreates the adventures of a Japanese neurologist between 1891 and the first decades of the 20th century. It is difficult to think of a more subtle and intelligent way of showing how science makes its way thanks to the manias and shortcomings of those who dedicate themselves to it. However, the irony is not the leitmotiv of this unique book. “Dr. Shimamura’s life was marked by tragedy.” This phrase, written in a magazine on the history of Japanese medicine, appears as a quote from The Fox Woman and Doctor Shimamura and it is the germ of the novel. Perhaps it was so, in the unknowable reality of the life of that neurologist born in Kyoto. But in the novel, our hero is rather tragicomic; he lives another life that needs no explanation, only to be told with an extravagant sensitivity to detail and nuance. It’s a kind of ikebana: words and phrases like disheveled flowers whose stems stick instinctively to still water.

Shimamura, retired in his house in Kameoka, always feverish, suffering from consumption, has no choice but to deconstruct his past. He tries to trick memory with some toys of a beautiful skunk patient, which he hides behind the heavy tomes of Charcot and Griesinger’s treatise on mental illness. The German language serves as a vehicle for his daydreams, as he weaves “complex and incandescent cobwebs in his head.” He sometimes evokes that little spoon with which his mother used to clean his ears as a child and imagines that, like then, she penetrates his brain and empties it of the tangle of his thoughts. He is taken care of by his wife, Shaniko; his mother, Hanako; the mother-in-law and a young woman who was a patient or caregiver, he does not remember, at the Kyoto hospital of which he was the director. Hanako writes a biography of her son (a life marked “by this pretty, sweet, compassionate, almost feminine madness”), but once she has two or three chapters in, she throws them into the fire. The women enter and leave the patient’s cabinet at will and know all its secrets and hiding places.

One subject dominates his solitary wanderings: that expedition he made in 1891 to study the women possessed by the fox in the distant province of Shimane. There he was sent along with an assistant by the doctor who was conducting his studies, who suspected that such outbreaks were an unusual kind of hysteria. The first signs of the obsession with foxes date back to the 13th century, and seem to be linked to Shinto rites. The young doctor Shimamura has compiled old stories and woodcuts that testify to this mysterious ailment that attacked women in summer and that has escaped the scrutiny of medicine for seven centuries. The animal takes possession of the female body, penetrates through the smallest bodily openings, makes its way through the organs and intestines, and finally emerges under the skin and may even appear through the patient’s own mouth. Shimamura found this with increasing disgust by examining a beautiful young woman for several days, observing her contortions and her shameless dancing, like a tarantella. His assistant takes photos, attempts and sometimes succeeds in exorcism, and the expelled fox is taken in by strange human beings they call pots. Did Shimamura end up being a vessel?

Sick, still possessed by “the spirit of the fox” (Fuchgeist, he mutters with a Viennese accent to his patient-assistant), our man is sent by the emperor to Europe. Without knowing a word of French, he enters the orbit of Charcot and his Salpêtrière circus, and the only thing he understands is that the great hysteria it is a comedy orchestrated by the doctors before an amusingly awed audience. He then ends up in the German capital, tutored by Professor Mendel, and soon understands that in Berlin, unlike in Paris, “only reason reigned”. Finally, we find him on a divan in Vienna, hypnotized by Freud’s own mentor, Josef Breuer, who is extracting an oriental homicide with tweezers while occasionally opening the window to let air in, or the fox out. In his memoir to the emperor’s officials, Dr. Shimamura, who now controls the spasmodic movements of his arms and has stopped crying when a waltz sounds, concludes that psychoanalysis as a method of curing “traumatic hysteria is useless for Japan because it is contrary to our sense of courtesy; Besides, it lasts too long”.

This funny and shrewd novel, with characters who see and understand each other (that patient-assistant who carries inside a novel “of love, misery, silence and suicide”), shows the abyss between Japan and the West, as well as between psychology and the human heart, without giving importance to such abysses. Wunnicke, with a luminous, rich and free way of narrating reminiscent of Karen Blixen, leaves a jingle in the air that reminds us of the insignificance of reason, while questioning the reliability of human memory; that is to say, she manages to make the reader look in the mirror of the novel and sketch a shy smile of complicity.

Author: Christine Wunnicke.

Translation: Richard Gross.

Editorial: Disability, 2022.

Format: soft cover (189 pages, 20.50 euros).

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‘The fox woman and doctor Shimamura’, foxy complicity


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