Our latest Notable Narrative, “The Man Who Sailed His House,” tells the story of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, who was found floating alone on the roof of his home in the days following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March of this year.
GQ’s Michael Paterniti nails down the tiniest details of the story: the structural materials used to build Hiromitsu’s family home, his schedule rationing the food that happened to be in his pockets when the wave hit, a message recording his lost wife’s birthday written on a comic book page with a marker recovered from the water.
But keep an eye out for exactly how Paterniti decides to tell the story. Notice the direct way that his words echo the language of fairy tales and legends: “Rise now, hiromitsu, man of men, and accept your fate.” The wave that tears Hiromitsu from his wife’s arms is “this monster.” Swept out to sea, the castaway recalls the wisdom of “a famous Japanese adventurer” (albeit one seen on television) in order to survive. Paterniti knows that Hiromitsu has lived through a personal tragedy worthy of an epic, that his effort to memorialize his wife and honor his parents in his darkest moments recalls the engines driving the oldest stories we have.
The writer marshals the facts of the disaster, the days adrift that followed it, and Hiromitsu’s quest to rejoin the world of survivors. He shares the story with us, his readers, but he is not telling it to us. Paterniti is telling Hiromitsu’s story of loss and survival back to him, in a way that is surely both alien and familiar to the widower:
The second night is interminable. The stench of oil thickens as you shrivel. The water seems to rise. The grinding reverberates from the center of the earth. The roof is disintegrating beneath your feet. If there’s a force trying to crush you, you realize now that it’s neglect. Where nature brought the full bore of her attention on you, cleaving you from all that was precious, it has abandoned you here, in these black, oily fields. No singing now. At some point, the blue light returns — billowing pods, otherworldly ocean mushrooms, phosphorescent jellyfish, it turns out — but if someone could see you in that supernatural glow, they’d see a thin, hunched man, mouth in that grim line of your father’s. You’re too tired to be amused or feel optimism. The light can’t feed or save you. Maybe it’s not a sign after all. The tunnel narrows. You write another note, to your parents this time. I am sorry for being unfilial, it says.
Let it go, Hiromitsu, man of men.
Paterniti commands his subject to live through the story again, as the writer lifts it up, turns it inside out, and delivers it back to him as a gift. The story of a man’s love for his lost wife, “The Man Who Sailed His House” is also the story of an author’s love for the hero he renders immortal.
It is to Paterniti’s credit that he simultaneously tells a tale of something smaller and more human, showing grief’s relentless motion in the face of despair. James Joyce created Johnny the mill horse going round and round the statue in “The Dead.” William Butler Yeats gave us Cuchulain using his sword to tilt with nature herself. And faced with equally dramatic real-world material – a shuddering planet, an unstoppable wave, the death of the beloved – Paterniti delivers Hiromitsu, sweeping, sweeping with his broom, even as the tide of the living rises around him and can no more be held back than the past or the sea.