German author Christine Wunnicke’s latest novel to appear in English, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, is a mythical, mystical, and at times bizarre tale of a late nineteenth-century Japanese doctor who is sent to remote areas of the Shimane prefecture to cure women of fox possession. The book begins at the end, as Dr. Shimamura’s career as a renowned neurologist has passed, and his memories of curing fox possession and other forms of female hysteria are told in a feverish state from his sick bed. His hazy memories also bring us through his time in Europe, where he meets and studies with other famous doctors, Charcot and Breuer, who have an interest in ailments that particularly affect females.
Wunnicke’s fractured narrative alternates abruptly between the doctor’s past and present, a symptom of her narrator’s poor state. The author routinely reminds us throughout that her narrator is not a reliable one. First Shimamura tries to recall as many details as possible about the time he is sent by the Imperial University in Tokyo to investigate stories of women possessed by foxes. Each attempt at summoning details of past trips concludes with a remark from Wunnicke along the lines of, “Shimamura’s brain manufactured many memories he couldn’t place.”
As he travels—or remembers traveling—through the remote countryside with his talkative and half-naked teenage assistant, he doesn’t, at first, encounter any women who appear to be possessed by foxes, but instead he comes across diseases that are typical of poor rural women: tuberculosis, meningitis, and flu. While nearing the end of his journey, the doctor meets a beautiful young Japanese girl who displays signs of hysteria, and who seems to have a fox living under her skin:
While at rest the animal evidently resided right below Kiyo’s underwraps—at least that was where he seemed to be working his way out. It was a small fox, two or three hand lengths, depending on whether he was stretched out of balled up, and in his cramped quarters just under Kiyo’s tender white skin he moved a bit like a caterpillar. Kiyo traced his movements with her finger: across her stomach slowly up into her chest, into her right armpit and then the left and then with a jerk into her left upper arm, where the creature pushed nearly all the say to her elbow, until this swelled and swelled to the point of bursting.
While we are never quite sure what is real and what is a figment of Shimamura’s fevered memory, we can look to Japanese mythology and literature for clues as to Wunnicke’s purpose in representing women possessed by foxes. In his free time, the doctor himself researches this very subject with zeal; he becomes an expert on the Japanese deity Inari, and even founds a Society for the Study of Myths.
Inari is depicted in many forms in Japanese myth. One includes a white fox with nine tails, though this shape-shifting spirit is represented at times as a spider or a dragon. One of the most intriguing aspects of this myth, as it relates to Wunnicke’s story, is the fact that this god can be male or female; its gender is always fluid. The dual gender of Inari becomes reflected in the character of Dr. Shimamura himself, who, after treating his fox-possessed patients, also seems to take on this “female” ailment himself. After he cures Kiymo, he too displays symptoms of hysteria, which include fevers, fainting, and lapses in memory. In addition, the doctor appears to have gained a special sympathy for women who recognize him for his compassion, and who begin flocking to him in droves.
The story grows even more surreal as Dr. Shimamura tries to recall his time spent with other prominent physicians of the day in France and Germany. With this East-West connection, Wunnicke seems to be making the point, while simultaneously mocking the misogynist idea that, although they are described in different terms, it is believed in both Asia and Europe that women’s health and states of mind are affected by their physiology. In the West, the idea that women are prone to diseases that induce hysteria can be traced back thousands of years to Ancient Greece. The word “hysteria” comes from the Ancient Greek word ὑστέρα, which is the word for “womb.”
According to the Hippocratic Corpus, the Ancient Greeks believed that a woman’s womb was not located in one place, but moved around her body and, depending on which part of her body the womb occupied, she would display symptoms of depression, anger, madness, or any number of irrational behaviors. In order for a woman to be cured of her hysteria, this “wandering uterus” had to be contained. The Ancient Greek speculation about the “wandering uterus” is eerily similar to Wunnicke’s description of Shimamura’s patient with a fox wandering around parts of her body.
While in Paris, Shimamura witnesses Dr. Charcot parade women in from of an audience so he can demonstrate symptoms of what he calls Grande Hysterie. What the Japanese doctor witnesses in European medicine seems strange and sad to him, all the more so because Japanese custom dictates that such illnesses are to be kept private. He repeatedly observes, with discomfort and horror, Charcot’s very public examinations of his female patients:
Nurses removed parts of the patients’ dresses to expose the hysterogenic zones, which seemed to encompass practically the entire female body, and at that time were still awaiting systemization. These zones were then observed by everyone and manipulated by one assistant or the other. There were patients who could be stuck in the arm or neck with a long needle so that it came out the other end and they didn’t feel a thing. Others might fall into a state, start twitching or even present with paralysis as soon as their stomach or should blade or finger was grazed with nothing but a feather. Assistants used grease pencils to mark the zones in question with lines and circles.
When Dr. Shimamura arrives in Germany, he also studies with Dr. Breuer, an early pioneer in the field of psychology who is mentored by Freud himself. Of all the doctors described in the text, Freud is treated by the author with the most mockery and disdain. Freud is called a “gossip monger” by his Japanese colleague and when Dr. Shimamura is about to return home he remarks about Freud’s methods, “‘The analytic conversation as a healing method for traumatic hysteria,’ he wrote to the imperial commission, ‘is of little use for Japan, as it contradicts our sense of politeness, and besides it takes too long.’”
Finally, Wunnicke slyly reminds us that, although women are powerless, even when it comes to treating their own illnesses, they find ways to quietly assert their will over men. Dr. Shimamura lives with his wife, to whom he is married through arrangement, as well as his mother, mother-in-law, and a nurse who is a former patient. The sole occupation of these women is to nurse and take care of the doctor as he suffers from consumption. But we slowly realize that they have much more influence over him—and over their own lives—than it first appears. They play mind games on Shimamura, and decide that the best way to keep him alive is to agitate him. One of the funniest scenes in the book involves a conversation they have over tea in which they flaunt their knowledge about where the doctor hides his secret possessions, which they steal and replace on a regular basis.
Philip Boehm, who is used to tackling unconventional and complicated narratives with the likes of Franz Kafka, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Herta Müller, is the ideal translator for Wunnicke’s story. Something of Boehm’s background as a stage director seems to sneak through his smooth and deft translation, especially the more melodramatic scenes, such as those Shimamura experiences in Europe. Boehm’s rendering is so natural that one oftentimes forgets that it is, after all, a translation from the German.
Wunnicke ends her narrative on a puzzling note. Shimamura is reminded of his past when two visitors, whom at first he doesn’t recognize, pay him a visit. Their recollections of his time in the Shimane Prefecture are very different than his own. What was real and what was a result of his addled memory? What is real medicine and what is myth? And how much control and influence have women really had on Dr. Shimamura’s life and career?
Melissa Beck teaches Latin and Ancient Greek at an independent day and boarding school in New England. She blogs about literature at thebookbindersdaughter.com and Tweets @magistrabeck.
Banner credit: “Inari,” by Tod McQuillin. Reproduced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.