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Review: “Dendera,” by Yuya Sato

Being human, it’s easy to forget that we are animals. By all rights, it shouldn’t be. We navigate our world in fleshy bodies, and experience it with our five very animal senses. Other than the addition of a few more CCs of brainpower than most species come equipped with, we could even be called unremarkable – fairly pedestrian, actually, when compared to a falcon or an octopus. Despite this, “human vs. nature” is still often used as one of the time-honored central themes of literature, as though a clear distinction could ever be drawn between the two. This imaginary divide has been breached with increasing frequency in the decades since 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and kicked off the modern environmental movement. Since that time, writers including Utah’s own Terry Tempest Williams and Edward Abbey (the latter of whom is considered one of the founding thinkers of eco-terrorism) have attempted to un-brick the imaginary wall between Homo sapiens and our scaly, furred, and feathered brethren.

For the most part, authors have done this by speaking to the web of near-mystical connections that bind us to the natural. The accelerating destabilization of the Earth’s climate and the swiftly-onrushing calamities associated with same have rendered this sort of starry-eyed meditation less rewarding than it used to be, and thus other writers like Margaret Atwood, Jeff VanderMeer, and Cormac McCarthy have used the framework of genre fiction – particularly horror and science fiction – to explore the human aftermath of environmental chaos. This is important work because it is in one sense an attempt to undo the relatively recent psychic rift between humans and our natural world, a rift deepened by industrialization and consumer culture and widened by narratives that emphasize the distinction between “natural” and “unnatural.”

Dendera is a novel by Yuya Sato, available in an excellent English translation from Nathan Collins and Edwin Hawkes (Haikasoru, 2015). In its broad outlines, Sato’s tale reads like an allegory or a fable, albeit one whose ultimate lesson can be read as both murky and amoral. Dendera tells the story of Kayu Saitoh, a woman who, upon her 70th birthday, is taken into the wilderness by her family and left to die. In Saitoh’s village, resources are scarce and conditions harsh, so this is the traditional fate of everyone in the community who reaches their 70th year, and Saitoh goes willingly – joyously, even. Despite this, her fate does not turn out to be quite that simple.

Yuya Sato never really explains where the proper place name “Dendera” comes from in his book, but unless he’s referencing the Sanskrit word for wheel or the Marathi word for spine, it’s a reference to an ancient town in Egypt, best known as the location of the famous Hathor Temple Complex. Hathor is a goddess in Egyptian mythology, the consort of Ra and, in her aspect as his Eye, his avenging protector. She represents the sky and fertility. All of those themes – the elements, motherhood, and, especially, vengeance – can be found in Dendera. But beneath that, beneath even Sato’s examination of decision-making and power in patriarchy and matriarchy, is a cold, hungry, miserable truth that abundance has largely allowed us to forget: the human animal.

Cover of the original Japanese edition

Sato’s prose is austere, blunt, and brutal, his story told in a way that has the weird timelessness of a dream in which we aren’t sure if this is the past or the future. Details are sparse, and many place names are simple proper nouns (“The Village,” “The Mountain,” etc.). There are echoes of Jack London here, and Ernest Hemingway, too — in particular The Old Man and the Sea. In reaching for these timeworn staples of English class as points of reference I don’t mean to belittle Sato’s achievement here, or imply that it’s somehow simplistic. Young adults aren’t handed William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (another book that Dendera calls to mind) because it’s an easy read: they’re given it for exactly the opposite reason, because it’s a challenging story, timeless and largely placeless and thus somehow of every time and place. In a sense fairy tales fit this model, too. They may be simple, but the conflicts, motivations, and consequences they illustrate are often quite complex.

Climate change is situated just beneath the surface of Sato’s novel like muscle bunched beneath a hairy hide: gathered in tension, just waiting to be unleashed. Our species may labor under the delusion that we are the masters of our world, but our attempts to dominate and exploit are invariably suicidal in nature. We are trapped inside a burning house, and in our centuries-long quest to forget that we are animals, we have put ourselves in a position where we may re-learn the lessons of animalism – through scarcity, conflict, want, and the erosion of social norms. I don’t want to give any of the plot away, but there are passages in Dendera that describe — in detail that is both clinical and visceral – the butchering of humans and of animals. The way in which these scenes are treated strikes right to the very heart of the blurry distinction between person and beast.

Dendera also explores the border between meaninglessness and meaning, despair, hope, and acceptance. It’s strange, morbid, and beautiful: a winter story of women in the winter of their lives, which may be exactly the story we currently need. As a fable, as a cautionary tale, and as an elegy.

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