“The Fox and Dr Shimamura” by Christine Wunnicke


With her sinuously taut sculpture “The Arch of Hysteria” (1993), French artist Louise Bourgeois addressed deep-seated Western cultural associations between women, hysteria, and sexual dysfunction. Drawing on the ideas of 19th-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, under whom Freud had studied and whose ideas enjoyed a great deal of currency among many Surrealist artists years later, Bourgeois re-fashioned what had become a prototypical image of the hysterical woman in the Western imagination, writhing and with arched back, into a headless, genital-less, bronze male body suspended by a wire. It is a potent visual metaphor and the subversiveness of Bougeois’s gesture laid the groundwork for subsequent artistic re-evaluations of this specious aspect of European cultural history.

One such example is award-winning German author Christine Wunnicke’s novella The Fox and Dr Shimamura, which approaches the subject by combining late 19th- and early 20th-century Japanese and European history with elements of caricature, satire, parody, and the absurd. Originally published in German in 2015, Wunnicke’s peculiar book (her second to appear in English translation) is based loosely on the real-life, though largely unknown, Dr Shun’ichi Shimamura, a Japanese professor who investigated fox possession in Shimane Prefecture in 1891 and went on to study psychiatry and neurology in Berlin and Vienna before returning to Japan, where he served as the director of the Kyoto Prefectural Medical School. Kitsune-tsuki, or fox possession, was an affliction thought to affect women in which a shape-shifting fox would enter and inhabit a woman’s body and alter her behavior and even physical appearance (such notions are thought to derive from pre-modern Chinese literature).


The Fox and Dr Shimamura, Christine Wunnicke,(Author), Philip Boehm (trans) (New Directions, April 2019; WW Norton, may 2019)
The Fox and Dr Shimamura, Christine Wunnicke, Philip Boehm (trans) (New Directions, April 2019; WW Norton, May 2019)

While Wunnicke’s fictionalized Shimamura undertakes similar studies into fox possession in rural Japan as well as a European grand tour of sorts, where he encounters a corps d’elite of modern psychoanalysis (Charcot, Josef Breuer, and Freud, among others), he also unknowingly suffers from the malady that he himself investigates. Here Wunnicke displays a certain facility with persiflage, especially when she humorously dissects the sexist and voyeuristic male gaze lurking behind certain aspects of early 20th-century psychoanalysis (as she does in her unyielding caricature of Charcot). And she adds an additional ironic layer by handicapping her book’s namesake with a poor memory despite his professional studies of the mind and goal of writing a book on the nature of memory. Thus, as a man researching (and necessarily suffering from) what was understood to be a predominantly women’s affliction, the joke, it seems, is on him, a fact that gradually emerges as the book develops.

However, Wunnicke’s writing can, at times, fall flat and even grate (at least in translation). Her narrator, for example, is anything but omniscient (a self-evident irony).  Describing the reaction by Shimamura’s housemaid to something he says, the narrator muses:


Perhaps she was horrified. Perhaps the water was ice cold.  Perhaps she didn’t understand. Perhaps she had long ago contracted consumption.


Elsewhere, when Shimamura unwittingly rests his finger “on a half-an-animal penis protruding disembodied from the folds of a kimono” while visiting the decapitation laboratory at the Sorbonne, the reader is told:


Shimamura had to suppress a laugh. Then he was moved. Then he was hungry. Then he had a headache. Then he felt a chill.


Abrupt transitions, meandering paragraphs, and inessential passages (“The work consisted of measuring reaction times, which, as the name suggested, was the time it took for someone to react to something”) might even indispose some readers, possibly causing them to overlook a number of the book’s more interesting narrative elements.

One such element is the frame device in which the plot is recounted retrospectively. Beginning at the end of Shimamura’s life, when he is being tended to by four women—his mother, wife, her mother, and a housemaid—the narrative fluctuates between present and past, often in oblique and unreliable ways that mirror the elderly Shimamura’s fading memory (he admits to forgetting what should otherwise have been included in his memory book).

Additionally, Wunnicke’s adept mise en abyme—Shimamura’s mother writes a book about her son within a book about him—simultaneously gestures towards the idea of language’s intertextuality while questioning the extent to which reality can be accessed via words. What begins as biography quickly shape-shifts into a festschrift, a bildungsroman, and a family saga until she ostensibly abandons the project, having written a mere five pages, which she summarily tosses into a fire. It is a promising premise—the hazy unreliability of memory with its intermingling of fact and fiction—cleverly draped in the lineaments of literary criticism. If only the satirical intent underpinning and informing the narrative had been as nebulous.

Brian Haman is the Book Review Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. A former Fulbright Scholar, he holds a PhD and an MA from the University of Warwick in the UK and splits his time between China and Europe.