Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fujino Chiya: Natsu no yakusoku (1999)

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Fujino Chiya 藤野千夜.  Natsu no yakusoku 夏の約束.  Kōdansha, 2000.

This was the co-winner of the 122nd A-Prize, for late 1999.  The other co-winner was Gengetsu 玄月’s Kage no sumika 蔭の棲みか.

Fujino was born in 1962, making her 37 when she won the Prize.  She’d been writing for four or five years.  Also, she was born a man.  I believe she was the first transsexual to win the Akutagawa Prize.  This, of course, created quite a stir in 2000.  She’s still a well-known writer, and I’m a bit surprised she’s not better known in English.

Both the hardback and paperback (I read the latter) printings of “Natsu no yakusoku” bear the French
translation of the title on the cover:  “Une promesse d’été.”  I guess we can translate it into English as “A summer promise,” although “The promise of summer” seems admissible and more evocative…  The promise in question is a vague plan that the main characters have made to go camping once summer comes;  the promise is mentioned by several of them in various scenes, and while neither the camping trip nor the preparations for it form any of the action of the book, still the idea that there’s this fun excursion awaiting them sometime in the near future is significant, thematically.  I’ll spoil it and say they never go, at least not in the summer that arrives in the story;  so this summer promise just hovers there as a vague hope for good times to come, good times that haven’t quite arrived but might yet, someday.

The story is a group portrait of several characters in their 20s living in Tokyo.  The focus shifts between and among them over the course of the novella.  At first it seems like we’ll be following the lives of Maruo and Hikaru, a gay male couple, and seeing them mainly through Maruo’s point of view.  But soon we meet their transgender friend Tamayo and her dog Apollon, and then we follow her to a gathering of her girlfriends, one of whom we later learn knew Hikaru growing up.  Then we meet Maruo’s downstairs neighbor Okano, and learn second-hand of her difficult love life…  There’s not much of a plot, really.  It’s more a series of vignettes as we see these characters and a few others in twos and threes, interacting, relating. 

In some ways the story is a meditation on relationships.  At first blush it seems the only real relationship we see is Maruo’s and Hikaru’s, but that’s almost enough.  It’s a finely drawn partnership, realized through two carefully rendered characters.  Hikaru works for a publisher, which we’re told allows him the freedom to be open about his sexuality, but Maruo is a salaryman, and has to stay closeted.  Most of his coworkers guess, though, and he’s subject to some hazing;  the difficulties of living LGBT in turn-of-the-millennium Tokyo are not foregrounded in the story, but they’re apparent on the edges.  Hikaru wants to move in with Maruo;  they already live near each other and are about as out as they can be in their neighborhood, walking around holding hands, and Hikaru wants to formalize their relationship as much as it can be in 1999.  Maruo is reluctant, and at first we suspect it might be due to the pressures of the closet;  later, though, we begin to wonder if he’s just reluctant to commit to Hikaru to that degree.  He doesn’t cheat, but there’s some interesting chemistry between him and Tamayo that’s barely hinted at. 

Maruo’s and Hikaru’s relationship is reflected/refracted in several other relationships that Fujino slips into the story.  Almost-relationships, I guess one could call them.  Tamayo’s emotional attachment to her dog Apollon is one.  This almost seems comical, or cliché, but it’s the occasion for Tamayo’s comment that to Apollon, Tamayo constitutes 8/10ths of the world.  That’s as close to a statement of the theme of the story as Fujino gets:  the idea that we are each other’s horizons, especially in relationships.  Human beings in relationships define each other’s universes. 

It’s a very pleasant read, the casual, light, uneventful surface disguising the careful craft that Fujino puts into delineating her characters and their situations.  In terms of significance, it’s surely an effort to emphasize the sheer normality of her characters:  Maruo’s easy-going good humor, his problems with his weight, his reluctance to commit, Tamayo’s understated longing for whatever the camping trip represents for her.  There’s a warmth and humanity to these characters that’s hard not to be charmed by.  Since Fujino’s not foregrounding the characters’ sufferings at the hands of straight society (but those sufferings are there!), the story might fall short for a reader who would like a more aggressive defense of these characters’ rights to live as they are.  It’s undeniably well crafted, though, and certainly drew enough attention in 2000.

I believe when this was published in hardback it was alone, but the paperback I read has an omake story in it:  Shufu to kōban 主婦と交番, “Housewife and Police Box.”  This has been translated.  It’s about a housewife named Natsumi and her little girl Mika.  Natsumi’s husband’s job has him living in another city, a common enough pattern in Japan;  he doesn’t appear in the story, so for all intents and purposes Natsumi and Mika are alone.  There’s an upstairs friend of Natsumi’s named Yoshiko, and that’s about it for characters.  The theme is the isolation of the housewife, so the small cast is key. 

This story, too, has a light, even humorous surface.  One day Mika asks why there are no lady cops in police boxes, those little neighborhood police ministations one finds everywhere in Japan.  Natsumi has never thought about it, and from then on becomes mildly obsessed with police boxes.  She scopes out all the ones within walking or bicycling distance of her home, gives the officers stationed at them little nicknames, almost turns into a stalker.  But her obsession is no worse than her daughter’s – the girl becomes so hung up on police boxes that one day she steals the stuffed Piipo mascot from one. 

Why does Natsumi go no farther than she can walk or bicycle?  Because she gets intense motion-sickness when she rides a train.  It’s suggested that this might be a phobia as much as a physical thing, and it’s easy to read it as a metaphor for housewifely desperation, almost agoraphobia.  The thing is, she almost forgets she has it, because her world as a mother has shrunk so much.  But when her daughter wants to tour the National Police Agency HQ, it causes problems.  She has an attack on the elevator at Police HQ.  The whole episode ends in trembling. 

Narrowed horizons, worlds defined by significant others, or perhaps by absence.  It’s a good pair to the title story. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Matayoshi Naoki: Hibana (2015)


Matayoshi Naoki 又吉直樹.  Hibana 火花.  Bungei Shunjū, 2015.

This won the 153rd A-Prize, for early 2015.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Hada’s book.

And so we come to it.  Every so often the awarding of the A-Prize becomes big news, spilling out beyond the rarefied precincts of literature and into the wrestling ring of popular culture.  It’s part of why it’s a big deal, why it’s the most famous of Japan’s literary prizes.  We’re in one of those moments right now.

Matayoshi hardly needs introducing to Japanese readers.  Born in 1980, he’s a well-known TV personality: specifically, he’s a manzai comedian.  He’s dabbled in books before – some essays, some poetry, a couple of short stories.  This is his first full-length work (and it’s longish:  150 pages in hardback).  It was published in Bungakkai early this year, which of course marks it as literary, from an institutional perspective.  And that issue of Bungakkai was the first in the journal’s 80-year history to require an immediate reprint – i.e., it sold a boatload of copies.  When the book was published it immediately became a best-seller, and when it got the A-Prize in the summer it was the best-selling recipient in history, surpassing Murakami Ryū’s 1976 Almost Transparent Blue.  It’s going to be a Netflix Original Series next spring.  In short, it’s a full-on mass-media (media-mix, to use the Japanese buzzword) phenomenon – print, internet, TV.  No surprise, since Matayoshi belongs to the Yoshimoto agency, who run all the big manzai stars. 


All of which inevitably raises suspicions about the work’s literary quality.  There’s not much of an old guard left to natter on about the blurring of the lines between serious and popular fiction, but you don’t have to be a pure-lit elitist to feel a twinge of regret at the possibility that the Prize has totally capitulated to mass-market forces.  That it has allowed itself to become just another cog in the Yoshimoto publicity gears.  Of course, such worries have been around with the prize for 60 years, since Ishihara Shintarō and Taiyō no kisetsu 

In this essay, of course, I’m not trying to take the measure of the whole Matayoshi phenomenon;  I just want to account for the story itself.  So in a sense all of that is irrelevant.  But of course it’s not;  it’s one of those books that even someone relatively insulated from the owarai boom like myself (living in the States, only visiting Japan once a year, mostly ignoring TV when I’m there) is going to be unable to read in isolation.  Everybody’s going to have an opinion on it, and that opinion is going to be at least half-formed before reading a single word of the book.  It’s going to be impossible to judge it completely on its own merits.  So if the A-Prize committee couldn’t, I can hardly blame them.  I’m going to try, of course (like I’m sure they tried), but I might as well lay out my biases here, although they’re probably pretty apparent already.

I like popular fiction, I like literary fiction, and I like fiction that (like my fave rave Murakami Haruki) blurs the lines.  I’m not opposed to that sort of thing.  That means that I’m not the kind of elitist who would reject a work simply because it’s popular – simply because it’s written by a comedian.  I wouldn’t dream of doing that.  But at the same time, I would hate to see literary fiction disappear.  I’m not so much a pop-culture triumphalist that I am comfortable with the idea of the islands of pure-lit disappearing beneath a tsunami of cash.  I don’t want market logic to be the only logic available to a writer, or to a reader.  All that suggests that I’m going to be torn about this book.

Surprise:  I’m torn about this book. 

Here’s the story.  It’s narrated by a young aspiring manzai comedian named Tokunaga, and it traces the ten-year arc of his career.  It begins when he’s scuffling at the entry level, performing at neighborhood festivals.  He meets a slightly older comedian named Kamiya and is so impressed that he adopts Kamiya as a mentor.  Most of the book is scenes from their relationship as it matures.  Some of these scenes are Kamiya instructing Tokunaga, or expounding on what’s truly funny, and how the manzaishi should live.  Other scenes explore the complicated emotions that Tokunaga experiences as he watches his mentor live and perform with much more dedication than Tokunaga himself can muster, but then enjoy less success than Tokunaga.  Tokunaga gradually rises through the ranks until he achieves a certain level of fame, but Kamiya never finds much of an audience.  At the end of the book Tokunaga retires, but he’s been estranged from Kamiya for a while by that time – the latter disappears in order to flee debt collectors, than reappears but in such a way as to alienate Tokunaga almost completely (more on that later). 

No doubt much of the book is drawn from Matayoshi’s own experiences as a manzaishi, but the arc is plainly not autobiographical, since Matayoshi is still performing.  Instead he’s giving us two kinds of manzai failure to compare.  Tokunaga retires primarily because his partner Yamashita decides to retire:  Yamashita is getting married and wants to start a family, and it’s clear he’s not going to be able to support them on his earnings as a manzaishi.  Tokunaga can’t imagine performing without Yamashita, since they’ve been together since middle school, so he retires too.  But of course what they’re both realizing is that they’re not going to truly succeed at this:  they’ve risen about as far as they can hope to, and it’s not far enough.  It’s a kind of failure, but then so is the decision to quit and do something else.  This is suggested by the way Kamiya fails, which is quite different.  He’s been even less financially successful than Tokunaga, and as noted, he’s in debt to loan sharks;  what’s more, for most of the book he’s letting a quasi-girlfriend support him, but then he lets her get away.  Kamiya is a stereotypical dysfunctional artist, brilliant (in Tokunaga’s eyes) at his art but a complete screw-up at life.  But he never gives up, and never compromises his sense of what’s truly funny to please a crowd.  And this is what finally alienates Tokunaga.  When Kamiya resurfaces after a year on the lam, he has breast implants – F-cups.  He says he got them on a lark, thinking it would be funny.  But it’s a bridge too far for Tokunaga, who lectures Tokunaga on how audiences aren’t going to get this, are going to think he’s being cruel to transgender people, and how it’s not wrong to think of your audience once in a while.  But by this point Tokunaga is already retired, and Kamiya, though abashed, plainly isn’t going to change.  So who’s the better manzaishi?

The title refers to two things.  The name of Tokunaga’s manzai duo is Sparks (スパークス), so Hibana 火花 (“sparks” in Japanese) is clearly a reference to that.  But the first and last scenes in the book are set in Atami during fireworks displays, and Matayoshi lingers on the poetic beauty and resonance of fireworks sparks in his descriptions of those scenes.  This last point is worth noting.  In style, this is literary fiction.  That is, Matayoshi’s descriptions are polished enough and beautiful enough to satisfy those who define literariness as beautiful writing.  His narrative strategies, too, are more literary than popular in the Japanese context.  The story he’s telling ends up having a tight narrative arc (it’s gonna be a natural TV series), but that kind of takes you by surprise because for most of the book he’s giving us vignettes, impressionistic descriptions of moments in Tokunaga’s relatinship with Kamiya.  It feels fragmentary in the way that much serious J-lit does, even if in the end it’s not.

This is a problem, I feel.  The book’s ending, with the two powerful dramatic moments of Tokunaga’s retirement and Kamiya’s body-modification revelation coming one after the other, is seriously jarring after the reflective mood of the rest of the book.  Matayoshi hasn’t prepared the reader for either one of these moments.  This is actually more of a problem with the retirement than with the implants scene.  This is because when it comes time to retire, Matayoshi lets Tokunaga go on for about ten pages about how much his partner Yamashita has meant to him through his life and career.  It gets really, really sentimental in here, which might have been fitting and expected if it wasn’t for the fact that Tokunaga has barely mentioned Yamashita up to this point.  Reflections on the manzaishi partner are conspicuously minimized for most of the story, in order to play up the mentor-pupil relationship.  So I at least was not prepared to believe any of this sentimentality about Yamashita at the end.

The implants scene is problematic for a different reason.  We’ve realized for a while that Kamiya’s career isn’t going to go anywhere, that this story is following the pupil-surpassing-the-master pattern, subcategory but-pupil-knows-he-can-never-really-surpass-the-master.  So we can understand on one level that we’re meant to see Kamiya’s implants as what Tokunaga interprets them as:  a sign that this guy will sacrifice anything and everything for his art, but that this is precisely what’s going to keep most people from getting him.  But Tokunaga is not wrong when he explains to Kamiya that this is not a funny joke these days:  we know enough about gender and sexuality issues now to see the cruelty in this.  The problem is that Matayoshi’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, right?  Because the end of the book depends on us still admiring Kamiya on some level for being willing to take it that far – meaning Matayoshi expects us to be able to see this as a joke.  We’re supposed (I think) to feel that Tokunaga has a good point, but that Kamiya is still cool.

This is why I’m torn about the book.  When it’s good, it’s really good.  The descriptions of place and time are vivid, and the evocation of Kamiya’s and Tokunaga’s relationship is really fine.  Not so much the reflections on What’s Funny – those I could take or leave – but the nuanced depiction of how tiring and downright annoying a funny person can be, balanced with Tokunaga’s self-doubt.  This is fine stuff.  But the ending feels like it was written with a TV series in mind, frankly.  It rings false on many levels, and undercuts much of what came before. 

But then, would I feel that way if I didn’t already know it was going to be a TV series?  I don’t know.   

Hada Keisuke: Scrap and build (2015)

Hada Keisuke 羽田圭介.  Sukurappu ando birudo スクラップ・アンド・ビルド.  Bungei Shunjū, 2015.

This won the 153rd A-Prize, for early 2015.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Matayoshi’s book.

Hada was born in 1985, making him 29 when he won the prize.  So:  young.  But he’s been writing since he was 17, and had been an A-Prize finalist several times since 2008.  So he’s moving out of new-writer territory and into the mid-career zone, which traditionally would make him less likely to win it.  But there are no rules, and they’ve given the prize to a number of mid-career writers recently. 

The story is told from point of view of Kento, a 28-year-old out of work man living with his mother and grandfather.  The mother is working, and the grandfather is slowly dying.  He’s 88 and in need of serious care;  not quite immobile but close to it, not quite lost to dementia but getting there.  It has fallen to Kento’s mother to take care of the old man, but since Kento is out of work it mostly becomes his job. 


The old man hates what’s happening to him, and frequently mutters, “I should just die.”  Kento decides to help him out.  It’s difficult to tell exactly why.  Kento feels the burden of caregiving, but also feels sorry for the old man in the various pains, fears, and indignities of his condition.  The story is in the third person and goes into less detail about Kento’s thoughts than one might expect, so we’re kind of left to guess:  on the surface, Kento’s telling himself that it’s about giving the old man death with dignity.  But he’s also horrified by what’s happening to his grandfather, and so revulsion and fatigue may be driving his actions as much as love.

In any case, he chooses the gentlest possible way of providing death with dignity.  Kento’s mother helps her father as little as possible – forcing him to do as much as possible for himself, on the theory that every little bit of activity the old man carries out will stave off the inevitable that much longer.  Kento buys this tough-love theory of caregiving, and so concludes that the best way to hasten his grandfather’s death is to pamper him as much as possible.  When his mother’s around, Kento lets her make the old man carry his dishes to the kitchen after meals, sort his own clothes, that sort of thing, but when his mother’s at work, Kento accedes to the old man’s every request, fully expecting that as a result his grandfather will hurry into that good night.

At the same time Kento’s revulsion at the decay of his grandfather’s mental and physical faculties leads him to adopt an intense regimen of body-building and study.  The study is an effort to obtain new qualifications that will help him in his job search (he’s constantly going for interviews), but the body-building simply seems to be about keeping himself from declining.  Kento is presented as a fairly mediocre average-guy type:  graduate of a third-rate college, former car salesman, not too smart, not too handsome, average-looking girlfriend.  Seriously in danger of slipping through life’s cracks, if he doesn’t do something about it.  Thus the body (and mind) building. 

The book has a happy ending.  While giving his grandfather a bath, Kento leaves the room for a little while.  When he comes back his grandfather is struggling, nearly drowning;  as he saves the old man, Kento realizes that in spite of his frequent statements to the contrary, his grandfather really does want to live.  So he gives up on trying to care him to death.  Cut to the last scene, where we learn that Kento has actually landed a job. 

The prize committee commented on the humor in this story.  I take this to mean that the idea of killing the grandfather with kindness is a comic conceit.  It doesn’t elicit laughs, but it is kind of absurd, and therefore gestures toward a satire of the current state of elder care.  It’s certainly topical, focusing both on the graying of Japanese society and the failure of the economy to come through for young people.  Of course, Mobu Norio addressed the same two topics ten years ago in Kaigo nyūmon, but it’s not like the problems have gone away.

Mobu’s book had a lot more literary flair.  This one, despite the successful ironic conceit at its center, ends up as a rather mediocre read.  The style is kind of flat, the story drags (it’s 120 pages, and could have made its point in about half that length;  it’s the only story in the book, by the way), and Kento is just narcissistic enough that he’s hard to really sympathize with.  The book doesn’t have much to offer beyond its theme, it seems to me.

Ono Masatsugu: Kyūnen mae no inori (2014)

Ono Masatsugu 小野正.  Kyūnen mae no inori 九年前の祈り.  Kōdansha, 2014.

This won the 152nd A-Prize, for late 2014.  I’m a little late in reading and discussing it.

The title story is the winner, a hundred-plus page novella.  It’s about a woman named Sanae living in a small fishing town in Kyūshū, a fictionalized version (presumably) of the author’s home area of Ōita.  Sanae is in her early 30s and is a single mother;  her little boy, Kebin (希敏 – presumably a kanji-ization of the Japanese pronunciation of Kevin), is the product of a relationship she had in Tokyo with a Canadian named Frederic, who left her and Kebin.  Sanae subsequently moved back in with her parents in Kyūshū.

Kebin has unspecified problems.  He never seems to talk, and he breaks into uncontrollable crying at unpredictable moments.  The reader most likely concludes that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but neither Ono nor Sanae phrases it like that, and it seems Sanae has never had him diagnosed;  we learn that she avoided his three-year-old checkup, and the Tokyo social worker’s reminders, by moving back home.  To herself (the narration is in the third person, but the narrator’s perspective is Sanae’s) she phrases Kebin’s condition almost as a form of possession – every once in a while he turns into a shredded worm
(hikichigirareta mimizu). 

Sanae’s relationship with Kebin is one of the things this story is concerned with.  She’s unable to cope, and has avoided getting any professional help.  She’s constantly at the end of the rope, we sense (it’s seldom spelled out), and there are hints that she might have abused him.  It’s not quite clear if she actually pinches or shakes him, or just wants to or fantasizes about it.  Clearly she’s under a great deal of pressure.

Her relationship with her parents is another theme.  Her father, a schoolteacher, is a distant presence who appears mainly as a vaguely sympathetic caretaker of Kebin who is, still, not quite able to deal with him.  Her mother is a dominating presence, judgmental at every turn – we get the sense that Sanae’s inability to get help for Kebin is in large part due to her own feelings of guilt, instilled by her mother, at having done something as unconventional as having a relationship with a foreigner in the first place.  The mother predicted it wouldn’t end well, and seems to accept Kebin’s problems as an inevitable consequence of Sanae’s scandalous life choices.  Sanae seems to more or less accept her mother’s verdict.

The action of the story, such as it is, mostly concerns Sanae taking Kebin to a nearby island to collect shells that local superstition holds have a healing effect.  Sanae’s mother was born on said island.  The idea is not to collect them to help Kebin (because, again, everybody’s in denial about him), but rather to help the son of an old family friend, Mitchan;  Mitchan’s grown son has cancer.  Sanae and her family are planning to visit them in the hospital that afternoon, but the story doesn’t get that far.  Instead we have a long description of the boat trip to the island, Sanae wandering around the island, and the boat trip back.  This journey is something mystical;  while on the island, looking for the right beach, Sanae seems to slip into a dream state in which Mitchan herself is there, and Kebin is gone, or is being held by Mitchan, and then she has a weird experience at a shrine on the beach.  Then when they arrive back on the mainland Kebin almost falls off the boat ramp, and drops the precious shells in the process.

This storyline is intercut with a parallel one from nine years previous, concerning a trip Sanae and some local women made to Montreal.  The village had a JET teacher from Canada who organized a trip to his hometown;  Sanae and a group of older women went.  While on the trip Sanae becomes close to Mitchan (decades older than her), but also meets the JET teacher’s friend Frederic.  It’s through these flashbacks that we learn about Sanae’s past life, but of course it’s not a love story.  The main storyline of the flashback is how, on a subway trip in Montreal, two of their number became separated and while the JET went looking for them the rest, including Sanae and Mitchan, ducked into a church and prayed for them, despite not being Christian.  This storyline too culminates in something vaguely mystical, with the prayer, and both at the end seem to contribute to a sense that Sanae is able to separate herself from her misery – like it’s standing behind her, rather than inhabiting her.  The A-Prize committee also notes this, that the story ends on a hopeful note.

To slip into critical mode, I’m not sure it’s justified.  The story is told in an even more elliptical fashion than is normal for A-Prize type fiction, and this means that both Sanae’s experience on the island in the presence and her experience in the church in the past are left almost entirely unexplained, but more than that they’re left uncogitated-upon.  Sanae is an utterly passive character who seems to stumble into marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, and single motherhood, without trying to understand any of it, and so her experience of mystical comfort is also left un-understood. 

The idea seems to be, as with so many writers, to use a passive main character as a way of getting at the environment that creates and conditions (in this case) her.  If that’s the aim, it’s effective, because we get a strong, almost overwhelming sense of the Kyushu village culture that Sanae was raised in.  This comes in the present from her mother and in the past from the village older women who go on the trip to Montreal.  If the mother is an almost villainous figure, the other women seem to be meant as something like comical relief, as we watch their utter inability to deal with their encounter with a foreign culture.  It’s not even about Japan vs. the West – they’re so closed to any culture beyond their own village that it’s clear they’d have the same reactions in Tokyo. 

One last point:  Ono’s style.  I found it frustrating that he didn’t want to give us more external-type details about what’s really going on in certain moments.  But his facility with words is impressive.  His “normal” sentences are fairly straightforward but at key moments he’ll reel off a really baroque piece of description or metaphor.  The shredded worm is a typical example.  Really memorable, striking stuff. 

The book contains three omake stories (good value for the money!).  The first is called “Umigame no yoru ウミガメの夜” (Night of the sea turtle).  It’s set in the same region as the first:  the Saeki region of Ōita.  It concerns three male friends, college classmates in Tokyo, who have come down for a visit.  The story is told in three sections, each of which takes one of their points of view.  The first is Ippeita, whose father is from Saeki;  his parents are divorced and he hasn’t seen his father since he was a child, but he has vague memories of a summer spent with his grandparents in Saeki.  And now his mother is dying.  As the three friends drive around Ippeita is looking for familiar places and maybe even relatives;  he’s also the only one who understands the local dialect.  The second friend is Tōru, who seems to mostly be comic relief, or at most a bridge between the other two;  he’s from Tokyo, so a total outsider, and spends most of the story drunk and/or asleep.  The third friend is Yūma, who is from Sendai – his family home was devastated by the tsunami.  Yūma has a stutter, and so mostly observes quietely.  It’s mostly unstated, but the Saeki coastline clearly reminds him of the Sendai coastline, and he finds himself thinking about death.  The unifying scene and image is that of a sea turtle that the three friends find on the beach at night.  She has just laid her eggs, and they flip her over and watch her helplessly paddling the air.  It’s cruel, but also a good metaphor for rootlessness, for futile striving, and for slowly approaching death. 

The second omake story is called “Omimai お見舞い” (Visiting the sick).  It’s told from the point of view of a middle-aged man named Shudō Toshiya – Toshi, for short.  It’s sort of an afternoon-in-the-life-of story, although as one might expect there are enough flashbacks and ruminations to complicate the narrative line considerably.  Basically all that happens in the present is that he gives rides to a some people in need and visits other people in trouble.  Toshi is the younger son of a wealthy fishing family – they own a bunch of boats and employ a bunch of people.  He works for his brother and considers himself something of a screw-up, not particularly good at anything.  But over the course of the story he proves himself something of a saint.  He’s taking care of a childhood friend and mentor who in adulthood has become a hopeless alcoholic.  He’s looking in on another childhood friend who’s in the hospital with a brain tumor.  On the way back from visiting the friend in the hospital he gives a ride to a pregnant woman who is the foreign wife of a local unemployed man.  At the end of the story he encounters three college kids from Tokyo who desperately need to get back, and drops everything and gives them a ride to the airport.  Of course this is all set in Saeki again, and when he meets the kids we suddenly realize that these stories are connected.  Not only is Ono exploring this single region in depth, he’s telling the story of a single sprawling community by focusing in turn on various of its members.  We realize (although it’s not really confirmed) that the friend in the hospital is the son of Mitchan from the title story, and of course the three college kids are the ones from the second story;  and we get the strong suspicion that the alcoholic friend is the father that one of the college kids has come to find.  There’s even a minor character in the first story that shares Toshi’s surname.  This of course lends all of the stories a richness that they wouldn’t necessarily have individually:  they become parts of a group portrait of small-town Ōita.  Very satisfying.

The fourth story, “Aku no hana 悪の花” (Flowers of evil) is also connected.  It consists almost entirely of a stream of consciousness belonging to (but not narrated by) an old woman named Chiyoko.  There are vestiges of a present-moment narrative, but it’s not easy to figure out what that is, so insistent and undifferentiated are the reminiscences.  Chiyoko is distraught over the illness of Mitchan’s son, who lived next door to her and helped her out in her growing infirmity;  specifically he visited the cemetery daily on her behalf.  We realize that we’ve met Chiyoko before:  the three college kids knocked on her neighbor’s door while looking for Ippeita’s father, and she told them whose house it really was.  Death and mourning rule Chiyoko’s life.  Her brother died in the war.  Her parents died when she was young.  She married a local man, older, whose mother had sent away his first wife for being unable to bear children;  the wife later killed herself.  Chiyoko was blamed by the old-fashioned locals for breaking up the marriage and causing the woman’s suicide, but then Chiyoko herself is sent away when she fails to bear a child (the idea that it could be the man’s fault very pointedly is never mentioned);  Chiyoko outlives her ex-husband and mother-in-law, but in old age comes to see the mother-in-law’s reflection in the mirror, and feel she’s becoming her.  Thoughts of these incidents are interspersed with memories of Mitchan’s son and anxieties over what Chiyoko will do if he doesn’t return, and guilt over what she fantasizes is her responsibility for his illness.  The “flowers of evil” of the title are a different species every time Chiyoko sees them, but when she sees them she always recognizes them as signs of her own guilt and inadequacy.  The last day Mitchan’s son went to the graveyard on her behalf, Chiyoko thinks flowers of evil must have been growing on the grave, and that he must have tried to clear them away and been cursed by them. 

This story is closest to the title story in its theme, as it once again explores the consciousness of women in rural Ōita, particularly women who have internalized a misogynistic tradition that oppresses them.  As such it brings the volume to a satisfying close.  But it’s also the story that has most to say about the man whose hospitalization is a key plot point in the first, third, and fourth stories:  Mitchan’s son Taikō.  In interviews (http://hon.bunshun.jp/articles/-/3186) the author has mentioned that his older brother was dying at the time he was writing these stories, and it seems to be the common assumption that Ono was writing about that.  Which means that in a sense, Taikō is the main character.  And he’s absent from all of the stories except as an occasional memory, and he’s only intermittently described.  We feel his impact on all these lives, though, because Ono has done such a complete job of evoking the interconnectedness of the community. 

It’s a very satisfying book;  much more satisfying in toto than the title story is on its own.  In terms of its place in the literary landscape it’s obviously akin to Tanaka Shinya from a few years back in its patient and uncompromising evocation of a particular locale on the margins of modern Japan.  But Ono’s book is less sensationalistic, and more sociological – more attuned to the way economics and geography shape this community.  One of the strongest A-Prize recipients in years.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Murakami Haruki: The Strange Library

As of this writing, this is the most recent English translation of Murakami.  The story has a slightly complicated history.  It was published, as a short story, in 1982, under the title "Toshokan kitan 図書館奇譚" (Strange tale of a library).  In 2005 he published it as a stand-alone picture book, with illustrations by Sasaki Maki;  at this point he rewrote the story somewhat and changed the title, to "Fushigi na toshokan 不思議な図書館."  The latter version is what has been translated into English as The Strange Library, and published as a stand-alone picture book;  the illustrations for the English version are by Chip Kidd.  In my last post I linked to a blog by some of Murakami's European translators that mentions the Euro edition of this work, which has illustrations by Kat Menschik, like Pan'ya o osou;  her version of the library story has also been published in Japanese, and as the blog makes clear, in that edition the earlier title was used.  I don't know if that means that (a) the German (and non-English Euro) version of this picture book used the older version of the story or the newer, or (b) if the Japanese edition of the Menschik-illustrated volume (which I haven't seen yet) uses the older or newer version of the story.  But it is clear that the English version, translated by Ted Goossen, uses the 2005 revision of the story, the one made for publication as a picture book.

I suspect that what is happening is that, America always being a little insular, xenophobic, and therefore late to the party, this translation of The Strange Library represents Murakami's English publishers finally deciding to invest in the Murakami picture-book boom that has been taking place on the continent for several years, but also deciding that Menschik's illustrations are less saleable in the US than Kidd's, since Kidd has done Murakami work in the past.  I also suspect that a Japanese edition using Kidd's illustrations is going to appear.  And won't that be interesting?

There are two issues I want to briefly talk about in the rest of this post.

First, the differences between the two versions of the story.  I can't think offhand of a way to render the titles that makes the difference clearer in English, but the original title feels old-fashioned, Sinified, and above all grown-up, while the 2005 version's title sounds like the title of a child's picture book.  Kitan 奇譚 doesn't actually mean horror, but something approaching the effect might be achieved if you imaged the original title as being "The Library Horror" and the the revised title as being "The Scary Library." 

That pretty well indicates the direction of Murakami's revisions.  The revised version is at least masquerading as a picture book for kids, and so he rewrites the story so that it feels like one.  Not completely - I doubt anybody would read this to kids, and I'm sure he doubts it too, so instead it's more like a normal Murakami story cosplaying as a kid's story, for normal Murakami readers who want to cosplay as children.  But still, he simplifies the language slightly, cuts out a few of the more ornate descriptions, and adds a few more references to the child-narrator's mother in such a way as to make it clear that the narrator is a child.  In the original it's not quite so clear - he may be an adult still living with his mother. 

Interestingly, however, the revised version contains more of a sense of loss at the end than the original - in the original, the narrator's pet starling is restored to him at the end.  But there's still a palpable sense of loss at the end of the original version, because (splr alrt) the final paragraph, where the narrator says his mother has just died, is already there.  That is the original ending of the story, not something added in revision.  And, while we're on the subject, I'm disappointed that the English translation prints this final paragraph in a smaller type size, suggesting (with no basis in the original) that it's to be taken as by a different voice, or as referring to a different narrative level, than the rest of the story.  I.e., the translation sets this paragraph off in such a way as to imply that it's by an older version of the narrator, or a different version, or by the author himself (as opposed to the narrator);  this may be the case, but it's not something indicated in the original.  It's an artifact of the translation's book design.

Which brings us to the second point, the illustrations.  I don't see why they didn't just use Sasaki Maki's original illustrations.  Murakami and Sasaki go way back, with Sasaki's illustrations appearing on the covers of many of his early works.  If you read Murakami in the '80s, Sasaki's vaguely Keith Haring-esque illustrations probably influenced your understanding of Murakami's work.  They help to situate him in the realm of pop art, a la Haring.  Sasaki's work for the library book is in the same style, cartoony, childlike, fun.  Murakami's revisions to the story are obviously made to fit just this kind of illustration.

They don't fit Chip Kidd's style of illustration.  Now, I like Kidd's work, as a rule.  His irony-laced appropriative graphic style is great for certain things.  I've never thought it very appropriate for Murakami, however;  Kidd favors a kind of triple-lutz Orientalism that puts the East Asian subject in so many quotation marks that you can't quite parse it (is it ironic? is it ironizing irony? is it ironizing the ironization of irony?).  The problem with this kind of thing is that irony is a fugitive pigment, and can evaporate over time, so that what might have been meant as a daring, meaning-laden appropration of an Orientalist image ends up being just another Orientalist image...  The problem with this kind of thing for a Murakami cover is something different:  it's that Murakami himself doesn't engage in this kind of thing.  He famously, obviously has little time for thinking about "Japaneseness."  The issues that Kidd's covers think about have nothing to do with what Murakami writes about - all they relate to is an American reader's cramped inability to forget that this is a Japanese writer, a member of the Other. 

And that's what's going on here.  There's nothing in The Strange Library that relates in any way to the found-image arch-ironical Orientalism of the images Kidd provides for the American edition of the story.  On their own, they're quite attractive images, and Kidd treats them, crops them, manipulates them, and transforms them in beautiful ways, and then juxtaposes them with the text in intelligent ways.  But they strike notes wholly dissonant with the story, unlike Sasaki's wholly consonant original illustrations.  And fairly frequently the irony just fails - when you read about an old man and turn the page and see a photo of a noh mask, all the careful photoshopping in the world can't distract from the fundamental equation being made.  Japanese old man = noh mask.  Reductive, essentialist, bad.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Murakami Haruki: Pan'ya o osou

I've been on a Murakami Haruki kick last couple of weeks.  Catching up with a couple of recent things I hadn't read yet, and delving into some of his older stuff that I hadn't yet touched.

One of these was a curious publication from 2013 called Pan'ya o osou パン屋を襲う (To Raid a Bakery).  Murakami fans reading English will know of his short story "The Second Bakery Attack" (Pan'ya saishūgeki パン屋再襲撃), translated in The Elephant Vanishes.  They may also know, because it's mentioned in Rubin's book, that there actually was an earlier story called "The Bakery Attack" (Pan'ya shūgeki パン屋襲撃), which hasn't been translated into English.  As Rubin notes, the second story summarizes the first story as part of its plot, so if you've read the later one you more or less know the earlier one - but still, I'd like to see it translated someday, for reasons that will become clear below.

In German, both stories have been published together as a book entitled Die bäckerieūberfälle, with illustrations by Kat Menschik.  Since the Japanese Murakami industry loves to keep track of his international reception, this book was recreated in Japanese in 2013.  That is, the two stories were published as a single book with Menschik's illustrations.  At the same time Murakami decided to revise the two stories slightly, changing the titles (thus "To Raid a Bakery" instead of "The Bakery Attack").  (Menschik has illustrated other Murakami, which you can read about here.)

The illustrations are nice.  Beautiful, even, all in forest green, gold, and white.  Not necessarily the way I imagine the stories, but they add a real stylishness that complements the stories' inventiveness without disrupting them with a contradictory aesthetic (which is the problem with the English version of The Strange Library, which I'll get around to discussing soon, hopefully).

Murakami's revisions are fairly minor, to the point that if I hadn't been going back and forth between the new versions and the originals I only would have noticed a couple.  He adds a descriptive phrase here and subtracts one there, but not really the kind of thing that makes much difference.  The substantive changes I noticed seemed to be geared toward (a) making the two stories work together as if the second one was a sequel to the first, and (b) making the second one feel as if it's taking place in the present, rather than in the early '80s. 

The latter is accomplished by changing a few cultural references.  The famous Betamax ad at the end of the second story is now an ad for Blu-Ray - a canny change.  A Bluebird in the original is now an Accord.  Did he have to make the second story take place in the present?  Well, sort of.  Given that it's supposed to be taking place over a decade after the first bakery attack, and that the first bakery attack is taking place at a moment when "God, Karl Marx, and John Lennon are all dead," the second bakery attack couldn't be taking place in the early '80s.

Which leads us to the former goal, making the two stories work together as if the second one was a sequel to the first.  Because, when you read the originals, you realize that this is not the relationship between them.  The time scheme doesn't work, but there are other inconsistent details.  In the first bakery attack story we're very specifically told that the baker is listening to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" on a radio cassette player, while in the second story we're told that he had been listening to Wagner overtures (including Tannhauser) on lp.  A small inconsistency, but one that tells us that the second story, as originally written, was less a sequel to the first than a rewriting of it, one that moved the events of the first into the past and thereby recontextualized them against the end of the '60s counterculture rather than early '80s malaise.

Murakami resolves that inconsistency in the new versions of the stories.  In both references the baker is listening to "Tristan and Isolde."  Which means that this book gets to read like a book, a kind of double coming of age story, the imposition of a curse and its resolution, a comparison of friendship to marriage, and a whole lot of other things.  But it also means that the critique of the boomer generation that had been implicit in the original "Second Bakery Attack" ('60s radical compromises his ideals, goes straight, tries to recover some of his outlaw essence with his new wife) is gone, or at least muted, here.  An interesting change.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Herman Melville: Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850)

[So I still can't quite commit to giving up this here blogging thing, so I guess that means I should make another try at committing to blogging.]

Redburn and White-Jacket are what Melville wrote in a hurry after Mardi tanked.  He was in danger of not being able to make it as a professional writer, but not willing to give up on it.  So he wrote a couple of quickie conventional novels.  Well, conventional as he could get.  They restored his fortunes, commercially, and allowed him to write Moby Dick.  So goes the story.

I read Redburn last summer and can't remember a damn thing about it.  I just finished White-Jacket a couple of weeks ago and am in a better position to comment about it;  but what I mostly recall about the experience of reading Redburn tallies with what I felt reading its successor.  These are bad Melville. 

For one thing, he's milking his seafaring experiences pretty dry by this point - on the evidence of these books I would have advised him to find a new theme;  but then he wouldn't have written Moby Dick, so what do I know?  But his success-to-come in this genre doesn't really redeem the sense that he's just rewriting the same old observations about life at sea.  I'm not familiar enough with early 19th century maritime books to say for absolute certain, but I'd wager a fair amount that most of the detail he gives us in these books was readily available in other books.  I doubt there's much new here, in other words, and yet he's presenting it all as if he's chronicling for breathless readers a world never before revealed.  Yankee hucksterism, it smacks of. 

For another thing, in both books he's trying his best to restrain his poetry, when in fact his poetry is all he has going for him here.  In White-Jacket in particular, he does let himself go from time to time, and it's only there that the book begins to transcend.  F'rexample, when he falls off the yardarm into the sea at the end of the book and we get this wonderfully lucid, evocative description of the moment after the plunge:
With the bloody, blind film before my eyes, there was a still stranger hum in my head, as if a hornet were there; and I thought to myself, Great God! this is Death! Yet these thoughts were unmixed with alarm.  Like frost-work that flashes and shifts its scared hues in the sun, all my braided, blended emotions were in themselves icy cold and calm. (p. 397, Oxford World's Classics edition)
Here the allegory (plunge into the water at the end of the voyage as metaphor for death at the end of life) comes so close to the surface narrative line that the two merge, and I think that's part of what looses Melville's tongue here.

Elsewhere, as in Mardi, he's dedicated to maintaining the proper relationship between surface narrative and allegorical significance, and the results are as cloying here as they were there.  It's not that he ever really submerges the allegory - far from it.  He likes to just keep it floating alongside, so he can point to it at any time and say, see? This is what this means.  But the meanings are so obvious that you just want him to stop pointing it out;  not to mention, they're so pedestrian that you wish he wouldn't work so hard to bring them up.