Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary Japanese literature’

This week at Necessary Fiction I reviewed Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase, which was published last spring by Counterpoint Press. I had a lot of fun reading and writing about this book, not only because it fits so well into my current Japanese literature reading project, but also because it brought me to think about the way that different cultures handle narrative perspective. Especially first-person narrative – which is the perspective for which readers are asked for the greatest suspension of disbelief. I find that with first person the framework of fiction seems the most false – who is this person and why is this person writing this all down?

And I think that different cultures have different tolerances for how the first-person is handled—all based on literary tradition and current publishing trends. I only touch on this briefly in the review, but I think there is a greater discussion lurking around this idea.

But without further ado, here is a little of what I had to say about The Briefcase:

On the surface this a book about a woman in her late thirties and a man in his seventies and the strange romance in which they find themselves engaged. That word romance is a little misleading, because what happens between Tsukiko and Sensei is far more serious than what that simple word might lead one to believe. The Briefcase is less a study of an unconventional relationship and more a query of what happens when two resolutely lonely individuals find that when they are together their loneliness is eased.

Contemporary Japanese fiction is fascinated with loneliness and what loneliness does to the psyche, how it manifests both publicly and privately. In this sense, The Briefcase is a part of a larger genre of fiction. Kawakami, however, while not shying away from the darker aspects of loneliness, refrains from making her characters marginal. Both Tsukiko and Sensei are functional, polite, and to some extent even social beings, and aside from rather impressive drinking abilities, their emotional isolation is nearly undetectable.

You can read the rest of the review here.

If you’ve never heard of Kawakami and are interested, there are a few examples of her writing to be found around the web:

The story “Mogera Wogura” from the Spring 2005 issue of The Paris Review. This story is just amazing – I can’t stop reading it.

The story “Record of a Night Too Brief” from the July 2012 issue of Words Without Borders.

“The Moon and the Batteries” from Granta. This is the first chapter of The Briefcase.

Just over ten years ago now, when I was living in a small town in southern Japan, I read my very first book by Banana Yoshimoto. It was called Amrita (1994), and it was about a young woman with amnesia, whose sister has just committed suicide, and who has a strange relationship with a man that leads her (or maybe she just goes on her own) to the island of Saipei. I don’t remember much about the book except for the mood of it, which was dense and dreamlike, and a bit mysterious, and the fact that it introduced me to a different kind of Japanese literature than I’d been used to.

Before moving to Japan, I’d studied a lot of Japanese literature but almost all of it was pre-1950, and most of it was much older. I think that up until then, the most recent Japanese fiction I’d read was A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe (1964). So Yoshimoto’s more contemporary writing was an eye-opening discovery. Since then I’ve gone on to read other contemporary Japanese writers like both Murakamis and Yoko Ogawa, and, interestingly, Yoshimoto actually seems quite tame in comparison.

But it was high time I read another Yoshimoto, and so I picked up a copy of her short story collection, Lizard, published in 1993 and translated by Ann Sherif. There are six stories in Lizard, and while all of them have merit, the first two pieces really stand out. The first tells of a near-magical encounter on a train between a recently married young man and a homeless person, the second is about childhood trauma and how it can shape a person’s future. Both dealt with feelings of alienation and with love relationships.

Yoshimoto has an interesting style, one that in general I would call light, especially when busy with narrative summation and dialogue. This gives the stories an easy feel, almost too easy. But every once in a while, Yoshimoto lets her narrator linger on a description or a deeper observation and the result is quite different. Take this example, from “Newlywed”:

It seemed as if we had toured Tokyo from every possible angle, visiting each building, observing eery person, and every situation. It was the incredible sensation of encountering a life force that enveloped everything, including the station near my house, the slight feeling of alienation I feel toward my marriage and work and life in general, and Atsuko’s lovely profile. This town breathes in all the universes that people in this city have in their heads.

When she does this enough in a story, the story is transformed, becomes more universal, and I think this is what made “Newlywed” and “Lizard” stand out among the six.

Interestingly, every narrator in Lizard, male or female, is a first-person narrator with a somewhat conspiratorial but also colloquial mode of expression. The shared confidences tend to sound like they’re being given directly to the reader, like this:

I won’t deny that I admired some of the residents, those who didn’t pompously claim that they had achieved spiritual enlightenment—you know, satori and all that.

While reading, I couldn’t help thinking how a translator is going to have a lot of impact on how this type of sentence reads. There were moments throughout the collection when the little sentences—the explanatory phrases, the dialogue tags and transitions—felt unnecessarily wordy, and I wonder if it was a translation issue. In the sense that in making certain decisions, the translator had gone a little overboard to make what was implied (happens often in Japanese) into something overly explicit. Or, in the opposite direction, allowing a lot of narrative filtering that might be innocuous to a Japanese reader but that can slow things down for an English reader.

I don’t have a copy of Lizard in Japanese or I would have done some comparing, but I have an example from another book. In Kitchen, Yoshimoto’s most famous novel, the narrator opens with the line: 私がこの世で一番好きな場所は台所だと思う. A strictly literal translation would be: I think that my favorite place in this world is the kitchen. Note the “I think,” which finishes off the sentence in Japanese. In Megan Backus’s translation of Kitchen, the novel begins: The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. It is a tiny difference, but Backus makes a choice to make the sentence more immediate, to get rid of the second layer of narrative filter. We could debate this choice, but I think that for an English reader, the second sentence is much smoother. And a novel made up of sentences requiring this kind of decision-making can be translated in two different directions.

I’ll get through Kitchen and see if I have a similar reaction to the writing as I did while reading certain stories in Lizard, and this time I can read along with the original and do some meaningful comparing.