I finished reading Contemporary Japanese Writers, Vol. 2 over the weekend, and found seven writers/books that I wish were translated into English:
Asagao (Rose of Sharon) is a masterpiece from Furui’s middle period. In a commentary to the paperback edition, writer Hisaki Matsuura remarks on the author’s dogged efforts to finish the book, grappling with it until his mid-forties: “Through his struggles, he must have looked hard at the potentials and limitations of this writing format and fully experienced the inherent inconsistencies between it and his own temperament.” By “this writing format,” Matsuura means maintaining the framework of the modern novel while incorporating elaborate devices in a style reminiscent of Nabokov.
Kariojoden shibun (Accounts of Provisional Rebrith: A Draft) sounds most interesting to me. It’s a collection of personal essays interspersed with episodes of the “hapless deaths of various eminent Buddhist monks.” Two collections from Furui have been published in English: Ravine and Other Stories (Stone Bridge Press) and Child of Darkness: Yoko and Other Stories (University of Michigan).
In his novel Veruka, hoenai no ka? (Bark, Veruka!), the author’s epic imagination is compressed to such amazing density that the work conveys a sense of tremendous speed. Half of the story is a historical tale that traces developments in the latter half of the twentieth century through the propagation of military working dogs. [. . .] The other half of the book is a suspense story about a former KGB military dog handler who kidnaps the daughter of a Japanese yakuza gangster. Eventually the two stories merge, developing into a richly textured faux history in which military dogs are, it would seem, major players in world history.
Steve Erickson is one of the authors cited as an influence on Furukawa, which is intriguing as well. (As is the fact that Steve Erickson is cited over and over and over in this book . . . I think that’s great, but I didn’t really that Erickson had such a huge reputation in Japan.)
His short story collection Nigotta gekiryu ni kakaru hashi (Bridge Over a Muddy Torrent) contains nine works. A swift-moving stream divides the town into Right and Left Bank sectors, while repeated improvements to the lone bridge linking the two sides have left it an involuted, fantastical structure impossible to grasp in its entirety. A collection of odd people live in the town: a clan with bulging heads; a woman who has single-handedly organized the “Bridge Improvement Volunteers’ and stands o the bridge day in and day out campaigning for safety; a mayor who is able to communicate only with cats and lives the life of a recluse, yet whose preternaturally keen political instincts are intact. Each story interlocks organically with the next, revealing a richly imagined universe. In the last chapter, the characters reappear in unexpected fashion and the story ends as though swallowed in the waters of the torrent.
Her novel Tobo kusotawaka (Dang Fools On the Run) (Ed. note: “Damn Fools”?) is about a manic woman (the narrator) and a depressed (and possibly deluded) man escaping from a mental institution. “The pair head south in a beat-up old car, quarreling along the way, with the narrator bothered by aural hallucinations of a voice repeating a mysterious line from Marx’s Das Kapital.“
Oboreru shimin (Drowning Citzens) is a collection of fourteen short stories numbered from 0 to 13. Each one describes the ordinary yet odd daily lives of the residents of Nemurigaoka, or “Sleepy Hill,” a neighborhood that might be found in any Tokyo suburb. In the fourth story, “Chonai bika” (Town Beautification), Mr. Kodama bids his wife goodbye each morning and sets off for work. Ever since he retired, she has somehow lost the power of speech and can say only “Goodbye, dear” and “Welcome home, dear.” Kodama’s “work” consists of picking up litter, and the townspeople call him “Volunteer Guy” or “Trash Master.”
Shimada’s Dream Messenger was published in English back in 1994. The PW review was less than enthusiastic: “In this trying-too-hard-to-be-hip contemporary novel of fantasy, kinky sex, and emotional insecurity, young Japanese writer Shimada explores the fate of ‘rental children,’ who grow up willing to do anything—for a price.”
Takahashi is compared to Pynchon, Barthelme, and Calvino, in part for his novel Sayonara, Gangsters, which came out in English from Vertical back in 2004. According to PW:
Takahashi’s first novel to be translated into English can be amusing, sexy, moving, intelligent and maddeningly obtuse-often all at the same time. Which is exactly what Takahashi, acclaimed author of postmodernist romps and former porn director, intends. Somewhere in a future time and place, people have no names. Lovers find this inconvenient, so they begin naming each other. he two main characters settle on the following names: the woman is the Nakajima Miyuki Song Book, and the man, who teaches at a poetry school, is Sayonara, Gangsters.
(“Naming” and confusing signifiers seems to play a large role in Takahashi’s work. His novella “John Lennon versus the Martians” “starts with a prologue in which a third base coach gives a batter the incomprehensible sign, ‘John Lennon versus the Martians.’” And the narrator of the novella receives a postcard from a guy named “Japan’s Wonderful War.”)
The novel Nihon bungaku seisuishi (The Rise and Fall of Japanese Literature) sounds like the most promising of his works.
To discover why it is so hard to write fiction today, Takahashi examines the history of modern literature, with the Meiji period (1868-1912) as his startying point. He summons literary giants of that era such as pioneer Shimei Futabatei, who like Takahashi agonized over his inability to write, and attempts to share his agony. [. . .] The author himself barges into this epic fantasy. Is he writing a fictional history of Japanese literature, or is he merely ridiculing writers?
Tsutsui is most well known as one of Japan’s “Three Great” science-fiction writers. That said, apparently he’s continued to expanded his interests and writing style, and has published a number of metafictional and slapstick books. (His novel Hell was recently published by Alma Books in the UK and was part of the JLPP program, and sounds a bit Philip K. Dick-esque.)
A book which stirred great discussion is Tsutsui’s satirical novel Bungakubu Tadano Kyoju (Professor Tadano, Faculty of Letters). This hilarious work of metafiction exposes the inner workings of a faculty of letters at a private university in Japan. At the same time, through samples of literary theory interpolated into the story, it mocks the absurd underpinnings of contemporary literature and thought.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .