Printed by D. Appleton and Company, Bond Street, New York, 1883. Imported by Dawson Bros Booksellers, Montreal, between 1883 and 1889. Added to the Dalhousie University Library inventory June 16, 1936. Signed out January 22, 1977. Returned May 15, 1977. Signed out January 2013. Due back May 30, 2013.
The Japanese Literature Publishing Project is a program of the Japanese Ministry of Culture that sponsors the translation and publication of works of J-lit that might otherwise get passed over by foreign publishers. Some of the books have been big bestsellers in Japan, but are perhaps too specific to Japan to attract an international audience. If you're like me, though, those are exactly the kind of books you want to find.
The series includes:
Supermarket, by Satoshi Azuchi. Never thought about the philosophy of discount pricing? This book will catch you up quick. First published in 1981, this business novel may have helped create the impression that Japan was poised to outmanage the rest of the world. But then again maybe not. It's quite a Machiavellian world, the supermarket. There's an astonishing amount of intrigue among the department managers; and in a purely Japanese twist some of the managers have fan clubs, who sign oaths of loyalty, in blood. The hero, who uncovers a conspiracy to hide losses, decides that the only way to save the company is to keep on publishing false results. And then there's that bent support beam that everyone's ignoring. No, business hurtles along out of anyone's control in Japan just like every place else.
Mistress Oriku, by Matsutaro Kawaguchi. Oriku has owned the renowned Shigure Teahouse on the banks of the Shumida River since the 1880s. Now, in the 1920s, she has a wealth of stories, most involving her complicated love affairs. Oriku has a rule: "One man, one night." But it rarely turns out to be that simple. Oriku, independent, clear-headed, and well-connected, reminds me of Kazu in Mishima's After the Banquet. The more you know about the theatres and music of Toyko the more you'll appreciate this book, so I'm glad I'd read Edward Seidensticker's Low City, High City beforehand. There's also a lot of food in these stories. Now I know to look out for clams in green tea.
The Bamboo Sword, by Shusei Fujisawa. This is a collection of short stories set in the early years of the Edo period, when peace had been established and a lot of samurai were hanging around the castle, getting up to no good. These stories often center on some middle-aged samurai who is forced to think his way through dangers that others have set up for him. The stories are well-plotted and include enough different characters and points of view that you develop a good sense of the world in which they take place. I found myself thinking more than once, This story would make a good movie, and in fact Fujisawa is the author of about a dozen filmscripts.
The Hundred-Yen Singer, by Naomi Suenega. This is a slice-of-life story about survival in the lower eschelons of the entertainment business. The heroine gives it everything she's got, hauling her rolling bag of kimonos between Japan's smallest venues, singing old-fashioned enka folk songs for tips, forever dreaming of that elusive recording deal. You learn a lot about the culture of Japanese spas, which makes this novel a good companion to Thermae Romae. The translation was done in England, and led me to realize that I consider American the go-to English for contemporary Japanese fiction. When the narrator says punters instead of customers it seems like a chip in the glass pane of the translation. That said, I do regard Penguin English as the default English for Heian classics.
Kinshu: Autumn Brocade, by Teru Miyamoto. A divorced couple run into each other after ten years and begin an exchange of letters, telling each other their lives since the separation, and discussing their roles in the love suicide that broke up their marriage. This novel is old-fashioned in its epistolary form, but also in the Japanese belief that love is best understood after it's over. On a different note, Kinshu: Autumn Brocade will teach you all you need to know to start your own advertising brochure business.
Anyone who holds a Halifax Public Library card can borrow books from the Killam Library at Dalhousie University, where they have a good selection of JLPP translations in English, French and Russian. D
Today is Munro Day at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Each year on the first Friday of February the university shuts down to honour 19th-century benefactor George Munro, a Nova Scotian who made good in New York, publishing highly popular dime novels and taking full advantage of the absence of any copyright convention between the UK and the US. In the 1880s Munro used some of his pirate gold to bail out Dalhousie, which was then at the brink of insolvency. Image is from the holdings of the University of South Carolina Libraries.
Once there was a man who ran off with a certain lady. As they traveled they came to a place where there was fresh water. "Would you like some?" the man asked. The lady nodded, and since he had no cup he scooped it up with his hands for her. Thus he took her to the capital. Later he died and she set out to return to her old home. When she reached the spot where he had given her water, she recited this poem:
Where is he now--
The man who scooped up
Handful upon handful
Of Ōhara's clear water,
Asking, "Is it enough?"
Helen McCullough (tr.), Tales of Ise, p. 150.
Tales of Ise is a Heian (tenth-century) collection of waka poems embedded in little anecdotes like the one above. I'm reading them with an eye to adapting one into a short manga. This poignant episode was the one to jump out at me. I imagine it written on the flyleaf of one of Michael Ondaatje's novels. D
One of the heroes of typography is Xu Bing who in 1988 produced "A Book From the Sky" made up entirely of Chinese characters he invented himself, to the consternation of the Chinese authorities, who have a vested interest in controlling words and meanings. He often uses letters of the Latin alphabet as radicals within characters. Here is his name:
This year I have been reading as much Japanese literature in translation as I can lay my hands on. Here are five that I recommend.
Junichi Saga, Confessions of a Yakuza, (Kodansha, 1991).
Not a novel, but it reads like one. A doctor attends to a dying man, who recounts his life as a gangster before, during, and a bit after WWII. Part of what's surprising about this story is the near absence of anything we would consider hardcore crime. Most of the yakuza's career revolves around illicit gambling activities or associated crimes like moving people from place to place after curfew. And a lot of attention is paid to getting along with the neighbours. There is nearly no gun play, and when one murder does take place it's treated as a catastrope by the crime bosses. Most of the yakuza's troubles stem from his relations with women, which tend to lead him toward shirking his duties. There is a graphic but thankfully quick account of venereal surgery.
Fumiko Enchi, The Waiting Years, (Kodansha, 1980).
This story of a contest of wills between a powerful husband and his dutiful wife spans the period from the 1870s to the First World War. Many other novelists would have gotten an 800-page family saga out of this material, but Enchi is just interested in the points of greatest dramatic tension, and brings the novel to a sharp conclusion after only 188 pages. It is said this book took nine years to write, and I'm sure much of the time was spent cutting it down. Passing over the first part of the marriage, Enchi begins only when the wife Tomo has already received the humiliation of being sent to choose her husband Yoshitomo a concubine. You follow Tomo down the years, waiting for her act of revenge.
Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain, (Kodansha, 1979).
A novel about the Hiroshima bombing, this is nevertheless a wise and even funny book about human nature. In the midst of unprecedented disaster, the characters stay true to their individual concerns, suggesting that the key to survival might in the end be the power of denial. Shigematsu, a rather important man in his own mind, spends the days after the bomb on various important tasks that lead him to crisscross the demolished and radioactive city, taking the reader on a Dantean tour of the aftermath. Shigematsu witnesses horrors, and comes close to death himself a few times, but he doesn't become overwhelmed, which I think is Ibuse's strategy for getting the reader through the novel. There are many things he wants you to see, but in order for that to happen you have to finish the book. You're not grief-struck at the end, but sadness and compassion have crept up on you.
Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper + The Professor, (Harvill Secker, 2009).
This is the only recent novel of the bunch, and it certainly feels like something from a different generation. Japanese history is not as big a concern here. It's a small story about a woman from a housekeeping service who is assigned a client who has lost the ability to form memories. Every day she has to reintroduce herself and explain the purpose of her visit. The client was once a mathematics professor, and over the course of the novel he teaches the housekeeper and her son about numbers. They made a film of this book, but shifted the point of view to the son. Which is too bad I think because one of the points of the book is the need to respect housecleaners more. Baseball is also an important element, as a creator of community and a source of cool stats.
Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes (Vintage, 1964).
An entomologist travels to a seaside village to collect insects. He discovers that a huge sand dune has buried part of the town, but that the inhabitants have dug holes in the dune to preserve their houses. When he asks where he can stay overnight they put him up in one of the houses in one of the holes, but then they won't let him out. They made a film of this one too, in the Sixties, in black and white.
There's a nice copy of one volume of Kishi Enpu by Aoi Sokyu for sale on ebay, ending today. (Search on the words geisha and ehon.) These illustrations of geisha life were first published in 1806, and portray a world that is relaxed, curvilinear and slightly drunk.