29 April 2012

Mandarins (stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Mandarins, stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, trans. Charles De Wolf (Archipelago Books, 2007)

Mandarins was a substantial story collection by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927), the Japanese grandmaster of short fiction. It showed that his sublime style did not end with "Rashōmon" and "In a Grove", the pair of signature stories that formed the basis of Kurosawa Akira's signature film. Even with the absence of these two famous stories, the fifteen stories comprising this collection had elegantly defined what 'rashomonesque' was all about.

The selection and translation by Charles De Wolf were beautifully accomplished. They revealed Akutagawa's preoccupations with themes centering on adultery, Christian legends, the decay of a generation, and suicide.

My favorite stories included "O'er a Withered Moor", about the impending death of the haiku poet Bashō, and the title story "Mandarins", which turned out to be referring not to Chinese personages at all. In the first story, the dying poet was surrounded by his disciples, each of whom was contemplating mortality and expressing his own grief in different ways. Each poet had a unique personality and distinctive individuality that colored his perception of this momentous event. Their various feelings almost mirrored the conflicting testimonies given by several witnesses to a crime in "In a Grove". The difference with this story was the way in which an omniscient narrator tended to interrupt the narrative to give his own subjective commentary and appraisal of what's happening. This narrator even had the temerity to interpret Bashō's farewell haiku containing the story's title: "Ill on a journey, / Wandering in fevered dreams / O'er a withered moor."

   None of this had the remotest bearing on the imminent death of his master, whose fate was now faithfully fulfilling what he had so often predicted in his verses, for truly he was now being left as a bleached corpse in a vast and desolate moor of humanity. His own disciples were not lamenting the death of their master but rather their own loss at his passing. They were not bewailing the piteous demise of their guide in the wilderness but rather their own abandonment here in the twilight.
   Yet as we humans are by nature coldhearted, of what use is it to offer moral reprobation? Lost in such world-weary thoughts, even as he exalted in his capacity to indulge in them, Shiko wetted the lips of his master and returned the plumed stick to the water bowl....

The title story was equally beguiling for its simplicity and compression. In a few pages the writer crafted the personal sensibility of an irritable and snobbish middle class train passenger.

   It was a scene that eerily matched my own mood. Like the looming snow clouds, an unspeakable fatigue and ennui lay heavily upon my mind. I sat with my hands deep in the pockets of my overcoat, too weary even to pull out the evening newspaper.
Akutagawa efficiently supplied images and sensations that supported the attitudes of this narrator, telling his story through brief snapshots:

The train in the tunnel, this country girl, this newspaper laden with trivia – if they were not the symbols of this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life of ours, what were they?

And then the writer supplied a final sequence of images that led the passenger to a (Joycean) epiphany that overturned his first impressions, and that allowed him to recognize how biases and prejudices could distort our worlds and that it is only through appreciation of kindness and love that we could live in peace.

   Everything I had seen beyond the window – the railway crossing bathed in evening light, the chirping voices of the children, and the dazzling color of the oranges raining down on them – had passed in the twinkling of an eye. Yet the scene had been vividly and poignantly burned in my mind, and from this, welling up within me, came a strangely bright and buoyant feeling.
   ... And now for the first time I was able to forget, at least for a moment, my unspeakable fatigue, my ennui, and, with that, this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life.

The concentration of trenchant images in this collection allowed for the characters to inhabit shifting states of feeling: from anxiety to serenity, from lust to resignation, from paranoia to ferocity. The latter feeling, that of fierceness or ferocity, of vulgarity and passion, may fully describe the elevated state of 'having deeply lived and loved' – in contrast to a life of pure intellect and culture – that lingers in the horizon of Akutagawa's artistic vision.

They understand Bashō; they understand Tostoy. They understand Ike no Taiga and Mushanokōji Saneatsu. They understand Karl Marx. Yet what is the result? Of fierce love, the joy of fierce creativity, or fierce moral passion they are ignorant. All in all, they know nothing of the sheer intensity of spirit that can render this world sublime. And if they are marked by a mortal wound, they surely also contain a pernicious poison. One of its properties is direct, enabling it to transform ordinary human beings into sophisticates; another works by way of reaction, making them all the more common. ["An Evening Conversation"]

More than the notions of moral subjectivity and relativism, that strong feeling perhaps came close to what was 'novel' in Akutagawa, to what was rashomonesque – the enunciation of what is human, what is intense, and what is poetic. Even if, in spite of the gray areas, the duality of sophistication and commonness persisted.

   "Oddly enough it is just when we think we have cast off our mere humanity that our all too human desires become all the more intense ..."
   "A man thought virtuous may also be a man of vice."
   "No, an opposition more striking than that between good and evil ..."
   "Well, then, the child found in the adult."
   "That's not it either. I cannot express the idea clearly ... Perhaps it is like two electric poles. They are antipodes that form a whole." ["The Life of a Fool"]

Antipodes that form a whole. Perhaps the closest formulation of the fluidity and opacity of the behavior of Akutagawa's characters.

The multiplicity of literary influences of Akutagawa was evident in this collection. It was as if his ink well was a melting pot of Eastern and Western letters. In "The Life of a Fool", several European names were dropped (Maupassant, Baudelaire, Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Flaubert). The fragmentary nature of this story, consisting of 51 numbered short passages, could even remind one of a streamlined The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Published posthumously (like Pessoa's Disquiet) three months after his death, "The Life of a Fool" documented a writer's dissembling. It had explicit references to suicide and thus was considered autobiographical. It also contained a reference to Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, an acquaintance of the writer, and Akutagawa's mentor Natsume Sensei [Sōseki]. In fact, several stories in Mandarins seemed to be haunted by the spiritual presence of Sōseki.

Mandarins contained well-researched and must-read translator's notes, glossary, and afterword. De Wolf's idiomatic translation, vocabulary, and diction seemed to have captured well Akutagawa's poetry. He seemed to have an intuition for words such that the Japanese writer came across as an English prose stylist.

   Even in those days, the view of the water in the evening may not have been worthy of comparison with the elegance of the more distant past, but something of the beauty that one sees in old woodblock prints remained. When on that evening too we rowed downstream past Manpachi and entered the Great River, we could see the parapet of Ryōgoku Bridge, arching above the waves that flickered in the faint mid-autumn twilight and against the sky, as though an immense black Chinese ink stroke had been brushed across it. The silhouettes of the traffic, horses and carriages soon faded into the vaporous mist, and now all that could be seen were the dots of reddish light from the passengers' lanterns, rapidly passing to and fro in the darkness like small winter cherries. ["An Enlightened Husband"]

Charles De Wolf, 66, considers Japan his home. He has also translated Tales of Days Gone By: A Selection from Konjaku Monogatari-shu (2003) and Isle of Dreams (2010) by Kezio Hino. He was an educator gifted with a facility for acquiring languages. He speaks German, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Tagalog, Indonesian, Palauan, Greek, and Italian. In an interview with The Japan Times, he shared his discovery of and enthusiasm for Japanese literature. For him the appeal of Japanese literature was in "the subtlety with which the drama of human relations is described. I had tended to look to European and American literature for 'grand ideas.' I suppose I sometimes wanted an Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov-like character expounding in Japanese, but that's not, on the whole, what Japanese literature is about." His multilingual background has served him well in Mandarins, which was replete with linguistic references.

A version of the story "An Enlightened Husband" is online at The Brooklyn Rail.

14 April 2012

Monsignor Quixote (Graham Greene)

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 2008)

Father Quixote was peacefully tending to his parishioners at El Toboso when he received a letter from his bishop. The Holy See was promoting him into a monsignor, and all because he was endorsed by a bishop (a different one) whom he once aided in a time of need. This was a surprise, all the more for the bishop who considered the priest's ways to be bent and misguided. He and the bishop did not always see eye to eye, but the Holy See had the final say and that's that.

With his promotion, the now-Monsignor Quixote found himself vacillating about his new ministry. A new parish priest was sent to replace him and Father (he was still not used to be called Monsignor) Quixote took the opportunity to ask for some time off, a holiday where he could recover his wits and take things in stock. It's not everyday one gets to be elevated to a position one was not asking for. The bishop approved the request, obviously still reeling from the turn of events. How did Father Quixote maneuvered his way into this? (Animosity and hatred among men of cloth weren't really that uncommon.)

It was hard for Father Quixote to be leaving El Toboso after all these years. But he had his marching orders. Leaving with him on his holiday was Mayor Enrique Zancas, also known as Sancho, an open communist and politician defeated in the recent election in the village. The two of them were to ride in Father Quixote's old but beloved Seat 600, named Rocinante. They were bringing a lot of good old Manchegan wine.

The journey of our two characters was a sally into the map and territory of spiritual and religious life. The romp across the Spanish landscapes framed Father Quixote and Mayor Sancho's constant philosophical exchanges, their endless debates between the merits and virtues of Catholic life and Marxism. The parallelism with Father Quixote's "ancestor" was with the way theology was treated as a form of chivalry. In the same way the ancestor steeped himself in books of chivalry (and in the process may have lost his mind), the priest learned the doctrines and teachings governing his religion and blindly stuck to them.

For his part, the unbeliever and worldly Sancho always set off his communist ideals against the Catholic priest's belief. The interaction between the two was not always easy, but with banter and wine, the right mix of good chemistry, a close friendship developed between them. Their adventures "on the high roads of the world" consisted of set pieces that were always a riot of wit.

Mayor Sancho, who played the devil with gusto, was always a taunt to Father Quixote's religious beliefs. But one could also sense the devil's advocate in the character of the priest, who despaired: "How is it that when I speak of belief, I become aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief?"

Considered Graham Greene's last religious book, Monsignor Quixote first came out in 1982. In it, the novelist must have given a synthesis of his belief in God and the ways fiction can dramatize it. Greene's was not a faithful adaptation, but boy was it so faithful. Like belief in the reality of fiction, belief in a supreme being was predicated on how much reality the Author could offer his readers. The Catholic novelist relied on clever dialogues and beautiful ironies to bring his point across.

   "[Don Quixote] was a fiction, my bishop says, in the mind of a writer...."
   "Perhaps we are all fictions, father, in the mind of God."

Like Father Quixote's ancestor, the character of this novel insisted on the recognition of his existence in fact, perhaps in the same way the novelist insisted on the existence of God. The literary imagination as metaphor for the religious imagination. With the cast-iron conviction of his ancestor who vehemently denied the truth behind the "fake Quixote", Father Quixote's passionate insistence on his own free will and self-determination lay at the very root of his religious belief.

   "Why are you always saddling me with my ancestor?"
   "I was only comparing—"
   "You talk about him at every opportunity, you pretend that my saints' books are like his books of chivalry, you compare our little adventures with his. Those Guardia were Guardia, not windmills. I am Father Quixote, and not Don Quixote. I tell you, I exist. My adventures are my own adventures, not his. I go my way—my way—not his. I have free will. I am not tethered to an ancestor who has been dead these four hundred years."

The novel's climax was a cunning one. It showed Greene's position cemented via transubstantiation (in a manner of speaking) of fiction into fact and of doubt into belief. When it comes down to it, belief in something does not really require the existence of the thing one believes in. In the words of another priest in the novel, a Trappist monk: "I suppose Descartes brought me to the point where he brought himself—to faith. Fact or fiction—in the end you can't distinguish between them—you just have to choose."

Our Lady of the Assassins (Fernando Vallejo)

Our Lady of the Assassins by Fernando Vallejo, trans. Paul Hammond (Serpent's Tail, 2001)

This novel from Colombia was a guided tour of hell. The hell portrayed was Colombia itself, where young hitmen, kids even, went murdering and assassinating with or without cause. Readers with horns and tails will have a grand time. Set in Medellín, the story was narrated by Fernando, an old gay "grammarian" decrying the atrocities and brutalities of his birth place, which he had recently come back to. Fernando had an affair with Alexis, a teenage hired killer he took under his wing. Alexis will be killed later in the novel, a spoiler shared right at the start of his story.

Alternating between ranting and resignation, Fernando was touring us, his "foreign" readers, around the slums and seedy sides of Medellín, always making a detour around churches and stone monuments of the saints who silently listen to the prayers of victims and their sincere assassins. When a government crackdown on a powerful gang had ended its operations, several assassins in its employ suddenly found themselves without jobs. They were left to wander the streets, still carrying guns and facing a larger number of potential targets: anybody who 'exists' and can be used for target practice.

The author Fernando Vallejo, like his narrator, was gay and a writer of a book on grammar. After obtaining citizenship from Mexico in 2007, he renounced his Colombian citizenship (Wiki). It was evident from the novel's text that Vallejo wanted the city of Medellín ("the capital of hate") to represent the wider, national culture of hate of Colombia. The narrator's diatribes took on the Catholic church, the police, the drug cartels, the President, the power structure, all of his fellow citizens who brought Medellín (and Colombia) to the state of anarchy.

There was something fundamentally disturbing about Fernando describing the scenes of random killings in an almost detached voice. Whenever innocent bystanders become casualties (unwitting or intentional), the grammarian's irony was as pointed as pitchfork.

The taxi-driver would no longer have to tolerate impertinent passengers, he was released from working. Death released him: Lady Death, the lover of justice, the number one boss, retired him. With the momentum the man's rage had given the taxi, plus what the bullet added, it carried on until it hit a post and exploded, but not before taking out, in its crazy careering towards the other side of the street, a pregnant woman with two little kids, who'd be having no more, thus cutting short what was promising to be a long maternal career.

What did the pun serve to accomplish?

It must have been tricky to translate this novel. Written in the word-playful voice of a grammarian, the diction was probably made slippery by the use of colloquialisms and street slang. The equivalents in English did not always sound convincing in English. Although the translation read well, it sometimes played false notes here and there. Fernando's detached voice, in Paul Hammond's translation, was generally well-calibrated, but there were some passages and rants, a particular combination of swearwords and local color and idiom, that distracted for sounding artificial. At least the author had given two criteria to assess the radical expression of ideas in writing.

My invisible man's eyes lighted on the 'Observations' they'd left on a desk about the removal of a body: 'The apparent motive was to steal the victim's trainers,' it said, 'but of the real facts and the authors of the crime nothing is known.' And it went on to speak of wounds to the vena cava and cardio-respiratory arrest after the hypovolemic shock caused by a wound from a sharp instrument. I loved the language. The precision of words, the conviction of the style ... The best writers in Colombia are judges and their clerks, and there's no better novel than a court summary.

The precision of words, the conviction of the style. Perhaps crime investigation and autopsy reports were really the best kind of writing.

The language of hate in fiction was always a risky proposition (case in point: the overrated Pulitzer winning novel by Junot Díaz). The rhetoric of hate sometimes undercut portraits of violence and evil, especially when the loudness of curses and oaths tended to shout down the crimes or to create plain stereotypes. Another possible danger that narratives of hate was always risking (especially here, being told by an insider to an outsider or gringo) was a tendency to trivialize the issues by lending an 'exotic' feel to the story, and thus to evil deeds permeating it. Vallejo mostly avoided this trapdoor by producing a playful, darkly comic, and perceptively truthful court summary.

This novel, originally published in 1994 as La Virgen de los Sicarios, was a harsh judgement on the ineptitude of authorities and the 'religious' to stem the tide of violence in Medellín. The state of hate had become the very way of life in the city. The 'system in place' was unable to prevent young men from taking up arms and firing them indiscriminately. With ever increasing body count, Fernando at one point realized that "the cinema and the novel are not enough to capture the reality of Medellín." The gratuitous scenes in the novel already gave us an idea of the magnitude of Medellín reality. (The novel was adapted into a movie in 2000, directed by Barbet Schroeder and with the screenplay written by Vallejo.)

I read this book during last week's Semana Santa, a good enough excuse to pick up some religious-themed books. The vaguely holy title of this novel was the reason I picked it up. Yet no novel could be farther from the lives of saints. It was a nihilistic tale for which a devil's Nihil obstat could be easily obtained.

La virgen de los sicarios was 11th place in the Semana list of 100 best novels in Spanish language published in the last 25 years. El desbarrancadero (The Brink), another Vallejo novel, still untranslated, was in 10th place.

See also reviews of Fernando Vallejo's books at March of Memories.

10 April 2012

This underground reality

1Q84: Book 4 by Murakami Haruki, trans. Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2015)

Note: This review contains spoilers.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

When the three-volume 1Q84 appeared in English four years ago, the readership was sharply divided. The cryptic novel was ambitious but it was poorly executed. The didactic and repetitive tendencies tended to underwhelm an otherwise mysterious and suspenseful story. With the publication of this latest volume of the story, Murakami closed a window and opened a new one from which to view the events in the first three books. I was fortunate to acquire an "advance reader's copy" of it.

Book 4 was a prequel, and it was as self-contained as a story as can be. It found its characters right in the middle of 1Q84 world which Tengo and Aomame barely escaped from by the end of December of that "shifted" year. The present story unfolded in the first quarter of the year, literally the 1Q of '84, but it contained flashbacks prior to the "descent" into this world.

This time, there was only one character telling the story, in Murakami Haruki's intimate first person. The telling, as in the first two books, was once again split into two parallel tracks. One should probably say, split into two voices, for it was the split personality of Tamotsu Fukada who figured in this book.

Tamotsu Fukada, the father of Fuka-Eri, was alternating his story as "Tamotsu", the idealistic leader of an agricultural commune, and as "Leader", the godlike leader of the Sakigake cult. The background of Tamotsu's/Leader's story were already prefigured in the first books. Professor Ebisuno, one time best friend of Tamotsu and eventually the adopted father of Fuka-Eri, had already recounted parts of the story to Tengo, while Leader himself talked about it to Aomame before she killed him. Aomame's research into the archives of library already provided the general arc of the key incident in Book 4. Also, the novella Air Chrysalis, as read by Aomame and described throughout the first books, already gave away some of the plot elements. Hence, it would appear at first that this was another repetition of the story. Surprisingly though, there were new elements to mine in this story, and there were several inconsistencies, slight modifications, between the versions of events and reality mentioned in the first three books and the events and reality of the present book.

(Had Murakami spun a new reality of 1Q84 only to subvert it? Was this another world entire, distinct from 1984 and 1Q84? Who knows. It did appear as though the world of 1Q84 was "altered" by what happened in the first three books: the escape of Tengo and Aomame in the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway and the publication of the rewritten version of Air Chrysalis?)

Notwithstanding the seeming inconsistencies in the plot, the book was now more political and ideological in tone, in keeping with titular Orwellian allusion. Inevitably, a central love story was also narrated, between the parents of Fuka-Eri.

The first track of the story (the chapters called "Leader") was the cult leader contemplating the events right after the 1981 "Lake Motosu Incident", the violent gun battle that put the commune on the news. The lake incident was the turning point of the story, when Tamotsu was chosen and "baptized" as the Leader of Sakigake. The second track of the story, the "Tamotsu" chapters, was built on flashbacks detailing how the young Tamotsu founded and maintained an agricultural commune, including his increasing alienation from his friend, Prof. Ebisuno. This second track recounted the circumstances that led to the split of the commune into two factions and contained some heated dialogues and debates between Tamotsu and several of his colleagues who were increasingly becoming more radical in their views.

Leader's narrative was the chilling voice of religious extremism, "ambiguous" depictions of pedophilia, and cult violence, while Tamotsu's narrative was an intimate voice describing his relationship with his family and the peace he was seeking along with peaceful members of the commune. One was ideology, the other utopia. The voice of one person and one principle, really, but currently split and becoming more and more eerie as they increasingly imitated each other and finally merged into one principle and entity.

One was the appearance of the Little People, the other was an increasing failure to stop the spread of fundamentalism. The climax of the story told of the slow emergence of the otherworldly (though comical) Little People from the mouths of the dead radicals after the gunfight in Lake Motosu, and their spinning of an air chrysalis to carry the villainous leader of the radical faction. It was a quite extraordinary "retrieval" scene, though previews of it were already witnessed a few times in the previous books.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Murakami explored what happened within the Sakigake compound. In the same way that Murakami wrote "The Place That Was Promised", the second part of the nonfiction Underground, because he felt the necessity to give voices to the members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the novelist must have planned to provide a fictive parallel to the cult psychology before it branched out into the cult's terrorist act, the release of deadly sarin gas in Tokyo subway trains.

The notable things about this book were its more philosophical bent and the way the plot was quietly reined in, within a completely contained and isolated community, with minimum intervention from the outside world. The narrative therefore did not appear "all over the place" and messy and diffuse, qualities that marred the reading of the previous parts. Tengo, Aomame, and Ushikawa did not make their appearance in this book which concentrated on the radical and pacifist members of the commune.

Murakami, who must still be stinging from his not only being bypassed once again by the Nobel Prize Committee for literature, but also from seeing the prize go to one of his compatriots last October, had produced a worthy prequel to his lengthy story. This fourth book, which I am hoping against hope will be the last one for 1Q84, may partly exonerate him for his previous excesses. His constructed reality had now stopped expanding and this time contracted, tying all the loose strands and introducing open-ended shockers. The origin of the two moons was finally revealed in this book's epilogue. It was an engaging story within a story that justified the preponderance of "paper moons" reference in the early books. Who would have thought that behind the sickly green moon was a logical, though no less surreal, explanation?

Murakami courted greater risk with his presentation of the idea of a novelist as a cult figure, mainly through the disagreements between Tamotsu and the leader of the radical breakaway group. The dialectic was a bit forced though we could acknowledge Murakami's repeated attempts to avoid judging his characters, to avoid labelling their unorthodox actions and reactions as right or wrong. It was evident that Murakami had given the metaphorical role of novelists to both Leader and his nemesis, rather than to "Tamotsu". As early as Book 2 we could already glean how Leader, in his long conversation with Aomame, shared his strong ideas on the balance between good and evil.

   "In this world, there is no absolute good, no absolute evil," the man said. "Good and evil are not fixed, stable entities but are continually trading places. A good may be transformed into an evil in the next second. And vice versa. Such was the way of the world that Dostoevsky depicted in The Brothers Karamazov. The most important thing is to maintain the balance between the constantly moving good and evil. If you lean too much in either direction, it becomes difficult to maintain actual morals. Indeed, balance itself is the good. This is what I mean when I say that I must die in order to keep things in balance."

Practically, these were the same words of Murakami in his 2010 New York Times essay, "Reality A and Reality B" (trans. Jay Rubin)—an essay which would make for a good afterword to the books.

The proper goal of a story is not to judge what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. More important is for us to determine whether, inside us, the variable elements and the traditional elements are moving forward in harmony with each other, to determine whether individual stories and the communal stories inside us are joined at the root.

In the previous books of 1Q84 the major characters could be said to function, individually, as "stand-ins" for Murakami. There were similarities in what the characters said in the book and what the novelist said in his essays and interviews. For example, the gay bodyguard Tamaru had things to say about the way novels are written now:

We're drawing close to the end of the twentieth century. Things are different from back in Chekhov's time. No more horse-drawn carriages, no more women in corsets. Somehow the world survived the Nazis, the atomic bomb, and modern music. Even the way novels are composed has changed drastically.

The evolution of the novel to conform to the reflection of reality was also what the author had in mind in a passage from his NYT essay:

The moment our minds crossed the threshold of the new century, we also crossed the threshold of reality once and for all. We had no choice but to make the crossing, finally, and, as we do so, our stories are being forced to change their structures. The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.

Among the characters in the books, it was Leader who perhaps came closest to embodying the role of the novelist as a creator of underground worlds and realities: "How could I possibly know such things? By listening closely. That is my job—to listen to voices [or the voice, as the translators would alternately render it]." The same reliance on voice/voices, as if she was taking up a dictation like an office secretary, was how Elizabeth Costello, via J. M. Coetzee, defined her role as novelist: "I am a writer, and what I write is what I hear. I am a secretary of the invisible [after Czeslaw Milosz], one of many secretaries over the ages. That is my calling: dictation secretary. I merely write down the words and then test them, test their soundness, to make sure I have heard right." This voice and its transmission were also part of the receiver-perceiver pairing that ran through the books.

The most provocative element of this underground reality, however, was the dohta-maza conundrum. The self and its replicant, closely tied to the absence of a moral standard in the book. The dohta and maza remained just as troubling as they were outlined in the first three books. Murakami skirted the soundness of this formulation by making it part of the "belief system" of the cult. There was a danger of romanticizing the role of the novelist to the extent that whatever he dreamed up was to be accepted as is. Aomame herself had considered Leader's charismatic persona as "extraordinary" despite his sexual relations with pre-teenage girls.

Objectively, what this man [Leader] had been doing was perhaps an affront to humanity. But he himself was, in many senses, an extraordinary human being, and his extraordinariness, at least in part, appeared to transcend standards of good and evil. Ending his life had also been something extraordinary. It had left a strange kind of resonance in her [Aomame's] hands—an extraordinary resonance.

What was disturbing was the way Leader's sexual abuse of a young girl's dohta or female replicant—to the point of destroying her uterus—was considered merely, in Leader's words, an "outward manifestation of a concept", since she was not an "actual substance". Something must really be wrong in the 1Q84 world if there were young girls like Tsubasa who were "without substance", and their violation was but "one form of a concept". Incest, as well, was treated as a part of this concept. The concept, at bottom, was the sexual turpitude of Leader "possessed" by the power of the Little People. The Little People who were products of dark forces dwelling in the underground of the mind, from which the strands of chrysalis were to take shape and give birth into new "concepts". The dark forces dwelt like parasites in the minds of Leader and the radical members of Sakigake. Murakami was here treading dangerous grounds of his conceived reality, the underground reality in which women are treated as objects, in which morality was an unstable formless substance.

It didn't help, again, that this elaborate reality was couched in Murakami's serviceable prose. His writing smacked of self-validation and a nagging appeal to belief. Perhaps this latest installment could only be appreciated for its conception of an alternate underground reality whose plausibility could be accepted only in so far as this reality mimicked the main features of this reality: chaos, ambivalence, moral ambiguity. Perhaps we are living in it, always had been, in this "always only one reality" that Aomame was twice warned about. At least in Book 4, Murakami finally realized the novelistic vision he sketched in a 2001 NYT interview.

''What I write are stories in which the hero is looking for the right way in this world of chaos,'' he said. ''That is my theme. At the same time I think there is another world that is underground. You can access this inner world in your mind. Most protagonists in my books live in both worlds -- this realistic world and the underground world.

''If you are trained you can find the passage and come and go between the two worlds. It is easy to find an entrance into this closed circuit, but it is not easy to find an exit. Many gurus offer an entry into the circuit for free. But they don't offer a way out, because they want to keep followers trapped. Those people can be soldiers when they are ordered to be....''

The translation of this volume by Philip Gabriel demonstrated a natural and idiomatic grasp of Murakami's words. It was a good thing that Murakami had this time allowed his work to be edited and tightened for coherence and unity. The possibility of a sequel should not be discounted. Murakami, the perceiver, had the luxury to listen to the voice and transmit its imagined reality to us receivers. It was not hard to lose oneself in this underground reality. What was hard was to snap out of it.

08 April 2012

“Ho ho,” said the keeper of the beat

1Q84 by Murakami Haruki, trans. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2011)

The novel is an art of recognition. So said Javier Marías, in conversation with Juan Gabriel Vásquez. As one reads the novel, one recognizes aspects of life that hovered at the back of one's mind and which now the novel served to uncover or awaken.

In the case of Murakami Haruki, ever so reader-friendly in 1Q84, the recognition was not slow in coming. He led the reader by the hand, pointing him to the right ideas.

"George Orwell introduced the dictator Big Brother in his novel 1984, as I'm sure you know. The book was an allegorical treatment of Stalinism, of course. And ever since then, the term 'Big Brother' has functioned as a social icon. That was Orwell's great accomplishment. But now, in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous, and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we'd point to him and say, 'Watch out! He's Big Brother!' There's no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don't you think?"

As I'm sure you know. The speaker of the helpful commentary above defined the grand ambitions of Murakami's project: to supplant Big Brother with newly minted mascots, the Little People who "played some role in the sudden drastic change of Sakigake from an agricultural commune to a religious organization."

In the novel, sentences appeared bold and italicized to set them off and acknowledge their importance. They functioned as markers for the characters', especially Aomame's, increasingly distracted and bifurcating thought process. It was very kind of the novelist to do so, to aid us in recognizing the verbal contrasts and to highlight the sentences. Lest the reader had trouble recognizing what the fine print was saying, he had to be reminded for his own good and for his own sake. It was a safeguard against misreading.

As I'm sure you know.

The novelist relied on repetitions to emphasize his ideas. It also signaled sharp movements in the plot and illustrated the agitations of characters. The way repetitions were handled here, however, was rather lame. Aomame, for example, had to ask herself four or five times why she was so concerned about the rubber plant. Why, of course, it was so important in the whole scheme of things. The plot development demanded that she repeatedly torture herself about her rubber plant because the next scene was quite the turning point in the story, featuring some more damning repetitions in boldface and italics.

(A Heart So White by Javier Marías, now there's a masterful example of repetition, a novel in which love was a totalitarian desire and flirtations with 'totalitarianism' didn't go to waste. In that novel, Marías allowed perfect and natural timing for passages to be repeated. They settled well in the reader's minds. Recognition came unaided and not facilitated. Recognition came from interpretation. In contrast to Murakami's, Marías's repetitions in his novel—incidentally, also a novel dealing with violence against women—were sublime, vouchsafed in various degrees of abstraction: repetition as delusion, as salvation, as an instrument of one's undoing. In 1Q84, repetitions were mere repetitions. The recurrence of passages, consecutive and artificial, was foisted on the reader.)

In describing Ushikawa, Tengo had to resort to an ad hoc survey to prove his point.

Around the borders of the flat, lopsided area of his head clung thick, black, curly hair that had been allowed to grow too long, hanging down shaggily over the man's ears. Ninety-eight people out of a hundred would probably be reminded by it of pubic hair. Tengo had no idea what the other two would think.

Surely the 98% of respondents was large enough to convince the reader of Ushikawa's shaggy hair? This survey had to be conducted with enough samples. 95% alone won't cut it.

In describing Ushikawa's manner of dressing, Tengo was dutifully precise with details, looking at every fiber of his interviewer's clothing. And he had to end not with punch lines but with punches.

The man’s gray suit had countless tiny wrinkles, which made it look like an expanse of earth that had been ground down by a glacier. One flap of his white dress shirt’s collar was sticking out, and the knot of his tie was contorted, as if it had twisted itself from the sheer discomfort of having to exist in that place. The suit, the shirt, and the tie were all slightly the wrong size. The pattern on his tie might have been an inept art student’s impressionistic rendering of a bowl of tangled, soggy noodles. Each piece of clothing looked like something he had bought at a discount store to fill an immediate need. But the longer Tengo studied them, the sorrier he felt for the clothes themselves, for having to be worn by this man. Tengo paid little attention to his own clothing, but he was strangely concerned about the clothing worn by others. If he had to compile a list of the worst dressers he had met in the past ten years, this man would be somewhere near the top. It was not just that he had terrible style: he also gave the impression that he was deliberately desecrating the very idea of wearing clothes.

The last two sentences were like two nails that crucified Ushikawa's fashion sense, after he was kicked and flogged all the way to Calvary. This representative passage—1Q84 was full of it—was poorly executed not because of the subject matter of ugliness, but because of the strained diffusion of poor details. As a stand-in novelist for his creator, Tengo was hardly the promising prose stylist. Murakami here calcified the application of his unrealistic approach to fiction writing, which he disclosed in his 2004 Paris Review interview.

I like details very much. Tolstoy wanted to write the total description; my description is focused on a very small area. When you describe the details of small things, your focus gets closer and closer, and the opposite of Tolstoy happens—it gets more unrealistic. That’s what I want to do.
The closer it gets, the less real it gets. That’s my style.

The effect, in this novel, was indeed as unreal as it gets. It was lousy writing. The prose was simply depauperate.

Near the end of his encounter with Ushikawa, Tengo had to sum it up: "Ushikawa's oddities were an unending source of fascination." And the incredulous reader had to take Tengo's word for it. Surveys and worst dressed lists were the ever reliable indicators of the truth of his claims. But if we're not yet convinced, here was Tengo's parting shot to a secretary right after Ushikawa left the premises.

   "I always tell myself not to judge people by their appearance. I've been wrong in the past and had some serious regrets. But the minute I saw this man, I got the feeling he couldn't be trusted. I still feel that way."
   "You're not alone," Tengo said.
   "I'm not alone," she echoed, as if to confirm the grammatical accuracy of Tengo's sentence.
   "That's a beautiful jacket you're wearing," Tengo said, meaning it quite honestly. He wasn't just flattering her. After Ushikawa's crumpled heap of a suit, her stylishly cut linen jacket looked like a lovely piece of fabric that had descended from heaven on a windless afternoon."
   "Thank you," she said.

Like a lovely piece of fabric descended from heaven on a windless afternoon. One had to admit it was nice verbal contrast to Ushikawa's "deliberately desecrating the very idea of wearing clothes." Thank you. Now we're totally convinced. 100%. Cue the Little People.

“Ho ho,” said the keeper of the beat.
“Ho ho,” the others chimed in.

07 April 2012

It was a bloody paper moon

1Q84 by Murakami Haruki, trans. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2011)

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.
Nineteen Eighty-Four

Murakami Haruki's extra-long 1Q84 was full of narrative strategies that went against the grain of conventional storytelling. It represented a hardening of his hyper-realistic style and its ambitiousness was patterned after that of George Orwell's dystopia, with the Little People in the novel imagined to have the same iconic stature as Big Brother. This well-intentioned novel, however, was bogged down by its own paper weight.

The story was simple, if a bit long drawn out. It was 1984 when Aomame, a sports fitness trainer and physical therapist, suddenly found herself in a 'strange' new reality where policemen wore a new style of uniform and sported a new weapon. There was more to Aomame than meets the eye. She was also a hired killer for the dowager, an old wealthy woman who targeted powerful men who beat women. Meanwhile, Tengo, a cram school Maths teacher and aspiring novelist, was telling his own reality in parallel alternate chapters. He was 'commissioned' by Komatsu, his editor, to act as ghostwriter of Air Chrysalis, a promising novel by a teenage girl named Fuka-Eri. The novel was entered in a writing competition and Komatsu wanted to polish its prose for it to eventually win. Behind the increasingly intertwining (love) story of Aomame and Tengo was the dark shadow of the religious Sakigake cult, the ultimate source of all the troubles and strangeness of their world.

As with previous works, Murakami built into his fictional system an aspect of the metafictional. As a key text defining the principles that govern the double moon world of '1Q84' (the name Aomame gave this new reality/world), Air Chrysalis could also be seen as a template for the novel 1Q84. It was at least instructive how Tengo approached the work he was rewriting. Even his definition of what constitutes literature was very telling: "If the work succeeds in gaining many people's approval and if they identify with it, then it becomes a literary work with objective value." Hence, for Tengo, and arguably for Murakami, "literary value" was contingent on mass appeal.

Part of the appeal of Murakami's novels was the 'friendly' nature of his novels and stories. They unfolded in strange worlds and yet they were very understandable and relatable, well grounded in reality. They had complexity but were made to appear simple. They were full of life's lessons. And Murakami was all too helpful to explain to the reader the mechanism of his story. It was narrative spoonfeeding, using the pages of the novel as venue for his fiction writing workshop. The narrative principle was given by Komatsu, Tengo's helpful editor.

"In my opinion, you haven't written enough about the two moons. I'd like you to give it more concrete detail. That's my only request."
"Your readers have seen the sky with one moon in it any number of times, right? But I doubt they've seen a sky with two moons in it side by side. When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible."

And describe the moons Tengo did. By the novel's end, Tengo, and Murakami, not only described them very well but bashed them into the readers' head, over and over, until the reader's head bleeds. After reading, I looked outside the window and my mouth fell open. There were two moons hanging in the sky, this 2Q12 sky, one grey and one green.

04 April 2012

The Wild Goose (Mori Ōgai)

The Wild Goose by Mori Ōgai, translated with an introduction by Burton Watson (Center for Japanese Studies - The University of Michigan, 1995)

The events of my story took place some time ago—in 1880, the thirteenth year of the Meiji era, to be exact.

At the start of this short novel, the narrator described his friendship with a handsome student named Okada. Okada often walked the streets of Muenzaka in the evening and one time he happened upon a beautiful young woman living in a house in a silent neighborhood. Through his regular walks he had become acquainted with her, even if "the appearance of the house and the way the woman dressed strongly suggested that she was someone's mistress."

Even in ill health she would have been beautiful, but in fact she was young and healthy, and today her usual good looks had been heightened by careful makeup and grooming. To my eyes she seemed to possess a beauty wholly beyond anything I had noted earlier, and her face shone with a kind of radiance. The effect was dazzling.

The Wild Goose, also known as The Wild Geese, by Mori Ōgai (1862-1922) was a dazzling and iconic Japanese novel about Otama, the woman who agreed to become the mistress of Suezō, a shrewd moneylender, and her acquaintance with Okada, the young student she fell in love with. Through gentle prose, Ōgai presented their interlinked stories while illuminating the attitudes and mores of late nineteenth century Japan, at the cusp of its transition to a modernist society.

It was a time when men of means like Suezō could hire go-betweens to negotiate and procure for them a mistress. The practice was then taboo and mistresses were then, as now, strongly discriminated against. Otama's previous marriage to a policeman turned out to be a sham, leaving her completely discouraged about her future prospects. Her plight was to be poor and her acquiescence to become a rich man's mistress was driven by her need to secure material comforts for herself and her old father.

Part of the charm of the story was the narrator's close observations of Otama, Suezō, and Okada's motives and actions. Like the character of Suezō, the man despised by society for his occupation as moneylender, the narrator had "keen powers of observation", in the way he delineated not only three strong characters but believable secondary characters as well. Suezō's suspicious wife Otsune and Otama's father had their own complexities.

Ōgai's marked evocation of a distinct place and culture and the marginal status of women at the time revealed a "not-quite" vanished age, in the sense that his characters' desires, despair, and anguish were just as transparent as the present. In addition, Ōgai's use of animal symbols (a pair of caged birds, a fierce snake, a flock of geese) and references to classical Chinese and Japanese literature had such cunning and grace that they didn't feel like literary devices at all but the very essence of the story, like fire to the brazier.

        In her mortification there was very little hatred for the world or for people. If one were to ask exactly what in fact she resented, one would have to answer that it was her own fate. Through no fault of her own she was made to suffer persecution, and this was what she found so painful. When she was deceived and abandoned by the police officer, she had felt this mortification, and recently, when she realized that she must become a mistress, she experienced it again. Now she learned that she was not only a mistress but the mistress of a despised moneylender, and her despair, which had been ground smooth between the teeth of time and washed of its color in the waters of resignation, assumed once more in her heart its stark outline.

The unnamed narrator was a voice of kindness. His large sympathy for the fates of Otama and his friend Okada was unmistakable, relating their stories with penetrating understanding, even affecting a degree of respect and love for the two characters. He later revealed his storytelling method as a play on two perspectives: "Just as two images combine in a stereoscope to form a single picture, so the events I observed earlier and those that were described to me later have been fitted together to make this story of mine."

With Natsume Sōseki, Tōson Shimazaki, Shiga Naoya, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Ōgai was an exemplary prewar Japanese writer of national stature, and The Wild Goose (Gan), published serially in 1911-13, was his most esteemed work. According to Murakami Haruki (if I remember him correctly), Gan had the same special status in Japan as Sōseki's I Am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro; Akutagawa's stories; and Shiga's A Dark Night's Passing.

Translator Burton Watson mentioned in his thorough introduction that the original title Gan could mean both the singular and plural words, hence the two distinct English titles. I have also read the earlier 1959 translation, The Wild Geese, by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein, and in fact selected it as one of my favorite reads of 2010. I don't have that copy anymore and so I can't make a general comparison of the translations. But this full translation by Watson contains endorsements from Edwin McClellan and Edward Seidensticker, two powerhouse Japanese translators, so that should count for something. Indeed this version I find quite beautiful.

Gan was adapted into a movie in 1953.

(This book also reviewed in Nihon distractions)

03 April 2012

Nowaki (Natsume Sōseki)

Nowaki by Natsume Sōseki, trans. William N. Ridgeway (Center for Japanese Studies – The University of Michigan, 2011)

Nowaki was an early Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916) short novel first published in 1907. It was the story about an aging writer's hard stance on the ethical and moral responsibility of the artist in society. Sōseki dramatized this stance through the ex-middle school teacher Dōya’s philosophy of education.

A teacher who is satisfied in teaching from the textbook and earning his living this way is no different in theory from a tightrope artist who earns his living twirling a baton. Education is different from tightrope crossing and baton twirling. The acquisition of knowledge is just the beginning of education; the true purpose is the building of human character. To size up the large and the small, to weigh the light and the heavy, to distinguish between good and evil, to always know right from wrong, wisdom from folly, truth from falsehood—that is the purpose of learning.

Despite the soundness of his philosophy, the rather didactic delivery of his ideas and his methods led to Dōya being discredited by the school authorities. He was vilified by his students and shunned by the educational establishment for his uncompromising adherence to his principles. The book's propagandistic writing style probably hewed closely to the way Dōya described his frustrations of his "failed" generation and his prescriptions for regeneration by the youth.

A good contrast to Dōya’s worldview were those provided by two young men in the story. Inexperienced and impulsive and yet with strong artistic and literary inclinations, Takayanagi and Nakano were close friends who were newly graduated from the university. Nakano was from a well-off family, while his friend, the sickly Takayanagi, was dirt poor. The stark contrast in their backgrounds provided Sōseki an opportunity to explore the ways in which class status determines the dominant preoccupations of a writer. Nakano was concerned about the "anguish of love", while Takayanagi was bent on surviving the present world he described as "full of cynicism" and "an open competition of cold-heartedness":

   “What I wish to write is not such a dreamy stuff as yours. Mine may not be pretty, but on the contrary it may be painful, stinging to read, yet I shall be satisfied if it should reveal my innermost feelings. Whether it is poetical or not, I do not care. I will have written well if I stab myself hard enough for the pain to make me jump and I am able to convey that pain to the reader, to make him say, ‘That hurt!’ I wish to enlighten the comfortable and complacent to the reality that can find no expression in their deepest dreams. I want to open the eyes of the debauchee to the essence of man, so that he may confess with bowed head that he had never entertained such a thought before but now acknowledges it to be undeniably true.—A different direction entirely from yours [Nakano's].”

The confessions of the characters, full of passion and intensity, were writ large in the book. A lot more of these ‘insights’ of the heart and mind made for a didactic novel, but the ideas must be welcomed for their honesty and the forthcoming way they were blurted out and shared. It was inevitable that, of the two friends, it was Takayanagi (who happened to be one of the students who harassed Dōya while still a teacher) who will be attracted to the singular philosophy of Dōya. His were also the inner conflicts of a person of seeming duality or contradiction which Sōseki was delineating in his other books.

   “There is something strange about your face. The right side in the sunlight looks very ruddy, whereas the left side in the shadows looks unhealthy. Strange. As if your face appears as a conjoining of half a mask of tragedy and half a mask of comedy,” declared Nakano without taking a breath.

The two masks of comedy and tragedy were evident in many scenes, making it hard whether to categorize them as serious or satire. The delicate balance of the two weights always threatened to tilt on one side or the other, a constant juggling that required novelistic skill—proof that this early work was important on its own in the Sōsekian oeuvre. Nowaki was not only an epigrammatic novel, with every other page containing the kind of insane quotes worth underlining, but also a key work closely tethered to the novelist's themes. It explicitly identified and discussed the abstractions that beset the protagonists of later novels. It could be Sōseki's most 'preachy' novel, surprisingly political in parts, and was a definite throwback to the subtle feelings and subdued atmospheres generated by works such as Kokoro and Mon. Nevertheless it illuminated the undercurrent of cynicism running through his mature novels. The unnamed 'disease' of his protagonists in the late novels was here already identified and prefigured: the physical and psychological sickness arising from living a hard and poor life. The characters of Nowaki were likewise bent on attaining a form of salvation even as they wrote or continued living under the shadow of death.

What partly saved the novel from the ruts of sentimentality, and it seemed ever close to doing so, was its writing style, specifically, the unique sensibility of the omniscient point of view and free indirect style. The ubiquitous narrator's intrusion was distracting as it was instructive.

   "What kind of associations?" she asked gently, placing one hand over the other. About two inches above her wrists were exposed, while the rest of her arms were hidden in the soft sleeves. Her kimono was of pink silk with a design of silver rain in intervals of heavy lines and light lines.
   It was pleasant to see the fine fingers of the hand on top, each of which tapered off in a rounded shape to a gleaming nail. To be fine, fingers must be long and slender and yet provided with flesh soft enough to keep their delicate shape. Each finger must differ slightly from another, yet there must be harmony between them as a whole. There are fewer people with beautiful fingers than people with beautiful faces. A person with beautiful fingers must be in want of a precious ornament.
   On a long slender finger the woman wore a brilliant object.

The uncalled-for intrusions and side comments in the text (To be fine, fingers must be long and slender ... There are fewer people with beautiful fingers than people with beautiful faces.) signaled the presence of an intelligent storyteller not answerable to the characters' actions. They also lightened the narrative and questioned its otherwise serious tone. There were indications that the "intrusive" omniscient narrator was pulling the reader's, and the characters', legs, telling more than what the characters needed to or cared to know. The characters were often wholly ignorant of the facts that the intrusive narrator was sharing:

An old haiku says, "One by one thoughts come to mind only to disintegrate like charcoal burned to ash." The wife probably did not know it. She went to the brazier in Dōya's room and began leveling the ashes with the tongs, drawing a circle because the brazier was round in shape.

The wife probably did not know it. But someone did. Elsewhere, Sōseki would sumptuously describe a well-decorated ornate living room visited by Dōya, only to let the reader know that Dōya himself was not a party to its appreciation: "The fireplace was still in disuse, concealed behind a small two-leaf folding screen placed one foot in front of it. Maroon damask curtains clashed with the general color scheme of the decoration, but this fact escaped Dōya's notice. Sensei had never in his life been in such as fine room as this." At one point the narrative contrasted the differences between Dōya's and Takayanagi's worldviews, only to point out the latter's lack of knowledge of these differences: "Such is the difference between one who exists for others [Dōya-sensei] and one who exists for himself [Takayanagi]. Such is the difference between one who leads others and one who relies on others. Such is the difference, even when both are solitary individuals. Takayanagi was not aware of these differences."

The adopted narrative style could get away with it. The seeming offense to the characters' ignorance of their surroundings, circumstances, and merits, only served to highlight their fallibility and humanness. Even with passages that seemed to offer a clue to the writer's credo, a strong hint of the funny could not be divorced from the unusual formulations.

   Host and guest are one. There is no guest without a host and no host without a guest. It is only for the sake of convenience in our lives that we make a distinction between the two. We think of color and form as separate entities, though neither form nor color can exist independently. We think of technique and concept as separate entities, though in fact they are closely correlated. Once we understand this, we have allowed ourselves to enter a maze; and since life is most important to us, we find it more and more difficult to get out of the labyrinth, created for the sake of convenience in our lives, the deeper we proceed into it. Only when one is emancipated from the desires of life can this bewilderment be overcome. Takayanagi was a man who could not liberate himself from this desire. Consequently, he could not conceive of host and guest separately, obstinately attached to the idea that host is host and guest is guest. Whenever he met a superior guest, he felt attacked by invisible swords on every side. At this garden party Takayanagi felt as if he had taken a lone position against enemy troops.

All the blabber about "host and guest" in the first three sentences was too weird to take seriously. And then the following statements (We think of color and form ...) could almost be taken out of context and offered to represent the ideal artist's credo. And then, bang, there goes again the "host and guest" at the tail-end. All of which only emphasized the fact of poor Takayanagi lounging in his destitute clothes and clearly out of place in the party attended by the upper class.

In the translator's afteword, William N. Ridgeway mentioned that, with this latest translation, only Sōseki's novel Gubijinsō remains to be translated. (The Gate, for me his masterpiece so far, will appear in a retranslation from New York Review Books at the end of the year.) Also, according to Ridgeway, the word nowaki referred to the autumn wind blowing between September 1 and September 11, a time of "violent winds and typhoons, and of potential crises." The same wind blew at the culmination of the novel, a tour de force scene where Dōya was set to deliver his lecture to a hostile crowd, a speech which was oddly stirring for all its obtuse demagogic arguments. His speech underlined the crux of his hardline ideas on the necessity for artists and writers to embrace anti-materialism and on the limitations of freedom. For Dōya, and arguably for Sōseki himself, freedom is not a totally free commodity. It is subject to the exercise of morality: "Those born into a society without precedent ought to create their own precedent. Those who enjoy unlimited freedom are already limited by freedom itself. How to make use of this freedom is your responsibility, as well as your privilege. Gentlemen! If you do not maintain high ideals, your freedom is only depravity."

Nowaki contained the usual Sosekian pleasures and nuances. The characters, although sharply drawn, also functioned as abstract concepts or emblems of their self-expressions. More than a novel, it was an "essay on character", the very title of the manuscript Dōya was working on. Ridgeway compared this novel to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. I think it's not a bad comparison.

02 April 2012

The Athenian Murders (José Carlos Somoza)

The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza, trans. Sonia Soto (Abacus, 2002)

Set in ancient Greece in the time of Plato’s Academy, this postmodern, heavily footnoted murder mystery was ostensibly a scholar’s translation of a Greek text, also called The Athenian Murders, written by an anonymous author just after the Peloponnesian War. Like the Quixote, therefore, it was a meta-translation, a text put forward as a translation of a fictional original by a narrator who was conscious of the fact. (But what does that make of the "Pierre Menard" story?) Here, the fictional translator himself gave his comments on the story and his translation in the footnotes. As he worked on the chapters of the text and immersed himself in the cryptic images ‘hidden’ in the story, his copious translator's notes at the bottom of the pages became more and more desperate in tone. The fictional translator (the qualification was necessary, in deference to Spanish-to-English translator Sonia Soto) of the fictional Greek text was starting to cave in, so to speak. Both the original Spanish title of the novel and the purported Greek text were called La caverna de las ideas (2000, The Cave of Ideas).

The Cuban writer José Carlos Somoza (b. 1959) was fond of what-if stories. His other novels translated after this one—The Art of Murder and Zig Zag—were both set in the future, so the speculative and futuristic may be a constant preoccupation with the author.

'Poetry, tragedy, comedy, prose, epics and many other things.... I must make it clear, Plato, that I do not "see" the future: I invent it. I write it and that, for me, is equivalent to inventing it. Simply for pleasure, I conceive worlds that differ from this one, voices that speak from other times, past or future.... On occasion, Apollo has allowed me to deduce what the future might be like ...'

That was the writer Philotextus speaking to Master Plato. For Somoza, the novel was a literal cave of ideas and possibilities. The hermeneutic puzzle was evident from the novel's epigraph, from Plato of course:

There is an argument which holds good against the man who ventures to put anything whatever into writing on questions of this nature; it has often before been stated by me, and it seems suitable for the present occasion.
   For everything that exists there are three instruments by which knowledge of it is necessarily imparted; fourth, there is the knowledge itself, and, as fifth, we must count the thing itself which is known and truly exists. The first is the name, the second the definition, the third the image ...

The fifth instrument, the thing itself, requires that knowledge of the thing must fold in on itself. Plato's theory of ideas cautions against the very danger of steeping oneself in incomplete, unverifiable ideas, and the (Kafkaesque) danger of interpreting everything.

It was notable how in this story of crime solving, the narrative role of the translator was given utmost importance. Translation became the vehicle for solving the crime at the center of the story and for illuminating the unsolved enigmas brought about by Plato's dangerous ideas. "Translator figures" haunt The Athenian Murders, both novel and meta-translation, in various guises, all plausible roles for the translator: detective, philosopher, sculptor, and reader. On top of the fictional translator, the detective Heracles at one point also considered himself a translator: "I haven't translated that part of the text yet, Diagoras. Although I assure you, in all modesty, I'm not a bad translator." The detective was like a translator in the way he read and interpreted the available clues (words) to decipher the solution to the crime (text). Heracles's official title of "Decipherer of Enigmas" was hinted as a kind of definition for what a translator does.

Another definition was given by Menaechmus, the sculptor (the translator of clay into statues?) who was working on a sculpture with a not so subtle name:

It's called The Translator. The man who tries to decipher the mystery of a text written in a foreign language, not realizing that words simply lead to other words, and thoughts to other thoughts, while the Truth remains unattainable.

Everyone was translating foreign ideas into accessible meanings: characters, translators, novelists, readers. My favorite translator figure was the latter. The reader as a godlike and powerful translator, yet an invisible one, or at least invisible to the characters of the story:

'There's a widely held belief in many places far from Athens,' he said, 'that everything we do and say exists as words written in another language on a huge papyrus scroll. And Someone is reading the scroll right now, deciphering our thoughts and actions, and finding hidden keys [eidetic images?] to the texts of our lives. That Someone is known as the Interpreter or Translator … Those who believe in Him think that our lives have an ultimate meaning of which we ourselves are unaware, but which the Translator discovers as he reads us. Eventually, the text comes to an end and we die, knowing no more than before. But the Translator, who has read us, discovers at last the ultimate meaning of our existence.'

Underneath this passage, the fictional translator's accompanying footnote reads:

Though I've searched through all my books, I can't find a single reference to this supposed religion. The author must have invented it. [Translator's Note]

Certainly, the fictional translator was not to know that we are reading about him. He was too engrossed in his task. And he didn't recognize that the religion he was looking for was possibly, quite possibly, literature. 

Translation is more or less. Translation is the idea of the original. It loses words and gains words. It makes painful choices. It makes fitting choices. It is full of doubts and compromises. Translation is a world of decisions. The fictional translator of The Athenian Murders was well aware that the idea of correspondence was enough to bring comfort to the beleaguered. More or less.
I want to shout, but I think the Idea of a Shout would provide more relief. [Translator's Note]

Related posts:

Blood and sound ; Reading list: Translators in fiction