15 January 2022

Hoshino Tomoyuki, performance artist of the Quixote


The visible imprints made to date by Hoshino Tomoyuki, at least in English language translation, could be easily summarized. This Japanese novelist, born in 1965, began publishing stories and novels after a half-decade sojourn in South America in the first half of 1990s. He had been fairly prolific in publishing Japanese novels and newspaper commentaries. 

Unpardonable therefore was the short list of 11 works in Goodreads, which of course skirted around some anthologized stories in journals and magazines, but I had no recourse to a definitive bibliography of his primary works. In the Internet age, everyone who had access to digital paraphernalia was a bibliographer. The incompleteness of this listing exercise is obvious, but I had established that his English presence, circa 2021, consisted of the following:

     a. Lonely Hearts Killer, tr. Adrienne Carey Hurley (PM Press, 2009, original in 2004) - with an introduction by the translator and a brief preface by Hoshino. It also had a Q & A between novelist and translator at the end of the novel.

     b. We, the Children of Cats, tr. Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser (PM Press, 2012) - five stories and three novellas published in the original between 1998 and 2006. My edition (Kindle) listed the sources from which the pieces first appeared in Japanese and English. The story "The No Fathers Club", for example, was included in Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Stories from Japan (Cheng & Tsui Company, 2011). It also contained a preface by Hoshino and an extended afterword by translator Bergstrom.

     c. ME, tr. Charles De Wolf (Akashic Books, 2017, original in 2010) - with an afterword by Ōe Kenzaburō entitled "A Model for the Power of Literary Thought" and a note from the translator. An audiobook of this novel was also released.

This list had to be updated once other books/novels, some of which won awards in Japan - like The Last Gasp (1997), The Mermaid Sings Wake Up, Fantasista, The Nights Never End, and Spell - get to be picked up for translation.

     d. "Pink", translated by Bergstrom is collected in Granta 127 issue (2014). It is readable here. This was also collected in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories under the section "Disasters, Natural and Man-Made".

     e. I should end there, but I was told Hoshino was a journalist who wrote kaisetsu or newspaper and book commentaries. There was a kaisetsu of his which appeared at the end of the Japanese paperback reissue of Tsushima Yukō's Woman Running in the Mountains. The latter novel (and the Hoshino kaisetsu) was translated by Geraldine Harcourt and will be reissued next month by NYRB.

My introduction to Hoshino, the performance artist of the Quixote, was Harcourt's translation of his commentary on Tsushima's novel. In his kaisetsu, Hoshino imagined the future life of characters in Woman Running in the Mountains. After more or less 26 years (Tsushima's novel appeared in Japan in 1980; the paperback reissue was in 2006), how would those characters - a woman and her baby boy - appear now and how would they behave given Japan's changed social outlook and mindset. (How about we take it further since the novel will be reissued next month? The baby would now be around 42, himself a father of at least one kid and the woman is now a senior citizen and a grandmother! How would they live in contemporary Japan in the age of pandemic?).

I should now single out that one story, the inimitable, the concise, the stupendous construction - the opening salvo in We, the Children of Cats called "Paper Woman" - the short story that announced a surprise attack on how to approach novel reading.

It’s been two years now since I became a novelist, and I’ve found myself thinking more and more about just who it is who reads the things I write. This may be simply due to the relatively poor sales of my own books, of course, but it may also be due in no small part to my recent pondering of what larger meaning a novel’s existence might bear. After all, statistically speaking, the number of people reading novels is decreasing, part of a general decrease in the sales of literature, but I think the real problem may be that fewer and fewer people really read any more, really consume literature as if printing the words on the interiors of their bodies.

Our novelist, Hoshino Tomoyuki, was contemplating the self-reflexive art of novel writing and the self-awareness that comes in novel reading. The reader might be writing the novel as he reads, but he was also inhabiting ("deciphering") the writer's psyche. This new material perception of reading was due in part to technology and the rise of professional amateurs. "On the Internet, within fanboy culture, anyone can pose as anything." He might also be referring to self-proclaimed bibliographers. And he might also be referring to "content creators" or "content writers" (but what does one write if not contents to be itemized in a table of contents?).

Fortuitously, in the midst of his novel-mongering, our novelist met the Paper Woman, an aspiring novelist who "wrote a fantastical tale about a woman who could eat only paper and eventually became entirely composed of the stuff". The Paper Woman did not want to compose another Quixote, which is easy as (eating) pie. She created a paper-eating character (papervore?) who would embody the Quixote printed on paper: the Quixote made of paper. The Paper Woman's method was simple: write about a papervore who would transform into the paper she consumed. But this was a commentary on a commentary. And her encounter with Hoshino was less than palatable to say the least.

“Do you sometimes dribble soy sauce onto sheets of paper and wrap them like seaweed around your rice?” I asked, and she replied with a touch of contempt. “I’m not a literal bookworm, I don’t actually eat paper. Besides, no matter how much paper a bookworm eats, it’s still just a worm in the end, no? Wanting to become paper and eating paper are two different things.” 

“Good point. If eating paper turned you into paper, all a little kid who wanted to be a soccer player would have to do was eat other soccer players to succeed.” 

“Have you eaten many authors, Mr. Hoshino?” 

“No, no, I’ve never spent any time wanting to become an author. Become a novel, maybe.” 

“If you’re still saying things like ‘I want to become a novel,’ you’ve got a long way to go, I’d say.”

It was no longer a word-to-word correspondence between the Quixote and his reader. It was the performative act of the reading life itself, or the life-to-word correspondence. Writing the Quixote in the early 17th century was a feasible, perhaps a necessary task; in the early 21st, the task would simply be cliché. The blank paper would virtually self-detonate. All great works are - or remain - unfinished, suggested Borges, not in his literary criticism but in one of his stories. The Quixote could no longer be read, rewritten, or translated. Nowadays, it could only be performed

The novelist Hoshino eventually married the novelist Paper Woman. They were so compatible that they resembled each other. Insecure about their relationship, Hoshino "made every effort to treat Paper" like a blank paper. He wrote on her skin using fine-tipped pens and brushes and this gave them both sexual pleasure. They would engage in a role-playing game in which Hoshino would erase the writing on Paper by washing her body clean and start over again.

As if with perfect memory, Paper could remember the characters Hoshino inscribed on her. Paper would dictate it to Hoshino and the latter would type it into his word processor. That became his method of writing. For a time this routine suited them both. Until Paper became pregnant and gave birth to a boy.

Their marriage started to fall apart once Paper became a mother. Hoshino's habit of writing on Paper became less and less frequent and Paper eventually became depressed and unstable and withered. The novelist husband hatched another plan to resuscitate Paper's health.

It was around that time that I started to seriously consider tattooing Paper. I thought that if the words on her skin were fixed and meaningful, she’d stop getting so caught up in the chaos of the characters’ formation, and her mind would grow more ordered as well. I decided to write out a translation of Don Quixote, a book we both esteemed above all others, in as fine a print as I could manage, then find a good tattoo artist to complete my plan. 

The reader may ask, Why the Quixote? That choice, made by a Japanese novelist, was obvious given his familiarity with the literary landscape of Latin America where he stayed and must have traveled far and wide before embarking on his literary career. Fermat ran out of space to publish his proof but the skin of a paper could be an infinite stage of calligraphy if one resorted to the finest of fine print.

Hoshino's microscript Quixote is more subtle than Cervantes'. Since the Quixote masqueraded itself as a pseudo-translation, the Japanese novelist's technique was odder and crueler than Pierre Menard's original text in Spanish. Since Paper would be the repository of the characters (presumably in Japanese), the performative act of the tattoo artist was now the opposite of anthropomorphism. The opposite of anthropomorphism is dehumanization which eliminates the human-like traits of beings and relegates or views them in non-human terms. The wife Paper was no longer paper-like but had became an actual paper. 

The skin-deep absorption of literature, the unhealthy consumption of letters and belles-lettres, could lead to an innovative, yet somehow tragic, commentary on performance art. In Kafka's In the Penal Colony, the young judge, in order to uphold his blind sense of justice through the use of a torture machine, opted to subject himself to the depravity of suffering under the same machine. The reading experience was empiricized not through simple reading but the experience of pain as the needle was etched on skin.

It is a blast to compare the Don Quixote of Hoshino Tomoyuki with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for instance, wrote this (Part I, Chapter IX):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.

This short list of platitudes about truth, written in the 17th century, by a "crazy amateur" Miguel de Cervantes, is desperate for a heart emoji. Hoshino, on the other hand, wrote:

Paper wanted her whole body covered, but I decided to leave her face blank, telling her she could always fill it in later. The words Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha ran down her backbone. “Let’s compare spines!” exhorted Paper, so we lined her up with the new Don Quixote translation that had just come out from Iwanami Press and took a picture.

Paper's metamorphosis was complete. Loudly, she exulted, "I am paper!"

Pierre Menard left no traces of his invisible work. He would carry his notebooks and make cheery bonfires. The ending of "Paper Woman" was also a bonfire which consummated the words on human paper. Performative reading was a form - the worst form maybe - of suicide. One could read an open book but, as Hoshino showed, "the prospect of never truly being able to understand another person's feelings completely" was a tragedy of Cervantesque proportions.

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