A prompt to immerse oneself in Japanese writing
The English edition of Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Killing Commendatore, will be out this autumn, and in some parts the frenzy as the release date approaches may well match the midnight queues that formed in Japan last year when the Japanese original, Kishidancho Goroshi, was to go on sale. A doorstopper at more than 700 pages, and said to be a homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it hit headlines this month when the authorities in Hong Kong controversially ordered the removal of its Chinese translation from a book fair, with the Obscene Articles Tribunal deeming that it be made available in libraries to only those aged 18 years or more, and that its cover carry a warning.
That anything by Murakami, living god of the globalised reading world, could be classified under “indecent materials” is baffling, but even in Hong Kong the Tribunal will likely take a kinder view of another new volume that has the great man’s name: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories. Edited by Jay Rubin, a leading translator of Japanese fiction, it covers a vast expanse, from Nobel winners like Kawabata Yasunari (this exquisitely produced book goes by the Japanese practice of writing the last name first, and hereon, I’ll follow that) to Murakami himself to younger sensations like Yoshimoto Banana. What gives the book cohesion is Murakami’s introduction that combines his own reading history with an unhurried assessment of each of the writers whose short story is included.
Somewhat surprisingly (even if you are aware as he writes here, “From my teens to my early twenties, I hardly read any Japanese fiction”), Murakami says he had previously read only six of the 35 stories collected (including two of his own). “Many of the rest I had not even heard of,” he clarifies — a bit too disarmingly perhaps, because even as he writes that he is taking the reader along “so that together we can think about how best to approach this anthology”, his capsules on each of the writers are so contextual and seemingly informed by deep reading that each is a prompt to read the writer’s fiction more extensively.
But first, Murakami’s reason for his initial reservations about Japanese fiction before immersing himself, in his thirties onwards, in Japanese writing. He had been put off by the “I-novel”, he writes, “the form of autobiographical writing that has been at the forefront of Japan’s modern fiction since the turn of the twentieth century”. However, it’s in the nature of Murakami’s empathetic telling of each writer’s work that there is not a discouraging word about the I-novelists introduced.
Rubin has organised the short stories thematically — Japan and the West, Loyal Warriors, Men and Women, Nature and Memory, Modern Life and Other Nonsense, Dread and Disasters, Natural and Man-Made. So, if this appears a bit random by avoiding a chronological sweep of modern Japanese writing, it only makes more convincing Murakami’s comparison of the contents to fukubukuro, i.e. “good luck bags” or “lucky grab bags”, that are sold in Japan on New Year’s Day. They are reportedly sealed, so you won’t know the contents till you buy one, but the total value of what they hold is more than the selling price of the bag.
There are, of course, the big writers like Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, whose fiction should need no prompt to be devoured, as Murakami’s recollection of his first visit to the New Yorker offices implies. He saw there copies of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters on the editor, Robert Gottlieb’s shelf. Why, he asked. Gottlieb replied: “I do it so people will ask me that question. Then I can tell them what a great book I think it is and, if they show interest, I can give them a copy.”
Rubin’s selection also has younger writers. There’s the 1964-born Yoshimoto, whose Kitchen launched her to cult status in the late 1980s and early 1990s and who keeps publishing at a regular clip. There is another writer I’d watch out for. Ogawa Yoko’s books are widely available in English translation, and her story here, ‘The Tale of the House of Physics’ (originally published in 2010), brings to mind Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird without being imitative. With sparing detail about the narrator, a book editor looking back as he winds up his office upon retirement, it plays on what Murakami calls “the mystery house” that each of us has been fascinated by in our childhood neighbourhoods, and leaves the reader with a fresh appreciation of the uncommon grace in open-heartedly enabling another to tell her story.
I guess, in this fukubukuro, I did find my surprise gift after all.
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