Friday, 14 April 2017

Record of a Night Too Brief

Hiromi Kawakami, 1996 [Lucy North, 2017]
(March 2017)

On the one hand, I loved this, on the other, I found myself in a broadly grudging agreement with Ishihara Shintaro, which those of you who know me (and him) will understand is not a position I ever really wanted to find myself in.

This volume collects three shortish novellas (or, I guess, three longish short stories), the last of which, A Snake Stepped On, won the Akutagawa Prize in 1996. Ishihara was less than impressed:

I have absolutely nothing good to say about it. I have no idea what the snake is supposed to be a metaphor for. I can only say that the fact that such stuff and nonsense can be awarded a longstanding and illustrious literary prize is demonstration of the decline of Japanese literature today.

Whatever else you might accuse him of, you can’t say that he lacks for a definite position. I should also clarify that it’s only the second sentence of that quote I’m in agreement with; the rest is contestable, at best. But not, I think, worth dismissing without further consideration, for while these are clearly the chunterings of an man unhappy that he has got old while the rest of the world hasn’t, there’s also a valid discussion here about the relationship between form and content, style and substance. Not least (indeed, especially), when it comes to the kind of Japanese literature available in English translation.

We could, perhaps, call this the “Murakami Mandate”, which for our purposes is twofold: Firstly it encourages publicists to compare just about all Japanese authors to Murakami Haruki, regardless of any other similarities beyond nationality (an affliction which, to be fair, Pushkin Press don’t fall victim to here). Secondly, and this is harder to prove conclusively, it seems to encourage a certain selection bias towards flavours of magical realism when it comes to translating Japanese works to English (see also this fascinating essay by one of the other Murakami’s regular translators). This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but at the same time it’s also easy to see it as the top of a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies a quagmire of orientalist nonsense regarding aesthetic sensibility and inscrutability and four fucking seasons or whatever.

Regarding Ishihara’s second point, that literature was better in the old days and things ain’t what they used to be and that all this used to be fields, well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. I’ll refer you back to the annoyance I felt on my (to date) only run in with Kawabata Yasunari; that for all the craft on display the metaphors were so obviously telegraphed that he might have well as cut straight to the chase, written “I’m terrified of dying.” twenty thousand times, and saved us all a lot of time and effort. The Sound of the Mountain is not a book which embraces the death of the author, any way you care to slice it.

For me to call Record of a Night Too Brief a reaction to anything would be to overplay my knowledge of Japanese literature in general, but you can certainly see why someone raised to value a canon exemplified by Kawabata’s didactically rigid use of metaphor wouldn’t take to it, because the fact is that Kawakami is at her strongest when she moves furthest away from inviting interpretation. There are three stories in this volume, the title story comes first, followed by Missing, and Ishihara’s bête noir rounds things out, and for my money the first is the best precisely because does least to invite the reader to dig for deeper meaning.

Record of a Night Too Brief features a nameless female narrator, who falls in love with a girl who gradually shrinks and mutates as they both traverse a series of dreamscapes. There’s some beautiful imagery here, and while I’m sure you could go looking for a variety of metaphors within its depths, the framing as a dream means you don’t feel beholden to go looking for more than an affecting tale of the bizarre vicissitudes of falling in love. Missing is equally as unanchored in the real, being the story of a woman who gets married and is written out of her family’s memory. It is not, for all the ghosts and festivals and transmutations, too difficult to read between the lines on that one. A Snake Stepped On rounds things out by describing a woman who, working for an elderly couple selling religious paraphernalia, unwillingly adopts a snake which then turns human and claims to be her mother. While I don’t (I hope) share Ishihara’s curmudgeonliness, I can appreciate a certain degree of frustration with a story that so clearly invites direct one-to-one interpretation (“This stands for that.”), but which simultaneously resists it so wholly. I too have no idea what the snake is supposed to be a metaphor for.

To call it evidence of the decline of Japanese literature is going a bit far, though. While I suspect this book is something you might have to be in the mood for (more so than normal, at any rate), if you are then it’s a small treasure trove of imagery, alienation, and connection.

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