I tend to write a lot about Japanese books because, well, I read a lot of Japanese books. For work, for pleasure, for study. At least half of the shelves in my house are crammed full of books written in Japanese. And a lot of them end up being challenged by my brain right here. But if you don’t read Japanese, you’ll won’t have the chance to see if what I am saying is total garbage or not. You’ll never see all the fresh new awesome that is popping up in the world of books in Japan. Until now! Thanks to Monkey Business!
This slim volume is, the cover claims, an anthology of “new writing from Japan”, and the pages are crammed with some really interesting stuff, from tanka poems to a lengthy interview by novelist Hideo Furukawa with J-Lit superstar Haruki Murakami to a manga interpretation of a Kafka story by Nishioka Kyodai, a brother-sister team that consistently produces some of the most interesting manga work out there. So basically, something for everyone in these pages. Pages which are actually culled from the Japanese version and translated just for you into English. The Japanese version is quarterly and it seems like the English is going to be annual, so we are missing a lot of new and interesting work from Japanese authors, but still, we were missing so much more before.
About half the authors in here I had never heard of before, and of the ones I had heard of, I had only actually read a few. Since I am always looking for new authors to read and fall in love with, this was a big selling point for me (although my copy was a gift, but still). I was delighted by the short story by Sachiko Kishimoto, The Forbidden Diary, which is arranged as a series of, yes, diary entries. The diarist, a translator, is struggling with a translation, which is not why I loved the story, but this fact certainly didn’t hinder my love in any way. It is a kind of magic realism, the best kind, the sort of story that seems normal at first, but then gradually slips the weirdness in until the world the author has created is no longer the world the reader occupies. My favourite detail is the apartment building rumoured to be tucked away in some corner of Tokyo, the “Cancel-Out Apartments”. If someone moves in who is in some way like one of the people already living in the building, they cancel each other out and disappear. I could read a whole story about that alone, but it is just a passing moment in this slowly unfolding story of many tremendous details.
The interview with Murakami I enjoyed less, possibly because I still have a bitter taste in my mouth from reading his latest, 1Q84 (how do you say this in English, by the way? Is it just “one-kyu-eight-four”? Or?). Or maybe it was the translation, or maybe it was just the nature of Japanese conversation structure. In any case, I found myself generally irritated by it. Murakami mentions too often things he is good at, and generally has a tone of being impressed with himself. And since I am not impressed with him lately, I read the interview wanting to punch the pages as a substitute for punching him. But! I would never hurt a book like that, and so the desire to punch remained locked in my heart.
Yoko Ogawa’s contribution reminded me of why I like her writing. She has such a natural fluidity, and reading “The Tale of the House of Physics” reminded me of her book Yo ni mo Utsukushii Sugakunyumon, which is basically a long discussion about how awesome Math is, a book I had actually forgotten about and was glad to be reminded of because yes, I love long discussions about how awesome Math is. And the poem “Interviews with the Heroes, or Is Baseball Just For Fun?” by Inuo Taguchi is hilarious and insightful, divided up into “interviews” with the pitcher, the batter, and other positions on a baseball team: “From whence did it fall/The first white ball born on this star?”
And the translations are all quite good. Or at least they read well. Not having seen the original Japanese, I can’t really comment too much, but with acclaimed translators like Michael Emmerich, Jay Rubin and Ted Goossen in charge, I’m not too worried that I am missing out by not having read the original versions of these works. In fact, it’s probably better if I don’t. I’d burn up in jealous flames if I saw how perfectly their translations brought the authors into English.
I do wish that the manga by Nishioka Kyodai had been treated a little better. The pages were kept unflipped, a choice I agree with, but the lettering in English consisted of typeface that fit poorly in the narration boxes along the sides of the panels. It looked ugly and was definitely distracting as I read an otherwise great story. Monkey Business being a lit mag, I’m sure their budget was tight, but a little extra spent on lettering would have gone a long way to making sure that the beautiful art was not marred by awkward typesetting.
Interestingly, this anthology was pressed into my hands (by David Karashima, whose own work is not in here, but is still so good) only days after I had spotted the Japanese version in a bookstore and spent more than a few minutes trying to decide if I had room for it in my suitcase, since it looked quite interesting. (I decided that I did not. Mostly because half of the volume was taken up with Mark Twain and I don’t need to lug a hefty tome over the ocean to be able to read him.) So clearly, this is the kind of thing that attracts my word-hungry brain. And deservedly so. The editors managed to select a wide variety of works that represent so many different ways of writing and viewing the world in only 165 pages. I wish I didn’t have to wait another year for the next volume.