Monkey Business Vol. 2: Ted Goossen, Motoyuki Shibata (eds.)

Monkey Business 2

One of many things I like about my job is the fact that I get to meet and know a lot of really interesting people who do a lot of really interesting things with and about books. If you’ve learned anything from these ramblings of my brain, it has to be that both my brain and I are hardcore in love with books. Reading is both my full-time day job and my downtime passion, although admittedly the day job reading is occasionally mindnumbingly dull, like the corporate annual report I had to translate today. But more often than not these days, day-job reading and free-time reading are overlapping in fun and good ways. Like meeting with friend and colleague David to discuss the state of publishing in Japan and North America, thorny translation issues, and our latest favourite books over soba.

And because he is one of those really interesting people that does really interesting things with books, he had a copy of the new issue of Monkey Business for me. And even though my bags were already overburdened with books purchased and received from other really interesting people doing really interesting things with books, my brain sang a gleeful song and could not wait to get back to my tiny flat to drink the whole thing in. Because the last issue of Monkey Business in English was so much fun in so many ways. 

Volume Two has about fifty more pages of translated Japanese goodness than Volume One. And so much goodness! (There is also non-translated goodness from people like Rebecca Brown and Stuart Dybek if you are for some reason really worried about how much original English content you will be getting in any publication you read.) (But why are you worried about that? I’m not judging, but I feel like there’s a tale of trauma in there somewhere.) (You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.) Of course, there is the obligatory piece by the Only Japanese Writer Ninety Percent of the English-Speaking World Knows, also known as Haruki Murakami (and insert my usual annoyance with and impressions of smarminess from anything he writes these days), but there are also stories by lesser-/unknowns like Comes In A Box, Keita Jin, and Sachiko Kishimoto.

A supernova in this starry sky is “Tales in Tanka” by Mina Ishikawa, a series of forty-six tanka poems telling tiny, perfectly envisioned stories. Each poem starts with “A tale” (except, interestingly, one which starts “An ancient tale” and another with “A forlorn tale”, and I keep wondering if that is because of the needs of the translation or if the Japanese originals also differ from the other tanka in similar ways), and then goes on to evoke an entire world. Consider: “A tale of six people meeting in a lobby at 2:00 a.m., five lacking shadows”. This single sentence contains so, so much. As does each of the poems on these pages. I want so much to read the full stories, and yet I completely adore the shadows the tanka alone have created in my mind. And the best part is that Ishikawa originally published a hundred copies of the tanka set as cards in a box. So perfect. (And if you know some writers looking for something to write about, these would serve as the ideal writing prompts.)

“Tales in Tanka” is followed by “Meditations on Green” by Toh EnJoe, another perfect moment of a story with a narrator who is studying religion in paramecium. Because it is Toh EnJoe and you know he’s not doing his job unless he’s making you think of something you have never even dreamed of thinking of. The story is so expertly translated that I get a little jealous at how smooth it all reads (although caveat: I have not read the original), especially when I read the translator bio at the back and learn that  David Boyd just got his master’s degree this year.

I was also delighted to discover that “People From My Neighbourhood” by Hiromi Kawakami, which I enjoyed so much in Volume One, has a Part Two! Which is even better than Part One! Now you can read about Grandpa Shadows, so named because he has two shadows; the rivals, two girls named Yoko but spelled with different kanji characters always trying to outdo the other; the buriers, a group of children who buried your unwanted love letters and other annoying doodads; and many other weirdos.

There’s also another Kafka adaptation by the Brother and Sister Nishioka, and again I wish the editors had taken the time to find a good letterer and do the piece justice. The typed text never fills the narration boxes; it just hovers at the top of the box, so that the pages look unfinished, detracting from the otherwise thought-provoking art. (I know a good letterer, you guys! Call me!) Volume Two also features a really fascinating piece by Fumiko Takano, who it seems has never been translated into English, despite the fact that her Kiiroi Hon won the Tezuka Prize. The story here is “The Futon of Tottori” based on a short story by Lafacadio Hearn, about a haunted futon basically. But Takano tells this story by drawing and morphing the various kanji involved. It’s fascinating and beautiful to me, a reader of Japanese, but I did wonder while reading it how much would be lost on a non-Japanese reader, despite the detailed explanations accompanying the images.

Another of my favourites, Mieko Kawakami, also contributes a piece, a sadly beautiful glimpsed dream at the end of an old woman’s life called “A Once-Perfect Day for Banana Fish”, while an author I am increasingly interested in, Hideo Furukawa, gives us “Breathing Through Gills”, a bizarre and surreal tale of memory, love, and gills.

Sadly, I never got the chance to read the Japanese version of Monkey Business before it stopped printing. But if it was even half as interesting as its English counterpart, I am really regretting missing out. All I can do now is wait for Volume Three next year. But a year is a long time to wait for awesome.

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