Even if I wasn’t the target audience for this Japan-centered edition of the British lit magazine Granta, being a Japanese translator and a lover of Japanese literature, I would still have picked up this issue, if only because of the great cover. I am such a sucker for great covers. And Granta often has great covers, which often make me pick them up at the bookstore, so hat tip to their art department. Nice work, gang!
Although I had assumed, looking at the cover in the bookstore (high fives to local indie Book City for generally being awesome!), that it featured a hunk of some mineral photographed so as to be reminiscent of Fuji, the only thing you ever need to signal that we are talking about Japan now (a symbol used to hilarious effect in the new Godzilla, but that is not a discussion for right now. Corner me at a bar one of these days and I will tell you these thoughts I have), this fake Fuji is actually part of a series of photographs called Primal Mountain by Yuji Hamada featured in the magazine. Spurred by the deluge of unreliable information they were getting in Japan in the days after the earthquake disaster of 2011, Hamada began photographing these fake mountains of tin foil up against the very real Tokyo sky.
Unsurprisingly, Hamada is not the only one whose piece in this collection takes the disaster as a jumping off point. Rebecca Solnit’s moving essay “Arrival Gates” discusses finding peace in the demarcation of space and time through shrine gates and the placement of objects on the grounds of Fushimi Inari-Taisha in Kyoto after a gruelling speaking tour of the devastated north and talks with survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. The first paragraph alone is a wonder, a page long, detailing her entire trip up to the point of arriving at the shrine in a way that perfectly captures the pace and feel of such a busy trip. This whirlwind, intense journey brings her to this shrine; she has arrived. And she questions the idea of arrival in a way that I have often considered and was delighted to find articulated:
[T]he idea of arrival begets questions about the journey and how long it took. … You fall in love with someone and the story might be of how you met, courted, consummated, but it might also be of how before all that, time and trouble shaped you both over the years, sanded your rough spots and wore away your vices until your scars and needs and hopes came together like halves of a broken whole.
The foundation of Toshiki Okada’s “Breakfast” also rests on the 2011 disaster. The narrator’s wife Arisa is one of the many who could not bear to be in Tokyo, in the country, not when Fukushima was so close, and so she left him and the city and the country, and promptly turned the whole place into a non-place in her mind. But she comes back for seventeen hours to see him and settle what needs to be settled. Michael Emmerich’s translation is wonderfully natural, as all his work is, perfectly blurring the line between what the narrator is really there to see and what he imagines his wife’s experience to be.
“Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut” by David Mitchell also plays the Tohoku card, but in an unexpected way, rather late in the story, which consists of a group of people in a Mister Donuts at night, each telling their own tale of that time together in a way that creates a greater narrative. It’s definitely one of my favourites in the collection, if only for the way Mitchell so perfectly captures the very different voices of all of these people and the very particular atmosphere of any Mister Donuts anywhere. (When I lived in Akita, the only place to get coffee was basically Mister Donuts. I spent enough time there to get a variety of Mister Donuts merch with my point card. I know this atmosphere well.)
But not every piece touches on the disaster to get going. Yukiko Motoya’s “The Dogs”, translated by Asa Yoneda, is a great, weird story about dogs and people and isolation that I am still puzzling over, in the good way. Toh Enjoe’s “Printable”, translated by David G. Boyd, is the usual Toh fare, also in the good way, a thing about people making 3D printers making people making novels and other people, and whether sentient machines are equal to humans. And Sayaka Murata’s “A Clean Marriage”, translated by my friend Ginny Tapley Takemori, is also wonderfully weird and still so relevant to ye olde modern times, telling the story of a couple who get married to be family in the brother and sister sense, outsourcing their sexuality. They want to keep things clean, but when they want a child, things get a little more difficult.
Basically, this issue of Granta is so jampacked full of incredible and varied perspectives on Japan from both Japanese and non-Japanese authors that I can’t begin to tell you even the start of it all. Unlike a lot of anthologies or literary magazines, there was not a piece in here that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, although obviously I enjoyed some more than others. But the real treat for me was being shown a Japan that I didn’t know or a Japan that I had forgotten in my long association with the country and the language. Pico Iyer’s essay “The Beauty of the Package”, in particular, made me revisit some long dormant ideas on the structured nature of interactions in Japan and gave me new insight into why I feel so comfortable with all those “rules”.
If you have been reading and enjoying Monkey Business, then picking up this issue of Granta is a no brainer. Like Monkey Business, it is chock full of some great writing by some great Japanese authors. But I feel like the Japan issue of Granta offers a wider perspective somehow. It’s less about showcasing authors from Japan, and more about allowing a variety of authors free reign on the idea of Japan and giving readers a new look at this known/unknown country. The back cover copy puts it best: “Everyone knows this country and no one knows it.” And the pieces inside, both fiction and non-fiction, photographic and poetic, manage to walk that tightrope in a weirdly perfect way.