Phantasm Japan: Nick Mamatas, Masumi Washington (eds.)

PhantasmJapan

The thing I like about doing translations for short story collections is that when I get my comp copy, I actually want to read the book. I mean, I am honestly delighted each time I get a book I translated from the FedEx guy. He’s pretty nice and it is such a thrill to see the words I agonized over all tidied up and on the printed page. And I will never get tired of seeing my name in the back. But I never actually read the books. I have already read the words they contain far, far too many times. They are burned onto the backs of my eyelids.

Because when you translate a book, you don’t just read it and then you’re done. You read it, and you read it, and you read it again, and then maybe you skim it for a numbers check (always double check the numbers!!). And then you read it again. You maybe read the book more often and more deeply than its author did. Because the author knows what she meant. The translator has to discern this from nothing more than the words on the page.

So you can see why I am not particularly interested in reading the book again, no matter how shiny the package when it arrives in its final form. And some of the packages are very shiny. Which is why I am glad when I get to be a part of short story collections. I’ve only endlessly pored over one of the stories; the rest are all new to me. In the case of Phantasm Japan, that overly digested story is Seia Tanabe’s “The Parrot Stone”. It is a good story by a great author who writes about the ghostlier aspects of this world. (Interestingly, I have also translated her husband Toh EnJoe, who writes about the weirder aspects of this world. Can you even imagine what dinner at their house would be like??) In an attempt at objectivity, I won’t talk about the translation of this story. (Although it is super good and you should totally read it.) (I’m sorry. I got carried away.)

But I will talk about all the other stories because I enjoyed them so much! Not all of them, to be sure. But the majority. And that’s the other thing I like about a short story collection: getting the chance to check out so many different authors at the same time. Like Project Itoh, whose name I knew but whose work I had never picked up. “From the Nothing, with Love” is so good, it makes me want to run out and get all of his other work. It’s way better if you know nothing going into it, so don’t read the back of the book. And don’t read what I am about to tell you. I won’t name names–the story doesn’t, after all–but you might be able to figure it out nonetheless.

A British super spy lives and adventures and stops international crime in the name of Her Majesty the Queen. But he is not always the same him. He is a copy of the original, transferred to a new body with the death of the original and then with the deaths of the predecessor copies. The whole story is a completely unexpected view of a famous franchise, while being a kind of meditation on the nature of identity at the same time. Plus, great translation by Jim Hubbert, so high fives all around.

The collection is a mix of works originally in English and works in translation, similar to the concept behind The Future is Japanese with a similarly wide variety of stuff. It ranges from pretty traditional feeling ghost stories (like the one I translated, which is not a comment on its goodness) (it’s pretty good, though) (sorry) to more science fiction style works like the novella “Sisyphean” by Dempow Torishima, which is just flat out nuts and I can’t even imagine the nightmare translator Daniel Huddleston went through. It’s pretty Joycean in its use of words that are not actually real words to create a world that may or may not make any sense in which the “worker” puts together “synthorgans” and eats “slimecake” inside of “skinboard-panelled” walls. It’s disgusting and weird, and at first, I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and then I didn’t care that I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It’s that kind of story.

A lot of the original English stories are actually more Japanese than their counterparts, like the short short series “A Tale of Japan” by Zachary Mason interspersed throughout the book. Each page-long short tells a story that could be straight out of Japanese folklore: a Tengu seducing the wife of a squire, a Buddha showing a hunter what he wanted to see, the warrior Suzano searching through Hell for his father.

Or in a more modern way like Nadia Bulkin’s “Girl, I Love You” seemingly set in a Japan not that far off from the present, when psychic energy has become a real deal thing that people buy and use in the real world. Bulkin deftly takes the psychic culture already present in modern day Japan, things like the charms sold at shrines and temples, and a popular belief in the power of certain graves, and expands on that to create a world which is entirely ruled by such superstitions, but wisely anchors all this fantastical action around the friendship between two school girls.

The story I maybe loved the most was another Japanese entry, “The Tale of Fruiting Bodies” by Sayuri Ueda. A fungal disease causes mushrooms to grow up from all over the body. It’s extremely contagious and the fungus spores cause hallucinations in the form of ghosts of the people who have been infected, people you love. The images are great and horrible. Ueda’s prose is crisp and confused in equal measures, like the narrator of the story. So another shout out to Jim Hubbert for such great work.   

In a way, I kind of hate this book. Because the stories were pretty much all so very good and intriguing in their own ways, Phantasm Japan gave me a new reading list, made up of all the authors in here I hadn’t heard of before. And I already have so many books on the shelf of unread books. But I can’t resist a well-crafted tale by a talented writer. And there are oh so many of those in this collection.

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