Fall is for science fiction! I am standing by this statement with more science fiction. Or rather speculative fiction? The question of whether or not Belka is science fiction kept coming up as I was reading. The publisher is Haikasoru, and their whole deal is science fiction and fantasy in translation from Japanese. But the events of Belka are pretty firmly grounded in historical events and don’t feel so science fiction-y or fantasy-y. Still, it delves deep into the psyche of dogs and pushes reality to some eyebrow-raising limits, so speculative it is? So let’s just change our reading/battle cry to fall is for SF and move on.
This is only one of Furukawa’s many books that I have read in the last month or am currently reading. (I may never finish the behemoth that is his translation of Heike Monogatari into modern Japanese, though.) Because I am interpreting for him during his upcoming appearances at the International Festival of Authors, and as I noted on Twitter the other day, interpreting for someone basically means you become their most devoted, secret stalker for a brief period of time. You find every interview they’ve done in any publication anywhere; you read everything they’ve ever committed to ink or pixels; you watch all the videos of them on YouTube, including their appearances on a terrible wide show twenty years ago that is probably not relevant in any way to the project at hand. And you never, ever tell them that you have done all of this. Because they would no doubt—and possibly rightly—feel that it was creepy. Because what you are doing is not so different from the sort of stalking that gets people to take our restraining orders. Only your motivations are different: You just want to be ready for when some rando from the audience asks a question about that terrible wide show and you have to interpret it for your artist.
So the moment I was asked if I would work with Furukawa during his visit to Toronto, I checked all of his books out of the Japan Foundation library and ordered my own copies of whatever they didn’t have to lend me. But I am fortunate enough to translate books for Haikasoru, and when I mentioned to one of my editors there that I would be working with Furukawa, she immediately offered to send me a copy of Belka. I love my job.
The book is split between two alternating storylines, with one being a kind of backstory for the other. The backstory is about dogs. A whole lot of dogs. Thousands of dogs. But it all starts with four dogs, three Japanese and one American. They’re military dogs, trained to go into battle, and in 1943, they end up left behind on the Aleutian island of Attu by the Japanese military when they abandon the island after it’s no longer strategically valuable in the war. The dogs run wild, and as dogs will do, they mate, leading to the birth of some adorable puppies. The Americans invade the island, unaware that the Japanese have long since evacuated it, find the dogs, and take them with them when they too leave the island.
The backstory follows these dogs, picking up the tales of particular puppies in this lineage, and tells the entire history of the Cold War through their travels and adventures. It is strangely glorious and reminded me very much of Kanako Nishi’s i with the way it weaves the greater history of the world into a much smaller, more personal history. And like i, it made me want to really dig into that history and find out more. It’s so fascinating to see the Vietnam War from the perspective of a dog trained to sneak around in the jungle and sniff out underground tunnels. And Furukawa does write from the perspective of the dogs. Or his imagined perspective. Despite being so firmly rooted in actual fact, the dog sections have an odd, dreaminess to them, thanks in large part to the voices Furukawa gives the dogs, like Kita’s lament when he falls ill on an Army base: “WHY? he keened. Shivering from the chills that wracked his body, he keened as though he had contracted a case of pseudo rabies. WHY MUST I SUFFER LIKE THIS?”
But Furukawa also addresses the dogs directly, adding another level of hazy surreality to the whole thing, and frequently uses the second person to describe the journeys of individual dogs:
And you, Sumer, where are you?
No answer, not a bark. Why not? Because you were dazed. Because you had been separated. From your children, your kin. They had still been suckling, but they were taken from you, your pups, every one. Gone. Snatched from your protection, from the range of your loving gaze. And what about you? What happened to you?
I’m mostly discussing the dog side of this story because it’s so vivid and engaging, but also because the other half of this book is more spoilable. It’s hard to really talk about without taking away some of the joy of discovery. So I will just tell you that it starts with a man in a cabin in the woods in Russia with the skull of a dog inside a globe and picks up a sullen, foul-mouthed Japanese tween along the way. This girl is by far the most fully fleshed out of the human characters, mostly because we get to spend a lot of time in her head, but the man also gets his due, although his arc takes little while to really bring us into his brain.
The translation is, of course, masterful. Micheal Emmerich is always good, in that way that gives me hot pangs of jealousy at first but then inspires me to work harder and think more deeply about my craft. I’m reading the Japanese version now, so you know I will be comparing and contrasting all over the place. Bilingual reading! The word nerd’s greatest pleasure! But even if you are a monolingual word nerd, you’d be wise to pick up this translation. There is so much lovely inside.