It can be weird at times, being a translator of a variety of books with a brain that is a battler of even more books. By day, I read books I might never have otherwise read and turn them into English for all the monolinguals, and by night, I read all the books I dream of bringing to all the monolinguals in English. Naturally, there is overlap between these two selves. Sometimes, the dream of translating a beloved book comes true (like my precious baby Magician A, coming to Kickstarter backers very soon and to select bookstores later this year!), and sometimes, I discover that a book I’m translating is a true beloved (I will never stop pushing After the Rain and Requiem of the Rose King on everyone who asks me what they should be reading; they are perfect and true books in their own beautiful ways). And sometimes, translating something leads me to picking up other work by the same author.
After translating a short story by Seia Tanabe years ago for the Haikasoru collection Phantasm Japan, I kept my eyes open for more from this author of quietly frightening stories based on Japanese ghost and folk tales, eventually stumbling across her novel Ningyo no Ishi, a book I still reflect on surprisingly often two years after finishing it. Her prose is so sparsely moody and yet strangely down to earth for the tales of the supernatural that she tells.
And I know I should be used to this by now because authors stumble across my posts here about their work surprisingly often (and let this be a lesson to those of you who would use a foreign language as a secret code to gossip about people on a crowded train or some other such public place—there is inevitably a speaker of that foreign language somewhere near you who understands every word you’re saying and will no doubt take the first opportunity that presents itself to publicly shame/embarrass you if you are talking any kind of smack about anyone), but a few months after I posted about that novel, Tanabe reached out to me to thank me for reviewing the book and offered to send me some of her other books. Which was a delightful surprise and kind as hell, and you know that I gratefully accepted. (Thank you, Tanabe-san!)
One of those books was the slender volume Amedama, which it turns out was nominated for the Sense of Gender Award the year it was published. And honestly, this makes tremendous sense to me because the idea of gender is extremely fluid in this collection of loosely collected vignettes. Tanabe uses the various first-person pronouns somewhat interchangeably, which caused me to scratch my head any number of times while reading, wondering how on earth I would capture these subtle changes in voice and gender in an English translation. Of course, that’s not the only problem with translating this delicious treat into English. Tanabe as always is picking up bits and pieces of Japanese folklore and mythology and mixing them with bits of spookiness straight from her imagination to create her own ghostly lore. In fact, the subtitle of this volume is “Seia Mononoke Katari”—roughly Seia Creature Tales (and of course, “seia” can also mean a type of tiny frog, so layers upon layers, I guess.)
I hesitate to call these stories in the strictest sense of the word. None are more than two or three pages long and all of them are more about capturing an eerie moment than moving from point A to point B typical plot style. All are narrated by an uncertain “I” which shifts between male and female and also maybe dies sometimes? And sometimes they speak in Kansai dialect, although mostly it’s standard Japanese. So maybe it’s not always the same narrator or maybe the narrator is transformed constantly in the way of the creatures more spooky. These structural elements combine to create a book that’s more dream than novel and better dipped into from time to time rather than read all in one sitting (which you could also do; at just over 150 pages, it is a quick read).
These brief encounters are bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the first of which immediately yanks the reader in with the opening line, “My face started to melt” followed by a somewhat unnerving description of skin dripping through fingers. Drifting through the pages that follow, we encounter vampires with blood that smells like apricots, mermaids with scales shaped like tears, and cold jade peering out from beneath hangnails. Blood-sucking twin girls come into this world and one learns to curb her hunger for blood while the other finds this completely baffling and sups on whatever small creatures she can find. A man offers his ex-lover a jello-like dessert with a single bead in it, which turns out to be his soul from the time when he still loved his ex. And the ex feels a burning guilt with each and every bite until they spit out the jelly. A man hears the wet sound of his father peeling his skin off from the other side of the sliding doors. And still more creepiness narrated in the most matter-of-fact way, highlighting the small details of normalcy for contrast.
The epilogue finishes things off just as strangely with a pair of beetles in conversation with our narrator and the line “The candy in my pocket started to melt slowly as if it had something to say.” Like Ningyo no Ishi, this is not a book that is going to immerse you in characters and plot and purpose, but rather a mood, the feeling that a creeping almost-terror lurks around every corner and you are simply there to float along its waves and crests. Come to this one for the straightforward poetry of Tanabe’s writing, all the tiny details that come together to evoke this ineffable mood, a dreaminess punctuated by eyeballs where they shouldn’t be and spiders who just want to have a chat.