REVIEW by Dan Bradley

NWR Issue r17

Three Japanese Novellas

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (trans Polly Barton), Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa (trans David Boyd) & Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami (trans Lucy North)
Novellas provide enough space for vivid, tactile world-building but avoid wearing themes and ideas too thin, writes Dan Bradley. These Japanese titles, haunted by change, provide vivid worlds to tempt hitherto timid booksellers, critics and readers to explore Japanese culture, translation and the novella itself
Dan Bradley
Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa

The novella has a tough time in English. ‘For me, the word denotes a lesser genre,’ a literary agent told The Guardian in 2011. ‘If you pitch a book to a bookseller as a novel, you’re likely to get more orders than if you call it a novella.’ Despite the superlative achievements of Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Anton Chekhov or Virginia Woolf, there still lingers a sense that the novella writer has, in Ian McEwan’s words, ‘done something unmanly or dishonest’. That somehow the author is trying to swindle an unsuspecting public with an unfinished, under-length and undercooked novel. However, McEwan built his career on two short story collections and a novella, and later won the Booker Prize with the slim novel Amsterdam; he has nothing but admiration for the form, and asserts that

the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.

Does this new novella collection from Pushkin live up to these ideals, or only confirm cynical booksellers’ worst fears? Fortunately, Japan has never suffered from the dismissive, myopic suspicion that follows the novella around in English. If anything, Japan has proved only fertile ground for shorter literary forms, both in prose and poetry. As Japanese translator and critic Ted Goosen has noted:

Japanese literature has lyrical roots, and thus places more stress on atmosphere and beauty, and less on structured plot, than its Western cousins. The tradition tends to favor shorter works the novel may rule the West, but not Japan, where short stories have been regarded as 'purer' than longer, ostensibly more commercial efforts.

This is an oversimplifed picture of Japanese reading habits – novels are consumed in large numbers there too – but there is definitely more appetite and reverence for shorter stories there. Indeed, one of the country’s most sought-after literary awards is the semi-annual Akutagawa Prize for short fiction (Kawakami won the prize in 1996, Shibasaki in 2014). Goosen attributes the novella’s enduring popularity to the lyrical and autobiographical legacy of works like The Gossamer Years, an intimate diary of a lonely Japanese noblewoman written in the tenth century. This influential work eschewed dramatic plot-twists and intrigue, instead foregrounding the thoughts, feelings and impressions of the storyteller.

This understated, lyrical approach is most obvious in Spring Garden. Ostensibly, the story follows Taro, a solitary divorcee still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his father. Taro lives alone, one of the last tenants in a Tokyo apartment block which will be torn down as soon as the remaining people move out. He is gradually drawn out of his shell by Nishi, a woman who lives upstairs, and together they investigate the mystery of the sky-blue house next door. You can imagine this novella in a different writer’s hands, squeezed into the small frame of a romance or detective story. But Shibasaki produces something far more evocative and far-reaching.
Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki

In this Tokyo, ‘Everything awaited demolition.’ The city is a voracious ecosystem, where new buildings thrust into the sky apparently overnight, while old, unwanted buildings, and communities die away. In a short work, Shibasaki masterfully finds in two lonely characters coming to terms with loss a way of casting light on the contemporary Japanese disconnect between a longing for the natural world and the harsh realities of urban life. Nishi grows up in an enormous housing estate and always ‘felt a vague yearning for the sorts of houses she saw on TV or in comics, with flights of stairs or hallways in them.’ When she graduates and first moves to Tokyo, she is taken aback by how much ‘nature’ there is in her landlord’s large urban garden:

Up until that point, Nishi always thought of trees as something that grew by the road or in parks, or else up in the mountains far away, so being able to watch the seasons change from inside her own home came as a real surprise.

This disconnect between expectation and reality concerns all of Shibasaki’s work, and explains why she examines the story from so many perspectives. In the first page alone, we see a woman peering over a balcony; then we see Taro watching her; the camera then pans back even further, and we see the entire apartment block in which this scene is playing out. The novella even features a startling late-stage shift in perspective that introduces a completely new narrator. In a recent interview, the author lamanted that we live in a vastly interconnected world where we interact less and less with the people around us, which is why ‘it is now practically impossible to capture reality from just one point of view.’ From a simple story of love and loss, Shibasaki demonstrates how rich, evocative and inventive the novella can be.

Where Spring Garden looks forward, testing what the novella is capable of, Slow Boat looks back at one of its author’s biggest influences and has a great time doing so. The novella is an unabashed ‘re-mix’ of the short story, ‘A Slow Boat to China’, by Haruki Murakami, who Furukawa has often cited as a major influence, although no knowledge of that story in necessary to plunge yourself into Furukawa’s world. This funny, fast-paced and endlessly inventive story is the account of a young man’s ‘botched Tokyo Exodus, the chronicle of my failures.’

The narrator attempts to escape Tokyo on three separate occasions, but is thwarted by surreal and heart-breaking twists of fate.

I’ve never made it out of Tokyo. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked myself if the boundary is real. Of course it’s real. And if you think I’m lying, you can come and see for yourself.

He is abandoned by a series of peculiar girlfriends, drops out of school, opens a cafe that is destroyed in bizarre circumstances, and racks up a catalogue of mistakes, missteps, violent rebellions and tiny victories. The tone – bursting with humour, rebelliousness and energy – is rooted in Furukawa’s background in theatre and poetry, and brought to life by Boyd’s excellent translation. Here is the moment when the narrator decides to drop out of school:

Anyway... I guess what really triggered it was Children’s Day. ‘When you write “Children's Day”, don’t do it in kanji,’ my teacher said. ‘Spell it out in kana. If you can read the kanji for “children” then you’re not a child anymore.’ Ha ha ha. Hilarious.
The whole world was comfortably dumb.
Children’s Day: A day for children, for their happiness and for their mothers.
Give me a break.

Although the breathless pace is dizzying and the ending does not quite deliver on its promise, Furukawa’s obvious enjoyment in taking risks with his writing and storytelling is ultimately infectious.

As Kawakami’s novel, Strange Weather in Tokyo was shortlisted for several major international prizes, she is likely to be recognised primarily as a novelist. However, it was not her novel that launched her career in Japan, but this haunting collection of three novella-length stories, Record of a Night Too Brief, first released in 1996. (It’s indicative of the enduring and wrong-headed bias towards novels in English that her 2001 title Strange Weather… reached English readers in 2012, whereas it took a further five years for them to be able to read her prize-winning 1996 novella.)
Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

The title story immediately plunges us into Kawakami’s dark and strange dream-world: ‘What was that itch on my back? I wondered. And then I realised that it was the night – the night was nibbling into me.’

The narrator runs away, but falls further into the strange world of the night. Dream logic rules the action: the narrator transforms into a horse; she then enters a banquet of gentlemen; she meets a young girl who begins to shrink, eventually becoming a pearl; ‘kiwis’ interrogate her, but she answers flawlessly; and on, and on. This is easily the weakest story in the collection, and will probably disappoint any frustrated readers who know Kawakami from the understated love story of Strange Weather…, but it does foreground the author’s concerns with coporeal decay, alienation and female sexuality, and the porous barrier between the worlds of animals, humans, reality and magic.

The remaining two stories, ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’, are both excellent examples of how novellas provide enough space for vivid, tactile world-building but avoid wearing themes and ideas too thin. In each, Kawakami forces a supernatural intrusion into the lives of lonely, isolated characters and allows their situations to play out at an unhurried pace. The first page of ‘Missing’ illustrates how Kawakami builds such rich worlds, both sad and funny and mysterious, by subtly layering tone:

Lately, things just keep going missing. Most recently, my eldest brother – that is, of my two elder brothers, brother no1. It’s been about two weeks now since he disappeared.
As for what he’s up to, it’s hard to say, but it would seem that he is still at home with us…. Since disappearances happen all the time in my family, we got used to it pretty quickly. The only awkward thing in the case of my brother was that arrangements for his marriage were just at the point of being concluded.

This deadpan opening is warm and funny, and when the fiancee moves in and starts a new relationship with the other brother, the tone becomes brighter still. Initially, it seems, family are always with us, even once they have vanished, and like the narrator’s ghostly elder brother, they may even sweep the floor, dust shelves or replace lightbulbs while the family are asleep. Also in ‘A Snake...’, the narrator steps on one which immediately transforms into a middle-aged woman who moves into her flat, starts cooking and cleaning, and claims to be the narrator’s own mother. All appears to be well, if strange, at first.

Beneath this veneer of normalcy – the family continue to pretend nothing has changed and no one has vanished, and the narrator gets used to the snake woman in her apartment cooking her dinner each night – there starts to appear something darker. The daughter who lost her brother starts to wake up in the night with him sitting on her chest, telling her how sad he is that he has no body and cannot speak to anyone but her. She spends the days after these visitations ‘held down and broken’. The whimsical tone reveals a family tortured by repressed grief, denial and an inability to communicate. The narrator’s loneliness warps her longing for her vanished brother into dreams of incest. And the supernatural, magical element functions not as a plot device to lift characters from their daily lives into adventure, but rather to reveal how small and powerless they are in the face of mortality and the natural world. Ghosts, disappearances, magical creatures and supernatural phenomenon, like love or intimacy or family members, are just more strange, incomprehensible intrusions into our characters’ lives that they struggle cope with. And yet Kawakami’s work is defiant, never downbeat. An interviewer once asked her if it was possible to fully understand another person. ‘It's not possible, of course,’ she answered, ‘And yet, I believe life is all about charging at such impossibilities.’

Change haunts all three novellas – the fear of loss, social upheaval, sex and intimacy, and of bodily decay and death – and yet each has the courage to face the ways in which we can live with them. This collection clearly demonstrates how vibrant the novella is in contemporary Japanese literature. If publishers like Pushkin can open the door just a crack, and show us what a transformed literary landscape might look like, are critics, booksellers and readers brave enough to step inside?

Dan Bradley is a writer and translator from Japanese. He is a regular contributor to this magazine, and his work has appeared in Granta, The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Cardiff.

The New Welsh Readers’ Poll 2017, run by ourselves, chose as its best ever novella in English Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, out in paperback with Faber. [link: Welsh Review reader Suzy Ceulan Hughes recommends it here.]


previous review: Diary of the Last Man
next review: This is Not a Rescue


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