Friday, 4 September 2009

The Word Book



After starting this blog I've come to realize just how much Japanese literature, (considering the twentieth century alone), there is yet to be translated. So it's great to learn that the Dalkey Archive is adding Mieko Kanai's, The Word Book to the list in their Japanese Literature Series. It's a collection of twelve short stories, originally published in Japan in 1979 under the title 'Tangoshu' by Chikuma Shobo, and is translated by Paul McCarthy. In Japan, Mieko Kanai has published collections of short stories, novels, and has won numerous awards for her poetry, this is her first collection to appear in English.

Mieko Kanai has a detached dream like quality to her prose, but retains a certain exactness to her writing, through these stories she presents an array of characters that seem to be lost in memory. Many of the stories feature memories from childhood, her narratives mingle real events in the character's lives, with recollections, seen or remembered again by the character as an adult, some of the characters here seem to be in a locked groove, repeating or re-enacting scenes or memories from childhood, in a way that sometimes resembles a Kafka like world, it sometimes feels that there is a distant nihilism in her writing. These stories portray lives, lived out as a reflection of incidents in the past or the reflection of their memory. Mieko Kanai has an unnerving ability to dislodge notions of time, memory, dream, her narratives captivate the reader, Kanai can pick up a theme and circle over it, and not waste a single word. Another disorientating aspect about this collection, that gives the whole a unifying feel, is that the character's are rarely named, many of the stories being depictions of family relationships, so when the character's refer to one another it's just, mother, father, brother or sister. In the other stories, characters are distinguished by being referred to as, her or he. I found this to be a really interesting element, and creates a great feeling of intimacy with the characters. In fact the only names here are the names of other authors; Mishima, Yoshioka Minoru, Jun Ishikawa , and also Von Geczy and Leo Reisman , whose songs feature in the story 'The Rose Tango', which tells the story of a violinist of a small band, who is witness to a fight caused when a jealous gangster punches a man for dancing with his girl. But none of the stories are solely about these people. Mieko Kanai, who herself features in the story 'The Voice', a story about an author, (Kanai?), who receives strange, sometimes hostile phone calls from a young aspiring writer/reader, who foresees that Kanai will write a story featuring the phone call they are having, another story that explores the world of authorship.

The last three stories, (Kitchen Plays, Picnic, and The Voice Of Spring), seem to have connecting elements to them, again memories from childhood, a mother's instruction to buy a litre of milk, spindle-tree hedges, train journeys, a visit to a dilapidated basement theatre, milk being spilt, the possibility of a father's infidelity. Kanai mixes the narratives to the degree that it's uncertain to who is actually narrating the story, the father?, the son?. The mirror like labyrinthine quality to these stories is spellbinding, 'Windows', starts with a meditation on authorship, the author (Kanai?) sitting contemplating writing a story on plants, but gets distracted by objections made by the character she is about to create, the character questions the author's knowledge of the character, but slowly the character's story emerges, a memory from childhood, a building, a weapons depot, and a first experience with a camera, a photo album from father with pictures of mother as a young woman, before we were married, his father tells him, the mother he never met. Photography becomes his obsession, wanting to photograph every second, every hour. He returns to the weapon depot building of his youth to photograph it everyday, to witness it slowly deteriorate into a ruin, but then come to be dissatisfied with what a camera can capture, he dreams of the single photograph, which catches the stopping of the instants, separate from time's continuous progression.

The brilliance of this collection completely caught me off guard, explorations of relationships lost, meditations on authorship, examination of events, that skip from dream, to memory, from childhood to adulthood, and pass from generation to generation, memories that seem to hover and exist in some other ethereal realm. I'm already looking forward to another collection.

Dalkey Archive

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