Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Sting of Death and Other Stories

Toshio Shimao an author I've read a lot about but up until now hadn't read many of his stories. The Sting of Death and Other Stories, is a collection of six stories translated by Kathryn Sparling,through her introduction she gives us a biographical portrait of the author, and how his life shaped his literary output. Born in 1917 in Yokohama she tells us that Shimao was a loner and a sickly child but a voracious reader, his family moved a number of times and he saw himself as a bit of a wanderer. As a young man he wrote poetry and contributed to literary magazines, some of these he produced himself, in 1943 he self published his book entitled Yoneki (An Account of Childhood), which Sparling explains Shimao thought at the time, that this would be his valedictory work. In 1944 he volunteered for Naval Officers Candidate School,and at the age of 27, at the end of 1944 he was assigned as commanding officer of a special attack torpedo-boat unit of 183 men, this being a suicide squad, he was stationed at Kakeroma Island, here he also met his future wife, Ohiro Miho. Sparling points to the surrealistic qualities in his work, although it could be said that Shimao doesn't use surrealism simply as a stylistic device, but rather to amplify the experiences felt by his characters. Shimao's work is generally seen as being divided in two groups those that deal with his experience in the war, and those stories that are associated with the relationship with his wife, after the war she suffered a mental breakdown, and Shimao gave up his writing career at this time and accompanied Miho through her treatment, the book by Philip Gabriel: Mad Wives and Island Dreams, being a book I'd very much like to read in the future, examines Toshio Shimao's life and writing. Sparling highlights the complexities faced when reading and translating Shimao's prose, often or not she says, that you'll find yourself re-reading passages in order to comprehend the flow/meaning of the whole piece, also his prose contains 'logical gaps', noting too 'there is no escapism in Shimao's fiction' which has a 'masochism to them'. In her introduction Sparling also examines Shimao's relationship with other early pre and postwar writers, before the war he had met the writers Agawa Hiroyuki and Shono Junzo, and that after the war he was briefly a member of a small group called Koyo/Glittering,another member being Mishima, who would later write an essay on Shimao, although Sparling notes due to his wife's illness, he was distant from literary circles, as after the war they returned to Miho's hometown on Amami Island. Reading Van C. Gessel's introduction to the story With Maya in The Showa Anthology, he highlights the comparison between Shimao's writing and that of Oe Kenzaburo.

Included in the collection is The Sting of Death/Shi no toge, which Sparling points out is the second chapter of what would go on to be the much larger full length novel of the same name, the novel was adapted to film by Kohei Oguri,and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Cannes Festival. The Russian film director Alexander Sokurov also found inspiration in Toshio Shimao's life in his poetical film Dolce. Also included here is two stories I've wanted to read for a while The Farthest Edge of the Islands/Shima no hate (1948) and also Everyday Life in a Dream/Yume no naka de nichijo also from 1948, the latter, a story set immediately after the war, where a writer who comes to the realization that he has lost his ambitions, and at the the age of thirty notices he has no employable skills, he resolves to join a gang of delinquents, many members ten years his junior. At the gang's meeting he gets called away by a visitor, an old school acquaintance, who has brought him something he claims the writer asked him to get for him.The man has since contracted a horrible disease, and after seeing the writer wash his hands after they were talking explodes with indignant rage, the writer flees, and for some time after he can't escape the anxiety caused through fear of contagion. He heads south to the town of his mother's birth to try and locate her, whilst on the train journey he sees a beautiful young woman in a kimono, whose beauty seems almost to overwhelm him, 'Then as though I had been smoking a little too much,my vision blurred', this encounter is broken abruptly when he finds himself in his mother's house, with his father, who he had picked up on the way, but he had somehow forgotten about. His mother is carrying a baby on her back of mixed blood a 'Eurasian child', the atmosphere grows tense and when his mother confesses her devotion to her Caucasian lover his father explodes with fury, picking up a whip to thrash his mother, the writer intercedes. The story is a harrowing one to read, a tale of a writer losing the will to write, a family disintegrating in the aftermath of the war, the surrealism in it is quite sudden, in contrast to that found in The Farthest Edge of the Island, where it appears more lyrically. Sadly this collection is out of print and hopefully as Kathryn Sparling wrote in 1985 we'll see a full translation of The Sting of Death. There's a lot more to Everyday Life in a Dream than what I've alluded to here, and thanks to a great initiative at Michigan University's Center for Japanese Studies you can read the complete text of this collection, and other out of print texts at their website, many thanks to them for making this collection of stories available online, click to read - The Sting of Death and Other Stories.



4 comments:

Literary Dreamer said...

Go Michigan University! I'm in the middle of a book right now, but I'll be checking out that website once I finish. So nice to see a website devoted to books that we would otherwise not be able to read.

me. said...

It's a great idea,hope more publishers do the same!.

mel u said...

Thanks so much by pointing out where this book could be read on line-their is precious little of Japanese literature in translation on line

me. said...

Toshio Shimao's was a really interesting writer,hopefully more will appear in translation in the future.