Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Riot of Goldfish

First published in Japan in 1937, A Riot of Goldfish/Kingyo ryoran by Kanoko Okamoto has recently been published by the Hesperus Press,translated and with an introduction by J.Keith Vincent, this collection of two novella size stories comes with a foreword from David Mitchell, (Cloud Atlas, number9dream and most recently The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). A Riot of Goldfish spans the end of the Taisho and early Showa eras and has as it's central character Mataichi, a student of fish breeding. The story starts with his sense of failure as he examines the results of his latest breed, disappointed, his attention turns again to the Chapel at the top of the cliff,where he can make out Masako sitting, knitting. Masako is the daughter of one of his father's best customers, the wealthy Teizo Araki, Mataichi's story is told in a retrospective style that sometimes skips between tenses. As a child Mataichi used to tease and taunt Masako, but as the two begin to grow up Mataichi can't help himself marvelling at Masako's growing beauty, to the degree that 'he could barely surpress his hostility'. Teizo frequently visits Mataichi's father's fishery, and eventually becomes a patron to Mataichi, paying for him to study in the Kansai area, Mataichi learns that Teizo has also paid for three other men to study ,which adds a slight confusion to Mataichi's thoughts. Before he leaves Masako invites him out for tea and as they walk down the street Mataichi is almost overcome by Masako's beauty, but he begins to put his feelings in check, and the conversation turns to the arts of goldfish breeding, Mataichi is left not knowing if she has any feelings for him or not. Whilst away studying Mataichi becomes a recluse but manages to become the object of attraction for a local girl, Yoshie,he writes to Masako about Yoshie in an attempt to coax out a hint of her true feelings for him, but the letters she writes back are scarce and filled with an indifference which rouses his curiosity and confusions even further, until he learns that she is pregnant and plans to marry. As Mataichi comes to the conclusion that Masako is now unattainable he sets out to reproduce the beauty he saw in her by creating the most beautiful breed of goldfish in emulation. It's incredible to learn through Vincent's introduction that Okamoto wrote fiction for only three years before dying from a stroke at the age of 49. Kawabata moved by one of her stories about the Tokaido Highway took a copy with him on a trip and retraced the route of it's protaganist.

The second story, The Food Demon/Shokuma was published in Japan in 1941, Besshiro is a cooking instructor to the daughters of the wealthy Araki family, Besshiro's arrogant streak is despised by the daughters but as Besshiro's story is revealed we learn that his arrogance is a symptom of thwarted aspirations. The story is told again in a retrospective style which retraces how Besshiro arrives at the point where the story opens. The Food Demon is a fantastically evocative character study, Besshiro's exasperation's are summed up when he arrives home from work with, 'his face frozen into an expression on the verge either exploding with anger or bursting into tears'. He lives with his wife and son in a house owned by his employer, Besshiro and his wife constantly worry of ruining the tatami, one the proviso's that his tenancy relies upon. The story follows Besshiro back to his beginnings to when he meets up with Higaki who runs a restaurant, and describes Besshiro's frustrations at trying to impress the artistic and intelligentsia clientele of the place, failing to prove himself with his paintings Besshiro tries to impress a visiting intellectual with his cooking skills, the woman recognises that aside from being completely delicious that the meal was created with love, and this is a theme to both of the stories the characters pursuing the purity of beauty, Besshiro trying to escape from his poverty stricken life becomes instead the victim of his own aspirations?, but after watching Higaki die from cancer his life takes another route, The Food Demon is filled with a bitter wisdom, and touched with a deep humility.

 Hesperus Press

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