Monday, 2 April 2012

"Panic" and "The Runaway"

A collection of two novellas by Takeshi Kaiko published in 1977 by Tokyo University Press, translated by Charles Dunn, the first, Panic/Panikku, originally appeared in Japan in 1957 and opens in the animal ward of a Forestry Department building where the narrative's protagonist, Shunsuke, is demonstrating how effective weasels could be in combating the possible outbreak of an epidemic of rats, dropping four into the weasels compound he switches off the lights, we hear the rustling movements of the animal and when the lights are put back on, the rats are lying motionless, spotted with blood.  Shunsuke, an employee at the department is pitted against the petty bureaucracy and in-competence of his superiors, who publicly renounce his ideas but secretly pin their hopes on the success of his plan. Through the course of the narrative we learn that the potential surge in the rat population of a mountainous area which covers the borders of three prefectures is caused by the blossoming of a rare bamboo-grass, an event that only occurs once in every 120 years, the rats feed on the seeds of the plant. At first the Head of Department is in denial that any problem will arise confident that they will rely on stronger poisons to control the increase of rats.

The beginning of the narrative sees Shunsuke struggling against his superiors and colleagues as he works on preparations against the potential outbreak, Shunsuke keeps a secret point system marking whenever the Head concedes whilst in debate with him. Shunsuke's frustrations deepen  when a superior who has been at the centre of a scandal from another department is moved to theirs, Shunsuke observes he has absolutely no knowledge of Forestry and has been moved solely to keep him from the public eye. At first the story is confined mainly between Shunsuke and his superiors but as the epidemic of rats begins to gain the story expands to describe the escalating hysteria and it's effects on the mountain community as rumour of the events begins to circulate. Eventually what has been anticipated comes to pass, and the area becomes engulfed in rats who eat and gnaw at almost everything in their path, attacking unguarded children in their cots, Shunsuke discovers additional  unscrupulous dealings when he realizes that the weasel supplier is selling back to the Department the weasels that they had only just released into the wild to cull the rats, perhaps the Head is involved?. Shunsuke sets up a reward system to those who capture the rats and resorts to mobilizing primary and middle school children to lay out poisoned rice balls as traps, and an incinerator is used at the Department to dispense with the corpses of the rats. The narrative temporarily pulls the reader into siding morally with Shunsuke, but during the course of the story it slowly becomes apparent that Shunsuke too is entangled in the acute power games being played out by the Head of Department and the Bureau Chief, the story intricately constructed,  leaves the reader with the impression that the narrative is one that transcends the narrator. The pandemonium caused by the rats acts as a metaphor representing the human interactions going on within the story and makes a comment about society at large, the scramble for self advancement. Set around this story of human fallibility a well crafted allegorical tale emerges in which suggests that it's human aspirations or perhaps the human predicament combined with societal forces that tilts the balance, an uncontrollable force, which will potentially end as depicted here in metaphor, in suicide.

The Runaway/Ruboki originally published in 1958 is an all together different story, in his brief introduction Charles Dunn mentions that Kaiko was also a translator of science fiction, although set in a rural town in ancient China, The Runaway/Ruboki reads at first a little like a science fiction story, vividly describing a time and place unfamiliar and often brutally violent. The narrator, a young unnamed man initially describes his home town in terms of the walls that surround it, made from the tampered Yellow Earth by those who live there, the walls take on the aspect of being a living organism, weathered by the winds and rain the perimeters seem to be constantly shifting. Set in a time of civil war the town is subject to invasion by roaming warlords, the residents keep a lookout and hoist hastily made flags similar to those flown by their potential invaders in the hope that they will be spared from attack, the narrator recounts an episode when one of these flags is misinterpreted, and the clothier and his family are brutally tortured and killed in front of the rest of the town. Opposite the town set in cliffs the narrator describes a set of caverns where some of the more brave flee to across the desert and away from the destitution of the town, his father is murdered in a passage that begins with the line, 'I'll tell you about the murder of a normal man'. The town is ruled by a succession of different armies and warlords, until the ascension of a new Emperor, an aristocrat from the north as the narrator describes and rumour abounds of a massive new capital. The narrator describes an era of stability in the town, a gradual release from 'feelings of psychological apprehension', this is not set to last as the town is visited and divided up by the Emperor's soldiers, drafting the men of the village. The men are marched to another city where more men will be rounded up, rumour goes around that they will work on the construction of a great wall, many men die en route and are replaced by farmers  coerced into joining the labour convoy, and any caught trying to escape are decapitated as this is believed to prevent them from being reborn,  severing the line in reincarnation.

When they arrive at the construction site they realize that the planned construction will use millions of men and hundreds of thousands of guards, they come to realize that they will also be constructing a new palace for the Emperor, they give their names and dates and place of birth and are given a crude and bloody tattoo on the forehead. The Emperor's tyranny extends to all those involved in the construction, architects, wardens, administrators, anyone found slacking is subject to barbaric execution, buried alive so that only their heads are exposed, the workers are then made to march pass compacting the earth and crushing the buried. The worker's conditions are described, the human stench of their digs, the men drink a cheaply made wine, gamble and turn to homosexuality.

A six day inspection ceremony takes place where the purpose and dimensions of the wall are explained by the rulers, -"The Great Wall was a challenge to space and time; it forms a single line linking the myriad ages; it will be a shattering blow to the barbarians", hatred the coerced workers may feel towards the Emperor is diverted to the barbarians, the narrator observes. The construction of the wall is described, taking in valleys and building into cliffs, they also become subject to attacks by the nomadic Hsiung-nu and the guards counter attack by indiscriminately killing anyone seen near the construction site, regardless of age or sex. Throughout the last part of the story the narrator observes the gradual disintegration of his individuality during his labours, and it's tempting to contemplate an allegorical meaning to this story, although this could also be seen as another aspect in the nature of Kaiko's writing as a whole. The narrator comes to the realization that the wall serves no great purpose as the area still comes under attack at night by the Hsiung-nu, and suspects a rebellion will arise, and contemplates running off into the desert and taking his chances with the Barbarians.

Kaiko Takeshi, 1930-1989, was seen as a writer who held leftist leanings although it's been observed that he didn't adhere to any set theory or political agenda, another of his stories Giants and Toys/Kyojin to gangu is a satire of two chocolate manufacturers caught in a sales battle, it was adapted to film by Masumura Yasuzo, translated by Tamae K. Prindle in Made in Japan and Other Japanese Business Novels, published by M.E Sharpe. Kaiko was also an opponent to the Vietnam war and nearly lost his life  there as a news correspondent, out of his experiences came the 1968 novel, Into a Black Sun/Kagayakeru yami. The current Shinchosha edition of Panic is accompanied with Kaiko's 1957 Akutagawa Prize winning story The Naked King/Hadaka no O'sama. Other translations into English include the novel Darkness in Summer and the short story collection Five Thousand Runaways, which I now hope to read soon. Panic and The Runaway is listed on the UNESCO list of representative works.


Parrish Lantern said...

looks like my kindle will easily become full at this rate, just checked out the Kindle edition of Darkness in Summer, & will download a sample to try.

me. said...

I'd like to read Darkness in Summer in the near future, as well as Into a Black Sun. I also neglected to mention in my post that a non-fiction prize in Kaiko's honour was established. These two novellas were an excellent way of introduction to his writing.

Hope you enjoy Darkness in Summer, thanks again for commenting.