Friday, 11 January 2013

"'Love'" and Other Stories

When it comes to anthologies and collections I've a tendency not to read them cover to cover but to slowly read them story by story over a period of time, recently I've read Mishima's short story Tamago/Eggs, (1953), translated by Adam Kabat that was collected in Kodansha's Showa Anthology, a surreal satire that follows a group of students caught in a world of egg shaped authority figures, which is quite at odds with themes that are usually associated with Mishima's stories and novels, also reading Behold My Swarthy Face's recent questions and study guide for Tanizaki's Mr Bluemound, a slight tugging is now pulling me towards a reading of this story.

Fortunately an affordable copy of "'Love'" and Other Stories of Yokomitsu Riichi, translated and introduced by Dennis Keene, (Tokyo University Press), came my way recently, alongside Kawabata Yasunari, Yokomitsu, (1898-1947), is probably one of the most well known exponents of late Taisho/early Showa era modernism, together with other writers they famously formed the group Shinkankakuha. As it's been noted by many observers though  Yokomitsu seemed to keep his distance to any particular school of writing. 'Love and Other Stories' presents eleven of Yokomitsu's stories, including the story Smile/Bisho which was published posthumously the year after his death in 1947, also included is Spring Riding in a Carriage and the much discussed story Machi no Soko/The Depths of the Town, or Depths of the City as it's also often referred to. Reading the stories out of sequence the first that I found myself totally immersed in was After Picking Up a Blue Stone/Aoi ishi o hirotte kara, the narrative of which follows a man tripping on a stone which after he studies it notes it's blue hue, he briefly meets up with his girlfriend before getting the urge to return home to his sister in Kobe. Whilst there they receive a telegram from their mother in Korea informing them that their father has passed away, the narrator crosses over to Korea. On arrival he learns of the financial straits his parents were in due to the fact that they had lent money out, including to their neighbours where the father of the house is suffering from dysentery. The portrait of his parent's neighbour-hood is one of destitution, poverty is rife, a beggar stumbles around the neighbourhood where gangs of youths roam on drugs, the narrator finds that he has to adjust to the role of debt collector to find the funds so that he and his mother can return to Japan. It's while the narrator goes about this that he undergoes a kind of transformation, he breaks off his engagement with his fiancee, and when he picks up the box containing his father's ashes and feels the remainder of his bones knocking the edges Yokomitsu manages to transform his narrator's incredulous feelings about death and his inability to reconcile his father's passing to the point where the reader begins to question the tangibility of life, the narrator does manage to recuperate enough money to get their return fare and on his return he suffers a dissolution of his will and struggles to repress feelings of suicide. Toward the end of the story the narrator comes across a black stone and contemplates on what would have happened if it had been black to begin with, the arbitrariness of the paths life takes, or that of the decisions his characters make that lead them there is a reoccurring element in Yokomitsu's stories.

The following story, The Pale Captain/Aoi taii , sees some of the same events or scenes of After Picking Up a Blue Stone, although from a slightly different perspective, this experimenting quality works to expand the original story to the degree where it could be easy for the reader to begin to question which of them is the original story?. Here the narrative examines the household of his mother's neighbours in Korea to a further degree, the figure of the daughter is referred to almost in passing in After Picking Up a Blue Stone, but here much more detail is filled in her character, the narrator sees the potential of a possible relationship with her and the reason that he broke off his engagement becomes apparent, other plot lines hinted to in the previous story are also given fuller explanation in The Pale Captain, a masochism of the narrator becomes apparent in him when he reduces the daughter to tears as her father's illness has brought him close to death, but there's also the notion that this is an attempt to dissipate their joint grief, although there's also the notion that he is taking advantage of her, he leads her off to a place out of sight. Another key scene in The Pale Captain is toward the end and the narrator is walking in the muddied paths of the neighbourhood, we learn that the beggar has passed away and the narrator morbidly looks around for the death mask imprinted in the mud where the beggar fell face down, looking at the impression of the face, the scene has an over all feeling of a dark sublimity.

Two more of the stories work in the same way of examining the same events and characters from different perspectives, or from different points of time within the same story - Spring Riding in a Carriage/Haru wa basha ni notte and Ideas of a Flower Garden/Hanasono no shiso, Spring Riding in a Carriage follows the narrator as he nurses his wife who is dying of T.B, whilst reading the story it's hard not to see parallels with Hori Tatsuo's Kaze Tachinu/The Wind Has Risen, (Studio Ghibli adaption forthcoming), which must have been written around the same time, although Yokomitsu's approach is not quite so detached to the extent of Hori's. Yokomitsu's fascination with science has been well documented, this can be seen in some of the stories here, his prose sometimes  reads with an almost scientific detachment, which in places reminded me of Abe Kobo, particularly in the industrial setting of The Machine/Kikai, which follows a worker who through a set of shifting circumstances finds himself working in a nameplate factory, at first the narrator scrupulously observes the man who is senior, Karube, and his ingratiating ways, the situation worsens when after a large order is received a worker, (Yoshiki), from a rival firm is used to help them complete the order, suspicions arise that he is stealing the secrets of their work methods. The story also has a slight metaphorical quality to it, the machine as well as referring to the industrial equipment around them also refers to the process of living, or perhaps the struggle of existence, the narrator at various times re-examines his reasons and motives for staying in the job, he doubts the sanity of his boss whom it always seems to be loosing money.

Probably one of the fascinating elements of these stories is of Yokomitsu's ability to transcend and merge different styles, Machi no soko/The Depths of the Town, displays an interesting use of lyrical abstraction, it's essentially a plotless story, the narrative presents a panoramic perspective of a town/city scape, the story is a slow moving pictorial snapshot. The Defeated Husband/Maketa otto offers an in depth psychological portrait of a loveless marriage, seen through the eyes of the husband who we discover is caught between conflicting emotions for three women - his wife, who often cheats on him, a woman who works at a bookstore, and also Kanko, a woman from the narrator's hometown, whom the narrator feels is the only woman who truly ever loved him. Yokomitsu adds a twist to the portrait that every time the man suffers a defeat at the hands of his wife he falls into a cycle of self hatred and loathing, it seems almost impossible for the narrator to break out of this circle. After a visit from an old friend, Mishima, the narrator returns to his hometown and perhaps to potentially take up with Kanko, but this attempt at escape proves futile and he dutifully returns home to a devastating discovery, the story ends with the cycle being broken and the narrator finds himself out on the street, suddenly facing a tall building in front of him which represents his renewed sense of freedom and confidence.

Another story that seems to dip into different styles is The Carriage/Basha, another penetrating psychological portrait follows Yura, a man who is suffering from mental exhaustion due to overwork. Through arrangements made by a friend he takes a trip to an onsen for people suffering from similar complaints. At first he warily observes the other people at the onsen contemplating what maladies each of them suffer from, after a while he meets a man who starts talking to him enthusiastically about the skill of divining the future, later we learn his name is Dr Kona, another character that features is a man who displays erratic behaviour at first referred to as the Tenri man. Slowly another plot line emerges describing a village close by called Yumedono, (Keene notes the name "Dream Hall", also pointing to the octagonal hall of the same name at Hōryū-ji/ 法隆寺 Temple in Nara), which is home to a leper colony, the village is seen as being cut off from the civilised world, but Yura learns of a beautiful young woman who lives there who appears not to be affected by the disease. Through the progression of the story it becomes apparent that the woman is Dr Kona's daughter, Hanae, and as Yura becomes closer to Dr Kona the Tenri man's behaviour becomes more erratic, making advances towards Yura which spurs Yura into numerous conjectures, a scene at the onsen where the Tenri man licks the legs of Yura is one which could possible figure from a scene found in ero guro. Through Yura's hypothesizing he comes to the understanding that perhaps the Tenri man is jealous of his closeness to Dr Kona and Hanae who the Tenri man has feelings for, and also that potentially Dr Kona is trying to arrange it that Yura marries Hanae. At the center of these interests is Hanae, and Yura is left facing the decision to stay or to return to Tokyo, to the point where the carriage comes to return Hanae to the village, leaving him but a moment to make his decision. An important collection which it could be said is somewhat of a travesty to have been allowed to slip out of print.

Through Keene's translations we get an insight into the narrative power of Yokomitsu's stories, and finishing reading them provokes a reading of a number of other books, including -

Shanghai - Yokomitsu Riichi

An interesting article on Shinkankaku at ejcjs



Parrish Lantern said...

Any writer that makes one think of Abe, is of interest, will check this out.

Tony said...

I've read a couple of his stories in various anthologies ('Time' and 'Spring Riding in a Carriage'), and I have 'Machine' in an unread collection I just acquired. Definitely a short-story writer who deserves more recognition in the Anglosphere :)

me. said...

After a little more probing looks like Spring Riding in a Carriage was written in 1926 and The Wind Has Risen was written between 1936-1937.