After posting on the Kawabata Prize recently Rain in the Wind - Stories by Maruya Saiichi seems like an intriguing collection to turn to, translated by Dennis Keene and published as part of Kodansha's Japan's Modern Writers series, although the collection could've been subtitled as being a novella and three stories as the longest story Rain in the Wind amounts to being close to 125 pages. On the jacket the Times Literary Supplement describe Maruya as, "A fascinating marriage of Borges and Nabokov with Japanese literary tradition", both of these authors are referenced to in the story Tree Shadows, the narrative is one that is relayed and passed between it's numerous characters although the whole is narrated by an unnamed narrator, sometimes interjecting to change its course or to pass and link it between characters. Through this sequence of linked narratives the motif of the shadows of trees invariably flickers in and out of sight. The story opens with the narrator trying to source the start of his obsession with tree shadows in particular he prefers those that appear vertically rather than horizontally, he reflects back to his adolescent viewing of Parisian street scenes painted by Utrillo, although he can't detect them there. Sieving his memories further he begins to realise that it's become a process similar to that of 'the impetus for the creation of fiction' which begins to open the story into another field of enquiry reflecting on the nature of fiction writing and the reliability of memory, there are further occasions in the story where Maruya tentatively explores other notions and themes, among them illegitimacy.
The ruminations continue in that the narrator is confident that he had read a story by Nabokov featuring tree shadows, he searches his collection and consults friends who have translated him but the story remains elusive, perhaps the narrator had written it and abandoned completing it thinking that it was too similar with one of Nabokov's?, the narrator notes remembering the emotional release in writing the story nonetheless. This forgetfulness on the part of the narrator begins to bring into question his reliability, but it reads being more of a case of literary amnesia, these self cross examinations and slight literary detective work lead to the, (fictional), writer Furuya Ippei, whose surname sounds strikingly similar to Maruya's. Furuya came to literature through journalism and teaching French at university level, his style and influence is affected from novelists both East and West from the eighteenth century. The narrative gives a panoramic description of Furuya's study room, unconnected items, the writer searching for scrapbooks for a photograph of the shadow of a tree to assist in writing an intricate subplot of one of his novels featuring the infidelity between a business man and a photographer's wife which the narrative dips into briefly before following Furuya as he begins to further consider tree shadow in his books and the relationship between himself and his characters.
There's further forays into the narratives of a couple more of Furuya's novels, The Ocean Current Bottle, which follows the illegitimate younger brother of a scholar of ancient Japanese literature, who fresh out of prison bungles an attempt at blackmail, a power cut interceding which provides the opportunity for some deeper life reflecting. Also the story Shooting a Butterfly, which follows the affair of a politician who looses consciousness after a fall, seeing the shadow of trees projected onto a wall he initally thinks that he is at an outdoor cinema. Real time reality begins to re-enter the story when Furuya is asked to give a lecture on the occasion of an anniversary of the creation of his hometown being made a municipal borough, Furuya re-edits a lecture contrasting the I - novel with that of the family memoir making a study with French and English books. The lecture includes referencing a Japanese pre-war novel, (the author of which Furuya decides against divulging), whose main protagonist discovers that he is the product of a union between his mother and grandfather, and he recounts a famous folklorist who vehemently believed his mother was someone else, scene by scene it feels that Maruya is pulling us into contemplating the scenario that perhaps that we take the identity of our parents for granted, what if they weren't who we presumed them to be?, these familiar identities exist in a confined framework. Before the lecture Furuya receives a letter from an elderly woman of his hometown, an admirer of his writing who requests a meeting after the lecture, at first he declines but he learns from another letter from the woman's family that she has been taken ill, and in what he suspects is a case of slight emotional bribery he relents to spare half an hour to meet the woman. This is a masterly story, Maruya's inclusion of the tree shadow motif and linking narratives creates a mesh of recollections that his characters find themselves staring into to unlock the truths of their pasts and by degrees their futures. The narratives overlap when Furuya finds himself staring at the shadow of a bonsai zelkova tree in the old woman's antique filled house and learns that perhaps his past was not how he believed it to be.
The narrative of the opening story, The Gentle Downhill Slope, is probably one of the more straightforward out of the four stories, following a young man's initiation into city life and through it, as he has come from the country, an initiation into the wider world, he stays with a cousin who likes to drink and visit brothels, the narrator on the other hand wants to study until he finds himself the attention of a gang of street robbers. The story is set in the immediate aftermath of the war, some of the buildings and cityscapes are described as being burnt. The second story I'll Buy That Dream, has a slight Joycean tinge to it, narrated by a prostitute/hostess, Rika, it follows her relationship with a professor as she tries to keep her past away from him after telling him that she had plastic surgery. The professor wonders what she looked like previous to her operation and pressurizes her into showing her a picture of herself before.
The title story Rain in the Wind/Yokoshigure appeared originally in 1988 and if you are interested at all in Japanese poetry perhaps you might feel in some way that this story has been lying in wait for you, especially if your interests are in the free verse haiku of Taneda Santōka, the narrator is a scholar of medieval Japanese poetry who is told a story by his father who on his death bed recalls an encounter he had when travelling to Dōgo, (also the location for Soseki's Botchan), in Shikoku with a friend, Kurokawa, and a meeting with a mendicant priest. After reading a selection of free verse haiku and learning of the appearance of Taneda and of his movements around 1939 the narrator pieces together that perhaps that the poet and the priest his father and Kurokawa had met were the same man. The narrator although not at first interested in free verse haiku begins to find himself immersed in the poems searching amongst them to locate any reference to the meeting in Dōgo. After his father and then Kurokawa pass away the narrator only has the poems and studies of Taneda to rely upon for his detective work, in particular the narrators curiosity falls on the phrase yokoshigure, wind driven rain, which seems to stand out as being a cryptic clue. The story reads as a detailed piece of literary detective fiction exploring many associated themes, in particular those associated with Taneda Santōka, exploring his suicidal aspirations, the narrator constantly shifts his perspectives in the reading of his poems searching for clues.
Saiichi Maruya was born in Yamagata Prefecture in 1925 and won many of Japan's most prestigious literary awards including the Akutagawa, Tanizaki and Noma Prizes, he passed away in October of 2012.