Monday, 8 September 2014

Ravine and Other Stories by Furui Yoshikichi

Couldn't help from noticing that Shinchosha celebrates 110 years of it's literary magazine Shinchō this year, from reading a review of their anniversary issue from May, the issue appears to include Kenzaburō Ōe and Furui Yoshikichi in conversation, which prompted me to turn to reading Furui again, as I've been meaning to since reading his short story Wedlock some time ago. As far as I've seen there are only three translations of Furui in English, Ravine and Other Stories, translated by Meredith McKinney, White Haired Melody, a novel, also translated by Meredith McKinney and also Child of Darkness: Yoko and Other Stories, translated by Donna George Storey, which contains Furui's Akutagawa Prize winning story, Yoko, aside from the Akutagawa Prize, Furui has also received the Tanizaki Prize, the Mainichi Cultural Prize, the Yomiuri Literary Prize and also the Kawabata Prize for his story, Nakayama-zaka/On Nakayama Hill, a translation of which is included here. Furui has been associated with the generation of writers often referred to as being from the naiko no sedai or the introverted generation -  内向の世代, spanning from the late sixties to the mid seventies, who would adopt more of an introverted style of writing, turning away from the overtly politically subjects of the times, the term was first used by the literary critic Odagiri Hideo.

In it's opening passages I couldn't help being nudged into recalling another story when starting to read Ravine, of it's remote mountain scape with the sound of a voice being heard, and of the narrative recalling a story of skeletal remains being found with all flesh rotted away save for a living tongue remaining within it's skull, this opening is reminiscent of one I'm sure by Nakagami Kenji. Ravine though turns from this to describing two climbers on a memorial climb for their fellow climber, Koike, resting in a cabin for the night they hear footsteps advancing outside and a man staggering in, falls down before them, dead. The story is overlaid with flashbacks of a climb all three had taken and of meeting a woman in the mountains who appears to take a suicidal leap into the sea, although she is rescued by a passing fishing boat, in places ambiguities arise as to the possibility of which figure that appears may represent which character more fully described within the story, who is the dying man?, perhaps this event appears to act as a spur to the subsequent recollections, some events are maybe presented as disconnected in Furui's stories, but they act to contribute to a thematic whole. Another element of this story is of Koike's marriage, the story has many enigmatic turns, and as with the other stories in this collection, the reader also gets the impression that although Furui's writing is full of acute and close-up observations it's not until finishing them that you can obtain the wider focus of their intent, whilst reading them despite their fine eye for intricateness they retain a sense of being impressionistic.

The next story, Grief Field/Aihara, also appears in Child of Darkness, translated by Donna George Storey as The Plain of Sorrows, the narrator relates the deteriorating state of a friend who has an incurable illness who disappears from his family to a woman whom he has been having an affair, although when with her he wanders to a plot of land allocated for re-development. The theme that the story seems to explore is that of the space between physical places and locations with that of the protagonist's psychological sense of their own grief, as well as the dying friend at the centre of this story, who, it could also be described as being in a state of grieving for himself, there are figures from each of the character's past whose passings are also subjects of grief, a sister who died in a love suicide, a mother dying prematurely, as well as feeling grief over these loses the protagonist's have acute perhaps subdued repressed feelings of guilt, as Furui's stories progress developments are revealed and hinted at but the fuller picture is often left for the after read.

The Bellwether stands out here as the narrative sees no real or direct character interaction with each other, being a fictional observational piece in which the narrator shares their thoughts on the nature of crowds on busy commuter stations and trains by making comparisons to the stampede of wild horses. Through these observations the narrator examines the nature of the individual in the crowd, of how interpretations of each other are made and envisages the crowd amidst and provoked into panic. Examining the crowd, the narrator's vision fixates on a single man whom he seems to encounter by chance at various points as he wanders in this narrative, observations of more individuals he sees turn to recollecting a man from the narrator's workplace, thoroughly competent in his work but 'initiates nothing by himself'. At a point in the narrative there appears a concluding observation that in order to preserve our own sense of equilibrium in a crowd we search out for the faces of 'docile sensible types' to reassure ourselves, the narrator later relates becoming involved in a skirmish between protesting students and the police, and of an unsuspecting visitor who visits him after being hospitalized to reiterate the point made earlier in the story. The Bellwether seems to display another characteristic in Furui's writing in that of his interest in exploring differing points of perspective, and of examining how different people view different people.

The collection concludes with On Nakayama Hill, which was awarded the Kawabata Prize, the story in a way has two main characters, one an old man, who is approaching death from an incurable disease, and also a young woman oversleeping on a train and finding herself a few stops away from where she wanted to be. The scene where the two first encounter each other has an interestingly described moment, where the old man grabs her to stop himself from falling over, and of her finding she can hear human voices emanating from him, these though are from the radio he listens to through his headphone, (s?). The old man walks up the hill to place bets at the horse races and due to his frail state asks her to go on ahead to make the bet for him after stopping at a tea shop. Furui's prose is glacial in slowly revealing the back drops of the pair's lives, of her uncertain affair and of the old man's intuitiveness, Furui's prose leaves the impression that nothing of the author is between the characters, the slowly observed unfolding of the stories events and the reader. As with this story there is the appearance of common themes to Furui's writing, the occurrence of aging and of ill health with the over arching and explorative theme being the nature of human mortality.  

Ravine and Other Stories at Stone Bridge Press


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