Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

Edited by Jay Rubin The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is also introduced by Murakami Haruki, who offers a synopsis of the writers and stories featured, it's interesting to note Murakami's admission of his allergies towards the tradition of the Watakushi shosetsu/I-novel and also of his general disinterest of the mainstay of Japanese literature, although obviously there are some exceptions. In his Editorial Note Rubin discusses the difficulties of compiling anthologies in that it's a near on impossible task to include everything, no doubt when thinking of stories/authors to include something of a domino effect of associations must arise and you'd end up with a volume running into many thousands of pages. Perhaps looking through the authors here it's something of a shame to see that Dazai remains left out, although him aside the rest of the big names of his era are represented here, Mishima, Kawabata, Soseki, Tanizaki, whose novella The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga translated by Paul Warham opens the anthology, Rubin notes that this was to be a first appearance of the story into English although the story previously appeared in Red Roofs and Other Stories, trans by Chambers and McCarthy, as noted in the Further Reading chapter, another author whose omission might cause surprise is Abe Kobo, another Ichiyo Higuchi. Another aspect of compiling anthologies is the conundrum of the layout of the stories and here Rubin has gone for a thematic approach as well as usefully listing the stories in chronological order in his Editorial Note. It's also interesting that Rubin has said that this will be the last of this kind of enterprise that he will be involved with so it feels that the stories are ones that carry a resonance for him, as well as their being a number of stories having their debut in English translation, the anthology also recollects a number of stories that have been presented previously in varying anthologies and offers them up again for reconsideration, as well as including the stories from Penguin's new Modern 50's older translations of his resurface; Peaches by Abe Akira and American Hijiki by Nosaka Akiyuki, and obviously two from Murakami Haruki, among more.

Among the stories that have seen publication previously then but perhaps have slipped from prominence is Enchi Fumiko's fascinating A Bond for Two Lifetimes - Gleanings translated by Phyllis Birnbaum originally published in Rabbits, Crabs, Etc: Stories by Japanese Women, centering on a one time student of Professor Nunokawa who has been asked by the professor to assist him with the transcribing of Akinari's Tale of Moonlight and Rain and Tales of Spring Rain into modern Japanese. As with a number of other stories in the anthology, Ogawa Yoko's The Tale of the House of Physics being another, Enchi's story uses the story within a story premise, or book within a story to great affect, the tale of the buried monk Josuke who comes back to life begins to find parallels with that of the narrator's husband who had died in the war, the narrator also confronts male dominance recollecting the professor's advances towards her and also of the male figure who appears at the end of the story adds to associations and conclusions for the narrator. Another noteworthy story that comes under the chapter themed Men and Women is Ohba Minako's The Smile of a Mountain Witch translated by Noriko Mizuta an allegorical story that uses the myth of the yamauba to explore male/female relations as well as that of mother/daughter. Also included in this chapter is the first time in English translation of Banana Yoshimoto's Bee Honey, translated by Michael Emmerich. Another story appearing for the first time is Nakagami Kenji's Remaining Flowers translated by Eve Zimmerman, which bears some of the physicality and dark eroticism his stories are known for, which follows logger Jukichi as he falls in love with a beautiful blind woman, the story opens with the finding of a man's body whilst builders demolish a house for redevelopment, the story unfolds and follows dark paths to conclude with allusions to it's opening.

Another of the themed chapters is Nature and Memory which as well as including stories by Motoyuki Shibata, Murakami Haruki, Abe Akira and Ogawa Yoko, Jay Rubin has included his translation of Doppo Kunikida's Unforgettable People a story from 1898 which is the oldest of the anthology, a nuanced story that arises from a conversation between writer and painter Otsu and Akiyama on a night at an inn examines the subtleties of memory and acknowledgement of human presences. The chapter headed Modern Life and Other Nonsense offers up an interesting selection of writers that span the decades, featuring the stories - Closet LLB by Uno Koji, brief ones from Hoshi Shin'ichi and Betsuyaku Minoru, also Mr English by Genji Keita and Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko, an interestingly engaging story of a brief connection between two women of a neighbourhood, whilst through their encounters with each other adopt alternative identities. Through the briefer chapter ominously entitled Dread is the chapter Disasters, Natural and Man-Made which itself is then broken down with subcategories - containing stories concerning the earthquakes of Kobe, Kanto and Tohoku and more under the headings of Post-War Japan and also The Atomic Bombings, 1945 which includes the piece Hiroshima, City of Doom translated by Richard H. Minear, visualizing the protagonists at the riverside on the first night of the bombing brings to mind John Hersey's book Hiroshima. As with this story and Saeki Kazumi's Weather-Watching Hill, translated by David Boyd the reader receives the impression of being deposited at scenes of destruction so immense that perhaps literature can only partially convey although their ability to move remains total.

As with all anthologies it is that they can be approached on many levels, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is a solid mixture of stories covering multiple themes and events, they also come to us from various perspectives of varying time periods. As well as containing some firsts into translation, the book offers a variety of the familiar and the not so but it remains a great and essential addition for both seasoned and first time readers.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories at Penguin 



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