Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q

Kurahashi's only novel to appear in English translation was published in Japan in 1969 by Kodansha under the title Sumiyakisto Q no boken, Dennis Keene translated the novel and gives a brief introduction, in it he describes his approach to translating the novel and shares some of Kurahashi's thoughts on her writing. Kurahashi was born in Shikoku in 1935, the same year and isle as Oe Kenzaburo,  both Oe and Kurahashi studied French Literature, and here Keene gives mention to the nouvea roman novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, and notes that Kurahashi's first novel Kurai tabi/Blue Journey, (1961) was often compared to Michel Butor's novel La Modification, (1957), translated into English by Jean Stewart as Second Thoughts - a novel almost solely written in second person narrative. Kurahashi's writing if having to be compared with other Japanese authors it could be said shares aspects with Yutaka Haniya and Abe Kobo, although the starkness of the violence and sexuality of some of Robbe-Grillet's novel's is seen in Kurahashi's shorter fiction, (The Woman With The Flying Head and Other Stories), which I have yet to read. As Kurahashi's translator Atsuko Sakaki discusses in her essay, (Re)Cannonizing Kurahashi Yumiko: Toward Alternative Perspectives For "Modern" "Japanese"  "Literature", (from Oe and Beyond), Kurahashi defended her writing against accusations of plagiarism, there's a satirical element to the novel here and Kurahashi defended her writings describing them as being pastiches, it seems her writing was to a degree overlooked by the literati within Japan, Atsuko Sakaki directs the reader onto another introductory piece about Kurahashi by Dennis  Keene, wherein he has translated from Kurahashi's 1966 essay; Negativity and the Labyrinth of Fiction/Shosetsu no meiro to hitaisei, "I abhor the intrusion of the disorder of 'facts' into the world of words I have constructed. The ironclad rule in reporting facts or events is the clarification of the five W's - when, where, who, what, why-but my stories reject these restrictions entirely and instead build castles in the air. At an uncertain time, in a place that is nowhere, somebody who is no one, for no reason, is about to do something-and in the end does nothing: this is my ideal of the novel", Kurahashi's writing appears to be written within preordained parameters, although given this  under-standing her texts have a liberating aspect, acknowledging that there are limitations to the novel, Kurahashi took it to task to push them to extremes, I've heard Alain Robbe-Grillet's books being described as containing anti-narratives and Kurahashi's novels as anti-novels, I can understand the direction these authors are aiming at, although find it hard to reconcile this when this message is conveyed within a novel or within a narrative, although this it could be said is a retrospective viewpoint. Kurahashi was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize twice, once for Natsu no owari/End of Summer and also for Partei, a satire on left wing politics, satire also abounds in The Adventures Of Sumiyakist Q as well. Dennis Keene points out that sumiyakisto is Japanese for charcoal burner which he notes could be in reference to The Carbonari.

The novel opens with Q, (a sumiyakist member), disembarking from a ferry crossing, he is to be an instructor at H reformatory located on the island, a passage at the start of the novel concerning the ferry after it has dropped him off, suddenly it disappears from view, Q checks his watch and notices that the hands on it stop and start randomly, the time that passes in between these movements could be minutes or eternities, seems to give an inclination that within this story even the normal passing of time is something that maybe cannot be relied upon. He encounters some fishermen and women, (these people are later described as menials by the leaders of the reformatory), on the beach, the women taunt him with sexual obscenities. The island appears to be made up of a barren landscape it's austerity is echoed within the architecture of the remote reformatory, beds and stools are made of simple slabs of concrete and wood, also on the beach is a man who acts as porter at H who guides Q there - Each building was of an unsurpassable plainness of design, each being an unornamated polyhedron, and all varying in height (although the unevenness of the ground could have had something to do with this), and indeed the buildings as a whole looked like the result of a box of toy bricks having been overturned, some scattered here and there, some seemingly piled one on top of the other.  The narrative appears heavily influenced by Kafka,  there's many parallels with Kafka's story In the Penal Colony/In der Strafkolnie, with much of the dialogue seeing the men discussing the quixotic processes of H, walking along the corridors Q is driven on by anxiety and bewilderment, Q meets a man referred to as overseer and they discuss Q's c.v, the overseer knows of a crime that was connected with Q, he's not guilty of this crime, but guilty of another Q confesses, the narrative can be seen to distract from the central plot on a number of occasions, and occasionally appears to come from somewhere  beyond the narrative, their conversation turns to the rector. Q is taken to the room where he will lodge, he'll share with another instructor, a theologian called F, who's body odour almost suffocates Q, F has not much to say except to inform Q that a war between the oppressed and those who run H has started, Q is overcome with sleep, he dreams he is an ant amongst concrete building blocks. The rector is a huge man, once in his office Q tries stepping back to take in his complete form but is unable to, Q finds himself attracted to the rector's nurse Sabiya who performs a complete body shave of the rector. At first the exact details of what Q's job will involve remain unclear, Q learns that at H the instructors are free to do what they like, the definition of what an instructor does is full of vague archaic meanings. Another instructor described as the 'literary man' talks with Q at length about the structure of a novel he's writing, the conversations expand into literary theory, the literary man is trying to write a novel free of determinism. Q has an appointment with the Doktor with reference to an operational procedure that all people new to H have to go through, which Q has heard maybe a vasectomy or castration, in Kafka-esque style when Q asks what this will be, the Doktor cryptically replies you decide what it's to be. Q suspects that the Doktor could be a higher member of the sumiyakist there to observe Q's ability to observe. The instructors, rector, overseer and the Doktor play games, one being the board revolving game, where the winner gets to sleep with the rectors gargantuan wife, and  also the dog races, which turns to being a metaphorical exploration of political and ideological  thinking. Q views everything going on in H from a sumiyakist standpoint, noting down the injustices he sees in a notebook which will appear to be a report to the party.

From the outset of the novel at mealtimes the instructors eat a meat whose origins are from an uncertain source, and as the novel progresses, the rector and Doktor hint that they are eating human meat, (the literary man gives Q a draft of the novel he's writing called Doktor's Notebook - which acts to fill in details within the story that are only hinted at in the actual novel), it becomes apparent to Q that in actual fact the rector, the Doktor, the overseer and instructors have been eating the students/ inmates. Deciding to make plans to put his idea of revolution into action Q questions another instructor about the identity of unruly students, Q learns of Ajita, Ajita came to the reformatory due to his violent background and Q envisions him as an ideal catalyst to kick start proceedings. Going to the students quarters with the literary man, (Mr Bukka), things go wrong and the students take Mr Bukka captive, Q flees. Feeling that things are spinning beyond his control Q confesses what has happened to the rector, hastily Q organizes a meeting of the instructors,  the theology instructor makes an impassioned speech which ends with a brutal invasion by the students. The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q was  published at the end of the sixties while the global student protest movements were active, and whilst reading the novel, H could be seen as being a model of a hypothetical university in which the fiction is worked around, a fuller appreciation of the novel might be had with more background knowledge to the events and student groups, two further novels from this period that I'd like to read eventually would be Nosaka Akiyuki's, The Rioters/Sodoshitachi (1971), and also Takahashi Kazumi's 1966 novel, Jashumon/Evil Spirit. The corpus of the novel it seems concerns exposing the fragility of arguments and rhetoric used by both factions, these in the novel are overrun by the inmates of the reformatory, (representing the non-determinist element in the novel?), who have no real cohesive ideology, and when Q shouts, "Long live Sumiyakism!", the inmates copy him in parrot like fashion not understanding the meaning of what they are saying.



@parridhlantern said...

This sounds a really fascinating book by a writer I've not read, thanks for the intro. thanks

@parridhlantern said...

PS.loving what you're doing here, have added you to my Blogroll.

me. said...

This was an interesting novel to read, I had heard and read about Kurahashi a few times before so it was really good to get around to reading this novel, I've got some short stories to read in the future too. This is quite a unique novel for a number of reasons, It would be really great if some of Kurahashi's other novels were to see translation one day. Thanks for the comments will check out your blog!.

Anonymous said...

How did you get a hold of this? The listings on Amazon are very expensive, and of course I can't find a copy in any of my nearby public libraries...I miss not being able to use the university system.

me. said...

Just checked this book at Amazon it is expensive!, a friend gave me this copy a while ago, it's definitely a novel that deserves to be made available again, and I'd love to see something by Takahashi Kazumi to appear in English. Looking over at Abe Books the book is listed at a little over $20, (including shipping), as I think it ships from Australia, where it was originally published), although well worth the wait!.