Think haiku, netsuke, moss gardens… Small is beautiful. Japanese art, a scholar of the culture once commented, is great in small things. Pushkin Press has a track record for bringing foreign language works, classic and contemporary, to a British readership, and with this pocket-sized, elegant duo they celebrate a modern Japanese master virtually unknown here.
Yasushi Inoue, one of Japan’s major literary figures, wrote his first novel, The Hunting Gun, in 1949, followed immediately by Bullfight. After 20 years as a journalist and literary editor, he was stepping into fiction. By the time he died in 1997 he had written 50 novels and nearly 200 short stories and novellas. Of all his books, he said, he felt closest to these two.
The Hunting Gun delicately anatomises a love affair, set within the framework of an unrelated event: the publication of a poem in a small, specialist magazine. The poem describes a hunter, glimpsed one winter morning, pipe clamped between his teeth, shotgun on shoulder, a setter lolloping ahead as he trudges on, up a mountain slope. The poet sets him in a landscape of the mind, a ‘desolate, dried-up riverbed’, reflecting the solitude of the human condition.
Belatedly he realises that his sombre poem was inappropriate for a magazine dedicated to the joys of hunting, and he awaits a flood of indignant protests. Just one letter arrives, from a man who claims to recognise himself as the hunter. He wants the poet to read three letters he is forwarding — from his estranged wife, his faithful lover, and her daughter. The letters cover 13 years of secrets and lies, interlocking and overlapping to create a picture of passion, betrayal and loneliness, seen from three viewpoints; each one enriching and subtly altering the others. The story has an elegiac quality, a Chekhovian resonance.
With his next book, Bullfight, Inoue cut free of understatement. Where The Hunting Gun was distanced, reflective, Bullfight is edgy jagged; seething with spivs, swindlers, chancers — Osaka Forties noir. It looks at the ruined urban landscape and postwar world of black-marketeering, fraud, cynicism and self-disgust, seen through the eyes of a small-time newspaper editor who becomes obsessed with the idea of staging a huge, three-day bullfight in the local baseball stadium, sponsored and — perhaps unwisely — financed by his newspaper.
Matadors play no part in Japanese bullfighting; ‘bull sumo’ simply has bulls in pairs, locking horns, battling it out for victory, while several thousand spectators feverishly gamble on the result. The story is compressed into the weeks leading up to the all-important event, which could transform the journalist’s life: make him rich and successful — or ruin him and the newspaper. The tension is tightened, day by day, page by page; with costs ballooning out of control — 22 bulls to be transported, fed and housed, thousands of tickets to be sold — the spectacle he embarked on almost on a whim takes over his life and wrecks his peace of mind, endangering his relationship with the woman who loves him.
As always in a foreign-language work, we accept we are not reading exactly what the author wrote; that’s the deal with literature in translation. Proust has reached us via different conduits, though some of us at least can check the original to see precisely what Marcel said about Dreyfus or the madeleine. Japanese is a different matter. In a magisterial study of Japanese history, culture and psyche, Mirror, Sword and Jewel, Kurt Singer wrote: ‘The Japanese language is rich in ambiguities, a tool more for withholding and eluding than expressing or stating.’ Where does this leave the translator, given the task of bridging the language gap?
The translator of both these books, Michael Emmerich, is an American scholar who has written a number of academic works, bi-lingual editions and book translations. For The Hunting Gun he opts for a formal, deliberate style with something of a period flavour. With Bullfight his explicit and demotic Americanisms do not sit easily with the icy, enigmatic character of the obsessed protagonist. But if the translation sometimes seems less than felicitous, Inoue’s humane and searching world view is there to be explored and these two novellas reward the effort.
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This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 May 2014