In the fifteen or so years that I’ve been reading literature from Japan, there are maybe two or three books from that whole oeuvre that I’ve come back to again and again and discovered more in each time. One was Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry; another, most likely the one I have come back to the most, is Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. The two books could not be more dissimilar. Oe’s story is epic in detail and unabashedly literary in its language and imagery, while Dazai’s novel is barely two hundred pages and constructed out of language so simple and spare there seems to be no room for further reduction. And yet I’ve come back to that short space again and again, and each time I do, I find something else that simply did not seem to be there before. I know I’m the one that’s changing, of course, and I suspect the day I sit down to read No Longer Human and find nothing in it any longer will be the day I no longer see any of myself in it. I hope that will be a happy day. Read more
How is it that a gigantic hoard of Buddhist literature came to be concealed in the Thousand Buddha Caves near Tun-Huang, in the northwest of China, and remained undiscovered for almost a thousand years? The explanation provided by Tun-Huang is of course fiction, but it’s fiction backed up by a good deal of careful research and thought about its time and place — a corner of the Chinese empire that was in constant conflict and under the perpetual threat of invasion or insurrection. That’s more than enough exotica to draw my attention, but there’s more: the author is Yasushi Inoue, author of The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan, one of Japan’s most highly-lauded novelists next to Musashi author Eiji Yoshikawa.
Like Yoshikawa, Inoue is criminally undertranslated. Furin Kazan only appeared in English last year, and his other major works under the Kodansha label — Tun-Huang and Lou-Lan, a short-story collection — are both out of print. I wonder if part of the reason why his work has not been embraced as avidly as others is because he doesn’t try to artificially pump up what he’s writing about. For a story that takes place in an exotic time and a faraway place (even to a Japanese author!), Inoue adopts a very straightforward, unpretentious, unadorned style, and the book itself is not very long — barely 200 pages. Musashi was nearly a thousand pages and had to be broken across five paperback volumes, but only because it was dealing with the span of a man’s life; the language in it was equally direct. Read more