Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unearthly Loves

I started reading modern Japanese literature in Spanish translation because there were a couple of books I wanted to read that didn't seem to be available in English, but at this point I'm just doing it for fun — or perhaps in part because the psychological effect of reading a book in a foreign language — any foreign language — gives me the illusion that I'm reading it "the original," which in the case of Japanese is something I'm utterly unable to do. Plus I just like these editions from Satori in Spain. Putting aside such eccentricities, three of the four stories in Izumi Kyōka's El santo del monte Koya are readily available in English in a volume entitled Japanese Gothic Tales, translated by Charles Shirō Inouye and published by University of Hawaii Press.

And they're great stories, intricately told, shocking at times, richly atmospheric; each of them rewards — in fact demands — a second reading. I'll pass over the two shorter ones, as good as they are, and say a few words about the title story, which in Inouye's translation is called "The Holy Man of Mount Koya," and the novella-length "Un día de primavera" ("One Day in Spring"). Both can be found in the Inouye translation mentioned above.

The former follows a classic Japanese storytelling pattern: a lone traveler — here, a Buddhist monk — hiking through the remote countryside encounters a figure — in this case, a woman — who turns out to be other than what she appears. Kyōka, who died in 1939, was adept at nesting stories within stories, and the events in the tale are actually narrated by the monk to a traveling companion he shares a room with much later. As the monk recalls, during the original journey he had fallen in with a traveling salesman whose vulgar behavior had offended him; the two come to a fork in the road and the salesman chooses a path which, the monk is subsequently informed, will lead him to great danger, perhaps even certain death. After some hesitation, the monk decides that his Buddhist principles require that he set out to persuade the salesman to turn back, since allowing his personal antipathy to sway his duty towards the man would be a great sin. The route he thus follows subjects him to gruesome, skin-creeping horrors — told in vivid detail by Kyōka — but eventually he makes it through, only to find himself the guest of a kind of Japanese Circe, with whom he almost decides to remain forever.

As exemplary a tale as "The Holy Man of Mount Koya" is, it can't quite match the measured, uncanny beauty of "One Day in Spring." Again we have nested narratives, although in this case it is the frame-tale that involves a traveler, a lone figure who arrives at a remote temple and hears from the resident monk a bizarre tale about an earlier pilgrim, who had taken up residence in a nearby cottage and become obsessed with a beautiful woman with whom he had — in this world, at least — only the most fleeting of encounters. Drawn to an isolated spot by the sound of music, the pilgrim had witnessed an oneiric pageant in which he and the woman — or their semblances — appeared as the principle players; a few days later he is found drowned at the edge of the sea. Having heard this strange tale, the second traveler has his own encounter with the woman, then witnesses an appalling and unexpected denouement.

There's at least one additional collection of Kyōka's tales in English, also translated by Charles Inouye and published by the University of Hawaii Press; it's entitled In Light of Shadows: More Gothic Tales. I've ordered a copy.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Seeing in the Dark

I read this novel by Rupert Thomson shortly after it first appeared in the US in 1996 and again last week, and both times I had the same reaction: I was impressed with the writing, intrigued by the premise, but more than a bit baffled by the way the story played itself out. Not that the story, bizarre as it is, is particularly hard to follow; but it is, in the end, a little hard to know exactly what to make of it — if indeed that matters.

The story is relatively simple to relate, but I'll just give you the set-up: one Martin Blom, resident of an unnamed European country (most of the names are German- or Slavic-sounding) is shot by an unknown assailant while carrying a bag of groceries across a car-park. The injury, to his head, destroys his visual cortex, leaving him, according to medical opinion, permanently blind. While recuperating in a clinic, however, he discovers that he is in fact able to see, but only in the dark — either that or he is suffering from a phenomenon called Anton's Syndrome, in which a patient, though blind, believes that he or she can see. The truth of the matter is difficult to pin down, especially when Blom also begins to believe that he is receiving television signals through the titanium plate used to repair his skull, and suspects that he is part of an obscure neurological experiment engineered by his doctor. Thomson occasionally drops in little hints that cast doubt on whether Blom is really able to see, but on the other hand there will be an otherwise inexplicable incident in which he drives a car...

Blom is discharged from the clinic and moves into a seedy hotel which may or may not be a brothel (he witnesses things that no one else seems to see, or will admit seeing) and meets a mercurial young woman named Nina, with whom whom he begins an affair that ends when she suddenly vanishes. Following her traces he comes to a remote hotel in the hinterlands, where the proprietress spins a bizarre tale-within-a-tale — about which I'll say nothing — that runs on for more than a hundred pages and concludes shortly before the novel's end.

In one sense, The Insult is simply one more brooding, atmospheric thriller, the kind in which dark secrets will eventually be revealed and the hero (who of course must have his own complicating backstory) will himself become a suspect, at least to the police. It could be objected that Thomson's novel isn't even a very accomplished representative of the genre, leaving too many fundamental matters unresolved and being essentially made up of two only tangentially related narratives. But there's something about Thomson's lean but evocative narration, about the book's unsettling psychological realism even when skirting into territory that, on the face of it, seems wildly implausible, that keeps the reader from feeling cheated.

Thomson has written eight other novels, most recently the fairly lackluster Secrecy. Of the ones that I've read, The Insult and the earlier Dreams of Leaving, which likewise combines an outlandish premise with meticulous writing, seem the most successful.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Plan for an impossible novel

There will be paragraphs.

There will be punctuation.

There will be no epigraph in Greek.

There will be no cell phones, computers, or televisions in the novel because such devices belong to the domain of science fiction and this is not a science fiction novel. The presence of radio and ordinary telephones is probationary.

The novel will be, at least in part, a bildungsroman, because only young people are interesting.

Infidelity in a novel is much easier to make interesting than fidelity; as a consequence there will be no infidelity, except perhaps among characters of secondary importance.

There will be sex.

The novel will take place primarily in an urban setting because the modern novel is fundamentally an urban form, the countryside being more suited to poetry. The city will be made up of layers, like overlapping transparencies, and the movements of the characters will take the form of trajectories across and sometimes through the layers. Since cities are more interesting after dark, most of the novel will take place at night.

There will be no violence unless its presence is impossible to ignore. No civilian character will own or handle a firearm, except possibly for humorous effect, as when Alfred Jarry shoots off a pistol in The Counterfeiters.

There will be no autistic savants, evil albinos, children wise beyond their years, or secrets of any kind.

The novel will be a social novel, in the sense that the way in which society is organized will be one of the determining elements in the lives of the characters. It may or may not be a political novel, in the sense that the characters may or may not participate in or be affected by political movements, but it will not be a novel "about politics" or much less about politicians, few of whom are morally interesting enough to be merit preservation in the pages of a novel.

The novel will not be a contingent novel. That is, it will not be "about" anything the subtraction of which would render the enterprise meaningless.

No character will be stupider than the author of the novel.

No character will be wiser than the author of the novel.

The novel will not end with the death of the protagonist. It will not have a happy ending, nor an unhappy ending. This is not to imply that the characters may not, at the end of the novel, be either happy or unhappy, or both simultaneously.

There will be no sequel.