This year was a bad one for J-Lit in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with no Japanese book on the longlist for 2013. Over in the US though, one Japanese work did make it onto the (very) longlist for the Best Translated Book Award, the American equivalent of the IFFP, so with Japanese Literature Challenge 7 upon us, I thought it would be a good chance to check it out – mainly to see if the BTBA judges knew what they were doing 🙂
Tomoyuki Hoshino’s We, the Children of Cats (translated by Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser, review copy from publisher PM Press) is a collection of the writer’s assorted short works. It offers us five short stories and three novellas (although one of the novellas is only 32 pages long), enough for the reader to get a good overview of Hoshino’s style and themes.
The first story, ‘Paper Woman’, gives us an insight into Hoshino the writer, right from the very start:
“As I’ve continued my professional writing career, I’ve come to think of it as an art that wavers, like a heat shimmer, between joy at the prospect of becoming something else and despair at knowing that such a transformation is ultimately impossible. One could say that a novel’s words trace the pattern of scars left by the struggle between those two feelings. Which is why a novel should never be seen as a simple expression of an author’s self.”
p.1 ‘Paper Woman’ (PM Press, 2012)
This idea of transformations is an important one for Hoshino. In fact, in this story, the transformation is a very unusual and literal one…
Another thing we find out about Hoshino from this collection is his fascination with all things Latin-American. Whether it’s a privileged tourist searching for something worth living for (‘Chino’), a dangerous teen sent to Peru to avoid trouble with the law (‘Treason Diary’), or a bizarre, tango-influenced novella in an unnamed, imaginary city (‘A Milonga for the Melted Moon’), the writer returns to stories of tropical lands, with guerillas, dancing, poverty and football of the round-ball variety. While it would be easy to ascribe Murakami influences to Hoshino’s stories, in this case García Marquez is probably a more likely source.
Many of the stories look at outsiders fleeing from rigid, dull Japanese society, and a couple look at the idea of ‘Japaneseness’. The young man in ‘Chino’ knows that his attempts to transform into a Latino freedom fighter are doomed from the start:
“No matter how dirty I might look, I knew my travels were buoyed on that lighter-than-air aluminum one-yen coin. A mode of travel little better than drifting and staring: never to touch down, never to make contact with other worlds, never to dive right in. I knew my body stank of yen, and would show me up as an outsider wherever I went.”
On the whole though, Hoshino is more interested in minorities than bored rich kids. ‘Air’ takes a magical look at gender identity, describing a man and a woman who both fall somewhere in the middle of traditional binary gender descriptions. Forced to keep their ‘irregularities’ secret, they eventually find each other (at a GLBT Mardi-Gras-type event), culminating in a gender-bending climax which leaves both in a new state.
Interestingly, several of the stories are based (rather loosely) on real-life incidents, with Hoshino providing an alternative take on facts. The novella ‘Sand Planet’, the longest piece in the collection, uses the story of Japanese settlers in the Dominican Republic, and a mass curry poisoning at an elementary school (a news event I remember very well from my time in Japan!), to create a fabulous story of a journalist attempting to make sense of his life. The events of ‘Treason Diary’ are also based in fact, as the two main characters were suggested by two teen criminals whose families spirited them out of the country…
As fascinating as the true(ish) stories are though, it is Hoshino’s imagination and style which catch your attention. From the frankly bizarre ‘The No Fathers Club’, a piece in which the eponymous club is suggested by a strange sport called no-ball soccer, to the mind- (and gender-) bending events of ‘A Milonga for the Melted Moon’, the writer creates incredible, uncanny landscapes. The latter story is the strangest (and best) in the collection, and it is a difficult tale to follow at times, mainly because of the constant switch in perspective between the two main characters, a man and a woman who switch clothes, viewpoints and bodily fluids (and if you think you know what that means, you don’t…).
It really is a question of where one person ends and the other begins, and the language used reflects this. At times, words and sentences melt into one another, and the image created is of a slightly off-kilter world, recognisable but foreign:
“You and I both, as we walk this earth, are nothing more than shadow sculptures carved from light. Everyone here is just light thrown by the city in the sky as it shines in the night. This city is so filled with light the night shines like the midday sun, the silver from the sky as it falls on the surface of the river builds up and combines with the new light falling from the sky, the proof is in the way the light comes not just from the sky but from the ground beneath our feet: no shadows trouble the surfaces of this city. Instead they hang suspended, unmoored from the ground, and eventually turn back into birds, back into people.”
‘A Milonga for the Melted Moon’ (p.186)
The final story of the collection is fifty pages of elegant confusion and madness, and it’s brilliant 🙂
While two translators are listed, Brian Bergstrom does most of the heavy lifting (Lucy Fraser’s ‘Chino’ is the exception), and he also provides a wonderful thirty-page essay on the stories to complete the book. This afterword discusses Hoshino’s influences and fascination with Latin America, and also examines each of the stories in turn, teasing out common themes. It’s an addition which helps the reader to understand where Hoshino is coming from, and another example of the kind of extras which can make a great book even better (if only all publishers of translated fiction did this…).
I loved this collection, and I’m very glad I decided to check it out. Having also received a copy of Hoshino’s novel, Lonely Hearts Killer, from the publisher, he might well turn out to be my next new favourite J-Lit writer. If you’re in the market for well-written, fantastical literary fiction, this one is for you 🙂