When Pushkin Press decided to venture into Japanese literature, their first author of choice, Ryu Murakami, was already fairly well known in the Anglosphere. However, their second major Japanese writer, Yasushi Inoue, though previously translated, did not have the same kind of reputation in the West, and for most people the Pushkin books represent their first encounter with a major Japanese author. Bullfight and The Hunting Gun have already been rather successful – I wonder how the latest in the series will fare…
Life of a Counterfeiter (translated by Michael Emmerich, review copy courtesy of the publisher) contains the titular novella along with two short stories, ‘Reeds’ and ‘Mr. Goodall’s Gloves’. The three pieces fit well together, with each relating stories about the life of an acquaintance, all told in Inoue’s (and Emmerich’s) usual, casual style, and taken as a whole, they provide an interesting perspective on how our view of those we know can be altered by a little digging into the past.
The main show here is, of course, ‘Life of a Counterfeiter’, and for anyone who has read The Hunting Gun, the first page immediately pulls the reader back into the writer’s comfortable, semi-formal world. When invited to attend a memorial service for a famous artist, one whose biography he has put off writing for far too long, the narrator of the piece is unwilling to make the trip:
“I must admit I was somewhat diffident about presenting myself to the family. For better or worse, work would make it impossible for me to participate in the ceremony anyway, but in all honesty it came as a relief that this was the case – I felt as if I had been saved.”
‘Life of a Counterfeiter’, p.11 (Pushkin Press, 2015)
What follows this Inouean example of tentative statements and long clauses is an explanation as to why the writer has put off his work, and a gradual shift of emphasis from the artist to one of his former friends, a man whose life turns out to be much more intriguing than the writer could have imagined.
In the course of a trip to examine Ōnuki Keigaku’s work, the writer discovers that many of the paintings attributed to him, in one particular Japanese coastal area at least, are actually skilful fakes. A former friend of the painter, a man going under the name of Shinozaki, sold the paintings to unwitting art lovers, an action which leads to a confrontation and the end of the friendship. However, the narrator believes there’s more to the story than he’s been told, and his enquiries lead him to an isolated village – and a rather sad story…
‘Life of a Counterfeiter’ is a beautiful tale, like the others in this collection a story within a story, in which Inoue gradually sketches out the descent of a talented man into obscurity and death. As the novella develops, the shadowy image of the counterfeiter appears in greater detail, each piece of information allowing the writer (and the reader) to see Shinozaki – or Hara Hōsen, to give him his real name – in a different light. Overshadowed by the more talented, and more successful, Ōnuki, Hōsen is unable to resist the temptation to imitate his friend in order to make some money, a decision which is to prove his downfall.
What follows is a wonderful depiction of his decline, with Inoue drawing a sympathetic picture of a man whose talents could have brought him a comfortable, if unspectacular, existence. The tragedy of the story is that the paintings he copies, while inferior to Ōnuki’s in many ways, do have their own qualities, a fact which is not lost on the narrator. It poses the question of what we mean by a fake – when a copy is a decent work of art in its own right, does it deserve a life of its own?
The companion pieces in this collection are much shorter stories, but both continue the themes of lives lived in obscurity being remembered, secrets of the past finally coming to light. In ‘Reeds’, a newspaper article about a father looking for his lost son nudges the writer into reflecting on events from his past. One thing leads to another, and he soon comes across a childhood memory which doesn’t make sense – until he pursues it to find out who the young woman in his memory is.
‘Mr. Goodall’s Gloves’, another meandering journey into the past, has a further Proustian moment, as a chance encounter with a piece of calligraphy has the narrator thinking back to his grandfather’s mistress, a woman he lived with in his childhood. A woman who had to fight hard for her position in society, the mistress treasured a pair of gloves she received from an English gentleman at a function in Tokyo. However, it’s only now, decades later, that the narrator is able to uncover the true significance of the gloves, realising that they are a symbol of the woman’s struggle for acceptance.
All three stories are excellent, and Emmerich’s translation is, again, wonderfully done, creating a voice which, while perhaps straying from the sentence structure of the original, brings across the intention of Inoue’s narrators. The end effect is a slightly nostalgic air, with the narrators (figures who are inevitably closely connected to Inoue himself) displaying a new-found sympathy for the people whose true nature is revealed by the careful excavation of historical facts over the course of the stories. All three of the main characters are shown to be slightly flawed, but none are quite as they were seen by their contemporaries. As Hōsen’s widow explains:
“It’s not that he was a bad man, he was just born to live an unhappy life.” (p.65)
It’s a description which could just as easily be applied to the later stories’ female protagonists too…
The third of Pushkin’s Inoue books is another success, then, and with the completion of this ‘traffic-light’ trilogy (with their distinct red, green and amber covers), here’s hoping that the publishers, and the translator, are planning to mine deeper into the writer’s collected works. Having brought Stefan Zweig back into the consciousness of the wider Anglophone community, there’s every chance that Pushkin is planning to do the same for Inoue. Here’s one reader, at least, with his fingers firmly crossed 🙂