As is the case every year, 2014 brought lots of great books, and I enjoyed exploring the world vicariously through the eyes of some wonderful writers. However, of all the books I read last year, the one which took out the top prize in my end-of-year awards was Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, an inventive retelling of Wuthering Heights set in twentieth-century Japan. Sadly, that’s her only work of fiction available in English so far, but when I heard that a work of non-fiction was available, I was keen to have a look – let’s see how Mizumura’s style bears up in the essay format 🙂
The Fall of Language in the Age of English (translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press and the Australian distributor, Footprint Books) sees the writer reflect on a topic which is obviously close to her heart, the state of the Japanese language. Proud of its heritage and the works which have been written in her mother tongue, she nonetheless fears for its future, believing it to be under siege from both internal and external threats.
While she eventually gets around to covering topics such as post-war language reforms and left-wing bias in universities, the chosen culprit is clear from the title of the book. Mizumura claims that we’re living in an age of English, an era which could spell doom for many smaller languages and which will seriously affect even the other major languages. This book, then, is a plea for people worried about the dilution of their langauge, and consequently their culture, to do something about it before it’s too late…
It all sounds good in theory – but… The truth is that I didn’t find this to be an overly impressive book. That certainly doesn’t lie with the translation, I hasten to add; the work of Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter reads excellently in smooth, error-free English. It’s very much in the content that The Fall of Language in the Age of English, well, falls down…
One explanation for this is to be found in the book’s original target audience. The work was written for a general Japanese public, and while it’s been edited to make it less Japan-focused, it’s still patently clear in many places that the book is pandering to the Japanese sense of identity. The pervading sense of Japanese essentialism can be highly frustrating, at times insulting:
“Nonetheless, the difference between ‘Brot’ and ‘pain’, however critical, cannot compare with the difference between, say, English ‘rice’ and Japanese ‘ine’ – the latter having been lyricized and mythicized for well over a millennium in Japanese culture.”
p.94 (Columbia University Press, 2015)
It’s true in a way, but you could say the same thing about other Asian languages too – and if we looked at the difference between the connotations of the word ‘beer’… Another example which caught my eye was the writer’s claim that even university lecturers abroad struggled to read and enjoy Japanese literature, which threw up images for me of scholars like Jay Rubin throwing down Botchan in defeat while countless part-time workers in Japanese convenience stores raced through the novel as if it were manga…
The other main issue with the book is probably more personal, and that’s the fact that much of the information, particularly when the writer comes to her main thesis of English as an unparalleled universal language, is fairly basic. While the passages on the spread of English and the statistics on its use as a first- and second language may fascinate the original intended readership, having studied linguistics at Master’s level (with a focus on sociolinguistics and intercultural communication), I can’t say I was that interested in what she had to say. You might say that this is just my issue; however, this does have a wider relevance. Though not everyone has that kind of knowledge, I would imagine that the vast majority of English speakers likely to pick this book up *will* be quite knowledgeable in this area…
That’s not so say that there’s nothing to like here. There’s a lot of interesting information in the area of Japanese literary history, particularly when Mizumura discusses books from the first part of the twentieth century. In an excellent look at Natsume Soseki’s Sanshiro, the writer examines the futility of research in Japanese at the time and the way this affected the country’s intellectuals in their choice of study areas. This section also discusses the way the Japanese language itself developed at the dawning of the modern era:
“Japan’s historical ‘twist’ forced – condemned – Japanese writers to struggle with their language in ways they had never imagined. Using the tragedy of the twist as a launching pad to come up with a new language that could capture the new Japan, they traced their language back over a thousand years, examining each and every word as in a treasure hunt and exploring all the possibilities that the language possessed.” (p.152)
This is an area I find fascinating, particularly the development of the new written language enabling literature to spread (a topic I first encountered when reading Shimei Futabatei’s Ukigumo, AKA The Drifting Cloud), and when Mizumura focuses on the historical aspect of her topic, the book is at its strongest.
Mizumura also introduces interesting ideas on the way writers from other cultures are affected by English. The book begins with an account of her visit to the International Writing Program in Iowa, presenting portraits of the other foreign writers present (including Kim Young-ha!), all of whom, she claims, are finding their work and world view shaped by English in some manner. She also comes to realise that many of her fellow writers have to struggle with culture, history, politics and language (concepts which, for many people, are indistinguishable), becoming aware of how relatively fortunate Japanese is.
One of my favourite parts, focusing on ‘The Birth of Japanese as a National Language’, will be of great interest to Japanophiles. In this chapter, the writer looks at why, in her opinion, the Japanese language arrived at its current state, positing three main ideas for its healthy position: Japan’s proximity to and distance from China; its relatively advanced system of trade and capitalism at the start of the twentieth century; and its fortune in escaping colonisation by western powers. With Mizumura looking at how each of these factors contributed to the strength of the Japanese language, I found this section to be one of the most succesful parts of the book. Still, I’m sure those with a deeper understanding of the history (and anyone from Korea and China) might see things a little differently…
All in all, there’s a lot to like about the book, but there’s just too much which is frustratingly, at times maddeningly, obvious too. Not everyone will see things as I have, but I suspect that most readers, while enjoying the book in parts, will find something infuriating somewhere in the text. A quotation which perhaps sums up the uneven nature of the book comes when Mizumura explores the internet age in her penultimate chapter. The section begins thus:
“The phrase ‘the end of literature’ is now a cliché. And it has been a cliché, not only in Japan but all over the world, for half a century, if not longer. Yet in recent years, voices bewailing the end of literature are gaining new urgency. Fewer and fewer people read literature deserving of the name; even the classics, novels once considered must-reads, are increasingly shunned.” (p.157)
Insightful, profound or copied from a Buzzfeed post? The choice is yours….
Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website 🙂