You may remember a post from last month where I introduced Keshiki – new voices from Japan, a series of eight chapbooks released by Strangers Press, a project associated with the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia (supported by the Nippon Foundation through Writers Centre Norwich). Today I’m looking at another two of the stories, one slightly more connected to real life than the other, but both have their own take on the stresses of modern society and the effect they have on our lives.
Kyoko Yoshida’s Spring Sleepers is a slightly bizarre tale, in which a young man called Yuki has been unable to sleep for more than two months. While he’s never felt better, the doctor’s diagnosis of ‘genuine insomnia’ comes with a warning as the contagious condition has the unwanted side-effect of gradually erasing the sufferer’s memory. Taking the doctor’s advice, Yuki sets off for a distant sanitarium where he hopes to get some sleep, but as events take a turn for the unusual, he begins to wonder whether he really is fully awake.
Spring Sleepers is fairly strange, even if the language and handling are relatively normal. It consists of a series of scenes from Yuki’s travels, with the connection between them gradually becoming ever more stretched. Each short section seems to bring another slightly off-kilter encounter, from the kooky flight attendant on the first leg of his journey to the spy who’s convinced that Yuki (codename: Snow…) is his secret contact. By the end of the story, reality itself seems to be unravelling, as buildings and people start to appear in two dimensions rather than three, reflecting the alterations in Yuki’s sleep-deprived mind.
The first few pages present the idea of sleep deprivation as a badge of honour, something for the successful to boast about, but Yuki eventually realises that there’s a price to pay for his insomnia:
During the days, he was nervous. Just the thought of another sleepless night burned him with anxiety. The anxiety of monotony. At night, he was bored. Night was forever. It was solid, unbreakable. Counting the nights he walked through and imagining more sleepless nights, he found the prospect of thousands of boring nights pathetically boring.
p.32 (Strangers Press, 2017)
There’s more than a sense here of a veiled criticism of modern life and the demands it makes on us. Quite apart from the insane work hours certain countries require of its people, developments in technology mean that there’s no need to sleep (indeed, you may well miss out on something if you do hit the sack) – apart from, of course, the biological imperative. However, Yoshida suggests that’s there’s something more intangible that we lose if we don’t slow down once in a while.
You may have noticed that I didn’t add a translator’s name above, and that wasn’t an oversight. While living in Japan, Yoshida has chosen to write in English, and she discusses this decision in a brief afterword focusing on two visits to Norwich. This is an interesting piece in which she considers her position as a ‘travelling theologian’, swapping ideas with other itinerant writers outside the major cultural capitals, with her time in East Anglia just one stop on this continuous journey. An idea discussed here is ‘worlds of literature’, with writers receiving inspiration and influences from the people they encounter (through the written word or in real life), and there are certainly some familiar aspects to this story. The piece ends with mentions of other writers she encounters in Norwich, such as Han Kang and Deborah Smith, as well as poet George Szirtes (perhaps better known to my readers as one of László Krasznahorkai’s translators). It may not be a cultural capital, but Norwich doesn’t seem to do a bad job of attracting its fair share of travelling theologians 😉
After Yoshida’s strange tale, Natsuki Ikezawa’s mariko / mariquita (translated by Alfred Birnbaum) comes across as a fairly run-of-the-mill story. Here we meet ethnological researcher Kyojiro Kizaki on a short interlude on Guam, with his three-month field trip to a more isolated island just around the corner. The twist in the tale comes when he encounters Mariko, a Japanese woman who came to Guam for a holiday and never left, and it’s no surprise that on Kizaki’s return the couple get together.
The title comes from the split personality the woman seems to possess, allowing her to switch effortlessly between the Japanese Mariko and her assumed identity Mariquita (a diminutive form of Maria, the name the locals call her by). The week the two spend together is a time of freedom, a space between different cultures, but as anyone with a passing knowledge of Japanese society can guess, Kizaki (or George, as his name has gradually morphed into) is under pressure to go back to his everyday life. Despite his best intentions, it’s doubtful that he’ll be able to keep his promise to return regularly…
mariko / mariquita is a nice easy read, much smoother and clearer than Spring Sleepers, and Alfred Birnbaum’s casual American take on the tale works well (Birnbaum was actually Haruki Murakami’s first translator, bringing his two early novellas into English for the Japanese market only, and there’s a distinct similarity in style here). What the story has in common with Yoshida’s piece, though, is its unspoken criticism of the workaholic Japanese lifestyle, with the reader urging Kizaki to throw caution to the wind, all the time knowing that it’s highly unlikely he’ll take the plunge.
There’s also some criticism of his country’s ethnocentrism, with the writer allowing Kizaki to show his countrymen how they can be seen overseas:
They walked around as if in hermetically sealed made-in-Japan capsules, safe in the camaraderie of their own temperate kind, clasping sweaty hands in the elevator, trying to hide their uncertainty about this strange land. They failed miserably. A congress of clumsy, insecure men and travel-constipated women.
pp.16-17 (Strangers Press, 2017)
However, Kizaki himself has little to be smug about. Despite his profession and the trips he takes, these periods outside Japan are spent with an invisible cord around his waist, ready to pull him back to his homeland once his time is up. As much as he’d like to think he and Mariko are two of a kind, the truth is that he’s unable to cut the cord as she has done, meaning that he’s destined to keep bouncing between cultures forever…
Two very different stories then, but also with several similarities, and if I look back to the other two Keshiki books I’ve read, the theme of modern life (especially in Japan) grinding you down seems to be a common one. I wonder if the next couple I try will continue the theme – only one way to find out…