While the Man Booker International Prize isn’t quite over yet, having reviewed all of this year’s shortlisted titles, I’m ready to move on – and what better way to do so than with some new J-Lit? Today’s post will feature a brief review of a short book, as well as introducing a brand-new publisher hoping to occupy a particular niche in the fiction-in-translation market. Intrigued? Then read on 🙂
Kazufumi Shiraishi’s Stand-In Companion (translated by Raj Mahtani, review copy courtesy of Red Circle) is a story featuring a Japanese couple, Hayato and Yutori, who are still childless after several years of marriage. On the way back from a mini-break at a traditional inn, they stop off at a pharmacy so that Yutori can buy a pregnancy test, but any suspicion that this might be the big day is quickly stifled. You see, all is not as it seems. Hayato and Yutori have had issues, and have gone to surprising lengths to get over them:
This led to the committee agreeing to employ exceptional measures; renting, free of charge for a ten-year period, an android unit, a Stand-in Companion; while also ordering Yutori, the spouse responsible for the breakup, to have her memories duplicated, using Memory Copying into the Stand-in Companion.
p.9 (Red Circle, 2018)
Hayato knows full well that ‘Yutori’ can’t get pregnant, but he goes along with the theatre, acting as if his ex-wife is still there.
Except that it’s not quite as simple as that. The second part of the story shifts the narrative to the wife’s perspective, and we get a familiar, yet subtly different take on events. Now we are told that Hayato was the one who broke up the relationship, and that Yutori is merely pretending to check for possible pregnancies. After all, there’s no way her Stand-in Companion can father a child…
Stand-in Companion is a clever tale, set in a future where a population explosion means any kind of artificial insemination is banned and couples conceiving out of wedlock need to marry each other immediately (and divorce any current partners) if the child is not to be aborted. Of course, the initial focus is on the ‘Stand-in Companions’, the perfect replicas loaned to the broken-hearted to allow them time to get over a difficult break-up. Part of the story focuses on the rights of these androids, who are indistinguishable from ‘real’ people, not even knowing that they’re not human:
In the Artificial Intelligence (AI) circuitry of the Stand-in Android, the functionality for becoming aware, either through self-discovery or by learning from others, that he or she was an android was disabled. For instance, even if Yutori was to say to Hayato now, “You are, in fact, a Stand-in Companion,” he would be incapable of understanding Yutori’s words. For this reason, there was no way she could convey to him that there remained, in his life span, only a little more than eight years. (p.31)
Of course, with both partners thinking the other is an android (and possibly both being correct), there’s endless fun in working out the implications of this, including the possibility that there’s been a chain of Stand-in Companions leaving each other and getting a new partner – Stand-in Companions can get Stand-in Companions, too…
Surprisingly, though, that’s not really how the story develops. In fact, at its core, Stand-in Companion is a very human tale, one exploring the emotions that arise when people are hurt in relationships. Both Hayato and Yutori believe themselves to be the innocent party, wronged and deserted by their partner, and their decision to carry on their lives with an android substitute is based more on a desire for revenge than any inability to move on alone. Each plays subtle mind games, attempting to play on the other’s guilt. Having been hurt, they want to turn the tables and inflict mental suffering on the entity that has taken their partner’s place.
Perhaps, though, that’s the whole point of the companions. Shiraishi suggests that this might actually be healthy, a necessary step in getting over any grief felt after a break-up. Ten years seems a tad excessive, but there are hints here that time heals all wounds, eventually. Instead of an endless cycle of betrayal and revenge, the companions might actually help people accept the past and move on – and that can only be a good thing…
Stand-in Companion is one of three books making up Red Circle’s initial offering, and the idea is an interesting one. These ‘Minis’ are precisely that, one-shot stories, beautiful books designed to slip into a decent coat pocket. They’re similar in size and design to the Penguin Modern mini-series, but the Japanese focus is also reminiscent of the recent Keshiki series of chapbooks from Strangers Press. They are, undoubtedly, short, but if you’re a fan of Japanese writing, I’m sure you’ll be tempted anyway. There’s also more information about the writers at the Red Circle website, which is well worth checking out.
There is one other selling point for the books, though. Part of the back-cover blurb reads:
Each book is a first edition written specifically for the series and is being published in English first.
Which means that if you like the sound of this story, you won’t be finding it anywhere else. Still not convinced? Well, I’ll be taking a look at the others very soon, so stay tuned – perhaps one of those will be more to your taste 🙂