You may be aware that I’ve made a few efforts myself in the area of translation, so when I was approached a while back by a reader of my posts, with an offer of some translations of unpublished J-Lit, I was intrigued. Sadly, I never got around to trying the book, but when I heard about another project, involving a writer I was more familiar with, I was keen to give it a go. To close off my January In Japan reading, then, I’m taking a look at some stories from long ago – let’s see how successful this final JiJ experiment proves to be 🙂
While Fumiko Hayashi is a fairly well-known writer, very little of her work is widely available in English, with her novel Floating Clouds the only book that regularly comes up in searches. That’s why J.D. Wisgo decided to take on the task of translating some of her stories, thus far self-publishing two short digital-only collections of stories previously unavailable in English: Downfall and other Stories, and Days & Nights. Together, the two collections contain eight stories, giving the reader a taste of Hayashi’s style and interests.
The first book consists of five stories, most focusing on people trying to scramble a living, particularly in the immediate post-war era. ‘Beyond Happiness’ follows a woman entering into an arranged marriage, learning she has to cope with her husband’s past in order to have a happy future, while in ‘Consolation’, a less cheery tale, an old man wanders the bombed streets of Tokyo in search of his granddaughter, alone with his memories. ‘Employment’ is set slightly earlier, and has a group of young graduates about to set off into the world of work celebrating – in the presence of an ailing young woman who will be left behind.
Although the title story continues this theme, it’s a little different in tone. Here, a young woman from the country heads off to Tokyo to ease the financial strain on her family, and Hayashi allows her creation to chronicle an inevitable moral descent in the big city:
We returned to Tokyo after staying in Ohito for a single night. A few days later, Seki committed suicide. By that time I guess he was already knocking on death’s door. I was depressed for a few days, but I gradually forgot about Seki. I changed jobs to another dance hall, using the alias ‘Momo’. Every day I was preoccupied, busy with only dancing and enjoying myself, and there was no time to even think about my hometown or my future. I used up all of my money and was poor as usual, but whenever I wanted to eat something a stranger would treat me to a meal.
‘Downfall’ stands out for its style, a story told in clipped sentences, laconic and matter of fact despite the ups and downs. In truth, it’s a harsh life told with the minimum of fuss or emotion, which makes it all the more chilling.
The opening story, ‘The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House’, is also marked by a unique style, but in a very different way. A young student enters new lodgings, and in a slightly farcical, whimsical piece, gets scammed by a beautiful woman and somehow finds himself involved with a dumpy maid who shows her affection with eggs. It’s all great fun, and there’s even a hint of literary homage here. You see, when Tanimura leaves his lodgings for school, he finds his name tag waiting for him at the entrance – Tanimura Sanshirō…
Days & Nights, by contrast, consists of just three stories, and one of these, ‘The Crane’s Flute’, is a rather, short, allegorical fairy tale. An injured crane and his wife are left to fend for themselves in a village with little food. Luckily, the discovery of a flute, and the music it provides, enables the couple to be content with their lot, and when some of the other cranes return, life turns out to be better than it was before.
Obviously, ‘The Crane’s Flute’ can be read as a story of finding comfort in poor post-war Japan, and the other two stories in the collection continue with this theme. ‘The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern’ sees a man returning from Manchuria with his grown-up daughter and starting up a shabby bar in the ruins of Tokyo. In a story of moving on, full of pathos, the two look to form a new life, trying to get over the pain of losing a wife and mother by finding new loves, with only partial success.
‘Days and Nights’, the longest story here, is another bleak piece. We begin with a couple breaking up after four years together as they’re too poor to go on. The man has lingering regrets, but the woman is slightly less nostalgic about their shared past:
It wasn’t like either of them had any particularly great memories, and as she stared into the dresser’s mirror, Nakako felt chills, as if soaked by the spray from several years of braving rocky seas with him. But at this point she wasn’t motivated to continue this kind of life with him, and while it might seem cold-hearted, she had long ago grown tired of Kakichi’s personality.
After one last outing together, they decide to go their separate ways, confident of being able to do better alone than together. However, they’re soon to discover that on the cold streets of post-war Tokyo, a little company, and warmth, goes a long way…
The two collections bring together a nice set of stories, then, mostly with a common theme, and luckily there are no real issues with the writing, either. I’ve seen a few shocking self-published translations online (including one claiming to bring the same writer’s work into English), but these were an enjoyable read. Of course, there were a couple of stray typos, and I suspect there are places where an editor may have intervened to make the text less literal and more natural, but I was never really distracted from the stories, and that’s the most important thing.
Overall, these Hayashi collections are well worth a try, especially considering the dearth of her work readily available in English (I’d previously only read a few stories, scattered throughout my anthologies), and given that they’re accessible online for a paltry sum, I’d definitely recommend them. All in all, then, it’s been a nice end to a very busy, and successful, January in Japan. Unfortunately, I need to move on to pastures new for a while, but you can rest assured that it won’t take me another eleven months to read more J-Lit 😉