Last Winter, We Parted

Last Winter We Parted

Title: Last Winter, We Parted
Japanese Title: 去年の冬、きみと別れ (Kyonen no fuyu, kimi to wakare)
Author: Nakamura Fuminori (中村 文則)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2013 (Japan)
Publisher: Soho Press
Pages: 216

A 35-year-old photographer named Kiharazaka Yūdai is charged with the murder of two young women who acted as his models. Although his work was highly regarded, he had lived mainly off the inheritance from his maternal grandfather, who had distanced himself from his daughter to such an extent that Yūdai and his sister Akari ended up growing up in an orphanage after being abandoned by their parents. He is currently being held in prison in solitary confinement, where he’s waiting to appeal his death sentence.

The narrator, an unnamed writer who is working with his editor to put out a book about Kiharazaka, visits him in prison and then begins exchanging letters. He also meets with Akari and a salaryman named Katani, who had been Kiharazaka’s only friend. Both of them believe he’s innocent, and both want to know why the narrator cares so much about him.

It turns out that both Kiharazaka and the narrator were involved with a group that had formed around a man named Suzuki, a creator of full-size silicon sex dolls. When the narrator approaches Suzuki about Kiharazaka, the craftsman talks at length about his clients and the uncanniness of his art. He also discusses the similarities between his work and Kiharazaka’s photography, bringing up Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s short story Hell Screen as a means of explaining the relationship between beauty and suffering. Suzuki doesn’t doubt that Kiharazaka murdered his photographic subjects by setting them and his studios on fire, but he suspects that there was something that drove the man’s madness other than the desire to lift himself out of an artistic slump.

There is in fact more going on, but it’s the reader who has to play detective. Interspersed between the short passages charting the narrator’s descent into an unhealthy relationship with the Kiharazaka siblings are various documents presented as numbered “archives.” Some are letters from Kiharazaka to his sister and to the narrator, while others are diary entries and Twitter feeds, and some are more difficult to classify. The relationships between the characters are not what they initially seem, with names being nothing more than empty signifiers of fractured identities, and the reader is forced to fit all of the clues together herself if she wants to understand what really happened between this small group of irreparably damaged people.

Last Winter, We Parted is misogynistic in that female characters seem to only be there to be photographed and/or fucked before being burned alive, but that comes with the territory. Let’s be real here, this is a crime novel written by a man who won the Ōe Prize, what were you expecting.

Standard literary sexism aside, Last Winter, We Parted is a small book of eerie beauty. Despite its gory subject matter, the prose is as light as falling ash. Allison Markin Powell’s translation is, as always, wonderful. This is the first book by Nakamura Fuminori I’ve read, but I’m definitely hooked on his writing.

The Briefcase

Title: The Briefcase
Japanese Title: センセイの鞄 (Sensei no kaban)
Author: Kawami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 176

Kawakami Hiromi’s novel Manazuru, translated by Michael Emmerich and published in 2010 by Counterpoint, is a strange, dreamlike story told from the perspective of an otherworldly and unreliable narrator. Manazuru is about pain and bitterness, and broken hearts and broken families.

Kawakami’s newest novel in translation, The Briefcase, is a far cry from the atmospheric surrealism of Manazuru. Its narrator, Ōmachi Tsukiko, is a single woman in her late thirties who is firmly grounded in reality. The Briefcase is about her daily life and centers around her encounters with her former Classics teacher, Matsumoto Harutsuna, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Two decades after graduating from high school, Tsukiko meets Sensei by chance at a neighborhood bar, and the two strike up an easy friendship. Each of the ten-page chapters in The Briefcase details an episode in this friendship, such as a trip to an outdoor market or a mushroom hunting excursion with the owner of the bar Tsukiko and Sensei frequent. Seasons change, but not much else does. Nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected happens throughout the large majority of The Briefcase, and the novel’s close attention to detail provides much of its charm.

Although it doesn’t become apparent until a little more than halfway through the novel, Tsukiko gradually develops romantic feelings for Sensei. I would love to say something along the lines of “despite the significant age difference, the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei blossoms beautifully;” but, in reality, it’s quite awkward. Not only is the situation itself awkward, but both Tsukiko and Sensei are awkward people. They’re not charmingly awkward, or amusingly awkward, or so awkward that want to hug them – they’re just awkward. Still, the gentle progression of their relationship is entertaining in its earnestness, and Kawakami describes it from Tsukiko’s perspective with commensurate delicacy:

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a holf on this sense – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.

The quiet normalcy of The Briefcase is satisfying in and of itself, yet there are some disturbing undercurrents running through the novel. Why is Tsukiko alone? Why is Sensei alone? What happened to him? Why does he always carry around his briefcase? These uncertainties serve to make the story more intriguing, however, and don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis until the very end of the novel, when Tsukiko undergoes a startlingly surreal experience. During two of the final chapters of the novel, Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei, as well as her fear of his rejection, are explored in a strange sequence titled “The Tidal Flat – Dream,” which may or may not have actually happen. This chapter is a unexpected break from the regular mundane atmosphere of The Briefcase, but it pulls the novel together thematically in a creative and unexpected way.

Allison Markin Powell, who also translated Dazai Osamu’s Schoolgirl, deftly conveys the lightness and humor occasional strangeness of Kawakami’s prose. Although Powell’s English is flawless (with the possible exception of a few out-of-place Britishisms), her style of translation leaves the reader with no doubt as to the Japanese setting of the novel. Passages like…

“Yes, today is a tomobiki day. But tomorrow is a red-letter day, a konoe-tora!”

…and…

Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered. Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen.

…are not uncommon. It’s an interesting style of translation that emphasizes the novel’s focus on peaceful daily life in a richly detailed environment, and it’s fun to read. The culturally specific words scattered throughout the text can be largely ignored if you’re not feeling up for a hyperlinked adventure on Google, though, so they shouldn’t be distracting for the reader.

The Briefcase is a gentle and quiet novel that’s enjoyable both for its story and for its atmosphere, and it’s much more accessible than Manazuru (which is not to say that Manazuru is bad, just very weird). It’s literature that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

Schoolgirl

Title: Schoolgirl
Japanese Title: 女生徒 (Joseito)
Author: Dazai Osamu (太宰 治)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2011 (America); 1939 (Japan)
Publisher: One Peace Books
Pages: 94

At the beginning of an essay on Yoshimoto Banana, Ann Sherif quotes the Japanese psychiatrist Machizawa Shizuo as saying that he despairs of the darkness in Japanese literature, as people come into his office clutching books by Dazai Osamu and saying, “This is exactly how I feel. I’m sorry that I was born.”

Dazai’s work is pretty dark. However, for all the young men who have lived “lives full of shame” (a sentiment expressed in the opening line of No Longer Human, generally considered to be Dazai’s defining work) there are apparently hordes of schoolgirls who visit the author’s grave on the anniversary of his death to offer flowers and prayers. I never really understood why this would be so (most of Dazai’s narrators are abusive pigs); but, having read Schoolgirl, I think I’m starting to get it.

Schoolgirl is an uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness monologue by a bourgeois high school student who has lost her father and lives alone with her mother. The girl rambles from topic to topic, stating strong feelings in one paragraph (I hate my mom!) and then contradicting them in the next (I actually love my mom!). She talks about her best friend (whom she hates – or not), the other women she sees on the bus (whom she hates – or not), the people who come over for dinner (whom she hates – or not), and the prospect of getting married (which she hates – or not). She also meanders through mundane topics such as her dogs, movies she likes, her teacher, and the garden around her house. More than anything else, though, she subject she repeatedly returns to is that of her feelings regarding herself. The narrator of Schoolgirl describes herself with the self-loathing characteristic of all Dazai narrators:

In my heart, I worry about Mother and want to be a good daughter, but my words and actions are nothing more than that of a spoiled child. And lately, there hadn’t been a single redeeming quality about this childlike me. Only impurity and shamefulness. I go about saying how pained and tormented, how lonely and sad I feel, but what do I really mean by that? If I were to speak the truth, I would die.

Her descriptions of herself tend to be a bit dramatic, but I guess she is a teenage girl. In fact, Dazai uses the narrator’s identity as a teenage girl in order to make general third-person and first-person-plural statements about young people. Sometimes these statements are a bit strange for the narrator herself to make (such as when she says, “What a girl likes and what she hates seems rather arbitrary to me”). Generally, though, Dazai uses the relatively marginal social position of the teenage girl to make rebellious manifestos of the My Generation variety. Where the narrator’s “girliness” really takes off, however, is in her flights of fancy. For example:

Mother used this parasol long ago, when she first got married. I felt quite proud for finding this interesting umbrella. When I carried this one, it made me feel like strolling through the streets of Paris. I thought that a dreamy antique parasol like this would go into style when this war ends. It would look great with a bonnet-style hat. Wearing a long pink-hemmed kimono with a wide open collar, with black lace gloves and a beautiful violet tucked into that large, wide-brimmed hat. And when everything was lush and green I’d go to lunch in a Parisian restaurant. Resting my cheek lightly in my hand, I’d wistfully gaze at the passerby outside and then, someone would gently tap me on the shoulder. Suddenly there would be music, the rose waltz. Oh, how amusing. In reality, it was just an odd, tattered umbrella with a spindly handle.

Another flight of fancy I enjoyed was the narrator’s description of her “Rococo cooking,” which is enjoyable and meaningful for her but apparently not fully appreciated by all of the ugly, stupid, and boring adults in her life. As insecure as the narrator is in her identity and her relationship to other people, however, she can always find refuge in her fantasies of luxury and glamour of an ahistorical European origin. “I’m Cinderella without her prince,” the narrator says at the end of the novella. “Do you know where to find me in Tokyo?”

Despite her petulant grumpiness, the narrator of Schoolgirl reminds me less of the tortured youths of novels like No Longer Human and The Setting Sun and more of the narrative voice of the Gothic Lolita poster child Ryūgasaki Momoko from Takemoto Nobara’s 2002 novel Kamikaze Girls. In fact, reading Schoolgirl felt a bit like reading one of the longer essays (perhaps by someone like Miyavi) from the Gothic & Lolita Bible. In Schoolgirl, as in Lolita fashion cultures, a certain world weariness and disgust towards adult society is mixed with a self-consciously artificial desire to maintain one’s innocence and emotional purity through a beautiful and delicate fantasy enacted through clothing, cooking, visual imagery, and music.

Of course, the Gothic Lolita mindset inspired in part by the narrative style of Schoolgirl is only one facet of the novella, which glitters like a diamond from any way you choose look at it. Schoolgirl might be used to demonstrate how premodern poetic nature imagery made its way its modern literature, or how the early Shōwa period was not all about fascism and conquest, or how “modern girls” viewed the West as a site of cultural maturity and longing, or how the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship shape the development of teenage girls – or even how male authors use transgender narration to escape the confines of literary conventions. Despite its relative brevity, Schoolgirl is fascinating and can be approached from a variety of angles by a wide range of readers. I can’t think of a single person to whom I wouldn’t recommend this novella.

Schoolgirl is published by One Peace Books, a small indie press that readers of contemporary Japanese literature in translation should keep an eye on. One Peace has published translations of two amazing manga, Tenken and Breathe Deeply, that should already be on the radar of serious and mature manga fans. They’ve also published two illustrated children’s books and a handful of inspirational books, such as Treedom and Shift. If the high publishing quality of Schoolgirl (and the small number of their other titles I have in my possession) is any indication, One Peace Books puts a great deal of attention and care into their non-conventional yet highly interesting catalog. Go check them out!

Review copy of Schoolgirl provided by One Peace Books.