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Book Review: American Stories by Nagai Kafu

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Nagai Kafu is a somewhat underrated writer when one thinks of Japanese literature. I say this now after having read one of his early collections, American Stories. While I’ve not read any of his novels yet (Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale will be next), much of his work has simply not been translated into English. Other than American Stories and Rivalry, no other major works of his seem to either be 1) translated into English and 2) easily available on Amazon. Published by Columbia University Press, Kafu’s work came recommended by a fellow writer friend of mine, and given Kafu’s influence upon the great Tanizaki, I became eager to read him. Happily, I can state that American Stories is both inventive, surprisingly fresh, and many of the tales within are excellent reads. In fact, this is a great book for any young short story writer to examine, for Kafu’s narrative play, but also because the tales are economically written and also full of memorable characters who are not stereotypes.

Kafu spent four years in the United States back in the early part of the last century (1903-1907 to be exact), and so American Tales is basically a slice of Americana written by a Japanese. Not only do we see America through his point of view, but he is never dull or repetitive. The tales, especially those found in the first half of the book, are impossible to put down. For example, in “Atop the Hill,” a Japanese man arrives at a mid-western college, and is surprised to learn that there is another Japanese also there. The principal then tells him that Mr. Watano will be “glad” to see him, since he’s not seen a Japanese for a number of years.

The narrator then notes:

I was at a loss, not understanding what this was all about, but the old gentleman, his face still all smiles, asked me, ‘Did you know Mr. Watano in Japan, or did you get to know him after you came to the United States?’ The principal had jumped to the conclusion that because I was Japanese I must have come to visit my compatriot, Mr. Watano, at this school. This misunderstanding was soon dissolved in guileless laughter, and I was duly introduced to the person named Mr. Watano. 

The above prose is crisp, observant and believable. In another story, titled “In the Woods,” Kafu performs an interesting technique where his narrator observes two people — a black woman and a soldier — frolicking in the woods. And so the narrative switches onto them, making what is being eavesdropped the focus. “A soldier and a girl — it was quite easy to guess what was going on,” the narrator notes upon first sight of them. Then, the narrative switches back to where the narrator is walking through the woods alone, ruminating on what he just witnessed.

There are really no weak stories in the collection, only those weaker by comparison, which would include those tales towards the end of the book, where the focus is not on characters but more on scenic description. The scenes, while solidly written and not needlessly long, are not as impressive as those tales involving characters. Fortunately, many of the tales within American Stories are character and situation driven, which makes this the impressive work that it is.

Of course, there are some mentions made throughout the text that reveal Kafu was, at times, out of touch with certain things. For example, there are a number of tales where he references the ugliness of black people and seems to regard them with contempt. While such a view would not have been out of touch during his day, these views today reek of racism (and even did back then). Yet, American writers of the time also made racist observations, so Kafu was no exception.

There are also a number of acknowledged errors within the translation, errors that Kafu himself made while writing these tales. Most of them include spelling errors or incorrect facts, but perhaps the funniest error is found in “The Sea in Summer,” where the speaker believes the Statue of Liberty is holding up a giant spear.

While such errors can make for a minor chuckle, leaving them in doesn’t add anything to the text. Translated by Mitsuko Iriye, perhaps it would have been better to correct such errors and, if needed, place a notation at the end of the text. While some can argue such would “damage the authenticity,” well, perhaps they are right. One could, after all, argue the point that a foreigner anywhere would get minor things incorrect, and that these errors give an authenticity to the text that enhances it. Yet by that rationale, the “[sic]” notations are not really needed then, and instead should have just been left out. Either way, it should be noted that none of the “errors” distract from the narrative and they’re merely minor quibbles, albeit humorous at times.

The book also includes a translator introduction, which offers a brief overview of Kafu’s life, and the time he spent in America. Kafu’s observations are sharp, insightful, and even funny (in one tale, one of the characters notes the difficulty in pronouncing the city of “Tacoma”). The introduction also delves into his “major themes” which readers can take or leave, but mostly it just offers an overview of what to expect when you begin to read. This hardbound text is a very nice edition, equipped with a black and white photo of the author as well.

American Stories is a strong work, well worth the read. It will be interesting to see how he approaches the novel form, but if this collection is any indication, I am prepared for something good.

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About Jessica Schneider