Boutique publisher Pushkin Press has released new translations of three early works by celebrated Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue. They cast a light upon a period of Japanese history, the post-World War Two period, that is little known to most English-speaking readers. They also reveal why Inoue is as venerated as he is.
Set mostly in the years immediately following Japan’s crushing defeat, the novellas The Hunting Gun and Bullfight and the three short stories in Life of a Counterfeiter show in high relief that the prolific author’s taut, probing style and Proustian preoccupation with memory were there from the beginning of his fiction career.
A journalist and literary editor, Inoue began writing fiction only in 1949, when at the age of 42 he published The Hunting Gun and Bullfight. Each of these novellas barely tops 100 pages, even in Pushkin’s lovely small-format paperback editions. Both display a deceptively journalistic and plainspoken style that blossoms into redolent heart-thought without your even realizing it.
The Hunting Gun consists mostly of three long letters written by three different women to a man named Misugi. Merely because Misugi has read a poem of the narrator’s about the sight of a man who seems to be Misugi, he is moved to entrust to her the letters from his wife, his mistress, and his mistress’s daughter, letters which reveal a long-running saga of betrayal, ecstasy, misery, and finally death.
Inoue depicts in admirably straightforward prose the roiling waters of love, marriage, passion, and the effects of the passage of time on all three, as in his evocation of a match whose light has gone out:
Although for a while I came close to losing my mind, time appeared to resolve our problems, and our relationship became as smooth as it could conceivably have been. As you cooled, with the speed of a red-hot piece of iron plunged into water, I matched your coolness; and as I grew cold, you drew circles around me in your plummeting frigidity, until at last we found ourselves living here within this magnificently frozen world, in a household so cold one feels ice on one’s eyelashes…One might more accurately call it a fortress, as I am sure you will agree.
In Bullfight a newspaper editor risks his livelihood and his employer’s finances to sponsor a bullfight (in which the bulls fight each other) with the help of some shady characters. Similes pop out like lilies in a still pond, some unexpected, others as if inevitable. When plans have been finalized and an ad for the event finally appears in the newspaper, “the ad was like a hunting dog that had broken free from their grasp.” Later, as rain washes out the big event, the editor departs the stadium with his girlfriend, to whom he has been giving the cold shoulder:
She gazed intently at the face or her wounded lover as the taxi rocked him roughly this way and that. For the first time she saw him – this living being beside her, so badly injured he even couldn’t speak – as her own. Like a dissolute son who had gone out and lived it up until everything fell to pieces, leaving him with nowhere else to turn, he had come back to her – yes, to her. An almost maternal sense of victory flickered within her.
While I can’t directly judge Michael Emmerich’s translations, passages like those seem to suggest the poetry in the original Japanese while also showing the translator’s ease with conveying Inoue’s thoughts in English prose that’s placid and limpid yet as alive as a forest. Inoue’s tone always is remarkably balanced, which makes its depictions of sadness all the more powerful.
Witness this account, by the wife of the title character in the long short story “Life of a Counterfeiter”: “‘He loved painting more than three square meals, but he strayed down the wrong path and ended his life without ever creating a single painting worth anything, and then when he started doing fireworks he lost three fingers…It’s not that he was a bad man, he was just born to live an unhappy life.'”
Inoue’s characters always are slaves to their fates. It’s a testament to his poetic imagination that he compels us to follow them avidly as they slide forward through time, transforming as they go into creatures of memory.