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Somewhere between history and the imagination

British novelist David Mitchell talks about his new book, Japan and the butterfly effect of fiction

by Steve Finbow

David Mitchell is one of Britain’s most influential novelists. “Ghostwritten” (1999), his first novel, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize for fiction, his second novel, “number9dream” (2001), which is set in Japan, tells of a character’s search for his father, of a wartime fighter pilot, and of a journey around contemporary Tokyo.

In 2003, he was included in Granta magazine’s list of Best Young British Authors, while 2004 saw the publication of “Cloud Atlas,” a multiple narrative bristling with ideas and storytelling bravado. His most recent novel, “Black Swan Green” (2006) recounts 13 months in the life of a 13-year-old boy growing up in Worcestershire, England — a bildungsroman full of pop-culture references.

Mitchell’s work has been called quirky, scattershot, gimmicky, and even insubstantial, yet David Traynor of the Irish Independent has argued that David Mitchell “well may be possessed of genius.” Now back in Japan, Mitchell is working on a historical novel set in Nagasaki. In a series of e-mails, Steve Finbow asks him about Japan and his latest work.

You describe your new novel as historical, a Napoleonic-era saga set in Nagasaki. Could you tell us more?

I’m going to be coy and not tell you much — a few weeks ago a friend sent me a reference about me on Wikipedia where something I said to someone I no longer recall about the structure of the new book had already been posted. Such scrutiny freaks me out a little. Writing a novel is full of stops and starts and paths not taken, or taken and then untaken, or paths best not taken but taken anyway. How the book ends up looking and how I might describe it now could be two very different beasties. I will say that my intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives. It’s the most demanding thing I’ve ever tried to do. The research is a trackless swamp, and the book wishes to be written in ways that historical novels are not usually written in. It feels as if I am having to invent its “cinematography” as I go along. On good days, it’s an exhilarating ride; on bad days I crawl along feeling travel-sick and disconsolate and wishing I’d left university and got myself a proper job.

You say Japanese perspective: Do you think the West holds onto the idea of Japan as a land of geisha, samurai and origami; or has the West modernized that view into one of J-pop idols, “salarymen” and Nintendo, or indeed of a darker Japan, one that refuses to apologize for the use of sex slaves, spawns cults such as Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph, and produces violent and/or pornographic anime and manga?

Each of these Western perceptions of Japan is alive and well. We might name them the “Lafcadio Japan,” the “Nintendo Japan” and the “Dark Side Japan.” This plurality of lenses is no bad thing: One view is never enough. The UK too is a many-headed beast: Tory Fox-hunting UK; Multicultural UK; Peter Rabbit and the National Trust UK; Soccer Violence UK. You can only lay claim to a deep knowledge of a culture if you study it, live in it, get to know some of its people and learn its language, and most of us are too busy to do this more than once or twice a lifetime. So these “oven-ready perspectives” are what we fall back on, and they are probably better than nothing, provided that we don’t forget that they only scratch the surface. We mustn’t tell ourselves, “OK, I’ve got Japanese/UK/Any country culture sussed: I can stop trying to understand it now.” Opinions based on the perspectives you mention should be pending and conditional, in pencil and not ink.

So, your new novel — by the way, do you have a title? — views Japan from the filtered perspective of your reading and experience?

What alternative do I have? I’m not alone in lacking omniscience! No firm title yet — it’s just “NAGASAKI” on my laptop, though the novel also goes to Edo, has remembered scenes in Java and the inevitable hallucinatory Rotterdam whorehouse.

Are you concerned that fictionalized histories could have a transforming effect on subsequent time — i.e., a butterfly effect?

If the question is asking, “Does fiction influence the perception of history?” then my answer is “Yes, and then some.” The skeleton of my knowledge of Classical Rome comes from Robert Graves; Victorian London, from Dickens; of Taisho and Showa Japan, from Tanizaki and Mishima and Akutagawa. Is there anything wrong with this, as long as writers write with integrity and readers remember they are reading fiction? Historians, too, are in the subjective narrative business, albeit narratives that try to capture the facts and facts only, those slippery eels. Witness the never-ending school history textbook debate between Japan and its neighbors: What are the facts? It depends on the teller.

Partly because of this, I decided very early on that my new novel must be set in a nearby parallel universe — one where global history is the same as ours, but the local history of Nagasaki is one of my own invention. This gives me the license I need to create my own cast, plot and locations, and frees me from having to spend the next two or three years as a researcher of vanished minutiae.

With luck I won’t get any miffed letters from locals telling me there was no snowstorm in Nagasaki on January 5th, 1808 . . .

In that case, which of these quotes would you subscribe to: Paul Auster’s “The real is always way ahead of what we can imagine”; or Joseph Conrad’s “Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence?”

What a pleasing metaphysical pairing. I have no idea which is the truer statement. Let’s test them, starting with Auster’s. Is the real always way ahead of what we can imagine? The 9/11 attacks: They were ahead of what most of us had imagined — though not all of us as ignored FBI warnings testify. “Way ahead?” The popular initial response to the planes in the Twin Towers was “it looks like a movie,” so cinematographers had imagined similar things too. Let’s try other test cases: nanotechnology, cloning, global warming — science fiction got there first. Perhaps if the “real” in question is a social or technological trend, then a percentage of far-sighted people see it coming.

Maybe Auster meant this statement to be applied in the private sphere, where it makes a lot more sense. My personal successes, failures, moments of grace and half-days of grumpiness, I never really anticipate. If I could, I’d avoid the bad stuff and stretch out the good stuff.

Conrad’s turn: Yes, once a truth is imagined, it exists, in a way, though it’s still rather a theoretical way until that truth becomes manifest in the real world, isn’t it? If the truth in question relates to a nonconcrete noun, like behavior or emotions or relationships, then its existence is more “effective and undeniable.” I happen to believe that the statement “Mock a person’s language, and you mock that person” is true, so it modifies my behavior “effectively and undeniably.”

If a truth relates to a concrete noun, like a country, the design of a new car, or a novel, then it doesn’t seem of much import to the world at large until it is disseminated out there. Maybe Auster’s and Conrad’s statements aren’t really in opposing corners. Auster’s seems to be about the imagination’s limits: Conrad’s seems to be about the imagination’s imperatives. Phew.

That said, is the novel a necessary forcing of the limits of the imagination?

What is this thing, “imagination?” A muscle that can be “forced” or “stretched”? Or something immune to the ethos of ganbaru [grit it out, or strive for one's best]? Like the relativist’s view of light, it is both wave and particle, depending on what you want it to be. The verb “to imagine” is both active and passive, as in “Steve imagined his future,” and “Such a future was never imagined.” So, I work on my novel by imagining the world of 18th-century Nagasaki and its people and their fears and desires, as an act of will, and a lot of will is involved, believe me. However, I could ganbaru until I’m blue in the face. If my imagination doesn’t work “passively” or even “intransitively,” at its own behest rather than mine, and come up with cliche-demolishing twists of phrase and turns of plot and happy accidents and unexpected reactions from characters, then the book will be sterile. Well-written with luck, and even intelligent, but sterile. Maybe this answers the question this paragraph opened with: Imagination is what makes art fertile.