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Kanai’s provocative, textured ‘girls’ fiction’ wistfully surprises

by Paul Mccarthy

INDIAN SUMMER, by Mieko Kanai, translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley. Cornell East Asia Series, 2012, 149 pp., $24 (paperback)

Mieko Kanai is a prolific and provocative contemporary author whose poetry and short stories have been appearing in English since the 1970s and ’80s, but whose longer works are only now being translated. Her range is very broad, from the shocking, in-your-face short story “Rabbits” (translated by Phyllis Birnbaum, 1982) to the avant-garde collection of interrelated chapters that make up “Word Book” (which I translated, 2009).

Now we have something completely different: what was the third in an ongoing series of novels set in Mejiro, a middle- to upper-middle class enclave where Gakushuin (the former Peers School) is located, and which has been Kanai’s home for decades. “Indian Summer” has now been deftly translated into natural and amusing English by two Australian scholars.

“Indian Summer,” which appeared in book form in 1988 after serialization, centers on Momoko, a girl who has come up from the provinces to attend college in Tokyo. At the behest of her old-fashioned mother, she is living with her Aunt Chieko, a writer of novels, stories and essays, at least until her younger brother can come to Tokyo, after which, the mother assumes, Momoko will devote herself to “looking after him.”

Momoko’s mother is much concerned about boys in Tokyo, though she need not be, since Momoko regards them as mostly “useless,” and romantic/erotic relationships play no part in her world. We see that world through Momoko’s own eyes and hear it described in her girlish, colloquial voice, for she is narrator as well as protagonist. Her aunt figures largely: asleep for many hours of every day yet marvelously well read in Western and Japanese literature and devoted to films, especially “classic” ones by directors as different as John Ford and Jean-Luc Godard. In her Bohemianism and through her biting, sarcastic comments on establishment figures, she represents a model of liberation for Momoko. (She also seems to bear a passing resemblance to Mieko Kanai herself, though that is the sort of comment a reviewer is “forbidden” to make nowadays.)

The other principal character, Momoko’s great friend at college Hanako, is physically unprepossessing, unconventional and boyish (and indeed is taken for a boy by some arrogant and, of course, useless college lads at an art-film house — one of many comic vignettes that spice up Kanai’s novel). Hanako and Momoko roam the streets of Tokyo, from toney Ginza and trendy Roppongi to the more bohemian haunts of Takadanobaba and the gay district in Shinjuku. They eat their way through Tokyo, one might say, since food plays almost as great a part in Kanai’s world as film and fiction (witness the long, elaborate breakfast menu that opens Chapter 2).

Indeed, carnality is an ever-present element — not in the usual sense of sex but in a fascination with other body parts. Aunt Chieko, for example, obsessively brushes her teeth and gums and meticulously cleans the wax from her ears. “It’s self-love itself,” she insists to a puzzled Momoko.

There are lots of surprises in store for Momoko: She knew that her father had left her mother some years before but did not realize for what sort of relationship. Aunt Chieko talks vaguely of her father’s “flower artist partner,” avoiding a giveaway personal pronoun and describing the partner only as “a nice person. … A cat-lover, too.”

Surprises also await the reader, as six essays and two short stories are interspersed throughout the novel. These are given as samples of Aunt Chieko’s writing, but some, at least, had appeared under Mieko Kanai’s name in earlier years. Their presence substantially varies and enriches the texture of the novel proper. The story “Flower Tales,” in particular, is an elegant pastiche of the romantic girls’ fiction writer Nobuko Yoshiya from the late Taisho to early Showa eras.

By the novel’s end, Momoko and Hanako have decided to share rooms in a modest apartment house not far from Aunt Chieko’s house. Their next-door neighbor is a young man named Natsuyuki, who is caring for a mother-cat and kittens left with him by a roguish Eurasian youth who calls himself Alex. Kanai is skillfully concluding this “girls’ fiction” (as Tomoko Aoyama rightly calls it in her very helpful introduction) by re-introducing us to the principals of her earlier Mejiro novel, a “boys’ fiction” titled “Oh, Tama!” The two taken together form an amusingly provocative “matching set.”

Paul McCarthy holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has taught language and literature at universities in the U.S. and Japan, and is a literary translator and writer.