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‘Granta’ opens a window into Japanese literature

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

With such a piddling amount of Japanese fiction finding its way into English translation each year, you learn to make the most of what you can get. So when this year’s Tokyo International Literary Festival marked the launch of not one, but two compendia of Japan-related writing, it felt like an embarrassment of riches. In addition to the latest issue of “Monkey Business,” the annual journal edited by veteran translators Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen, the festival welcomed the arrival of a Japan-themed issue of the British quarterly, “Granta,” released simultaneously in English and Japanese.

Granta 127: Japan, by Various.
GRANTA PUBLICATIONS, Fiction/ Nonfiction.
Rating: ★★★★★

Edited by Yuka Igarashi, “Granta 127: Japan” boasts a fine pedigree: its contributors include recent Akutagawa Prize winner Hiroko Oyamada alongside various doyens of the contemporary Japanese literature scene, among them Hiromi Kawakami, Tomoyuki Hoshino and Toshiki Okada. And if those names don’t ring any bells (some are appearing in English translation for the first time), the international contingent — featuring David Mitchell, Ruth Ozeki, Adam Johnson, David Peace and more — probably will.

There’s no attempt to impose any overarching narrative on the varied selections, unless you count the cover blurb’s gnomic pronouncement that “Everyone knows this country and no one knows it.” Yet common themes emerge.

The discrepancies between memory, reported truth and reality are a repeated topic of interest. Yuji Hamada’s “Primal Mountain” photo series, which also adorns the cover, conveys the sense of disconnect that many experienced in the wake of 2011′s Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, when mainstream news reports seemed increasingly at odds with what people saw happening around them. Hamada expresses this by photographing a tinfoil mountain against the Tokyo skyline, producing images that, as he puts it, show “‘real’ and ‘fake’ becoming friendly with each other.”

In Toshiki Okada’s “Breakfast,” the wife of the narrator finds herself unable to go on living in Tokyo after the Fukushima No. 1 meltdown, “as if nothing is wrong,” and ends up becoming permanently estranged from the city — and from her husband.

Memories and perceptions diverge in Hiroko Oyamada’s “Spider Lilies,” one of the standout stories here. When she visits the home of her future parents-in-law, a young woman strikes up a rapport with her husband’s kindly grandmother — but, years later, begins to uncover deeper truths about the encounter. With deft strokes, Oyamada captures the routine pleasantries that define so much family life, while hinting at a legacy of deceit lurking just beneath the surface. Inviting comparison to the work of Yoko Ogawa, it suggests good things to come from this promising young writer.

The gulf between languages is another common theme — one that’s generally hard to avoid when you’re talking about Japanese literature in translation. In her short essay, “Linked,” Ozeki writes movingly about her efforts to engage with the haiku written by her Japanese grandfather, and crafts a renga (linked poem) that unites his words with her own. In “Blue Moon,” Kawakami describes meeting with a Russian haiku circle, and ponders the misunderstandings that are inherent not only in translation, but in conversation itself.

Loopiest of all is Toh EnJoe’s “Printable,” a discombobulating bit of meta-fiction that veers from a discussion of the nature of translation into wild-eyed talk of out-of-control ghostwriters and people printing people. After repeat readings, I’m still not sure if it’s a work of genius, nonsense, or perhaps a bit of both.

The fiction by non-Japanese authors yields some notable highlights too. Readers in search of the next Haruki Murakami may be surprised to discover that the most obvious candidate here is actually from Colombia. Andres Felipe Solano’s “Pig Skin” is a tantalizing morsel of existential noir: deft and deliciously quirky, if perhaps a little too indebted to Japan’s best-known literary export.

Mitchell’s “Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut” replays an altercation in the eponymous fast-food joint as a merry-go-round of multiple viewpoints: the demented elderly man escaped from his care home, the browbeaten shop manager, the foreign English teacher contemplating his latest breakup, and so on. It’s the kind of piece that Mitchell can probably toss off without breaking a sweat, but his talent for ventriloquism and vibrant characterization is something to relish all the same.

Peace — who featured alongside Mitchell in Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists 2003″ — contributes an excerpt from an unfinished novel about early-20th century author Ryunosuke Akutagawa. “After the War, Before the War” follows the writer on his 1921 trip to Shanghai, which Peace sketches in a flurry of staccato imagery, while capturing a brilliant mind on the verge of a precipitous decline. (Curious readers can find another extract in the latest issue of “Monkey Business,” where that decline is much further advanced.)

But perhaps the most striking works of fiction come at the end of the book. In “The Dogs,” Yukiko Motoya depicts a self-confessed misanthrope spending the winter holed up in a mountain cabin, surrounded by a pack of snow-white hounds that may or may not represent her encroaching madness. And in Hoshino’s “Pink,” the whole country seems to be going insane, as a prolonged heat wave drives people to engage in bizarre, cult-like behavior. Addressing environmental concerns, group consciousness and Japan’s remilitarization, it’s the most thematically dense piece here, culminating in an extraordinary passage that abruptly telescopes 19 years of anguish into a single paragraph. It’s a bold conclusion to a handsome anthology, a generous feed for Japanophiles.

“Granta 127: Japan” is published in both Japanese and English and is available in bookstores between April 24 and July 24. “Granta” is a quarterly publication.

  • A.J. Sutter

    I think the first sentence of this review expresses matters best. Notwithstanding that Granta’s new managing editor appears to be of Japanese ancestry (though presumably of British residence), several of the selections reflect the same foreign sensibility for “weird Japan” that one encounters on the BBC and similar overseas outlets. It’s also disappointing that while Granta periodically runs issues of fiction featuring new authors in a given language (e.g., Best New Brazilian Writers, Best New Writers Writing in Spanish, etc.), it was deemed necessary for several foreigners to dilute this one. As for David Mitchell’s in particular, I’m agnostic about whether he has a talent for ventriloquizing Brits (his American characters in “Cloud Atlas” certainly used plenty of Britishisms), but most of the characters in his story don’t seem particularly Japanese. Not one of Granta’s better efforts, but I suppose we should be grateful for the scraps we get. (To find a better range of Japanese fiction in translation, learn to read French!)