After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, critically acclaimed writer Hideo Furukawa experienced an unsettling “imagination meltdown.”
“Novelists are artists, and usually imagination comes between them and reality,” Fukushima-born Furukawa says. “But when reality becomes something far beyond our imagination, we are exposed, rendered naked and reality moves closer to art. We must then confront reality directly.”
Columbia University Press, Fiction.
Furukawa’s “meltdown” eventually distilled into “Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure,” a book that is a memoir, metafictional novel and philosophical treatise on time, humanity and the nonhuman world. In other words, it defies genre; something Furukawa has attempted throughout his career. In 2002 he “remixed” Haruki Murakami’s 1980 short story “A Slow Boat to China,” and in the 2015 novel “The Book of 300 Treacherous Women” — winner of both the Noma Prize for New Writers and the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in 2015 — Furukawa reinterprets the 11th-century classic “The Tale of Genji,” portraying its author, Murasaki Shikibu, as a vengeful spirit.
Consistently challenging conventions, Furukawa has become a literary superstar in Japan. In 2002, he was simultaneously awarded the Mystery Writers of Japan prize and Japan’s SF Grand Prize for “The Arabian Nightbreeds,” and in 2006 he was awarded the Yukio Mishima prize for “Love,” a complicated novel that Furukawa describes as “one gigantic short story.”
In total, Furukawa has written more than 35 works. Although some of his short stories, essays and chapters from books have been translated into English for literary magazines, including Japan’s Monkey Business, “Horses” is only the second complete novel by Furukawa to be translated into English.
Starting as a straight memoir, biography slides into metafiction when characters from Furukawa’s sprawling 2008 novel, “Seikazoku” (“The Holy Family”), intrude within the narrative. The book then pivots into Japanese military history before returning to memoir, when it is written from the perspective of the nonhuman victims of the 2011 disasters. The perspective of animals consistently intrigues Furukawa.
“Novelists can’t write realistically about human society while they’re inside it,” he says, “so I write through the eyes of dogs, cats or horses — animals that depend on humans for their existence — to depict reality more accurately. Also, to write realistically about the present, I believe we need to look at it through the eyes of the past. If a Japanese person writes about 20th-century warfare, he will write from a Japanese perspective. An American would write from the perspective of an American and a Russian would write from the perspective of a Russian. I wanted to get away from that, since you don’t see the whole picture.”
Furukawa’s other novel that has been translated into English, “Belka, Why Don’t You Bark?,” recounts modern history from the perspectives of dogs trained and used in wartime combat. However, Furukawa is not only concerned with nonhuman perspectives, but also with perspectives silenced by the winners of history.
“Literature is part of a country’s history,” says Furukawa. “History has been written so that those in positions of power can tell their version of how the country came into being. But there are many others who have a voice besides those in power. I believe it’s essential to include literature when writing the history of Japan, to give those other perspectives a voice.”
He is currently working on a re-imagining of the epic “Heike Monogatari” (“The Tale of the Heike”), another classic of Japanese literature.
With “Horses,” Furukawa admits he wants to keep the memory of the 3/11 tragedy alive.
“Right after the earthquake, all I wanted was for the horrible situation to disappear as soon as possible. Now, over five years have passed and people are beginning to forget, so I want to remind readers about it. I want all readers, whether they come from America, England, Australia or elsewhere, to share the experience. By reliving the experience together, perhaps something good will come out of such a terrible disaster.”
It is easy to slide into Furukawa’s worldview in “Horses” with its realistic, unsentimental descriptions of disaster: “A broken record lay on the ground; obviously, no sound to be heard from it. CDs spread everywhere, mute as well. Around a dozen golf clubs looking like nothing more than blue-green walking sticks. Uprooted plants and shrubs — roots and branches, all pulled out — withered. Or, if not withered, muddy brown in color. How far should I go in describing all these thousands, tens of thousands, of parts? And this is just the beginning.”
In addition to his individual works, Furukawa makes a point of collaborating with other artists. It’s another way, he believes, to change perspective: “If you don’t connect with other people, then it’s impossible to write realistically about contemporary issues. That’s why I feel it’s important to interact with other artists; to share a stage with musicians, dancers, painters. Through this you see what it means to be a writer, and the musicians, dancers and other artists get to know what it means to be a novelist.”
Despite directly addressing social concerns such as human tyranny and corruption, Furukawa obviously believes in the redemptive power of art.
“There’s no point in writing a book without hope. Even if you’re writing a book with violence or a particularly original book, I personally believe there is no need to write a book that does not leave the reader with a feeling of encouragement or hope at the end.”
Though Furukawa has a number of award-winning works behind him, he admits he is “never completely satisfied” with what he has written.
“Still, if my novels have provided a way for people to re-experience other worlds, then I feel my work has been worthwhile,” he says. “Writing is hard, keeping at it day after day, but if it does this, then it makes my work meaningful, and I am proud.”