SHANGHAI, by Riichi Yokomitsu. Translated with a postscript by Dennis Washburn. Center for Japanese Studies, Ann Arbor; University of Michigan Press, 2001. 242 pp., $45 (cloth), $18.95 (paper).

Riichi Yokomitsu’s first novel, “Shanghai,” was published in magazine installments between 1928 and 1931. Based on a short visit to the city in 1928, it concerns a 1925 incident (the so-called May 30th Movement) when Chinese workers at a Japanese spinning mill staged a strike, to the consternation of the resident foreigners.

Though this was the kind of “proletarian” material that was animating Japanese literary circles at the time, Yokomitsu’s novel contained neither a message calling for workers to unite nor any apology for Japanese capitalists aboard. Indeed, in a later essay the novelist said (“rather ominously,” writes Washburn) that “only Japanese militarism possesses enough power to rescue the subjugated East.”

Rather, the novelist’s interest lay in this international city as vehicle for his modernist ideas. In it he could find a paradigm for no less than “the state of contemporary man.” Explicitly stating that his aim was to create a new realism to combat the Marxist proletarian school, Yokomitsu told his story of a group of Japanese expatriates in the “festering” city using many of the techniques of international modernism.

Washburn, in his postscript, indicates some of them. “He uses catalogs of images as well as broken phrases and clauses to create . . . the sense of a camera eye. Dashes visually break up almost every page, setting off the internal thoughts of characters to allow the narrative to shift between (them) and the third-person narrator.”

Also, the use of a city as a formal unifying device was one of the most useful techniques of modernism. James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which uses Dublin as paradigm, had been mostly published by 1922 (partly into Japanese by 1925). Works on Paris by Marcel Proust and Andre Gide on Paris were translated in part by 1928, as was Virginia Woolf on London.

Just how familiar Yokomitsu was with any of these works is unknown since he rarely talked about foreign literature. Yasunari Kawabata, his fellow theorist in the Shinkankaku-ha (“New Sensationalist”) school, apparently at least knew about “Ulysses” when he wrote his much more successful big-city modernist novel, “Asakusa Kurenaidan (Scarlet Gang of Asakusa).” In any event, the only resemblance between Yokomitsu’s modernist work and those of the Europeans is a reliance on lists of otherwise unconnected visual impressions (“gutted domesticated duck, pork kidneys, baby mice soaked in honey”) and a purposefully laconic diction.

This had long been part of his New Sensationalist style but had not always been successful. Donald Keene has written of his 1923 “The Sun,” a historical novella inspired by the Japanese translation of “Salammbo,” that “the uncouth short sentences are reminiscent less of Flaubert than of Tarzan . . . at best they suggest a primitive people who had yet to discover subordinate clauses.”

More serious was a perhaps consequent lack of characterization. One critic wrote that “the author is absolutely determined to describe only the surface . . . not a single real human being exists within this atmosphere.” Most of the characters are implausible from the start, which is the reason that I here include nothing about “Shanghai” ‘s extended plot.

This lack of believable characters is perhaps intentional. Kawabata stated that “Shanghai” was the summation of the methods of New Sensationalism, and indeed this school’s style had never been strong on character. The reason that Kawabata’s “The Red Gang of Asakusa” is so much more readable than “Shanghai” is that the author chose to use a picaresque modernism (closer to Paul Morand than to Joyce), which did not take the characters seriously and accepted their purposely “manga”-like dimensions.

If “Shanghai” exhausted its author, as he later said it did, I can imagine what it did to its translator. The book is long, prolix and fantastically detailed. In his postscript Washburn writes that “I have tried in this translation to recapture the effects created by these stylistic elements and thus preserve the quirkiness of the original, by starting with as literal a version as I could manage.” At the same time, he knows that translation is merely an analogue and that he could only aim at replicating the “strangeness of Yokomitsu’s novel — a rather elusive quality that for me made the novel worth translating.” And for us, worth reading.

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