WINTER SLEEP, by Kenzo Kitakata. Vertical, 2005, 282 pp., $14.95 (paper).

In a recent article for the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators, D. Patrick Dimick has defined the great trade deficit in literary translation between Japanese and other languages: “In 2002 the ratio of foreign books translated into Japanese to Japanese books translated into a foreign language stood at 20:1.” Optimistically, he appends this happy thought: “Though some point to this as an improvement over the 1982 ratio of 36:1.”

It’s instructive to note that, although Kenzo Kitakata has published 100 books, we have only two in English. Even Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” has been translated into Japanese in a storm of furigana, homonyms and puns, a seven-year task completed in 1993 by Yanase Naoki.

But as we know, Japan is hot right now. And Vertical Inc., with great style (Chip Kidd is perhaps the first book designer to become famous outside the industry) and a wide brief, is in on the renaissance, publishing a range of Japanese fiction including fantasy, history, manga, horror, and two novels by Kitakata, probably the most famous writer in the Japanese hard-boiled tradition.

Kitakata’s “Ashes” (made into a film in 1994 by Tatsumi Kumashiro shortly before his death under the title “Bo no kanashimi”), as technically minimalist as Dusseldorf techno, is a stone-cold yakuza classic about the rise of a gangster named Tanaka from junior to Uncle to, perhaps, Oyabun or Boss. He experiences a kind of midlife crisis at the prospect of aging and losing the elevated status in the family he has followed (more like a dog than a donkey) all his life. (This is a radical condensation of a novel that specializes in such deadpan, affectless monuments to prose as “If you don’t kill me, you’re going to get killed yourself.”)

Translator Mark Schilling mentions that, in the most recently translated novel, “Winter Sleep,” the narrator is Nietzschean in his approach to art. Both “Ashes” and the new book nod to Nietzsche in that they specialize in the investigation of the internal void at the end of the will-to-power — when there is nothing left to want. In “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner’s Quentin, on the day of his suicide, puts it like this: “It’s not when you realize that nothing can help you — religion, pride, anything — it’s when you realize that you don’t need any aid.”

Tanaka, in “Ashes,” on the very cusp of realizing all his ambitions, expresses the same emptiness: “The Mercedes started rolling. I slowly blew out a cloud of smoke and closed my eyes. Nothing came to mind.”

From the narrator of “Winter Sleep,” Nakagi: “Nothing new was coming into view. I could see everything, I could see nothing. I’d never been that way since I started painting.”

Nakagi, like Tanaka, is a terse, opaque, misogynistic loner with a prison past for murder, but he is also a painter with a burgeoning international reputation (and income). Nakagi is an artist’s artist — an absolute purist who has holed up in a cabin in Nagano for the winter months to navigate some kind of psychic or artistic crisis via isolation and painting, the only method of expression he deems genuine.

The novel in synopsis could easily amount to a kind of catalog: dinners eaten, beers drunk, emotionless sex acts barely enjoyed, multimillion-yen sales. But then there are periods of painting, composition. These present, as do ellipses in text, holes in the narrative, periods of abstraction and transport: “My vision dimmed as sweat poured over my eyes. In my mind I held Akiko’s image, firmly and clearly. When I came to my senses it was already evening. The painting was finished.”

Nakagi has the moral thermometer of a lizard; he has, by killing, by natural proclivity and by success, transcended bourgeois rules of conduct. He coolly chronicles cycles of abstraction and emptiness, examining internal and external phenomena with supreme equanimity and waiting only for his next work to come. Not even yakuza codes of conduct apply.

When Nakagi’s dealer, and occasional sex partner, informs him that “[the painting is] a size ten but I can sell it for ten million yen,” the reaction is typical: “I raised the beer can to my lips. I had been sipping it, and now I noticed it was empty.”

Kitakata, superb stylist that he is and very much in control of his material, puts his utterly uninvolved narrator to the test toward the end of the novel.

“I’ve come here from your heart. My heart and your heart, they’re the same,” says Oshita, a young murderer who has trekked his way to Nakagi’s cabin to learn how to paint from the sensei. He is a kind of Caliban figure, rude and unformed, passionate and troubled. Nakagi is drawn to his crude energy. Oshita hooks up with Akiko, a young painter in a cabin nearby, another of Nakagi’s sex partners who is also trying to learn from the master.

The atmosphere of increasing tension, self-hatred, unpredictability and incipient violence grows even more stultifying as the snows close in and each character explores his or her own private existential hells.

Kitakata manages his nihilistic climax with consummate control, and although, as in “Ashes,” the prose may be flat and lifeless (perhaps the minimalism, or the reliance on the scene rather than the sentence, more easily affords an effective translation), it’s absolutely compelling to read.

There are prurient delights, useless disquisitions on color (“In the winter light, I could hear the vermilion and the red shouting at each other”), scenes of cooking, eating (“When I finished the curry, my whole body started to get slightly sweaty”), drinking, even jogging, all delivered with an exact and equal weighting of importance by the narrator. Synopsis is simply not up to conveying the odd, edgy, simultaneously puritan and Dionysian energy of this baffling and refreshing novel.

Mark Schilling, translator of Kenzo Kitakata’s “Winter Sleep,” comments on the Nietzschean in the hard boiled:

“I brought a love of the hard-boiled style to this book. Translation — the translator and novelist Tokiwa Shimpei once told me — is like wearing another man’s loincloth. Kenzo Kitakata’s prose made for a more comfortable fit than most.

“Kitakata is, like Elmore Leonard, incoming from the hard-boiled tradition but not enslaving himself to its by-now stale conventions. I think the hard-boiled sensibility works — or at least doesn’t seem absurd — because the hero is an ex-con who can neither shed his violent past nor fit into straight society.

“His art is not an escape from the inchoate feelings that led him to kill, but an expression of them. His terseness comes from, not a tough-guy pose, but his sense that any communication of those feelings, save through painting or sex, verges on the pointless. He doesn’t dislike talk as such — he just doesn’t like to waste words on things that no one can really tell another: how to paint, how to live.

“I don’t see Nakagi as cruel: insensitive to others, but not cruel. He sees art in Nietzschean terms, as existing in a realm beyond the ‘merely human.’ He produces it in an egoless frenzy and views the result with dispassion, as not belonging to anyone or anything but itself.

“Taking pride in a painting or even money strikes him as absurd. (Money he takes, but regards merely as a means to an end: freedom to paint.) Kitakata has more than a little sympathy for this particular devil, I think.”

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