Books / Reviews

Of goldfish and food demons

by Steve Finbow

A RIOT OF GOLDFISH, by Kanoko Okamoto. Translated by J. Keith Vincent. Hesperus Press, 2010, 136 pp., £8.99 (paper)

Between 1929 and 1932, the poet Kanoko Okamoto traveled through Europe and the U.S. with her husband, the cartoonist Ippei Okamoto, her son and two male retainers. The group visited the capitals of Modernism: London, Paris, Berlin, and New York City, and on her return to Japan, Okamoto applied the principles of what she had absorbed to writing prose.

Beginning with her story “The Dying Crane” about the days leading up to the suicide of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Okamoto’s fiction takes the artist in society, the blurring of social strata, the status of religion, and the alienation and pre-eminence of the individual as its key elements.

Like Knut Hamsun’s young writer in “Hunger” or Frank Kafka’s “A Hunger-Artist,” both protagonists of the two novellas contained in this volume consider themselves “artists” isolated from a society that does not understand them, or detached from a capricious god who places obstacles in the way of their genius.

Mataichi, the joyless subject of “A Riot of Goldfish,” so caught up as he is with his obsession to breed a beautiful goldfish, views the Great Kanto Earthquake as a fleeting sideshow in his grand scheme. To Besshiro, the grumpy gourmet of “The Food Demon,” the very city he walks through tastes of food — “black bread made with naked barley” and “thrush innards pickled with salt.”

In “A Riot of Goldfish,” the young Mataichi falls in love with the daughter of his patron who lives in a large house on the cliff above the goldfish pools maintained by his adoptive parents in the Yamanote area of Tokyo. Beautiful and aloof, Masako changes from a childhood object of scorn and bullying to a figure of near-worship, a fetish which Mataichi — realizing the perfection of her unattainability — strives to replicate in the form of the most fantastic goldfish he can create through selective breeding.

The story contrasts themes of human manipulation of nature, the alienation of city life, the distinctions between high art (the four traditional arts of the koto, go, calligraphy and painting) and popular culture. Mataichi abandons everything in his attempt to adapt nature to art, to mold life into representation, to eschew humanist ethics in the search for aesthetic perfection.

Okamoto’s sometimes Baroque prose — Masako is ridiculed by her friend, a waka poet for wanting to decorate her room in the style of High Baroque or Rococo — adds a sensuality to the bleak Modernist viewpoint.

Besshiro, the grievous gourmet of “The Food Demon,” garners less sympathy than even Mataichi. Embittered that people do not acknowledge his genius, soured by the death of his priest father and his artist best friend, he perfects his culinary skills while forgoing his people ones. He may make the perfect endive salad but neglects to feed his wife and child. He disdains any form of spirituality (a clever and humorous portrait of self-deprecation by Okamoto as she embeds herself in the text as a snobbish waka poet and Buddhist scholar, looking down her nose at Besshiro’s “art”), and revels in the epicurean, believing it to be the means to a higher existence. A monstrous portrait of an artist obsessed with his own being at the expense of others.

Together, these two novellas present a diptych of the artist in Japanese society during the transition from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) through to the beginnings of the Showa Era (1926-1989).

J. Keith Vincent’s translation is smooth, intelligent and unobtrusive — as all good translations should be. The English novelist David Mitchell provides an illuminating introduction to an author who blazed her own way through the conservatism of early 20th century Japanese society.