Shiraishi isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions about life

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

August honors the dead in Japan, so it’s fitting that Kazufumi Shiraishi’s raw discourse on mortality makes its English debut this month. Originally published in 2008, “Me Against the World” breaks from Shiraishi’s fictional works, offering the author’s undiluted musings on life. As told The Japan Times in a recent interview: “I had tried to include the ideas of this work in all of my previous novels, but I was at a point where I wanted to thoroughly sort out my thoughts and record them in one book, so I wrote the whole thing in one go. It took about a week, like writing an extended memo to myself.”

Me Against the World, by Kazufumi Shiraishi
120 pages
Dalkey Archive Press, Nonfiction.

Using his background in fiction, Shiraishi created a loose narrative form. In a constructed “Publisher’s Forward,” a fictional journalist provides a brief explanation of a Mr. K and their friendship to introduce the manuscript he has inherited after Mr. K’s sudden death. The rest of the book is the manuscript itself, a series of entwining, metaphorical reflections on the biggest questions in life. For Shiraishi, these questions have preoccupied him since childhood. As he explains: “Why are we here? What is the reason for us to be on this earth? It’s no joking matter. This is something I’ve been thinking about from the time I was young. As a child, I really wanted to know.”

As an adult, Shiraishi’s unblunted examination spins into heady, addictive mind candy. The English translation, by Raj Mahtani, captures Shiraishi’s contemplations with profound simplicity. The brilliance of “Me Against the World” is found in its contradictions, its pragmatic nihilism somehow morphing into compassionate biocentrism, its metaphorical imaginings mired in a reality that lays bare the ironic absurdity of existence.

The opening of the “manuscript” jars in its harsh appraisal of love and humanity, drawing the reader into a seeming rabbit hole of negativity. As Mr. K soon explains: “Humans too lead meaningless lives, having no reason to be born. What’s more, humans have broken away from Earth — their life-support system, their mother — and are destroying her as they please before indiscriminately propagating themselves. To Earth, humans are without a doubt nothing more than cancer cells.”

Discussing everything from psychic beliefs to religion; romantic love to reincarnation; and comparing human life to an oscillating thread, an ink spot, a “paper pattern tailors use,” the spiraling, philosophical meanderings gradually converge on a simple pinpoint of truth: Compassion is the only answer in the face of such epic farce.

Catching up with the author, it comes as no surprise that the young Mr. K, as in Kazufumi, the son of acclaimed novelist Ichiro Shiraishi, read voraciously and questioned incessantly as a child. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gide, Sartre, Camus — as a teen and young adult, Shiraishi looked toward the intellectuals of Western literature for answers. For a long time, however, he never considered following in his late father’s footsteps.

“I never dreamed I would become a writer. To be a writer, you have to come up with something only you can write. It took me a long time to find this,” he says. “I wasn’t convinced I could write something only I could write.”

First finding work as a journalist and editor, Shiraishi was encouraged to write by the efforts of his twin brother, Fumio, also a published novelist. Nearly 20 years since his 2000 debut novel “A Ray of Light,” Shiraishi has enjoyed both commercial and critical success. Awarded the Naoki prize for “To an Incomparable Other” in 2009, (he and his father are the only father-son pair to have each won the prize), he also won the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize in the same year for “Remove this Arrow from Deep in my Heart.” “The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside,” published in 2002, became a national best-seller and is upcoming in translation from Dalkey Archive Press.

Shiraishi calls “Me Against the World” “a fitting debut” to Western readers, grappling as it does with the existential questions more commonly addressed in classic Western literature.

“Japanese tend to be more concerned if a person’s life or death is beautiful, or aesthetically pleasing,” he points out. “People in the West seriously debate philosophical issues like the meaning of life and death.”

For Shiraishi, a discussion on death naturally begins with love: “If you trace its origins all the way back, like going upstream a river, you find that the root of love, it’s fundamental cause, is death. And that’s what I wanted to say in this novel.

“In other words, if there is no death, there is no love. Human beings perish, without fail, within a brief passage of time, far briefer than, say, a tree. Human existence involves consciousness, which fades away along with the body, before we disappear, in the end. And love is something that compensates for this ephemerality.

“If we don’t die, there is no love, no nothing; no family, no marriage, nada. In other words, if you think about what’s truly everlasting — well, everyone thinks that love is eternal, but what’s truly everlasting as an absolute truth. What forms the foundation of love — it’s our mortality, isn’t it? The act of dying itself?

And that’s what I wanted to say. That’s also why Mr. K, when he thinks about love, is left with no choice but to think about death.”