Comparing a Japanese writer with Haruki Murakami is the laziest move a reviewer can make, but with “Slow Boat,” Hideo Furukawa leaves critics no choice.

Slow Boat, by Hideo Furukawa, Translated by David Boyd.
128 pages

In a postscript, the author explains that the subtitle, “A Slow Boat to China RMX,” is a loving remix (RMX) of a Murakami story, and he hits many of the classic Murakami tropes — jazz musicians, quirky girlfriends, lonely university students — along the way. Furukawa may describe Murakami as “the roots of my soul,” but he is far from a Murakami clone. While Murakami’s recent efforts have disappointed and the spark seems to have gone from his writing, Furukawa is firing on all cylinders.

The unnamed narrator has survived a troubled youth in Tokyo and as a result hates the city and its inhabitants. “Slow Boat” is the story of his attempts to leave.

The prose in this short novel fizzes. David Boyd has done a spectacular job of translating not only the casual, chatty narrative voice, but the wordplay and linguistic nuances of Furukawa’s Japanese. For a novella that is about the limits of language (the narrator regularly curses Japanese for not having the right words or structures to allow him full self-expression), language is used in startling and unique ways. Even the puns work in translation.

With depressing inevitability he is described by his publishers as “the heir to Murakami,” but based on his three books currently available in English, that label doesn’t do his scope and talent justice.

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