“Something Strange Across the River” by Kafu Nagai

[All quoted excerpts from Something Strange Across the River by Kafu Nagai are from the translation by Glenn Anderson, published 2013 by one Peace Books]

So here I am in Tokyo again – my second trip in just a few weeks. I’m getting to be quite a jet-setter. But it brings home to me just how Eurocentric my perspective is. I generally like to have some idea of the culture of the place I am visiting. In Europe, especially in Western Europe, this is rarely a problem: I generally have a reasonable idea of the history, the literature, the art and music, the way of life, the cuisine, and so on. And similarly in the few visits I have made to USA and to Australia. And India too: I have, of course,  a very strong connection with Bengal, being Bengali both by birth and by parentage, but when I visit other parts of India, I do not find the culture alien to my sensiblities. And yet, when I come to Tokyo, I find myself, culturally, at a loss. For here is an ancient culture, rich in art and philosophy and literature; and yet, what did I know of it? Of its history – barely anything; of its remarkable cinematic heritage, no more than a few classic films from the likes of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa; and as for the literature – well, I have barely dipped into it. A bit of Soseki, a bit of Mishima, and a few stories of Akutagawa … and that’s about it, really. I have, of course, read the fascinating posts on Japanese literature on Tony’s Reading List blog, but, I am sorry to confess, I have yet to take the step from reading about the books to actually reading the books. This is an omission I am keen to remedy: there’s something not right about visiting a country and not being aware of its culture.

So this time, I boarded the plane with the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories and a collection of stories by Akutagawa in tow. But truth to tell, once that large cognac they hand to you in business class – yes, business class: it’s a work trip and the company is paying – where was I? Oh yes – once that large cognac they hand you in business class hits the brain, all good intentions fall by the wayside, and very little gets read. However, on my last trip here, a Japanese colleague very kindly presented me with a Japanese novel that he hoped I would like. It is a very short novel – almost an elongated short story – by Kafu Nagai, entitled Bokutou Kitai. Bokutou refers to the district of Bokuto, a rather seedy brothel area to the east of Sumida River, and Kitai may be translated as “Tales of Interest”. Translator Glenn Anderson renders the title as Something Strange Across the River.

I turned first, naturally, to Tony’s blog. Tony has written about Kafu Nagai here, and here, but since he hasn’t written about this particular book, there was little I could plagiarise from him. It is a strange and enigmatic novel. It is set at around the late 1930s, around the same this novel was written, and is a first person narration. But beyond letting us know that he is in his mid-50s, and that he is a writer – and not, we are led to believe, a particularly successful writer – the narrator tells us very little about himself. He does, however, give us some excerpts from a novel he had been writing, but which he has now abandoned. This novel tells of a man in his mid-50s who, after his children have grown up, walks out on a marriage that had neither bene particularly discordant, nor particularly blissful. The inference is obviously that the narrator of the novel we are reading has presented in his abandoned novel a picture of himself. We need not accept all the details: when fiction is made out of reality, a number of things must invariably change – a novel, however closely it may attempt to depict reality, is, after all, an artifice, and must follow certain internal rules that do not apply to the chaotic messiness of real life. We can only guess at the differences between the narrator’s real life, and the life led by his alter-ego in his abandoned novel. And we may then take the next natural step, and speculate on the extent to which the narrator of Something Strange Across the River is a self-portrait of Kafu Nagai himself. Nagai was also in his mid-50s when he wrote this novel, and, like his narrator, found himself strangely attracted to the Bokuto area. The parallel is hard to resist: if the fiction we are reading is mirrored by the fiction within the fiction, then the fiction itself is very likely a mirror of reality. Although to what extent this parallel is reasonable, or, even if it is, to what extent the mirrors held up are distorting mirrors, it is impossible to say.

The protagonist of the fiction within the fiction is named: he is Junbei. But the protagonist of Something Strange Across the River, the novel we are reading, isn’t. At the start of the second chapter, we are given a lengthy excerpt from the novel within the novel: it ends with Junbei walking out on his wife, for reasons that we must guess at, for they aren’t clearly specified. The narrator then tells us:

I am not sure how to end the story.

He considers several possibilities for Junbei, and each possibility is one of defeat: what he cannot decide is what kind of defeat would be the correct one. He continues:

When composing a novel I find the time when the characters make choices that will affect their lives the most interesting. These moments of development and their descriptions are fascinating. Conversely, I have also fallen into the trap of placing too much weight and descriptions on the sets and the background when I should be focussing on the characters and their personalities.

It is hard to say whether this is Kafu’s voice or his narrator’s voice, but whoever is speaking here, the reader is being teased. For this is neither a plot-led novel, nor, rather surprisingly, a character-led novel. The narrator tells us not only very little about his background, he rarely tells us what he is thinking, or what motivates him: he just does things, and leaves it to the reader to figure out why. Indeed, the most salient aspect of his character that the reader perceives is his reticence about himself. The plot, such as it is, is about a young prostitute he takes up with, and, after a while, leaves, seemingly with mutual consent. Not much of a plot, and, even more strangely, reticent in terms of characterisation. Why do these people agree to come together? How do they feel about each other? How does their relationship develop? Why do they part? The reticence on all these points makes for a deeply enigmatic tale. The narrator says that he finds most interesting “the time when the characters make choices that will affect their lives”, and yet, when it comes to describing this time, he gives us virtually nothing: the implication appears to be that there is no reason, and that there is no point looking for one: people act as they do, and that is all. It seems a rejection of the European psychological novel that tries to understand the reason for peoples’ behaviour, the wellspring of their motivations: in this novel, such things are either too complex to be looked into, or, more likely, they simply don’t exist.

“But conversely…”

Kafu’s narrator tells us that he has “fallen into the trap” of putting “too much weight” on the background. Once again, the reader is being teased: far from being the trap the author falls into, the depiction of place is at the centre of the work. For it is this background, the city of Tokyo itself, and, more specifically, Bokuto, that emerges as the real protagonist of this novel. It is not like the Tokyo that I see on my work trips – the sparkling, modern city. These are the dirty back-streets, disreputable, filled with taverns and cheap lodgings and brothels. The entire novel exudes a very vivid and powerful sense of place – the shabbiness of the area, the unbearable heat of the summer, the infestation of mosquitoes. The narrator is both drawn to all this, and, at the same time, aches with a nostalgia for an old Tokyo that is disappearing – that has, indeed, already disappeared. He speaks of the “elegance” of the old Tokyo streets, but, once again, is reticent about what attracts him to the past. The reader soon begins to suspect that his nostalgia is not really for the past, but is, rather, a longing for something other than what is.

This is a strange, enigmatic novel, but a curiously fascinating one. Beneath the apparently detached narration, there is a sense of an eternal dissatisfaction with what is, and a longing, not so much perhaps for an irrecoverable past, but for something that cannot be described or specified or even perhaps imagined – something that is not. Why? Such a question is not even to be asked.

***

The Japanese literary heritage is a rich and deep one, and I have not even dipped my toes into it yet. No single work, of course, can claim to be representative of a literary culture so varied, but Something Strange Across the River is certainly a most promising start to my journey.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. When I went to work in Tokyo, I assumed I would have to give up writing for a bit, but it turned out to be a productive time. This was back when I had barely begun the blog, so the starting point was low, but still. The juxtapositions, the newness, and of course all of the art, the aestheticizing of everything, they were all so stimulating.

    And the books, too. It was wonderful to be able to go to the department store built over the subway station and find Japanese classics in English translation! What a culture.

    Reply

    • Well, I’m back home now. I’ve been reading various Japanese short stories – including a lot by Akutagawa – and it is indeed a wonderful literary culture. What a writer Akutagawa was! but more of him later…

      Reply

  2. Posted by Tony on May 13, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the kind words 🙂 This is one that’s been on my radar for a while, but Nagai is a writer who gets rather overlooked by newcomers – there are so many other big names to get to first… There are also a couple of good stories in various anthologies, and everything I’ve read is set in old Tokyo, with characters on the edge of the euphemistically-labelled ‘water trade’ 🙂

    Reply

  3. Posted by alan on May 15, 2016 at 9:22 am

    “The reader soon begins to suspect that his nostalgia is not really for the past, but is, rather, a longing for something other than what is.”
    You have often talked about your own nostalgia and whether or not it is reprehensible in some way. Inevitably I wonder if here you are writing about yourself and inevitably I wonder if I am writing about something that concerns me, otherwise why would I draw attention to it?

    Reply

    • In a sense, everything we write is autobiography. We all react to the same work in different ways: sometimes the difference is slight, sometimes it is radical. But how we react to any work, what we take out of it, what we see in it or fail to see in it, depends to very great extent upon the kind of person we are.

      I don’t mean to get too solipsistic about this. I realise as well that it is possible for us to empathise – i.e. to make a leap of the imagination into minds different from our own. Contrary to what some seem to think, we are not prisoners solely of our own minds. But even so, everything is, in a sense, autobiography.Even this ability to empathise with others is a feature of our own minds.

      Reply

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