When Henrik nearly met Fyodor

According to Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen, when Ibsen was staying in Dresden in 1870, a near neighbour of his was Dostoyevsky. It is unlikely that Dostoyevsky would have heard of Ibsen at that time, even though Ibsen had already written the two great verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. Ibsen would, most likely, have heard of Dostoyevsky, who had, by 1870, written Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, but he would not have known that Dostoyevsky was at the time in Dresden; and even if he had known, he would have had no particular reason to seek him out. In 1870, Ibsen would still have been working on that vast two-part historic play Emperor and Galilean, which he, if not posterity, thought his most important work; and soon afterwards, he would start on that series of twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, and ending in 1899 with the visionary When We Dead Awaken. Dostoyevsky was working at the same time on Demons.

According to Meyer, the two both enjoyed long walks in the Royal Gardens, and they both frequented the cafés in Brühl’s Terrace. It would have been surprising indeed if they had never at least passed each other. But, attractive though the idea might be, it would have been even more unlikely for them to have met and conversed.

One could, of course, easily imagine that they did. That, after exchanging initial civilities, they had engaged in talk on literature, exchanged ideas, spoke about God and the Universe and Man’s Immortal Soul, and spurred each other on, each casting new light on all the great thoughts and ideas that were whirling so tumultously inside the other’s head. One could, without too great an effort, make of this possibility an engaging play for radio.

What intrigues me even more, however, is the possibility that they had sat near each other in some café, without the first idea who the other was, and that the only words exchanged were when Henrik had asked Fyodor to pass the salt. And that after the salt was passed, they had both returned to their respective thoughts, barely aware of the other’s presence.

Perumal Murugan: an update

Last year, I wrote a post highlighting the plight of Indian author Perumal Murugan, who had been deemed to have committed that gravest of crimes, “hurting religious sentiments”, and who had been compelled, as a consequence, to announce that he would henceforth desist from hurting religious sentiments further by the simple expedient of ending his literary career.

Well, there’s some good news on this front. The Madras High Court recently quashed a criminal case against Murugan; dismissed a plea moved by residents of his home town to initiate further criminal action against him; and held that Murugan’s public promise to write no more is not legally binding.

All of this is most welcome, of course, and a good reason for rejoicing. But it remains nothing short of a national scandal that, in a free and democratic  country, an author could end up in court in the first place for “hurting sentiments”. And I wish I had confidence that Mr Murugan will not be further harassed by those whose sentiments have been so badly hurt.

On dancing elephants, flatulent horses, and a scene from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

Whenever I start a post protesting that this isn’t a political blog, the word “but” inevitably appears, and I make a political point. And then I retreat decorously. This blog is really about literature,  I say. About cultural matters. A bit of art, a bit of music, and the like. Politics? Nah – not here, mate. We’re above all that here.

But it’s hard avoiding politics these days. It’s always hard avoiding politics, but it’s especially hard these days. For those who don’t know, Britain has voted to leave the EU; after campaigns that have focussed almost unremittingly on the issue of immigration, and have, in the process, prodigally sent out coded and not-so-coded racist and foreigner-hating messages, racist and foreigner-hating incidents are now, unsurprisingly, dramatically on the rise; the country has a huge deficit and, now, a negative credit-rating; the pound is in freefall; the Prime Minister has resigned; one of the favourites to become the next Prime Minister is an unprincipled scoundrel – and the other contenders are not too inspiring either; the major opposition party has just entered the latest stage in the process of tearing itself apart; UK may well break up, as “England expects that the rest of you will go along with whatever we bloody well decide” is not likely to go down too well in Wales, in Northern Ireland, or in Scotland; and so on, and so forth. In short, it’s not looking good. We are floating on a wild and violent sea, each way and none. Duncan’s horses may not yet have eaten each other, but they’re eyeing each other threateningly, and licking their lips in anticipation. And frankly, in times such as these, it becomes hard to focus one’s mind on the structural intricacies of Henry James’ novels.

But I really don’t want to talk about political matters. There is too much noise being made already, and no-one is listening to what anyone else is saying. So I’ll stick to commenting on what I usually comment on – literature, language, music, art – all that kind of thing that, surely, no-one can object to. So, in this post – the first, I realise, after a fairly long hiatus – I shall focus on a Bengali expression that, robbed as it is in translation of its rhythm and rhyme, loses its impact when put into English; and I shall be drawing attention to a scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The Bengali expression I have in mind is hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. It is a somewhat crude expression, and not one spoken by people of refined sensibilities: it is used to pour scorn on excessively high expectations. When someone is excited about how wonderful things will be, and you are somewhat sceptical about it all, you say hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. Literally translated, it means “Elephants will dance, horses will fart”, but, as I said, shorn of its rhythm and its rhyme, the literal translation does not communicate the epigrammatic force of the original.

The scene in Julius Caesar to which I would like to draw attention is Act 3, Scene 1, the scene of Caesar’s assassination. There were some good arguments on the conspirators’ side: Caesar’s ambition was certainly a danger to freedom, it was highly likely that he would make himself dictator, and so on. Some of the conspirators, admittedly, had less noble reasons also, but at their best, they did have the welfare of Rome at heart; Brutus certainly did. But whatever their motives, their focus had been on the act of assassination itself: they had not given proper consideration to what would happen in the immediate aftermath:

Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.

Some to the common pulpits, and cry out
‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’ 

People and senators, be not affrighted;
Fly not; stand stiff: ambition’s debt is paid. 

Go to the pulpit, Brutus. 

And Cassius too. 

Where’s Publius? 

Here, quite confounded with this mutiny. 

Stand fast together, lest some friend of Caesar’s
Should chance– 

Talk not of standing. Publius, good cheer;
There is no harm intended to your person,
Nor to no Roman else: so tell them, Publius. 

And leave us, Publius; lest that the people,
Rushing on us, should do your age some mischief. 

Do so: and let no man abide this deed,
But we the doers.

In the absence of a coherent strategy, they all speak on top of each other, and can do little more than repeat slogans such asLiberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!” while everything seems to collapse around them.

For rhetoric is all these people have, Soon, they are reduced to acts that, far from addressing a chaotic situation of their own making, are merely symbolic, and, frankly, rather grotesque:

                        Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty!’

Why do I keep thinking of this scene, I wonder? Well, who knows. It may or may not have some relevance to what is happening now. I certainly hope not: I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, and to eat humble pie if I am. But I think that’s about as much as I want to say here on political matters. This is not a political blog, after all! And nothing I say is likely to count for much – not with all those elephants dancing and horses farting all over the place with such gleeful abandon.

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

On George Chapman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and uncalled-for obscenities

As I see this blog as a safe space from the various vulgarities and obscenities that sadly pollute our world, I generally try to ensure that all posts here are suitable for family viewing. There is, admittedly, the odd exception, but, like Mr Podsnap, I disapprove of anything that may bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. On the rare occasion I break this rule, I feel it best to provide a trigger warning. And I do so here. If you are offended by rude words, by uncalled-for obscenity, please stop reading here. For those who wish to read on, I would like to make it clear that I cannot be held responsible for any offence caused, or for any trauma incurred.

Windfucker. It is not, I’m happy to say, a word in common usage.  It was thrust upon my attention recently when I mistyped the word “wonderful” on my iPad, typing an “i” instead of an “o” (the two vowels being next to each other on the keypad), and, possibly, omitting the “er”. The auto-correct facility on my iPad assumed that the word I was trying to type in was “windfucker”.

I confess to being at the time deeply traumatised and mildly amused, but then remembered that I had indeed used the word before. But my usage had been, I hasten to add, entirely respectable, referring as it did to George Chapman, the first translator of Homer, who, in the preface to the 1611 edition of his translation of The Iliad, referred to a detractor as an “envious windfucker”. The word, it seems, referred then to a kestrel, and was an alternative – and, in those days, not too obscene an alternative – to the windhover. But now that we no longer use this term to refer to the windhover, we could do worse, I think, than follow the example of that great wordsmith George Chapman, and use the word as a suitably disdainful term of opprobrium.

I can’t help thinking also that Gerard Manley Hopkins missed a trick here. “The Windhover” is certainly among the greatest of all English poems, and any anthology of English verse would be incomplete without it. But isn’t it a shame that, given the choice between “windhover” and “windfucker”, Hopkins went for the more respectable option? For perhaps the one and only time, one can’t help thinking, Hopkins chose the wrong word.

Akutagawa’s visions of Hell

“Rashomon” and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin, published by Penguin Classics


There’s more than a whiff of the demonic about Akutagawa. His visions of life, whether set in ancient days or in contemporary times, seem to be set in a moral darkness, and depict various types of agony, both physical and spiritual. In the very first story, “Rashomon” (1917), which gave the title and the setting (though not the storyline) to Kurosawa’s film, takes us into the upper storey of Rashomon Gate, where bodies of those killed in those lawless times have been deposited, and where, amidst the hideous stench of physical corruption, an old woman is plucking the hair from the corpses in order to make wigs: she has to live, after all. But in the world that Akutagawa presents, there doesn’t seem much reason to want to live. Akutagawa himself, whose mother had died in an asylum, and who was haunted by the fear that his mother’s mental illness may be hereditary, committed suicide in 1927, aged only 35. The autobiographical stories grouped in the final section of this collection do not give the impression of a particularly happy or contented life.

His most famous story, thanks to Kurosawa using it as the basis of his film “Rashomon”, is “In a Bamboo Grove” (“Yabu no naka”, 1927). A woman has been raped, and a man has been killed; the story consists of the various narratives given in evidence by the people involved in the matter – including one from the dead man himself, speaking through a medium. These stories all give contradictory accounts accounts of what really happened, each participant in the affair putting his or her self in a good light, and the others in a bad. That there is a truth out there somewhere, an absolute truth, is not questioned: what is questioned is our ability to get to that truth, given that all we have to go by are our fallible perceptions, and given also our ability, indeed, our propensity, to deceive – to deceive both other people and ourselves, to deceive both deliberately and unwittingly, such that, beyond a point, we can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.

Distinguishing between reality and fantasy is not, after all, an easy thing to do. In one of the stories, a monk invents a myth about a dragon. He knows it to be a myth: it’s his own invention, after all. But when everyone starts believing in it, he curiously starts believing in his own fantasy, and at the climactic point of the story, he too glimpses, along with the vast throng of the faithful, the mythical dragon, his own invention, rising into the sky. Akutagawa did not seem to have much time for religion: the human imagination may indeed be a thing of wonder, and can create its own reality, but, for Akutagawa, that’s where Heaven resides – in our imagination, and in our imagination only.

Hell, however, is all too real, and nowhere more so than in the story “Hell Screen” (“Jigokuhen”, 1918). But Akutagawa’s Hell is not of the other world: it is right here, on earth. We are, once again, in ancient times, and the lord, the local potentate, is an evil and cruel man. The narrator, though, is very obviously a foolish man, who cannot see his master’s evil. The court painter, Yoshihide, however, can, and when the lord graciously makes Yoshihide’s daughter a lady-in-waiting, Yoshihide knows exactly what that means, although the narrator doesn’t. He tries his best to rescue his daughter, but he cannot.

The situation is similar to the one we find in Verdi’s Rigoletto (which was based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’Amuse, an English version of which I have been trying for years to track down, though without much success): in that opera, Rigoletto, the hump-backed court jester despised by all, and his innocent daughter Gilda, find themselves victims of an evil and lascivious ruler; but the terrible irony is that Rigoletto himself is very much part of the moral corruption to which he and his daughter eventually become victims. Similarly here: Yoshihide is very much part of the evil and the cruelty of the society he inhabits, and which claims both his daughter, and, eventually, himself. But dark and pitiless though the entire story is, I must admit to being taken by surprise, and, hardened reader though I think myself to be, genuinely shocked by the ending, where all the horrors of Hell itself seem to irrupt with the utmost force and violence. Why look for a hell in the other world when it is right here, under our very noses?

Akutagawa is renowned in Japan as a great stylist, and, assuming translator Jay Rubin’s English version reproduces at least something of Akutagawa’s writing style, one can see why. The prose is spare and precise, with all excess fat trimmed off. It is not without humour, but the humour is invariably grim, and dripping with irony. Gogol sometimes comes to mind – not least because that both he and Akutagawa seem to have an obsession with noses, and both have actually written a story called “The Nose”; but Akutagawa has none of Gogol’s whimsy, and there’s no hint here of Gogol’s eccentric and highly idiosyncratic digressions, which seem so often to displace the principal story itself as the major focus of interest. Akutagawa always has a story to tell, and he tells it directly. The images he chooses are clear-cut, and to the point: they never take a life of their own, as Gogol’s frequently do. And yet, despite the precision of the writing and the orderliness such precision suggests, the world depicted is one that is most disordered, bordering on the Hellish, and sometimes, indeed, crossing over the border into some Hell right here in this world. It is the Hell-on-earth depicted by Kurosawa in his cinematic masterpiece Ran (which, I am told, means “chaos”): we all know that this film was Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I cannot help wondering to what extent Kurosawa’s demonic vision was informed by Akutagawa’s. At the start of the unforgettable battle sequence in the film, a dying soldier informs us that we are indeed in Hell; and what follows is a vision of Hell that seems at least as close to the world of Akutagawa as it is to the storm-swept heath of Shakespeare’s play.

Hell is particularly apparent in the last few stories in this collection. Akutagawa never wrote an autobiography, but some of his stories are so clearly autobiographical, that, grouped together as they are at the end of this collection, they serve as an autobiography of sorts. The last two stories he did not publish: they were found amongst his papers after his death. One of them, “The Life of a Stupid Man” (“Aru aho no issho”), is startling: rather than a continuous narrative, we are presented with a series of vignettes and passing thoughts and seemingly random ruminations – some as short as a mere couple of sentences or so –all of which come together as in a mosaic to form a whole. And in the last story in this collection, “Spinning Gears”, the pretence, flimsy to start with, that this is really a work of fiction, is quickly dropped: the narrator is depicting his own disintegrating mind, and, as he mentions by name some of his earlier work, there can be no doubt that he is no fictional character: the narrator here is Ryunosuke Akutagawa himself. And here again, we have a depiction of a Hell right here on earth, as he realises that he can no longer exert any control over his own mind. But no matter how febrile the content, no matter how little control he seems to have over the workings of his own mind, the writing throughout remains firmly focussed and controlled. The disorder of his mind is expressed with the most exemplary literary order, and feeling for form.

In “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he had described – writing about himself in the third person – an unsuccessful attempt at suicide:

Taking advantage of his sleeping alone, he had tried to hang himself with a sash tied over the window lattice. When he slipped his head into the sash, however, he suddenly became afraid of death. Not that he feared the suffering he would have to experience at the moment of dying. He decided to try to again, using his pocket watch to see how long it would take. This time, everything began to cloud ever after a short interval of pain. He was sure that once he got past that, he would enter death. Checking the hands of his watch, he discovered that the pain lasted one minute and twenty-some seconds. It was pitch dark outside the lattices, but the wild clucking of the chickens echoed in the darkness.

It is hard to figure out just what state of turmoil his mind must have been in while writing something like this, but that mind could still pick out the “wild clucking of chickens”, and place it with absolute precision.

The final story, “Spinning Gears”, ends with this:

– I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?

This is followed only by translator Jay Rubin’s laconic note in parentheses:

(1927: Posthumous manuscript)

“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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