Three Dimensional Reading:
Stories of Time and Space in Japanese Modernist Fiction, 1911 – 1932
Angela Liu, editor
Sakaguchi Kyohei, illustrator
University of Hawai’i Press, 2013
“Interwar”, it seems to me, has got to be the most depressing adjective of all time. Yet phenomenally interesting things may seize the chance to be born in times of peace, and the Taisho Era was an extraordinary time. This is not a book of museum pieces however, but a collection of fabulous strange stories, superbly illustrated. This is ero-guro-nansensu – and “erotic grotesque nonsense” never goes out of style.
As a non-academic reader and fan of Japanese literature, I want to say that this book is too marvelous to leave to the scholars and their libraries. I am exceedingly grateful to the University of Hawai’i Press, and to the community of scholars that made this book possible. But please, don’t let the academic air dissuade you – this is a phenomenal collection of stories. The scholars can explain why these stories are important – I would only like to add that they are also a fabulously good time.
Three Dimensional Reading is a collection of strange stories that bend time and space, as well as form and, occasionally, gender. (Angela Liu, the graceful editor, explains that the title refers to Rittai-ha, the name for Cubism in Japanese.) Only two of them have been previously translated. Although I found all the stories engaging and necessary, there were five I especially loved.
Predictably, two of my favorites were by my very favorite Japanese writers: Inagaki Taruho and Kajii Motojiro, neither one of whom has a full length collection available in English – a fact which seems to me unconscionable and which I hope will soon, at last, be remedied. Kajii Motojiro, who died young of tubercuslosis, wrote stories rooted in his own precarious existence. He wrote of his depression and illness -- yet somehow his despair, rather than sealing him off from the world, delivered him to it.
I’ve never read anyone like Inagaki Taruho, that exceedingly playful magician. He is the Ted Berrigan of Japanese literature – everyone wants to read him, yet no publisher will bring him back into print. Tricia Vita’s lovely translation of 1001 Second Stories was in print for approximately 20 minutes. Only the rich can afford it now. Jeffrey Angles’ translations are masterful and brilliantly annotated – yet they remain scattered in academic publications. Can’t a publisher finally come to the rescue? “Astomania” alone is worth the price of this book.
Ryutanji Yu has never before been translated into English – he lost a literary battle with Kawabata and retreated to writing about cactuses – but his story here, “Pavement Snapshots”, is as compelling as an old box of photos found buried in the earth. Reading this story led me to ponder the effects of time on literature. I imagine this story seemed clever when it was written – and perhaps a little dull fifteen years later. Now, however, when the world it describes has entirely disappeared, this story is phenomenally interesting. Its stark style makes it somehow convincing, like an old newsreel. I hope very much that there is more Ryutanji to translate.
As a fan of Akutagawa, I was surprised that I’d never seen “Wonder Island” before. A light, inverted and heavily vegetarian version of his famous story “Kappa”, this story is essential. Like many of the stories in this book, it conveys an extraordinary sense of liberty and freedom. You can hear the author’s fist on the desk as he declares, Dammit, I’m going to write exactly the way that I choose. This sense of daredevilry is conveyed by the translators, no small stunt in itself.
The story I loved most of all in this book was Sato Haruo’s "A Record of Nonchalant". I read it with my mouth open thinking, “He cannot possibly actually get away with this.” It is a mad story about a civilization where the privileged live in skyscrapers and the dispossessed live underground in the dark. For one afternoon the downtrodden are allowed to surface – only to be blanketed with flyers asking them to volunteer to be transformed into houseplants for the rich. The main character promptly agrees and winds up a rosebush.
OK, forgive me, maybe I’m nuts, but, as far as I’m concerned, this story is about as much fun as it is possible to have in literature. Seeking a frank opinion, I passed “A Record of Nonchalant” to a 15 year old who assured me, “You’re not just a freak. That story rocks.”
Overall, the collection is stunningly rich and full of interest. You will no doubt find your own favorites. Just as translation is an art, so, too, is the writing of notes and introductory material. Although some of the translators are masterful in introducing and annotating their work, I occasionally felt that I was being bullied and told what to think. Thus, I suggest reading the introductory material to each story AFTER the story itself. Skimming, too, remains a non-punishable offense in all nations. (That said, the generous notes to Tanizaki’s “A Golden Death” are a complete education and are perhaps slightly more fun than the story itself.)
I hope this rich and delightful book will open the door to more translations of Japanese modernism and “erotic grotesque nonsense”. While translators as good as these are available, I hope they find more opportunities. (And, please: can they all be illustrated by Sakaguchi Kyohei? He deserves some sort of medal for “bravery with a felt tip pen”. His meticulous and dizzying illustrations are world-class.) As a fan of daring literature, this book was the most dazzling event in a long time. I can only hope that another party like this one will soon come along.