Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Reason

I need a new label for this. Most of the crime fiction I write about here can be categorised as detective stories. My own preference is fairly strongly for the more puzzle oriented books; but I don't expect that everything that I read should have Ellery Queen style formal proof of the culprit. 理由 (riyuu, The Reason, 1998) by MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき), which won the Naoki Prize (one of Japan's major prizes for popular literature), is not really written as a mystery. There are things we don't know at the start of the story that we learn as it goes on; but the narrative does not invite us to try and puzzle too much about what is going on. I've tagged this post as "crime novel". Of course most detective stories are crime novels too; but I'll reserve the label for posts about books which can't be read as mysteries.

I mentioned Miyabe's interesting approach to narration when I wrote about The Long Long Murder (長い長い殺人). The Reason is not so unusual; but it still shows an interest in how to tell a story. The crime that the book describes is the violent death of four people in an apartment high up in a luxury block of flats. It soon becomes clear that the victims are not the owners that the building's administration have on their books; and the police realise that they have no idea who has died or why. The story's narrator presents most of the book as if reporting a now solved actual crime, with the limited viewpoint that that entails. The narrator is not very present in the narrative, but gives a tapestry of second hand accounts of the various witnesses and incidentally involved characters. Occasionally we get a little more involved with a description of an interview with a major character. And then, in contrast to this documentary style, we also get a few chapters which are narrated (as if by an omniscient narrator) from the viewpoint of one or another character. These sections are more conventionally novelistic, though the reader might suppose that they too came from a non fiction writer, choosing to write in a more novelistic way. The documentary style majority of the book also implies a readership slightly different from the real readership. Living in the world in which the crime was a major media event, they presumably know more than we do about what happened. For us the crime is a mystery. Finding out exactly what happened and why is not so much a matter of investigating, as waiting for the narrator to get to that part of the account.

You'll often read descriptions of the history of Japanese detective fiction which implies a sort of war between puzzle detective stories and social detective stories, with MATSUMOTO Seichou driving out the puzzles in the fifties and sixties, until the "new orthodox" detective story brought back the puzzle under the leadership of AYATSUJI Yukito (綾辻 行人) in 1987. I haven't read enough to say this is complete nonsense; but I feel confident that it's fairly misleading. Matsumoto wrote so many books that he almost counts as a school in his own right; but those I've read, while clearly concerned with describing the way the world is now, also have a strong puzzle element. And what was the rest of the "social school"? "Society" is not the central interest of almost any of the other writers from the seventies and eighties that I have read, even if the puzzle was not central either. Traditional themes like the impossible crime have always been popular enough in Japan that it is no surprise when one meets such a trick in almost any crime novel. That said, The Reason lives up to the stereotype of the "social school", as far as a book can.

Towards the beginning, it looks like the theme of the book is going to be "real estate in the post bubble economy". Many of the early chapters and middle chapters are concerned with the dubious finance and not quite legal practices in the buying and selling of property in Japan's depressed economy. Gradually it becomes clear that this is part of a larger focus. As we meet with different groups of people concerned in the case, we realise that the theme is not so much "real estate" as "making a home"; most people who buy a house or flat, do so to raise a family. We meet various families and hear their stories. Some are getting along well , others are just managing to hold together, or breaking apart. And we also see people who have left their families for various reasons.

In the end the book seems to favour a particular view on the way society is going. It does so only through opinions expressed by the characters; but the narrator does not offer a divergent opinion either in their own voice or from another character. It's a view that I look at with some scepticism, as I feel it forgets that the world that young people are growing up in is changed by circumstances over which they had no choices. Some things are possible for them that were not possible for their parents. Other things that were easy for their parents are harder for them (here I am thinking particularly of their financial situation). This is obviously true in Europe. I know that Japan has not changed as much; but I think the same trends are there.

The book is one of the longer ones that I have read, over 670 pages. That would be a little shorter in a typical western paperback format (Japanese paperback pages are small, but densely printed); but it would still be a long book. If that doesn't discourage you, and if your interest in crime fiction goes beyond mysteries or suspense, then it is certainly worth trying. Despite the length, it had no trouble in holding my interest.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Some uninformed impressions

The next review is going to take a little while, as the book I'm currently reading is over 670 pages long. I thought I'd fill the gap with some impressions I've got of the Japanese detective story business. Then I thought "But I don't know anything about commercial publishing in Europe or America either, so this just so much uninformed chatter." But then I thought, "Look at the rest of the blog: uninformed chatter is pretty much all I do here." So here you get a few remarks about things that have struck me while reading. Perhaps if you're better informed, you could tell me what I'm misunderstanding.

The common background to most of the points below, is that Japanese writers have something of a struggle, if they want to get by as writers, enjoying a potentially large market in their own country, but (for most of them) only there. Despite its difficult writing system, Japan clearly has a high rate of literacy. Whether the 99% literacy you'll often see in reference works is based on anything solid is slightly questionable, as the last time Japan seriously investigated its own literacy seems to have been in 1948 (and it wasn't 99% then); but you can find small international surveys in which Japan really does score better than other developed countries.

  1. The importance of prizes. There are a lot of prizes in the Japanese book world. My impression is that there are more of them than in England or America. Very often when you read a writer's first novel, you find it was submitted for a prize for first novelists, whether it won or not. The Edogawa Rampo Award is the most important of these in the context of detective stories. Ellery Queen is the only writer who comes to mind, who started his career like that in the west; but doubtless there are others. Still the biographies of Japanese writers almost always mention that the first work was submitted for a prize; and I can remember at least one fictional first author depicted working towards a contest deadline. Since a writer is likely to want to go full time from the first publication (see point 3 below), the prize for a first publication is probably important both for publicity and for its actual value.
  2. Serial publishing. Many of the classics of Japanese crime literature (and other genres) were serialised in newspapers or magazines before being published in book form. You still sometimes see this mentioned even with recent books. The heyday of serial publication in England was the Victorian age; and almost all the classics of that time were first published in magazines like Dickens' Household Words. In the twentieth century, occasionally a magazine or a weekly paper would serialise a book; but it was always (in my lifetime, at least) an exception. The only crime fiction example I can think of in England is Kingsley Amis's The Crime of the Century, written for The Sunday Times in 1975 (and completely worthless). The background for the importance of serials in Japan is perhaps that the Japanese are huge newspaper and magazine readers. Getting a serial is another mark of success within detective stories, when a fictional writer is being described.
  3. Prolific authors. There are a few writers in English famous for the conveyor belt like book production that they kept up, John Creasey and Erle Stanley Gardner, for instance. AKAGAWA Jirou (赤川 次郎) and NISHIMURA Kyoutarou (西村 京太郎) have similar productivity in Japan. Each has written more than five hundred books. But even if you forget these famously prolific writers, a large number of books seems to be almost the rule for Japanese writers. A typical publication speed in England or America might be one book a year or slightly less, with some writers managing two and only the most prolific getting near three for any length of time. Looking at a writer's first twenty years of publication, if I've counted right, SHIMADA Souji has over sixty books, ARISUGAWA Arisu has 38 (excluding a large number of edited anthologies and books with co-authors). My impression is that successful writers nearer the one a year rate are fairly rare. One reason might be that Japanese employers look for more devotion from their employees and side jobs like writing are seen as an indication that their heart is somewhere else. The consequence is that the discovery that an employee is also publishing novels can lead to dismissal (this too crops up as a consideration with one of the fictional authors in a book I read). Most professional writers in England probably make their main living with a job of some kind and write what they can in their spare time until they become sufficiently established to risk writing full time.
  4. Translation. You can probably see that the label "books with an English translation" in the sidebar doesn't have many entries. It's incredibly rare for Japanese books to get a translation; and in fiction, "his books had been translated into English" is used to indicate a hugely successful writer. This is perhaps the reason why the covers of many books feature an English translation, or an alternative English title, even though the book has never been translated. The English often sounds slightly off. Sougen suiri bunko, which specialises in translations of English mysteries, generally manages competent English titles (and adds them to almost all their books).
  5. Bookshops. I've mentioned this before, but finding a book in a Japanese bookshop can be difficult. Most are arranged not by genre, even in the broadest sense, but by publisher. This means that if you're looking for a particular book, you need to know the publisher in advance. The reason for this, I imagine, is the difficulty of Japanese names. Written with Chinese characters (kanji), their meaning is not always immediately evident even for Japanese readers. So the spine of a typical paperback will look something like the photo below. At the top is the name of the author in kanji (NORIZUKI Rintarou). Below that is the first letter of the family name in hiragana (the Japanese syllabic alphabet), の ("no"). Below that is a number, 75, showing the place that the book takes in this publisher's list of its books by writers whose names start with "No-". So when putting books on shelves the bookshop staff only have to read the letter-number combination to find the right place.
 That does mean, however, that if a writer wants to catch the attention of browsing readers, they need to be with a publisher already established in the kind of thing the writer is writing.

(Sorry for the formatting of this post, by the way. I can't quite get Blogger's software to put that photo where I want it.)

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Friends

夏の庭 The Friends (natsu no niwa, The Summer Garden, 1992) is the first book by YUMOTO Kazumi (湯本香樹実, born 1959), a Japanese children's writer. It was translated into English in 1996 by Cathy Hirano as The Friends (the subtitle of the Japanese original) and made into a film by SOUMAI Shinji  (相米 慎二) in 1994. The Friends won prizes for children's literature both in the original and in Hirano's translation, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book award in 1997. Hirano has also translated other books by Yumoto: The Spring Tone (2001), The Letters (2005), and The Bear and the Wildcat (2011).

The story follows three twelve year old boys over the summer holiday of their last year at junior school, KIYAMA (木山), the narrator, YAMASHITA (山下), and KAWABE (川辺). The three friends have their various problems: Kiyama's mother is an alcoholic, Yamashita, who is overweight (called 'fatty' by his friends), is clumsy at sport and shows little talent at schoolwork, Kawabe, from a single parent family, is nervous and intense, given to telling lies about his missing father. Kawabe has heard from neighbours of an old man living alone, who looks like dying any time now. 

'Kiyama, you've never seen a dead body have you?'
'Er no.'
'Same with me.'
'So what are you asking for?'  
'What I mean,' Kawabe's eyes glittered. Scary. 'What I mean is this. An old man living alone, one day he dies, what do you reckon will happen?'
'What will happen? If he dies on his own —'
What would happen? With no friends, no family, even if he had last words to say, with no-one to hear them those words would drift through the air or the room and finally disappear, perhaps. As if he had never said anything. 'I don't want to die.' 'Bitter.' 'It hurts.' 'It was a good life.' Whatever.
'I'm talking about discovering him.'
'What?'
'When the old guy dies alone. Find him.'
'Who?'
'Us. Who else?'


This may not sound very promising. The assorted social problems and a 'big theme' (death) may suggest to you the kind of slightly earnest children's books often aimed at ten to fourteen year olds. There are a lot of fairly bad books in that style, and a few that are good, but still not much fun to read. The Friends may sometimes give the impression of striving after seriousness, but it is not dull or earnest. The narrator Kiyama has a basically optimistic outlook, and the book's character comes from his lively and humorous description of the boys' friendship with each other, and then with the old man, who, aware of their vulture like observation, comes out of his lethargy to put his house and life in order. The 'problems' of the children are not allowed to dominate the narrative, they are just a part of their lives.


To some extent I was reminded of the English writer, Jan Mark. (Perhaps Betsy Byars would be the comparison that would come to mind if I was American.) The Friends doesn't feel quite as realistic or have the wit and depth of observation of the best of Jan Mark's books; but there is the same skill at getting the reader interested in sharing the interactions of 'normal' people's lives. As with Mark's books, the reader shouldn't expect too much action, though the story is eventful enough.

I haven't read the English version; but you can perhaps get an idea of it from an article where Cathy Hirano talks about her approach to translation here