Pro Bono

by Seicho Matsumoto (translated by Andrew Clare), Vertical Inc. 2012,
ISBN-10: 1934287024, RRP: £7.69

Review by Jack Cooke

Fans of detective fiction are often obsessive, eagerly awaiting the next fictional crime scene to hit the market. When it comes to the cult surrounding one of Japan’s most idolised crime writers, Seicho Matsumoto, his followers are as ardent as any. Even so, few can claim to have digested his complete bibliography.

Matsumoto only began writing full-time at the age of forty but over the next four decades he penned an astonishing 450 works, from his acclaimed detective novels to popular publications on history, ancient and modern. Even for the most committed fan, this is a pretty intimidating body of work. Matsumoto is the Bob Dylan of crime fiction; there are a thousand B-sides to choose from and almost all are worth a look.

Sadly, only a fraction of this prolific output is available in translation. At the time of writing, a paltry three novels remain in English print, with a selection of Matsumoto’s short stories scattered around various compendiums of Japanese detective fiction. The list of titles yet to be translated includes many works that have become classics in Japan; his 1952 Akutagawa prize-winning Story of the Kokura Journal is one stand-out example.

News of the first English-translation of a Matsumoto novel in twenty-five years was consequently welcomed by fans and critics alike. The offspring of a transatlantic partnership, between American publisher, Vertical, and British translator, Andrew Clare, Pro Bono was published in July this year.

First printed as Kiri no hata in the early 1960s, the novel has aged well, with characters and scene-setting that feel remarkably contemporary. The plot centres on Kiriko, a young woman whose brother is falsely accused of murder in her native Kyushu. Making the long and costly rail journey to Tokyo, Kiriko solicits the help of Japan’s poster-boy lawyer, criminal defense genius Kinzo Otsuka. Consumed by his own personal life and aware that Kiriko cannot afford his services, Otsuka turns her away. The consequences of his failure to take her case on merit, ignoring her appeals to his sense of justice and ‘a righteous cause,’ are played out across the remainder of the novel. The lethargy of the opening chapter, mirrored in the lawyer’s own inaction, is replaced by a whirlwind of events that move the story toward its climax.

Regional politics are integral to the novel. The majority of the protagonists, including murderer and murderee, hail from the anonymous ‘K-City’ in Kyushu and yet the main action unfolds in Tokyo’s Ginza district. The ties formed by these ‘provincial’ men and women in the face of Tokyo’s unsettling metropolis provide much of the novel’s intrigue; evolving from solidarity amongst newcomers to complicity and, finally, bitter rivalries.

Another ploy used to engage the reader is the insertion of court reports and statement witnesses, italicised throughout the novel. At first, this may seem like a simple plot-filler device but the aggregate effect is to convince the reader that they themselves are conducting research essential to solving the crime. When Matsumoto describes a journalist, Keiichi Abe, lost in the archives of a regional newspaper, the combination of a perfectly imagined setting (weak sunlight, frenetic activity beyond the blinds of the archive room) with a series of obscure newspaper cuttings, makes us palpably feel the character’s own excitement. It is as if we, the reader, were leafing through the dusty records ourselves.

Matsumoto is an undeniable master of atmosphere. Whether the scene is dawn or dusk, a crowded Ginza street or an empty back alley, the author instils distinct moods into every location in the novel. Interiors and exteriors alike are rendered in minute detail. One of the most memorable settings in the book is the site of the first murder. Matsumoto’s evocation of a simple domestic scene, a sliding door, an iron kettle, cushions and tatami mats, is unsettled by the subtle agitation of every object; door ajar, kettle lopsided, cushions skewed and a floor dusted in spilt ash. This is Matsumoto’s art; we are always left chasing the action, a few footsteps behind the violence.

Like many other Japanese novels of its era, Pro Bono was originally serialised (Fujin Koron, July 1959 – March 1960) and was most likely condensed when first published in Japan. In spite of this, translator Andrew Clare has done an admirable job of reworking the original Japanese. A literary translator with a background in law, Clare has the perfect credentials for dissecting a novel that focuses on criminal defence. The task of combining fidelity and transparency in Japanese-English translation is always a challenging one. Clare preserves Matsumoto’s subtleties but manages to make the novel an engaging and fluid read. Let us hope there will be more to come from the many Matsumoto mysteries that remain hidden from an English-reading audience.

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