Keshiki Series

 

Keshiki Series includes:

  • Time Differences by Tawada Yoko, translated by Jeffrey Angles
  • The Transparent Labyrinth by Hirano Keiichiro, translated by Kerim Yasar
  • Mariko/ Mariquita by Ikezama Natsukim, translated by Alfred Birnbaum
  • Friendship for Grown-ups by Yamazaki Nao-Cola, translated by Polly Barton
  • Mikumari by Kubo Misumi, translated by Polly Barton
  • The Girl Who is Getting Married by Matsuda Aoko, translated by Angus Turvill
  • At the Edge of the Wood by Ono Masatsuga, translated by Julie Winters Carpenter
  • Spring Sleepers by Yoshida Kyoko

Strangers Press (2017)
ISBN-13: 978-1911343004

Review by Eluned Gramich

The first thing you notice about the Keshiki series – the new collection of contemporary Japanese writing from Strangers Press – is its striking beauty. Each of the chapbooks has its own unique design, which reflects the atmosphere of the stories within. The importance of the visual is brought home by the series’ title, Keshiki or 景色, meaning ‘scene’ or ‘scenery’. These eight booklets carry eight different views of an expansive and ever-changing landscape.

The project, which began in Norwich, has reached Japanese writers and translators across the world. Yoshida Kyoko, for instance, has chosen to write in her second language (English) rather than her mother tongue. She is not the only one to move between languages: Tawada Yoko, a Japanese writer based in Berlin, has written both in German and Japanese. Tawada’s novella Time Differences, translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles into a flowing English, follows the lives of three young men, locked into a complex love-triangle. Each of them is displaced: the Japanese teacher in Germany, the American in Japan, the German in America. This is one of the more realist stories in the series, and Tawada brings each place alive through personal touches; details that no one but an author who has spent time in those countries could know. Each man lusts for the other, and behind the romantic yearning is also the shadow of homesickness. Tawada succeeds in describing honestly and delicately those complicated emotions that accompany living abroad, the sadness that comes with not being in the right place at the right time.

Not being in the right place at the right time is one of the central turning points of Hirano Keiichiro’s The Transparent Labyrinth, translated by Kerim Yasar. Here, too, we are split between countries: Hungary and Japan. Europe and home. The way in which living abroad can change a person is brought shockingly to life through a horrifying incident of sexual violence. The main character, a Japanese businessman in Budapest, is drawn into a labyrinth of sex and deceit. He shares the experience with a fellow ex-pat Misato, and falls in love with her. When he returns to Japan, he finds her again and they begin a passionate affair. But is it really the same Misato in Japan as in Hungary? Yasar’s translation captures the dark world of surveillance and mystery, as Hirano’s storytelling explores the dangers of being seduced by foreign lands. Okada’s isolation is symbolised by the title: ‘he had …, without knowing it, been wandering in a labyrinth, lost. (…) Its walls couldn’t be seen or touched, and the world outside wasn’t obscured by even a trace of fog. How would he find a way out?’ Misato is the only one who understands, but even she is an unknown quantity. The Misato of Hungary and Misaki of Japan embody two aspects of the self: the one who wants to stay and the other who wants to leave.

A similar push-pull relationship is played out in Ikezawa Natsuki’s Mariko/Mariquita. The different selves are encapsulated in the two names: Mariko and Mariquita, the latter being what Kyojiro’s lover calls herself on the tropical island of Guam. Kyojiro, a young anthropologist, arrives to carry out fieldwork on a remote tropical island. As Pico Iyer points out in the foreword (one piece of advice: don’t read the foreword before the book. Some give away too much, others too little, and they’re far more interesting after you’ve formed your own impressions), Ikezawa locates Japan, not in relation to Europe or the USA, but in the South-Asian tropics alongside the Philippines. It could not be further from the brooding European cities in Tawada and Hirano’s works. Here it’s all humidity, jet-skis, blue sky and shimmering horizons as Kyojiro is forced to re-evaluate his unremarkable, work-filled life after his affair with Mariko/Mariquita. Alfred Birnbaum’s translation renders expertly into English the different layers of tone – the casual and formal, the affecting and distancing. Will Koji be able to leave everything behind for love?

These stories show how unwise it is to fix your hopes on one person, because they might not be who you thought they were. In the final short story of Friendship for Grown-ups by Yamazaki Nao-Cola: the thinly disguised author, Yano Terumi , discovers the difficulty expectations can cause when she gets involved with a musician, who is also a reader of her novels. Yano realises she can’t separate herself from her persona as an ‘author’, no matter how hard she tries. In her writing, Yamazaki seems more interested in the distance between lovers than in what unites them. The title suggests that real intimacy becomes more difficult as you grow older. To have a real love-affair, it’s almost better to be a child: innocent, uncomplicated, trusting. The highlight in this book is its beginning: an amoeba-to-human origin myth mixed up with pop culture and tongue-in-cheek references to her characters. It’s funny and clever, and its wackiness is buoyed along by Polly Barton’s translation: ‘People…began to make noises like “ah” and “ooh”. And so language was born’.

Where Yamazaki’s characters consistently fail to get together – apart from the amoebas – sex is the centrepiece of Kubo Misumi’s Mikumari. By contrast to the sadomasochistic elements in Tawada and Hirano’s sexual encounters, Kubo’s story of an older married cosplayer’s affair with a schoolboy is full of playful eroticism. A schoolboy dresses up as anime characters and learn his lines before each meeting with Anzu. In Mikumari, pretending to be someone else isn’t necessarily a source of anxiety as it is for Yano Terumi, but of intense pleasure. Through the boy’s narration, we get a glimpse into the childless marriage of the woman who’s initiating him into adulthood, and the ending is surprisingly melancholy and bittersweet.

Marriage is also the focus of Matsuda Aoko’s aptly titled The Girl Who is Getting Married, which follows a woman coming to terms with her best friend’s engagement. The storytelling is defined by psychological precision and sharp, aphoristic commentary (Of a dead goldfish, the narrator says: ‘Even the smallest of deaths has an undeniable splendour when it happens in front of you’, and a shopping mall: ‘It is so bright you could forget the human race has such a thing as shadows’).  Matsuda spins the ordinary (the price of tights, for example, or hair removal) into the extraordinary. This style also owes its clarity to the translator, Angus Turvill. As the story develops, the narrator’s mask begins to slip, revealing her fear of losing her friend, as well as deeper fears about men and sex. After re-reading, I’m still not sure whether this is a book about female friendship, lesbian attachment or if it’s a confessional soliloquy, or a mixture of all three at once.

In the Keshiki series, narratives often disintegrate, obfuscate, mystify. In Ono Masatsugu’s At the Edge of the Wood, translated by the wonderful Juliet Winters Carpenter (translator of Mizumura Minae’s A True Story), we leave the known – Japan, Germany, Hungary, Guam – and enter a nightmarish wonderland. Reminiscent of the deliberate dislocation and timelessness of J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, Masatsugu tells the story of a father and son living alone in a cottage near a wood, while his pregnant wife is staying with her parents. The wood is a place of supernatural power, filled with dwarves, ghosts, changelings, and refugees whose presence is never fully explained. An old woman appears, with a withered breast hanging out of her clothes, and seduces his son. The sound of coughing in the night, harmless at first, grows increasingly menacing. Even the candles on a birthday cake becomes an object of unnamable fear. Masatusugu is a master of balancing the banal (“driving to the shopping centre again”) with the ghostly (“the sound of coughing – the sound of a person being strangled”), creating a disconcerting tale that moves between the real and unreal.

Nowhere else is the boundary between real and unreal more blurred than in sleeplessness. In Yoshida Kyoko’s Spring Sleepers, the ‘genuine insomnia’ sufferer Yuki is sent by his doctor on a retreat. His journey takes him to a topsy-turvy realm beyond our world, even our dimension: ‘The city was now composed of lines and segments, angles and curves. Triangles, circles, squares’. Language itself breaks down: ‘Sun Light, Moon Reflect, River Flow, Wind Blow’. Although written in English, Yoshida’s second language, the play with words recalls Japanese kanji. Perhaps because English is not her mother tongue, Yoshida’s language is often daring and punchy, giving us phrases like ‘farewell-dressed’ and ‘cat-walked’, a playfulness which is evident, too, in the events of the story. As Brian Evenson notes in his introduction: ‘Yoshida subtly passes back and forth between one lens and the other, suggesting that literature is less a national enterprise and more a productive interchange between genres, traditions, languages and cultures’. Similarly, in her afterword, Yoshida writes that the aim of the Keshiki series is to create a home for this interchange between ‘migratory writers’. Travel, migration and restlessness are at the heart of these stories. As Yoshida says: ‘The language of our writing is a strange land where we travel’. After reading and re-reading these stories, I can only hope that Keshiki will continue its journey into new and unexplored territories.

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