Yasushi Inoue’s career as a novelist began in 1949 when at the age of forty-two he published the novella The Hunting Gun. This was closely followed by another novella, Bullfight, which I reviewed back in November 2014. Inoue went on to write 50 novels and more than 150 novellas/short stories, making him one of the leading figures in the world of Japanese literature. Sadly for those us in the English-speaking world, only a handful of Inoue’s works appear to be have been translated. All credit then to Pushkin Press for publishing English translations of three of his books in the past few years (the third is a collection of three short stories, Life of a Counterfeiter).
The opening chapter of The Hunting Gun is narrated by a writer, a man who relates the story of a prose poem he has composed for inclusion in a magazine titled ‘The Hunter’s Friend’. The narrator, no fan of blood sports himself, was originally approached by the magazine’s editor, an old classmate from high school, with the suggestion of contributing a piece. Following the publication of his poem (titled ‘The Hunting Gun’), the narrator receives a letter from Misugi Jösuke, a man who believes he is the central figure depicted in the work. Misugi suspects that the poet may have seen him when he visited the hunting grounds on Mount Amagi in early November. When the narrator casts his mind back to that time, he recalls seeing a figure in that very spot, a tall, middle-aged man who seemed to radiate an aura of solitude.
He had just stepped off the path onto a road that led through a dense wood up into the mountains, and as I watched him go, treading cautiously, one slow step at a time, taking care that his rubber boots did not slip on the surface of the road, which was fairly steep, something in his figure had suggested the profound loneliness I had described in “The Hunting Gun”. (pgs. 16-17)
Misugi goes on to explain that he would like the narrator to understand the ‘desolate, dried-up riverbed’ he glimpsed within him that November morning. He has in his possession three letters – which he will forward to the narrator under separate cover – each one addressed to him personally, each one composed by a different woman in his life. Together these three letters tell quite a story, and their contents form the remainder of Inoue’s novella.
The first of the three letters is from Misugi’s niece, Shōku. From the opening page, we learn that her mother died fairly recently, and she is writing to her uncle to thank him for his help with the funeral arrangements. That said, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Shōku is now aware of the secrets her mother, Saiko, had been keeping until her death, secrets that concern Misugi, information she could not bring herself to discuss with her uncle face-to-face. Consequently, her letter is infused with a deep sadness, a sense of melancholy and numbness as the words flow across the page.
Ever since I read Mother’s diary, I’ve started noticing that maybe two or three times a day, or sometimes even five or six, the whole natural world, everything around me, is suddenly awash with a sad colour, as if the sun is setting. All I have to do is remember you and Mother and my world is completely transformed. (pg. 23)
Next we have Midori’s letter. Midori is Misugi’s wife, albeit in name alone. Unbeknownst to her husband, Midori has known about Misugi and Saiko’s secret for thirteen years, having observed them from a distance at various points in time, a fact she now makes clear in her letter. Midori’s letter exposes the depth of her pain. The tone is cool and detached, and her distaste for her husband is plain to see.
You live, I think it is fair to say, a life entirely free of loneliness. You are not one to yearn for companionship the moment you are on your own. You may sometimes look bored, but never lonesome. And you have a tendency to see things in an oddly clear-cut fashion, and to be absolutely convinced of the superiority of your own views. You may say this is merely a sign of confidence, but watching you one is possessed somehow by an urge to seize you and give you a shake. In a word, I suppose one might describe you as a man utterly intolerable to women, completely devoid of an endearingly human side, who in no way makes it worth the trouble of doing you the favour of falling for you. (pg 48)
Finally, we have Saiko’s letter written shortly before her death, a letter she leaves for Misugi to open once she has gone. This is a poignant missive of love, the act of loving another and being loved in return. It is punctuated with beautiful images, the landscape and mountains, the leaves on the trees.
It was a sort of trick of the season, perhaps, that moment in November, and of the time of day, shortly before dusk. An effect of the particular atmosphere that day in late autumn, after an afternoon of intermittent drizzle—an array of colours so rich it was as if the whole mountain were dreaming them, colours so beautiful they made us afraid at the thought that we were going to climb up there, up the side of the mountain. Thirteen years have passed since then, yet the touching beauty of those leaves, on all the different trees, rises up before me as if I were there at this moment. (pg.79)
As you’ve probably gathered by now, each letter reveals further details about Misugi’s story, his relationship with Saiko and the events leading up to her death. It’s a technique that works very well here as each new revelation casts a little more light on the situation, thereby enabling us to see things from a range of different perspectives. As the story draws to a close, we return briefly to the narrator for his reflections on Misugi, the figure who, when he glimpsed him that day in late autumn, seemed to capture something of the solitude of the human condition.
The Hunting Gun is a very affecting little story of illicit love, deceit, secrets, loneliness and loss. As young Shōku observes in her letter to Misugi, love isn’t always the shimmering, sparkling emotion she had previously believed it to be; there are other kinds of love, too, such as the love that stretches out secretly ‘like an underground channel deep under the earth’ .
Distinctly Japanese in its themes and style, this is a book that would suit lovers of quiet, introspective fiction. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Yasunari Kawabata, whose novella Beauty and Sadness I’ve reviewed here.
The Hunting Gun is published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.