Tag Archives: Yasushi Inoue

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (tr. Michael Emmerich)

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).

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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.

A couple of other bloggers have reviewed Inoue’s novella – here are links to reviews by Tony Malone and Tony Messenger.

The Hunting Gun is published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue

I first read Bullfight in January, and a recent reread confirms that it’s very likely to make my end-of-year list. A superb little novella, Bullfight is the second work by Japanese journalist, literary editor and author Yasushi Inoue, first published in 1949 and now available as a new edition from Pushkin Press. It really is a thing of beauty, small and perfectly formed in many ways.

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The novella is set in Osaka between the final months of 1946 and January 1947, a city in the early stages of economic recovery following the Second World War. As the story opens we meet our main character Tsugami, editor-in-chief of the Osaka New Evening Post, a novel breed of newspaper focused on culture and entertainment, and targeted towards ‘urban intellectuals and salarymen.’ On the surface, Tsugami appears rational and efficient. Under his stewardship, the paper has achieved a certain level of success, its fresh approach proving popular amongst readers looking for something different to the ‘oafish’ papers of the wartime era. Beneath this exterior, however, lurks a somewhat impulsive side to the editor’s character, an aspect visible only to his lover, Sakiko, the woman with whom he has been living on and off for three years:

“No one else knows you have this side to you,” she would say when she was feeling happy. “This sneak, sloppy unsavoury side…” (pg. 24, Pushkin Press)

Against this backdrop, Tsugami receives an intriguing business proposition; he is approached by Tashiro, who announces himself as ‘President of Umewaka Entertainment’ even though he is in truth ‘as sly a showman as any you were likely to find.’ Nevertheless, Tashiro’s proposal is a tempting one; he wishes to organise a three-day bull sumo tournament to bring the sport into the city spotlight, and he offers Tsugami an exclusive sponsorship deal: an equal share in the profits from ticket sales should his newspaper agree to co-fund and promote the event.

All at once, in the most natural manner, Tashiro had caused the scene to rise up before Tsugami like a frame from a movie: the vast modern bleachers at Hanshin Stadium or Köroen Stadium; the contest between two living creatures playing itself out within a bamboo enclosure at the center; the riveted spectators; the loudspeakers; the bundles of bills; the rocking, cheering waves of people…It was a slow-moving, cold but distinctly palpable picture, executed in lead. After that, Tsugami hardly paid any attention to what Tashiro was saying. Betting, he was thinking, yes, this could work. Everyone would put money on the bulls […] In these postwar days, perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives. Set up some random event for people to bet on, and everything would take care of itself: they would come and place their bets. (pgs. 18-19)

It’s not long before Tsugami is seduced by the prospect of such a spectacle and the profits of course: the newspaper could stand to net one million yen if the tournament were to prove a sell-out. The paper’s president loves the idea of the project, so the deal goes ahead. Not that Tsugami has any semblance of a plan at this stage; there’ll be plenty of time for that later:

Tsugami had no clear plan in mind, but if all else failed they could raise the cash by selling tickets in advance. Right now his thoughts were focused less on the financial details than on the parade of bulls that Tashiro had suggested. Twenty or so bulls. It would make an eye-catching article, nice photos. At the very least it was sure to get everyone talking. (pg 31)

As preparations for the tournament get underway, Tsugami is swamped by an infinitesimal number of tasks that need to be accomplished in order for the event to take place. He must gain agreement to use the baseball stadium as a venue. There’s a bullfighting ring to construct, safety permits to secure, advertisements and teaser articles to draft…the list is endless. And while all this is going on, Tashiro is getting up to a bit of business on the side, transporting black-market goods alongside the bulls as they travel from their home in the provinces, an activity that doesn’t go unnoticed by one of the paper’s reporters. It’s appears as though ‘country showman’ Tashiro has decided he can get with anything in order to oil the wheels of the deal. Here’s the reporter as he recounts the tale to Tsugami:

“He brought that stuff up with us – says it’s all feed for the bulls. A bunch of us are pretty sure he has something else going on, though. He’s quite the huckster.” 

[…]

“Feed for the bulls, my ass. And who knows what else in in there? Still, he’s a crucial partner is this project, so I thought for the paper’s sake I’d better just pretend I hadn’t seen anything. And then in Takamatsu – it was quite hilarious, let me tell you” (pg. 72)

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tsugami is gambling the future of the newspaper on the success of the bullfight. Expenses continue to mount, greatly exceeding expectations; the paper’s sparse resources are stretched to their limits; Tsugami continues to focus on the details and risks losing sight of the bigger picture. He refuses to make compromises, relying instead on a conviction that everything will come together on the day, and there are few (if any) contingencies in place for unforeseen events. To reveal any more of the plot would only spoil the story, but it’s a beautifully crafted one.

Alongside the main narrative, Inoue uses Tsugami’s on-off relationship with his lover, Sakiko – who appears to consider their relationship hopeless – to tease out the nuances in the editor’s character. Eyes seem to communicate a great deal in the novel; take this passage, for example, in which Sakiko perceives Tsugami’s hidden desire to play fast-and-loose with the bullfight (and possibly their relationship, too) despite his outwardly serious nature:

But there were times when those emotionless, wicked eyes of his would push themselves toward drunkenness, Sakiko knew that very well. How she loved Tsugami for those eyes: their frenzied, lawless, mournful light. But then she realized that she would never be able to strip them of their sobriety, and her love began, from time to time, to turn itself into a hatred that glistened with sadness.

The fact that Tsugami had let himself be tugged along so easily by the bait Tashiro offered him, by the thought of the bullfight, may perhaps have owed less to his reporter’s instincts than to those sober eyes of his, and the rebellious urge he felt to make them drunk, finally, for once, on something. Sakiko had been right to speak of the hidden “unsavoury side” of his personality. (pgs. 26-27)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I loved Bullfight. Inoue’s prose is wonderful – deceptively clear and lucid on the surface, but with sufficient depth and subtlety to make this a very satisfying and meaningful novella. On one level, the narrative can be read as one man’s gamble and decision to risk everything in the belief he will succeed; on another, the story could be interpreted as a reflection of the situation in Japan as the country tries to rebuild its economy and society following the war:

The landscape had a cold, frozen look that made him feel as though he were regarding a landscape painted on a ceramic dish. Close to the peak of Mount Rokkö there were a few white streaks of lingering snow. […] It seemed to him that something pure had managed to hold on there, something that had otherwise vanished from this defeated nation, little traces gathering, huddling together, talking quietly among themselves about who knew what. (pg. 104)

Inoue went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories making him one of Japan’s leading writers, and Pushkin Press published another two of his novellas earlier this year: The Hunting Gun and Life of a Counterfeiter.

Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have also reviewed Bullfight, tr. by Michael Emmerich. Source: personal copy.