The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin
Haruki Murakami may be the most important thing to have happened to contemporary Japanese literature in translation, but he’s also become one of the most important things for the genre to overcome. “Murakami-esque” is a term that is tossed around a lot more frequently than it should be: it’s a neologism created to describe something unknown, a new, foreign style of magical realism that knocks readers off their chairs because it’s like nothing they’ve ever read before. “Murakami-esque” exists somewhere along the threshold between reality and the fantastic. The trouble is that this unshakable coinage is rooted in a naivete that stems from a limited pool of cultural and literary touchstones. But it’s not our fault: Murakami is one of many extraordinary Japanese writers who tackle themes of surrealism and cultural identity, but Western readers (myself included) are stuck invoking Murakami simply because we don’t know any other words or authors to describe that kind of reading experience.
All this is about to change: Jay Rubin, Murakami’s longtime translator and biographer, has compiled an absolutely essential volume that tracks over 100 years of Japanese fiction, much of which is being translated here for the first time. The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is a must-read and a must-own collection that not only broadens the Western view of Japanese literature but widens it to an exceptional breadth of historical proportions. Compiling over thirty major works, readers will see how Murakami is one small node in a lengthy literary evolution.
At over 500 pages, it’s impossible to select definitive highlights. Mieko Kawakami’s “Dreams of Love, Etc.” is a standout, for example, and publishers should be rushing for her translation rights, but there’s something bigger going on with Rubin’s book as a whole. Rubin divides the collection into thematic sections: “Japan and the West,” “Loyal Warriors,” “Men and Women,” “Nature and Memory,” “Modern Life and Other Nonsense,” “Dread,” and finally, a lengthy section that includes stories about the slew of disasters that have afflicted Japan, from earthquakes to the atomic bomb to the 2011 reactor meltdown. Each of these sections include stories both old and new, and what becomes so special while reading the collection is the unwritten connectivity between nearby stories. Haruki Murakami’s “UFO in Kushiro,” about the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, is somehow even better following Tomoyuki Hoshino’s outstanding post-war fable “Pink,” (2014) in which two sisters discover a gentle cult of spinning dervishes who seem to be dizzyingly coping with the new direction of Japan after the bomb. Yukio Mishima’s devastating “Patriotism,” a modern story about seppuku that is equal parts erotic and tragically violent, is elsewhere in the collection. Hundreds of pages later, “Patriotism” (1961) feels like miles-away counterpoint to Yuten Sawanishi’s 2013 horror story “Filling Up with Sugar,” in which the protagonist’s mother suffers from a disease that slowly transforms her body into sugar. Further, this story feels accentuated by Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1918 horror masterpiece “Hell Screen,” which is placed just before it in the collection. As a whole, The Penguin Book of Japanese Stories positions all of these works in a finely-rendered network and shows that their seemingly disparate themes have all been refined and investigated by a range of authors working in different genres. Despite their divisions into thematic sections, all the stories here seem to make sense together.
Perhaps the best part of reading these stories is trying to figure out why they all feel subtly linked. Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1926 novella “The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga” opens the book and features the first example of a theme that can be traced through the entire collection. The novella explores the identities of two men who appear to be opposites but could quite possibly be the same person leading a double life. Matsunaga is a good, simple Japanese man, and Tomoda is his inverse: he frequents massage parlors and lives like a Westerner, free of tradition and responsibility. Tanizaki’s story revolves around this mystery but is essentially about a threshold and how to cross it: not just East to West, but past to present.
The other Haruki Murakami story in the collection, “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema,” is about (among other things) how a song can change between a person’s childhood and adulthood, and about finding a way to connect with past emotions that may have waned. The narrator says he still sees the “1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema” (a personification of a musical memory) every once in a while on the subway and “can tell there is some sort of connection linking our hearts.”
Yuichi Serai’s 2005 story “Insects,” about Hiroshima and the aftermath of the bombing, addresses this theme through a wartime lens: “there were two types of people now,” he writes, “those whose lives had been affected by the bomb and those who hadn’t suffered.” In Kazumi Saeki’s 2014 story “Weather-Watching Hill,” about the 2011 tsunami, a character asks his father “what world are we in? Is it some world in between?”
So much Japanese fiction addresses a kind of threshold and delineates the themes of a story into two poles. The author then decides where to situate themselves across this threshold or to find a way to connect to two. With regards to this thematic structure, perhaps the most revelatory in Rubin’s collection is Fumiko Enchi’s 1957 story “A Bond for Two Lifetimes – Gleanings.” In Enchi’s story, a woman assists an ailing professor as he dictates his “modern colloquial versions of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain and Tails of Spring Rain.” This premise in itself is marvelous, as Enchi has found a way to simultaneously experience traditional Japanese stories (Akinari wrote in the 18th Century) and modern literature. Enchi’s work is about a young woman and her professional and emotional independence but also about the richness of Japanese tradition and how important and inescapable that history is. The story flows seamlessly between the professor’s recitations and the young woman’s narration. Contemporary readers can add another layer to this, as many mysteries of Haruki Murakami’s new novel Killing Commendatore (2018) can be traced back through Enchi’s story and all the way to Akinari’s fables.
Without Rubin’s collection, it’s highly unlikely that any casual readers would be aware of the nearly three hundred years of storytelling that helped create Killing Commendatore. This is a small point but an important one, especially if we’re to move towards a literary world where we channel more writers than Murakami to describe a work that plays along thresholds, between realism and fantasy, past and present, East and West. With his expert curation, Rubin teaches readers that we can simply use the word “Japanese” instead, and shows, over 500 extraordinary pages, everything that word can mean.