For some time now, the dearth of an audience in this country for translated works has provided the online literature community with fodder for discussion. While newspapers use space to argue against the influence of blogs on sales of fiction—and, by extension, assert their own (fading) importance—blogs turn their attention to Reading the World, calling attention to international authors that do not always fit the mold of Rushdie, Murakami, and Garcia Marquez.
But delving into the works of less internationally known authors-in-translation poses problems of its own. Say you want to talk about a work translated from Japanese—let’s say Realm of the Dead by Uchida Hyakken. Where do you to position yourself in relation to the book? Is the reviewer mandated to review it solely on his reaction to it, even if he has little or no cultural knowledge about traditions in Japanese literature? Should the reviewer judge it solely on his own Anglo-centric interpretation, or does this just beg for an ignorant misinterpretation of a distant culture?
Reviewer’s angst aside, Realm of the Dead comes across as a greatest hits by a singer who found one interesting formula and then plays it again and again. Hyakken works his, admittedly highly unique, formula with varying degrees of success, creating a diminishing level of interest on the part of the reader over time. The big question here (perhaps abetted by my cultural ignorance) is: are these stories bizarre for the sake of bizarre, or are they explorations of consciousness, death, and fear?
Hyakken leads off with the tale of a man that retains his face and acquires the body of a cow fleeing fervent cultists who believe that after three days, he will drink water, speak a prophecy, and perish. When the man-cow does speak, there is no prophecy, the people become terrified and flee. The cow becomes beatific in the knowledge that he won’t die after all. In another story, a man finds a wallet, has a series of mixed feelings about his decision on what to do with the wallet, is pursued by a stranger, climbs a mountain, gets into a cul de sac of sorts, and has nowhere left to go. So, he opens the wallet to look inside before plunging to his death. The idea Hyakken seems to be working from is one of absurd circumstances forcing the protagonist into crisis or dilemma from which there isn’t an escape, or at least no escape that the protagonist can access or understand—it has to come accidentally. Or not at all.
Many of the stories feature wandering, following, or being followed; there’s often brief appearances from nameless people and animals that range from odd to frightening, angry to weeping. It’s the red room of the first season of Twin Peaks, except this time you get it from every angle, every character’s point of view. there’s also a lot of portentous weather thrown in. A man gets angry at his wife, becomes stricken by smallpox when she goes to a stranger to grant his dying wish; she dies, and he is overcome by grief, guilt, and the smallpox. He dies on the side of the road next to her, filled with shame at having denied the stranger his dying wish in vain.
Another story features a husband pursuing his wife, who remains a step ahead, moving from boat to train with a strange man the husband cannot hate, whom the wife is not involved with; the husband catches up to them in a crowd of people, but is stymied by the crowd breaking into choreographed dance. The story ends: “So that’s what people meant when they talked about adultery.”
It is? What is? Is this inscrutable Japanese allegory or reviewer missing the boat (so to speak)? This is one of the more direct stories, and yet it seems to land just outside of being a story in which the reader is left to fill in the blanks with his own experience, his own ideas. It fails to reach that cohesiveness, instead seeming like a catalog of disarming ideas.
Reading any one of the stories in Realm of the Dead is like listening to someone sharing their dreams upon waking. The stories focus in on specific details the way dreams will, bringing the otherwise unremarkable table in the corner to the forefront. You don’t know why the table stands out so much; it just does, it’s supposed to, it’s insistently demanding your attention. If there’s a significance to that table, though, it isn’t made clear.
For a healthy dose of strangeness—in itself, not a bad thing—this book is a bonanza, but in terms of stories that take the reader somewhere, this collection comes up short. Like dreams, in the moment of completion you may be left with a feeling, but the feeling fades quickly. What remains is a disjointed set of images.
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