Sawako Nakayasu on translating the founder of Butoh, a Japanese dance known for its darkness and contorted movements
As I continued to stare at the drifting peaks, a peculiar scene from my past came to mind.
Today we bring you three enigmatic pieces by “the father of the Japanese short story.” You probably know Ryūnosuke Akutagawa without realizing it—one of his short stories served as the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashōmon. Each of these tales brings a quick punch of emotion, leaving an impression on the reader not unlike that of microfiction.
There was once a sennin who worked as a jurist in O Town near Lake Biwa. His favorite pastime, more than anything else, was collecting gourds. Stored inside a giant closet on the upper floor of his rented home was his vast collection hanging from nails hammered into the posts and lintels.
Three years had gone by, when, one day, the sennin received a notice of transfer from the government. He was to relocate forthwith to his new post in H City. He made arrangements for all of his furniture and belongings except for his gourds, of which he had amassed over two hundred. He had no idea how to go about moving them, and he refused to part with a single one.
In The Emissary, the reader feels a sense of a hope, a beacon glowing in the grim reality of post-disaster Japan.
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, New Directions, 2018
Reviewed by Ben Saff, Responsive Layout Designer
If you have ever walked into a house of mirrors, you may remember the uncomfortable feeling of seeing your reflection staring back at you. Your forehead is ten times its normal size, your nose is reduced to a pin point, and your limbs appear like wavy ribbons upon the curving surface of the mirrors. What’s disturbing about the reflection is that it still kind of looks like you—it’s a believable image. In The Emissary (originally published as Kentōshi (献灯使)), Yoko Tawada conjures this exact effect, presenting an image of her native country of Japan that is nightmarish, surreal, and just a little too possible for comfort.
"The girl stood there, a large pair of sharp pruning shears in her right hand, waiting for the turtle to stick its head out."
In this story by Toshirō Sasaki, a young woman in pre-war Japan buys a turtle and unintentionally contributes to a man’s arrest, opening up questions about class, poverty, and criminality in a nation that is beginning to rapidly modernise.
At the black markets in Ginza a girl bought a soft-shell turtle. She put it inside her large crocodile-leather opera bag and set out on the Ginza streets. It was early evening, and the district was filled with people bustling about. She pushed her way through the crowd, heading for the Owari-chō tram stop. Customers gathered impatiently at the opening street stalls. Red, blue, and violet rays of light swayed all around. The chaotic sounds of footsteps echoed.
“Excuse me! Young miss!”
Feeling that someone must have been calling out to her, the girl came to a stop. From her shoulder to the end of the street, countless shoulders rubbed together. Grey summer overcoats and bright green silk crepes. Spring jackets the color of matcha. Brand new straw hats. A rich fragrance of sweets. And then the refreshing chill of the night air, washing away the mood of afternoon.
It was an illusion. No one had been calling to her at all. Only a pale man with a long face, a grey hunting cap pulled down over his eyes and light brown jacket wrapped around his body, his shoulder touching hers, moved towards her.
Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Morocco, Hong Kong, and the United States.
We are back with the latest from around the world! This week we hear about Morocco, Hong Kong, and the United States. Enjoy!
Hodna Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco
Some seven hundred exhibitors from Morocco and around the world descended on Casablanca for the Salon international de l’edition et du livre, which took place from February 9-18. Half open-air souk (rumor had it that one of the ambulatory vendors went so far as to offer women’s panties for sale!), half oasis of high culture, the book fair counted over 125,000 titles from forty-five different countries. Egypt, this year’s guest of honor, accounted for nearly fifteen percent of the titles on offer alone, and managed to ruffle more than a few feathers when an Egyptian publisher was allegedly caught displaying a book (A Brief History of Africa) whose cover featured a map of the continent depicting a “mutilated” Morocco—the disputed territory of the Western Sahara appearing as an independent nation under the Polisario flag. The presence of the book was firmly denied by the Ministry of Culture.
Celebrate our 7th anniversary with this new issue, gathering never-before-published work from 30 countries!
We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote‘s Winter 2018 issue! Here’s a tour of some of the outstanding new work from 30 different countries, which we’ve gathered under the theme of “A Different Light”:
In “Aeschylus, the Lost,” Albania’s Ismail Kadare imagines a “murky light” filtering through oiled window paper in the ancient workroom of the father of Greek tragedy. A conversation with acclaimed translator Daniel Mendelsohn reveals the “Homeric funneling” behind his latest memoir. Polish author Marta Zelwan headlines our Microfiction Special Feature, where meaning gleams through the veil of allegory. Light glows ever brighter in poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s “syntactically frenetic” “Arachnid Sun”; and in Erika Kobayashi’s fiction, nuclear devastation blazes from Hiroshima to Fukushima.
The light around us is sometimes blinding, sometimes dim, “like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick,” as Argentine writer Roberto Arlt puts it, channeling Paul to the Corinthians in The Manufacturer of Ghosts. Something dreamlike indeed shines in César Moro’s Equestrian Turtle, where “the dawn emerges from your lips,” and, as if in echo, Mexican writer Hubert Matiúwàa prophecies for his people’s children “a house made of dawn.” With Matiúwàa’s Mè’phàà and our first works from Amharic and Montenegrin, we’ve now published translations from exactly 100 languages!
We hope you enjoy reading this milestone issue as much as everyone at Asymptote enjoyed putting it together. If you want to see us carry on for years to come, consider becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member today. Spread the word far and wide!
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The new year kicks off with new releases from Japan, Germany, and Italy.
Every month, our staff members pick three notable new releases in world literature to review. The first month of 2018 brings us short fiction from Japan and novels from Germany and Italy.
The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie, translated from the Japanese by Geraint Howells, Pushkin Press
Reviewed by Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large for Singapore
Mention ‘contemporary Japanese fiction’ to the average reader and bestselling names like Haruki Murakami, Ruth Ozeki, and Keigo Higashino might come to mind; or indeed last year’s Nobel laureate, the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. From that perspective, at least, Toshiyuki Horie can be considered one of the modern Japanese canon’s best-kept secrets, happily resurfaced for an Anglophone audience by the ever-intrepid Pushkin Press. A critic, translator, and professor of literature, Horie has garnered numerous accolades for his fiction and essays, and is also—as the three novellas collected here reveal—a masterly prose stylist, a ruthlessly effective narrator, and a seasoned traveller between the real and imagined geographies of experience and history, dream and memoir, and past and present.
The first and longest section of the volume contains Horie’s novella “The Bear and the Paving Stone,” which won the Akutagawa Prize in 2001, and lends this volume its title. The tale opens in a strange, allegorical dream-sequence that ends just as abruptly when the narrator wakes, alone, in a rural farmhouse in Normandy. Drawing on Horie’s own time as a graduate student at the Sorbonne, the story unfolds with exquisite pacing into a long-awaited reunion between two unlikely college pals: the narrator (then a student from Japan, now a professional translator) and Yann, a free-spirited, petánque-playing photographer. As they embark on a breakneck drive to see the sun set over Mont St Michel from Yann’s favourite spot on the coast, we are plunged as if into another dream: this time, comprising the layered narratives of French intellectual history, the Holocaust and its aftershocks, and a post-modern, international friendship. Ghostly historical figures such as Émile Littré, Jorge Semprún, and Bruno Bettelheim haunt these pages with a sense of driving, almost teleological purpose, but the two friends’ conversation somehow remains light, and movingly human, throughout.
Looking for new books? Look no further!
2017 was a fantastic year for books, but there’s still so much more we want to share before we enter the New Year! This month, our team of editors review two new books from China and Japan—each of them special in their own way. Dive in!
The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas, Vintage (UK)
Reviewed by Dylan Suher, Contributing Editor
Released years after the publication of the original, translations benefit from historical hindsight. Although the two novellas contained within The Years, Months, Days (Grove Atlantic, December 2017) are the latest of Yan Lianke’s works to be translated into English, they were originally published in 1997 (The Years, Months, Days) and 2001 (Marrow, originally titled Balou Mountain Songs 耙耧天歌), just before the string of novels upon which Yan’s reputation now rests: Hard Like Water (2001), Lenin’s Kisses (2004), Dream of Ding Village (2005) and Four Books (2011). Read in retrospect, these novellas represent a critical point in the evolution of Yan’s aesthetic. In both, we can see Yan learning how to best use his preferred technique of primordial allegory, painted with a broad Fauvist brush. Carlos Rojas tends to smooth out and harmonize Yan’s expressive phrasing, but the credit (or blame) for the rough symbolist feel of a metaphor like time that “rushes past their interlocked gazes like a herd of horses” should all go to Yan.
Not sure what to read next? Here are three of the most thrilling new releases from around the world.
With Asymptote you can be sure to have the latest reading recommendations. True to form, we bring you a selection of the exciting new books this month. Which one is going to claim a place in your bookshelf?
Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems by Igor Kholin, translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, Ugly Duckling Presse.
Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large, Mexico
English language readers already enamored of poets such as the Roman Catullus or the more recent Charles Bukowski will find a similarly humorous, difficult, and enthralling companion in the pages of Russian Igor Kholin’s (1920-1999) recently translated Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems from Ugly Duckling Presse. An autodidact whose experiences in the military included a near-death experience in World War II, Kholin in many ways perhaps serves as a vital counterpoint to the American Bukowski insofar as both writers, despite the fact that they are writing throughout the Cold War between their respective countries, cast an unrelentingly critical gaze on the societies they inhabit, bearing witness to abuse, the dirty, and the neglected, and rendering these as poetry. The translators note that although Kholin’s “occasionally unrestrained misogyny” may rankle the sensibilities of many readers, they nonetheless felt compelled to leave his attitude in their translation as “it seems to constitute part and parcel of his self-positioning and character” (9). Along those lines and, in tandem with Bukowski, one also wonders about the extent to which the writer’s misogyny is not a gendered version of a broader misanthropy from which the poet does not even exclude himself. After all, the poetic Kholin muses on the possibility that thinking he is “a creep…It’s not such a leap” (80), as well as understanding he is one for whom wine is “made” and shit is “laid” (85). As he criticizes his social circle for their faults and flaws in his diary, a passage written in a friend’s handwriting takes on the subject of Kholin himself, claiming the poet is “intellectually limited” (46) and that his “advice on writing is naive” (48). Perhaps unsurprisingly, marginal notes in the poet’s own hand describe these as “the best thing Yodkovsky [the friend] has ever written” (49).
The translator on the complex interplay of Japanese and "hegemonic" English, and how the relationship informs his translation.
Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our podcast interview with Suchitra Ramachandran, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Brian Bergstrom in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson.
Brian Bergstrom is a lecturer in the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University in Montréal. His articles and translations have appeared in publications including Granta, Aperture, Mechademia, positions: asia critique, and Japan Forum. He is the editor and principal translator of We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino (PM Press), which was longlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.
His translation of “See” by Erika Kobayashi from the Japanese was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. This is what fiction judge David Bellos had to say about it: “Erika Kobayashi’s ‘See’ earns its place as a runner up by imagining a world just like ours save for a craze for a pill called ‘See’ that induces temporary blindness. People take it so as to go out on blind dates and drives to the sea. Read on! The English of the translation by Brian Bergstrom seems to me flawless.”
Kyūzō stood motionless, vacillating, when again he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. They stopped directly in front of him.
Best known for The Woman in The Dunes, Abe Kōbō is widely recognized as one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. Today, we’re thrilled to partner with Columbia University Press to present an extract from a new and forthcoming Abe novel in English translation. Beasts Head for Home takes place shortly after World War II, when Japan was forced to give up its extensive colonial holdings throughout Asia, and Japanese civilians residing overseas began to return en masse to Japan. In the following excerpt, Kuki Kyūzō, a Japanese youth abandoned in what was previously the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (in Northeast China) stows away in a train in order to return to a homeland he has never seen.
As the wind died, the fog began to rise. On the railroad tracks, the blurred shadows of the patrolling soldiers turned back in the opposite direction. As soon as they disappeared, Kyūzō crawled out from the hollow space of the warehouse, cut across the tracks, and slid down the far side of the embankment. Here there were fields as far as the eye could see. On his right one kilometer away there appeared an iron bridge, directly in front of which the railway siding split o from the main line.
He rushed down the slope of the bank, jumping in short steps so as to avoid slipping. The milky white mass of fog gradually came into view.
Kyūzō soon detected the heavy echo of iron striking together. He then heard the jumbled sounds of footsteps and people speaking.
In the fog, it was best to stay low. He ventured to get as close as possible. A train! Just as he had thought.
One of the men standing there was a soldier, while the other seemed to be some type of maintenance worker. Suddenly a red light appeared in the cab of the train. It’s about to depart, Kyūzō thought, and he hurriedly slid down the embankment and ran toward the back of the vehicle. The train was surprisingly compact. There were two open freight cars, three large boxcars, two small boxcars, an additional three open freight cars, and finally two linked passenger cars in the rear. The passenger cars were of course out of the question, and the open freight cars would also prove difficult. He would thus need to choose from among the five boxcars in the middle. The small ones, with their many gaps and open glassless windows, seemed to be used for livestock transport. Yet they contained burlap sacks rather than livestock. The windowed cars would be more convenient in various ways, but the larger boxcars appeared best on account of the blowing wind.
Our team reviews some of the newest translations published in English this month
Heretics by Leonardo Padura, tr. by Anna Kushner, FSG
Review: Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor
Leonardo Padura’s novel, Heretics, has finally made its way to North American shores and English speakers everywhere thanks to translator Anna Kushner’s work for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Originally published by Tusquets Editores of Spain as Herejes in 2013, Heretics is a startlingly, and in many ways disturbingly, relevant work for 2017—as rising levels of xenophobia and nationalism are straining already tense relationships across many borders and affecting refugees throughout Europe and North America. Padura’s novel opens in the Havana of 1939 with the rejection of the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner sailing from Hamburg whose 937 almost entirely Jewish passengers were fleeing the Third Reich. Their tragic return to Europe—a effective death sentence—is watched by Daniel Kaminsky, the first character introduced and the namesake of the first of the novel’s four sections. Daniel has high hopes in his nine-year-old heart that his parents and sister aboard the ship will make it to land.
At 525 pages, Padura has ample space to leap through an ever thickening plot as his characters become more and more entangled in a seemingly unlikely series of events. Yet the read is a quick one, driven forward by drastic jumps between Havana and Amsterdam and a narrative structure which throws the reader several curveballs in the pages where a more traditional detective story might feel the need for resolution. It’s especially relentless in its final two dozen pages. This book, addicting in and of itself, will also compel readers to dive into the real history of the events on which it centers; they are oftentimes much stranger than any fiction could hope to be, even though Padura tells us right before we embark that “history, reality, and novels run on different engines.” However, to describe the work as a historic thriller, or even to focus on the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt that is woven throughout the larger plot, only hits at one level of Padura’s game. He lets us fall through history almost effortlessly, revealing the inevitable repetition of human cruelty from biblical times through the 17th century, the 20th and up through our own muddy 21st. He neither sugar coats nor exploits these horrors, to his credit.
While the novel takes one of Padura’s recurring characters, Mario Conde, as its hero, a reader uninitiated into this Cubano’s world will have no trouble becoming quickly acquainted. His prose style is elliptical; events and ideas are repeated by different characters as if Padura holds each piece of plot up to the light like a precious stone, turning it this way and that to appreciate its different angles and facets. Though Salinger undoubtedly receives the most attention, influences from Chandler, Hemmingway, Murakami, Kundera, and the occasional phrases from Voltaire’s Candide, which perhaps even inspired the name of Conde’s most pious friend, Candito, also find their place. Readers will note quite a bit of Nietzsche, too, as our hero is forced to try and make sense of the emo subculture springing up on the Island, not to mention a healthy dose of Blade Runner and Nirvana references to even things out.
Perhaps one of the most delightful plays between reality and fiction is the one Padura plays with the genre itself. Despite some dark passages, the work is deeply humorous and self-reflective, especially in the periodic wish of our narrator to compose his own hard-boiled thriller as he continually feels trapped in one himself. No stranger to taking on huge historical figures (from Adiós Hemmingway to The Man Who Loved Dogs, which stars Leon Trotsky), Padura’s Rembrant is compelling and once again does that work of blurring fact and fiction that inspires a desire for the work to have come wholly from the real world.
“Our Greater I”: Teachings of Zen unity for divisive times
For many around the world, 2016 was a turbulent year of political and social unrest that brought into the limelight issues of rampant nationalism and ethnocentrism: the refugee crisis, Brexit, the “alt-right” white supremacist and nationalist movement in the US, and the election of Donald Trump are just a handful of examples. The hierarchies of difference and the rhetoric of divisiveness that give power to these issues reflect the danger of an I-versus-the-world dialectic that insists the lives of the citizens of one nation are more important the lives of another. Against the divisiveness of these times, the re-issue of Yoel Hoffman’s The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers provides a breath of fresh air with poetic teachings from Zen masters on the universal one-ness of all existence.
While it may sound like a paradox, the sound of the one hand in fact illustrates the Zen notion of a universal one-ness that stands against divisions of any sort, be they nationalist, linguistic, ethnic, gendered, racial, or other. Resistance to the idea that the self is separate from the other, that the individual is separate from the world, rests at the core of Zen Buddhist philosophies. As Dror Burstein explains in his introduction, the individual in Zen is nestled in a network of interconnected actions, reactions, and processes. The individual in such an existential view resembles what the twentieth-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called a “revolving door,” where inner and outer, the internal world and the external, are at all times connected. An understanding of the self in such a way, Burstein suggests, “can define our more expansive self, our ‘greater I,’ as opposed to the “I” circumscribed by our national, social, professional, and ethnic identities”.
The koan, or riddle, from which the book takes its title is a lesson in universal harmony. It begins with an exchange between master and pupil when the master demands, “In clapping both hands a sound is heard; what is the sound of the one hand?” According to the Inzan school, the correct answer is, “The pupil faces his master, takes a correct posture, and without a word, thrusts one hand forward”. Various Zen schools follow this same discourse, but for the Takujū school, the pupil’s answer may be “The sky is the one hand, the earth is the one hand; man, woman, you, me are the one hand; grass, trees, cows, horses are the one hand; everything, all things are the one hand”. Both the insistence of the non-verbal one hand thrust forward and the eloquence of the voiced response embrace the same notion of universal connectivity and one-ness. The one hand thrust forward represents the essence of all hands, one being no better and no less than any other hand, so that the sound of the one hand is also the sound of every hand. The hand’s representativeness of a universal hand-ness is akin to the cosmopolitan spirit of humanist universalism while also upholding diversity through the uniqueness of the one hand.
By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption.
I’m a fiction judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, which means evaluating the English translations of dozens of novels and story collections by writers representing many countries and languages, a thrilling assignment and one that richly sustained my 2016 reading. By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption—fertile ground for authors to delve into a character’s sense of moral self, the tangle of thoughts and motivations that enable her to marginalize wrongs or justify culpability. The gifted authors of these books deserve our admiration for creating character-driven narratives that artfully articulate humankind’s innate hopefulness that past wrongs can be rectified and personal guilt, absolved.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Reputations (translated by Anne McLean) places readers in the fictional world of Javier Mallarino, a renowned Columbian political cartoonist. Mallarino prides himself in exposing his country’s corruption and political scandals through his daily newspaper cartoon. He possesses the unwavering conviction that his drawings are vitally important for delivering potent truths, “like a stinger dipped in honey.” Years after one of his caricatures destroys the life of a prominent politician Mallarino becomes acquainted with the man’s alleged victim, and their discussions cause him to question the infallibility of his prior condemnation and the consequences of his influence. In an effort to rectify what might have been defamation Mallarino decides to go public with his doubts about the politician’s guilt, an act that will cause the media to turn on him, humiliating him in much the same way that his cartoons humiliated countless others in the past. Reputations is a fascinating study of a man whose entire sense of self-worth is his reputation—the very thing that he must sacrifice in order to redeem himself. READ MORE…