At an uncertain time, in a place that is nowhere, somebody who is no one, for no reason, is about to do something—and in the end does nothing; this is my ideal of the novel.
—Kurahashi Yumiko, “Negativity and the Labyrinth of Fiction” (1966; tr. Dennis Keene)
The intrepid sumiyakist Q has been dispatched to an island housing the H Reformatory on a secret mission to infiltrate its power structure and foment revolution among both the students and the ‘menials’, members of an underclass who are working in slave labor conditions. Or so Q seems to think. He is a bit vague on the details of his mission, and the disorientation he experiences upon his arrival at the reformatory does not help clarify the situation. Despite his uncertainty, Q refuses to allow his enthusiasm to wither. He is a naïve idealist, bursting with glorious theory yet severely lacking in life experience. Little does he know how much that is about to change.
It feels necessary to address the obvious Kafka comparisons up front: according to translator Dennis Keene’s introduction, Kurahashi believed that her own work was formed out of Kafka’s writings (no exact citation given on that, but Keene did translate some of Kurahashi’s critical essays where she discusses her own work). And it’s hard not to see a likeness to some of Kafka’s work here, at least on the surface. Specifically, the novel shares ground with Kafka’s novels The Castle and The Trial, as well as the story ‘In the Penal Colony’. Q arrives on an island dominated by the reformatory, which is governed by a mysterious power source. While this power appears to be centralized, its purported officers are coy and resist definition of their roles. Q understands himself to be starting work as an instructor at the school but no one seems to be willing or able to confirm or deny this. The premise is quite similar to that of The Castle, where K arrives in the town thinking he is taking up a post as surveyor, but no one seems to know anything about it, and the powers-that-be are shadowy and elusive on all counts. There are also similarities between Q’s interactions with the reformatory staff and K’s interactions with the villagers and Castle representatives. Q’s criminal history reflects the same frustrating absurdity of The Trial, in that he had been accused of an unknown crime he did not commit and dragged into a nonsensical circus of legal proceedings. Kurahashi’s own twist here is that Q did in fact commit a much lesser, near-negligible crime, one which though he did own up to it in court, was completely ignored by the judge and all references of it ordered stricken from the record.
Beneath the surface, though, Kurahashi differs significantly from Kafka, for unlike the latter, who is often understood to have largely been mapping his interior life through his fiction, she has claimed she did not have ‘something to say’ in her fiction, but rather set out to adapt the styles of certain writers into a creation of her own (she was even at one point accused of plagiarism by a Japanese literary critic and endured a public debate over the matter). Having thus internalized Kafka during her university years, with this novel Kurahashi established herself in a solidly postmodern camp. There is a degree of self-awareness in her fiction here, a metafictional brush that is rather gracefully applied. She zooms out of the text on occasion to dispense commentary. There are also excerpts from a novel-within-a-novel, written by a character known as ‘the literary man’ who is writing an anti-novel and fills Q’s ears with his theory on how he thinks this should be done. His rules almost sound like they could be Kurahashi’s own, and it’s a compelling enough list to include here in slightly edited form:
1. No object must be clearly named. The naming of things is the work of the reader and not of the writer.
2. The writer must bestow no deterministic ‘character’ upon any of his characters. Men are to be dismantled. The world is to be rendered meaningless.
3. The novel is not to be made to comply with external time. In certain cases a deliberate attempt to derange this external time is called for.
4. In a novel one word does not stand for one thing, and language is not a means of communication. Reality is expressed by language, and exists as limitlessly as there are limitless variations of style.
5. No heroes are to appear. Men must be described in the same terms as insects. The characters of a novel are not to be given personal names or titles. No other proper names, especially place names, or dates, must appear.
6. It is absolutely impermissible that the writer make any explicit use of his private life or personal experience. The novel is not a means of self-expression for the writer. The writer has no right to give his own opinions about the world. The writer neither agrees nor disagrees, but stops short at merely indicating what exists. Rather than being a god who creates a world, the writer must resemble a monkey who dirties a piece of paper…
Of course it’s quite possible that the list above was written at least in part tongue in cheek, though probably not without some degree of sincerity, given Kurahashi’s own published opinions on fiction writing. As Keene notes in his introduction, Kurahashi excels at satire and parody, which apparently is not a form commonly found in Japanese literature. While in part she is taking satiric aim at Marxism in this novel, her barbs are not always directed so narrowly, and many of them find their mark in various unsavory characteristics of human nature.
The last of Kurahashi’s prominent themes that bears mentioning here is the imprecision of language, and the general failure of language to describe reality. In the novel each of the characters has a very distinct manner of speaking, so distinct as to create difficulties in comprehension within their interlocutors. Kurahashi plays a lot with frame of reference, and how our perception colors reality to our own individual shades, often distorting a true understanding of what we observe, as well as sometimes preventing us from feeling compassion and empathy toward others. We are all taking in data through our own filters. In the book Q’s filter is primarily that of sumiyakism. He parses everything he sees and hears through his sumiyakist belief system. He desperately wants the student revolt to equate to his romantic idea of revolution. But he can’t even communicate with the students due to radical linguistic differences. The students speak a kind of proto-language, ill-suited to interpreting the subtleties of sumiyakism that Q espouses. This failure underlines the futility of Q’s mission, as well as similar missions both previously attempted and presently occurring in society at large.
This review barely scratches the surface of the novel, not even delving into the multi-faceted feminist commentary or the amusing and insightful reflections on masturbation. There is a lot to think on in this novel. My one minor complaint is that the book itself could do with a reissue (regrettably unlikely). The text is riddled with typographical errors and the tipped-in errata sheet found in the library copy I read only addresses a fraction of them. Finally, one point on the translation: the translator Dennis Keene expresses concerns that his translation might read as stilted due to his attempts to remain true to the eccentric Japanese style Kurahashi uses, a result of the foreign influences from which she derived her own. Keene explains that his resulting English translation:
‘tends toward artificiality, in the hope that the self-parodying nature of the original and also its attempts to go beyond normal prose to occasional poetic statement will be reflected here in some way. Obviously this cannot be done with anything like the skill of the original, but the reader who finds himself disturbed, even annoyed, by the stilted form of the prose he will often encounter should realize that much of the meaning of the work is contained in this, for one of the aims of the satire is at the way our conventional language so conveniently misrepresents reality for us.’
On the contrary I actually found the translation to be excellent and quite reflective of Keene’s aims to ‘go beyond normal prose to occasional poetic statement’.