Saturday, 31 August 2013

What I know about Japan from reading Japanese crime fiction 2

(Part 1 here)

Even though I've only spent about three weeks in Japan, I've really got to understand the land from reading Japanese detective stories.

  • Japanese rooms are typically fitted with locks whose keys are impossible to duplicate. They may be imported from a firm in Europe, or they may be hand crafted. The essential point is that it should be impossible, even for the owner, to make a copy. 
  • On leaving this world it is considered good form to leave a hint as to your murderer. (Japanese murderers generally give their victims a chance to leave a message before they go.) If possible, you should go for something less brutally direct than the name. Something allusive in the arrangement of objects on your desk might do, or a few riddling letters that need to be combined with your known interests in poetry or art history before a meaning can unfold. Etiquette guides tell us that on receiving Japanese visiting cards, one should look at them for a few moments before putting them away. During these moments you should be thinking, 'Just supposing I end up getting murdered by this person, what would be an elegant way to suggest their name to the investigators?'
  • Academics in Japan have very understanding employers. They have an awful lot of time that they can use as they like. Generally they like to spend it in the company of Japanese police, perhaps because they too have the kind of easygoing employers who let them do what they want with their time.
  • The gardens of Japanese houses may contain a tiny separate house of one or two rooms, the hanare. Don't sleep in the hanare.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A Bunch of Grapes

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

I had meant to make inaccessible Japanese works available, when I started. But in this case, after finishing my draft, I did an internet search and found that there is at least one book with a translation of the short story translated here. In addition, there is a translation online by Takumi KASHIMA and Loretta LORENZ in The journal of Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies here.

有島武郎 (ARISHIMA Takeo, 1878-1923) is a major writer of the Taishou period. 一房の葡萄 ('A Bunch of Grapes') is his best known children's story, first published in 1920. There is a page on the story, showing Arishima's illustration, here. You can read it online at Aozora Bunko, here.

Translation after the break.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Island Puzzle

I talked about a book in ARISUGAWA Alice's "Writer Alice" series last week, here. Now I've finished reading one of the "Student Alice" books, 孤島パズル (The Island Puzzle, 1989), the second in the series (and the only one I've read). In this series Arisugawa is a member of the Eito University Detective Fiction Research Club, and the detective is the club president, EGAMI Jirou (江神二郎). The club has a new female member ARIMA Maria (有馬麻里亜), and at her invitation Egami and Arisugawa are going to the Arima family's house on an isolated island. Maria's grandfather had had a great love for puzzles; and he had hidden a fortune in diamonds for whoever could solve the clues and find them. The last person to try, Maria's cousin ARIMA Hideto (有馬英人), thought he had got a good line on them; but on the same day that he said this he was found drowned in the island's bay, apparently in a night swimming accident. The club members' search starts as a pleasant island holiday, but is soon interrupted by murder, as two members of the Arima family are found shot in a room closed with a latch from the inside, although the rifle that shot them is not in the room.

As in the other series there are a lot of elements familiar from Ellery Queen: a dying message; a challenge to the reader; a solution depending on a chain of deductions. Come to think of it, treasure hunts are a rather common feature of Ellery Queen's stories if I remember rightly. This one certainly adds to the amusement. The locked room is not a very Queenish element of course. It's not much of a locked room either (quite often reading Japanese detective stories, I feel I should add a "locked room of sorts" label to the blog tags). I like Ellery Queen's complex deductions a lot, even if I never feel convinced that they're all that watertight. I was not such a fan of the one in this book. Part of the problem is that it's a little dull. Before we even get to the murder in question, our minds have been focused on the various ways of getting around the island. And then, the various elements are so artificial: you can get from A to B in x minutes rowing, y minutes cycling, z minutes walking; the three bicycles were seen at this hour and this hour and this hour, only two of them were seen at this hour etc.

Another mild irritation was what you might call the orphaned clue. I mean the kind of clue which only becomes a clue in combination with another piece of information, which we then don't get until the culprit makes their confession.

Reading this, it sounds like I didn't enjoy the book very much, but I wasn't bored reading it or dissatisfied at the end. You can see someone else's opinion of it here. (Update: Oh, and another one here.)

I started to make the list of characters I usually make for reading detective stories; but then I noticed that the publishers for once had done it for me (except for those members of the club who only appear in the preface).

Incidentally I suspect a western reader's largest puzzle reading the book will be, 'How come the female characters are doing all the housework?'

[UPDATE 2016: There is now an English translation by Ho-Ling Wong, published by Locked Room International, The Moai Island Puzzle.]

Saturday, 24 August 2013

A warning in advance

I imagine that most of those who will read the entries here will be like me, learning Japanese as a foreign language. But sometimes I think it would be good to make the things I read available to people who don't read Japanese at all. There are after all a lot more people who can't read Japanese in the world. So I certainly hope to put up a few translations as I go on. I don't expect to do many: writing a translation is a lot more work than reading a book. Still, I have a couple ready in draft (a very short children's story and a short detective story) and I'll put one of them up in a couple of days.

I wouldn't like anyone to put too much reliance on my translations. So this post is here as a warning. (It also applies to the reviews I put up, I guess. For the children's books I mostly try to translate a short passage to give an idea of the book.) I am very far from being truly competent in Japanese. I am self taught, and though I have had lots of opportunities for conversation in Japanese, I've never lived in Japan, so I've never acquired the fluency which normally comes naturally to anyone who lives in a country for a while. My only visit to Japan was for three weeks as a tourist. I know that with a little good will, I can make myself understood in Japanese and understand the person I'm talking to; but sometimes I have to try rephrasing because my attempt wasn't clear, and sometimes I have to ask Japanese speakers to repeat themselves or say something more simply.

Normally when I read detective stories, I'm happy as long as I think I've understood what's going on. I (more or less) know the jouyou kanji and most of the more common non jouyou kanji; but since usage varies from writer to writer I often find a word I don't know. In that case I mostly guess, like I would do meeting a word I don't know in English. Of course for a translation, I look up everything I don't understand in my dictionaries, 三省堂国語辞典, (Sanseido kokugo jiten), and Spahn and Hadamitsky's The Kanji Dictionary. Mostly that's enough; but sometimes there are problems that I can't solve that way. In that case, if the internet doesn't give me an answer, I doubt that I will have the energy to hunt out larger dictionaries in the university library. So most likely in that case I'll just put a guess.

Put simply, any translations I put up are the work of an unqualified amateur. I hope that they can make stories known to people who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to read them. But don't put too much trust in them.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Little Country No one Knows

だれも知らない小さな国 (dare mo shiranai chiisana kuni, A Little Country No-one Knows) is a 1959 children's book by 佐藤さとる (SATOU Satoru, born 1928). Like INUI Tomiko's 木かげの家の小人たち from the same year, it is another story of little people, but this time they are not imported English fairies, but Japanese. The book is the first in a series of adventures with the same people, the "Korobokkuru series".  Korobokkuru or Koropokkuru are little people in Ainu mythology; and the narrator of the novel, a Japanese man, decides that the little people he encounters must be these.

The story follows the young narrator at a leisurely pace, from his first appearance as a primary school child a little before the second world war, to his young adulthood as an electrician. It starts as he and other small children search for a mochi tree, to use its bark for birdlime. Wandering off alone he stumbles on a little piece of ground, closed in by steep wooded slopes and a little stream. This becomes a favourite secret place to play. One day, he finds a young girl there. As she makes to leave, she finds that one shoe has gone missing. The narrator looks to see if it has maybe been carried off by the stream.

"There it is. Got it."

Splashing through the stream I reached out my hand for the shoe. And then I instinctively pulled that hand back. Inside the little red gymshoe I had noticed something like the wriggling of an insect.

But it was not an insect. What I was looking at were two or three little people, no bigger than my little finger. They were looking my way and waving their tiny hands.

I stood there in shock and watched the shoe float by.

What? What was that?
For years after this, he searches for the little people, but never finds them. With the changes that the times bring, he ends up in a more distant town, starting work as an electrician. But he has not forgotten the little valley. He has no money, but he seeks out the owner of the land, to ask him to agree to sell it once he has saved enough. The owner agrees, and since he has no use for that bit of land, he allows him to start building a house on it.

Now the little people approach him from their side. They have been observing him for a long time and think he is someone they can work with. So they want him for an ally. It turns out that both narrator and korobokkuru need each other, as there is a plan to build a new road through the land, with compulsory purchase. The narrator and the korobokkuru must stop this, to save their home.

For readers looking for a fantasy of tiny people, the book might be disappointing. They are seen very much from through the human narrator's eyes. What we know of them is limited to his speculations and reports of what they tell him, so that we feel less close to their characters. Presumably we get to know some of them better in later books in the series. Where the book is strongest is in its sense of place and of nature, and of the attachments that a child can feel for a particular place. In this respect, it is a little reminiscent of books like Richard Jeffries' Wood Magic and Bevis.

There is an English translation, although I haven't seen it myself and it is probably hard to find: A little country no one knows, translated by Ruth McCreery. Kodansha International, 1988.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Death in Nara by the Sea

Ellery Queen is an important figure in the world of Japanese detective stories. Among modern writers, two in particular show his influence. 法月 綸太郎 (NORIZUKI Rintarou, born 1964) writes stories about a detective story writer NORIZUKI Rintarou, who helps his father, a police inspector, solve cases. 有栖川 有栖 (ARISUGAWA Arisu, or Alice, born 1959, real name 上原 正英, UEHARA Masahide) also has a character with the same name in the detective stories he writes, though in this case Arisugawa is the narrator and also plays the Watson role rather than the detective. The one Norizuki book that I have read had a much more "Queenish" feel than what I have found in Arisugawa books; but Arisugawa too both makes use of favourite Ellery Queen elements (like "dying messages" and elimination of suspects) and also demonstrates allegiance in titles like his first novel, 月光ゲーム Yの悲劇'88 (Moonlight Game, The Tragedy of Y '88, 1989) and his short story collections, which have nation + puzzle titles like the first Queen novels, e. g. ロシア紅茶の謎 (The Russian Tea Puzzle, 1994).

I spoke of  Arisugawa as a character in the books; but it might be more correct to say that he is two characters. There are two different series, the Student Alice series that starts with 月光ゲーム and  the Author Alice series that starts with The Forty-sixth Locked Room (46番目の密室, 1992). In the  Student Alice series, Arisugawa is a law student in the university's detective fiction club, in the Author Alice series, he is a professional mystery writer. The detectives are different too. In the Author Alice series, it is HIMURA Hideo (火村 英生), a lecturer in criminology.  

Death in Nara by the Sea (海のある奈良に死す, 1995)  is from the Author Alice series and like the more famous 46番目の密室, it concerns the death of another detective story writer. Arisugawa, visiting his publishers for discussions over his new novel, meets fellow writer AKABOSHI Gaku (赤星楽). Akaboshi is just off to "Nara by the Sea" for research, he says. The phrase is one of those "Athens of the North" type expressions used to sell a town, in this case the coastal town of Obama. The next day his dead body is found floating in the sea off Obama. Looking for traces of Akaboshi, Himura and Arisugawa search the area for stories connected with a mermaid, referenced in the title of the book Akaboshi was writing.

46番目の密室 has some metaliterary reflection on the locked room mystery. 海のある奈良に死す might be seen as playing with the idea of the "travel mystery". Travel mysteries are a genre (or perhaps two genres) in Japan. The name is used particularly for stories, set in a tourist destination, where to solve the mystery the detective has to learn about the points of interest of the area. It is also used for stories which depend on travel related alibis. Some stories mix alibi breaking and tourism, as does this one. The main trick is no novelty, but the play on generic expectations perhaps makes it stronger. A second murder has a method which to my eyes is about as realistic as "he killed him using mental death rays".

In sum it's one of the weaker mysteries that I've read. Also, this may be a problem of my Japanese competence, but in the Arisugawa books I have read, the characters don't really come across. It's not just that they're two dimensional. Plenty of detective stories have characters with no depth, who are still at least lively puppets. In Arisugawa many of the characters come across as smaller than life.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Children with No Mother, A Mother with No Child

TSUBOI Sakae (壺井栄, 1899-1967) was a writer from Shoudoshima, one of the larger islands in the Seto inland sea. She was the daughter of a cooper, one of a large family, which later fell on hard times when the barrel making business failed. Her most famous work is 二十四の瞳 (にじゅうしの ひとみ, Twenty Four Eyes, 1952), which follows the relationship of a primary school teacher in a village on the island to twelve of her pupils through the years leading up to the second world war and beyond. The book was made into a very famous film in 1954, and is an influential depiction of the effects of the military regime and the war on ordinary people.

母のない子と子のない母と  (Children with No Mother, A Mother with No Child) was first serialised in 1948 as 海辺の村の子供たち (The Children of a Seaside Village), then revised and published in book form in 1951. Both theme and structure are very close to 二十四の瞳. The story follows a woman who has moved back to her home village on Shoudoshima from Osaka after the death of her husband and son during the war. A little later, her cousin's family, a mother and two sons, move back to the neighbouring village, after their home in Saitama is bombed on the last day of the war. (The cousin himself has not yet returned from the war, and the family is uncertain whether he is alive or not.) Soon after their arrival, the mother becomes ill and her youngest son Shirou is sent to stay with his aunt. Then she dies and the eldest, Ichirou, joins his brother in the little earth built home of his aunt. Ichirou and other primary school children in the village share the focus of the story, which progresses in a series of small episodes or with gaps of days, weeks or sometimes months in between. This is similar to the way 二十四の瞳 is narrated, but there the gaps are sometimes several years.

The villagers are almost all fishermen or small farmers (or some combination). Many houses have names that recall their status as shops; but during the war, they have abandoned the business. Like Ichirou several children in the village have fathers who are missing or dead; and the memory of these people and the difficulty of accepting that they will not be coming back recur in several scenes, particularly in a chapter where Ichirou helps his best friend (also called Shirou, but with different kanji) harvesting. The villagers and their life is sympathetically depicted. The children show occasional realistic selfishness, jealousy and pettiness, but all are shown as good hearted.

Shiro tried to calm things down, "Still, just perhaps, he might return. He'll come back, that's what I think."

"How would you know? As if!" Ichirou said, casting the words aside. His spoke with distaste, as if Shirou had been humouring him.

At that point, Tatsuo had the strongest reaction. In an angry voice, he said, "Aye, it's clear. How would he know? As if. But, you're still better off than me. They sent my father's body back to us. Compared to that, since there's no official word on your father, he might return, mightn't he?"

Ichirou lifted his face. Tatsuo went on all the more, in an aggressive tone, adding examples, "Take Shirou chan's father. He was on a ship and is missing now. Shigeru's older brother died in the war. Lots did. Around me there are six people gone. But everyone thinks maybe they'll come back, and waits for them."

Ichirou listened in silence, then, his head bowed down, "I didn't know. I'm sorry," he apologised in a small but clear voice. "Still, you have a mother, don't you?"

Both for its picture of the aftermath of war and for its scenes of life in Shoudoshima at that time, the book is well worth reading. My edition recommends the book for the upper years of primary school (10-12 years, I suppose) and above. But for a Japanese learner, it's probably better not taken lightly. I found it often much harder to understand than most children's books (though a lot easier than 二十四の瞳). There are two problems. There is a lot of speech, so there is a lot of dialect, which also crops up outside direct speech, when the narration reflects the attitudes of the characters. The narrative technique involves little jumps from one episode to the next, and these are often introduced with something that even Japanese readers of the time would not immediately have understood, little riddles arising from the circumstances or local customs, which then become clear in the course of the narrative. But a non-native reader is thrown out a lot more by something like this.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Agatha Christie's Confession

This is really a blog for Japanese books; I'm not going to have a review of one ready for a few days. So I thought that since detective stories are one of the blog's themes, I could just quickly note down an idea about Agatha Christie's famous disappearance. I imagine that thousands of readers have had the same idea; but I've never actually seen it written down. So here it is.

In 1926 Christie disappeared mysteriously for ten days. There was a massive search for her; and she was eventually found at a hotel in Harrogate. Some thought it was a publicity stunt, others that she had lost her memory under psychological stress. Her husband had just told her that he wanted to leave her for another woman. Until she was found, there were people who suspected him of having killed her. When I first read about it, the general view was that it was certainly a reaction to the stress of the impending divorce, perhaps with some attempt to embarrass her husband or his mistress, which is the line that Wikipedia currently favours.

In fact just four years after the incident, Christie published a short story, which reads like a confession to me; and it gives a picture of her actions much like what others have supposed. "The Affair at the Bungalow" (1930) is one of a series of short stories, later published in The Thirteen Problems (1932), in which guests at a party tell of mysteries they have experienced, and the other guests try their hand at solving them, with Miss Marple always finding the correct solution at the end.

For the rest, I can't avoid giving the plot to that particular story away. So stop now, if you care.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Pastel with the Dark Brown Coat

OKAJIMA Futari's first book, 焦茶色のパステル, was published in 1982 and won the Edogawa Rampo prize in that year. It's a good example of the sort of mystery that is the staple of the genre outside of a few classics. It has a perfectly good fair play puzzle element; but that makes up at most half of the novel. The rest is the kind of mystery which is solved by investigating, without the reader having a chance to get ahead of the characters or the narrator. A good part of it is pretty much an adventure story. Pasteru of the title is a thoroughbred horse. (The katakana of the name seem to resolve as "pastel", even if that's an unexpected name for a dark brown horse.) The setting of the story is an area in Touhoku devoted to horse breeding; and the book is clearly one of those books based on (and a little bit dominated by) research into an unusual world.

Incidentally, when I review a book that I've just read, I'll try and give a list of characters, as I did with The Villa Lilac Murder Case. But I read 焦茶色のパステル a year ago, and hunting for the furigana on the first entry of the characters would be too much work. Happily the Japanese Wikipedia has an article on the book which does just that.

Kanae (香苗) is unhappily married to a horse racing journalist, who has disappeared. The police want to question him about the disappearance of a university professor. Soon she learns that her husband, another man and two race horses have been killed. From the set up this feels like the kind of story, not rare in western mysteries, where a widow, who had not known what she wanted during her marriage, finds her true character, and surprises about her husband, after his death. But the story developes in a different direction. Kanae remains on the whole more a reactive and reflective character; and the driving force in the story is her friend Fumiko (芙美子), another journalist on the racing bulletin her husband had worked for.

I said that the puzzle is a relatively small part of the mystery. I would bet that it's also a bit too obvious for readers used to puzzle mysteries. Even so, this was a really enjoyable book. Part of this is perhaps Fumiko's character, which provides an answer to that question that so often runs through readers' heads when they read detective stories, "Why on earth aren't you going to the police?" The question just doesn't arise with Fumiko, who is recklessness personified.

I include a scan of the cover of my rather tatty second hand copy, partly to show exactly what colour 焦茶色 in horses is supposed to be, partly because even this artwork is for my European eyes something unusual. It's a curious aspect of Japanese publishing that cover illustration is still normal. In the seventies artwork on the cover was just disappearing in England, and photographs were starting to be used. These days new books almost always use a photograph or a piece of classical art on the cover. In Japan that still seems to be the exception, reserved in the crime genre for the kind of thrillers that give the technical specifications or whatever machines gets used in their pages. Even unsophisticated illustration gives the impression that the publisher is making an effort. And a culture that still values artwork on book covers has the chance occasionally to produce something really good.