Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Two Genres

In one sense this blog has a fairly clear focus, the Japanese books that I read. On the other hand, probably some people reading it will want to skip every other post, as I generally alternate between two genres, detective stories and children's literature. Thinking about that reminded me how many detective story writers are also children's writers, in Britain at least. Defining children's writers is a bit tricky. The "young adult" genre is a recent invention. Despite it's name it's actually only meant for (older) children. Before that there were plenty of works which might be shelved in the normal "fiction" department of a library or bookshop, but were often or mostly read by children, Conan Doyle for instance. The detective story category is perhaps a bit ambiguous, too. For instance, if you don't treat the genre borders too strictly, you could include Robert Louis Stevenson for The Wrecker (1892). I glanced throught the Wikipedia categories for British children's and mystery writers to remind myself, and made the little list below, which probably misses quite a few writers. I've given one representative work for each genre and I've put what I thought was the more important one in bold. The more recent writers are hard to judge; but I think it's surprising how many writers have made a significant contribution to each genre. All of the writers with an entry in both categories before 1980 are important enough to expect a mention in any history of the genre. [Update: I'd forgotten T. H. White. I haven't read his Darkness at Pemberly, but most of those who have seem to have a high opinion of it. Update 2: apparently Gladys Mitchell wrote several children's stories. Thanks for the comments and link to the Gladys Mitchell website.]

Author Detective story Children's story
Joan Aiken Trouble with Product X (1966) Arabel's Raven (1972)
Nina Bawden The Odd Flamingo (1954) Carrie's War (1973)
Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day-Lewis) A Question of Proof (1935) The Otterbury Incident (1948)
Michael Bond Monsieur Pamplemousse (1983) A Bear Called Paddington (1958)
Christianna Brand Heads You Lose (1941) Nurse Matilda (1964)
Peter Dickinson The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest (1968) The Weathermonger (1968)
A. A. Milne The Red House Mystery (1922) Winnie the Pooh (1926)
J. K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith) The Cuckoo's Calling (2013) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997)
Jill Paton Walsh The Wyndham Case (1993) The Emperor's Winding Sheet (1974)
T. H. White Darkness at Pemberley (1932) Mistress Masham's Repose (1946)

And what does Japan look like? I don't really know; but my impression is that writers in both genres are rare (or were until recently). One exception is detective story juveniles, which seem to be quite common in Japan. Many authors of normal detective stories seem to write these too. Both EDOGAWA Rampo (江戸川乱歩) and YOKOMIZO Seishi (横溝正史) wrote stories with their series detective aimed at children. That might have the advantage, I guess, that the authors are not just selling a children's book, they're preparing readers of their adult books. Of course it might work the other way: people who read a KINDAICHI Kousuke novel as children might associate the books with childish reading and avoid them as adults. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Tolkien who wrote books with the same characters for children and adults in English.

Apart from juvenile detective fiction, I only know of NIKI Etsuko (仁木悦子), who as well as detective stories, wrote a successful collection of children's stories under the name  大井三重子 (OOI Mieko), 水曜日のクルト (Suiyoubi no curuto, 1961), and MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき), one of the most successful modern Japanese crime fiction writers. Several of her mysteries have been translated into English, e. g. 火車 (Kasha, All She Was Worth, 1992). So have some of her children's fantasy books, e. g. ブレイブ・ストーリー (Brave Story, 2003). (I haven't read any of her books yet; but I've got a couple in my pile of books waiting to be read, so I'm sure I'll get around to her soon.) There must be more than that, I imagine. What have I missed?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Delivery Red Riding Hood

People who like books probably like bookshops too, if only because they have lots of books in them, though I don't suppose anyone feels much affection for the big chain stores whose staff have no idea of the product they're selling. When I visited Japan a couple of years ago, I found the bookshops a little trying. I had brought with me a list of books I wanted to buy; and expected to be able to find them by looking at the alphabetic position of the author on the shelves, probably sorted by genre, as in a German or English shop. That is, in an English bookshop, Agatha Christie will either be under 'Crime Fiction', if the shop has a section for it, or under 'Fiction'. In Japanese shops, the books are arranged by publisher. So if you don't know the publisher (and when I made my list, I hadn't thought to note that down), you can't find the book. I suspect that a reason for this is that Japanese names are problematic even for Japanese readers, and each publisher has a code on the spine with the first letter of the author surname plus a number showing in what order it should go on the shelves. Anyway, if you're making your first trip to Japan and planning to buy Japanese books, take my advice and make a note of the publisher too.

This kind of arrangement makes browsing a bit difficult. For writers to have a chance of attracting the attention of readers just looking at the shelves, it must be much more important than in Europe to have the right publisher. In the afterword to 配達 あかずきん (Haitatsu akazukin, Delivery Red Riding Hood, 2006) by 大崎梢 (OOSAKI Kozue), the editor 戸川 安宣 (TOGAWA Yasunobu) writes that the genre 新本格 (shinhonkaku, "new orthodox detective stories") is particularly associated with Kodansha, while Tokyo Sougensha is the leader in 日常の謎 (Nichijou no nazo, "puzzles of everyday life"). As the name suggests, these are mysteries involving either a fairly minor crime or no crime at all. The Japanese seem to be the first to give the genre a name; but the thing itself has been around for a while. If you count Kleist's Der zerbrochne Krug (1808), you could say that it's older than the detective story. (The play could also be called the first courtroom drama mystery and the first appearance of the "least likely culprit", at least formally.) I remember someone mentioning Asimov's "Black Widowers" stories in this context; they are a good example of the kind of minor or non criminal puzzle characteristic of the form. It's sometimes said that the Golden Age of detective stories marked a concentration on only murder, unlike the Sherlock Holmes stories and other works of the period, which had included a variety of crimes and even mysteries without a crime. This is perhaps more a move to novels away from short stories. The short stories that Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie wrote also feature several crime free mysteries.

配達 あかずきん is a collection of five short stories set in what sounds like a mid sized bookshop in the shopping centre attached to a station. The main characters are full time shop assistant 杏子 (Kyouko), and part timer 多絵 (Tae). Kyouko is an industrious and capable bookseller in her mid twenties, Tae is a few years younger, a law student. They do have surnames, I think; but they are hardly ever used. Mostly they are just Kyouko and Tae, or in conversation Kyouko-san and Tae-chan (because of status, I suppose). Kyouko is always our point of view in the stories, Tae is the detective. The 'cases' generally start as non criminal problems; but a couple of stories in the collection do involve actual crimes, even one quite serious crime. For the most part, though, they take an aspect of bookshop life and use it as a little mystery. In the first story, a customer brings a friend's incomprehensible book order. Finding what he was asking for becomes an exercise in code breaking. In the second, a woman is looking for her mother, who went missing after hearing some children discussing the Genji Monogatari manga in the bookshop. In the third, the magazine the shop delivers to a nearby hairdresser has had an insulting stolen photograph of a customer inserted in it. In the fourth a women is looking for the shop assistant who advised her mother with suggestions for books for her when she was in hospital; but no-one fitting the description works at the shop. In the last, the display for a popular shounen manga is vandalised, perhaps in connexion with accusations on the internet that the work was plagiarised from an earlier doujinshi.

I like the idea of mysteries without a major crime; and I'll certainly read more in the genre. The cases here didn't include any compellingly brilliant deductions; but they are recognisably still mysteries. The emphasis is on a depiction of life behind the scenes of a bookshop. The stories are slightly humorous, slightly sentimental.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Borrowers

Mary Norton's 1952 novel The Borrowers is a classic of British children's literature. The book and its sequels have been read by generations of children now, and adapted for television and film many times. One such adaptation is a recent Studio Ghibli film, 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Karigurashi no arietti, The Secret World of Arrietty, 2010).  Ghibli is the studio of MIYAZAKI Hayao (宮崎駿), who directed many of Japan's best animated films. Arrietty is directed not by Miyazaki, but by YONEBAYASHI Hiromasa (米林 宏昌). Still, Miyazaki was one of the writers of the screenplay. As with other Ghibli films where Miyazaki was screenwriter, but not director, the story is better constructed, but perhaps less imaginative. I suspect that as director he can change his mind more and follow his own ideas, even when it's too late to work them into the story properly.

The Borrowers is a story of little people. Borrowers live under the floorboards or behind the panelling of human's houses. They take small amounts of human food and put unwanted or unnoticed little objects to new uses for their furniture and tools. Little people stories are popular in Japan: I wrote earlier about INUI Tomiko's 木かげの家の小人たち (Kokage no ie no kobitotachi, The Little People in the House in the Tree's Shadow, 1959) and SATOU Satoru's だれも知らない小さな国 (Dare mo shiranai chiisana kuni, A Little Country No-one Knows, 1959). The Borrowers itself had been translated into Japanese in 1956; and it's easy to imagine that it had an influence, particularly on the character of Inui's family (who are after all English fairies, thought living in Japan).

When I saw the film, it had been decades since I read the book; and my impression was that the two were quite similar. The only difference I noticed while watching was that the boy had been made older, so that he looked the same age as Arietty, allowing viewers to see it as a kind of romance. On rereading the book, I found that the film actually makes lots of changes of plot and detail, though both the outline and the ideas are still largely derived from the book.

My memories of the book were quite vague, so rereading brought some surprises. In particular, it's very well written, in a particular way – with a love of small, accurate detail. This is the kind of thing that appeals to some children and not others, I think. It's certainly less common in recent children's books. Conveniently, the children it does appeal are probably going to be the kind of children who like stories about tiny people hiding in human's houses. The careful detail is partly in the dialogue, partly in the description of the little world the characters live in, and the things they adapt to their needs. I also had no memory of the elements of satire in the story, which comes from a more class conscious age (and is set somewhere around 1900, where class was even more an issue). Here is Arrietty's mother talking about the other borrower families that had once live in the house.

'Who were the Overmantels?' asked Arrietty.

'Oh you must've heard me talk of the Overmantels,' exclaimed Homily, 'that stuck-up lot who lived in the wall high up – among the lath and plaster behind the mantelpiece in the morning-room. And a queer lot they were. The men smoked all the time because the tobacco jars were kept there; and they'd climb about and in and out the carvings of the overmantel, sliding down the pillars and showing off. The women were a conceited lot too, always admiring themselves in all those bits of overmantel looking-glass. They never asked anyone up there and I, for one, never wanted to go. ... I don't know whether it's true but they do say that those Overmantel men used to have a party every Tuesday after the bailiff had been to talk business in the morning-room. Laid out, they'd be, dead drunk – or so the story goes – on the green plush tablecloth, all among the tin boxes and the account books –'

'Now, Homily,' protested Pod, who did not like to gossip, 'I never see'd 'em.'

'But you wouldn't put it past them, Pod. You said yourself when I married you not to call on the Overmantels.'

'They lived so high,' said Pod, 'that's all.'
There's something in a story about tiny people that invites writers to look at the petty side of the human character, in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), for instance, and in Terry Pratchett's Truckers (1989), which incidentally is a very good children's book, in a different way. Pod and Homily both have a limited outlook on the world and are to some extent figures of fun for the author, but still impressive, as they face the constant dangers that their lives involve. Here they are discussing Arrietty's education.

'Now, now,' said Pod, 'don't bring up the past.'

'But you've got to think of it! they got the cat and –'

'Yes,' said Pod, 'but Eggletina was different.'

'How different? She was Arrietty's age.'

'Well they hadn't told her, you see. That's where they went wrong. They tried to make her believe that there wasn't nothing but was under the floor. They never told her about Mrs Driver or Crampfurl. Least of all about cats.'

'There wasn't any cat,' Homily pointed out, 'not till Hendreary was "seen".'

'Well, there was, then,' said Pod. 'You got to tell them, that's what I say, or they try to find out for themselves.'

'Pod,' said Homily solemnly, 'we haven't told Arrietty.'

The Ghibli film changes the emphasis in several ways. Homily is much the same houseproud, fearful character as in the book, Pod is significantly changed. In both book and film, he is gruff and straightforward; but film Pod is more dour and more heroic and the film makes more of Arrietty's relationship to him. Arrietty is a similar character in book and film, but book Arrietty is more stifled. At the beginning of the book, unlike film Arrietty, she has never been outside the little home under the floorboards. As I said above, the boy in the book is much younger than Arrietty, so that the character of their friendship is very different. Two new elements are borrowed from later in the series, Spiller and the voyage in a kettle. The borrowers riding the tin kettle is on the cover of the Japanese translation of The Borrowers Afloat.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Six People to go to the Solution

I've looked at several books by OKAJIMA Futari now, and each one has been quite different from the others. 解決まではあと6人 5W1H殺人事件 (Kaiketsu made ha ato rokunin: 5W1H satsujinjiken, Six People to go to the Solution: the 5 W 1 H murder case, 1985) is a detective story; but it's in no way a fair play mystery, and it doesn't have one detective, it has six, each solving part of the case. The names of the chapters are Who, Where, Why, How, When and What, the '5 W 1 H' of the subtitle. Each begins with a different private detective being given a problem to investigate by a young woman calling herself HIRABAYASHI Takako (平林貴子). Japanese private detectives are a pretty competent lot, apparently; and each of them finds the answer sought, while unaware of the larger mystery that links the various problems.

Now this is a really interesting idea for a book; but in the end the execution doesn't quite work for me. The different detectives and their different problems are interesting to start with. There's the contrast of characters from detective to detective, and there's variety in the different mysteries they have to solve, finding the owner of a camera, finding a café with green matchbooks and a name beginning with two Vs, code breaking, etc. And as the story progresses, the reader can puzzle over how the different problems fit together. From the second chapter on, we know more than each investigator, as they come across names and places about which we already know. In this way the story gets gradually more interesting as it progresses; but the integration of the various parts of the mystery was a little disappointing. The urgency of the story increases as we get closer to the end, especially with the introduction of a less ethical pair of detectives in the fifth chapter. But to get to the point where we can see the outline of the case requires a dump of previously unavailable information at the beginning of the sixth chapter. From there the remaining mystery plays out like a fair play puzzle; but there isn't much room left for surprises by this point.

That probably sounds pretty negative; if it does, I've given the wrong impression. I didn't hate it and I wasn't bored; I'm just disappointed that a promising idea didn't amount to a better book.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A camellia tree with a tethered cow

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

I’m in two minds about putting this translation up. It’s a children’s story, 牛をつないだ椿の木, by 新美 南吉 (NIIMI Nankichi, 1913-1943), one of the best known writers of children’s stories from the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the stories are really very good, and I think this is good too; but it has a problematic element too, towards the end. I’ll quote from the last paragraph here (so if you want to read the story uninfluenced, skip ahead to the background explanation now): ‘In the end Kaizou did not come back. He was one of the gallant flowers scattered in the Russo-Japanese war.’ I can imagine this kind of sentimentality in an English imperialist writer in the late nineteenth century (though I suspect that even then someone like Kipling would not have had much respect for it). Reading something from a book of that period, I’d probably just shrug and call the writer an idiot and read on. But Niimi was writing for children in the second world war, when Japan was cheerfully throwing the lives of its own people away in an attempt to impose its rule on other countries. Since the first world war, writers worth reading in England didn’t write like that about war. If the story were just propaganda, I wouldn’t have translated it. The story is more one of someone finding meaning in doing one little good thing for the community. It's not by giving his life for the fatherland, but by building a well that Kaizou leaves something worthwhile behind him. That too would have been an idea that the regime of the time would have found useful – they were calling for a lot of self sacrifice from their civilians, for the sake of the war effort; but bad people can find a bad use for anything.

Background Explanation 

Rather that add footnotes or links, I’ll explain a few points in advance.

The story is set at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Russo-Japanese war was fought in 1904-1905. You can see the uniform described in §6 in this print.

I’ve written people and place names with spelling that reflects the Japanese. Most are pronounced as you might expect. The less obvious are roughly like this: Kaizou > Kye-zoh; Risuke > Ris-ke; Shingorou > Shin-go-roe; Shouhei > Show-hay; Oono > Oh-no. When the well digger Shingorou gets called Ido-Shin, ido means ‘well’; so it’s something similar to the Welsh ‘Jones the bread’ style of naming  (but I don’t know any Welsh people who actually say things like that).

A sen is 1/100 yen. A rin is 1/1000 yen.

A jizou (ji-zoh) is a Bodhisattva (enlightened being in Buddhist religion), often worshipped with small roadside statues in Japan, sometimes set up in rows.

I translated tea shop as café, because for me ‘tea shop’ conjures up something more genteel that what is evidently meant here. I translated aburagashi as fried cake pieces, as that seemed to be the direction that recipes I found on the internet were going. Konpeitou are small many coloured sugar sweets. I’m not sure if yakisurume (‘fried/grilled squid’) is literally squid, but an internet search seems to find sweet sellers selling something with this name whose ingredients at least include squid. The ‘knuckles’ are (apparently) a sweet made from soya bean flour: here.

You can read the story online at Aozora Bunko here.

I've put the actual translation after the break.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

My Favourite Detective

I wrote about NIKI Etsuko's first novel 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957) last year. 私の大好きな探偵 (Watashi no daisukina tantei, My Favourite Detective, 2009) is an anthology of her short stories. There are five short stories, written between 1958 and 1971. As in  猫は知っていた, the detectives are NIKI Yuutarou and his sister Etsuko (the narrator), except in the last one where only Etsuko appears.Yuutarou is a botany student, tall, thin, calm and rational, Etsuko is a music student, short, plump, lively and inquisitive. In the stories that the two share, Yuutarou contributes most of the deductions.

The first story, みどりの香炉 ('The Green Incense Burner' 1961), is a juvenile detective story, featuring the two detectives as middle school children. Unlike the other stories in this collection, the crime is not murder, but theft. The clues, too, are of the kind one might expect to meet in a detective story for children. The second, 黄色い花 ('Yellow Flowers', 1957) is the murder of a neighbour, found, in the hanare of his house. (Really, just stay out of the hanare. Those places are death traps.) The hanare is locked from the inside, as was the victim's custom; but it's not a locked room mystery, since there are two open windows, through which the murderer could enter and leave. This seems to me a slightly stronger story. The next story, 灰色の手袋 ('The Grey Glove', 1958) is the longest in the collection, the murder and robbery at a cleaning service. Compared to 黄色い花, this seems a more confident piece of storytelling. This time there is less emphasis on deduction, simply an explanation of what was really going on in the story. The readers are left to decide for themselves whether the answer was really discoverable by reason. The other stories, 赤い痕 ('The Red Mark', 1958) and ただ一つの物語 ('Just One Story', 1971), follow the same pattern. In ただ一つの物語 Etsuko is now married, with two small children. The story starts when Etsuko sees a request in the paper from a woman looking for the children's story 'Little Bear Bay'. Bay is Etsuko's son's teddy bear; and the story only exists as a handwritten book. A friend of Etsuko had written it for him, shortly before she died. The move towards a more interesting story, at the cost of exact fair play, is carried even further in this; but I suspect that on rereading one would find that it is quite well clued.

 The book as a whole would probably fit into what nowadays are called 'cosy mysteries', particularly the last story, with an emphasis on daily life with small children. Both detectives are amateurs, coincidentally involved in crimes that happen around them. The style is humorous, though not relentlessly so.