Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Book of Happiness

 Lector intende: laetaberis.
There are probably not many comic novels that deserve the name. But however good or bad a comic novel may be, it is mostly better, or at least less crass, than the cover suggests. English publishers used to like to signal to readers "this is a comic novel" by putting what looked like a pneumatic Punch and Judy show of bulging red faced figures on the cover. The comic Indian that the publishers put on しあわせの書 迷探偵ヨギガンジーの心霊術 (Shiawase no sho, meitantei yogi ganji no shinreijutsu, The Book of Happiness, Stray Detective Yogi Ganjī's Mind Reading, 1987) by AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫) is in a different style, but gives the same misleading impression of a painfully misplaced attempt at very broad comedy. Both the Awasaka books that I've written about so far (乱れからくり and 喜劇悲奇劇) have a lot of humour in them, and this is very similar. But for the most part the humour is in mild incongruities and waywardness of conversation and choice of action.

The book comes with a warning, 'For the Happiness of Readers: Please do not reveal the secret of "The Book of Happiness" to those who have not yet read it.' I suspect with this preparation, warier readers will be on the lookout for the big surprise, and may well have a good idea what it is by the end. One way or the other, I think readers will be impressed (the book is a "tour de force" both in the negative and the positive sense). But, avoiding spoilers as well as I can, here's a little bit about the contents.

The story starts with a description of "The Book of Happiness", a religious text given out to adherents or potential converts to a large cult. It is the cult leader's account of her life and philosophy. The rest of the novel follows various mysterious events occurring in the cult, many of them involving this cult text. The detective figure here, Yogi Ganjī, is one of Awasaka's series detectives. He had already appeared in a collection of short stories, which I haven't read. Evidently in the earlier book, he picked up his two disciples, 不動丸 (Fudoumaru), a man counterfeiting psychic powers, and 美保子 (Mihoko), an actress. Ganjī is a teacher of yoga and casual practicioner of a variety of psychic arts. When we first see him, he is on Mount Osore, at the northern tip of Japan, regarded as an entrance to the underworld. Those wishing to contact the recently deceased go to the yearly festival there. Mistaken for an itako (a Japanese medium), Ganjī does an impromptu communication with a popular singer, who had died in a plane crash. The singer was an enthusiastic member of the cult, as was another recent accident victim, the sister of a man who questions the itako sitting next to Ganjī. In fact several members of the cult have died in recent accidents, and, more unusually, quite a few of them seem not to want to stay dead. Ganjī's curiosity is awoken by the copy of "The Book of Happiness" that one of the victims left behind, and he starts investigating the cult.

The story wanders about in various directions, and I don't think I can give much more of a summary than this, without starting to tell too much of the plot. Like its detective, the story is one where the reader wonders where exactly this is all heading. There are a lot of little mysteries that accumulate through the book, but if there's a major crime, it's not clear what it is. In general, my impression of Awasaka's books is that he's better at tricks (either his or the criminal's) than deductions; and that's probably true of this book too. But the lack of an explicitly posed single mystery until the solution makes for an impressive ending. I had spotted quite a lot of what was going on and had a fair idea of who was doing what and how; but the larger story was a complete surprise.

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