Sunday, 20 August 2017

Living and Dead

I reviewed The Book of Happiness by AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫, 1933-2009) last year. That book was characterised by a bit of trickiness that readers were requested not to reveal, making a review a little difficult. Its sequel, 生者と死者  (seisha to shisha, Living and Dead, 1994) is also a very unusual construction; but in this case its unusual features are evident from the start. In fact there's a big warning label on the cover telling you how to read the book. Most books are made up of gatherings or quires (if I'm using the words right). The printers print large pages then fold them to make a set of folded pages, with one pair in the centre, and the others around them. Mostly printers use a machine to cut the outer edges; but it was common in the nineteenth century to leave the pages for the reader to cut. Even a hundred years later, if the topics you research are obscure enough, you might find yourself having to cut open the pages in a library book. A few publications still do this today; but this is probably the only mass market paperback in Japan that has the format. The reason is that the book is a kind of magic trick. If you read the pages that are open without cutting (a spread of two pages every sixteen pages), you read a short story. If you then cut open the pages, there's a full novel with a somewhat different story to it.

The short story features a man called Chiaki and a manager Satomi. Chiaki has memory loss and apparently also psychic powers. The novel also features Chiaki and Satomi, and Chiaki again has memory loss and apparent psychic powers; but many things that meant one thing in the short story mean something quite different in the novel. In particular, Awasaka seems to go out of his way to divide up a word (represented by two kanji) over the page break between the open and the uncut pages. The word in the novel is then a quite different one to the one in the short story. And many other things take on a quite different meaning in the new context. Many of these are trivial, in themselves unimportant for the larger story. The idea seems to be that the reader will enjoy finding the changes in meaning from what they read the first time. 

It's certainly an enjoyable game. How successful are the stories? I think only moderately. The short story as a narrative works like many modern short stories as a sequence of unconnected  and inconclusive scenes, from which readers construct their own interpretation; but knowing that the story was a product of a trick construction, the interpretative effort is too much to ask. Some of the joins are a little clumsy too, syntactically correct, but looking like something no-one would ever write.

The short story is not a mystery, and the series detective Yogi Ganjī and his associates only appear once one has cut the pages to read the novel. That is a mystery, with two deaths in it; but it is not clear exactly what we are investigating. The same is true in The Book of Happiness; but there the eventual solution adds up to more than we had been expecting. Here the solution concerns what might be considered the more trivial parts of the narrative, and many elements are narrated at the end rather than deduced. It does hold some surprises though; and as part of Awasaka's craftmanship, several of the differences between short story and novel also have thematic relevance to the ending.

The title, incidentally, refers to a performance by spiritualists or stage magicians, in which after an audience member wrote down several names of living people and one dead person (known only to them), the performer would find among the various folded pieces of paper the one referring to the dead person.

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