Thursday 21 February 2013

'Phantom Lights' by Teru Miyamoto (Review)

One of the books which reached me too late for January in Japan was a review copy from Kurodahan Press, a small publisher based in Japan which, as well as publishing new translations, also brings out-of-print works back into English.  While I was originally interested in a collection of stories by Osamu Dazai, one book which caught my eye was another short-story collection, one by a writer I hadn't heard of before.

Teru Miyamoto is a writer from the Kansai region of Japan, and Phantom Lights (translated by Roger K. Thomas) is a collection of some of his more popular shorter works.  Having won the Akutagawa Prize, Miyamoto is a well-known name in Japan, but there is little of his work available in English, apart from a novella (Kinshu: Autumn Brocade).

Like many Japanese authors, there is a strong autobiographical nature to his writing (made clearer to the reader by the excellent introduction, courtesy of the translator).  'The Stairs', a story about a young boy living with an alcoholic mother in a dank apartment building, is a typical example.  Drawn from Miyamoto's own memories of life after his father's death, it is a stark picture of the effects of poverty and alcoholism on an impressionable child.  He describes leaving the apartment (to buy alcohol for the first time):
"Here and there lay the rusty remains of children's tricycles, and a voice could be heard chanting a sutra to the accompaniment of wooden clappers.  Kamei Manor had its own peculiar stench.  And the Kikuya Apartments next door and the Matsuba Manor across the alley each had their own peculiar stench that enveloped their tenants day and night, depriving them of all hope, draining them of strength, provoking anger, and turning their energy into irritability and despair."
p.85, 'The Stairs' (Kurodahan Press, 2011)
In such an environment, it is little wonder that the future (and the story) is fairly bleak.

The theme of poverty is continued in 'The Lift', where the main character attempts to sell a classic lighter in order to find money to eat.  When he fails in his quest and sets off on a long walk home, he is offered a lift by a man on a bicycle - a character who has existential issues of his own.  In Japanese, the title reads something like 'Five Thousand Times Life or Death', which may give you more of an idea of what the story is about.  Or not ;)

The writer also looks back to his childhood, reminiscing about his school days.  As you might imagine though, he rarely wears rose-tinted spectacles when thinking back to his youth.  'Strength' is a frame narrative in which an exhausted salaryman sitting on a park bench is reminded of his first school day by the sight of an elementary school student walking past with a bag on his back.  In a fairly brief tale, the reader is shown not only the man's first school day, but also a glimpse of his home life, one which may explain the situation he finds himself in today.

'Vengeance', on the other hand, puts the blame for the protagonist's failure squarely on the shoulders of a sadistic judo teacher.  Gradually, we learn just how cruel and horrific the poor boy's treatment was.  Luckily though, one of the boy's school friends just happens to have grown up to be a high-ranking Yakuza member...

Phantom Lights is an interesting collection, even if not all the stories are of the same quality.  However, there were a couple of things that felt off.  One was that the translation tended to be a little formal and stiff.  The Kansai region is famed for its brashness and direct way of speaking, and while I agree with the translator (in his introduction) that this is impossible to get across completely, I'm not sure that the tone he adopted always worked.  A lot of the stories were literally stories, told from one character to another, and the more conversational tone you would expect just didn't happen. 

I also felt that, at times, it felt a little too autobiographical.  Many of the stories were variations on a theme, examining Miyamoto's early life from various angles, and while I have frequently read that this can be a trait of Japanese writing, it did get old a little quickly.  In fact, where Miyamoto moved away from his own experiences more, the writing was often better.

The best example of this was the title story, 'Phantom Lights', the longest piece in the collection, and one that stands out for its quality and its difference.  Narrated by a young widow who has moved to a remote seaside town to remarry, it tells of her struggle to understand why her first husband committed suicide, leaving her and their young son behind.  The slower pace, and the different voice of the young widow, made for an enjoyable read, and it leads me to think that Miyamoto might actually be better enjoyed in a longer form.

In short, Phantom Lights is an enjoyable read for readers who have tried a lot of J-Lit, but I'm not sure that it is for everyone.  In any case, I saw enough here to suggest that Kinshu: Autumn Brocade would be a worth a try - time to add one more to the ever-growing wishlist...