Tuesday, 4 June 2013

'American Stories' by Nagai Kafu (Review)

Japanese Literature Challenge 7 has just started, and to kick off my contribution, I thought I'd review a book I received quite recently, but one I'd been after for a while.  When I initially requested a copy from Columbia University Press, the hardback had gone out of print, so I was delighted when a paperback copy unexpectedly dropped through my letter-box a few months later :)  The name of the writer is probably familiar, the book perhaps less so, but it does just what it says on the cover...

Nagai Kafu's American Stories (translated, and with an introduction, by Mitsuko Iriye) is a collection of short works written during the author's time overseas.  While Mori Ogai chose to pursue medical studies in Germany (and Natsume Soseki had a horrid two years studying literature in England), Nagai's coming-of-age trip to the west took him to the United States - and (naturally) he decided to write about his experiences in a country he considered to be the new capital of the world.

American Stories is a strange book in many ways though.  While at times it reflects Nagai's own experiences (similar in tone to Heinrich Böll's Irish Diary or a more literary Bill Bryson), other parts are straight fiction, short stories reflecting the people and places he came across on his travels.  What links many of the stories is the way Nagai uses frame narratives and stories within stories, perhaps hiding his own opinions within a Russian-doll structure.

There are a few common themes the writer explores in American Stories.  One is the plight of poor immigrant workers, many from the west or south of Japan, who head to America in search of a more lucrative existence.  Sadly, many of them find themselves living in cramped, dirty, Japanese quarters, and Nagai has an almost unnatural interest in penetrating the darker regions of his new home.  'Night Stroll' recounts a nocturnal visit the narrator pays to a Japanese area of New York, while in 'A Night at Seattle Harbor', he visits a seedy bar over on the other coast.  In both stories, Nagai (or an alter-ego) comes across as a casual visitor, a scientist examining creatures of interest...
"It is strange how one develops a taste for evil.  Why is it that the forbidden fruit tastes so delicious?  Prohibition adds the sweetness and transgression increases the fragrance.  As the flow of a mountain stream does not become violent unless there are rocks, so too is man incapable of discovering the excitement of crime, the pleasure of evil, unless he has conscience and morality."
'Night Stroll', p. 207 (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Nagai is well-known for his stories of Tokyo night-life, and he often covers the same ground here.  Several of his stories revolve around men bewitched by ladies of dubious morals.  In 'Long Hair', a Japanese student enters into a relationship with a woman whose marriage ended because of her infidelity, abandoning his studies and becoming her plaything.  In a sign of what might be to come for that student, a later story, 'Old Regrets', has an old professor telling the story of how his marriage ended - after confessing to an embarrassing affair with a low-class actress.

The tales of sexual tension and frustration don't end there.  Many of the Japanese men featured in the stories appear to be struggling with balancing respectability and libido in a place far from home (you do start to wonder how much of this is autobiographical...), and we eventually move from extra-marital affairs to the pleasure quarters.  There is much talk of the difference between prostitution in Japan and the US, and in 'Ladies of the Night', the Japanese reader is 'treated' to an insight, in the form of one night in a New York brothel.

Rest assured that it's not all about sex.  Nagai does a great job of exploring the continent through the eyes of a newcomer, comparing the wide-open, continental expanses with his home landscape, and marvelling at the newly-built skylines of Chicago and New York.  In one of the final stories, 'A June Night's Dream', he describes a tender, doomed love affair, a last encounter with a woman (and the country) before he has to sail off across the Atlantic...

On the whole though, the stories look at characters with ambiguous feelings towards their mother country and their adopted home.  'Daybreak', set on one night on Coney Island, sees a young Japanese man explaining to the narrator why he has run away from his responsibilities and joined, if not the circus, the carnival at least.  'January First', set during a New Year's party of ex-pat Japanese, looks at the role of women in Japanese society, one which the main protagonist compares unfavourably to that of American women.
"I rejoice each time I see a young woman taking a big bite out of a sandwich or an unpeeled apple at a spring picnic in the fields, or married women drinking champagne and chattering away at a restaurant late at night after the opera or the theater with little regard for their husbands or the other men in their group, or even more extreme examples; at least they are enjoying themselves, having fun, and are happy.  Because I never saw a mother or a wife in a happy state, such scenes are so soothing to me." 'January First', (p.141)

Translator Michiko Iriye does a good job, even if the dialogue is a little too faithful to the original at times (I would have preferred a bit more realistic, earthy dialogue considering some of the people who are talking...), but where she excels is in the introduction.  It contains a great background to Nagai's travels and an excellent explanation of the state of Japanese literature at the start of the twentieth century.  In contrasting Nagai's style with what was in fashion at the time, she allows the reader to see why these stories would have been seen as a breath of fresh air.  And perhaps still are :)

I loved this collection, and I'm hoping to dip into it again from time to time, but I do have a word of caution for anyone thinking about picking it up on my recommendation.  The stories were written right at the start of the twentieth century, and a century later some of the casual racism and sexism may be startling.  There are comments about Negroes, women, sweaty meat-eating westerners and even his fellow Japanese - Nagai certainly wasn't afraid of speaking his mind.  I wouldn't let it put you off - just bear in mind that these stories were written in very different times...