Sunday 18 January 2015

'The Hunting Gun' by Yasushi Inoue (Review)

After starting their expansion into Japanese literature with a collection of Ryu Murakami books last year, Pushkin Press went a little more traditional with their second major J-Lit writer.  Yasushi Inoue was a well-respected figure in twentieth-century Japanese writing, and the retranslation of his Akutagawa-Prize-winning novella Bullfight was a big success on its release.  Since then, Pushkin have brought out a couple more of Inoue's works in their beautiful mini-paperbacks, and today's is a story every bit as beautiful as the paper that contains it :)  I haven't just stopped at a review today, though - keep reading afterwards for a more in-depth look at the text...

The Hunting Gun (translated by Michael Emmerich, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a haunting story of love and lies, related in a series of letters.  The tale is set up by a frame narrative told by a writer, a man who submits a prose poem to a hunting magazine.  Once the piece appears in print, he realizes that it's slightly out of place and expects some harsh responses from the magazine's readership.

In fact, the submission elicits just one reply, in the form of a letter from a certain Jōsuke Misugi.  While Misugi enjoyed the poem, his reason for writing to the narrator is his belief that he is the figure depicted in the piece, lost in thought; having read it, he decides he'd like to explain to the poet just why he looked so distracted on that crisp early morning:
"You will no doubt be puzzled by what I am about to explain, coming as it does out of the blue, but I have here three letters that were addressed to me.  I intended to burn them, but now, having read your poem and learnt of your existence, I find myself wanting to share them with you."
p.17 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
Thus, the writer comes into possession of the three letters, all from women in the melancholy hunter's life - together, they tell quite a story...

The Hunting Gun is a classic novella, very Japanese in its content, but similar in style to many Western works, particularly Victorian epistolary classics (e.g. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).  Inoue calmly, gradually reveals the story behind the poet's image, the hunter lost in thought, casually holding his gun.  Each new letter is a further layer to the story, shedding new light on proceedings, both in terms of the backstory and Misugi's character and behaviour.

The first of the three letters is from his niece, Shōko, ostensibly thanking him for his concern in helping with the arrangements after her mother, Saiko's, death.  However, in reality, she is writing to reveal that she knows about the secret he has been keeping for decades.  The second letter is sent by Misugi's wife, Midori, one in which there's a nasty surprise awaiting the husband.  Finally, we get to hear (posthumously) from Saiko herself, and this letter fills in the final details of the story behind Misugi's forlorn condition.

While the plot isn't that hard to guess, I'd prefer to leave most of it unspoken (this is a J-Lit review, after all) - part of the beauty of the book is the way in which the story unfolds, with differing points of view transforming events described in earlier passages.  The writing is beautifully elegant (and I'll be looking at Emmerich's work in more detail soon), and great work has gone into the creation of the voices.  There are actually five different speakers, including the narrator and Misugi, and each is distinct, from Misugi's clipped, formal style to Midori's indirect chatter.  Still, a lot is left between the lines for us to infer - this isn't a story which imposes its meaning upon the reader.

The Hunting Gun is a nostalgic tale, one of lost loves and a painful longing for the past:
"Each of you was silent, lost in your own thoughts.  The adult world was so lonesome, scary and sad that I could hardly bear it." (p.45)
As Shōko discovers, the adult world is full of secrets and lies, and there is a stark contrast between the poetic images we see from a distance and the truth that lies behind them.  Inoue's tale is a wonderful story that shows that every poem or painting has a backstory which is every bit as fascinating as the work of art itself...

I'd actually read this story before, albeit in a different version.  In the classic anthology Modern Japanese Stories (edited by Ivan Morris, link is to my review), the story appears as Shotgun, in a translation by George Saitō, and the 1962 version has a rather different feel in places to the 2014 translation.  Let's take the passage at the start of the story where the narrator explains how his poem came to be in the magazine:
"It so happened that an old high-school classmate, the editor of 'Fellow Hunters', asked me to write a poem - noting that even at my age I was still writing after my fashion for obscure poetry magazines.  He probably asked me in a mood of fancy and out of courtesy after a long lapse in our association.  Ordinarily I would have declined such a proposal, since I had no interest in the magazine and his request was that I write about hunting.  It happened, however, that I had thought of some day writing a poem about the hunting rifle and man's solitude.  This would be exactly the right outlet." (Saitō, 1962, p.417)

"It just so happens that the editor of 'The Hunter's Friend' is a high-school classmate of mine, and when he heard that even now, at my age, I haven't outgrown the habit of publishing my somewhat idiosyncratic poems in a privately printed journal some of my poet friends and I put out, he asked if I would contribute a piece to his magazine.  Presumably he was only being polite, suggesting this on a whim as a way of making up for our having been out of touch for so long.  That's all it was.  Ordinarily I would have demurred without a moment's hesitation, seeing as the magazine focused so narrowly on a topic with which I had no connection, and because he had stipulated that the poem had to deal in some way with hunting; but as chance would have it I had recently been led to feel a certain poetic interest in hunting guns and their relationship to the solitude of the human condition, and I had just been thinking that I should write something on the topic one day.  His magazine seemed like the best possible venue for such a work..." (Emmerich, 2014, pp.9/10)
The first thing that stands out, more clearly than I'd thought, is the length of the respective passages.  Saitō has managed to dash his off in a breezy, matter-of-fact manner (I imagine here Dickens asking Trollope - over a few beers - to contribute something to one of his monthly magazines and Trollope cheerily agreeing - although with the subject matter, perhaps it should be the other way round...).

Emmerich, however, has lengthened the passage considerably - or, should I say, kept the original length (if anyone out there has the original...).  In particular, the last two sentences of Saitō's version expand to almost double the length in the newer translation, and the extra detail included is rather effective.  Emmerich's narrator seems to be attempting to justify his decision to write the poem, going beyond the call of duty to explain his reasons to the reader.  Why?  Well, that's for the careful reader to decide ;)

Reading the two texts (not just the passages above) side by side, I noticed several other clear differences in the way the translators have gone about their work.  I suspect that in terms of faithfulness to word order and cohesion, Saitō sticks to the original more closely (which is not always a good thing - Japanese repeats the same coordinating conjunctions frequently, where English opts for a variety of subordinating conjunctions).  Emmerich appears to have made judgement calls on where best to position clauses in sentences to make the text read more naturally in English.  Having said that, the passages above also suggest that the older translation deliberately omits 'unnecessary' details to move the plot along more quickly.  Again, a look at the original text would be handy here...

There's also a major difference in the length of the sentences used by the two translators.  Both Saitō and Emmerich use five sentences to convey the information; however, with Emmerich's version being much longer, the sentences, necessarily, contain much more information (in fact, the one short sentence in the middle of Emmerich's version, merely echoes information from the end of the previous sentence), and his final sentence actually goes on to include information rendered in a further two-sentence paragraph in Saitō's text.

One of the effects of the extra length of the newer version is that the language appears much more tentative in the modern version: 'as chance would have it', 'been led to feel a certain poetic interest', 'had just been thinking', 'seemed like the best possible venue'.  I certainly had the impression that Emmerich's narrator was a much more careful writer, a poet to Saitō's prose novelist.  Perhaps a better indication of this might be seen in the first lines of the actual prose poem the narrator submitted to the magazine, 'The Hunting Gun' (or, less poetically, 'Shotgun'):
"Large pipe clamped between his lips, a setter just ahead, the man trudged up the path towards the summit of Mount Amagi, through early-winter brush, crushing hoar frost beneath his rubber boots."
(Emmerich, p.10)

"A man with a big seaman's pipe in his mouth went up the path slowly, weaving through the bushes on Mt. Amagi in early winter, walking a setter before him and treading the frost needles under his boots." (Saitō, p.417)
Well - what do *you* think? ;)