Has anyone ever tried Yasahi Inoue’s novels?:
Yasushi Inoue was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed Japanese writers of the twentieth century— winner of every major Japanese prize, a perennial Nobel candidate, his books made into movies for more than half a century and widely translated. Certainly no Japanese writer between Natsume Soseki and Haruki Murakami, in my view, including Japan’s two excellent Nobel prize winners, gives such intense and consistent literary pleasure. In English, though, he has never even attained the status of being “rediscovered” every decade or two. a university press published a retranslation of The Blue Wolf, Inoue’s novel about Genghis Khan that was the basis for the recent blockbuster movie Genghis, in 2007, and before that was The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan (basis for a 1969 movie starring Toshiro Mifune) in an almost unreadable translation in 2005—that’s been pretty much it in recent years.
His Internet presence in English is minimal too, though it does reveal how much more of his work has been translated into other European languages. one happily hunts through what there is and pieces together what one can. The English translation of Inoue’s autobiographical novel Shirobamba is only the first half of the original, but the second half exists in French, as Kôsaku; the novella that launched his career, The Bullfight, is untranslated in English but available in French and German. one translator’s introduction says that Inoue went to the united states in 1964 to research “what he personally believes will be his magnum opus, a multi-volume treatment of first, second, and third generation Japanese abroad, particularly in the united states,” then a preface mentions traveling to san francisco in 1964 to do research for a novel called The Ocean (Wadatsumi); a 1975 introduction says that Inoue “is currently working on Wadatsumi, a historical novel of epic proportions”; and the note in a 1985 anthology at last mentions “Wadatsumi (God of the sea, 1977), a detailed study of Japanese emigration to the united states”—so he finished it, and there the trail grows cold, for now.
I mention this amateur’s—lover’s—treasure hunt because its delights are Inoue-ish delights, present in the books themselves. The main character of A Voice in the Night is an amateur expert on the poems from the eighth-century anthology Manyoshu; in “death, love, and the waves,” the main character brings the thirteenth-century Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, in the English translation from 1900, to finish reading before the suicide he has planned. The Roof Tile of Tempȳ, like Tun-huang though set a few centuries earlier, has beautiful descriptions of monks who copy out Buddhist scriptures. in Black Tide, a retired schoolteacher has spent his life writing a cultural history of color in Japan, rediscovering and re-creating the old materials and methods so as to bring to life the colors of the past as they really looked:
to understand the ancient Japanese people’s spiritual and psychological relationship to color—in the broadest sense, to understand the inner lives of the men and women of the past and the social mentality of the time—it was absolutely essential to have a concrete sense of the ancient colors, and there was obviously only one way to do it: manufacture once again the hues of the old colors using the dyeing techniques of the past.
after some forty years of work, the schoolteacher has finished his studies and dyed enough silk to tip swatches of all the colors—including the legendary, forbidden hajizome, “like the rays of the sun as it crosses the meridian”—into five hundred copies of his three-volume work, if he can get it printed in the tight postwar years. Inoue himself as a historical novelist is well-known for his thorough research—he is said to have climbed Mount Hodaka four times to gather material for his novel about mountain climbing, The Ice Wall. in the author’s preface below, he describes his five years of researching Tun-huang as “a very satisfying time.”
– Damion Searls