Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summer of the Re-Read #1: Sayonara, Gangsters

Sayonara, Gangsters
by Genichiro Takahashi
Translated by Michael Emmerich

I wish I could remember how I discovered that this book existed. I know I first read it in the spring of my first year of college. I was so into it that I read it during my physics class in the very, very back of the lecture hall (although to be fair, I either slept or did other work during most of those physics lectures). I know I took it out of the school library. But did I discover it through aimless browsing? Or was it a title I was interested in after looking through Vertical Inc (the publisher)'s back catalog, who describes it as a "postmodern novel...from Haruki Murakami's way-more-out-there cousin"?

If the Murakami comparison really was the reason I picked up the novel, at least the description was somewhat apt. In many ways, Sayonara, Gangsters does seem like Murakami with the post-modern bizarreness cranked up to 11. But after re-reading Sayonara Gangsters and exploring more of Takahashi's work in the Japanese, the comparison (like all authorial comparisons, honestly) is somewhat diminishing.

First of all, there's no good way to even summarize Sayonara, Gangsters, which at least can be done for Murakami's work. To grossly simplify matters, Sayonara, Gangsters follows a poet who teaches at a poetry school in some sort of bizarro-world where people choose their own names, which in turn can take a life of their own, and where on the sixth floor of the building that the narrator works is a river of some unknowable length. Even "dream logic" doesn't quite convey the sense of un-reality that pervades the novel:

I think about many different kinds of death.
I'd seen something horribly sad at the amusement park. "The Giant Ferris Wheel" had on a big black ribbon, and it was folding itself up.
The owner of the amusement park must have decided it would cost too much to call in the workers whose job it was to dismantle the rides, and hit on the idea of ordering "the Giant Ferris Wheel" to dispose of itself.
I sat on a swing and watched "The Giant Ferris Wheel" commit suicide.
"The Giant Ferris Wheel" kept rotating its circular frame, yanking off the little carriages where its riders used to sit. It removed one, then another, then another. Every time it pulled off a carriage it bled and cried out in pain. "Oh, it hurts!" it yelled, "It hurts!" Once the circular frame had removed the last carriage, it set about cutting away the circular frames at the center; after that the concrete supports struggled to sever the axle.
Splattered with blood, "The Giant Ferris Wheel' continued to dismantle itself, and at every step along the way it screamed so awfully that the entire amusement park trembled.
"The Merry-Go-Round," which was just next door, sat there shaking with its eyes squeezed shut, covering its ears with its hands.
Finally only the concrete base remained. Its breath came in gasps. Nothing but this block of concrete indicated that "The Giant Ferris Wheel" had ever existed: the block was "The Giant Ferris Wheel"'s ego, its self.
I wondered how the base would finish the job.
There wasn't anything left to do.
"Eat shit and die!"
Leaving these bitter last words, the concrete base put an end to it all.
It did this in a way no human would ever think up. 

The novel is divided up into three parts, and each part has its own major plot and focus. Part 1 establishes the setting and the narrator's life. Part 2 describes the Poetry School and his work with the students. Part 3 is about the narrator's experience with the dangerous gangsters of the novel's world.

Reviews of Sayonara, Gangsters tend to praise Part 1 as the most compelling and well-written part of the novel (speaking of, our friend Nihon Distractions has a review here), but I find myself more drawn to Part 2. After reading more of Takahashi's other work, it is clear that Takahashi is a writer concerned about writing, and despite this bizarre, post-modernist world that Takahashi created, the novel itself, at its core, is really all about writing:

My teaching here isn't focused on knowledge.
If you want to know about poetry, read books. You'll find all that in books.
My knowledge of poetry is both fragmented and fuzzy. It can't be trusted.
I don't teach people how to interpret poetry or any of that stuff either.
I'm not so good at interpreting poetry.
When I read a poem, I respond to it in one of two ways: "Wow, this is great!" or "God, this is awful!" I have no other responses.
Having eliminated those possibilities, we are left with "How to create poetry." Surely that must be what the man teaches! That's what you're all thinking, right? Hell, that's what I'm thinking myself.
But the truth is that if there really were some technique that permitted everybody who knew it to write wonderful poems, I'd want to be the first to know.
If I had a a technique like that, I'd keep it all to myself and produce one masterpiece after another, setting my sights on the Nobel Prize for Poets.
I'm a poet, but even now I have no idea how to write my poems.
I really doubt there is a technique to writing poetry.
We poets spend the eyeblink of time granted us until we slip away forever into the eternal dark composing poems, never having the faintest idea how we out to go about writing them, or what we ought to be writing.
I do almost nothing at all here.
Pressed to explain, I might say that my job is CONDUCTING TRAFFIC.
The students who come here all want to write poems. But none of them have any idea what kind of poems they should be writing.
You mustn't tell them to "Write what you like."
I may be incompetent as a poet, but I don't shirk my responsibilities.
I talk with my students. Or, to make it sound hard, I counsel them.
Actually, for the most part all I do is listen.
Writing poetry is a fairly morbid thing to do. Of course, that doesn't mean all morbid people are poets. It is here, you see, that the difficulty lies.

All irony aside, and despite the fact that this really is more or less exactly how I feel about poetry (being absolutely terrible at it), in a true post-modernist fashion, Takahashi explores almost all aspects of the experience of the written word, including but not limited to the relationship between literature and the author, the relationship between literature and the reader, the act of reading/writing itself, literary criticism, and the power of words.

The first time I read Sayonara, Gangsters, I loved the bizarre world and imagery that Takahashi created. But the second time around, I found myself more drawn to the ideas about literature and the power of the written word that Takahashi has built the world around, a theme that Takahashi will continue to explore throughout his career.

As Takahashi's debut work, it really is amazing that he was able to produce something so original and compelling. Sayonara, Gangsters is still one of my favorite books, but the second time around, I can see some of its flaws. The prose is jarringly fragmented and vignette-y, similar to Murakami's Hear the Wind Sing. (I guess this is a problem that plagues many an author's debut/early works.) Translator Michael Emmerich had his work cut out for him, and though I'm so grateful that he was able to get a publisher to take a chance on this work, I occasionally find the translation a little awkward.

To which I mean no disrespect; I went to a translator's round-table about a year ago that Emmerich was a part of (as in, when I saw that he was a part of it, I immediately knew I was going), and he's pretty young, early 30s, if not late 20s, I'd say. This book was published in 2004, which means he was probably working on it around seven or eight years ago, when he was in his mid-twenties. So nothing but respect for him. I sincerely hope that I can achieve the same thing at that age. Also, he's got great taste in J-lit and was just a really interesting and funny guy to listen and talk to. So whenever I see he has a new translation out, I always pay attention.

At this translator's round-table I went to, I asked Emmerich if he would ever translate something by Takahashi again. He said he definitely would like to, but it's all about finding a publisher, and apparently this novel didn't make a real splash, which makes it a hard sell. But now that I've been able to explore more of his works, I really feel that Takahashi is a great author that deserves to be translated. And I hope to be the man to do it.

Expect many Takahashi-related posts in the future, including a forthcoming short story translation and a look at his (well, to me) fascinating Twitter account.

 [Next on "Summer of the Re-Read": The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Let's see how a novel about a teenager that one reads as a teenager holds up when one is no longer (quite) a teenager.]


  1. I really enjoyed reading Sayonara Gangsters recently,like you say more of Takahashi's books really need to be seen in translation,maybe some non-fiction?,Shimada Masahiko is another author equally under represented in English translation.It must have been quite a feat to translate this book,Takahashi's prose turns some acute angles,i was hoping that it would step a little further into the world of poetry than it did,looking forward to reading more posts on Takahashi.

  2. Glad to come across another Takahashi fan, and as I don't read Japanese, I do hope you'll translate more of his work. I was briefly in touch with the publishers of Sayonara, Gangsters after I reviewed it, but our correspondence came to an abrupt halt when I had the temerity to suggest that they publish some of Takahashi's essays and criticism.

    Here's what I had to say about Sayonara, Gangsters:



  3. me. : Yes, you mentioned Shimada a few posts back and made him sound very interesting. I just started reading "Dream Messenger" in English, and I picked up a copy of 彼岸先生 (higan sensei) at a Book-Off.

    David: Thanks for stopping by! I'm interested in his literary criticism too - I have his "Novel Writing Class for the 130 Million People of Japan" and "The King of Literary" and "The King of Ordinary". What I've read of "Novel Writing Class" is pretty funny, but I haven't read enough of the other two to make a judgment yet.