Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genichiro Takahashi's "Life"

Today I'm going to share some excerpts from a short story that I translated recently by Genichiro Takahashi. It comes from his short story collection 君が代は千代に八千代に (Kimi ga yo ha chiyoni yachiyoni, "May Your Reign Last Forever and Ever") which I've already shared a little bit of here.

This particular excerpt comes from a short story called 人生, or "Life." The story follows Kento, a novelist with a wife and newborn. The beginning is extremely low-key, so much so that the lack of action is actually stifling. He drinks water while his wife drinks beer after beer watching the home shopping network. Eventually he goes to do his work, which of course is his writing. The reader learns that Kento has been suffering from writer's block, and is only able to begin stories. The majority of the "action," as it were, lies in the section where Kento sorts through the collection of his unfinished stories sitting on his computer. The first one he looks at (the one he's currently trying to work on) is called "Handicapped":
   The man was handicapped, ever since birth. He had a large badge attached to his chest, one of crisscrossing lines of green and yellow. It was the mark of the disabled. This badge was attached to him when he was in first grade. He took a test at school, and then they knew he was handicapped. And what's more, in a ranking of the disabled from level 1 to level 8, he was ranked level 1.
    His teacher put the badge on him. Then she said give this to your mother, and handed him a letter.
    The boy went home triumphantly. For he was the only one in his class to get a badge.
    His mother fainted as soon as she saw his badge. After a while, he sat down quietly next to his unconscious mother. After that his mother came to. When she saw the badge on his chest, she fainted again. Then his mother came to again. There was nothing she could do but come to. Truly, she wanted to stay unconscious like this forever. The boy handed the letter he was given to his mother. His mother read the letter. She fainted before she finished reading it.
    At some point, his father came home. He was tall; his face, hands and nose were big as well, and he had a stoop as if he was embarrassed by these things, and there was always creases in his shirt over his chest. As soon as he came home, his mother and father started to quarrel violently. It was regarding the matter of the badge pinned to his chest.
    “I don't get it. I work for this family from morning to night, and this is what I get in return. There's still twenty years remaining on our loan, and three years ago, when I thought we were gonna get a bonus, half of it was payment in kind. And on top of that, get this! The brat has a huge fucking badge on his chest.”
    “Are you saying it's my fault?”
    “If it's not my fault then whose is it?”
    Next to this fight the boy shined his badge. It somehow felt magnificent.

Writers writing about writing is certainly a theme of countless stories and novels, but I think the reason this story works is the way Takahashi focuses on the fragments that have been written instead of the inner life of Kento and his frustrations. Instead of something that could be seen as static (in lieu of another less helpful word like "boring" perhaps) Takahashi brings together pieces that are more dynamic. And as a reader, I found that it brings up the question of why the pieces that are shared with the reader in the story (the others are about a son finding out his father has cancer, which at the risk of sounding unsympathetic or meanspirited could be seen as a generic topic, and a man buying a sex robot that hilariously proves to be not what he expected) simply can't be pushed or tweaked into something usable. It's a fascinating idea to me - that something, that on paper sounds like perfect material for a story, cannot be manipulated or evolve into a worthwhile story - and one that sounds very realistic and true to life to me.

But I think that including the unfinished stories alone wouldn't make this story as meaningful or emotionally resonant as it is without picking at Kento's brain somewhat, and showing the reader that behind the frustration of not being able to write is really just fear - fear that he has nothing meaningful to say because his life is ultimately empty:

   Kento pulled out a number of novels from the bookshelf written by his peers.
   It seemed that everyone was writing about life. About how there was some sort of meaning in life, or something like that. They were writing about what was moving, what was full of hardships, and about the joy that existed afterward. They were writing about this and that, and the experiences behind them. And when he finished reading them, it seemed like this thing “life” wasn't so bad. If life is just like this, Kento thought, then I want to give this “life” a shot too.
    Kento stopped reading the books written by his peers. They won't be his references. No matter what, novels are written about life. There is no such thing as writing about anything else. What Kento wanted to know was what about life he should write about.

When Kento gives up on his writing for the night and leaves his study, he finds his wife the same way he left her:

   What the hell was I thinking, writing these novels? Kento leaned his head to one side, and gazed at the novels, one after the other; novels that were like streams that disappeared halfway through the desert. Just wasted time. Kento switched his computer off and went to the kitchen. His wife was still drinking beer. The home shopping network was still on. The products seemed endless.
   “Your mother called,” Kento's wife said without looking at him. “She's being treated badly by her daughter-in-law. Even though she knows her teeth are bad, she gives her only old and stale things to eat.”
    “That's awful,” Kento said.
     “If the time comes, I wonder if it would be OK if we take her in.”
    “Of course,” Kento replied.
    Kento spoke without moving his eyes from the TV. This is life, he thought.
    Therefore, I am living life. It's so quiet. But, Kento thought. But...yet...

 I wonder if the effect is not as chilling as it is coming from reading the whole story, but in my opinion "Life" is a powerful story, and a fascinating and important one from Takahashi, who as a writer, is characterized by post-modern tricks and outlandish premises. The outlandish premises color the story, certainly, in that the first and third of the unfinished stories shared are ever so slightly bizarre, but the real meat of the story, and Kento the character, are defined by the silence and the fear and insecurity that silence represents. "Life" is Takahashi proving that there is something very real and very vital behind all the post-modern noise of his fiction. 

No comments:

Post a Comment