Monday, July 25, 2011

Genichiro Takahashi, Essayist

Genichiro Takahashi, author of the amazingly great novel Sayonara, Gangsters, a book anyone with an interest in Japanese contemporary/post-modern/metafiction should read immediately, is also a prolific literary critic and essayist.

This seems to be a common thing in Japan, when you achieve a certain level of notoriety. Murakami, for instance, has collection after collection after collection of all the various essays, commentaries, and fluff pieces he's contributed to magazines, newspapers, etc. Certainly American authors are somewhat active outside of their respective fiction writings, but I think it is less common than in Japan—especially for publishers to bother republishing them in a collection. (I can only think of the highest tiered American authors having these sorts of essay collections, but this is a personal, not fully informed observation. Please let me know in the comments if I am mistaken about either country.)

I do think Genichiro Takahashi deserves special mention for his literary criticism and essays though, because by his own admission he finds himself to be better known to the public as a critic than as a novelist. He even writes serialized essays on his twitter account, called "Midnight Novel Radio."

I have three of Takahashi's non-fiction collections that I have browsed briefly through with the intention of diving in more thoroughly soon: 一億三千万人のための小説教室 ("Novel Writing Class for the 130 Million People of Japan"), 文学王 ("The King of Literary" is the official subtitle), and 平凡王 ("The King of Ordinary"). "Novel Writing Class" is the one I've looked at the most, and is hilarious, and "The King of Literary" has essays on his favorite novels (Natsume Soseki's unfinished 明暗, "Light and Darkness" is one) among various other things.

He also has been quite outspoken after the March tsunami and earthquake, including two articles in the Asahi Newspaper (English versions available here and here) and another in the New York Times.

Finally, Takahashi maintains a semi-regularly updated column at MAMMO.TV. (Totally off-topic, but check out this other columnist Takano Masanori—he looks like a Japanese Charlie Sheen.) The topics run all over the place: many on the quake recently, but also on less weighty matters, like the shamelessness of Trading Card Games that force kids to constantly be spending more money on them."Battle Spirits" is what his son is obsessed with, and if you watch the link, it looks EXACTLY like Yu-Gi-Oh. Exactly. (I personally, back in the day, blew all my money on Magic: The Gathering...)

For today's post, I translated his first column at for your enjoyment.

"My Friend's Bookshelf"

It was in the fall of my first year of middle school when I entered a private school in Kobe. That would be about 40 years ago now. The me then (and I think this was only natural for my age) was a normal middle schooler who of course had no interest in literature, but liked manga instead.

It was after I entered my second year of middle school that I became acquainted with T. The school was part of an integrated middle and high school system, but you still had to take exams to get in, so while all the students were convinced they had to be studying all the time, T was a bit different from everyone else. T was always reading books. Literature, ideology—those kinds of "deep," "difficult" books.  The people around T respected him for it, and students with similar interests gathered around him. And then somehow I started puttering around them too. That's when I noticed that something was going on. I quietly listened to T and everyone gathered around him. They brought up all these names of authors, poets, jazz musicians, and film directors in their conversations. And I didn't know a single one!

Before I knew it, I became one of the people who hung around T too. I would memorize the titles of the books they all talked about, go to the bookstore, buy said book, and go home to read them (though I didn't understand them at all).

One day, I and a couple of other friends were invited to T's house, where we went into his room. The guys who had been there before started talking with T immediately. I, on the other hand, gazed hungrily at T's bookshelf. The bookshelf, which covered an entire wall, was crammed pull of  those "deep," "difficult books that I didn't know. I wondered if I could become a great, fully-fledged adult by reading all these books. Impossible right?

No way, not in a million years.

After that, until I graduated high school I would go to T's house and copy down the names of his books (as I didn't feel like I could borrow them). And when copying down these titles was too embarrassing, I memorized them. Then, stretching far beyond my own capabilities, I read them— even though I didn't get them at all, to the point it made me dizzy. All I could think about how nice it would be if I could catch up with T. T and I graduated high school, and then we went to different universities, and after that took up different jobs: T a journalist, and I a novelist. No matter how I think about it, I feel like it should've been the opposite.

One month ago, I received a notice from the newspaper that T disappeared. T, who was in Malaysia on vacation, told his wife that he was going to go swim at the beach by their hotel, went out into the shoals, and just like that, never came back. And now my chance to thank T for his bookshelf is lost forever.

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