Monday, April 25, 2011

Monkey Business: A New Japan-based Literary Journal

Good news, everyone!

Actually, better than that: pretty awesome news.

The literary journal A Public Space is producing an American version of the Japanese literary journal Monkey Business which will highlight contemporary Japanese literature in English translation!

Holy shit! That's great!

[This is all via Three Percent, by the way.]

It's being edited and put together by Motoyuki Shibata, an English translator of contemporary authors like Thomas Pynchon and Paul Auster, and founder of the original Japanese journal Monkey Business, Ted Goosen, a Japanese translator, and Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica.

And the selection looks amazing. Some highlights include:

Monsters, a short story by Hideo Furukawa (remember how we were talking about Belka, Why Don't You Bark last week?)
translated by Michael Emmerich

People from My Neighborhood: a collection of vignettes by Hiromi Kawakami (author of the recent Manazuru, which I should have a review of up on Three Percent in the next couple weeks)
translated by Ted Goossen

 The Tale of the House of Physics: a short story by Yoko Ogawa (author of The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris)
translated by Ted Goossen

Pursuing “Growth”: an interview with Haruki Murakami by Hideo Furukawa (Oh how I want to read this...)
translated by Ted Goossen 

And tons more, including a lot of poetry, and a manga version of Kafka. You can see the whole table of contents at the A Public Space website.

Not only that, as far as I can tell, this isn't a one time thing. This is just the first issue—although it will only be coming out once a year.

Still, though, I'm extremely pumped. An entire literary journal devoted to Japanese literature? That will come out regularly? Yes and yes. You can order it here, like I already have.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Possibly Forthcoming JLPP Books, Part 4

The list continues! [Explanation on the JLPP and this journey here.]

Although I'll admit I didn't fully plan it this way, last week I focused on the top three books that I was most excited about seeing possibly published into English. I took a little break, and afterward I realized that although there were some books that I was curious about reading, for whatever reason, they didn't have me as excited as those three.

So it's fitting that I'm starting another round after taking a break to talk about the Fukko Shoten, because I can think of this as the 2nd round of the draft. They also have the potential to be interesting, but my excitement is a bit more tempered than my 1st round draft. (Please forgive me of my tenuous use of a sports metaphor. Talking about sports is not my strong suit, surprising as that may be coming from someone who writes a literature in translation blog.) As such, in addition to the Why I'm Excited column I'm going to add a Why I'm Hesitant column too this round.

(Also, this will probably be my last round of books. Since this series of posts is called "Possibly Forthcoming JLPP Books I'm Excited About," I'm not going to bother listing all the other books that look like they are boring, crappy, or otherwise not my thing, which there are quite a few.)

Anyway, off we go!

The Downfall of Matias Guili
Natsuki Ikezawa
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum

Why I'm Excited: First of all, like Michael Emmerich re: Belka, Why Don't You Bark?, I trust Alfred Birnbaum as a translator: he brought Haruki Murakami to English speakers. How can I not swear allegiance? Because translators don't always get to work on projects they like? (Shh, let's not complicate matters.)

Actually, despite that parenthetical aside, he hasn't done that many translations: as far as I can tell, besides Murakami he worked on some of the translations in Monkey Brain Sushi, Miyuki Miyabe's All She Was Worth and Natsuki Ikezawa (a.k.a. the guy we're talking about right now, you guys!)'s A Burden of Flowers. So it could very well be a passion project.

Speaking of Ikezawa himself, he has a surprising (it's sad, really, but it's true) two novels already in English translation: the aforementioned A Burden of Flowers and Still Lives, which was translated by Dennis Keene. The reviews on Goodreads are good, especially for Still Lives (4 stars), though I haven't read either.

The Downfall of Matias Guili itself is described by the JLPP as a "magical realist epic" in the vein of Garcia Marquez set in a fictional island in the South Pacific that is constantly being taken over by foreign countries, until it finally achieves independence. The new President Matias Guili is a "Japanophile" who, through some mysterious turns of events, becomes suspicious of a guerrilla uprising against him. It's won the Tanizaki prize and considered Ikezawa's "crowning achievement" of his first decade of fiction writing.

Why I'm Hesitant: Frankly, I hate Garcia Marquez. I remember vaguely liking his short story "Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" in high school, but I barely made it through Love in the Time of Cholera and could only get through thirty pages of Chronicle of a Death Foretold before I just put it down. So for me, that's a terrible association to make. Of course, everyone else in the world loves Marquez, so maybe I'm just wrong on this one.

Words Without Borders has an excerpt of The Downfall of Matias Guili in their June 2005 issue (somewhat hilariously, it's called "The A Team"). I read it, and found it kind of boring. The style was amusing, as was its portrayal of bureaucracy (needlessly complicated) and international relations (toothless), but I just didn't have particularly strong feelings about it. The excerpt is called "a lost chapter" of the book, so I don't know how it fits into the novel at all, or even if it will be in the final product. But it didn't get me hooked.

It's supposed to be a very political novel. Like with Marquez, that's not an inherently bad thing, but for me, I hope it brings something more to the table in the way of characters or style than just being some sort of manifesto-as-fiction on international diplomacy or the treatment of third world countries, which is the sense that I get from the descriptions about it. But again, that's just my personal taste talking here.

One more matter is troubling. The Downfall of Matias Guili is also from the JLPP's 2nd draft of picks. The excerpt from World Without Borders is from 2005, and the fine print says that the novel was going to come out in 2006. What happened? Did this book have a publisher who ended up backing out? Why hasn't anyone been willing to publish it since? My fear is that the book is actually terrible, and that's why no one wants it.

My feelings for this book are definitely more complicated than the others I've talked about so far, but I would still definitely try reading it if it does (eventually) come out.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Revival And Survival: A New Online Bookstore for Quake Victims

[As reported by friend Nihon Distractions and the Mainichi News.]

Masahiko Shimada (who we were just talking about recently) has started a new online bookstore to raise money for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake of last March called the Fukko Shoten. Any books bought from this store will be signed by the author and the proceeds will be donated to the Japanese Red Cross.

It's only been up and running for about a day but there are many books for sale, and it also includes a section called "Words & Bonds" which is being edited and run by author Shinji Ishii, who I'm going to talk about in a few days in the Upcoming JLPP Books series, but you can get a preview of Ishii's work by reading an excerpt from his novel Once Upon a Swing at Words Without Borders.

So far, Yoshimoto Banana and Nobuko Takagi have contributed stories (or maybe they're just op-ed pieces/essays - truth be told I haven't read them yet). Beyond that, over 130 authors are offering their books in the bookstore, including Kotaro Isaka and the authors mentioned already.

I doubt the Fukko Shoten can ship to America, but if you want to help out on this side of the Pacific, you can buy the #QuakeBook, which was put together through Twitter and run by @ourmaninabiko, with pieces contributed by the likes of William Gibson and Yoko Ono.

[Yes! Literature making a difference, you guys.]

Friday, April 15, 2011

Possibly Forthcoming JLPP Books, Part 3

Hello friends. In case you're new here, this week I'm taking a look at books selected by the JLPP for translation that I think will be a fun read, whenever it happens to come out. [Please see Part 1 in this series to see how the JLPP works, etc.]

I don't really have any other comments to make before getting to the meat of the piece like I did last time, so let's just get right to it!

So today we have...

Belka, Why Don't You Bark?
Hideo Furukawa
Translated by Michael Emmerich

Why I'm Excited: This one's a bit easier to explain, because before I read about this book, I hadn't even heard of the author, much less this particular title.

I know, I know - I'm not inspiring much confidence so far. But I think the presence of Michael Emmerich as translator is excitement enough.

I've been lucky enough to talk with Emmerich twice now, most recently a few weeks ago. One of the things he said was that as a translator he's been very lucky, since with very few exceptions, he's been able to select the projects he works on, and he said that all the works he's worked on, even if it wasn't his idea initially to translate a particular piece, he's found that every work he's translated has had something interesting about it.

And if you look at what he's translated, you'll see he's got a great track record and a man of pretty great taste: Yasunari Kawabata, Banana Yoshimoto, Rieko Matsuura, Hiromi Kawakami (his translation of Manazuru won the "Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature"; though my feelings to that book are mixed), and, of course, my current literary obsession, Genichiro Takahashi. So I can't say I've loved everything he's done (another example: I respect Matsuura's The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, but I wouldn't want to read it again any time soon), but he's an incredibly intelligent guy and a great translator.

But Belka, Why Don't You Bark truly does, in its own right, look interesting. According to the J-Lit organization, Hideo Furukawa is "a literary powerhouse" and described by many literary critics as "ushering in a new 'post Haruki Murakami' era in Japanese fiction." Obviously the J-Lit Organization is going to try and make their authors sound good, but I think it's very interesting that they'd describe him as "post-Murakami," which to me implies a replacement of Murakami, as if we don't need him anymore because we've found someone better. A bit of hyperbole, probably, but, damn if I'm not intrigued.

In fact, according to his Wikipedia page, he's a Murakami super-fan - including writing a "tribute" of Murakami's short story "A Slow Boat to China," first called "A Slow Boat to China RMX" and then retitled "Slow Boat 2002." I don't know what the contents of the story are so I don't know what a "tribute" means, but I sure wish I could read it for myself. Maybe it's Furukawa's list of the first Chinese people HE met.

Also, Furukawa sounds like a cool dude (like Ko Machida) because since 2006 he's been jamming with Mukai Shutoku, leader of the seminal indie rock bands Number Girl and Zazen Boys (whose experimental math rock style I like a little better than the more straightforward 90s alt-rock of Number Girl).

Belka, Why Don't You Bark? is kind of a history novel starting from WWII, then the Korean War, and the Space Race, but by following a pair of dogs and their many offspring and their roles in these major world events. At the same time, though, it also has another narrative about a KGB dog breeder who kidnaps a yakuza's daughter, and these two narrative threads eventually merge.

I'll admit the first plot line sounds more interesting than the second one, but I still think it's a really neat idea. I also like the way the JLPP describes it as a cross between "pure literature" and "entertainment literature" - which is basically how the literary circles describe Haruki Murakami. Not too dry or pretentiousness and not pure fluff either. And again, if it caught Michael Emmerich's attention, I'll definitely give it a shot.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Possibly Forthcoming JLPP Books, Part 2

Over the next few days I'm going to highlight some of the newest books selected by the JLPP that may be published soon(*) and that I'm particularly excited to read. (See my recent post to catch up on the whole spiel, as well as the reasons why I'm excited about Masahiko Shimada's Death Penalty.)

(*)As I was doing my research, I saw something that made me profoundly disappointed. Most of the books on the list they have for publishers have been around a long time now. Masahiko Shimada's Death Penalty wasn't even part of the 5th round of drafts, it was in the 4th.  The book I'm going to talk about below (along with many others) was discussed in this post from the Three Percent blog last May. The Downfall of Matias Guili by Natsuki Ikezawa, another book I think sounds fascinating and want to talk about soon, was from the 2nd round(!) of selected books.

Why aren't publishers picking up these books?? It's really too bad. I certainly wouldn't defend the literary merit of every book on the JLPP list (since some of them seem like rather questionable choices to me, not to name names...), but some of them are moderately to really good contemporary work (The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P and Manazuru) while others are undisputed classics or from important authors (Botchan, The Glass Slipper and Other Stories, etc.). 

I guess I just wonder if (and which) publishers have read which works, and why they disliked them or found them to be so severely unprofitable. I know it takes time to publish books, but some of these books have been on the market forever - not only that, but fully translated and ready to go.

[So I guess I'm just going to pretend me talking about them will drum up interest somehow and publishers will suddenly decide to publish the books.]

[Also, on the up side, if they announced round 5 so long ago, maybe round 6 will be coming up soon and we get a whole new round of books to look forward to...]

Sigh. Anyway...

Punk Samurai and the Cult
Ko Machida
Translated by Wayne P. Lammers

Why I'm Excited: Ko Machida is like Haruki Murakami in a way - his initial aims in life had nothing to do with literature. He was first famous in the critically acclaimed punk band INU, and then many other acts, in the 80s, and then dabbled in acting, including a starring role in the sci-fi/punk rock musical movie Burst City. (I've never seen the movie but this trailer looks insane in an awesome way:)

In the early 90s he started writing poetry, and then fiction, and he's won a bunch of the big awards, including the Akutagawa and the Tanizaki.

The JLPP describes Punk Samurai and the Cult as a "fabulously preposterous historical novel." The plot revolves around one samurai witnessing another samurai suddenly murdering a seemingly harmless old man and his daughter, but it turns out the old man was a member of the secret religious cult "The Belly Shaking Party" and the samurai did not want the religion to spread. The samurai witness goes to talk to his boss, and his boss then joins up with the killer samurai (in a classic buddy-cop opposite people style: the first samurai is an academic but terrible at swordplay, the second samurai a master swordsman but dumb as a rock) to take down this cult.

The genre tag for Punk Samurai and the Cult given by the JLPP is "Fantasy/Surreal/Horror," but it also sounds like it'll have a killer sense of humor.

Machida has won some awards for fiction, but the fact that he doesn't come from a literary background could keep this novel from being well-crafted or elegantly structured, and being instead choppy or aimless, as I find a lot of Japanese literature to suffer from, at least from my Western-literature-educated eyes. Still, the offbeat sensibility is what appeals to me, and Machida has proven himself in the literary circles to be a talented writer, so I have high, though cautious, hopes.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Possibly Forthcoming JLPP Books I'm Excited About

So about two months ago, the JLPP released an "advance information" sheet, which is their list of books they're trying to sell to American publishers.

Although I've written about it here, quickly, the JLPP,  or Japanese Literature Publishing Project, is an organization that funds and promotes the translations of Japanese fiction into various foreign languages. They hire the translator, they edit the translation, they sell that book to American or French or whatever publishers (who are relieved they didn't have to spend any money doing that work themselves), and then, as an added bonus, the JLPP buys, from the publisher, a large number of copies themselves to give to libraries and such to promote Japanese culture to a larger foreign audience, thus ensuring the American publisher makes a certain amount of money, even if it doesn't sell very well at Barnes and Nobles to readers like you or me. Everybody wins.

According to their website, this is round five of books they're trying to hawk. All the books on this list have been translated already, but it does not specify whether the rights have been bought by someone already or not. As such, there's no guarantee that any of the books on the list will be seen on American shelves anytime soon.

Nevertheless, over the next few days I'm going to highlight the books that look especially intriguing to me. Starting with:

Death Penalty
Masahiko Shimada
Translated by Meredith McKinney
Why I'm Excited: Masahiko Shimada is an extremely interesting writer. He won a literary award for his book A Divertimento for Gentle Leftists while he was still a college student, and among his works he has a novel called Higan Sensei which is supposedly a parody of Natsume Soseki's undisputed classic Kokoro. 

 I've read MOST of Dream Messenger, his only novel available so far in English, (I got it out from the library and had to return it before I could finish), and I'll admit right now that I thought it was a bit uneven. It's got an interesting idea, some interesting parts, it's occasionally hilarious, but it's far from a fully cohesive story. But his short story "Momotaro in a Capsule" from Monkey Brain Sushi is one of the smartest and most hilarious stories I've EVER read (he also has a story in the far inferior Japanese fiction anthology New Japanese Voices that I've yet to read). Honestly, though, at his best, he reminds me of a slightly more postmodern Kenzaburo Oe - intelligent, political, and full of black humor.

The basic summary of this book is that a man demands the right to commit suicide but to have the time of his life for one week until then. The summary makes it sound both thought provoking and really outlandish/funny (he takes out his life savings to dine with his favorite idol, for one), which from my experience, are both extremely accurate descriptions of Shimada's work. It thus has an equal chance of being absolutely brilliant, a train wreck, or simply mediocre, but my gut feeling is that it will be pretty awesome.