ORIENT EXCESS; with Its Ritual Suicides, Witches Gobbling Up Young Men and Cows with Human Faces, This Mischievous Collection of Japanese Short Stories Is Bizarre, Exotic and Memorably Gory

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 24, 2018 | Go to article overview

ORIENT EXCESS; with Its Ritual Suicides, Witches Gobbling Up Young Men and Cows with Human Faces, This Mischievous Collection of Japanese Short Stories Is Bizarre, Exotic and Memorably Gory


Byline: CRAIG BROWN LITERATURE

The Penguin Book Of Japanese Short Stories Edited by Jay Rubin Penguin Classics PS25 Back in 1975, when Stanley Kubrick's film of William Makepeace Thackeray's Barry Lyndon was released, Penguin Books produced a tie-in edition. It had an introduction by the then-popular comic novelist J P Donleavy, shortly before he went out of fashion.

Given that most introductions are as solemn and scholarly as can be, the first line of Donleavy's still strikes me as very funny indeed. It goes: 'Makepeace. This middle name is all I have ever known of William Thackeray.' I was reminded of this by The Penguin Book Of Japanese Short Stories, which is introduced by the wildly fashionable Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

Not since 1975 have I read quite such a downbeat introduction. He kicks off by saying that he is allergic to the form of autobiographical fiction that has been most popular in Japan since the turn of the century. He then admits that, as a young man, he read very few Japanese authors. 'I know hardly anything about Japanese fiction,' he writes, adding that ' I confess that, with only a few exceptions, I have not kept close tabs on young authors.' ' Employing the unusual forum of an introduction to establish the full extent of his ignorance of what is to follow, Murakami says that 'to tell you the truth, I'm reading most of the stories included here for the first time in my life. I had previously read only six of the 35, including my own!' I love the shamelessness of that exclamation mark. As two of the storiesIT's are by Murakami, that leaves only four, and he later admits that he didn't even remember having written one of them, which he now describes as 'a simple sketch I dashed off and promptly forgot about'.

FACT Suicide by is now rare in 2001, Iso a former disembowelled himself building into I wonder what the people at Penguin thought when this singularly tepid introduction came through their postbox. Had it been by anyone else, I'd guess they would have sent it back for a rewrite, but since it was by the most trumpeted Japanese novelist in the world, I imagine they simply had to grit their teeth and print it. 'In any case,' Murakami concludes, in the writerly equivalent of a yawn, 'this is certainly an unconventional selection of works by an unusual assortment of writers.' Yet, despite what he says, this collection of Japanese short stories gets off to a cracking start. The first - and longest in the whole 500-page book - is by one of the few Japanese authors I had read before, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki or 'Tanizaki Jun'ichiro', as he muddlingly appears here, as the editor has insisted on following the Japanese name-order, printing the surname first. This means that Murakami himself appears as Haruki Murakami on the cover, but Murakami Haruki within the rest of the book. Similarly, the writer famously known as 'Yukio Mishima' in the West is here called 'Mishima Yukio', and so on.

I suppose one could argue that this topsyturviness is appropriate, as the first section of the book is devoted to the theme of 'Japan and the West', and emphasises the stark differences in our two cultures. Tanizaki's The Story Of Tomoda And Matsunaga is a Jekyll and Hyde tale of a man so torn between the constrained life of Japan and the wild life of the West - 'a world of insatiable desires and unending intoxication' - that he turns into two entirely different people, depending on where he is.

In Japan, he is thin and puritanical, eats with chopsticks and is faithful to his wife. In Europe and America, he transforms into a man nearly double his usual weight, gets drunk and spends his time Apicking up girls in clubs. It's a brilliantly executed story, perfectly positioned at the head of this anthology to introduce the Western reader to an exotic world of kimonos, sake and tempura. Of course, some of these items have become more familiar to us in the past few decades, but others remain mysterious. …

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ORIENT EXCESS; with Its Ritual Suicides, Witches Gobbling Up Young Men and Cows with Human Faces, This Mischievous Collection of Japanese Short Stories Is Bizarre, Exotic and Memorably Gory
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