Genius of a Japanese master: Life of a Counterfeiter and The Hunting Gun
Review: A melancholic wisdom distinguishes two novels by Yasushi Inoue, one of the 20th century’s literary lights
Postwar Japan: depressed and in need of some morale-building. Photograph: Orlando/Three Lions/Getty
Yasushi Inoue: aware of how badly wrong a life can go. Photograph: Marc Gantier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
Life of a Counterfeiter by
Yasushi Inoue, (Translated by Michael Emmerich)
A melancholic wisdom shapes these contrasting volumes by the remarkable Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue (1907-91), such is whose empathy at times that he transforms the study of human nature into profound art. His characters tend to have had some experience of joy but are far more familiar with sorrow and regret. Even if they have not particularly suffered themselves, they are well aware of how badly wrong a life can go.
Published in 1949, The Hunting Gun is one of two early works that began Inoue’s career. In it, a poet writes a poem based on a fleeting glimpse of a well-dressed stranger striding up a hillside, gun in hand. The poet-narrator is quick to admit not only that he has no interest in hunting – “having been raised by a mother with a violent dislike of all forms of killing” – but also that he is only an occasional poet, disclosing “the habit of publishing my somewhat idiosyncratic poems in a privately printed journal some of my poet friends and I put out”.
But when a former classmate, now editor of a sporting magazine, invites him to contribute a poem, he agrees. The publication is connected to a gun club, and he had been taking “a certain poetic interest in hunting guns and their relationship to the solitude of the human condition”. So he sees the opportunity as a timely prompt. No one could have predicted the dramatic outcome.
The novel is calm and understated. The narrator obligingly includes his prose poem as an aid to setting the scene and explaining what is about to follow. The poem is published, and the narrator confesses to feeling proud of his odd little effort, the tone of which is obviously at variance with that of the magazine. He had expected some hunters to write in and complain, but nothing happens. Just when he has almost forgotten the episode he receives a letter in an envelope “fashioned from handmade Japanese paper”. Inoue, a one-time journalist, never wastes words. He knows how to make the smallest detail speak volumes.
The letter has been sent by a man describing himself as unsophisticated, “with no affinity for the refinements of poetry”. The narrator recalls the tone of the letter was polite and respectful, “yet at the same time tightly controlled, possessing the same coldly self-assured air as the handwriting”. The writer of the letter believes the poem is about him.
Inoue ensures that the narrator sounds as curious as the reader. In this opening sequence the translator Michael Emmerich is at one with Inoue. In fact, despite the devastating revelations that follow, it does no disservice to either the novelist or the translator to suggest that this is the most compelling part of the book, although the three subsequent sections are poignant.
The hunter on the hillside is a middle-aged father and unfaithful husband. He explains that he has received three letters and that he has decided to send them on to the poet-narrator: “I intended to burn them, but now, having read your letter and learnt of your existence, I find myself wanting to share them with you.”
He also has another reason: the poem refers to “a desolate, dried-up river bed” with which the letter writer identifies. “We humans are, in the end, stupid creatures who cannot help desiring that someone knows us as we are.”
His candour excites the interest of the narrator. The three letters, written by a daughter, a betrayed wife and a dying mistress, arrive – and with them, and this extraordinary work, Inoue, at the age of 42.
The Hunting Gun is one of the two outstanding debut works that established the writer, in 1949, as a major literary figure and initiated a career during which he would complete 50 novels and write more than 150 short stories. His other debut, Bullfight, also from 1949, won Japan’s major literary prize. It was republished last winter by Pushkin Press and was one of my books of 2013. In my opinion it is even better than The Hunting Gun.
In it a disgruntled newspaper editor has become involved in sponsoring a bullfight. Postwar Japan is depressed and in need of some morale-building. The editor has risen through the ranks by appearing cool and detached. But he is cold and detached beyond words. Estranged from his wife and child, he is caught up in a stalemated relationship with a bewildered woman who is unable to decide whether she loves or hates him.
It is a brilliant work, sharper in tone than The Hunting Gun, with a stunning series of personal epiphanies, culminating in the dying mistress calmly announcing: “A posthumous letter is an astonishing thing, don’t you think? I brim right now with the desire to give you something true in the 15 or 20 minutes of life this letter holds – yes, at least that much. It scares me to be saying this to you at this late date, but it seems to me that while I was alive I never once let you see me as I truly am. Now, writing this, I am the real me. Or rather, this me, the one writing, is the only one that is real. Yes, this is real . . .”
It is she who makes the distinction between the joy of being loved and the desire to love.
The title pieces of Life of a Counterfeiter is one of Inoue’s strongest stories. In it another of his candid narrators admits to falling behind – in truth to being years late – in the writing of a late artist’s biography.
But his half-hearted research has unearthed the sad life of the artist’s friend, also dead, who scratched a pathetic, and dangerous, living out of making fireworks.
The old friend harboured an ambition; he had wanted “to launch a deep-violet chrysanthemum”. To the narrator’s surprise the man’s grand ambition lingers in his own mind. His wife is horrified and tells the narrator so. “I don’t know how to put it, I just don’t like the thought. A big burst of violet opening against a dark sky.”
Such random thoughts expressed so vividly are typical of Inoue, who understood the vagaries of the imagination so well. The publication of these two volumes, combined with Bullfight, makes for an exciting trio of books that offer some insight into the genius of one of the most cerebral yet sympathetic of Japan’s 20th-century literary masters.