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Monday, 20 July 2015

No Longer Human - Osamu Dazai (translated by Donald Keene)

In June, I reviewed the wonderfully dark “Last Words from Montmartre” by Qiu Miaojin, which had made the 2015 Best Translated Award Longlist. A novel written by a young Taiwanese girl who, in 1995 at age twenty-six, committed suicide, leaving this unpublished work behind. In her work Miaojin mentions Osamu Dazai a number of times, referencing his book “No Longer Human”:
If I told you the truth, Yong, would I have to drown myself as Osamu Dazai chose to do upon finishing No Longer Human? Remember that time when we went to the Institute of Modern Literature and saw photographs of the recovery effort for Dazai’s body and you promised to take me to the river where he drowned himself. I was thrilled by your suggestion. Yong, when will I die? For a long time I’ve appreciated Dazai, as you know, in a different way than other artists. He didn’t reach his potential, he died before he could become a great name, and Yukio Mishima made fun of him for having “weak vitality.” But this is irrelevant, really. People can make fun of him all they want, and yet the ones who do are often the same ones trying to hide some sort of corruption or hypocrisy, even Mishima. Dazai and I basically share the same nature. Yong, I’d like to go to Tokyo to see the river where he drowned before I die. Will you take me there, to the place you didn’t have time to take me last time?
Like Qiu Miaojin and Eduoard Leve (works I have previously reviewed), Osamu Dazai also committed suicide upon the completion of a book, the one I look at today “No Longer Human”. As previously written in my reviews of Miaojin and Leve, it is very hard to approach these works with the already gleaned knowledge of the author’s demise, is the work a cry for help, is my reading the work tinged with their fate?
“No Longer Human” opens with a third person Prologue with our writer advising us that they “have seen three pictures of the man”, and his observations of the man in question, one who is “indifferent to matters of beauty and ugliness”. We then move to the first person narration by the man featured in the photographs and three notebooks going through the phases of his life which align with the photograph timings. We commence with him as a young child:
I have always shook with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak and act like a human being, I kept y solitary agonies locked in my breast. I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed. I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.
Our your protagonist, Oba Yozo, becomes the clown, deflecting any close scrutiny of his inability to fit it, getting people to laugh at his misfortune. In notebook two, he befriends Takeichi (who may give away the secret of the clown act so there is no option but to befriend him) and then finds an outlet for his creativity through art. But still he remains removed from humanity, even when he meets another art student, Horiki:
I felt not the least respect for his opinions. I was thinking, “He’s a fool and his paintings are rubbish, but he might be a good person for me to go out with.” For the first time in my life I had met a genuine city good-for-nothing. No less than myself, though in a different way, he was entirely removed from the activities of the human beings of the world. We were of one species if only in that we were both disoriented. At the same time there was a basic difference in us: he operated without being conscious of his farcicality or, for that matter, without giving any recognition to the misery of that farcicality.
I despised him as one fit only for amusement, a man with whom I associated for that sole purpose. At times I even felt ashamed of our friendship. But in the end, the result of going out with him, even Horiki proved too strong for me.
We have our writer drinking excessive amounts, visiting prostitutes, generally living beyond his means and not showing any sense of emotion or connection with fellow humans. All of these acts lead to a love suicide pact with a woman, by drowning (remember our author does in fact drown himself upon completion of this work), of course it all goes wrong.
Notebook three explores our writer’s further descent into madness. Throughout the book he attracts the attention of women, although he believes he has not a friend or a connection in the world:
“Most women have only to lay eyes on you to want to be doing something for you so badly they can’t stand it…You’re always so timid and yet you’re funny…Sometimes you get terribly lonesome and depressed, but that only makes a woman’s heart itch all the more for you.”
Oba Yozo eventually marries, of course with disastrous consequences.
Personally I felt the character who is so removed from all emotion, becomes too difficult to embrace, although there are many many sections which ring true, he is so utterly self-absorbed with his own demise he is a difficult character to relate to. Unlike the heart wrenching tale of Qiu Miaojin the distant nature of our protagonist makes for an emotionally removed journey.
Although referenced by Qiu Miaojin in her work, I felt a lot more connected with her outpourings and emotional loss than Oba Yozo’s personal removal from the human race. A deeper understanding of the Japanese psyche would possibly assist with a connection here, however a work I will probably forget I’ve read in a few years time.


1streading said...

It's exciting when one book leads you to another... though I'm becoming slightly worried by all these suicidal authors!

Tony Messenger said...

Don't worry Grant, it is just a theme I thought I'd explore. Onto more life affirming books soon. The threads of one to another is also something I would like to explore more of Vila-Matas or Andrés Neuman would be great places to start both being rich with cross references.

Marina Sofia said...

One of my favourite books - and one of my favourite authors. But then, I am inlcined to like the melancholy and self-absorbed authors. Great to read in parallel and in contrast to Mishima, perhaps.