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Monday 6 October 2014

Life of a Counterfeiter - Yasushi Inoue (translated by Michael Emmerich)

My third Yasushi Inoue instalment and the latest release from Pushkin Press, the three short stories presented under the title story “Life of a Counterfeiter” – it is available to buy online although the release date says 15 March 2015!

As per “Bullfight” and “The Hunting Gun” this is again a beautifully presented book, Typeset in Monotype Baskerville, litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owned printer TJ International in Padstow. The covers, with French flaps, are printed on Colorplan Pristine White Paper and both the paper and the cover board are acid-free and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Beats the iPad every time.

This volume is made up of three short stories, and we open with the title story “Life of a Counterfeiter”. We have another newspaper reporter (as we saw in “Bullfight”) and our narrator this time, is an Osaka arts reporter who has been commissioned to write the biography of artist Onuki Keigaku. We join him thirteen years into his seven year commission and he still has nothing more than a half formed (or is it empty?) timeline. His research though leads him to the forger of Keigaku’s work, Hara Hosen:

The second time I encountered Hara Hosen’s name was near the end of the war, in the spring of 1945, which makes it about a year and a half after Onuki Takuhiko and I went on our trip around the towns along the Inland Sea. During that period there had been a dramatic shift in the direction of the war, and the country had become almost gritty and desolate: people’s day-to-day lives, their hearts, even nature itself had changed.
I had evacuated my mother, my ailing wife, and out two small children to a village near the ridge of Chugoku mountains, relying on the good graces of an acquaintance there of one of my colleagues at the paper. The place was about as isolated as it could be, located near the area where Okayama, Hiroshima and Tottori prefectures abutted each other and falling just within the borders of the last. No matter how the war ended, it was the sort of spot where life would keep rolling placidly along, day after day, just as it had since ancient times.

As in Inoue’s earlier works, the impact of World War II on the people of Japan is always simmering along in the background. This story originally published in 1951, shortly after the end of the war.

As we can see by the quote above, our narrator becomes more obsessed with the work of the counterfeiter Hara Hosen, rather than completing his commissioned study into the magnificent art of Onuki Keigaku. His journey takes him to see the wife of the now deceased Hara Hosen;

So said Asa. It seems she didn’t attend Keigaku’s funeral in Kyoto, but that was neither here nor there; what mattered to me was the image of Hosen making his way to this village on the day he read of Keigaku’s death in the newspaper, treading the same narrow, twisty path I had taken earlier, just below the ridge, on his way to visit the wife who had abandoned him. His figure rose before my eyes with a peculiar clarity, very small, set against the magnificent fieldsof short bamboo that covered the mountain slope, the late autumn wind gusting over the leaves. Later, it struck me that since Keigauka had died on the day of the Doll’s Festival, on March 3, the path would still have been buried in snow; Hosen, wearing straw sandals, perhaps, must have struggled through the drifts, and taken a very long time to get here.
At any rate, realizing that Hosen had experienced such a day late in his life made me feel as if a single ray of white light, however faint, had pierced the dark monochromatic vision I had created of the man, without even realizing that I was doing it.

Our forger died in the village where he grew up, the one where he battled through the snow drifts to arrive, no longer painting as he had lost three fingers in a gunpowder accident whilst making fireworks. An activity which took up most of his later life as he pursued the most perfect of “blues”. A firework master never sees the result of his work as his always has his back turned as he launches them.

A story where our narrator never pursues the story of the master painter’s life, but one where he delves deeply into the mysterious world of a counterfeiter, where he never gets to see the beauty of the master’s work, as his back is turned.

The second story in this collection is “Reeds”. A simple tale which commences with the story of a father and son who were separated when the child was six years of age. Do they re-unite or is the evidence to say they are actually related too sketchy? This tale is written in a newspaper and our narrator observes his own fragments of his youth, what is reality, what is fantasy, what has he made up to fill the gaps?

As I read this article, a scene rose up in my mind’s eye of a father and a boy sitting together in a room in a temple lit by soft winter sunlight, each holding a fan of cards, concentrating on a game of picture-matching.
The boy had lost most of his cards somewhere – he had only three. He picked out one of them and laid it on the table. The father stared at the card for a long moment, then plucked a card from his own full hand and laid it down beside the boy’s. For a few seconds, four eyes lingered on the faces of the two cards, trying to determine where they made up part of the same picture.
Soon, the boy took another card from his hand. And the father began searching his hand for the card that matched it.
They wanted to create a picture of events in a past they had shared, but the fact that the boy had only three cards made this tricky. The boy’s cards might show a large elephant ear – maybe not even the whole ear, but just a part; or the very bottom of the animal’s foot. Picture-matching is supposed to be a game, but for Mr. Y and N. it was a good deal more serious than that, They had to figure out, in this manner, whether or not they were father and son, related by blood.
In N.’s case, an extraordinary disruption of his life had stolen his memory, leaving him only those three cards, but to some extent we are all in this position: each of us holds one or two cards that have been in our hands for years, who knows why, while the cards that should be paired with them have disappeared, instilling in us the desire to try and learn, through our own games of picture-matching, which particular section of what larger design they might make up.

A story of memory, of our narrator taking his own three cards from his youth and attempting to recreate his childhood and his family makeup. All set to the scene of rural Japanese life, a section where our narrator drives around Lake Kitakata inspecting the damage a year after a devastating earthquake and subsequent landslide. He remembers romance in a boat, the light, the faces, but who are the people, fragments, cards, making up his character today.

Our final tale is “Mr Goodall’s Gloves”, where our narrator visits Nagasaki and views the magnificent calligraphy at the inn, bringing back memories of his childhood where he was raised by his great-grandfather’s mistress.

He then visits one of the three local cemeteries and comes across the gravestone of E.Goodall, where memories of his youth come flooding back, where Grandma Kano (his guardian) protects Mr Goodall’s gloves.

What kind of man was Mr. Goodall? No doubt it would be possible to research the events of his life, if one were so inclined. Even having that information, though, I doubted I could confirm one way or the other whether he was the Mr Goodall of the gloves. Grandma Kano – who may well have had some knowledge of the person whose name went with the gloves – had long since passed away; there was no one left in the world anymore, there were no clues, that might reveal whether or not the two people were one and the same.

Another tale of memory, of fragments making up a believed whole, of fiction filling in the gaps of our existence.

Again a great reading experience from Yasushi Inoue, a writer whose work I will explore as it makes its way into English, maybe a little less gripping than the first two books I read and recently reviewed, but stories about fragments of memory, tales by narrators who are exploring the edges of society, stories set just after the close of World War II in Japan, stories who make you revel in human existence. Another joy of a book. Behold the Japanese master of the short story.

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