A Personal Matter
The blurb tells us that thirty-three-year-old Kenzaburo Oë is “the most dynamic and revolutionary writer to have emerged in Japan since the end of the War,” that he is “without doubt the first truly modern Japanese writer,” and that “he has wrenched Japanese literature free of its deeply rooted, inbred tradition and moved it into the mainstream of world literature.” One would deduce from these descriptions that either Oë is Supermansan or else, enfeebled by centuries of incest, Japanese literature is peculiarly backward! What the blurb doesn’t tell us is that fiction was somewhat doubtfully part of the Japanese literary tradition, and that because of its low status compared with poetry and philosophical writing, it showed a distinct tendency toward the pornographic throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, at the end of the War, Japanese writers of fiction had a good start: they were already “modern.” They were already pretty near “the mainstream of world literature,” if this mainstream consists of the writers whom the blurb lists as Oë’s “influences and literary heroes”—Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean-Paul Sartre. To mention only some of the more respectable novelists who have been translated in English, Junichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, Shohei Ooka, and Yukio Mishima (whose Temple of the Golden Pavilion has a character who tramples on the belly of a pregnant prostitute and another who rapes a sixty-year-old widow while she is worshipping his clubfeet)—these are sufficient to indicate that where extreme situations in fiction are concerned Oë is no great pioneer. In truth he can only seem revolutionary to someone who still thinks of Japan in terms of priests chanting sutras and elegant geisha entertaining their cultured guests with readings from Lady Murasaki and Lady Shonagon.
Oë’s hero, a young man called Bird, becomes the father of a freak, a two-headed baby, or more exactly a baby with brain hernia. Bird dreams persistently of going to Africa and is already given to bouts of drunkenness (“four weeks straight,” soon after marrying). Having been shown his baby son, he takes refuge with a girl he knew at the university, whose husband killed himself a year after their marriage, possibly because of her “deviate tastes.” Now,
winter and summer alike, during the day she was always sprawled in her darkened bedroom, pondering something extremely metaphysical while she chain-smoked Players until an artificial fog hung over her bed. She never left the house until after dusk.
We gather that Bird’s father committed suicide too. Disgust is the prevalent if not exclusive condition of mind for the next 100-plus pages. Himiko, the girl, is chasing a bigger and better orgasm. Much of the time Bird isn’t in a fit state to lend any assistance: as she says,
Let’s say we did go to bed together, you’d have all you could do to crumple between my legs and vomit. Your disgust would overwhelm you, and you’d smear my belly with brown whisky and yellow bile. You would, Bird! That happened to me once and it was awful.
At other times he does as much for Himiko as any man could, except perhaps Mellors—but no, it must have been much easier to make an impression on Lady Chatterley. A fantastic amount of vomiting goes on, however, depicted in greater detail and with more feeling than one would expect from a Japanese; and when Bird isn’t actually vomiting, his stomach is generally heaving or churning. It appears that his trouble is that he has lost his self-esteem—we wonder he hasn’t lost his innards—while Himiko’s trouble is that really she is just a romantic girl:
Bird, wouldn’t it be great to know just what you had to do to make the days of marvelous lays go on and on! Before we know it, even you and I won’t be able to stifle the yawns when we confront each other’s nakedness.
Together with the hospital staff, Bird connives at the death of the unfortunate baby by having it fed on sugared water. He refuses to let the brain surgeon operate on it, and he and Himiko take it to a back-street abortionist’s, where it can be left to die quietly. They have trouble in finding the place (there is a passage of black humor with a policeman) and the baby catches pneumonia. Then suddenly, after some more vomiting, Bird decides that “all I want is to stop being a man who continually runs away from responsibility,” so either he must strangle the baby with his own hands or else accept it and try to bring it up. He rushes back to the abortionist’s, recovers the baby, and takes it to the hospital. Our final sight of Bird is as the young father in a family group, along with wife and parents-in-law and baby. The monster was not a monster; the brain hernia was not brain hernia; it was a case of a benign tumor. Says the young father,
I kept trying to run away. And I almost did. But it seems that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world. I mean, even if you intend to get yourself caught in a trap of deception, you find somewhere along the line that your only choice is to avoid it.
Stirring words! The samurai spirit is not yet extinct. Bird is taking a new job (as a guide for foreign tourists, incidentally), he is going to save up for his son’s future, he will have to drop his childish nickname. Maybe he’ll even give up vomiting.
The only thing about A Personal Matter that might be said to be “revolutionary” is its happy-as-possible ending. The pity is that this is wholly incongruous; it is simply inconceivable that Bird could turn over so many new leaves in the space of the book’s last few pages. Even the most avid admirers of the happy ending in fiction (and there must be quite a few by now) will find this one a miserable fraud.
The quality of the translation both here and in the other novel under review seems to fall below the standard we have come to expect from Anglo-American translators of contemporary Japanese writing. Oë’s violation of the natural rhythms of the Japanese language and of its natural vagueness is referred to in the Preface, but whatever the difficulties, if the translator is basing himself on a toughish States-side slang, as he appears to be, then it won’t do to write “‘Hum’ was what the boy was brash enough to say.” The doctor’s remark, “I think the baby would be better off dead, and-so would you and your wife,” must be either the translator’s lapse or the author’s irony. The original language of The Pornographers, perhaps low-class Osaka dialect, presumably posed less of a problem: the translator has everyone speak like guys and dolls of a lesser or greater degree of illiteracy.
AKIYUKI NOZAKA is five years less young than Oë. The Pornographers, its publishers point out, enjoys the best of both worlds: it is modern (“a brilliant modern extravaganza”) and also traditional (“in a classic tradition”). Its title is apt and accurate, and no purchaser can claim to have been swindled. Subuyan and his colleagues are professional pornographers with a list of over three thousand clients. They make blue films (in color too), catering both for the general market and for particular tastes, they peddle erotic books and tapes and other devices, they provide “virgins” for jaded executives (alum and a squirt of red ink keep the virgins ever-fresh), and they arrange orgies for the possessors of expense accounts. Like some real-life pornographers, they see themselves as serving a noble end, either as artists or as humanists. Subuyan even speaks of his work as “merit-making”:
You have this guy, and it’s all shrunk up on him, and he looks at some of my pictures or reads these good books I sell him, and—wham!—there it is, standing straight up for him again. I help men out, that’s what I do.
After all, “when you think of it, the only fun people get out of life comes from eating and from this”: this, I suppose, is evidence of the “sharp compassion” which the publishers ascribe to the book.
At one point Subuyan turns up a couple of performers who seem to be genuinely in love with each other, and for a moment I thought we might be going to get something on the level of Yukio Mishima’s story, “Three Million Yen,” about two highly regarded performers, respectable husband and respectable wife, who are saving up for their first baby. But no, there is no irony of the finer sort here; the girl turns out to be an idiot, and the man her father, and the two “don’t know how to do anything else.”
The “modernity” of the story derives from its setting in present-day Osaka, from the activities of mashers on the rush-hour trains, and from the inclusion of such triumphs of twentieth-century technology as the electrically warmed girl-doll with a motor installed to operate her hips. The “classic tradition” invoked by the publishers presumably refers to the ukiyo or “floating world” literature of the Tokugawa period, those chronicles of low life whose prime exponent was Saikaku (1642-93), author of The Man Who Spent His Life at Love-Making and The Woman Who Spent Her Life at Love-Making, among other works. But this novel lacks Saikaku’s historical interest and, more to the point, it lacks his verve. Before long the comic invention flags: the total modes of intercourse, as George Steiner has put it, are fundamentally finite. Before long the slapstick humor of the book, arising out of the trials and tribulations of an honest hard-working pornographer, wears thin—and then it wears away altogether. Subuyan engages in various forms of pimping, including the corrupting of highschool girls, which I doubt many Japanese would regard as a laughing matter. Even if Japan is more affluent than it was when I lived there some fourteen years ago, I should imagine that the traffic in sex still has its sad side. There is an abortion, some less than jolly descriptions of fire-bomb victims during the War, and several unpleasant deaths, including one by masturbation, when a writer of hot books falls victim to his own professional skill. The novel quickly embarks on a long crescendo of heartlessness, and Subuyan gets his comeuppance (if that’s the right word) in the form of impotence, only cured posthumously when his back is broken under a car. Probably the funniest bit occurs when the firm splits up and the cameraman tells Subuyan, “We’re going to get at men through art, and you can stick to your humanism. Art and humanism—should we see which makes better pornography?” Subuyan is left with one assistant, whom he asks, “How about art and humanism? Which do you think is the most important?” The assistant answers, “Gee, I don’t know about that, boss. But I guess the most important man in the world is President Johnson, huh?”
It is perhaps with some faint surprise that one gathers that the translator of The Pornographers is a Jesuit, “at present an editor for the Jesuit Writers’ Service in New York City.” Nothing very revolutionary about that, I suppose. Nor about the fact that both Japanese authors have won three important literary prizes each. It looks as if the only revolutionary act of recent years was the Pope’s, when he proscribed the Pill.
Pornographers in Translation January 16, 1969