Monday, November 11, 2013

The Japanophile's Lament

Shiho Kishimoto, I Hear Them Cry

Young Mayu Asaka feels torn. An idealistic French priest has attuned her to humanity’s suffering, and now she hears unvoiced cries all around. But she likes wearing nice clothes, living well, and making love with her wealthy paramour, Shigeki. So she marries him, thinking she can cure the demons plaguing his dreams. Sadly, Mayu cannot heal herself.

Shiho Kishimoto’s first novel, published in 2003 and making its debut in English, will probably net warm reviews because it addresses important, painful themes. It’s already won prestigious Japanese awards. But as deeply as I feel for issues of domestic violence and abuses of power in parental and spousal relationships, I cannot disregard my old mentor’s writing advice: “How good your theme is doesn’t matter if your prose is shitty.”

Mayu, our first-person narrator, speaks in clichés constantly. On page one, we get: “My heart skipped a beat, sending shivers down my spine… lost in the mists… swirling haze of cigarette smoke… exhilaration sent my thoughts reeling… I was beginning to live my dream.” Clichés generally bespeak authors (or narrators) who haven’t thought through the unique situation. I can’t tell if Mayu or Kishimoto relies on such trite phrasing.

Who’s using the clichés matters, because Mayu doesn’t think deeply about anything. No, that’s incorrect. She frequently thinks deeply, but casts her thoughts outside herself; she creates complex narratives and imputes multifarious motives to everyone around her. But Mayu avoids contemplating her own actions. She falls in love rashly, disregards advice, and uses other people for crudely self-serving purposes.

Father Jean, a village priest with a passion for delinquent youths, teaches Mayu to care about life’s most defenseless denizens. She interposes herself into an abused girl’s violent case, helping ensure an abusive mother faces judgment. But this triumph makes Mayu feel powerful, and she quickly descends into messianic grandeur, marrying for wrong reasons, then nursing powerful grudges when not everyone accepts her assistance.

Can I make so bold as to call Mayu delusional? That may be harsh. Sure, she creates elaborate tales of deceit and hypocrisy based on fleeting evidence, as when she divines her husband Shigeki’s extramarital affair from a woman wearing similar earrings. But Mayu isn’t delusional, because all her self-told tales prove absolutely correct. Either Mayu’s secretly psychic, or author Kishimoto wrote in a hurry.

The latter hypothesis explains the passive way Mayu caroms from incident to incident. She experiences emotional extremes faster than an untreated bipolar teenager. On page 138 she’s “bubbling over with pride now that I had successfully reeled in Shigeki.” On page 139 (totally not kidding) she says: “I couldn’t forgive Shigeki for letting [his mistress] in during my absence.” Though by page 145, she’s forgiven him, because that’s how she rolls.

If only that were an aberration. But readers could play drinking games spotting every time Mayu elides important narration, rushing headlong into some unearned emotional climax. On page 73 she says: “I knew of nobody who would call Shigeki’s phone and say such a thing in the coquettish manner I’d used. Unless there was someone else.” Shot of whiskey for that one.

Elsewhere, when Shigeki’s violent side flares up, Mayu suddenly remembers him waking from nightmares during their courtship, which inevitably devolved into rough sex. Father Jean warned her that Shigeki had a wrathful side, but she ignored him. Wait, when did all this happen? She never mentioned it. She inserts it much later, because she decides suddenly that she needs it.

Then, after inventing blood-chilling explanations for insignificant events, Mayu misses one important fact from Shigeki’s childhood. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Shigeki Tachibana resembles Darkly Dreaming Dexter’s ethnic understudy. But everything goes away in the epilogue because Mayu and Shigeki have a kid. “His loathing for his stepfather had been peeled off, [and] his hatred had somewhat mellowed.”


I contemplated whether perhaps Japanese literature doesn’t share Western conventions of exposition, narrative, or clarity. But I’ve read Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa in translation, and found no such blatant hiccups. I also wondered if translator Raj Mahtani might’ve injected his own quirks. He never finds any consistency in, for instance, whether to translate Japanese modes of address, and changes patterns constantly.

I understand Kishimoto’s motivation. Her themes touch me deeply. Sadly, her storytelling doesn’t touch me at all. Running under 170 pages, this novel resembles an outline Kishimoto hasn’t finished writing yet. It’s sloppy, underdeveloped, and slaloms through key moments so fast, I closed the back cover and laughed. Ruefully.

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