Tuesday, February 15, 2005

odd sense of affectionate detachment--on the viewpoint of "In and Around Yukinuma" by Toshiyuki Horie

When my mother visited Japan in last October, I asked her to bring back some Japanese books that I had longed to read. One of them were "In and Around Yukinuma" by one of my favorite writers called Toshiyuki Horie. I finihed reading it after almost four months--not because it was a boring read, but because it was such a beautiful piece of literature that I didn't dare rush. It was the kind of books that one would love to read very slowly, allowing enough time for the words to sink into one's heart, almost carressing them. I am still floating in the clean, crisp but gentle air of the stories, but I will try here to verbalize what I felt was unique about this work.

"In and Around Yukinuma" is a series of short stories depicting loosely interconnecting lives of people in a remote Japanese town called Yukinuma (which directly translates into "snow lagoon"). A last day of a bowling center run by a widowed man, still listening for the sound he once heard old-fashioned bowling pins make, a funeral service for a owner/chef of a small French restaurant whose mysterious herbs and urban sophistication was an object of admiration of the townspeople--the ordinary is portrayed with a quiet affection to the smallest details and subtlest emotion. Unlike his other works, which trod along the thin line between essay and fiction, mainly drawing from his own experience in Paris as a foreign student, these stories are distinctly fiction, and are more successful. The almost stoic focus on the quiet lives of ordinary people living in an unexciting rural town, without his habitual indulgence in bibliophiliac tidbits and unconvincing chain of coincidences as a single driving force of the stories (abundant in his other works), makes the stories in "In and Around Yukinuma" a true gem.

The oddity of the stories told in an omniscient third-person narrative is the fact that all the characters are referred to with "san," a Japanese counterpart of "Mr." and "Ms," but with a little more affection than rigid reverence. In the opening page of the first story, readers are challenged by the question of determining the narrator. As is permissible in Japanese language, there is no explicit subject in the sentences in the first few paragraphs. It makes the narration appear to be a dramatic monologue of one of the characters, reflecting upon his own feeling and referring to those around him with "san." Then, a reader would be puzzled to find the narrator referring to who seems to be himself with "san," as if talking about someone else. And in fact, the narrator IS talking about someone other than himself, for the narrator is NOT the protagonist, despite the initial appearance. It is a separate narrator who cautiously but seamlessly enters into the psyche of the characters and speaks as if the protagonist himself were telling his intimate feelings.

What makes this strange obscurity of perspective possible is the absence of the (grammatical) subject in many of the sentences. Thanks to the characteristics of Japanese language that allows the absence of grammatical subject in a sentence, the omniscient narrator can dissolve into the intimate consciousness of the protagonist at times, and can reappear as a visible, somewhat detached narrator at others. Combined with the affectionate use of "san," the frequent absence of the subject enable the disappearing and reappearing narrator to achieve a unique voice that is at one time intimate and detached.


Post a Comment

<< Home