'There’s something unpleasant here’

Yasushi Inoue, trans. Michael Emmerich, Life of a Counterfeiter

Pushkin Press, 140pp, £12.00, ISBN 9781782270027

reviewed by Dan Bradley

The title story in this collection opens with the writer's admission of failure: 'Nearly a decade has passed since the Ōnuki family first asked me to compile a biography of the painter Ōnuki Keigaku, and I have yet to complete it.' The biographer soon abandons his fruitless work and sets off into the countryside to investigate forgeries created by a mysterious painter named Shinozaki, mentioned in Keigaku's diary. And though the title leads us to believe that the life of Shinozaki – forger, frustrated painter and renowned firework maker – will be revealed (and at one level it is), the writer's immediate admission of struggle and failure reveals this to be just as much a story about him: his own literary counterfeiting; his attempts to create a compelling biographical narrative from the original of Keigaku's life; the questions he raises about how – if at all – we can measure originals and counterfeits; and his approach to the writing and reading process itself. These literary and interpretive concerns haunt all three of the stories in this collection, and lie at the heart of both their power and their shortcomings.

The opening piece 'Life of a Counterfeiter' is, on the whole, a gripping mystery story, where the work of an unnamed biographer is completely derailed by his obsessive pursuit to uncover the life of an obscure forger:

As I sat facing the mountain, a powerful urge came over me: I had to keep thinking about Hosen. There was something in his life, it seemed, that I could not avoid thinking about – that I had, for his sake, to reflect upon.

The work is grounded in plain, unaffected English, a journalistic listing of place names and details, but during a five-day journey into the countryside with a friend, there are also some supernatural notes:

There's something unpleasant here, I thought. And no sooner had I felt this than I recalled the strange spirit that brimmed in the ink painting Ōnuki Takuhiko and I had seen at the inn in Himeji. Whatever it was we had sensed in that work filled this eerie, vacant house as well, floor to ceiling...

But in Inoue's work, the characters are never released from their suffering by a cathartic confrontation with a supernatural being; their lives are overshadowed by irreconcilable loss, lonely and unrealised, masterfully framed within texts that themselves struggle with the nature of text itself. In Inoue's Bullfight and The Hunting Gun, for example, published by Pushkin in 2013 and 2014 respectively, the narrators are also troubled writers, feeling themselves to be frauds who are inadequate to the job assigned them. This may explain Inoue's own prolificacy as a novelist, completing over 50 novels and 150 short stories, despite not beginning to write fiction until his early forties. The brisk, timeless and translucent prose, highlighted with impressionistic splashes of colour, makes these stories feel light upon first reading, effortless and unassuming, but they remain in the reader's thoughts for days. They create a compulsion to come back and reread, to pore over the evidence again, to see if clearer images and meanings emerge. But an ironic and telling note is that Inoue sees text and facts as misleading sources that demand a sensitive reading: his biographer admits that he could glimpse more of the counterfeiter's true character in a blank sheet of paper left at the scene of his death and in a résumé full of lies discovered at the counterfeiter's home than in the facts of his life.

In contrast to the galloping detective-novel pace of ‘Life of a Counterfeiter’, which makes up over half of the collection, ‘Reeds’ and ‘Mr Goodall's Gloves’ are stories of reflection and refraction, not action. In ‘Reeds’, a journalist is struck by a strange story in a newspaper of a young boy who goes missing and is later reunited with a man who may or may not be his actual father. This stirs a brilliant but partial memory of a beautiful lake and a young couple seen in his childhood. He later travels to Fukui prefecture, researching the recovery following the great earthquake that struck the region in 1948. During his journey, he sees a lake which uncovers even more fragments of memory, and inspires a profound and mournful reflection upon the past, a resignation to the mystery of experience:

...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.

Again, there is this yearning for meaning and resolution of the mysteries of our everyday lives.

‘Mr Goodall's Gloves’ begins drily with an introduction of Matsumoto Jun, who acted as personal physician to the last Shogun in the late 19th century. The narrator is on business in Nagasaki when he sees a scroll of Jun's calligraphy and reflects upon the character of this historical figure, first revealed through his calligraphy, then via a biographical dictionary the narrator finds. Although this opening is the least compelling of the collection, there is once again an intense engagement with the ways of telling stories about people's lives. The narrator’s reading calls to mind the idealised depiction of Jun from Grandma Kano, the mistress of the narrator's great-grandfather, and the narrator's own vague recollections of Jun as a child. The first half of this story is the most distracting exemplification of Inoue's most recognisable shortcomings, at least in the works released by Pushkin so far: the over-reliance on thinly drawn and emotionally detached narrators, often male writers, who slow the story with long passages of details, dates, and proper names. It is worth noting that Inoue worked as a journalist for many years and, so, while grounding his stories with plausible and recognisable geographical and historical detail makes sense, the extent to which these passages slow the narrative is surprising. It takes patience in these kinds of sections to see where things are going and, while restraint and distance strengthens the sense of loss in ‘Reeds’ or 'Life of a Counterfeiter', say, in ‘Mr Goodall’s Gloves’ the lack of emotional resonance loses the reader. Which is a shame, as the second half gathers significant emotional power as it dips into the origin story of a pair of gloves treasured by Grandma Kano for the memories they evoke – one particularly bittersweet episode when she was a young woman. As the narrator tells us of Grandma Kano's idealised memories of Jun, her character is revealed along with the narrator. The characters of Inoue's short stories and novellas are always trying to make sense of their own lives through the indirect investigation of others. There is a strong awareness of the reader here, too. It always feels Inoue knows we read for a similar reason, to make sense of our own lives.

This collection builds strongly upon the critical acclaim of The Hunting Gun and Bullfight, chosen as Book of the Year by the Irish Times. It skillfully creates compelling portraits of lives haunted by the past, unrealised ambitions, loss, memory and loneliness, while still engaging in a powerful way with the act of writing, reading and interpreting life and experience. However, as a translated body of work, the five stories released by Pushkin so far are tantalisingly narrow in their tone, scope and what they reveal about Inoue's prolific and masterful output. All three stories in this collection are incomplete narratives, constructed from disparate facts, accounts and impressions, but each contains a sadness and resignation to loss and incomprehensibility. Like the past, the present and the sunlight shattered on the surface of the lake remembered in ‘Reeds’, this collection is fragmented, incomplete, elusive but still beautiful. As the narrator concedes: 'I know the indescribable brilliance of the spring sunlight that streamed down onto the face of the lake that day. That's all.'