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When I Whistle by Shūsaku Endō

Quartet, 1979, 275 p, including iv p Preface. Translated from the Japanese, 口笛をふく時, (Kuchibue wo Fuku Toki,) by Van C Gessel.

 When I Whistle cover

A chance encounter on a train with a former schoolmate forces a man called Ozu (I can’t remember being told his first name) to think about a boy at school who was dubbed Flatfish. Flatfish, a new arrival in Ozu’s class (not the top set by any means,) unfortunately had an odour but, because he was seated next to Ozu, by default became his best friend. Ozu had to explain to him all the unwritten rules but Flatfish continually managed to get himself in trouble both by accident and by being himself. The defining moment of Flatfish’s life was an encounter the pair had with two girls from the local girls’ school – with whom they ought not to have had any contact by the strict rules of the time – on the way home one day. Flatfish formed a lasting but doomed attraction to Aiko, the girl who, in an act of compassion, bandaged his injured hand. These schooldays were in the 1930s, Japan was embroiled in China and militaristic attitudes abounded but the nature of schooling (harsh) and the trials of dealing with the opposite sex come over as being not too dissimilar to Western experiences of the time.

In the novel’s present day, Ozu’s son Eiichi is a practitioner at the dispensary of the local hospital and eager to climb the greasy pole of the medical profession so does not demur from the outmoded prescribing and treatment practices of his superiors. He notes, in particular, the habit of telling soothing platitudes to patients. Despite his liaison with a nurse, Keiko, he sets his designs on his boss’s daughter, but has a rival in Doctor Kurihara who also has a nurse on a string. Relations between the sexes in Japan had clearly also undergone a more liberal change post-war. Eiichi then is complicit in administering a new, otherwise untried, cancer treatment devised by a firm owned by Kurihara’s father.

Flatfish not being academic quit school and got a poorly paid job but when war with the Western powers came (the feeling was that Japan would easily defeat them, of course, and at first it seemed so) was swiftly drafted into the miltary and sent to Korea. Nevertheless, he inveigled Ozu to seek out Aiko and give her a pen as a token of his esteem. She in the meantime had married a young naval officer. The reader suspects, rightly, that none of this will come out well. This thread between Aiko, Flatfish and Ozu is what binds the book together.

When I Whistle isn’t one of Endo’s better novels even if it is one of his later ones. There is something about the writing that is sketchy or ill-considered (which doesn’t seem to be because of translation) and more than once information or characters’ thoughts are repeated that have no need to be.

Still, the reflection, “People often wonder when they will die but they rarely wonder where they will die,” is original but, “Now, when all was lost, he felt he understood the meaning they had given to his life,” is a novelistic thought if there ever was one.

The Preface tells us that the author was himself in hospital for a considerable time with various complaints and during one operation his heart stopped. But he survived and continued smoking. It is noticeable that the doctors in this novel all smoke. Then again, it was first published in 1974.

Pedant’s corner:- “if worse came to worst” (if the worst came to the worst,) “None … were” (several times. ‘None …was’.) Opthamology (x 3, Ophthalmology,) knit (knitted, please. Okay the translation is into USian, but still,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (to a climax; the crescendo is the rise.)

Automatic Eve by Rokurō Inui

Haikasoru, 2019, 315 p. Translated from the Japanese Jidō ibu (自動イブ,) by Matt Treyvaud. Published in Interzone 284, Nov-Dec 2019.

 Automatic Eve cover

How necessary is it to suspend disbelief in order to appreciate, or perhaps persevere with, a work of fiction? Conventional wisdom suggests it is at least a necessary condition. Automatic Eve suggests that might not be the case.

The plot of Inui’s novel hinges on the existence of elaborate automata. Not toys, not merely small things like crickets, but better than android–like simulacra of human beings. Things of convincing, warm, outer human appearance but internally consisting of metal, cogs, gears, wires – each with a pendulum for a heart. Yet the automata here are effectively so realistic that they appear to be completely human to everyone involved, even to the extent of being able to have sex convincingly, to inspire love and devotion, and to experience these things for themselves. Even capable of being convinced that they themselves are human – until, perhaps, they find otherwise. And that’s a leap that’s a big requirement to ask of a reader. (This one always had nagging doubts.) Yet, to carry on, to keep faith with the story, said reader has to take this on trust. (And, maybe, later, write a review.)

It is a mark of Inui’s writing, and his translator’s ability to convey it, that the necessary perseverance isn’t a problem. The story here is engaging enough to keep you turning the pages. It helps that the central concept is introduced fairly gradually.

The setting is a little odd though. The characters know of Chemistry, electricity and clockwork, yet the society in which they are embedded has a mediæval feel. It is obviously closely based on Japan, but not a Japan which ever existed. Yes, we have sake, bathhouses, sumo, cricket fights, meticulous gardening (albeit also a cover for spying,) a certain pleasure in fine objects, finely wrought – not to mention the goings-on in the building known as the Thirteen Floors. There is, too, intrigue between an Imperial court and a shogunate, but the divine figure is an Empress, and the succession goes through the female line, to a female. It is a Japan tweaked just so, to enable the story. A fantasy, then.

Would-be Sumo wrestler, Geiemon Tentoku, has fallen in love with the Eve of the title and selflessly seeks to release her from her indenture in the Thirteen Floors to restore her to the man he thinks she loves. Kyuzo Kugimiya learned all he knows about the construction of automata from Keian Higa, who had plotted the overthrow of the system before being executed after his plans were betrayed to the authorities. Under the instructions of the Imperial Gardener (really a spymaster) Kihachi Umekawa, the shogun’s spy, Jinnai, is investigating Kigimiya’s activities. All these are actors in the overall plot, which concerns the contents of the Sacred Vessel, a sealed container within the Imperial Palace.

The existence of convincing automata leads a couple of characters to question the nature of humanity. Kyuzo thinks, “A pregnant woman’s body was home to not one soul but two. Where did the life in her womb come from, and when? If souls came from elsewhere to reside in the human body, was it not possible that one might take up residence in the infant automaton they were building?” Later, Jinnai wonders, “Where did the soul come from? Where, in the body or brain, did it conceal itself while a human still lived? …. Automata like Eve showed human behavior [sic] as a response to the care and love they received from humans.”

Such metaphysical considerations are invited by the subject matter – and are arguably the raison d’être of literary fiction – but Inui doesn’t let them bother the thrust of his story for too long.

There is a slight flaw to the book’s structure, however. Rather than a novel it is a succession of seven shortish novellas, albeit featuring ongoing characters. That the narrative viewpoint changes between these sections is not a problem but certain repetitions of information suggest that they may not have been conceived or written as a whole but subject to a later fix-up. And Automatic Eve herself is more like an absence than a protagonist. Though she does appear in them all she is neither the focus nor viewpoint character in any of the seven segments.

None of that, however, takes away from the overall effect. It may lack innovation in its central idea but Automatic Eve is still a well-written, solid piece of fiction.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- “none were too explicit” (none was too explicit.) “The master of accounts were responsible for” (the master … was responsible.) “None of these new revelations were the answers Kakita sought..” (None of these new revelations was the answer ..) “none of them understand the situation” (none of them understands the situation.) “None of the spies were supposed to know” (None … was supposed to know.) “The attendant’s quarters” (attendants’ quarters.) “The group made their way…” (The group made its way,) “‘I gather that neither of those fates await those who are careless?’” (neither of those fates awaits those, plus the sentence isn’t really a question.) “Mounts of leftover soil and worktools ..” (‘Mounds’ makes more sense.) “‘The palace has decided to keep the news to themselves for now’” (to itself is more grammatical,) “for this automata” (for this automaton.) “These question had always bothered Jinnai.” (These questions.)

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

King Penguin, 1987, 141 p. Translated from the Japanese 午後の曳航 (Gogo no Eikō) byJohn Nathan.

 The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea cover

Mishima, seemingly at the height of his literary powers and success, cut short his own life by committing seppuku in 1970, apparently in protest at the erosion of Japan’s values due to Western influence.

In this short novel, the first of his I have read, Fusako Kuroda has been widowed for five years. Unknown to her, her son Noboru has discovered a hole in the wainscotting between their bedrooms through which he can witness her bedtime routines. After a visit with Noboru to a tramp merchant steamer she takes up with the sailor, Ryuji Tzukazaki, who was attentive to Noboru but who it is revealed considers sex as a secret yearning for death. Their relationship is then consummated under the eyes of a not best pleased Noboru. Noboru is also number three in a group of schoolboys who enact nefarious rituals in their secret den. Boys have always tended to the wanton; as Shakespeare well knew.

Here is set the scene for an odd tale of love, alienation, dehumanisation and revenge. Things come to a head when after a final voyage away Ryuji decides to give up sailing and marry Fusako. Noboru presents his list of charges against Ryuji to his gang’s chief.

The tension between Japan’s past and present, which Mishima felt all too keenly, is reflected in the different attitudes of the characters. Fusako, with her job in a luxury goods shop, represents modernity, Ryuji a connection to Japan’s former seafaring glories, the boys a reminder of the insular past.

Pedant’s corner:- louvered swinging doors (louvred,) an unneeded indent of one space at one new line with a larger line spacing than usual below it.

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