Friday, January 24, 2014

On Bullfight, an Early Novella by Yasushi Inoue

Yasushi Inoue is not a household name in the U.S. (no Japanese writer is a household name in the U.S., not even Haruki Murakami), but he appears to be experiencing a moderate revival of interest here, amongst aficionados of Japanese literature, anyway.  2010 saw the publication of his historical novel Tun-Huang by NYRB, and now the Pushkin Press has released one of his earliest works, a novella called Bullfight, which was originally published in Japan in 1949, where it won the Akutagawa prize.
It’s certainly a strange little book.  It depicts the efforts of a newspaper editor in postwar Osaka to sponsor a “bull sumo” competition.  The editor, Tsugami, is drawn in by a small-time huckster named Tashiro, and together they sink huge sums of money into their misguided scheme to popularize bull sumo.  Tsugami’s motives are perplexing.  His newspaper, although struggling like most publications in the aftermath of WWII, isn’t in desperate need of cash.  Neither is Tsugami, for that matter.  But nonetheless we bear witness to a man destroying himself for no reason by embarking on a very strange, very futile venture that, on its surface, would not be out of place in a P. G. Wodehouse story.

As the novella progresses, one begins to suspect that perhaps Tsugami is doing this—the bullfighting scheme, that is—because of a lack of anything else to do.  He doesn’t seem to have any friends (he has colleagues, but that’s not the same).  He’s in an extremely dysfunctional relationship with a woman named Sakaki, the wife of a friend of his who disappeared during the war.  Brief mention is also made of Tsugami having a wife and children, who were evacuated from the city during the war and with whom he’s made no effort to reunite.  The jacket blurb dubbed the book “existentialist,” and perhaps they were right.  Tsugami demonstrates positively Mersault-levels of alienation, and a similar inclination to do things because there’s no reason not to.

Bullfight was written by a novice writer, and it shows in some places, but one nevertheless comes away from it with a distinct sense of disquiet.  Tsugami’s is a cautionary tale of the perils of alienation in a materially and spiritually devastated society.

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