Forget everything you thought you knew about Japanese literature; in The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto
, Kenji Nakagami shows a face of Japan that's unlike any the West has seen before. A member of the burakumin
minority--often called Japan's untouchables--the author used disjointed, rough-hewn prose to describe a gritty, down-and-out world. Both "The Cape" and "House on Fire" explore the tangled family ties of Akiyuki, a construction worker who lives among the crowded roji
or alleyways of the Kishu province. Marked by madness, incest, and violence, the place makes Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County look like Mr. Rogers's neighborhood. In the course of "The Cape," for instance, Akiyuki's sister loses her mind, an in-law dies after being stabbed in his "good leg," and Akiyuki himself sleeps with a whore he strongly suspects is his half-sister. In spite of this troubled legacy, this man is the very opposite of introspective. With his longing for purity and his tireless appetite for physical labor, he's a kind of blank canvas against which his complicated family romance plays out:
The tree reminded him of himself. Akiyuki didn't know what kind of tree it was, and he didn't care. The tree had no flowers or fruit. It spread its branches to the sun, it trembled in the wind. That's enough, he thought. The tree doesn't need flowers or fruit. It doesn't need a name.
Unfortunately, the third story here ("Red Hair") is a disappointment--the kind of cheerless, one-note erotica that makes sex look like a torture devised by Existentialist philosophers. No matter; grand, tragic, and structurally complex, "The Cape" and "House on Fire" contain enough Freudian drama between them to keep a pair of Faulkner scholars obsessed for weeks. Skillfully translated by Eve Zimmerman (who also provides a preface, afterword, and helpful family tree), this is fiction of explosive power and formal daring. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
Western readers often assume that Japan is one homogeneous culture, but Nakagami, award-winning burakumin writer, exposes the fissures behind this facade. Burakumin are outcast Japanese, marginalized and degraded by a centuries-old belief that they are mysteriously "tainted" with impure blood. Nakagami, who died in 1992 at the age of 46, was the first to achieve literary success while documenting this oppressive legacy. The title novella, "The Cape," introduces Akiyuki, like Nakagami himself an illegitimate son. The story, set in the Kishu region of Japan, centers around one extended and discordant family. A ceremony is held to honor Akiyuki's mother's first legal husband, while Akiyuki's biological father, "that man," is reputed to recklessly haunt the red light district's prostitutes. A man on Akiyuki's construction crew, Yasuo, has killed another worker on the crew, Furuichi, and the community turns on itself, in grief and blame. Akiyuki's conflicted feelings about his father merge with a desire for self-obliteration, and he seeks and beds the prostitute he believes is his father's daughter, his own half-sister. In "House on Fire," we continue with Akiyuki's story, and learn more about his father, Yasu, a violent pyromaniac. Akiyuki, in a new city and married, descends into alcoholic violence, beating his wife viciously after learning that Yasu has been fatally injured in a motorcycle accident. In these stories, Nakagami is unrelentingly grim, showing a Zola-like obsession with inherited traits. In the final entry, "Red Hair," Nakagami gives rein to his erotic side, depicting the frenzied and strange coupling of Kozo, a construction worker, and a mysterious red-haired hitchhiker. Nakagami's tough, ruthless prose is often abstruse, with a taut psychological subtext, while elsewhere the clarity is unassailable: his detailing of the desperate passions in a Japanese ghetto rupture American stereotypes of the peaceful, impassive "nature" of the Japanese. (May) FYI: The Cape won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.