Japan 1949 – it is only four years since the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is a country rebuilding, a country with a “loss”, a place where the Stock Exchanges have just opened and a place where a forty-two year old journalist and literary editor, Yasushi Inoue, decided it is time to start writing. At his death, aged eighty-three, he had produced fifty novels and 150 short stories and to this day remains one of the most revered of Japanese writers. So let’s go back to where he began this journey, “Bullfight”, first published in 1949.
Our main character here is Tsugami, an editor-in-chief of the Osaka New Evening post. A recently established venture (remember this is post war Japan) which is financially insecure, with minimal working capital it is slowly building an audience for being “a paper for the slightly unsavoury intellectual”. Tsugami, although married, has a mistress Sakiko, who is wavering on the longevity of their relationship.
Tsugami comes up with the idea to stage a traditional sumo bullfight in Osaka, at the local baseball stadium, where spectators can bet on the result of the fights, and over three days could potentially return the paper millions of yen in profit.
In these post war days, perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives.
Enter into the story, Tashiro, a “country showman”, one of course that you get a an eerie uneasy feeling about, is Tsugami’s whole plan a scam, is Tsugami going to become the loser here, gambling the newspapers reputation and finances on a bullfighting event? This uneasy feeling only grows as characters are described as having “a certain brashness, a willingness to walk right over other people”.
With a simple plot, but with stunning lyrical prose, Inoue manages to draw the reader into the perilous situation that our protagonist finds himself in, a relationship on the rocks, promoting an event which could fail, dealing with shady characters and of course working enormous hours to pull the whole thing off. We can’t help but side with Tsugami, the downtrodden, the underdog, the man who seems to have never “won” anything in his life – nothing outside of hard work that is.
Although Sakiko is not as deeply sketched as Tsugami, we also have a character in despair, looking for a normal relationship, but with a winner of course. New Year’s Eve:
The bells would be struck one hundred and eight times. A little past the hallfway mark, Tsugami got to his feet, opened the window, and stood for a time looking out. Sakiko rose, too, then went and leaned against him. Outside the night was uncannily dark and deep, nothing but the sound of the bells flying past. Thick foliage walled them in, blocking out every trace of light from the town. All at once, Sakiko felt intensely uneasy. The very fact that they were standing here quietly beside one another, as much like tow lovers as two lovers could be, listening to the passing of the ringing of the bells being stuck to send off the old year, filled her with a dark sense of foreboding. Maybe the only reason we are able to share a night like this, she thought, is that this time we really are going to break up.
Sakiko stepped away from Tsugami and went to sit at the small red-lacquered mirror in the corner. Her heart was still pounding. In the mirror, staring out at her like a fox, was the ashen face of a woman who had spent three years of the most important period in her life, from her twenties into her thirties, suffering with Tsugami.
As Tsugami becomes more embroiled in the lead up to the bullfighting event, arranging the transportation of the bulls, their feed, the hire of the stadium, the set-up of the fighting ring, the publicity, seeking permits, negotiating prices and even more, his mind is constantly thinking of the potential financial ruin. Throughout all of this he forgets the reasons for the event, the actual bullfight itself, a gamble, a fight to see who is the most dominant. He becomes obsessed with winning at all costs, this time he wants to be the success.
Whilst the tensions of the preparations for the bullfight may be the main plot, it is the subplot of human angst that echoes throughout. As Tsugami discusses the idea of a fireworks display the night before the big event, Sakiko comments:
“Yes, that would be lovely. Maybe you can do a big chrysanthemum! How nice it will look blooming in the total darkness over the charred rubble of Osaka”
Japan rebuilding its character after the war also simmering in the background.
Recently released, this is a beautiful edition from Pushkin Press, hand sticked by an independent publisher on acid free paper, it is one of those joys to hold (you don’t get that with an e-reader!). For me this was a revelation, a wonderful introduction to a prolific writer, and with just the one book under my belt I can see why Inoue is considered a “master” of Japanese literature. With a number of early works, you sometimes struggle to connect with the writer, as he finds his feet, if Inoue matures as his writing progresses then I’m in for an exciting journey. Although a short work (this edition’s story runs to 124 pages) it is not short on substance.
Pushkin Press have recently released “The Hunting Gun” and “Life of a Counterfeiter” by Yasushi Inoue as well, I’ll be back in a few days with a review of his other work released in 1949, “The Hunting Gun”, with a review of the other work soon thereafter….I’m hooked.