Hybrid Child: A Work of Wide-Screen Baroque Science Fiction by Mariko Ōhara

A question that came up during this year’s Best Translated Book Award was how much attention should be given to supplementary material? Or, put another way, how important is the context in determining how you feel about a book? An author’s or translator’s note, a forward or afterward by a famous fan, a podcast analyzing the text chapter by chapter or an interview with the author — all of these things can drastically change your relationship to a piece of writing.

But there are also times when extra information, additional insight into the text, can enhance your reading. You can’t always depend on being able to navigate a novel intuitively. This is often a challenge when reading translations, where we’re navigating cultural, historical and linguistic differences in addition to the complexities of plot and structure. Hybrid Child, by Mariko Ōhara, is a futuristic novel that spans centuries. Crowded with multiple narratives, any one of which could be detached and developed into a standalone book, understanding it as a work of “widescreen baroque” is essential to appreciate the intricacies of Ōhara’s writing.

The term “widescreen baroque” was coined by the writer Brian Aldiss to describe a sci-fi subgenre characterized by elaborate, over-the-top plots, a preoccupation with metaphysical ideas, and a taste for the dramatic. Books that fall into this category “…obey a dictionary definition of baroque; which is to say that they have a bold and exuberant rather than a fine style, they are eccentric, and sometimes degenerate into extravagance. They like a wide screen, with space and possibly time travel as props, and at least the whole solar system as their setting.” Every page turn should introduce a new spectacle. The plots should jump from one incredible premise to another. If you don’t feel a little bit off-balance, then the author is doing something wrong.

Hybrid Child is divided into three sections, each one set in a completely different time and terrain. The sections are connected by a small group of reoccurring characters, chief among these is a cyborg, B #3. But Ōhara uses a cacophony of perspectives and voices to tell her stories. Hybrid Child is a chaotic and noisy text. Her secondary characters are often the more compelling: a young man who is kept alive in a mobile egg he likens to a coffin and a housekeeping robot whose emotions push against the borders of her programming are two of my favorites.

Suddenly, the tin robot felt sad and hopeless. At least if she were human, she could have a short nap, or a deep sleep, or get tipsy on booze — there would be all kinds of options.

Deep in reverie, the tin robot thought about the girl who had flown away and left her.

“What is it? Looks like you want to say something. Come on, say it. It’s almost time for you to make dinner.”

The tin robot looked at the old master with her two widely spaced eyes.

“…Heaven.”

As for the plot: the first section is a horror story which descends into a standoff with the military. We are introduced to an unnamed, middle-aged woman, living in isolation. Everything about her home, from the house to the landscape around her (snowcovered), is relentlessly and antiseptically white. B #3 has escaped from the government facility where he was created and is being tracked by soldiers. As he approaches the house he shifts into the form of a Dadazim, a doglike creature genetically engineered to be the perfect house pet. The woman welcomes and feeds him. B #3 begins communicating with the home’s only other occupant, the house’s A.I., which manifests as a holograph of the woman’s dead daughter. It’s not exactly an Ex Machina situation but conveys the same sinister feel.

B #3, we soon learn, is capable of taking on the form of any biological creature by sampling its cells. He can even combine samples of different organisms, creating entirely new species. By the end of the first section, B #3 will take the form of his host’s dead daughter, Jonah. As Jonah, he escapes and finds temporary sanctuary and happiness in Section Two: Farewell. In Section Three: Aquaplanet (which makes up the bulk of the novel) she will make a journey through space and time to a new planet whose inhabitants live with uncertainty. The A.I., Milagros, who controls the planet’s systems is teetering on the edge of madness.

According to the translator, Jodie Beck, whose clear prose styling deserves credit for holding the book together, “the three stories that compose Hybrid Child were originally serialized in SF Magazine in Japan between 1984 and 1990, and all three were compiled together and published as a single book by Hayakawa Publishers in 1990.” That, and the knowledge that the author intended this as an example of “widescreen baroque”, goes a long way toward explaining the disconnected nature of the three parts. Though Ōhara threads elements and characters through the different plots in an attempt to unify them, the changes in the setting are abrupt. Time jumps add to the discord.

Perhaps Ohara’s greatest strength is the vividness of the characters she creates. One of these is the Military Priest, for whom time is not a linear construct. He slips through the time stream, manipulating it to bear witness to key events and to pursue B #3/Jonah. The fact that he exists untethered to a specific time or place eventually drives him insane. But not before he hatches a plan to put an end to B #3/Jonah. He is an irredeemably evil character, endowed with godlike powers.

Like Yoshio Aramaki, whose novel The Sacred Era* is also part of the University of Minnesota Press’ Parallel Future series, Ōhara’s book is burdened by Judeo-Christian metaphors. Mother-figures weighed down by Freudian symbolism appear in every section. There are awkward (and disturbing) sex scenes. There’s a lot to unpack… more, perhaps, than is necessary. I’d argue that, in the end, each individual section is better than the sum of its parts.

I found Hybrid Child a problematic book on many levels. In a way, Ōhara’s novel can be read as a complex coming of age story that explores our place in the universe, the nature of consciousness and the existence of god. But these themes are so deeply buried under extraneous rubble that they lose definition, becoming amorphous. And, despite being written by a woman, there are parts which have me questioning it being labeled a feminist work of science fiction.

This perceived messiness, though, is also an essential characteristic of the project. And, admittedly, there’s something charming about its imperfections. But are they working in service to, or distracting away from, the emotional connection the reader is meant to feel to the story? Therein lies the danger of writing within the framework of a genre.


*”The Parallel Futures book series is dedicated to translations of key works of Japanese science fiction intervening creatively and critically into temporal processes of social and political subjectification… These works prefer temporal juxtaposition, disjunction, and multiplication, seeking intensifiers of mobile force and difference rather than forms of representation, aiming not to pull the future into the present but to generate parallel, diagonal, and transversal futures whereby space-time emerges, as not yet again.”

-from the University of Minnesota Press website

In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, predictably, bleak.

Title: The Emissary
Author: Yoko Tawada
Translator:  Margaret Mitsutani
Publisher: New Directions Books, New York (2018)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 2762 9

In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, somewhat predictably, bleak. Japanese children are frail and infirm creatures, cared for by grandparents and great-grandparents who remain strong and vigorous well past the hundred-year mark. The two main characters, Yoshiro and his great-grandson Mumei, live in a world recovering from the aftermath of an unspecified disaster. The intervening generations, — Mumei’s grandparents, father, and mother, — are all conspicuously absent. Yoshiro has a vague idea of where they are and what they are doing, but no strong inclination to connect with them. He is entirely invested in, and responsible for, the care of Mumei. Everything and everyone else is of tertiary significance.

There are no cars. English words are taboo. Banks have closed. Higher education has been exposed as a mercenary business that takes students’ money while doing very little to prepare them for finding jobs. The ground has been contaminated and most animals have gone extinct. (Dogs still exist. Yoshiro rents a dog from the Rent-A-Dog store every morning to take on his run along the river). The nation of Japan is cut off from the international community and “closed to the outside world.”

“Why is it closed?”

“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself. Remember when I took you to the Showa-Heisei Museum? All the rooms were separated by steel doors, so if a fire starts in one room it can’t spread to the next one.”

Over the course of the book, Mumei goes from barely being able to walk to being confined to a wheelchair. We learn about his and Yoshiro’s daily routines. We watch as he makes a friend and falls in love. To a certain extent, we’re given hints at the fates of their extended family. But The Emissary poses a lot of questions and is frustratingly short on answers. What happened to isolate Japan? Why are children physically deteriorating so rapidly? Why are the elderly, in contrast, so healthy and long-lived? What is the state and status of the generations in between? What is the role of the reader in this story? Tawada is all about world building on the micro scale, to the extent that this novel contains very little plot and an inexplicable fascination with incidental details. The writing is mesmerizingly beautiful. Emotions are conveyed using fluid and clean sentences. It’s easy to understand why The Emissary won newly re-instated, 2018 National Book Award for Translation. But it a work of fiction that is disconcerting both in its construction and lack of hope.

The two fell silent, both thinking roughly the same thing. Since orchards are actually factories that produce food, working in one all day, cut off from the outside world, might be pretty miserable. The word orchard brings a paradise to mind, which makes people envious. They imagine workers walking in the mountains looking for wild mushrooms, discovering miniature farms made of moss on the forest floor on the way as they breathe in moist air wafting through the ferns… That’s not what Amana was doing, though…

Mumei is a remarkably sweet child for whom eating an orange is a feat of strength. He and children like him, are empathetic, kind and wise far beyond their years. They have a cryptic way of speaking – like Greek oracles – making pronouncements that the adults dedicated to their care accept without question. When the pediatrician asks Mumei whether he likes milk, the child says that he prefers worms. Instead of treating it as the nonsensical statement that we imagine it is, the doctor explains the pros and cons of an insect-based diet and advises sticking to flying insects due to ground/soil contamination.

Yoshiro is perpetually sad. He despairs because of his great-grandson’s failing health and his own helplessness against it. He believes he has nothing to teach Mumei as all the institutions and belief systems on which he based his past life on have proven false… or at the very least, no longer applicable in this new society. This strain of impotence and defeat – the inability to fix or make the world better – runs through the story. Tawada makes a feeble attempt at introducing something else resembling a plot to carry the reader forward. We learn that there is a program to smuggle these wonderful children out into the wide world as emissaries of hope. But the percentage of the book spent on what is, at best, a sub-plot is negligible. Tawada appears barely interested in it as an idea, so why should we care?

This is a book that is defined by the number of unanswered questions it contains. Most important among them being: what is the role of the reader in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary? Dystopian fiction is seldom written without an underlying message. So that when I come across this type of book I ask myself – a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge – what does it mean, Spirit? Tawada has incorporated multiple criticisms of our current institutions – distrust in banks, failures in our educational system, the super-aging society of Japan (according to one article, by 2025 “20% of Japanese nationals will be at least 75 years old and 30% at least 65. In other words, Japan will become a super-aged society with no parallel in history”), – but provides very little context. Is this an exercise in immersion? Is it a cautionary tale? An attempt at a genre novel or a reimagining of what a genre novel might be? It’s very difficult to gauge the writer’s intention. And without that…

I also can’t help wondering why the U.S. publisher went with the title: The Emissary and not The Last Children of Tokyo (as it was released in the UK). The latter seems better, and less misleading, considering the substance of the novel.

At it’s best, The Emissary is a remarkably polished and seductive exercise in world building. Tawada plays with and develops the details for what we can imagine eventually becoming a more expansive story – one containing a plot, character development, and a narrative arc. But when she halfheartedly attempts to inject those elements here, adding weak plot elements to pad out her page count, that The Emissary is at its weakest. While not her best book, Yoko Tawada has the ability to submerge her readers into strange, new worlds and The Emissary still accomplishes this feat brilliantly.

Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura, tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

Reinvention is a popular topic in novels written by, for or about women. I’m not sure why it is so prevalent, or gender specific, but I know it’s not a character arc I associate with male protagonists. Call it the heroine’s journey: the female character, out of dissatisfaction with her current life, or because it is crumbling around her, goes on a journey of self discovery. She upends her routines, re-examines her relationships and priorities, perhaps has an adventure or two along the way. If things don’t end tragically (always a possibility) by the final chapter she is successfully installed in a new life – by way of a move to Tuscany, getting her groove back or finding solace in food, religion & romance. Vague dissatisfaction and regret are the monsters the heroine must overcome to reach her happily ever after. In Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother that heroine is named Mitsuki Katsura.

Mitsuki handles the discovery of her husband’s affair, his second of their marriage, with a surprising lack of fuss. Maybe because they’re both in their mid-fifties and childless. Or because they’ve been gradually growing apart for some time. Over the past several years she has been occupied with caring for her elderly parents – first her father and, more recently, her mother. Her ongoing role of caretaker has depleted Mitsuki’s emotional reserves. Plainly put – she is exhausted. At the same time, in all aspects of her life, she remains almost ruthlessly efficient. While the catalyst for change is her husband’s betrayal (though, in the context of this particular book “betrayal” implies more drama than Mizumura’s prose allows), it is her mother’s death which provides Mitsuki with the means to leave him and start over.

Mizumura’s uses chapter titles in Inheritance from Mother, a charming practice that seems to have fallen out of fashion among writers. Chapter One is “The Long Telephone Call In Lieu of a Wake”, which begins in the middle of a phone call between Mitsuki and her sister, calculating how much they will inherit now that their mother is dead. We learn that it is a substantial amount, even for the sister who married into a wealthy family. Her mother, Noriko, was a vain and demanding woman towards whom Mitsuki and her sister feel mostly animosity. Theirs is an extremely complicated relationship, even in the realm of mothers and daughters. Their family history unfolds in a series of flashbacks and extended passages of

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introspection. Mitsuki replays the pivotal moments of her life, as well as those in the lives of her sister, mother and grandmother. Women unwilling to sacrifice their personal happiness in order to fulfill the role of selfless wife/mother/daughter.

Discussions of literature, Japanese culture and history are present throughout the text. Minae Mizumura wrote a book of criticism: The Fall of the Japanese Language in the World of English which was translated into English and published by Columbia University Press. Without going in depth – suffice to say that some of the themes and preoccupations she discusses there are also present in Inheritance from Mother. Like when she segues from a description of how Japanese marriages were arranged by previous generations to an explanation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Western novels made much of lover and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of the Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many – certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers – especially women – into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parents, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma for someone to whisper thrilling words of love. Their dissatisfaction with reality increased until, like Noriko, they rejected barbers’ sons and fled, each to her “Yokohama.” Not all of them went so far as to commit suicide, of course, but they led small, discontented lives and then died.

Novels are heartless.

Like the classic Japanese literature Mizumura mentions in the passage above, she is more concerned with the symbolic change of seasons than soap opera melodrama. While this is a story of reinvention, it is also one about the seasons of life. Mitsuki is entering Autumn – and she is doing it alone. I was reminded of May Sarton’s journals, particularly Journal of aSolitude, in which she quietly records her day-to-day life – the life of a single woman, without children, in middle age.

A complete lack of drama, though, can be disconcerting. There is a tonal flatness to Inheritance from Mother. Only in scenes with Noriko do we experience an exuberant, animated presence, – one that easily overshadows all the other characters. Juliet Winters Carpenter manages to preserve an idiosyncrasy of Minae Mizumura’s writing: an absence of crests and troughs in the plot. And a sense of stillness, the filtering out of background/ambient noise from the prose, which Carpenter renders beautifully into English.

We are used to reading about more volatile relationships between women. Relationships that often revolve around men. Yet, Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother, her sister, the female friend she asks to act as an intermediary between her and her husband once she decides to leave him, all get more page space than the cheating husband or the dead father (who appears to have been no more than a cipher even when alive). But most of the novel is dedicated to Mitsuki’s exploration of what the future looks like to her. Complicated ideas are explored in these pages, in ambitious (if quiet) ways. And while Mitsuki may resent and disapprove of her mother, she scrupulously does her duty as a daughter. Eventually realizing that you can’t always wait for happiness – sometimes you have to take it. Something that readers from any culture can relate to.

Title: Inheritance From Mother
Author: Minae Mizumura
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publisher: Other Press (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-1-59051-783-3

The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki, translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas

 

Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.

Read my full review of Yosio Aramaki’s novel, The Sacred Era, over at the Quarterly Conversation.

3 Novellas for Summer

Loud footsteps in a vast and otherwise silent corridor; the cloying perfume of lilacs; an ice-cold drink at the end of a hot, dry day.  In Winter we bundle-up, huddle inside and create a barrier between ourselves and the elements. Summer, though, is a different story. We open ourselves up to the full sensuality of the natural world – we wear less clothing, bask in the sun & surf, spend as much time out-of-doors as the weather allows.  Antonia Skármeta, Marie NDiaye and Haruki Murakami are writers who know the power of evoking the senses. Below are three novellas.  Small enough to read at the beach, while camping in the woods, or on a shady park bench.  And still broad enough in scope to provide a brief (and welcome) escape from the everyday.

ADistantFatherTitle:  A Distant Father
Author:  Antonio Skármeta
Translator:  John Cullen
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051625 6

I’m the village schoolmaster. I live near the mill. Sometimes the wind covers my face with flour.

I’ve got long legs, and nights of insomnia have stamped dark rings under my eyes.

My life is made up of rustic elements, rural things:  the dying wail of the local train, winter apples, the moisture on lemons touched by early  morning frost, the patient spider in a shadowy corner of my room, the breeze that moves my curtains.

During the day, my mother washes enormous sheets, and in the evening we drink lemon balm tea and listen to radio plays until the signal gets lost among the dozens of Argentine stations that crowd the dial at night.

A Distant Father by Antonio Skármeta is straightforward storytelling written in beautiful prose. Imagine a handmade diorama of a Chilean country village, populated by picaresque characters, that depicts a young man’s coming of age and you’ll have some idea of the rudimentary plot (and feel) of this charming 92 page novella. Our narrator, the young man, describes his father’s departure on the same train from which he disembarked on the day he returned home after completing his studies.  This estrangement, between his father and his family (the narrator and his mother) forms the central mystery meant to drive the plot.  But the characters are what truly move this story forward.  Skármeta has a talent for developing fully realized individuals on the page – allowing them their quirks and eccentricities while avoiding grotesque caricatures of life.  The result is delightful: moments of tenderness balanced by comedic episodes (usually revolving around the narrator’s attempts at getting laid).


SelfPortraitInGreenTitle:  Self-Portrait in Green
Author:  Marie NDiaye
Translator:  Jordan Stump
Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 39 9

I have a love-hate relationship to Marie NDiaye’s books. The savagery of NDiaye’s writing repels even as it entices me to keep reading… a bit like a venomous snake. The kind that mesmerizes its prey as it rears back to strike.  She is a challenging writer, but her readers and fans find her worth the effort her books demand.  Marie NDiaye stands easily among the most exciting and experimental writers being translated into English today.

… The schoolyard is empty, the sweet lilac has numbed me. I must have been one of those children the woman in green carted off down an endless hallway, but fear and the inescapability of the torments to come kept me from crying out. Was I ever seen again? It’s true that green can’t possibly be the sole color of cruelty, just as green is by no means inevitably the color of cruelty, but who can deny that cruelty is particularly given to draping itself in all sorts of greens? Before going on my way, I pull three leaves off the lilac and slip them into the pocket of my shorts. That might come in handy, I tell myself, though for the moment I have no idea what’s awaiting me.

Self-Portrait in Green is  a disturbing little book, filled with portraits of women connected to a narrator who we are led to assume is NDiaye herself.  I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as a collection of linked short stories. Though the format feels more connected forming a unified, continuous narrative than you’d expect in a book of stories. And there is the fact that the paperback is exactly 7-inches tall, 4-1/2 inches wide and 103 pages long – “petite” is an adjective that springs to mind.

These women in green who appear in story after story are subversively feminist (as were their predecessors in All My Friends). The intensity with which they interact with the world and the reader is terrifying. They present as strangers, friends, mothers, lovers, daughters and wives.  They are strong, mysterious, neurotic, paranoid, nurturing, dominant, submissive, beautiful and grotesque.  They contradict each other and at times cancel each other out, yet the copy on the back cover tells us that “(t)hey are all aspects of the internationally celebrated writer Marie Ndiaye.”


TheStrangeLibraryTitle:  The Strange Library
Author:  Haruki Murakami
Translator:  Ted Goossen
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 385 35430 1

Haruki Murakami is a bona-fide international literary celebrity with a huge following. When that happens publishers are wont to rush to print anything – even random scribbles discovered on the back of a napkin. An argument could be made that The Strange Library is such a case.  It’s a remarkably slight book, dependent on the illustration/graphic design talents of Chip Kidd* to transform it into something more substantial.  Happily the collaboration is entirely successful.   Bright, beautiful, with a definite Zakka (a style of Japanese handicraft) influence – the book itself is an object to desire.  The story, narrated by a boy who discovers and is imprisoned within the labyrinthine basement of the strange library, is weird enough to meet the expectations of Murakami fans across the globe.  Of course, you’ll be finished with the entire book in 20 minutes – the slow, careful reader might stretch it out to a half hour – but sometimes good things really do come in small packages.

The library was even more hushed than usual.

My new leather shoes clacked against the gray linoleum. Their hard, dry sound was unlike my normal footsteps. Every time I get new shoes,it takes me a while to get used to their noise.

A woman was sitting at the circulation desk, reading a thick book. It was extraordinarily wide. She looked as if she were reading the right-hand page with her right eye, and the left-hand page with her left.

Murakami novels are often an assemblage of odd & uncomfortable, deceptively mundane, details – as demonstrated in the passage above. The narrator constantly remarks on the strangeness of the world he has stumbled into: the librarian’s strange eyes which read two pages at once, the awkward way in which the other characters speak, the size of the basement versus the footprint of the building & his ability to understand books despite their being written in Turkish (a language he does not speak). This mood/atmosphere of unease is established through direct explication. What information we are not told is simply not there – leaving an informational vacuum that is too substantial not to have been intentional. Perhaps this is because The Strange Library was targeted at children (albeit, in the way Grimm’s original Fairy Tales might have been targeted at children) and the legion of hardcore  fans. The Sheep Man, a character from Murakami’s earliest published writings makes an appearance. But, this “insider baseball” doesn’t detract from the book’s charm and shouldn’t deter the casual reader.  The Strange Library is a wonderful diversion into fantasy regardless of how you approach it – as a Murakami aficionado or amateur.

 

*The British version of the book is illustrated/designed by Suzanne Dean, the art director at Harvill Secker