Much encouraged by Tony at Messengers Booker and Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal, and also to make some contribution January in Japan, my first new author of 2015 is Yasushi Inoue. Inoue didn’t publish his first novel until he was 42, but went on to be astonishingly prolific, writing 50 novels and 150 short stories. The new translations of two of those novels, Bullfight and The Hunting Gun, by Michael Emmerich, is therefore only a fraction of what he wrote, as are the three stories in Life of a Counterfeiter.
In the title story, the narrator, researching a biography of the artist Keigaku, discovers a series of forgeries:
“Every house we visited had, it turned out, a painting – and usually only one – that purported to be Keigaku’s, but was in fact a forgery.”
The forgeries are the work of a friend of Keigaku’s from his youth, Hara Hosen – they perhaps explain why the friendship ended. Slowly the narrator’s interest changes direction, from Keigaku to Hosen. He discovers that in his old age Hosen returned to his home town and set up as a firework maker – losing three fingers of his right hand in an accident, and losing his wife, who leaves him and refuses to return. The narrator follows the trail to the house where Hosen died alone, speaking to those that knew him, as if trying to understand a mystery that he cannot himself express. There is a similar mystery in the second story, ‘Reeds’, though this begins with a childhood memory:
“A man and woman lay a short distance away embracing each other, and I was watching them. The man wasn’t my father and the woman wasn’t my mother; it was a couple I didn’t recognise.”
The memory becomes associated with a distant relation, Mitsu, who stayed with the narrator’s parents when he was a child. He is aware that she is regarded as a “bad person” – in particular because she only married after becoming pregnant – and that her death at 20 is surrounded by rumours. As he grows older, he takes a more sympathetic view of her life, as he does in the final story, ‘Mr Goodall’s Gloves’, of his Grandmother Kano. She is not his true grandmother, but the mistress of his great-grandfather; the gloves relate to a particular moment of where she was humiliated because of her status.
All three stories have false openings where they suggest that they will focus on one subject before veering off in another direction. In ‘Life of a Counterfeiter’ it seems that we will learn the story of Keigaku; in ‘Reeds’ we begin with a newspaper article about a father reclaiming a son he had lost years before; ‘Mr Goodall’s Gloves’ starts with reference to a famous calligrapher. These are more than sleights of hand, as they emphasise that Inoue is not interested in the famous or the unusual but in the marginalised and the ordinary. Hosen lives by copying the work of an artist he feels equal to, but aware they will be much more valuable than his own paintings. He ends his life alone, trying to express his inner life in a particular firework:
“He was obsessed with producing a deep, rich violet colour, like a Chinese bellflower.”
Perhaps the saddest image is that of the blank paper left by Hosen on his death, as if “he was about to do a painting when it happened.”
If anything, Inoue is more sympathetic to his female characters. In ‘Reeds’ he seems to increasingly intuit the difficulties of Mitsu’s life. This wonderful story, however, is also about memory, and it never leaves that realm: even it its final pages Inoue writes,
“However I imagine it, I am still only imagining it.”
But there is an important indication of his feeling for these ordinary characters when he describes her “brief life” as having “an extraordinary breadth.” The same could also be said of Grandmother Kano. The gloves of the title remind her of a reception she was forbidden to enter. Forced to wait outside for the narrator’s grandfather for many hours as she was only his mistress, they are given to her by a foreigner as he leaves:
“The care she lavished on Mr Goodall’s gloves was a token of her gratitude to that generous foreigner, but at the same time perhaps it also marked one of the saddest incidents in her life.”
Here the symbolism is clearer; in the other two stories we are left with a more intuitive understanding. ‘Reeds’ actually ends with the sentence, “But I don’t know what makes me feel that way.” This lack of clarity contributed towards it being my favourite of the three stories, but I enjoyed all of them, and fully intend to move onto the two novels.