Thoughts on life after the PhD
Since I’m in that stage of dissertation writing that just involves a lot of re-reading and sifting through piles of information, it’s easy to forget the main reason that I got involved in this whole comp lit PhD in the first place–because I *love* books. I love books, and I love movies, and I love art and innovation, and I love being able to talk about all of it with other people. I’m not saying that a love of books is a valid reason to go to grad school, or that it should be the center of the classes you teach, but it can keep you going through some of the more trying periods of your career. Especially when, like I did recently, you discover a story that blows your mind.
I’ll admit that I don’t often read Japanese literature for pleasure these days–it’s my job, and while there are plenty of novels and short stories that I’ve enjoyed immensely, when I read for pleasure I tend to move as far away as possible from Japanese lit (recently I’ve been on a dystopian kick–Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go). So it’s always a pleasure to find something new to get excited about, even if it was published nearly a hundred years ago. The story is Sato Haruo’s “Nonsharan no kiroku” (“The Record of Nonchalant”), published in 1929 in the literary magazine Kaizo. I’ll let Professor Angela Yiu of Sophia University provide the summary (taken from her recent article, “A New Map of Hell: Sato Haruo’s Dystopian Fiction”):
The time is twenty-ninth century Japan and the place is a vertically structured metropolis that stretches from over 300 meters underground to at least thirty levels above ground. The inhabitants of the underground levels occupy dark cubicles measuring one meter in height, two-thirds of a meter in width and one-and-a-half meters in length, subsisting on piped-in gas as a substitute for food and water. The protagonist is a 15-year-old boy who, on a special charity day, climbs above ground from his habitat in the lowest level underground to experience the sights, air and sunlight of the world above…When above ground, the boy volunteers for a surgery to transform him into a rose plant. He reasons that he only has to trade in his mobility to live above ground and enjoy sunlight, air and water: mobility within the confines of a hole underground is not much to give up. As a plant, he sits on the window sill of an artists’ salon where he witnesses the whims and desires of the occupants and visitors, cinematically projected images of human forms that the plant takes to be real, and hears arguments about the various contemporary art and literary trends. Finally, another transformed human-plant in the shape of a blood-sucking leaf attaches itself to the pot of the rose plant only to then leap on to the breast of the woman who tends the rose. In shock, the woman tosses the potted rose out of the window. The story ends with the rose in free fall.
Though I’ll admit the ending is a bit wacky, there are so many things about this story that I found fascinating. First, the notion of Tokyo as a literally vertical city where only the most powerful get to breathe the air and see the light. Not necessarily a new idea (though pretty radical for 1929), but it fits so perfectly with the city’s history, where the “high city” was often reserved for nobles and the “low city” for the peasants (Edward Seidensticker’s books on Tokyo paint a fascinating picture of this). And if you’ve ever been here, you know that Tokyo is already a vertical city, with apartments and pachinko parlors and restaurants and drug stores stacked like Legos on top of one another from deep underground to hundreds of feet in the air–when there’s no space to move out, you move up and down.
The artist Sakaguchi Kyohei has created an amazing visual representation of Sato Haruo’s city–take a look at it here. I love the way that he’s included so many tiny details of the city, and also the way that the central figure seems to be perched on the edge of it all, ready to dive in.
The second thing I love about this story is the idea that someone would be so desperate to experience the world that they would transform themselves into a plant. And that what this plant witnesses are the comings and goings of the art world. There’s something so poignant about a human rose sitting there on a windowsill, eagerly absorbing everything around it…and then ending up in free fall through the levels of the city.
For some reason that image of Sakaguchi’s, of the man standing on the edge of the city, speaks to me in so many ways. Maybe I kind of feel like that right now, perched on the precipice of a vertical world full of endless layers. And maybe that vertical city is a potent metaphor for our world, complete with the horrifying existence of those at the very bottom.
(Note: to my knowledge “Nonsharan no kiroku” has not been translated into English [I think I’ve found a future project]. Sato Haruo does have a collection of translated stories and essays called Beautiful Town [translated by Francis B. Tenny]. Angela Yiu is also currently working on a book collaboration with the artist Sakaguchi Kyohei, which I can’t wait to see).
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
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