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American Stories , by Nagai Kafu

American Stories - Kafū Nagai

First, a bit of background cribbed from my review of Kafu's Sumidagawa, The River Sumida:




Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) was in the second generation of Meiji writers behind that of Natsume Soseki. Early in his career he was a member of the Japanese Naturalist movement/school, whose adherents actually adopted only certain relatively superficial characteristics of the French naturalists to their use. Though Kafu initially claimed Zola as his master, he very soon replaced him with Maupassant. Unlike most of the Japanese Naturalists, Kafu learned some French and made a few translations into the Japanese. Of particular note, his father sent his recalcitrant son to the USA to learn how to be a businessman. Not much was learned about business during his four years there, but he did write a book of interesting short stories based on his American experience. He finally talked his father into sending him to France for a year, where he improved his command of French and had no small number of liaisons with the fairer sex (as he had done in the USA). This sojourn also resulted in a bookful of short stories.


Amerika monogatari is the mentioned collection of short stories written in the USA and published a month after Kafu's return to Japan. I must admit that the short story is not my favorite literary form, so usually I need some extra motivation to read a bookful of them. It was irresistible to me when I learned that Kafu wrote stories about a Japanese in the USA during 1903 - 1907. Few of the great Japanese writers spent any time in the USA, preferring instead the attractions of Europe. In fact, Kafu was in the USA against his will; he wanted to be in France. What would such a unique individual report about my home country during a time I actually know rather little about? What would a sensitive, observant member of a culture I love, who, in addition, can express himself so well, have to say about the burgeoning, vulgar, religion-obsessed America in the midst of a huge wave of triumphalism added to its sense of Manifest Destiny and God-endowed exceptionalism? (Recall, the Spanish-American War had recently been fought; the USA had become a colonial power and was joining the big leagues.) Another reason is simply that Kafu is really rather growing on me...


Kafu lived in Tacoma, Kalamazoo (!), Washington D.C. and New York City. He set stories in all of these places, as well as Seattle, Chicago and St. Louis (he places a story at the 1904 World's Fair), though most of the stories take place in New York City. Already evident in these rather early stories is Kafu's gift for description, which I very much value. Whether it is the awe-inspiring and foreboding forests of the Pacific Northwest; or a summer night on Coney Island after the marks have gone home; or the long winter desolation of the Midwest prairies followed by the sudden, intense greening of the late Spring; or a blizzard after emerging from a theater onto 42nd Street at an era when the automobiles are just beginning to jostle with the horse-drawn carriages, Kafu nails it. But he also nails a completely convincing day in a whorehouse in New York City; when he is done one feels as if one knows the routine, the layout and all of the girls by first name.


Not surprisingly, these stories are also about Japanese in America. He portrays the incredible discrimination against Japanese and Chinese in the Pacific Northwest, but he also makes clear that many of the worst predators were other Japanese immigrants taking advantage of newer immigrants, particularly women. In an age when there were not even the beginnings of a social net, he also shows that the lives of working class Americans - again, particularly women - were very hard. None of this is done with a heavy, moralizing hand.


He also reminds us that not all immigrants are motivated by the hope of improving their economic lot. One of the stories about these "other" immigrants is a haunting tale about a Japanese man who is, effectively, trying to escape from himself, with the expected results.


The 23 stories in this collection are varied in content and uneven in quality, but most of them have a common structure: the setting is drawn and then someone, usually Japanese, tells the narrator a story. Unfortunately, few of these secondary narrators are given any shape - their sole role is to relate the tale which is the story. Why, exactly, he distances himself from the stories in this manner is not entirely clear to me. Perhaps he wanted to allow his storytellers to air some opinions he thought might be objectionable back home - one should remember that the Japanese government was censoring books with a heavy hand, even then. Indeed, it required some omissions in the original publication of the text of Amerika monogatari and banned the publication of the collection of short stories based on his sojourn in France. Perhaps he needed this additional ironic distance in order to avoid any kind of direct authorial judgment. All judgments are passed by his secondary narrators, except one I found quite objectionable and which I am not going to write in a public forum. I've heard this same opinion expressed by a good number of my Asian friends, too. But you're not going to hear it from me.


The translation by Mitsuko Iriye is quite good, and she adds a well informed introduction.