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American Stories

by Nagai Kafu
239 pages,
ISBN: 0231117906


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Brief Reviews
by W.P.Kinsella

Fiction

The twenty-three stories in Nagai Kafu's elegant collection, American Stories (trans. Mitsuko Iriye, Columbia University Press, 239 pages, US $24.50 cloth, ISBN: 0231117906), were written in the early 1900s after the author spent five years in America, in places ranging from Tacoma, WA to Kalamazoo, MI. The stories are preceded by a comprehensive Translator's Introduction that sets out themes and influences and outlines Kafu's place as one of the most revered authors in Japanese literature.

Many of the stories take the form of a narrator meeting a stranger, either Japanese or American, and the stranger relating a story significant to their life. The stories are heavily influenced by French literature, primarily Flaubert, and to a lesser extent by American Edgar Allen Poe, who was very popular at the time. The opening story, "Night Talk in a Cabin", deals with three young men on a boat to America. Looking forward to the freedom that America promises, one of them says, "As long as you are in Japan, it is simply impossible to shout with delight from the bottom of your heart." "A Return Through the Meadow" is the heartbreaking story of an immigrant labourer who goes mad after being betrayed, not by his American employers, but by his comrades from Japan.

The language is delicate and many images could have been lifted from haiku: "... a pretty butterfly fluttered over and alighted on the woman's lovely, crimson-tinged earlobe, as if mistaking it for a petal of some flower. What was the butterfly whispering into her ear on a spring day?" Several stories appear to be autobiographical; at that time, because of the heavy influence of Zola on Japanese literature, the Japanese reader was expected to judge and appreciate novels and stories according to their authenticity.

Kafu's work was very sophisticated for its time, and today is eminently readable as entertainment and as the adventures of a young man searching for points of connection between Japan and the West.

W.P.Kinsella

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