Having a Laugh – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Having a Laugh” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (世界はゴ冗談), 2015

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: The sun’s magnetic field affects the sunspots, which in turn affects the solar wind which, on earth, jams phone signals, misdirects whales, frazzles satellites, and cripples electronic navigation; however, none of this has a direct human effect, unless you count that one errant plane in Dubai. One office worker, upon waking up with a headache of their own and a work-related headache, proceeds with their average day, only to be perpetually frustrated by all their faltering gadgets and the respective yet mis-assigned voices for each; labor-saving devices aren’t so user-friendly after all.

Analysis: The sun is about 4.6 billion years old yet it keeps on ticking. For all it’s worth to us, it will continue ticking as it does for another 4.6 billions years or so. It takes what it had been given–its currency of hydrogen–and toils relentlessly toward its retirement as a red giant. It knows nothing of holidays or family, only of dedication to its process. It works. Work is its life. It doesn’t burn out because it’s dedicated. It’s the salaryman of the solar system.

Now, with humanity progressing beyond the cave and farm for the so-called modern lifestyle, we are living during the sun’s middle-ages–it has gone over the hill. The grand old sun appears to be churning out its production, spending its salary of hydrogen, and continuing to live on; however, beyond that luminescent and roiling boil of flame, could there lie a troubled soul? Though this salaryman shows no external signs of wear, is his could crushing beneath of weight of his toil? Humans take yet never give in return.

On our homely planet of Earth, though technological progress has been swift, it has also been merciless to the same species who produced it. We are held by the fluttering whims of technological innovation; what is invented is thus produced, sold, and pawed off only to be used and cast aside for the next cycle of consumption. We abuse progress, take it for granted much as we pay little heed to Earth’s gasps of pain in its patient rearing of its prized genetic spawn; regardless, we never heed what needs to be heeded; we take from progress what we want and, rather than return the favor, simply chuck it aside for what’s bigger, better, etc.

As the sun begins its middle-aged revolt, sunspots flare. As humans use and disuse technology, its own temper flares. From where does the golden watch of retirement come from and, in its giving, to where does it lead?

Review: Though only thirteen pages, it’s not a very linear story. The first five pages feel like three somewhat connected events to the solar flares but run together without a break, making it read oddly. The overall story abruptly transitions to short dinner party and a dream sequence about a prince for two pages. The last section–the remaining eight pages–is a descent into frustration from faltering electronic devices experienced by an office worker.

It doesn’t present itself tidily enough. That dream sequence really throws the story for a loop after the awkward seams at the start. The longer conclusion about failing technology is fun and ties together somewhat with what was presented at the beginning–what the effects of the solar flares–but, overall, it’s oddly disjointed and requires a bit of subjective mental gymnastics to piece it together. So, what I’ve presented myself in the analysis is the result of my own mental gymnastics.

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Zarathustra on Mars: A Story for All and None – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Zarathustra on Mars: A Story for All and None” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (火星のツァラトゥストラ), 1973

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: On Mars, a professor discovers a fragment of a text in 21st century Earthspeak. It’s informal style seems watered down from Nietzche’s original novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the professor didn’t know that, didn’t much care, and also thought that if he translated it to Marsspeak, it would sell superbly well. The result is a colloquial dialogue reminiscent of 20th century surfer lexicon with sixth-grade-level vocabulary and sentence structure. Immediately, the translation becomes an instant hit with the professor maintaining that Zarathustra actually exists back on Earth, so far as to concoct stories about him and his appearance. When one passenger with similar name arrives on Mars, everyone, including the professor, treat him as the real thing. Soon, he’s on all the talk-shows, movies, series, music, etc. His popularity could know no end. Ever the philosopher, the so-called Zarathustra tells his modern-day flock, “If some guy smacks you, you gotta smack the guy back. That’s the only way, I’m tellin’ ya. ‘Cos, y’see, it’s more humaner to get your own back than not do nothin’ at all” (57).

Analysis: According to Wikipedia, Nietzche’s novel Thus Spake Zarathustra has been translated into English about eight times. With each new translation, the translator offers their opinion about Nietzche’s intentions and style along with the faults of previous translations. Certainly, nuance is something that will be lost from one language to another, so an artistic license must be brandished to bridge the gap. The common idiomatic phrase “lost in translation” can easily be wielded here; not every single idea, nuance, or conception is make it from one language to another, be it from German to English or, as in “Zarathustra on Mars”, from German to a possible second language to 21st century Earthspeak to, in the end, 22nd century Marsspeak.

Some things that are lost in translation are unintentional, or intentional to the point that it’s impossible to convey whatever it may be with the language at hand. Anyway, other things that are lost in translation can be intentional, like a sort of dumbing down. Here, “lost in translation” doesn’t have to mean from one language to another, but it can also imply a means conveyance from the original, such as a summary, CliffNotes, or a populist portrayal.

The translation that the professor on Mars had done went through a number linguistic meat grinders: through at least three languages, each of which  also seemed to have dumbed down the content, resulting in a translated edition that borders on sacrilege:

Hi, guys!

Name’s Zarathustra, that’s Zara-too-stra, but you can call be Zaz.

I’m gonna tell you a cool story now.

When I was thirty, I felt the place where I was living. I worked for a soft drink outfit, but they gave me the book. So I went into the mountains and started living there. I did as i pleased and wandered about for a bit. Ten years, actually.

What’s that? I must’ve got bored? No way. But after ten years, I did have a bit of change of heart. One morning, I woke up early, which was unusual for me, and went outside. Just then, the sun was coming up over the horizon, and I was like, Wow! You know? See, on Planet Earth the sun rises in the east and looks all red. Not like it does on Mars, or somewhere. (49-50)

Obviously, the future Yasutaka envisions–both on Mars and Earth–isn’t a very intellectual one. From 18th century philosophical German to 22nd century regressed Marsspeak, it sounds like much of civilization has declined; though ships still travel between planets, the level of intelligence seems to have regressed to the point of idiocy. This decline may be a facet of Yasutaka’s opinion about the modern world (“modern” in 1973 but what must also be true for 2017).

Are history’s poignant creations of music, art, and literature falling on the deaf, blind, and dumb of the modern era? At what point can something important from the past be made relevant and understood by the present? Does it actually require dumbing down in order to capture the essence of the message, but is the “essence” the same as the “wholeness”? No, because as stated before, nuances are lost… Michelangelo’s statue David is just a rock with the nuances of contour (ok, it’s not exactly “nuances”, but you get the drift).

Back to Mars, when this watered down version of philosophy is made public, it becomes hugely popular without anyone really knowing where it came from or what it’s about. Regardless, like sheep to the shepherd or cattle to the stockyard, the regressed minds of Mars plunge heedlessly head-first into the popularity of Zarathustra, a book without a message for minds without thought.

Review: I’ve never read Nietzche’s novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, so many of the parallelisms from that book are lost on me if not expressed in the Wikipedia entry. For what it is, the story is as zany as the rest of the collection. It takes on a bizarre tact with stylish whims, resulting in a fun read but also one what reflects on society (especially here in Thailand with its obsessive and regressive idolatry of superstars and pretty faces). Have you seen the movie Idiocracy (2006)? Yea, it’s like that a bit but on Mars. So, here with “Zarathustra”, we find Yasutaka in his most light-hearted state with the delivery but the content of which steeped with his own intellectualism – fun yet smart.

It’s My Baby – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“It’s My Baby” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (産気), 1980

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: To the amazement to everyone in the office, a man among them, named Masada, has become pregnant. Much amusement ensues, followed by disbelief, but as the pregnancy progresses, it becomes apparent that, however it ever came it be, the man is, in fact, quite pregnant. Immediately upon breaking the news, the man’s behaviors begin to change; for example: no coffee because for the baby and the need for a women’s magazine because of it’s baby articles, in addition to sudden craving, hormonal swings, and anatomical prides. One of Masada’s male colleagues bears the brunt of this progress, but slowly shifts from annoyance to acceptance and beyond.

Analysis: While there are five stages of grief, there must also be a limited number of stages for accepting new rules (e.g. a new dress code policy at work), a change of environment (e.g. moving to foreign country), or bizarre news (e.g. Trump becoming president): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This is probably applicable only is it directly affects you. But move the “change” to something that only indirectly affects you, and you can most likely rid yourself of three of those stages: namely, anger, bargaining, depression. That leaves us with a wide chasm between 1) denial and 2) acceptance.

No doubt, these are not stages to pass but ends of spectrum likes the ends of a bridge; you start at densely black point of denial and make a perilous journey across the grey paved path toward the warmly welcoming point of white. Through these shades of grey lie a perplexing range of emotions, observations, and minuscule degrees of acceptance, as if each step across the bridge is one further so-called stage of acceptance.

Through Masada’s colleague’s eyes, the reader witnesses the spanning transition from denial (Masada, you’re not pregnant–that’s impossible) to the heroic rescue of Masada’s later stages of pregnancy. Even with the degree of impossibility that Masada’s colleague mist face, he still manages to cross that vast, multi-toned bridge of acceptance.

Review: Like many of the author’s stories, there’s a running theme of open misogyny. This rears its head within this story by imbuing Masada with all stereotypes of an expecting mother: her complaints, her aches, her concerns, etc. With most stories, this theme is an expectation and often a tongue-in-cheek delight for it remaining true to the author’s rebellious attitude toward socially acceptable norms, but in “It’s My Baby”, the effect is blatant and, therefore, watered down. His style is usually subtly callous, but, here, it feels all too laid out with a flimsy idea. Summary: so far, my least favorite Yasutaka Tsutsui story of both collections… or have I missed something?

The Onlooker – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“The Onlooker” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (傍観者), 2006

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: A woman walks through the door with a man in tow, who seems rather disheveled but eager to be in the presence of the woman. Together, they head toward the bedroom. Soon, another man knocks and enters the front door, causing the first man to crouch behind the sofa with in clothes in hand. The woman leads the second man to the bedroom where she had just been with the previous man. In the second man’s jacket sits a letter from another woman. Observing all of this is the onlooker on the sofa who thinks of three things: metaphysics, new challenges, and food.

Analysis: Simple lives can be reflective lives… take a look at Buddhist monks (well, not Thai Buddhist monks as some members of the sangha seem to be embroiled in fraud, lechery, or both). Anyway, there are 227 precepts for monks to follow, which are called the patimokkha. Though many of the precepts outdated and terrible specific (i.e. monks may not  raw wool for more than 48 kilometers), many create discipline in the monastic order so that time can better spent learning and preaching the dhamma.

A good life can be had through this simplicity if mindfulness is present; however, sometimes simplicity is forced upon us, be it because of age or location. In this so-called downtime, the mind isn’t occupied by the everyday distractions of social media, routine, or work; rather, the mind begins to spin like a flywheel. In this free state, epiphanies can occur, reflection can be sought, and introspection can effervesce.

Compare this state of being with the life of the average adult: embroiled in daily work, petty personal dramas, all-consuming routine, time-killing “hobbies”, and general lethargy. When can the mind reflect on proper diet and exercise or treating others in a neighborly fashion? This requires mindfulness and mindfulness isn’t gained through busyness, but by quiet reflection.

In the story, the onlooker waxes lyrical before observing the chaotic scene of lewd adult behavior. In this drama (much like that of a soap opera), the onlooker loses focus on high-minded ideas in order to understand the unfolding drama. Ripped from reverie, the onlooker’s mind transitions from metaphysics to adult drama to food… from high thought to circuses then to bread.

Review: Aside from the reflection of innocence and corruption of the mind, there’s a further parallelism in the function of the woman and her body parts in the story. I can’t divulge too much without ruining the ending, but upon completing the story, consider what she could have used with the two men and how she could use it with the onlooker. If corruption extends past the acts committed, the use of her body in the story is a further spoiling of innocence upon the onlooker. The story is short but well paced while offering candy for the mind in more ways than one.

Call for the Devil! – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Call for the Devil!” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (悪魔を呼ぶ連中), 1980

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

 

Synopsis: The president, the finance director, and the marketing director for a large company have gathered together to decide the fate of their company by attempting to sell their souls to the devil; otherwise, scores of employees and many subcontractors would suffer under the company’s collapse. With the tables and candles placed in a pentangle, they begin to burn ingredients in the middle fire so that the devil may be drawn out, but Benkei—a folklore Japanese character—greets them. Shocked yet disappointed, they cast different variations in the fire only to summon a variety of characters, including Jesus, Popeye, and Beethoven. Undeterred by their failure, the marketing director takes the first shift to draw the devil out.

Analysis: Good Corporate Governance isn’t a very exciting topic of conversation. Big Business is an easy target of attack as its a bodiless entity without a soul and whose main purpose for existence if the generation of profit. Naturally, human bodies that actually embody the profit-seeking nature of their respective business is, of course, its board of directors, president, CEO, etc. Like the bodiless entity of the business, these heads of governance are also easy targets as they tend to be just as disembodied as the “entity”, what with their lofty offices, exorbitant salaries, and daily distance from the lowest rungs of operations.

Rather than facing the problem head-on—perhaps with line graphs, Gantt charts, or multivariate tables—the now-embodied governors of fate for the company take to the supernatural to rectify their errors in leading the company to profit or success. As they begin to summon the devil himself, they first accidentally evoke Benkei and then Jesus, neither of which have they any interest in assistance. The former entity can be seen as a long-winding tie to the past, a reminder that many of today’s hardships can be overcome with the advice of our elders; the latter entity represents altruism, an all-loving entity that can overcome hardships with understanding and love… yet as, as the president says, “God has no place in commerce!”

Review: When I say like bizarro fiction, I usually have a hard time just defining what exactly that is; however, “I know it when I see it,”as Potter Stewart had said. In “Call for the Devil!”, merges elements of the bizarre, a tenuous parallelism to the plot, and my favorite topic of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s stories: the effects on Salarymen. Granted, this effect isn’t as direct as “Rumours About Me” (1972/2006), “Commuter Army” (1973/2006), or “Hello, Hello, Hello!” (1974/2006), but the story still has salarymen in its scope. I’m not sure if there’s a numerological significance to this story (Benkei’s so-called seven famous weapons and the later Seven Gods of Fortune), but this notions adds another layer of analysis to a story that’s already steeped in a good looking-at.

Bullseye! – Yasutaka Tsutsui

 

“Bullseye!” (novlette) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese, 2015

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

 

Synopsis: “Eccentric” isn’t a word that Shoichi Azumi would use to describe himself. Even in his wizened state, he claims that all of his actions are logical, such as stealing a wad of cash from his family, stealing a gun for a police officer, and knocking a professor unconscious. Objectively, however, he doesn’t seem to recognize his family nor does he even remember where he’s going, but two things is certain: He knows what he’s doing and he’s not afraid to get his way.

Pre-analysis: Prior to my paternal grandparents’ passing, they lived their lives in juxtaposition: while my grandfather was always in good health, his mind had started to fade long ago; in contrast, my grandmother always had a sharp mind, yet her body was weakening year my year. Regardless of this, the family always thought that he’d pass first. In retrospect, both descents into failure—one of the mind, the other of the body—were equally difficult to watch over the years. In the end, the hazards of radiation therapy took my grandmother, the passing of whom my grandfather could never remember and always came as a shock when retold the news. His memory may had faded, but his emotions were still in tact.

Analysis: With the zest that life gives the youth and through the productive days of adulthood, there come both a cost and a gift to the life of experience and expenditure:the cost of memory and the gift of intuition. While the former floods the mind day by day, the tenuous waters never hold behind the mental dam; rather, they seep through its cracks, dribbling away numbers, faces, names, and entire episodes of the former life. In contrast, however, intuition is a gift is like the moisture in the air—directly intangible yet ever-present.

When Shoichi Azumi experiences his world in his purely subjective fashion—such as the clock talking to him or the money beckoning to be stolen—he follows his intuition: if the clock tells me to break the mug, I’ll break the mug; the the money beckons to be stolen, I will steal it. Again, from the objective point to view, his actions are without cause, a seemingly geriatric mental invalid who is bent on destruction. Some would say he’s hostile, crazy, dangerous, offensive, or deranged, but in the old man’s mind, he’s just connecting the dots as they come, which is sort of a Buddhist philosophy of living in the moment. Shoichi Azumi sees and reacts, following only intuition since the cost of memory has taken its toll as the gift of intuition keep on giving.

Review: The elderly are occasionally doted upon for being forgetful or eccentric. Some stories have keenly reflected these idiosyncrasies, including John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair (1958), Iain Banks’s The Quarry (2013), and The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013). It’s not often that these idiosyncrasies have a notable effect on a greater population other than family or residents, but “Bullseye!” expands the effect of Shoichi Azumi’s lengthy foray into intuition onto the city. Objectively guilty yet subjectively innocent, the charades that follow and the conclusion leave an open-ended answer to the results of this toleration of the idiosyncratic elderly.

The Unman – Vadim Shefner

The Unman (novel) by Vadim Shefner

English Publication History: The Unman/Kovrigin’s Chronicles (1980, Macmillan)

Original: Russian (Человек с пятью “не”, или Исповедь простодушного), 1967

Translated by Alice Stone Nakhimovsky & Alexander Nakhimovsky, 1980

Synopsis: Even when born, expectations for Stefan were very low when compared to his elder brother, who seemed destined for greatness with a name like Victor. Certainly, as the years progressed, his brother basked in the glory of his accomplishments and the admiration of his parents while Stefan was deemed the un-son: unskillful, unintelligent, unoutstanding, unlucky, and unhandsome. Through his childhood, though he persevered as much as a child could and did the best with what he had, his one inspiration came for his room’s wallpaper: copies of a perfume advertisement featuring a striking girl.

Later in life, his finds himself the junction of many wonderful scientific discoveries, none of which he actually discovered himself but which had been created by the intelligent minds and kindred souls that only wanted to share their discoveries with Stefan. Immediately being struck by the ideas–a hair-growth elixir, an accurate probability computer, and a singing substance among them–the inventors heed a warning that not all was as it seemed. Being unlucky and maybe a shade unbright, Stefan experiences the unpositive sides of each inventions; regardless, he perseveres with the one glimmering spark of gratitude that happened but once in his life: the befriending of a boy in school who he helped push off of a cliff, which was what his friend wanted, anyhow.

Still living in his brother’s deep, dark shadow of success, Stefan follies through life. When that same accurate probability computer predicts that his luck will turn around–after winning cash and a motorcycle–Stefan takes on an even more optimistic perspective on his life. Though nearly everything and everyone had let his down, Stefan knows that he’ll get the chance to make his dreams come true. As he’s always been honest in his life, perhaps he’s due to receive his good karma.

Pre-analysis: Far-fetched tales are often met by two reactions: 1) calm disbelief waiting for the punchline and 2) ecstatic absorption in the yarn. We’ve all met people who have spun yarns and we’ve reacted in both ways, depending on the story-teller. One man’s flight of imagination is another man’s everyday, just as treasure is with trash; what may ring of adventure to the teller may be banal to the listener. Further, when a story seems such a flight of fancy as to border absurd or hugely coincidental, belief is suspended and the listened becomes a passive, uninterested listener. When in written word and when the narrator aims to deliver the story “without embellishment and without evasion” (3), we need to prepare ourselves for the latter reaction: absorption.

Analysis: Granted, this story is rather far-fetched a certainly a work of science fiction; however, there is a certain amount of whit intended to penetrate the story to make it seem larger than life. Perhaps this larger-than-life quality is supposed to counter Stefan’s banal day-to-day life. While he trudges through the complexities of failure and misfortune, coincidence takes a liking to him in order to bear him a gift that could turn it all around… only, Stefan is either too unlucky or too dim to handle it properly.

As mentioned in the pre-analysis, regardless of the situation, Stefan maintains an optimistic perspective; some would consider this optimism to be one of unyielding positivity, others may seem a dim-witted idiot. He’s actually a bit of both. He knows one thing though: when to play and when to fold. He doesn’t sink himself deeper in despair, nor does he drive others into poverty, dismemberment, or death with him–that is exactly where he shines: he’s personable, trusting, honest, reliable, collected, and loyal… he just happens to be a tad short-sighted, however.

And it’s for this reason that the reader cheers him on.

Review: I didn’t think humor had much of a place in Soviet-era science ficiton, what with propaganda, censors, satire, and whatnot. The Unman is a certain surprse when it comes to Soviet science ficiton; granted, don’t apply the “science” label too firmly on this story as it has science-like elements (i.e. a certain friendship) and wild inventions (as mentioned in the pre-analysis). As Stefan’s story is a flight of fancy, so too does Vadim Shefner take a leap from the serious side of Soviet scifi (pardon the alliteration) in order to warm the reader to a likable lass such as Stefan. It’s for fun, not intellectual reflection.