Thursday, April 21, 2005

hard boiled

One of the pleasures of living abroad is the way the language gradually opens up to you, every new character opens up whole new world of meanings. The other day I learned the character for spy, which is part of the compound word tantei, detective. Suddenly I looked around and realized the entire city was flyered with posters for private detective agencies.

Or, to be more specific, one detective agency seems to have a very aggressive ad campaign, their signature black laborador sitting alertly next to the phrase: “Thanks to you, in business for 54 years.”

What kind of a perversion of the PI biz is this? Everyone knows that Sam Spade sits around his office minding his own businesses, when a tall blonde walks in spelling a yard of trouble. Since when is Sam Spade reduced to flyering the city for tall blondes?

One person who does have a firmer grasp of the gumshoe mythos is the mystery writer Natsuo Kirino. Just like everyone else, Japan loves a good mystery, and from Sherlock Holmes the daytime TV staple “Rogue Detective: Pure Intentions” the form just booms here. I started reading Japanese mysteries mid last year, when I realized that once you learned the words clue, witness, tailing and butler you could basically read any Japanese mystery out there. I knocked through a few throwaway potboilers, the weak characters and clichés only occasionally redeemed by a good plot, but it wasn’t until reading Ms. Kirino’s Kao Ni Furikakaru Ame (Face Befallen by Rain) that I realized I was in the hands of a master.

Kirino’s style is, to use the Japanese, harudo-boirudo (see the title), a phrase that I like the more I use it. It is characters boiled down by life to their tough centers, to their very unrepentant essences, living lives of hard choices and disappointment. It is finding poetry in imperfect lives, in the people we end up becoming. It is urban. It has no time to spare for pretension or naivety. It is people walking in bad weather. This woman is writing my Tokyo.

More specifically, she writes a Tokyo populated by foreigners who are neither shining Aryan icons, symbols of Japanese corruption, nor racist caricatures. They are all human, making lives for themselves just like everyone else. In a book populated by gangsters, neo-Nazi’s, death fetishists and really rude secretaries, some of the most sympathetic characters are the detective’s next door neighbors and closest friends, a gaggle of Filipina prostitutes jammed into a Tokyo apartment. They are not depicted as stupid or even as exploited, but rather as totally believable girls who came to Japan with open eyes to make save some money to bring home and to experience some of the excitement of the big city. They have a kind of put-on innocence, trading CD’s with our hero-detective, always the voice of sly insinuation (“was that man who came to your door last night a boyfriend?”), but they are by no means naïve. To be naïve in this kind of novel is to wind up floating in the river somewhere.

Just to not be a total asshole, you’ll be happy to know that Ms. Kirino has one novel out in English translation, the bestseller Out. I have a feeling the translator picked it mostly because the title is easy to render into English than my crude rendering of Face Befallen by Rain. Out caused a major sensation in Japan, winning that most elusive and tricky of literary awards: it became a wadai, a hot topic, something everyone talks about. All that and no poster campaign. Harudo-boirudo.

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