Thursday, November 27, 2008

No Reason

I've finally finished "Reason" by Miyuki Miyabe, after just about a year of reading, mostly on the morning train. To recap, the story begins with a multiple murder in a Tokyo high rise; four people are dead - three stabbed inside the apartment, one jumped or pushed from the balcony. It turns out they are not related to each other in any way even though they lived together as a family.

Miyabe explores the reasons for the murder by looking at the lives and backgrounds of all the people involved with or touched by the events. It is written in a documentary style where the author interviews people about a year after the crime, trying to piece together the events leading up to the murder. We often get to hear about the same event or situation from different viewpoints; sometimes the recollections differ so much they could be different events altogether. Some characters are appealing and likable, others are truly disagreeable. But Miyabe treats them all evenhandedly and with a surprising amount of sympathy and understanding.

「理由」 means "reason" or "motive" but also "pretext". The title alludes to unearthing the reasons for the murder, but the actual murder is really only discussed in the first part of the book, and then again at the very end. The crime is just a pretext for Miyabe to delve into the lives of a disparate group of characters that would otherwise have little in common. And I really mean delve; even staffage characters that would otherwise come and go within a single paragraph can still get a page or two with their life story, their concerns and their worries. It seems clear to me that Miyabe is really writing about the lives of all these ordinary people, and the crime story is there mostly to give her a reason to do so.

So, how was it?

The book is difficult. Really difficult; in fact, my teacher first recommended it to me but soon had second thoughts. She realized that it was too difficult for my level, but decided not to discourage me by telling me so. At first I could barely manage two or three sentences over one commute, and even now towards the end I manage perhaps five or six pages on a good day. One reason is that we have a lot of people in the book, more than a dozen central characters and perhaps twice as many again in supporting roles. All of them have their own way of speaking, often using Tokyo dialect, schoolyard slang or rough spoken language. In one chapter a lawyer was using legal language and terminology to such an extent I basically gave up on understanding it all and just focused on getting the gist of his explanation. When a plot follows just a few central characters you get used to the way they speak, but here we keep shifting from person to person, never staying long enough to really get comfortable.

The second source of difficulty is her use of unusual or archaic writing. A Japanese word can often be written either in hiragana or kanji, and sometimes with a choice of kanji. Problem is, Miyabe has never met an unusual kanji she didn't like. Some words are normally written using hiragana, such as "ある", to exist; but Miyabe prefers to use the unusual kanji form "在る" whenever she can. The word "listen" is normally written as "聞く" but Miyabe prefers to use "訊く" instead, with the same meaning but rare enough that my Japanese-English dictionary doesn't even have it. ALC has 774 example sentences using "聞く", and 1 (one) using "訊く". A few unusual forms like this is OK, but she uses them a lot, and that slows down my reading something fierce. It's like linguistic flypaper, trapping the freeflowing tale in a sticky mess of obscure language.

With that said, the book is good. It is, in fact, excellent. I spent a year slowly reading through the slow story, endless digressions and asides, and getting caught in the language traps she litters throughout the text - and yet I never once thought about quitting, that's how good it is. She is simply a very engaging storyteller, and can relate something seemingly banal, like the business difficulties of a sandwich shop, in a way that makes it interesting, even engrossing. The most ordinary lives cease to be ordinary once they get depicted with skill and flair. If you can read Japanese (and better than me, preferably) you could do much worse than to pick this one up.

What's next? Don't know yet. I'll wait a bit before I decide what to tackle next. Another mystery or crime novel would be good, though a little easier and faster to read. I'll see what my teacher will recommend; this one was an excellent choice so I have no doubt her next suggestion will be good too.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I don't suppose there are any English translations of it available?

  2. Sorry, there was no translation a year ago at least. Part of the reason I chose this book (rather than some other of her titles) was that it hadn't been translated so I could not be tempted to "cheat" and peek at a translation whenever I didn't understand something.

    Another other book by her I was considering, "All She Was Worth", is apparently in a similar vein, and has been translated. It's gotten some very positive critique as well, so that could be a good place to try her out.

  3. Hi Janne,

    I really enjoy your blog. Being a camera nerd I especially love the reviews of classic cameras and the photos shot with film.

    I've never read 理由 and Japanese is my second language so sorry if I'm wrong but I wanted to point out that 聞く is listen but 訊く is ask. As you know Japanese has a lot of homonyms that are only distinguishable by their kanji. I don't know if the following will clarify things but for example, the kanji 訊 is also used in the word 訊ねる (tazuneru), which also means 'to ask'.

    Again I haven't read 理由 so I could be wrong but I hope that maybe helps. And good on ya for working hard to read stuff in Japanese. A lot of people learn to speak well but avoid learning to read.

    Terrance in Kobe

  4. Excuse me for the immediate follow-up. I was checking and found that 聞く can mean 'to ask'. However, I think for 'to ask' 訊く is more common and actually better because it is clear that the writer means 'to ask' and not 'to listen', although context will often clear up the situation. I've seen 訊く quite a bit in other modern literature so I don't think Miyabe is being unusual by using it. Although using 在る instead of ある is a bit quirky.

    It might be a bit difficult but if you're staying in the suspense genre you might want to try アウト by 桐野夏生 (Kirino Natsuo). Maybe your teacher has read it and you can ask her to make sure I'm not full of it ;-)

  5. Hi Terrance, thanks for the kind comments!

    About 聞く・訊く: As far as I've been able to determine from online corpuses and asking people, 聞く is indeed today the normal way of writing "ask" as well as "listen" or "hear". "訊" is archaic; it's not a joyū kanji and is nowadays found mostly in formal or poetic writing. Besides, Miyabe uses 訊く for its meaning of hearing something as well, which AFAIK is decidedly non-mainstream.

    "訊ねる" must again be a rare or archaic form; it doesn't even appear in the 逆引き広辞苑 dictionary. The normal way of writing it would be 尋ねる.

    As for reading - I'm a book nerd. Since coming to Japan I've been a lot more frustrated that I can't read stuff than not understanding people. Reading is arguably more important than speaking to me. I've picked out the next book already and started it yesterday. Still a mystery but plenty easier - I'll blog about it soonish.

  6. Oh, and a quick followup from me too: this may be one of those cases of old writing coming into fashion again, and my sources are simply a few years old. Just as coffee used to be written as plain コーヒー but today can be fashionably written as 珈琲 as well.


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