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Sunday, Nov. 20, 2005


The good, the bad and the cliched

A RABBIT'S EYES by Kenjiro Haitani. Vertical, 2005, 288 pp., $14.95 (paper).

On first publication, the mellow and delightful 1974 novel "A Rabbit's Eyes," out now in English for the first time, brought Kenjiro Haitani a great deal of fame and a wide following.

It also started, as novels still seem able to do in Japan, a vigorous debate in the culture about the real-world issues it engaged with -- including but not limited to, for example, the public school system, zoning laws for schools, irresponsible and incompetent teachers, neglected children, equal rights to education, the place of mentally disabled children in regular classrooms, plus racism, poverty, pollution and the politics of waste disposal.

The book sold millions of copies and became a kind of teenage vade mecum for the sensitive and nostalgic of both sexes. Thirty years later, one may find teenagers blogging about taking the book to bed for a cathartic cry after a hard day's cramming.

"A Rabbit's Eyes" is set in an elementary school in the '70s in a poor industrial area of Kobe. Many of the students' parents work at and live near a local waste disposal plant (their yards coated with ash).

These students are tough, lovable, independent kids who prove, briefly, very troublesome for their new teacher, our heroine: young, beautiful, newly married Ms. Kotani, who throughout the novel frequently "weeps," "bursts into tears" or even "shrieks instinctively" under pressure.

The sensitive Ms. Kotani's biggest challenge is the infamous Tetsuzo, a silent and inscrutable child who begins the novel by stamping to death two bullfrogs in science class. The assistant principal, after seeing Ms. Kotani "burst into tears" in the teacher's room, investigates:

"Glancing down at the boy's feet, he initially thought he saw some kind of colorful fruit, but when he took a second look, he unconsciously let out a yell: It was a frog crushed in two, the twitching innards scattered upon the floor like a red flower."

This is typical and, if not Haitani's writing, then certainly this translation is bad for so many reasons.

"Glancing down" is a cliche, as is "took a second look." When the assistant principal "unconsciously let out a yell," we read a piece of writing that merely indicates other writing, other bad novels. Then the final strange image: a frog in "two" yet "crushed," presumably pretty liquid that is "scattered," and innards "twitching" yet somehow resembling a "flower." This is to be a little pedantic: Of course, the innards are scattered like a flower, but to use frog guts to contradict your simile in the same cliche-crammed image is not so much to be a bad or dishonest writer as to have no self-respect as a writer.

A is like B, we are glibly told. But A is doing something weird that B can't, we mutter, a little confused. We read on, tell ourselves, hey, it's just the first page, forget about it, close enough.

Is it the translator's or the writer's doing? Unknown, but suffice it to say that the rest of this translation is packed with cliches and mediocrities of novel writing too numerous to elaborate here.

The cast of characters express themselves with endlessly repeated speech tags that studiously follow the I-am-saying-something formula: "said/murmured/shouted/called Mr. Adachi . . . in admiration/ with annoyance/ worried/ weary/ sulking/ scrunching up his face."

People speak with the assistance of Enid Blyton adverbs -- frantically, enviously, piteously, piercingly, thoroughly impressed. Their brows "darken." They grow "sick to the stomach" at the sight of things "utterly wretched." This book is filled unselfconsciously with a thousand examples of labored and pitilessly unoriginal and downright bad prose.

So why is this novel utterly lovable and good and why read it?

Tetsuzo is a mute, dirty, troubled boy who loves and collects flies (hence the murder of the bullfrogs). The novel follows Ms. Kotani's attempts to first understand and then cultivate this child though studying and investigating his only real "friends."

More than just a hobby, flies become, through Ms. Kotani, an exercise in writing, taxonomy and the scientific method. Tetsuzo learns to communicate through methods other than hostility and violence, and later, in a spectacular feel-good moment, is able to bring his specialist knowledge to bear on an adult problem at the disposal plant.

This small book incorporates convincing detail on the information that teacher and student compile together, as well as faculty common room philosophizing on the common controversies of teaching, one such being the needs of the one versus the needs of the many.

Minako, for example, is a delightful, yet high-maintenance, mentally disabled child whose behavior constantly disrupts the class. Ms. Kotani convincingly and movingly solves this problem through a system of revolving Minako-mentors, whereby Minako is cared for and entertained by two different children each day. The children rise to the task and learn a lesson in responsibility and unselfishness.

A wild-card teacher, "Mr. Adachi," is another neat facet of the novel. He's stroppy, unconventional and provocative, yet devoted to the children and the "treasure" he sees in each.

And so, cringing, instinctive shrieks and disbelieving head-shakes at the prosaic atrocities soon begin to seem uncharitable and not in the spirit of this generous, naive and earnest little book. Be aware that this is Young Adult lit; most of the writing is terrible, but the very unselfconsciousness of the delivery adds a kind of prelapsarian rose to your cheek.

If you don't weep at the writing, your own corrupt adulthood, and not even at the fate of Minako, then you may just find yourself at the end of the book feeling kind of reassured, "fresh-faced," maybe even wearing something like "a winning smile."

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