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Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008

A return to Japanese sensibility


By ANDREW RANKIN
SHAME IN THE BLOOD by Tetsuo Miura, translated by Andrew Driver. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007, 216 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Of all the major postwar Japanese writers, Tetsuo Miura is the least translated. One or two of his short stories found print in English-language magazines during the 1970s, and my own version of "Shinobugawa" (translated here as "A Portrait of Shino") appeared in 1999, but this is the first book-length presentation of Miura's work in English. It is long overdue.

Miura was born in Aomori in 1931, the youngest of six children, and won his first literary prize while a student at Waseda University. By Japanese standards he is not prolific, and prefers stories and linked novellas to long novels. Miura likes to base his fiction on fact. His early writing, such as the stories collected here, was haunted by a series of family tragedies — two of Miura's brothers vanished, and two of his sisters committed suicide — and his non-autobiographical works are mostly drawn from historical events. The novella "A Diary of Despair (Oro-oro Zoshi)" (1986), probably his masterpiece, is composed in the form of a notebook kept by a young samurai struggling to survive the terrible Tenmei famine of the 1780s.

Now in his mid-70s, Miura is widely acknowledged as Japan's leading short-story writer. He is still writing, and is nearing completion of an ambitious cycle of 100 stories collectively entitled "Mosaic," delicate portraits of the joys and sorrows of everyday life that have won popularity with critics and readers alike.

Looking at the cover of "Shame in the Blood," I was worried that the publishers had got the wrong angle on Miura. The word "blood" appears 12 times on the front and back, and the blurb excitedly plays up the "curse" on Miura's family. In fact there is nothing morbid or sensational in these six stories. The literal meaning of the Japanese title is "A Shameful Lineage," and the curse, such as it is, exists only as a sadness in the narrator's heart, a vulnerable sensitivity that is a feature of Miura's work in general. A stoic resignation to the fragility of happiness is, or once was, a major theme in Japanese aesthetics.

Miura's achievement has been to sustain that sentiment in his experience of the modern world, while most of his contemporaries unashamedly imitate Western literary fashions.

"A Portrait of Shino," an affecting account of his courtship and marriage, launched Miura's career after it was awarded the Akutagawa prize in 1960. These translations by Andrew Driver skillfully re-create Miura's lean but lyrical style. There is no soul-bearing, no narrative trickery, and little in the way of psychological analysis. His one weakness in some of these early stories is a tendency toward melodrama, and I am not sure that the famous scene where the hero hurries to Shino's hometown to introduce himself to her dying father completely escapes that charge. Elsewhere he has a lighter touch: a gentle, thoughtful mind is telling you what he sees and feels, no more.

Those who lament the loss of a distinctively Japanese brand of sensibility from modern fiction — melancholic, poetic, piercingly sad and serene at the same time — will find what they are looking for in these beautiful stories by Miura Tetsuo.



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