Book review: Yasushi Inoue’s ‘Life of a Counterfeiter and Other Stories’

counterfeiterOne of the dominant characteristics of Yasushi Inoue’s rhetorical style in “Life of a Counterfeiter and Other Stories” (Pushkin Press; 144 pages; $18) in is his use of “hedging” phrases, such as “for some reason,” “I’ll never know” and “I may simply be reading too much into things.”

These phrases could be interpreted as creating a narrator who is so fraught with uncertainty that he can only suggest things with modesty rather than declare them with authority.

These stories — written after World War 2 in the early 1950s, but often looking back through the haze of memory at events that took place long before and during the war — can then be seen as a reaction against the kind of narrative certainty about Japan’s prominence in the world that led the nation into its disastrous overreach in China, Korea, and South East Asia. In that sense, his narrative hedging can be seen as an attempt to be precise about the meaning of things that can’t be known.

That’s why in the odd, charming story “Life of a Counterfeiter,” the narrator tells us he has been failing to complete a biography of an acclaimed artist, while he gives us a biography of a minor character in that artist’s life. In a way, the narrator’s failure to write about the great and popular artist can be seen as a rejection of a kind of grand narrative. Instead, he focuses his story on a man who existed in the shadow of the great man, a man named Hōsen who had been a friend of the great artist in their youths, but who turned to painting and selling counterfeit artwork attributed to the great artist.

The narrator’s fascination with this character leads him to discover that the counterfeiter, later in life, became so enthralled with fireworks that he made and sold them illegally.

In one of the most poignant moments of this collection of stories, the narrator encounters a World War 2 veteran two years after the war had ended who, before the war, had spent countless hours learning about fireworks from Hōsen and had helped him put on the biggest displays of fireworks in Hōsen’s career.

Hōsen, at the time an old man, was so engrossed in making sure the fireworks went off in rapid succession that he remained hunched over as he moved from one launcher to the next, without ever having time to see the display himself. The narrator writes, “Hōsen, too, must have been in that same hazy state, and heard the cheering for the first time as an echo coming faintly to life inside him, once the display was over.”

That sense of a moment having the power to come to life inside someone, even through the process of memory, is a striking moment of the power of looking back, of seeing the value in such small moments.

A similar process of memory excavation, of reassessing past assumptions and finding new ways of valuing things, also occurs in the story “Reeds,” in which the narrator recalls various fragments of memory that he often fails to make sense of, until he dwells into a moment when he was three or four and remembers seeing a young woman and man making out by a lake. They weren’t his parents, so who were they?

He learns that the woman was likely his Aunt Mitsu, who died at age 20 when the narrator was just a boy and who, he had always thought in his youth, was a bad person. But as an adult, and as he learned more about her — about her being flirtatious with men, of getting pregnant, and of marrying a man who wasn’t her child’s father — the more he thought of her as someone who wasn’t bad, but as someone whose desires were typical, but her passion for life and vitality actually made her unique and special.

In that sense, “Reeds” is more of a story about how in scouring one’s memory, a person can experience through the briefest of fragments a radical and powerful change in their attitudes and judgments about others.

The final story in this short, entertaining collection, “Mr. Goodall’s Gloves,” also delves into the power of memory in a more direct way: the narrator encounters two things (a painting and a gravemarker) that offer him the occasion to reflect upon the person he knew as his Grandma Kano, a woman who raised him in his school boy years and a woman who was his great-grandfather’s mistress. Now that’s an interesting tale.

Knowing that Inoue had worked as a newspaper reporter (as does the narrator of these stories), I can’t help but be reminded of one of the more common axioms of former journalists who turn to writing fiction: tired of being limited to writing about facts in journalism, these writers turn to fiction to write about truth.

Furthermore, one of the main truths Inoue delves into is the power of partially gleaned moments, poorly remembered events, and ambiguous relationships, of how snippets of memory can test the limits of one’s own knowledge and yet can be rich enough to reveal something unexpected and important out of something that had been hidden. By working in this realm, Inoue’s “hedging” then comes across as a necessarily different mode by which he can claim authorial power with these deeply satisfying stories.

That the richness of Inoue’s storytelling shines through in this collection is a testament to the powerful translation by Michael Emmerich. For fans of Japanese literature, this book is a worthy addition to your library.

Other reviews of note:

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