The Reality of Dreams: An Introduction

A little more than a year has passed since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck forty-two miles off the coast of northeastern Japan, raising a tsunami that swelled as high as 131 feet in places and left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing. In a matter of minutes the wave swept whole towns off the map, then precipitated a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that released 169 times more cesium 137 into the atmosphere than the atom bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. NASA announced that the earthquake had shifted the axis along which the earth’s mass is balanced by seventeen centimeters. That’s almost seven inches. A recent report by the Japanese government projected that in 2021, a decade after the catastrophe, eighteen percent of Fukushima’s evacuees may still be unable to return to their homes.

These figures resist comprehension. It is hard to bridge the gap between the vastness of the planet and the mundane scale of those seven inches; or to imagine what it must be like to flee from one’s home on a chilly March morning, running for higher ground, only to learn that one may have left forever. I am writing this in a house on the outskirts of Tokyo. The weather is unusually cool, the sun pleasant. Every so often a breeze blows in through the sliding door behind me, puffing into the thin white curtain, subsiding, then filling the fabric again. I hear doves cooing, crows cawing at each other. The dishwasher is running. Two little girls pass by on pink bicycles, followed by an even younger boy on a scooter. An ant hurries in curves and zigzags across the floor, tapping the wood with its feelers. This could be any day, it could be some Sunday a year and a half ago, the last time I was here—only it isn’t, and it couldn’t be. The earth’s axis has tilted seven inches. On the table in front of me, next to the pepper mill, is a small blue Geiger counter.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived, as I hoisted my suitcase from the trunk, was that the bottom of the driveway was wet. It hadn’t rained, but the asphalt glistened black and a puddle had formed at its edge. This is how it’s been ever since the earthquake, I’m told. Somewhere nearby the land shifted and an underground stream flowed in to fill the cracks that appeared. The field out back looks the same as it always did—tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, a grove of bamboo swaying in the distance—but the water seeping up through the driveway tells us that underneath the surface it is not the same at all.

It is surreal, uncanny. The odd sense that everything around us is simultaneously familiar and strange, real and unreal, solid and fluid. The feeling that even as people go about their daily lives—texting friends on the subway, hanging out laundry, waiting for the elevator at work, comparing boxes of sushi in the supermarket—they are somehow swept up in larger, darker movements that take form deep in the earth, and whose traces only rarely become visible aboveground. It is as though there is a real world, where we live, and a world of eerie dreams, which is perhaps, unsettlingly, more real than what we believe to be real.

Collectively, the works of fiction in this special double issue of Words without Borders resonate with the weirdly contradictory mood, at once ordinary and extraordinary, that seems to hang over Japan today—though only one was written in the wake of the events of March 11, 2011. The eight pieces in the first issue have the texture of a dream, of the unstable, the fleeting, the fantastic; those in the second issue return us to a more familiar, if equally unsettled, world.

One might begin exploring the eerie riches of this issue with Nakai Hideo’s “Underground City,” translated by David Boyd. This story’s protagonist descends into “a long underground passage . . . that seemed to him like a labyrinth wending into some limbolike otherworld” and then finds himself, as it were, at home in the depths. As far as I know, this is the first story by Nakai Hideo to appear in English translation, and it is long overdue. Kawakami Hiromi, the author of “Record of a Night too Brief,” an extract from which appears here in a translation by Lucy North, has been more fortunate than Nakai in this respect. In recent years, two of her novels have been published in English: Manazuru, which I translated, and The Briefcase, translated by Allison Markin Powell. “Record of a Night too Brief,” which reads like a series of oddly charming nightmares or deeply unnerving dreams, displays a different side of Kawakami’s fiction, and I hope the entire piece will soon find its way into print.

Kurahashi Yumiko’s “Apollo’s Head,” translated by Ian MacDonald, has an air of grotesque whimsy that nicely compliments the pieces by Nakai and Kawakami. It does a wonderful job of presenting an almost outrageously surreal situation—the narrator, a college student, finds a living head at the base of a tree and decides to keep it, tending to it as if it were a plant—in a placid, unfazed manner, and without slipping into easy, heavy-handed allegory. Jin Keita’s “Vaporization,” in a translation by Alison Watts, achieves a similar feat with its portrayal of a man who, for reasons that are never made explicit, takes to passing his days in gaseous form. The three vignettes in “Stories from the Streets of Koza,” by the Okinawan writer Medoruma Shun, translated by Sam Malissa, combine a sense of everyday life in Koza with a subtle hint of something that lies just beyond the visible. And "Farside," by Furukawa Hideo, translated by Ginny Tapley Takimori, also suggests porous boundaries, as a young woman steps away from her office and into a different world.

The last two pieces in this issue are perhaps the weirdest. EnJoe Toh’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire,” translated by Jocelyne Allen, manages to achieve humor, pathos, a driving pace, and a sense of structure, all without troubling readers to follow anything as potentially tiresome as a plot. I chose Yotsumoto Yasuhiro’s wacky poem “Fish Variations” expressly because it is so obviously impossible to translate, and in my experience pieces that are impossible to translate are always the most fun to translate. I was delighted that Angus Turvill agreed to test this hypothesis with this poem.

Setting aside the broad division between the surreal and the real, the translations presented in this double issue of Words without Borders are extremely diverse: they include stories, excerpts from novels and novellas, and poems first published between 1970 and 2011—though most date from the past decade—by authors as varied as Nakai Hideo and Tsushima Yūko, Wataya Risa and Jin Keita. (If you want to see how dissimilar these writers are, you will have to come back and read Tsushima’s and Wataya’s pieces in the August issue.) Indeed, the only thing that links every one of these translations is the unusual circumstance—a first for Words without Borders—that their translators are all past participants in the Japanese-English translation workshop at the British Centre for Literary Translation, one of several such workshops that are held each year at the University of East Anglia as part of the center’s “Summer School” program.  In terms of their content, however, each of these works is remarkable in its own way, as is each translation.

My thanks to all the translators for their dedication and their artistry, to the authors and the publishers of the Japanese texts for allowing us to print the translations, to everyone at Words without Borders, to the British Centre for Literary Translation, and, especially, to David Karashima and the Nippon Foundation for providing the generous funding that made this unprecedented double issue possible.

© 2012 Michael Emmerich. All rights reserved.