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Otohiko Kaga’s “Marshland”: Repetition as Strength

"The result of Kaga’s effort is a sprawling indictment of modern society’s modes of organizing bodies and labor," writes critic Jack Rockwell

In his 2013 review of the second volume of Knausgård’s My Struggle, Leland de la Durantaye asked: “Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel?” While Otohiko Kaga’s Marshland isn’t quite so long—a mere 1,035 pages, in one volume instead of six—a similar question is operative here, or indeed any time a novel comes out that’s much longer than most of the rest that we read. Why is the long form required? What is it accomplishing that demands so much of our time?

Marshland opens onto the life of Atsuo Yukimori, a highly organized mechanic with a troubled past. We follow him during his last few rounds of work in a peaceful time in his life, whose end is foreshadowed by the appearance of an old colleague from Atsuo’s days as a petty criminal. As strain accumulates in his relations with his coworkers and family, and his relationship with the beautiful, mysterious “co-ed” (sic) Wakako Ikéhata deepens, Atsuo travels between Tokyo and his hometown of Nemuro, Hokkaido. His memories begin to reveal more of his criminal background—all the while leaving the question of his true culpability in question—as he is drawn closer to the student riots that rocked Tokyo and other parts of Japan in 1968 and 1969. The tension builds quite gradually over this first third of the novel, and it feels sudden when Atsuo, Wakako, and several of their acquaintances, most of whom are involved in the radical student group “Q-sect,” are arrested and accused of bombing a train.

What follows is a long, winding, and brutally detailed account of the unjust detention of Atsuo and his alleged co-conspirators. Kaga, born Sadataka Kogi in 1929, studied psychology and criminology at the University of Tokyo and was a practicing psychologist and professor for many years before becoming an award-winning novelist. His professional expertise is at work in Marshland. Though Atsuo remains the central focus, we are given first-person windows into the minds of Wakako as well as several minor characters, all of whom are anguished by their imprisonment. Their reactions range from resignation to psychosis to suicide. Under extreme duress, having been starved, humiliated, denied access to the toilet and tortured in every conceivable way other than outright beating, Atsuo produces a false confession. All of the “conspirators” are sentenced to prison terms ranging from a few years to life. Atsuo himself is sentenced to death.

When his family in Nemuro gets word of the situation, they are able to hire a better defense lawyer—in part with funds raised by Atsuo’s nephew Tetsukichi’s foray into illegal fishing in Russian waters, an interesting subplot which is mostly dropped without resolution—whose efforts to uncover material evidence of Atsuo’s and Wakako’s alibis eventually result in a complete overturning of the decision. However, due to the byzantine sprawl of the Japanese court system, this appeal process takes nearly nine years, during which time the defendants are held in maximum-security prison. During this time, Atsuo writes his memoirs, which he titles “Confessions,” documenting his life from his early childhood up to the events preceding the beginning of the novel. These are included within the text verbatim, taking up two chapters and nearly two hundred pages, and are one of the most engrossing swaths of the novel, though they’re not particularly different stylistically from the rest of the text.

The result of Kaga’s effort is a sprawling indictment of modern society’s modes of organizing bodies and labor, with Atsuo’s experiences as a soldier and prisoner as case studies. Kaga’s careful articulation of the bureaucratic structure and lived experience of arrest and imprisonment are accompanied by abstract considerations of these organizational forms made by several of his characters, which, frankly, become repetitive and start to ring hollow in comparison to the vivid power of the narrated sequences themselves. These representations of Kaga’s critique of organizational and disciplinary systems are achieved through meticulous narration from multiple perspectives of movements through prisons, armies, universities, the courts, and similar structures. Here’s where the novel’s length works well, as the repetition of experiences with institutionalization becomes analogous to the repetitive nature of the experiences themselves. Kaga’s examination of the lives of dozens of prisoners, characters both major and minor in his sweeping drama, is some of the most powerful and compassionate writing of the novel. His criticism of the criminal justice system of mid-century Japan could just as well have been written about the United States today, and Anglophone readers interested in the subject will find Kaga’s work here highly rewarding, though it is quite divorced from the racial conditions that underlie the prison-industrial complex in the United States.

This unevenness between Kaga’s strong descriptive and narrative powers and his burdensome enunciations of systematic thought recurs throughout the novel. It’s most unbearable during his recounting of the Tokyo student riots, which took place some seventeen years before the novel was published in 1985. His descriptions of the riots are often characteristically engaging, heightening the disappointment for readers when they encounter within them thin student characters bent on meaningless destruction and spouting aimless, unintelligent radicalisms, contributing little else to the otherwise very carefully woven, even masterful plot. It becomes at times like watching a Ben Shapiro video (“Clueless student radical gets totally owned by master novelist!”). The employment of such unsubtle strawmen makes me wonder if Kaga wasn’t speaking for himself when he writes that Tsunétaro Ikéhata, Wakako’s father, “could not forgive [the student radical] Makihiko Moriya for filling Wakako’s head with the infantile whining that he considered revolutionary theory.” This distaste for both radical politics and systematic theorizing is perhaps suggested by the fate that befalls the two books written within the novel: besides Confessions, a political treatise written by Makihiko Moriya, entitled The State and Freedom, is summed up in two sentences at the end of the novel, written off as an interesting idea, and not mentioned again.

Kaga’s unfortunate forays into radical politics often intersect with some awkward dialogue, as well as smatterings of trite moments and stylistic inconsistencies that break the rhythm of his otherwise fine writing. Some of the dialogue in particular was surely a struggle to translate, and the signs of Albert Novick’s conscientious, painstaking labor are everywhere. Several explicit references are made to characters speaking in one or another local dialect, and some English-language slang appears in the translation, with mixed results. I can only imagine whatever Japanese phrase Novick was attempting to translate when he wrote “jive talk” into the mouth of Wakako, but almost no matter what it was, I’m not sure that it was the right decision. Some evidence points to the problem not being Novick’s alone, however: a 1999 review of Riding the East Wind, Kaga’s only other novel to have been published in English, calls Ian Hideo Levy’s translation “stilted . . . particularly in rendering dialogue.”

Great writing abounds throughout Marshland too, especially in its images—consider, “The packed car was an anonymous mass of textile and flesh,” or “Milky white brightness crept into a gray world, announcing the night’s passing,” or “Darkness flowed liquid from the yawning woods”—suggesting that perhaps Kaga is an uneven stylist. The question as to what extent a translator might consider neglecting to replicate what they might consider to be a stylistic error in a source text is an interesting one, and well beyond the scope of this review, but it came to mind as I winced at disagreeable bits, from bad dialogue to sentimental scenes and characterizations, which created unfortunate breaks in the vivid continuity of the stronger parts of Marshland. Such distractions are particularly unwelcome in a novel of this length, which, absent some Infinite Jest-style statement about breaking the flow of the reader’s concentration, demands an unbroken thread more than a shorter novel would.

Kaga visited France for extended periods of time, and in other titles, such as Riding the East Wind, he writes in more detail about the clash between East and West in the twentieth century, a theme that’s present in Marshland. References to Western culture are frequent: characters reflect on French, German, and Russian composers, writers, philosophers, and even wines (mostly French, and quite a lot of good Burgundy), and theological speculations in the Christian tradition are woven throughout. Kaga himself converted to Catholicism at the age of fifty-eight, not long after Marshland was first published, and it’s tempting to read Atsuo’s flirtations with the religion as an expression of Kaga’s own contemplations. In general, beyond the occasional sentimentalities and stylistic hiccups, the weakest points of this novel seem to be those in which, to borrow the language of Wayne C. Booth, Kaga “barges clumsily into his works . . . plague[ing] us with his undigested personal problems.” The relationship between Atsuo and Wakako, throughout which our hero, an exceptionally virile and fit middle-aged man, brings ecstatic sexual pleasure to a much younger woman, seems dangerously like the fantasies of a man of Kaga’s age and position. As with the depiction of the student radicals, this is not the stuff of the potent searching, meticulous research, and uncompromising craftsmanship that must have been required to write the rest of this unforgettable novel, which for long stretches at a time is a great example of what can be done with the long form. Readers interested in a brilliant, high-definition portrait of postwar Japan will find little to compare to this that is readily available in the English language, though they’ll have to wade through some of Kaga’s eccentricities to get the most out of it.

Marshland by Otohiko Kaga, translated from the Japanese by Albert Novick (Dalkey Archive Press, 2023).

© 2023 by Jack Rockwell. All rights reserved.

English

In his 2013 review of the second volume of Knausgård’s My Struggle, Leland de la Durantaye asked: “Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel?” While Otohiko Kaga’s Marshland isn’t quite so long—a mere 1,035 pages, in one volume instead of six—a similar question is operative here, or indeed any time a novel comes out that’s much longer than most of the rest that we read. Why is the long form required? What is it accomplishing that demands so much of our time?

Marshland opens onto the life of Atsuo Yukimori, a highly organized mechanic with a troubled past. We follow him during his last few rounds of work in a peaceful time in his life, whose end is foreshadowed by the appearance of an old colleague from Atsuo’s days as a petty criminal. As strain accumulates in his relations with his coworkers and family, and his relationship with the beautiful, mysterious “co-ed” (sic) Wakako Ikéhata deepens, Atsuo travels between Tokyo and his hometown of Nemuro, Hokkaido. His memories begin to reveal more of his criminal background—all the while leaving the question of his true culpability in question—as he is drawn closer to the student riots that rocked Tokyo and other parts of Japan in 1968 and 1969. The tension builds quite gradually over this first third of the novel, and it feels sudden when Atsuo, Wakako, and several of their acquaintances, most of whom are involved in the radical student group “Q-sect,” are arrested and accused of bombing a train.

What follows is a long, winding, and brutally detailed account of the unjust detention of Atsuo and his alleged co-conspirators. Kaga, born Sadataka Kogi in 1929, studied psychology and criminology at the University of Tokyo and was a practicing psychologist and professor for many years before becoming an award-winning novelist. His professional expertise is at work in Marshland. Though Atsuo remains the central focus, we are given first-person windows into the minds of Wakako as well as several minor characters, all of whom are anguished by their imprisonment. Their reactions range from resignation to psychosis to suicide. Under extreme duress, having been starved, humiliated, denied access to the toilet and tortured in every conceivable way other than outright beating, Atsuo produces a false confession. All of the “conspirators” are sentenced to prison terms ranging from a few years to life. Atsuo himself is sentenced to death.

When his family in Nemuro gets word of the situation, they are able to hire a better defense lawyer—in part with funds raised by Atsuo’s nephew Tetsukichi’s foray into illegal fishing in Russian waters, an interesting subplot which is mostly dropped without resolution—whose efforts to uncover material evidence of Atsuo’s and Wakako’s alibis eventually result in a complete overturning of the decision. However, due to the byzantine sprawl of the Japanese court system, this appeal process takes nearly nine years, during which time the defendants are held in maximum-security prison. During this time, Atsuo writes his memoirs, which he titles “Confessions,” documenting his life from his early childhood up to the events preceding the beginning of the novel. These are included within the text verbatim, taking up two chapters and nearly two hundred pages, and are one of the most engrossing swaths of the novel, though they’re not particularly different stylistically from the rest of the text.

The result of Kaga’s effort is a sprawling indictment of modern society’s modes of organizing bodies and labor, with Atsuo’s experiences as a soldier and prisoner as case studies. Kaga’s careful articulation of the bureaucratic structure and lived experience of arrest and imprisonment are accompanied by abstract considerations of these organizational forms made by several of his characters, which, frankly, become repetitive and start to ring hollow in comparison to the vivid power of the narrated sequences themselves. These representations of Kaga’s critique of organizational and disciplinary systems are achieved through meticulous narration from multiple perspectives of movements through prisons, armies, universities, the courts, and similar structures. Here’s where the novel’s length works well, as the repetition of experiences with institutionalization becomes analogous to the repetitive nature of the experiences themselves. Kaga’s examination of the lives of dozens of prisoners, characters both major and minor in his sweeping drama, is some of the most powerful and compassionate writing of the novel. His criticism of the criminal justice system of mid-century Japan could just as well have been written about the United States today, and Anglophone readers interested in the subject will find Kaga’s work here highly rewarding, though it is quite divorced from the racial conditions that underlie the prison-industrial complex in the United States.

This unevenness between Kaga’s strong descriptive and narrative powers and his burdensome enunciations of systematic thought recurs throughout the novel. It’s most unbearable during his recounting of the Tokyo student riots, which took place some seventeen years before the novel was published in 1985. His descriptions of the riots are often characteristically engaging, heightening the disappointment for readers when they encounter within them thin student characters bent on meaningless destruction and spouting aimless, unintelligent radicalisms, contributing little else to the otherwise very carefully woven, even masterful plot. It becomes at times like watching a Ben Shapiro video (“Clueless student radical gets totally owned by master novelist!”). The employment of such unsubtle strawmen makes me wonder if Kaga wasn’t speaking for himself when he writes that Tsunétaro Ikéhata, Wakako’s father, “could not forgive [the student radical] Makihiko Moriya for filling Wakako’s head with the infantile whining that he considered revolutionary theory.” This distaste for both radical politics and systematic theorizing is perhaps suggested by the fate that befalls the two books written within the novel: besides Confessions, a political treatise written by Makihiko Moriya, entitled The State and Freedom, is summed up in two sentences at the end of the novel, written off as an interesting idea, and not mentioned again.

Kaga’s unfortunate forays into radical politics often intersect with some awkward dialogue, as well as smatterings of trite moments and stylistic inconsistencies that break the rhythm of his otherwise fine writing. Some of the dialogue in particular was surely a struggle to translate, and the signs of Albert Novick’s conscientious, painstaking labor are everywhere. Several explicit references are made to characters speaking in one or another local dialect, and some English-language slang appears in the translation, with mixed results. I can only imagine whatever Japanese phrase Novick was attempting to translate when he wrote “jive talk” into the mouth of Wakako, but almost no matter what it was, I’m not sure that it was the right decision. Some evidence points to the problem not being Novick’s alone, however: a 1999 review of Riding the East Wind, Kaga’s only other novel to have been published in English, calls Ian Hideo Levy’s translation “stilted . . . particularly in rendering dialogue.”

Great writing abounds throughout Marshland too, especially in its images—consider, “The packed car was an anonymous mass of textile and flesh,” or “Milky white brightness crept into a gray world, announcing the night’s passing,” or “Darkness flowed liquid from the yawning woods”—suggesting that perhaps Kaga is an uneven stylist. The question as to what extent a translator might consider neglecting to replicate what they might consider to be a stylistic error in a source text is an interesting one, and well beyond the scope of this review, but it came to mind as I winced at disagreeable bits, from bad dialogue to sentimental scenes and characterizations, which created unfortunate breaks in the vivid continuity of the stronger parts of Marshland. Such distractions are particularly unwelcome in a novel of this length, which, absent some Infinite Jest-style statement about breaking the flow of the reader’s concentration, demands an unbroken thread more than a shorter novel would.

Kaga visited France for extended periods of time, and in other titles, such as Riding the East Wind, he writes in more detail about the clash between East and West in the twentieth century, a theme that’s present in Marshland. References to Western culture are frequent: characters reflect on French, German, and Russian composers, writers, philosophers, and even wines (mostly French, and quite a lot of good Burgundy), and theological speculations in the Christian tradition are woven throughout. Kaga himself converted to Catholicism at the age of fifty-eight, not long after Marshland was first published, and it’s tempting to read Atsuo’s flirtations with the religion as an expression of Kaga’s own contemplations. In general, beyond the occasional sentimentalities and stylistic hiccups, the weakest points of this novel seem to be those in which, to borrow the language of Wayne C. Booth, Kaga “barges clumsily into his works . . . plague[ing] us with his undigested personal problems.” The relationship between Atsuo and Wakako, throughout which our hero, an exceptionally virile and fit middle-aged man, brings ecstatic sexual pleasure to a much younger woman, seems dangerously like the fantasies of a man of Kaga’s age and position. As with the depiction of the student radicals, this is not the stuff of the potent searching, meticulous research, and uncompromising craftsmanship that must have been required to write the rest of this unforgettable novel, which for long stretches at a time is a great example of what can be done with the long form. Readers interested in a brilliant, high-definition portrait of postwar Japan will find little to compare to this that is readily available in the English language, though they’ll have to wade through some of Kaga’s eccentricities to get the most out of it.

Marshland by Otohiko Kaga, translated from the Japanese by Albert Novick (Dalkey Archive Press, 2023).

© 2023 by Jack Rockwell. All rights reserved.

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