In her second dispatch this month, Bonnie Elliott tells us more about shinji ishii and the difficulties of resolving the real with the literary. You can find an excerpt from shinji ishii’s Once Upon a Swing in this month’s issue of the magazine. —Editors
In our first email exchange, shinji explained his writing philosophy to me. He was writing, he told me, so an Irishman living four hundred years from now and an Ainu tribesman that lived four hundred years ago could equally enjoy his stories. His earlier work purposely left out references to time and place, omitting traditional proper nouns, at times even people’s names, to create just such an atmosphere. When he did include names, they were ones that exemplified his philosophy. “Names are the most diminutive yet most powerful storyteller,” he explained.
I met shinji when he had just finished writing his novel The Story of Peaux (Po no Hanashi), a finalist for the Mishima Prize. The story takes place in a nameless town in a nameless country. A muddy river flows through the town where “eel-women” live upstream along its bank, collecting eels with their thick hands. One day as the eel women squat in the river going about their daily tasks, one of them is surprised by an unusually lumpy mass in the river teeming with slippery eels. She pulls it out of the brown water and realizes that a rubbery cord connects her to this brown mass. She traces the cord, dripping with mud, to the area in between her legs and realizes that she had given birth to this creature. Just then, two doves take flight, flapping their wings wildly, singing out peauuuuuux! peauuuuux! bearing witness to a most extraordinary sight. The women rejoice, embracing the baby as their own and decide to name him Peaux.
The novel follows the evolution of Peaux as he grows up, calling the muddy river home while being mothered by dozens of eel-women along its bank. He soon befriends a snazzy thief named Merry-Go-Round and eventually gets to know his naïve yet well-meaning younger sister, Castor Oil. With them, he begins to commit petty crimes, in time learning the all-too-painful lessons that cement the concept of guilt and atonement, right and wrong, in his heart. When heavy rain, unseen in five hundred years, brings on a flood that sweeps much of the town under, along with all the eel-women, Peaux is pushed out of the comfort of his river into the great wide ocean of life, swept downstream alone without a friend to speak of.
Peaux makes his way to a small fishing village populated by the aged and aging, befriending Doggone Old, a kindly man who lives with his sickly grandchild and a dog named Child. It is here in this town that Peaux learns the meaning of life.
Indeed, The Story of Peaux is the story of life itself. Painful yet beautiful, dealing with loss, love and what it means to right the wrongs you commit along the way.
As with all of shinji’s stories, The Story of Peaux allows us entry into a strange and wonderful world populated with characters that seem to have popped out of a Chagall painting, named by Dickens and Dr. Seuss. Surprising as it may sound, this seeming surrealness creates an atmosphere that feels familiar to the reader. It can’t be, but it is. It is unbelievable yet so completely believable.
Critics hailed this novel as epic, calling shinji’s craft sheer wizardry.
As shinji’s following grew and grew, he started to evolve as a writer. In fact, his follow-up novel, published in 2007, Bodies of Water, which was also a finalist for the Mishima Prize, took the theme of the ebb and flow of life to another level. In this novel, which magically interconnects three separate novellas, shinji took a dramatic leap. He introduced time and place as well as traditional proper nouns into his stories.
In a conversation I had with shinji recently, I asked him about this dramatic leap.
He, as always, was more than generous with his answer.
In the past whenever he considered time and place, he was physically unable to move forward, at times becoming immobilized by the concept of the here and now. How could the here and now exist when there was a past and a future? It made him spin his wheels. But something clicked inside him while he was writing Bodies of Water that allowed him to accept the existence of, for example, Namibia, in two parallel universes: his novel and in real life.
“I was finally able to trust,” he said, “that the here and now was palpable and real.” He explained how experiencing a profound hardship gave him the tools to accept the so-called real world that existed beyond his mind. “Experiencing deep sadness,” he explained, “made me see how things like ‘self’ or ‘life’ lay beyond existential gibberish in a pure state of the here and now, resting atop a mountain of sadness.”
It was only after he dragged himself to the other side of sadness that he felt the tide turn. He began writing the second novella, Bodies of Water, where he naturally began to refer to time and place, embracing names in a way he was unable to previously.
I have been extremely fortunate to be privy to the world according to shinji ishii. His recent works have advanced into a whole other terrain, embracing time and place yet still managing to travel beyond culture and time. It is only fitting that a sneak peek of the English version of his first novel, Once Upon a Swing was introduced here online, a space beyond, above, hidden in between and clear of borders.
Other posts by Bonnie Elliot in this series: