Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Nothing lost in translation

Critical etiquette may demand a gentle Spoiler Alert here, but I'm going to give you the last couple of sentences from Fiona Campbell's Death of a Salaryman:

When Kenji turned round to walk away in the opposite direction, he spotted a cherry blossom petal float by on the breeze. It landed on the ground by his feet.

Death of a Salaryman takes place, it may not surprise you to learn from the above, in Japan: the various blurbs explain that the author spent several months working in Tokyo, and her experiences (filtered through a Creative Writing MA at Manchester Met) provided the inspiration for her debut novel.

Clearly, Campbell has only half-listened to the warning trotted out to all first-time authors: write about what you know. OK, she's been to Tokyo: but she's not Japanese and (unlike her protagonist, Kenji), she's not a 40-year-old salaryman who's just been fired from his job with a TV company.

To an extent, this doesn't matter: the story is fairly universal. The meek wageslave who won't admit the change in circumstances to his family has become an archetype of modern fiction, from John Lanchester's Mr Phillips, to Tom Wilkinson's character in The Full Monty; and the whole idea of a critique of capitalism through the prism of the disappointed bourgeois takes us back to the the play referenced by Campbell's title. Sure, there are quintessentially Japanese bits of set decoration: Kenji attempts to find redemption in pachinko; a minor character is crushed by a Godzilla statue. But these superficialities could easily be replaced with fruit machines and Bart Simpson. The weirdly voyeuristic reality show that Kenji concocts might have been believable only in Japan a decade ago, but now it wouldn't look out of place on BBC3.

At every step, I was comparing Campbell's story to Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb, and the former was found wanting. Nothomb's is the story of an outsider trying to come to terms with the oddness Japanese society, and we learn as her heroine does. Campbell offers us salaryman as everyman, a global citizen. Which is heartwarming, but does raise a fundamental question: why did she bother to set her book in Japan at all?


Christopher said...

Could part of the answer to your final question be that inexperienced writers sometimes feel more comfortable developing a thesis, particularly one that attempts to deal in universals (the 'everyman' you mention), in a foreign or historical or future environment? It's a sort of displacement: you can assign ideas and actions more easily (and of course irresponsibly) if your character puppet-strings aren't tweaked according to domestic social and behavioural codes and conventions.

Classic 'displacers' like Dean Swift, Voltaire, Carroll, Tolkien, etc. invented their milieux, so nobody could challenge them. Much safer.

But I haven't read the book so this may be very unfair.

amyonymous said...

okay, so I've been to Tokyo AND I've read Haruki Murakami. So I guess I could write a novel from the perspective of a salaryman. No?

No. The underlying culture and the way it insinuates itself into a person's psyche . . . how do you understand that if you are an outsider?

I have no idea if her book is good or bad, but i can't imagine reading it and thinking that i have an understanding of a real Japanese salaryman.

i worry with books like this - there is clearly a market for foreign or ethnic fiction. what do you do if you are a white woman (or man)? you can't compete with all those Indian writers getting all the attention! so i guess you pretend to be "different" and then you get published.

wow, that's snide.

Tim F said...

Christopher: As you say, Swift, Tolkien et al invented their milieux from scratch; Campbell (no relation, I trust) has chosen to set hers in reality, and has to be judged according to how 'real' she makes it. The funny thing is, she claims to be a big fan of Murakami who a) is quite willing to depart from realism when it suits him and b) feels no need to pepper his stories with Japanese signifiers. His characters eat spaghetti and listen to American jazz; it's only the names that remind us they're not from Milan or Milwaukee.

Amy: I see your point - but you and I aren't Tokyo salarymen either, so how can we judge? I don't want to give the impression that it's a bad book. It's not, it's OK, and she's good at balancing believable characters with enjoyable stereotypes. I just don't see the point of the setting.