Yasushi Inoue’s name doesn’t ring a bell in America the way those of writers like Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki do. In truth, he’s about a generation after Kawabata and probably more than one after Tanizaki. He devoted much of his early career to journalism, which may factor into the measured, unsentimental character of his work. His first fiction appeared when he was forty-two years old, after World War II had ended. This, too, is no doubt a significant difference between Inoue and the other two writers. It’s also worth noting that Inoue made his greatest mark writing historical fiction. The highest profile edition of his work by an American publisher in recent years was a New York Review Books Classics series reissue of Tun-Huang, a volume with historical elements central to its plot, filtered through a lens of imagined but plausible peripheral events.
Inoue’s earliest fiction, though, was more in line with the realist contemporary fiction of his day. His first novella, The Hunting Gun, is a frame story presenting a brief and poignant retelling of a secret affair between a woman and a man close to her family. It’s recounted via a series of letters the book’s narrator receives in response to a poem he publishes called “The Hunting Gun.” It happens that the man he describes in the poem, a stranger, recognizes the description of himself and contacts the poet. He seeks to account for his demeanor on the day memorialized in the poem via letters from three women central to his life. The form Inoue chooses – the gradual release of information from various points of view – and the tone here are at times reminiscent of Tanizaki’s great short novel, The Key. The sense of regret, though, is almost palpable in The Hunting Gun, spaced as it is among the five different points of view. Even the poet/narrator expresses some regret that his poem wasn’t appropriate to the viewpoint of the magazine in which it appeared. He was “raised by a mother with a violent dislike of all forms of killing,” and “never so much as held an airgun in my hands.” Yet while the poem likely strikes an odd note with many of the magazine’s readers, the letters he receives in response are evidence his work has touched someone deeply.
The heart of the book is of course the affair between Misugi Jōsuke and his mistress, Saiko. The letters, a brief missive from Misugi Jōsuke, followed by one each from his wife Midori, Saiko and Saiko’s daughter (not in that order), combine to portray what’s ultimately an unremarkable situation. A man is unfaithful to his wife, who isn’t actually deceived. The daughter of his mistress eventually learns of the affair as well. There are tears and recriminations, but in person relations all around range from pleasant to stoic. Instead the hurt is recounted in correspondence, a narrative choice that allows each character to provide an uninterrupted account of events and emotions. The voices are distinct and memorable: witness, for instance Midori’s assertion that, “A man’s lies can sometimes elevate a woman, you know, to the very level of the divine.” Inoue’s restraint prevents the accounts from descending into mere petty grievance. There are real emotional stakes here, and Inoue offers credible responses to them from all quarters.
Somewhat in the vein of Rynosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashōmon”, The Hunting Gun comes to pivot on multiple versions on a single tableau, albeit a far less dramatic one than in the Akutagawa story. It deals with a brief moment in which Saiko wears her “grayish-blue Yuki haori” she received from Misuge Josuke. Each of the three women imbues the moment with her own particular meaning, but the upshot is a nuanced view of a single man’s impact on their lives.
Of the three, Midori emerges as the most notable voice. Her love letter-cum farewell to her husband is a tour de force. “For the time being, at least,” she says, “men will be verboten; I have grown a trifle weary of your masculine rooms.” Then, later, there’s her powerful closing to the letter:
Come to think of it, I will close with one bit of unusual news. Today, for the first time in years, I went and cleaned your study in the annexe myself, rather than leave it to the maid. I was impressed by how settled it is – a very nice study indeed. The sofa is singularly comfortable, and the Ninsei pot on the bookshelf does much to enhance the atmosphere, like a blaze of flowers in the otherwise muted room. I wrote this letter in your study. The Gauguin does not quite suit the space, and if possible I would like to take it with me and hang it in the home in Yase; I took the liberty of removing it from the wall, hanging the snowy landscape by Vlaminck in its place. I also rotated the clothes in the drawer, setting out three winter suits, each paired with one of my particular favorites among your neckties. Whether or not you will be pleased, I cannot say.
Inoue, as I’ve said, emerges here as a reflective, unsentimental writer. Much the same impression comes across in his letters to the scholar and writer Daisaku Ikeda, collected in Letters of Four Seasons. But where the tone in The Hunting Gun is bittersweet at best, his letters, though at times melancholy, reveal a man grateful for the life he’s had. At one point, he notes that,
During my second stay in Beijing, I received the shocking news that my friend the writer Shōgo Nomura had died…He and I had worked together on the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun when we were young and had both begun writing novels at about the same time. In the early stage, when I was feverishly trying to become independent, he often covered up for me at the newspaper by doing work that was supposed to be my duty. Because of him, I was able to get a good start. It was as if he stood aside at an important time and said, “You go ahead first.” At any rate, the attitude summed up in those words often seemed to be in his eyes.
Despite this gratitude and the passing of friends, Inoue was far from ready to retire from the world. “In other words,” he writes to Ikeda, “human life may be no more than the chance to paint one’s own portrait on the blank page of the future. My portrait is not yet finished. I am still at work on it. And it is the very incompleteness that gives me courage.”
Inoue died in 1991. His work has been in and out of print in English, though Pushkin Press is responsible for this new edition of The Hunting Gun. They also published The Bullfight late last year, with Life of a Counterfeiter due in 2015. He’s perhaps a minor writer next to Kawabata or Tanizaki, but he’s been a welcome discovery to me.
— John McIntyre