Enjoe Toh 146th Akutagawa Prize

平成二十四年二月十二日  立春 黄鶯睍睆(次候)

There are already a number of English blogs and news sources that have provided timely coverage of the details regarding the 146th Akutagawa Prize, so I’d like to skip over the general information, and just dedicate my first entry to Enjoe Toh’s winning piece, 道化師の蝶 Dokeshi no Cho.

As a result of both my focus on older Japanese literature and my general lack of experience, I only heard of Enjoe Toh for the first time last month when he was announced as a prizewinner along with Tanaka Shinya. Since a decent number of Akutagawa prizewinners have yet to be translated into English, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Enjoe Toh has already had some of his work translated, appearing in Speculative Japan 2 and elsewhere. Hopefully the trend will continue, and Dokeshi no Cho will enjoy a speedy translation.

The Bungeishunju special march edition hit stores on Friday, so after I got off work I was finally able to go and casually pick up both of the winning pieces for only a fraction of the cost. What with all the drama surrounding Tanaka Shinya and the numerous book reviews describing “Cannibalism” as dark, graphic and disturbing (go figure?) I decided that I’d start off by reading Enjoe Toh’s story, which seemed more appealing.
I’m aware that 道化師の蝶 is being popularly translated as “The Clown’s Butterfly,” but after a read through I can’t help but feel that “The Harelquin Butterfly” would be a far more appropriate title (don’t worry, no spoilers in the following explanation). I have changed the word “clown” to “harelquin” because within the story the kanji for 道化師 is accompanied by the furigana 「アルルカン」and I have reinterpreted the particle の because within the text the butterfly itself is directly compared to a harelquin, reflecting its coloring.

Over all, I thoroughly enjoyed the text; it’s a satisfying flight of fancy that muses about many facets of linguistic theory and more. For some reason, the style reminds me of Italo Calvino (and the curious character creation reminded me of a review I saw of Mario Bellatine’s “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction,” a work that has recently been translated by David Shook).
Up until now I haven’t spent any time doing literary translation, but I thought it might be fun to put aside a little time after dinner tonight in order to translate the very first part of the story. Due to the temporal scope of the story and the new elements that are introduced throughout the following sections it’s hard to predict exactly what kind of text this becomes based on the translation that I’m providing; at the same time, I figured that translating any more than I have would be overdoing things in a bad way.

In any case, the below is my quick attempt at a translation of the story’s opening, with all respect to Enjoe Toh, and the sincere hope that this translation will encourage readers to go, pick up a copy, and read the rest of the story. Enjoy!


The Harlequin Butterfly by Enjoe Toh

First, to the people whose names begin with a character from the A line.
Then, to those whose names begin with a character from the K line, the S line, and so on.
Similarly, to those whose names begin with a vowel.
And then to those that begin with b, then c, and so on.
One after another, according to all the kinds of divisions that happen to exist.
I no longer know how to decide who is referred to by the intersecting points of the net, but what other method could there be than this?

1.

One should have a book that can only be read while traveling. Only having a book that can also be read while traveling is boring. There is a proper place and time for everything, and something that can be tolerated anywhere is nothing more than a lackadaisical sham.

A book made to be read while traveling would surely take the form of something like, “A Book That Can Be Read In 2 Minutes While Doing A Handstand,” which would of course be a book that has been written to be read while doing a handstand. If read while not doing a handstand, then the meaning of the book would elude the reader. Naturally, the reader would be able to open the book and run their eyes across the characters on the page at any time—but the reading experience would be incomparable to that of reading the book while doing a handstand. It would be a story that cleverly makes use of the blood that rushes to the reader’s head. By applying this line of thought, it would be easy to artificially create moments like “The Revelation That Occurs When You Become Enraged.”

It was something that occurred during the flight between Tokyo and Seattle. Resting on my knees was a copy of “A Confession To The People Who Have Three Arms,” which I had purchased at a kiosk. While I tried flipping through the pages, as usual none of the content made it into my mind. Whether by some fault of the speed at which the plane was traveling, the letters on the page had fallen slightly behind, and almost seemed to be hurriedly trying to catch up. Distracted by the letters’ panicked movements, rather than grasping the content of the book, I could only register that I was looking at a publication, and was unable to convince myself to continue reading.

Once I gave up on any meaningless attempt to persist, I began thinking instead about a book that would make use of the letters’ movement. Whenever I go on a trip, I always have the same problem. Despite the fact that I travel with two or three books in my suitcase and always buy another book that catches my attention while I’m at my destination, I’m never able to make any progress reading.

Salesmanship must be the witty ability to turn such indecisive sensations not into words, but into money.

Even if you would not call him extremely wealthy, the reason that Mr. A. A. Abrams was able to acquire a considerable fortune was because he seriously picked up what was nothing more than one of my casual musings.

It was something that occurred during the flight between Tokyo and Seattle.

Mr. A. A. Abrams is a man who flies year round, with no particular destination. Rather, he makes a living flying around, riding in as many airplanes as he can, and only staying at a hotel near the airport when it can’t be avoided. But he is neither a flight attendant nor a pilot; he’s a passenger with no particular destination.

Mr. A. A. Abrams forced his obese body into his economy class seat, and waited for his fat to acclimate to its new restraints. By the time the plane reached cruising altitude his fat had settled, and after ordering one bottle each of red and white wine, he reached into his jacket pocket to remove something.

What he produced was a small bag sown from silver thread, wrapped around a grease-stained spindle that shown with a black luster. Using his sausage-like fingers, Mr. A. A. Abrams delicately removed the bag from the black pole, and as though he were arranging a doll’s hair, opened it up with what were almost licentious movements.

A small insect net appeared from between his hairy fingers. Like the giant in Brobdingnag, he carefully put his pointer finger and middle finger together, and then, gently pinching the net between his thumb and two fingers, held it level.

As though conducting a hum, he began to lightly twitch the net.

Out of the corner of his eye he gave me a searching look where I sat in the seat next to him, and then after a brief glance at the book resting on my knees, knitted his brow. Plainly assuming that I would be interested in what he had to say, Mr. A. A. Abrams began to ramble to me in his strong American accent.

“You see, my work is to go around collecting ideas. I tried doing this in a number of different places, but in the end I discovered that the best place to catch ideas is in flight on a large passenger plane. While traveling, people have all sorts of ideas, which then leave their bodies to float around in the air above us. There’s a lot of useless rubbish in the bunch, but it’s far better than sitting around in a conference room and trying to squeeze out bits of wisdom that never even existed in the first place. The long and short of it is that ideas hold everything together, and a business is an animal that constantly requires new ideas in order to stay alive. Essentially, what I do is go around catching food to keep the beast alive.”

Taking the net in his left hand, Mr. A. A. Abrams turned to me and pretentiously began again, saying, “This, you see, it made of silver thread. It was produced the same way that filigree is made, and is interwoven with countless invisible incantations. I had a worker in Afghanistan specially order it. You see, ideas hate metal, but you can’t catch them with anything taken from an animal. I invested a lot of time and money before discovering that silver thread was suitable to the task. Bad spirits seem to avoid silver. In other words, as bad ideas naturally avoid this net, I’ve managed to avoid catching anything unnecessary—two birds with one stone, if you will.”

While complacently shifting my gaze back and forth between Mr. A. A. Abrams and his net, I bought the time I needed to translate what he had said. I waited patiently for my mind to rearrange the sentences and check the vocabulary against the little dictionary in my head. Once I felt that I understood the gist of what this giant meatball had suddenly said, I smiled and replied, “I see. I think I know what you mean. After all, I can never read when I’m traveling.”

Whether or not Mr. A. A. Abrams was able to understand my clumsy English, he seemed unable to make up his mind about something I had said, and knitted his brow again. The casual flicking movement that had been lightly jerking the insect net ceased. After examining my face for a moment, Mr. A. A. Abrams ceremoniously lifted up his log-like arms for me to see, and then gently placed the silver net over my head.

“Would you care to tell me about it?”

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2 comments on “Enjoe Toh 146th Akutagawa Prize

  1. Jessie says:

    Check out this Harlequin Butterfly: http://www.warrenphotographic.co.uk/med.php?n=00503

    Apparently Paralaxitta orphua (pretend that’s italicized) is native to Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. I didn’t find any butterflies whose common names include “clown”. There is a tropical fish called a “clown butterfly,” however.

    • Zack K says:

      Wow, I wonder if the author knew about this. In the story the butterfly is supposed to be a newly discovered “imaginary” breed of butterfly. Haha

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