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Lost & Found: A. N. Devers on Edogawa Rampo

Today’s Lost & Found is a present to Edgar Allan Poe in anticipation of his 203rd birthday this Thursday.  After all, what might please Poe more than the peculiar gift of a one-off writing doppelganger, shadowing his work from half a world and a whole century away?  Here’s A. N. Devers on the uncanny Edogawa Rampo and his Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

It may be cliché to say so, but things do sometimes get lost in translation, which is what happened, two years ago, the first time I heard of the writer Hirai Taro.  I was in Germany visiting my recently relocated Japanese friend, updating him on my life, my graduate studies, and my ever-growing obsession with Edgar Allan Poe.  To which he responded, “Oh, then, I wonder if you have ever heard of Edgar Allan Poe?”  The look on my face must have given away my confusion because he repeated the name, but much more slowly, dividing it up into oddly stressed syllables that sounded more Japanese than English.  It took us a couple of minutes of question and answer for me to finally understand: Hirai Taro was a famous Japanese mystery writer who had taken a phonetic version of Edgar Allan Poe for his own penname.  I was a little surprised that I hadn’t heard of him.  After all, Edogawa Rampo’s brazen acquisition of Poe’s moniker, as well as his prominent place in Japanese literary history, should have made him a welcome import to American literary shores by now.

Soon after, I tracked down a copy of Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, Rampo’s first overture to an American audience, translated by James B. Harris and published by Charles E. Tuttle in 1956.  The stories—written mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s,—are grotesqueries chock full of detectives, murderers, outcasts, sociopaths, the perverted, the bloodthirsty, and the insane.  Like Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” many of Rampo’s stories incorporate cryptograms and logic puzzles for the reader to solve.  But his early work can’t be labeled uniformly derivative.  Rampo separates himself by his fixation on the erotic, on the pleasures of the body, an obsession set uncomfortably against the anxious backdrop of a pre-war society struggling with identity in the face of Westernization.

In his most famous story, “The Human Chair,” a destitute chair maker, ugly almost to the point of disfigurement, becomes obsessed with the imagined lives of his rich clients.  The chair maker explains: “Giving my mind free rein, I used to imagine the types of people who would eventually curl up in the chair, certainly people of nobility, living in palatial residences, with exquisite, priceless paintings hanging on the walls. …Enwrapped in these strange visions, I came to feel that I, too, belonged to such settings, and I derived no end of pleasure from imagining myself to be an influential figure in society.”

The narrator’s opportunity to experience the forbidden world arrives when he is contracted to make a large chair for a luxury hotel.  Determined to physically escape his station in life, he builds the chair so that he may conceal himself inside, his knees resting beneath the seat.   The man makes room to store food, water, even his own waste.  Once the chair is delivered to the hotel, he begins to steal out of his hiding place at night to rob the guests, but in time be becomes addicted to remaining in the chair for long periods, waiting for glamorous foreign women to sit down.  He becomes aroused by the fantasy of these women deriving sexual pleasure from the experience of sitting on him.  Eventually, the chair is auctioned off to a famous Japanese woman, a writer with whom he is immediately infatuated and whom he silently tries to seduce.  He explains, “In every way I endeavored to make her more comfortable every time she placed her weight on my chair.”  The man is so filled with desire for the woman and everything she represents that he is willing to further disfigure himself, permanently contorting his body into the shape of the chair by staying concealed day after day.

Many of the characters in Japanese Tales struggle with Japan’s rigid class stratification, often with appalling consequences.  In “The Caterpillar,” a lieutenant comes back from war as a quadruple amputee.  Not only can he barely move, but he has also lost his ability to speak.  His wife, at first loving and caring, is soon enraged by his new deficiencies and the impoverished, lonely life his heroic war efforts have given them.  She is particularly repulsed by his growing appetite for food and is unwilling to comprehend that eating is one of the few sensory experiences he has left.  She begins to torment him, first verbally, then physically.  After several years of abuse and neglect, the lieutenant is barely recognizable.  His wife sees him only as “a thing”—she imagines a bloated caterpillar, “slowly creeping along the dead branch of a gaunt tree on a dark night.”  In this story and others, Rampo continually turns the motifs and symbols of Japanese culture inside out: in his world the caterpillar isn’t representative of life or regeneration but is instead a horrific symbol of death and decay.

Before Rampo died, in 1965, he had written and edited over twenty books.  He remains hugely popular today: Japan’s annual prize for the best book by a mystery author is awarded in his name, and he is one of several writers and artists who made the area of Tokyo west of Ikekuburo Station famous as the “Montparnasse of Tokyo.”  His stories continue to be adapted into Japanese horror movies, and his work has influenced a generation of anime and manga artists and writers.  While little of Rampo’s writing is translated into English, Kurodahan Press has led a recent effort to change that.  In 2006, they published Black Lizard and The Beast in the Shadows, two detective novellas, in a single volume, and, in early 2009, they [released] The Edogawa Rampo Reader, a collection of stories and essays.  Despite his notoriety in Japan, Rampo is given little attention overseas, outside of academia.  I can’t help but wonder if this has anything to do with the effort to translate Japanese Tales.  In his introduction to Black Lizard and Beast In The Shadows, writer Mark Schreiber hints at major obstacles to rendering Rampo’s work in English—a process that took five difficult years of collaboration between Harris and Rampo.  Or it might be that the erotic focus of his stories was too salacious for the American palate when Japanese Tales was published, in the mid 1950s.

In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux picks up Japanese Tales on the Hatsukari limited express to Aomori.  At this point in his train trip, Theroux is headed toward Siberia, disgruntled and fatigued by Tokyo, which he finds phony and distasteful.  He can find little merit in Rampo’s work either:  “His fictional inventions were ungainly, and his shin-barking prose style was an irritation; and yet I was held, fascinated by the very ineptitude of the stories, for it was…impossible to dismiss these horrors…”  He continues:  “Here was another glimpse of the agonized Japanese spirit.”  Theroux is right on two counts:  Japanese Tales is not a smooth read—it is jarring, blunt, and often overwrought (not unlike Rampo’s namesake’s prose)—and Rampo does capture a certain agony of spirit, an agony that is a reflection of the anxiety and insecurities of a nation facing modernization.  If Japanese readers can overlook Rampo’s stylistic flaws and excesses, finding meaning in his puzzles and mysteries, then maybe he deserves another look here too.

A. N. Devers’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Rail, Bust, The Southampton Review, The Rumpus, TimeOut NY, and The Washington Post. She received her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches at Adelphi University.  She is the editor of writershouses.com, a website for literary pilgrims everywhere.

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  1. [...] The uncanny Edogawa Rampo [...]

  2. [...] “Like Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” many of Rampo’s stories incorporate cryptograms and logic puzzles for the reader to solve.  But his early work can’t be labeled uniformly derivative.  Rampo separates himself by his fixation on the erotic, on the pleasures of the body, an obsession set uncomfortably against the anxious backdrop of a pre-war society struggling with identity in the face of Westernization.” At Tin House, A.N. Devers tells us of the work of Edogawa Rampo. [...]

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