The Nagasaki literary scene
by Tom Bradley
[ places - april 03 ]
Back in Nagasaki
Where the fellers chew tobaccy
And the women wicky-wacky
- Harry Warren
On top of a modest eminence, in a tiny one-room apartment, the various members of the Nagasaki literary scene squat on rice-straw floor mats, pens in hands.
The hill on which they hunker is surrounded by a raging torrent, like one of those Punjabi villages which Alexander the Great besieged - only in this case the torrent is composed not of lush Himalayan drainage in summer spate, but of Mazdas and Toyotas, unhampered by emission standards, in a bumper-to-bumper, two-lane, 60-mile-per-hour traffic jam that screams all day and most of the night through the volcanic gorges.
Particles of lead and unburnt diesel fuel, compounded with dioxins from Japan's omnipresent styrofoam bonfires, waft up between the puckering bamboos and slither almost audibly through corroded window screens, to accumulate on the smooth upper lips and the rough drafts of the various members of the Nagasaki literary scene. Meanwhile they hack away at their cycles of piquant haiku like forsaken women trying to disembowel themselves.
The bamboos straggling around the apartment are shrouded in a mist reminiscent of those depicted in Ukiyoe prints, so inspirational to the post-impressionists. It's strange how bamboo can make lung-lacerating fumes look pretty. There's something about the feathery textures of the fronds, and the languid way they sway and turn brown and pucker in the sulfuric acid that falls from the Nagasaki sky instead of rain. Alexander, also, had to contend with grotesque Asiatic atmospheric conditions, during the monsoons.
And these members of the Nagasaki literary scene resemble that soggy Macedonian in a further sense. They are Occidentals making a significant noise in the East - or trying to, anyway. They tend to ignore Matthew Arnold's lines on the subject:
The East bowed low before the blast
In patient, deep disdain;
She let the legions thunder past
And plunged in thought again.
Of course, Arnold was referring to the India of Chandragupta, not the Japan of Hirohito's Beatle-banged grandson. So perhaps the comparison is a tad shaky (especially the reference to "thought"). At any rate, this particular lost generation of expatriate writers are Oedipusses more than Alexanders, for they have fathers to kill.
There is a pantheon of in-print forbears whom these Nagasaki writers, in order to be worthy of that epithet, must come to grips with, must overcome and assimilate, must avoid being overwhelmed by and subsumed under, so as not to lose their artistic individuality in the established greatness of their adopted city's formidable literary heritage. And, like James Baldwin doing away with Richard Wright, or Camille Paglia liquidating Susan Sontag, the Nagasaki writers have to encompass their patricide-by-pen before they can solidify their own sense of place (so essential to writing "anchored" poetry and prose). Only then can they stake their claim on this seismic terrain, and buckle down on their rice-straw floor mats to produce something truly substantial. Before their daddies can castrate them, they have to kill their daddies, if you want to get all psychoanalytical about it.
I'll be glad to pitch in. First on the Oedipal hit list is the local boy who wrote that butler novel they turned into a movie starring Hannibal the Cannibal. In a subsequent book, which was not made into a movie, he has provided our town with its reply to that most far-famed of fictional last lines:
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience, and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
It's said that four generations of Dublin writers were blocked by that final sentence from Joyce. Well, here's the daunting prose gauntlet the butler novel guy has cast down before us. I'll allow you to experience for yourself this clincher. Like Joyce's, this one also depicts the outset of a voyage:
I stood in the doorway as she walked down to the end of the drive... I smiled and waved to her.
Just imagine that followed by the piquant words, "The End." This gem, in its unaffected purity, has blocked a couple of our haiku writers, I think.
They embarrass even themselves by their hero worship of this Booker Prize-winning Nagasakian, and dream of his triumphal return to his hometown, with a public reading and a reception afterwards, which they will be invited to. I fear they won't bring fangs and vitriol to that reception, but puckered lips and unction.
Another illustrious native occupies second place on our list of local deities overdue for a Götterdammerung. This guy wrote a memoir that has become the Bible of the Nagasaki literary scene, or at least of those members who don't swear by the butler novel. (It's a downright schism, of you want the truth, sky-clad vs. white-clad.)
This memoir is about the author's attempts to gain an international outlook by seeking out and sharing global perspectives with servicemen from a certain nearby US military installation. Unlike the guy who wrote the butler novel, whose name I seem to have forgotten, this memoirist has an easily remembered name. At any rate, I can recall it, because it's mentioned in the following representative quotation from his book, along with certain other identifying characteristics:
Bob's huge cock was stuffed all the way into Kei's mouth... Ah'm jes' gonna see who's got the biggest. She crawled around on the rug like a dog and did the same for everyone... Hey, Ryu, his is twice the size of the one ya got... The penises of the black men were so long they looked slender... That's jes' awful, she said, slapped Reiko's butt and laughed shrilly. Moving about the room, twisting our bodies, we took into ourselves the tongues and fingers and pricks of who[m]ever we wanted.
Once a year certain members of the Nagasaki literary scene pool their aluminum yen and make a pilgrimage by highway bus to Open Base Day at the nearby American military installation, to ogle the black servicemen and try to imagine which might be the sons of those mentioned in the book. And they also dream of a visitation by the author, and a public performance which they can attend, just as other members of the Nagasaki literary scene dream of such a manifestation of the butler novel guy.
Like the recent catastrophic pyroclastic flows in the neighborhood, this literary heritage, so firmly established in the local consciousness as almost to be part of the ground underfoot, periodically oozes up and coats everything with hot stickiness. Particularly Ryu's stuff. At every meeting, or salon, or soiree, two or three of the younger members of the Nagasaki literary scene will always insist on reciting from memory choice passages of the aforementioned memoir, seeming always to select those paragraphs where lots of inverted rim jobs are given specifically to African Americans. They seem to be stimulated by the older members' visceral reactions to this moving prose. Here's another representative quotation:
I felt as if my insides were oozing out through every pore, and other people's sweat and breath were flowing in... Especially the lower half of my body felt heavy and sore, as if sunk into thick mud, and my mouth itched to hold somebody's prick and drain it.
Japan is on its way out. The place is dissolving before our very eyes, like one of their paper doors in a typhoon. The supply of 18-year-olds is in sharp decline, due to infertility brought on by post-economic-bubble existential despair. So the universities are in deep trouble, and are hiring fewer and fewer fulltime foreign professors.
There are almost no more actual grownups with tenured time to read and write, and the discipline to reread and rewrite, and even the maturity and taste to discard stuff that stinks like unwashed sailor crotches. They all cleared out when the Japanese economy took its ludicrous pratfall in the eighties. So the Nagasaki Community of Writers languishes, but hangs on with heartbreaking tenacity.
Only youngsters remain, itinerant TEFL trash, who are here just to stockpile money between heroin-soaked trips to the Golden Triangle. Almost every sentence that comes out of these kids' mouths turns up at the end, like a question, and most of their vowel sounds are schwas. It's very strange to imagine them at the helms of English conversation classes. But it's reassuring to remember that they're only working in storefront language schools where tuition is but a secondary, or even tertiary concern, if that. The owners don't seem to care, or notice, if their youthful Caucasoid instructors have speech impediments, but are satisfied if they agree to brighten their hair with bleach and their eyes with turquoise contact lenses, and fornicate with the students on demand, as it's good for business.
Handsome Chip (surname suppressed by earnest request) is your average member of the Nagasaki literary scene. When not abusing the green grapes of Proserpine in Southeast Asia, he's a part-time job subsister, teaching twenty-five ninety-minute classes per week in fifteen different storefront language schools. In a good month he makes a million yen (eight thousand dollars). Chip keeps body if not mind together by smoking clean-burning Yakuza methedrine in public squatty toilets, and does his eating and haiku writing, on those rare occasions when his appetite and frontal lobes are up to the tasks, while wandering up and down the aisles of the supermarket. He scribbles and scarfs the free samples of spiced picked cabbage and toothpicked wads of deep-fried pork, and washes it all down with little paper cups of chemical beer.
But lately there's no peace in those aisles for literary endeavor. Suddenly, touts scream everywhere, some even using megaphones, which they wedge up against the side of your head while trying to persuade you to buy more and more packets of freeze-dried ramen noodles. It has become nearly impossible for Chip to calculate his clutches of five and seven syllables.
Once again I say it: Japan is on its way out. People's fundaments have gotten as tight as their grip on their flimsy aluminum yen. More and more employees must scream in the aisles of the stores, under orders to destroy their voice boxes in a frenzied effort to move the merch, move the merch, move the merch. Their efforts only bear fruit late in the day, when blood gurgles satisfactorily inside their necks.
It's the gambatte spirit: when the chips are down, throw yourself into a frenzied mania, exhibit brainless nervous energy, preferably the sort that causes pain and tissue damage. Above all, look and sound busy. It's a Tennessee Valley Authority of the soul.
Gambatte translates as follows: pulverize your personality with hysterical activity; incur a metabolic debt gross as it is pointless; twitch, simper, grow duodenal tumors, tailgate the speeding Toyota in front of you like a suicidal maniac -- do anything, in fact, but reflect on the gerontocrats who misgovern your life, and the empty hole inside you, the ragged wound, where a self should have been allowed to grow beyond the earliest stages of adolescence. Didn't old big-butted MacArthur mention something about a race of 12-year-olds?
Nagasaki is not Paris in the twenties. Japan is a nation in its death throes, vocalizing its terminal agony, not going quietly. There are more screams today in this city - and, with the plague of cellphones (a means of extending screams), more carcinogenic radiation - than at any time in the past 56 years.
And it's not the lethal rain or the lousy jobs and the lousier company, but the screaming, which will finally drive the members of the Nagasaki literary scene away. They will leave this twice-doomed town with nothing to mull over but its own native literary produce: tales of Afro-phalli and verbally challenged gentlemen's gentlemen.
Till the decibels accumulate to the point that bags must be packed, the members of the Nagasaki literary scene, these suffering souls, will continue steadfastly to squat on their rice straw floor mats like forsaken Mesdames Butterflies. And, if by chance one good evening soiree happens to roll along, when the Nagasaki air isn't scrubbing too viciously down their esophagi, for just a few moments, they might allow themselves to lay aside their desiccated poetic forms and fantasize, in complete sentences and paragraphs, about a triumphal return home, to America. Maybe, one fine day, the powers in control of their own civilization will decree their literary output worthy of grants and creative writing fellowships, and the services of literary agents.
At night we dream of leaving our gracious hosts to deafen and poison only each other. With our small pinches of seventeen syllables, in the meantime, we try to whisper away, rather than shout down, the madness, the degenerative nervous disorder, that is Nagasaki, Japan.