Another Review (!!), this time of "Translucent Tree"

 Stop me if you've heard this one, but I seem to recall that judging a book by its cover is generally frowned upon. Or perhaps that was a metaphor for some wider sphere of human behavior. At any rate, I have to tell you that I have sinned against the commandment that forbids cover-judging: the new Vertical edition of Translucent Tree, by Japanese novelist Nobuko Takagi (whose work is translated for the first time into English here) has a truly stunning cover design. A fanned spray of pine needles graces the golden front cover, the word "Translucent" lurking quietly next to it. The transparent (and thus, of necessity, translucent) dust jacket layers a pine cone on top of this fan, and echoes the "Transparent" with a word on the other side of this botanical embrace: "{TREE}". It is lovely, I judged it, and I bumped this up the queue of my LibraryThing Early Reviewer books. I blush to admit it.

Not as much as I blush to contemplate this: I encouraged my octogenarian grandmother (a great appreciater of any well-designed thing) to read the book, on the basis of the cover alone. I did this despite the fact that every book I have ever loaned to my grandmother without reading it first has proved to be among the most luridly erotic books in my library. Now, my grandmother is no prude. But still, I can imagine she would have been somewhat surprised (though probably her reaction would have stopped well short of alarm) at the anatomical explicitness of the love scenes in Translucent Tree, a novel in which love is fixedly, defensively, obsessively defined by the two protagonists in the most bluntly sexual of terms, as if physicality alone could keep the real world at bay.

Chigiri first met filmmaker Go decades ago when he assisted in the making of a documentary about her father, one of a dying generation of great swordsmiths in Japan. She was just a teenager, lurking at the edges of the filming. On an impulse, the middle-aged Go returns to their town years later and seeks out the elderly swordsmith, who now suffers from the bewilderment of Alzheimer's, and Chigiri, now divorced with a daughter of her own. They are confused by the desire that strikes them both (a coup de foudre, as the French would say), so they begin to refer and joke about it in the least vulnerable terms possible: Go offers the impoverished Chigiri money on a kindly whim, and when she asks him why, he bluntly admits that he wants her. He says it in such a way, however, that rather than emphasizing the tenderness of the impulse, he equates it to the purchase of her body. Alright, she says boldly, I will sell myself to you. He wants to backtrack to a more literary route for their romance, but it is too late: they have committed themselves to the narrative of prostitution and it is only through economies of sex and cash that they can express their love.

This is a bold narrative strategy, and it provides a suitable degree of torment to consume the characters throughout the novella. As you can probably imagine, it is a jarring and not entirely satisfying novel to read. There is a minimalism here that I associate (in my very limited experience with the translated literature of this nation) with a certain school of Japanese literature, and when it is combined with the straightforward physicality of the love scenes, the result can be somewhat alienating. This might be an effect of the translation process, or it might be an intentional device of the author's. Indeed, this is a novel that refuses us any of the conventions of romantic fiction: the lovers are middle-aged and riddled with physical flaws, they are adulterers with little time to spend with one another and no prospect of "ending up together," they place their interactions intentionally in the most self-consciously debased of terms and create transcendence out of this debasement, and we see their physical and mental disintegration vividly over the course of the 188 pages of the novel. So yes, perhaps Nobuko Takagi is intentionally cultivating an alienating and alienated style.

An interesting novel, if not an enjoyable one. Quietly unconventional, while avoiding flamboyant innovation.

One Response so far.

  1. Wow. While it sounds depressing, it also sounds absolutely fascinating!

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