Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Stitch in Crime

『古畑任三郎: 若旦那の犯罪』

"Errr, talking about perfect crimes, you interpret the words as a comment about the dinner Dad makes on Sunday. The answer: it always results in failure. Please enjoy the rest of the show"
"Furuhata Ninzaburou: The Young Master's Crime"

One day, I'll have used all of Furuhata Ninzaburou's introducing quotes in my posts! And I'll even try to make sure that the quotes are actually related to the main post!

Een Lampion Voor een Blinde of de Zaak van de Hollandse heelmeesters ("A Lantern for the Blind or the Case of the Dutch Surgeons") is a 1973 Judge Ooka novella, written for the Book Week (annual week to promote Dutch literature). The protagonist is still a fictionalized judge Ooka Echizen, but we are introduced to a new location. Instead of the Edo where Ooka resides, we are brought to the neighbourhood around the city of Nagasaki and the Dutch factory on the small island of Dejima. I'm not going to hold a history lesson here, but let's say that from a certain point in history, Japan closed it borders and the Dutch were the only Western people allowed in Japan (only on the island of Dejima) to trade. The Japanese acquired all their information on the outside (Western) world through the Dutch, resulting in the so-called Rangaku ("Dutch learnings"), a corpus of knowledge on Western society, languages and technology.

Anyway, Judge Ooka is sent to Dejima to accompany the Dutch troupe on their 'hofstoet', a visit to Edo to pay tribute to the Shogun. As Judge Ooka is a learner of Rangaku himself, he has no problem communicating with the leaders of the Dutch Factory and he soon hears from the current Opperhoofd (head) of the Factory that he is in a pickle. The last ship from Holland to arrive in Dejima brought two 'heelmeesters' (surgeons). One of them is supposed to stay in Japan as the Factory's surgeon, while the other is supposed to move on to Siam (Thailand), as they are in need of a surgeon there. The problem is, both heelmeester Badings (an experienced surgeon who was the heelmeester in Dejima some years before) and heelmeester Oranje (a young, but talented doctor and master in warfare and strategems) want to stay in Japan. What's making things worse is that they both claim they had a letter proving that they were appointed the Dejima surgeon, but that the other had destroyed the letter on their way to Japan. Which of them is lying? Tension rises as the Dutch party set out to go to Edo. Early in the trip, Judge Ooka makes a horrible mistake by inputting the idea of a perfect crime in the heads of the two heelmeesters though, and as a result the Opperhoofd is killed. The only witness to the murder, is a blind girl...

Heh, despite my bizarre way of writing the summary, the story is in fact an inverted detective story.  And pretty cool too! I liked this story a lot more than any of the stories in Een Ladder tegen een Wolk ("A Ladder against a Cloud"). Those stories were just too short to really make an impact, while this novella was great with both the atmosphere and the main problem. The setting is actually pretty sober, lots of indoor scenes, mostly with Dutch persons. Which was done on purpose actually: the novella was also to be filmed as a TV show, and there were few Asian actors in the Netherlands, so the focus was on the Dutchmen (and Ooka as the sole Asian). But this setting doesn't hinder the story at all; the happenings within the Dutch factory in Dejima are, despite the length of the story, pretty suspenseful and the inverted murder was a lot more interesting than I had expected.

In fact, I enjoyed the story thoroughly and I hope the other Judge Ooka stories by Aafjes are more like this. It's just hard to write something substantial about these stories, because they're so short. I might go on deeper on the whole Dutch in Sakoku Japan and stuff, as I'm supposed to know about that as a Dutch student of Japanese studies, but... I don't feel like it. Though I have to admit that the trick used in Een Lampion Voor een Blinde is interesting from a sociolinguistic point of view, or more specifically, using role language theory, which is something I wrote my thesis about...

But no. Let's not.

Original Dutch title: Bertus Aafjes, Een Lampion voor een Blinde

1 comment :

  1. I'm glad to read you enjoyed the story, which stands as one of the best detective stories penned by a Dutch writer and sprouted entirely from his fertile imagination (i.e. not based on an ancient text). It's a huge lost to the genre that Aafjes didn't devote more of his literary endeavors to the Judge Ooka series.

    Oh, and I know this is off-topic, but I think I've discovered a midget competitor to The Terror of Werewolf Castle! In comparison, Virgil Markham's Death in the Dusk is, with its mere 400 pages, a slim tome, but its content is very reminiscent of some of the Japanese detective stories you've reviewed here over the years.

    The plot is apparently saturated with seemingly supernatural events and impossible crimes, imperishable body parts, blood dripping portraits, ancient legends involving dueling sorcerers and a ton of maps – one of them a foldout map! I wonder if Markham is known in Japan?

    Anyway, I can't wait to dig into this one! :)