Sunday, October 28, 2012

Towards Zero


"Misty, I will tell you this! Having no scars on your body is nothing to brag about! For a man, a scar is a symbol of courage, a medal of honor! No way you can beat me without even knowing what it is to feel pain!"
"Saint Seiya"

Putting about twenty people in one room to proofread for several days is not good for their health. The so-called "battlefield" that is editing the Mystery Club's annual publication is quite taxing as is, but the battlefield cold that almost everyone catches is just as bad. In a way, it is proof you were there though. Oh, for those who can read Japanese and are interested how Kyoto University Mystery Club's annual publication Souanoshiro/Souajou (both readings possible) is made: Van Madoy has written a short article on that this week (with photo's from the club room and this year's battlefield).

When I first started reading Japanese detective fiction, I couldn't actually read Japanese, meaning I had to be content with the few translated novels that were available. And with what I could actually procure, as some translations were old and out of print already by the time I started looking for them. One translated writer I could never get my hands on was Natsuki Shizuko, of whom several novels were translated in English. I wanted to read one title particularly, the translated version of W no Higeki ("The Tragedy of W"), because of obvious Queen-fandom reasons. I can actually read the original now, or watch one of the many TV and movie adaptations of the book (there was a new drama version broadcast this year too), but when I saw the German translation of the English translation of the book in the bookcase of the Mystery Club, I just couldn't resist it. So I borrowed Mord am Fujiyama (translation of Murder at Mount Fuji).

Every year, the wealthy Wada family gathers at one of their villas on New Year. This is usually a private matter, and even the servants are sent back home allowing the family to have absolute privacy, but this year is different. The 22-year old Chiyo is working on her thesis on English literature, with the assistance of the American Jane Prescott, who studies Japanese literature at the Tokyo Women's University. Because of that, Chiyo has invited Jane to the mansion too, so they can continue working on her thesis there too. During their stay however, an believable accident happens: Chiyo's great-uncle Youhei (the head of the family), is found murdered, with Chiyo admitting to the murder. Because the family wants to protect Chiyo (and to protect their family name), they decide to make it seem like the old man was murdered by an outsider, coming up with an intricate web of lies to deceive the police. But things don't go as planned...

Because of the (original Japanese) title, I had hoped that this novel would be like one of Queen's novels, but it isn't. The family gathering setting reminds more of Christie than Queen, and while there are some Queenian moments near the end of the novel, but the novel feels a bit... light. Even though it didn't had to be. The first part of the novel works out like an inverted novel, and the plan they made to make it seem like an outsider killed Youhei is actually quite ingenious. The police however very quickly finds out what is happening and even though that is an integral part of the plot, the way the police sees through the Wadas plan is a bit too easy compared to the immense efforts the family went through to set the whole scheme up! For the plot to work, the plan had to fail, but the balance of the effort/reward of going through the whole plan for the reader is a bit off: with an inverted mystery, you usually don't want to see the whole thing falling to pieces almost immediately.

The whole book felt a bit too two-hour-drama-ish for my taste. I am not sure when the tropes of that particular Japanese TV special formula came to be (this book was first published in 1982), but the non-urban environment, the outsider (Jane) setting, the 'dramatic' ending with the heroine facing off against the criminal, it's all here. I had 'problems' especially with Jane as a character, because I had no idea why she had to be a foreigner (in a way, a double outsider: not one of the family and a foreigner) for this story to work. In fact, in most screens adaptations, she is changed to a Japanese woman (also because of the supply of available actresses, probably) and I would think that works just as well.

And the title change from The Tragedy of W to Murder at Mount Fuji? Let's blame orientalism and a lacking interest in (and knowledge of) Golden Age detective novels when the translation was published. Seriously, titles like Murder in Japan or Death in the Family say just as much about the contents as Murder at Mount Fuji. And regarding the German title, I hope we all know that Fujiyama is an erronous reading.

Original Japanese title(s): 夏樹静子 『Wの悲劇』


  1. No wonder that you had problems with Jane being a foreigner! She is not a character created by Natsuki-Sensei, but has been introduced by the the American translator Robert B. Rohmer. He replaced Chiyo's tutor (katei-kyôshi) named Ichijô Harumi by Jane Preston, because he or - more likely - the publisher thought the book would sell better,if the American reader could identify with an American heroine among all the exotic creatures. Your intuition and keen sense of novel characters that caused your "problems" is admirable.
    Hats off to you! But for me the case will be a lesson not to rely on translations or still worse on translations of translations in appreciating a novel.

    1. Wow, thanks for the information! I am used to extensive freedom in localisation practices with videogame translations, but I think that this is the first time I have seen such a strong influence of the translator on the original work in a translated novel ^^'