Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Fragments of Memories

『Just Before The Sunrise』

I just want to keep looking at your smile
Holding you in these arms called memories

I really should reconsider my writing style: delaying reviews because I can't come up with introductions (which usually have nothing to do with the actual review) is a bit inefficient...

It had been a while since I last read something by Shimada Souji and because it was recommended by a couple of people, I decided to read Nejishiki Zazetsuki ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki"). The novel stars Shimada's series detective Mitarai Kiyoshi, who debuted in 1981 as an astrologist, but became a full-time private detective in 1987. I hadn't read any Mitarai novels after that, so I was kinda surprised to see that between 1987 and Nejishiki Zatsuki (originally published in 2003), Mitarai Kiyoshi had become a professor specializing in brain science at Sweden's Uppsala University. A man called Egon Markut is brought to him, who seems to have severe problems with his memory: his short-time memory seem to be disfunctional and he even forgets he met Mitarai when the professor leaves his office for a second to get some coffee. Egon seems to have perfect memory up util one specific point in his life, but he has no idea what happened then. The only clue Mitarai has, is a novel Egon Markut wrote: Return to the Tangerine Tree Republic, a fantasy story starring 'Eggy', who visits a fantasy world inhabited by elves who live on top of trees, men with no noses and people with detachable, screw-type heads.

No, I didn't choose a book with a man with amnesia and a narrative-within-a-narrative structure again on purpose.

In a sense, Nejishiki Zatsuki is sorta reminiscent of Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken, Shimada's debut novel. Both stories feature Mitarai Kiyoshi as an armchair detective, with a document functioning as his only clue. But this time, the document is clearly a fantasy story and this is where the novel starts to crumble, in my opinion. The document in Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken worked, because it was set in reality and narrated as such. Deducing from one single sentence in Harry Kemelman's The Nine Mile Walk worked, because it was set in a certain time and period. Heck, Watson's unpublished document in Queen's A Study in Terror worked, because it was a honest narrative. But Nejishiki Zatsuki's Return to the Tangerine Tree Republic doesn't work as a fair document. Sure, Mitarai manages to deduce a lot from it, by literary analysis and comparisons with reality, but it is a lot more shakey, a lot more vague than the utterances mentioned above. It never feels convincing and Shimada occasionally allows for Mitarai to check his deductions (which are of course confirmed), but it feels very forceful: the deductions don't become real because they are convincing enough and are the most logical conclusion drawn from the evidence, it' because the fictional creator arbitrarily just decides that it is the truth in this novel. Which is of course true for all works of fiction, but you need to have at least some level of plausibility to really work.

In the end, Mitarai manages to deduce the truth behind what made Egon's mind go boom, but the case itself is so simple, it's almost unbelievable the same author wrote novels like Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai. In his early novels, a main characteristic of Shimada's work was an almost idiotic grand mechanical trick. As if he was working on a different scale of life. He would use hammers and drills instead of thread and needles to make a locked room, and still be subtle about it. In Nejishiki Zatsuki, you're left with a case that anyone could solve the moment the vagueries of Return to the Tangerine Tree Republic solved.

In the end, it feels like Shimada wanted to work with the premise of having to solve a real-life case working from a fantasy book, but the problem is that none of the elements really work here: at one hand, we have the too vague fantasy book that allows for very broad deductions, making Mitarai's deductions feel plausible, but not 100% convincing. The way Shimada makes these deductions truth feels forced. On the other hand, the real-life case to which the fantasy book refers to feels too bland and you're left with the feeling that you just worked yourself through a 600 page book without an equivalent pay-off.

And oh, had I already mentioned that a new English translation of a novellette by Shimada Souji is to appear in EQMM soon?

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『ネジ式ザゼツキー』


  1. A fantasy book is a nice idea: it would make for a feeling of two separate worlds, a sort of parallel dimension; although what you said about it being unconvincing could be true. Then again, there are a lot of truths that can be drawn from fictional works: like the biography of Charles M. Schulz, drawing parallels between his life and the world of Charlie Brown. There would be certain moment in Schulz's life and then there would be a certain comic strip that matches it. It gave some insight into the artist.

    If you worked backwards from a fictional work that is partly autobiographical, given enough time and research, it might be possible to map out certain parts of a person's life, even though the deduction could be as "shakey" as a Snoopy ink drawing.

    Anyways, your post made me interested in reading more of Shimada's stories. To answer your question at the end, I remember you mentioned a Shimada novelette in EQMM, but I'm not sure what issue it's in. I'd definitely buy an issue, but I wanted to ask you if you knew the month. The EQMM website doesn't seem to mention Shimada.

    1. Shimada's P no Misshitsu (I guess it will be something like The Locked Room of P)) should appear early this year: Shimada Souji had mentioned on his Twitter account that he had signed the contract and such for the translation's appearance early 2013 in EQMM.

    2. It is actually scheduled for the August issue and will be called 'The Locked House of Pythagoras.' I worked with the translator (his daughter Yuko) to reduce it from a novella to a short story, and was instrumental in getting EQMM to accept it. They have published eight of my translations to date -- six Paul Halter stories, one Pierre Very and one Alexandre Dumas (you read that correctly.)

      I would very much like you to contact me on at your earliest convenience

      John Pugmire