Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa

A niggling sense of deja vu in this literary remix

A short way in to Hideo Furukawa's novella Slow Boat you might recognise a niggling sense of deja vu; an unnamed narrator comes to terms with his reality, trapped in the metropolis of Tokyo, which he recounts through the lens of his three most significant relationships. Furukawa'a novella Slow Boat is in fact a remix, yes it says so in the cover notes, of a short story by Haruki Murakami, Slow Boat to China, which appears in English in his collection The Elephant Vanishes (2003). 

In Murakami's story an unnamed narrator recalls the three most influential Chinese people he has met in his life and muses over whether he will ever see China himself. Furukawa uses Slow Boat to China as a starting point for a new story that picks up on some of the themes introduced by Murakami begging the question; how far can a contemporary Japanese writer really stray from the mighty Murakami?

Furukawa's novella contains Murakami tropes throughout;  the musical references, the loner narrator and the idiosyncratic women (like Knife girl and Areola girl), he meets along the way but don't be fooled, this is far more than mere literary homage. 

In both stories Tokyo is presented as a mega city navigated by sprawling subway lines but Furukawa explores this theme more acutely. In  Slow Boat the circular Yamamoto line protects the inner sanctum of the city much like the fortifications of Edo period Tokyo and is one of several physical barriers to overcome when escaping the city. Following two failed attempts to leave our narrator essentially gives up and decides to open a restaurant. The venture is about finding personal space and sanctuary; 'an autonomous region ... a place to fill with the music and smells and flavours that Tokyo can't handle'.

The three relationship stories are interspersed with chronicles, we find out the reason later, that demonstrate time passing in the story which begins from a teenage perspective and moves through to that of an adult. This adds another dimension to the story that is distinctly Furukawa in origin. The world around is changing and yet the city continues to exert a gravitational pull.

Slow Boat packs a punch for a short novella and David Boyd's translation feels natural and pacy in spite of the narrators own concern about the effectiveness of his story; 'I wonder if the Japanese language can do justice to my dreams now?' Whether viewed as a remix, an homage or as a stand alone novella, Slow Boat delivers and showcases Hideo Furakawa as a major voice in J-Lit.

Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa and translated by David Boyd published by Pushkin Press, 128 pages.     

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