Some Penguin Classics defy precedent, for good or ill, and it’s surely a good thing occasionally to see a new Penguin Classic in a big dust-jacketed hardcover edition instead of the customary black-and-white paperback. The wonderful Clothbound Classics line, for instance, presents such gems as War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice in rock-solid hand-sized bricks with sewn bindings and sewn-in bookmarks and are not to be missed by devoted collectors. Less visually distinctive but correspondingly in a way more arresting is the new Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, which arrives in bookstores as ... an ordinary hardcover, indistinguishable from all others until the “Penguin Classics” legend is hunted out on the spine.
It’s a heavy, obviously ambitious production, thirty-five short works by thirty-two authors, in a collection overseen by much-lauded translator Jay Rubin and introduced by much-lauded novelist and short story writer Haruki Murakami (who’s one of only two authors here allowed multiple entries), and its format isn’t the limit of its unconventional nature. Alarmingly, for instance, Murakami immediately opens his Introduction by confessing his near-complete ignorance of the subject when he got the job. “To tell you the truth, I’m reading most of the stories included here for the first time in my life,” he writes. “I had previously read only six of the thirty-five - including my own! And many of the rest I had never even heard of.”
What follows is a stiff march through the timber outlines of the lives of the writers included here, and it serves mostly to raise a wail of a question: has it really come to this? Murakami is certainly the world’s most revered living Japanese author, but surely the front foyer of a new Penguin anthology is real estate too valuable to turn over to watching a frequent Nobel shortlister reading Wikipedia? There’s the commercial value of name-recognition, granted, but even so: a scholar of contemporary Japanese fiction might have been a bit more nimble for the occasion.
And Rubin, Murakami’s frequent translator, offers some equally unconventional sentiments in his much briefer Editor’s Note. He assures his readers that the works chosen for these pages are all here for the same visceral reason: “the editor has been unable to forget them, in some cases for decades, or has found them forming a knot in the solar plexus or inspiring a laugh or a pang of sorrow each time they have come spontaneously to mind over the years.”
Which is moving but not convincing. The shambling, headless bodies in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Chessmen of Mars likewise linger in the mind’s eye; choosing the book for an anthology like this would nevertheless be seen as at best undisciplined. But it’s discipline that seems to be the caution here in any case, as Rubin makes clear:
Most nationally defined literary anthologies are arranged chronologically, perhaps on the assumption that they will be read primarily in college courses, where the anthology is meant to comprise a pocket history of the nation’s literature over a predetermined period. This book is designed more for general readers who are looking for a good read when they open the book and don’t care much how Japanese literature may have developed in the period covered, which in this case can be loosely termed the modern period.
There’s a vague but umissable sticky equivocation hovering in the background of lines like these, a dodgy assumption that college students are being fed pedantic, uninterestingly chronological order whereas general readers are looking for an uncritical good time. Instead of arranging his anthology’s contents chronologically, Rubin has arranged them thematically, grouping stories under headings like “Japan and the West,” “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made,” and “Modern Life and Other Nonsense,” the intent presumably being to showcase how different writers react to similar kinds of real-world events. And this yields interesting results: reading about the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in the same section as a story on the Fukushima nuclear disaster is mind-openingly jarring, and such juxtapositions happen all throughout the book.
But by arranging his material this way, Rubin ignores an important factor he knows all about: Japanese authors don’t just react to real-world events ... they also react, and always have reacted, to other Japanese authors. Students reading those boring old chronological surveys can’t help but see this, and good-time readers of this anthology can’t help but miss it.
Missing also are some fairly towering names. Writers of the caliber of Shusaku Endo, Kobo Abe, Kenzaburo Oe and Naoya Shiga are nowhere to be found here, and either of the possible reasons for that (insufficient solar plexus-knotting or to make room for those two Haruki Murakami stories) is unappealing.
But maybe all these unconventional choices are part of the package of an anthology like this, a full-sized original hardcover appearing in the Penguin Classics line to shake things up and provide an adventurous alternative to the many Japanese short story collections that have preceded it. Readers ready for such an adventure will find it here.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.