Saturday, 10 January 2015

Life of a Counterfeiter by Yasushi Inoue Review

This book collects three short stories by the renowned Japanese novelist Yasushi Inoue: Life of a Counterfeiter, where a man commissioned to write a biography of a famous artist finds himself instead drawn to the artist’s friend and forger’s life; Reeds, where a journalist explores memories of his childhood, in particular why his aunt was ostracized; Mr Goodall’s Gloves, where another journalist sent to report on Nagasaki after the atomic bomb explosion becomes side-tracked with memories of his grandmother after seeing the grave of Mr Goodall.

The title story is definitely the best but, seeing how all three stories were very boring, that’s not saying much. We learn about the counterfeiter who made a living travelling from one town to another, selling his “friend’s paintings”, before giving up forging art to make fireworks until his death. I suppose the story is meant to underline the fine line between what is and isn’t considered art – the counterfeiter clearly had enormous skill but he chose poorly in using it to copy another’s work instead of creating his own. As a result, he’s not remembered by many while the artist is celebrated nationally.

That said, the biographer mentions that the counterfeiter’s paintings are still treasured by the people in the country who bought them and it doesn’t really matter to them whether they’re true originals or not. And the fact that the biographer became more interested in the counterfeiter than the artist he was supposed to be writing about is perhaps an indication that the counterfeiter’s life wasn’t a “waste”. 

Reeds and Mr Goodall’s Gloves both look at Japanese social mores with regards women (which closely resemble Western society’s at the same time, circa first half 20th century). The journalist’s “aunt” didn’t get married but still had relationships with men and as such became a social pariah. The journalist’s grandmother was the mistress of a Westerner and became ostracized as a result. Ok - and? 

This was my first (and probably last) encounter with Inoue’s work and, while they’re not without literary merit, I can’t say I enjoyed reading them in the least. Inoue’s style is rambling for the most part, sashaying from one subject to another, which I felt was irritating, especially as his touch is so light (like many “literary” writers) that his stories leave little impression on the reader. Apparently Inoue is considered to be one of the great writers of Japan though I’m not sure why.

Life of a Counterfeiter

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