Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Short stories collectively create a worthwhile view

Donald Richie isn't a master narrator but his vignettes come together pleasantly and offer a keen perspective on modern Japanese life

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

A View from the Chuo Line and Other Sotries
By Donald Richie
127 Pages
Printed Mattter Press

Donald Richie has been writing books about Japan for longer than most people can remember. His 1971 book The Inland Sea (Weatherhill Press, Tokyo) was particularly highly praised, and in addition there have been seven books on Japanese film, plus works on literature, gardens, tattoos and the temples of Kyoto.

A View from the Chuo Line and Other Stories is a collection of 27 very short tales, few of them exceeding five pages. Indeed, some of them pursue the search for minimalism still further and are themselves mini-collections of even shorter narratives -- Three Stories about Mothers and Daughters, Four Stories about Love, and so on.

The Chuo Line is a rail line in Tokyo, and the opening story that gives the book its title consists of a dialogue between two characters about a point on the line where, in the view of one of them, a particular optical illusion occurs, or rather a moment of fleeting visual beauty. This concern with a brief moment of vision is very Japanese -- fragmentary views of Mount Fuji or of irises in spring sunlight are frequent occurrences in Japanese poems, films and graphic art.

It's significant that Richie chooses to place this item first. It's as if he is, rather unnecessarily you feel, establishing once again his Japanese credentials. Almost all the other stories have plots, however slight. But here is the "pure" Japanese moment, deliberately placed in a non-traditional context -- the other passenger is absorbed in his Walkman -- in order to demonstrate that the experience of an "epiphany" has in no way been banished by modern social conditions.

The blurb on the back cover mentions James Joyce and epiphanies and also refers to Henry James's view of the short story as "a movement towards an understanding." Both of these imply major claims for Richie and his mini-fictions. My experience is that none of the stories here quite comes up to the level they aspire to, but there is plenty to interest the casual browser nonetheless.

Tokyo's trains feature again in the story Commuting where the typical urban experience of being pressed close to other passengers on commuter transport and having to decide just what your relationship is to the people down whose neck you're breathing is considered. The main character develops an obsession with a woman he regularly finds himself next to and one day tries to put a declaration of love into her purse. Her reaction is less than the man had hoped for. In other words, fantasies that develop are frequently at odds with the situation as imagined by your opposite number.

These stories form a mosaic of contemporary Japan. There's a bizarre dancing competition with Tokyo youngsters dressed as Romanians, Bulgarians and Austrians; the feelings of a Japanese housewife who is regularly mistaken for a Filipina; the contrasting mental habits of American and Japanese gays (and another story about gay marriage Japanese-style); a would-be theft from a moss garden; endangered fireflies released outside inner-city restaurants; unemployed men in all-day cinemas pretending to their families that they still have work; a student dressed as Santa Claus in a department store asked by a Western child to stop his father saying "The Japanese make me sick;" and inevitably, considering the brevity of the stories, much more.

This story has been viewed 4820 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top