The Peruvian-Mexican Mario Bellatin is one of the most acclaimed of the current generation of writers in Spanish. Mrs Murakami’s Garden, recently released in English, is at first glance a novella set in Japan about a widow who sets about dismantling her garden in reaction to her husband’s death.
On second glance, however, it appears more like a story about Japan by an author who had never been there, reminiscent perhaps of Henri Rousseau’s paintings of jungles and tigers: a Japan based on reading and some imagination, an account filled with apparently accurate details and credible descriptions side-by-side with fanciful rules, rites and traditions with made-up Japanese sounding names, such as mategeshin, a kind of dish that appears in restaurant displays alongside sushi and ramen, or “the game of three white stones against three black stones”. It is carefully footnoted, as if readers would not know what a futon or tatami was; he finds the need to footnote Formica. The footnotes themselves are increasing fanciful, such as that for otsu:
A measure of land typically found in cemeteries. An otsu is approximately half a square meter; as a result, the dead are often buried feet first.
One might now consider the possibility that the author had been, well, high.
It is clear that this is all deliberate, but deliberately what?
But then it becomes evident that this isn’t Japan, for there are references to “ties to Japan”, “gourmet products imported from Japan”, “visits to the islands”, and the like. The novel is set in a place where everything is more or less Japanese, but isn’t Japan: a one-time colony perhaps, more akin to Latin America’s erstwhile relationship with Spain than with anything Japanese. The book ends with a plethora of confused notes and comments about the text.
By this time, it is clear that this is all deliberate, but deliberately what? It is, as we know from the translator’s afterword, a “pseudotranslation”: a purported translation of some actually non-existent text. The otherwise excellent translator Heather Cleary gets in on the act when she sets up her afterword as a faux-academic paper that argues that isn’t Mrs Murakami’s Garden is not a pseudotranslation but an actual one. The result—perhaps unintended, but who knows?—is to cast the entire exercise as, if not quite an inside joke, then all a bit wink-wink. This struck me as somewhat unfortunate, for the translation itself is pitch-perfect and atmospheric.
Bellatin is a storyteller and a good one.
Pseudotranslation isn’t new: it dates at least as far back as Cervantes. Like anything with a multisyllabic name, there’s a theory that comes with it, that it offers “a convenient and relatively safe way of breaking with sanctioned patterns and introducing novelties into a culture”Gideon Toury, quoted in “The Emerging Field of Pseudotranslation”, Tom Toremans and Beatrijs Vanacker in the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, December 2017. Fortunately, at least in the case of Mrs Murakami’s Garden, one can take one’s reading neat and forego the theory.
Bellatin tells a story, indeed quite a traditional story, of a confused young woman, an art history student with ill-formed intellectual pretensions, who ends up faute de mieux in an inappropriate marriage. It contains social commentary on class and social inequality, misogyny and the pettiness of academia. The story is driven not so much by plot but rather by what almost seems a commentary on existentialism as Izu, the young woman in question, tries to make her own way and decisions and even thinks she is, only to find the opposite.
This kind of light surrealism is, of course, quite common in Japanese literature, such as that of Mrs Murakami’s namesake; Yoko Ogawa similarly sets The Memory Police on an island that feels like Japan, but isn’t. Bellatin’s novella has much the same feel; this emulation may be for its own sake, or perhaps the exoticism of the japonaiserie allows Bellatin to avoid strict verisimilitude.
There is, indeed, an Occam’s razor interpretation of Mrs Murakami’s Garden that side-steps the theory. Presenting the work as a pseudotranslation removes from Bellatin any obligation to be faithful to or accurate about anything, even to the literary works he is implicitly referencing. He can tell the story any way he wants.
For all of Bellatin’s wearing technique on his sleeve, he is a storyteller and a good one. Despite all the evasiveness of her surroundings, Izu is herself well-observed—from “the thick turtleneck of mottled wool that went all the up to her ears” to “her hair [that] fell loose around her face, slightly covering one eye”—and completely believable as she navigates and maladroitly inserts herself into department and art-world politics. She seems oblivious and naive, until the end, which is also the beginning, of the book.
Mrs Murakami’s Garden is not a Japanese novel, but feels like it almost could have been.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↩||Gideon Toury, quoted in “The Emerging Field of Pseudotranslation”, Tom Toremans and Beatrijs Vanacker in the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, December 2017|