Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"The Setting Sun" by Osamu Dazai

            I like the fantastic, I like the surreal, and lately I’ve found myself drawn towards reading a lot of this type of fiction.  In order to continue enjoying the weird, however, I find I need to occasionally take a break and read something realistic.  Nothing is magical if everything is magical.  This is where “The Setting Sun” by Osamu Dazai comes in.

            Let’s look at some facts surrounding this book:
Osamu Dazai: a cheerful bloke
  1. Written in Japan
  2. In 1947
  3. Two years after the end of WWII
  4. By an author who, to this day, is very popular in his home country
  5. He also successfully committed suicide
  6. In 1948
  7. This was at least his fourth suicide attempt

            Unsurprisingly, this was not a cheerful book.  It was a fascinating look into the decline of individuals, a family, an era.  It’s much more than a simple family drama, however.  It’s a crisis, sometimes subtle lurking just beneath the characters’ words and sometimes overt and existential.  Society is breaking and those who have based their whole lives around its existence are also fracturing. It’s a deeply emotional work yet it fortunately never crosses the boundary into melodramatic.

            The cultural barriers this book poses to a western audience, myself included, cannot go unnoted.  Aside from the first 200 pages of “Battle Royale,” this is the first Japanese novel I’ve read though, even with my limited experience in the world of Japanese literature, it was actually quite accessible.  I was at times rather bothered by the naivety and helplessness the female characters displayed throughout the book, but to make the claim of misogyny would be unfair since the male characters, though in very different ways, were equally as flawed.  As for the translation, I was reading Donald Keene’s version which I believe is the only English translation available.  I found it to be very crisp and clear though there were occasionally some word choices, such as some outdated colloquial phrases, that felt out of place.  Though I imagine the prose was likely better in Japanese, the translation is more than serviceable

            Dazai has written a stunning book that, 60 years later and an ocean and a language away, is still powerful.  The building desperation of the characters is captivating and the novel’s latter half is especially brilliant.  To my knowledge, “The Setting Sun” has never achieved widespread popularity in the English-speaking world which is a shame since it’s truly a great work.

1 comment:

  1. Funny you should review a book by him now, as I just stumbled across this author a few days ago. I hear his writing is beautiful but his stories can be a bit sad. I'm contemplating picking up something by him. I know he has a few shorter books that might be better to start with. But this does seem like the right kind of book if you're looking to create a contrast. After reading this, I'm sure the next book will be a welcome relief and indeed be magical! :)