Saturday, April 21, 2012

to know the intensity

Every part of the characters' lives that might exhibit them doing anything other than experience psychic extremities is dead to Fumiko Enchi by about halfway through the book, she ignores those innocent moments when these people scratch their noses -- they are robbed completely; Fumiko Enchi is too excited to care.

Now that she has gone this far it would be embarrassing to her as an author if one or more of the characters were not legitimately involved in supernatural murder.

The last action of a certain character in the final paragraphs is heavy with these implied words, She has been involved in several deaths. "The mask seemed to know the intensity of her grief," the author explains. But if you could see the character without that suspicion laid over her, what would you notice? Nothing spectacular; you'd barely pay attention to the woman. Here she is, she picks up a mask, a baby cries, she drops the mask, and that's the scene. Consider it from a sane viewpoint and you realise that the author might be treating us like dupes. There is no need for anyone to believe that a person who picks up a mask and then drops it is guilty of murder. People look at masks every day, constantly, in Japan and elsewhere, and people drop things in Japan and elsewhere, and babies cry; there's nothing strange about that. Not everything has to be connected, not everything has to imply.

For example, last week as I was walking down the road I saw a helium balloon rise from the dumpster of a nearby apartment block; and meanwhile behind the wall of a childcare centre someone young began to scream, and if I related these two facts just like that, together, you might think, "The toddler must have seen the balloon, and the apparition frightened them," and so I thought at first, until I realised that the wall was too high and the balloon (which was not fully inflated) was too low. There was no way the child could have seen it unless they had x-ray eyes capable of seeing through walls which I suspect was not the case but seriously, who can tell? Literature reminds me that such things are not impossible.

Consider this: Enchi might be channelling spirit vengeance herself; she's been thinking about it a lot, we know, and it is possible that she has talked herself into believing that the character deserves to be accused of crime; she shouldn't get away with it, this character -- she should suffer with an "intensity of grief." Guilt! thinks Fumiko Enchi: the idea of spirit vengeance has made her dwell on guilt. Someone needs to be accused. The book needs to end like that, she thinks. Guilt needs to be brought to a conclusion. This is the frame of mind that belongs to one of those brooding women who inflict spirit vengeance on their rivals. The rival needs to suffer (the brooding woman thinks) the rival has to feel damaged and disturbed, and why's that? Because the rival is making them feel unhappy, the rival is challenging them, and who is the only challenge Enchi is facing at the end of this book, who is the one person who could make her look absurd? The mask-dropping character is the answer to that question, the mask-dropper could make her look absurd; she could turn out not to have been involved in those deaths after all, she could say, "Spirit vengeance? That's hilarious. You've been reading too much Genji. You don't need supernatural theories to explain an avalanche." She needs to be subdued. So the author from her superior position makes the woman look like a criminal when there might be nothing wrong with her except clumsy fingers.

Never mind though, never mind: put that aside and agree that everybody's expectations have been fulfilled. The author is satisfied because several of her characters are directing evil spirits, the jam has not led me to a worthless book, the knowledge that lay latent in Mikamé's brain has been brought out and vindicated by events, the dormant period of both vengeance and knowledge has ended with the activities that have been exciting the reader for one hundred and forty-one translated pages -- patience has been rewarded in all directions -- we can all be glad like the dinner guest in Charles Dickens' first piece of published journalism who sees that his host's cousin has been asked to make a speech and jumps up to recite the Sheridan anecdote that has been pullulating in his brain since the party began. "Budden," he says to the host, "will you allow ME to propose a toast?" -- Budden agrees -- Jones rises to the status of a conduit -- releasing what? -- villainy, says Dickens, like this: "there is no knowing what new villainy in the form of a joke would have been heaped on the grave of that very ill-used man, Mr. Sheridan, if the boy in drab had not at that moment entered the room in a breathless state" -- the woman of Masks recognise a kindred spirit in Jones -- Mr Minns flees the meal deciding to remove the entire family from his will.

Masks was translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.

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