Culture

Book Review: Monkey Business

Monkey Business offers the very latest dispatches from the frontlines of the Japanese literary scene.

By 3 min read

Few things fire the imagination like a cracking good read, and for many of those living in or visiting Japan (including this writer), reading Japanese literature offered a first tantalising window into an unfamiliar world. This is partly because Japan has long punched above it’s weight in the field of literature, boasting a couple Nobel winners, literary heavyweights like Jun’ichiro Tanizaki and Natsume Soseki, and a whole raft of big names like Haruki and Ryu Murakami, Keigo Higashino, Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto, who have all been published and acclaimed internationally for years. But the very nature of literature in translation means that their books are already several years old by the time they reach English translation and that a writer must be pretty well-established to warrant translation, tending therefore to be older and more conventional in terms of style.

This is not, of course, to decry any of those very fine writers, but rather to lament that the more esoteric, experimental fiction, and most especially work by up-and-coming young writers, tends to be frustratingly inaccessible. This is where Motoyuki Shibata’s Monkey Business comes in, riding in like a shining knight to hand out the very freshest of literary fruits and the very latest dispatches from the frontlines of the Japanese literary scene.

Monkey Business offers the very latest dispatches from the frontline of the Japanese literary scene.

Shibata is probably Japan’s foremost translator of American literature, and Monkey Business is the annual journal he founded to bring contemporary Japanese writing to the English-speaking world. It’s now in it’s fifth edition, published worldwide, and endorsed by such luminaries as Junot Diaz and Paul Auster. This years edition is a corker. Of particular note is a short story by Mieko Kawakami.

Ms. Kawakami won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for New Writers a few years ago, and her contribution here offers ample evidence of a singular talent. It’s a compact story of a couple separated by a tragedy and it reads, if you can imagine it, as if Raymond Carver had written an existential ghost story in present-day Japan. It’s a spectacular piece of writing, one of several in this years magazine, and worth the cover price alone.

Other gems include a sensational piece of Sci-fi flash fiction revolving around the construction of man-made stars, a fantastically creepy update of Oedipus Rex involving rabid bats and evil lawyers, a charming little ditty on time-travelling American presidents and a funny little story from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s famous lost suitcase. No Japanese literary magazine would be complete without some mention of Haruki Murakami (a good friend of the Monkey Business), and his contribution is a well-chosen letter offering simple and surprisingly practical advice to aspiring writers, rather in the style of a Godfather offering tidbits of advice to eager underlings.

Several of the stories offer reworkings of Japanese folk tales and new spins on classical subjects, but for all the engagement with tradition, the perspectives on show here are refreshingly original. There is plenty to satisfy fans of the weirder, more mind-bending sides of Japanese fiction, and a couple of delightful graphic pieces too.

As much as Monkey Business offers a unique window into contemporary Japan and a glimpse of what’s to come, it’s also a fully formed magazine in its own right, sitting comfortably alongside Western counterparts like Granta, The Paris Review and The New Yorker. If this is the current state of play in contemporary Japanese writing than we can rest assured that it is in fine fettle, and will probably continue to be so as long as projects like Monkey Business are bringing together readers and writers in such energetic fashion.

Thanks to Tiffany Ferentini of A Public Space, New York for the review copy of this years edition.

Monkey Business Volume 5 will be available later this month in most major bookshops or directly from the website. Monkey Business is possible in part, thanks to a grant from the Nippon Foundation.

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