The Philosopher’s Novelist: Interview with Kazufumi Shiraishi

Instantly recognizable in his trademark fedora, which accents his piercing eyes, author Kazufumi Shiraishi is well known in Japan for his stories featuring ruminative heroes, who, faced with life’s predicaments, never cease to ask the deeper questions, constantly turning to the vast repository of human knowledge, including philosophical thought, economic thought, religious thought, scientific thought, and even the occult, to seek out those unvarnished truths hidden beneath the veneer of reality. To that end, prominent literary critic Masaki Enomoto, has hailed Mr. Shiraishi as the master of the keimo shousetsu, or “enlightenment novel,” of the modern age.

A prolific author, Mr. Shiraishi is the recipient of multiple awards, including the highly-coveted Naoki Prize, which he won in 2009 for Hokanaranu hito e (To an Incomparable Other). The son of novelist Ichiro Shiraishi, he also has the distinction of being part of the only father-son pair to have received the Naoki Prize.

The releases of Me Against the World (Kono no yo no zenbu wo teki ni mawashite) and The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside (Boku no naka no kowarete inai bubun), published by Dalkey Archive Press, marks his debut in the West. Me Against the World is an essayistic exploration into the mind of an apparent misanthrope, ruminating on the nature of existence from various angles, including, among many others, love, immortality and war. The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside is a first-person account of a publishing professional in Tokyo, who, through his affairs with three women and platonic friendships with two starry-eyed youths, explores how life and death are intimately — and profoundly — connected.

I met up with this former editor of Bungeishunju, one of Japan’s most distinguished literary publishers, to interview him on these two remarkable books over the course of a pleasant lunch at Sitar, a restaurant in Yokohama serving North Indian cuisine. Speaking passionately as the meandering and meditative sounds of Indian classical music streamed in the background, Mr. Shiraishi proved to be a polymath of the first order, enlightening me on a constellation of subjects revolving around the themes of his soul-searching novels.

 

The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside, which was released back in 2002, will be one of your first works to be read abroad, and you seem to be pleased about that. Please tell me why.

When I thought about readers in the West, I believed this work would be the most relatable, because it’s not particularly “Japanese” in the sense of being novel or different, or even outlandish, as in the way, something like, say, cosplay, nowadays gives an impression about Japan. I suppose I felt that, with The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside, wherever you are in the world, be it the US or be it Japan, if you grew up adrift in the currents of what we call, well, modern culture or modern thought, you’d probably be able to relate.

 

Because this is a story of an urban everyman?

Yes, well, I suppose so, on many levels. I mean, we’re mostly living in a world now where all kinds of information are truly global, thanks to the development of telecommunications. Whether you’re talking about sex, your personal living circumstances, work, or even music, art, novels — what have you — there’s plenty of information out there, shared worldwide. Even about the natural environment, for that matter. So if you’re one of those people, somewhere in the world, inundated with all this glut of shared information, I think you’ll have sufficient grounds for relating to the person portrayed in this story, or for that matter, actually being like this person. The universality of this generation, in terms of globally shared knowledge, is truly awesome.

 

What inspired you to write The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside

This was, without a doubt, inspired by that book I read at the end of my junior high school days: The Stranger by Albert Camus.  Well, until I read it at that time, I always felt that I was a misfit, that I was completely different from those around me and, so, I was also intensely apathetic, never trusting anyone. In effect, I was a terribly unpleasant person to be with. Well, actually, I’m still slightly somewhat like that, but back then I was intensely unpleasant — a grinch — and I used to detest everybody, the whole world, in fact. But then, you know, it makes you sort of feel guilty being like that. And what’s more, I had no self-confidence. That’s the way I was feeling when I stumbled upon The Stranger. And in there, to my surprise, I recognized someone who was entirely like me. And so it was a tremendous relief. I was saved, now that I think about it, by that novel. I thought at the time that I’d like to someday when I grow up — to put it simply — be a successor of sorts, to this book’s legacy; to write something in which I could convey to the generation of those born after me, “Look, you’re not alone, there is somebody else in this world who thinks the way you do. And so that was the frame of mind I was in when I wrote this novel, which was when I was twenty-four or twenty-five. And when I showed it to people…everyone told me I was crazy. In the end, it took me more than fifteen years since then to turn it into this book you see today.

 

Naoto is really fond of Raita and Honoka, the youngsters who keep popping in and out of his life. But your portrayal of Raita is more in-depth, it seems to me. What is it about Raita that’s so compelling?

With regard to Raita, I think it goes to show how fond I am of people like him. Raita’s most powerful weapon is his looks, right? Yet he doesn’t make much of it; he doesn’t leverage it to get ahead in life or anything like that. In other words, well, say, for example, you’re a really fast runner, but you don’t take part in hundred-meter races, or, in other words, become a track and field athlete, and instead take up swimming. Now, that’s the kind of person I like, you see!! In other words, you know how everyone tells you to do something you’re good at? Well, even if you’re good at something, if it’s something you don’t want to do, it’s okay not to do it. Take a look at Randy Johnson, the baseball player. His fastball pitches used to clock at around 160 km/h, and everyone says how great that is. But I still believe to this day that there absolutely exists someone else out there who’s even greater than him, that it wouldn’t be surprising if there were. But that person, whoever this person is, simply doesn’t sign up. Even in Japan, people talk about how great Hideki Matsui is, but there’s somebody out there, who’s as great as Matsui, thinking, “Man, baseball’s boring.” Everyone raves about heroes or heroines, but, for example, not everyone who’s beautiful becomes an actress, right? Or, to put it differently, it’s impossible to pit Rocky Marciano against Mike Tyson in a boxing match, right? Different times, after all. So you can’t say for sure which one’s the stronger fighter. In other words, what I’m saying is that there’s no such thing as an absolute. Everything is relative, and what’s more, whatever’s relative is relative within a particular group. So, in the end, it’s all just, in a way, a sampling. And so that’s why I’ve always felt, during my youth, that all those who get, well, drunk on such people, that is, on the everyday, quotidian greatness we see, to be rather daft. Enter Raita. His appeal lies precisely in the fact that he recognizes this daftness; that despite being told, day in, day out, by everybody how great he is, how cool he is, and how he should therefore become an actor, he remains insouciant, telling such people he wouldn’t dare do anything so silly. That’s where this guy shines! I’d definitely want to be friends with someone like that!

 

One of the salient parallels between your novel and The Stranger is the mother’s passing, yes?

Yes, and this passing, in The Stranger, isn’t sad for Meursault, and, well, Camus doesn’t explicitly touch on what kind of relationship he had with his mother, does he? It’s a short story, after all. But I was quite dissatisfied by that, so I decided that if I write a story I would expand on this relationship and fill out the details. It struck me that, despite being brought up under special circumstances, Meursault must have been unloved by his mother. As many people may agree, in reality there are so many homes — more than you can count — where the child is neglected and unloved. And well, in my novel, the relationship with the mother is plain to see, but I was imagining that probably Mersault, too, in his childhood, was brought up by a similar mother. And then there’s his relationship with Marie, on which there’s hardly to be found anything sexual, right? He just goes on to promptly murder an Arab. But I decided to magnify this sexual aspect, this element of sexual desire, which is, after all, a critical, defining factor in life — something that has a decisive impact on you, especially during your formative years, lasting from puberty through adolescence.

 

So would you say The Stranger was a springboard for developing The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside?

Yes, certainly. I hardly re-read books, but in the case of The Stranger, I read it three, four times when I was young. So it was, what you might call, a saving grace to me, in a big way. And, then, well, I realized I needed to add more variety to my reading list, so I began to diligently read other works too. Nonetheless, I kept mulling over Meursault and his various thoughts. For instance, there’s the scene where the chaplain visits Meursault in his cell and lectures him, yes? Well, when Meursault talks back to him, I was so moved by his intensity. It was so startling. His outburst reveals so much about those moralists who, when you’re young, try to push a sense of fortitude, or moral fiber, into you. They’re the bunch who try to preach a way of life, but, well, they could be terribly hypocritical, right? At least, that’s the way I used to see them those days. Well, anyway, here I was, back then when I was young, believing that there can be no single person in this world who could ever lead us down the road to some higher way of life. But this book, well, to my young mind, made me believe that it was, well, how should I put it, still all right to go on living. The novel gave me this kind of courage, you see, when I was twenty-five, which was when I wrote The Part of Me That Isn’t Broken Inside.

 

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