There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sayonara, Gangsters, on the bus

Finished reading Genichiro Takahashi's "Sayonara, Gangsters" while riding the bus. And then I finished it again over the weekend. This is a book to make you think. It certainly made me wish I had paid more attention in my literature classes.

It's also fun.

This book was brought to me by Richard Brautigan. After finishing "The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966" I had been Googling around looking for discussions of the book and stumbled upon this post. The blogger was in the process of reading the Japanese translation of Brautigan's "Abortion." He mentioned that the unusual library and its equally unlikely librarian reminded him of Takahashi's poetry teacher and his very small, windowless basement classroom.

So, the Japanese translation of Brautigan brought me to the English translation of Takahashi.

The author's biography in the back of the book offers this: "Genichiro Takahashi, b. 1951, never graduated from Yokohama National University. As a student radical, he was arrested and spent half a year in prison, a harrowing experience that rendered him incapable of reading or writing for several years."

I have a great appreciation for a biography that starts that way. Mine would read: "John Hughes, b. 1951, never graduated from the University of Southern California."

I used to struggle with that on resumes. My fear of resumes may be one of the leading reasons I've worked for the same company for 27 years. But I digress.

"Sayonara, Gangsters" is the first of Takahashi's books to be translated into English. Originally published in Japanese in 1982 as "Sayournara Gyangu-tachi" the English translation was published in 2004. I'm hoping his other works will be translated. I can't wait to read "John Lennon vs. The Martians."

Takahashi's "Sayonara, Gangsters" is described as a postmodern masterpiece, which, in my ignorance of literary styles, I'm more than willing to accept. It has a little of the Brautigan feel for imaginative scenery.

"The Poetry School" is located in the second basement level of a building with seven floors above the ground and two below.

The first, second and third floors of the building are occupied by the largest supermarket in the world, which sells everything.

Yesterday, after my classes were over, I lined up at the register with ten cans of cat food and one three-pound can of MJB Coffee in my shopping basket. I was just behind a Cambodian who was buying a pair of "Prime Ministers," a pair of "Ministers of Defense," and a pair of "Ambassadors to the United Nations." They were on sale: three for the price of two.

I gazed at the total as the clerk punched in the prices, utterly intrigued. The sum ended up being much lower than I had imagined.
"Sayonara, Gangsters" takes place in an unspecified future when Gangsters are killing U.S. presidents at a prodigious clip and people have abandoned personal names. Instead, people rely on their lovers to give them names. The main character gives his girlfriend the name "The Nakajima Miyuki Song Book," shortened to Song Book. She in turn gives him the name "Sayonara, Gangsters." Why is revealed in the book.

In this future, City Hall sends out postcards telling people the date and time of their death. The story of the arrival of the postcard announcing the death of the main character's daughter is touching. Imagine a world where death is not a surprise. Imagine a world where you can have one last day together with the person who will die, both of you knowing it will be the last time. It drives the mother of the child crazy.

The middle part of the book offers a series of vignettes about the poetry teacher's students. My favorite was the tale of the day Virgil, the famous poet of ancient Rome, arrives as a General Motors three-door commercial refrigerator.
"I had a hell of a time getting here, a hell of a time," said Virgil the Fridge.

When he tried to get on the train the conductor barricaded his way, telling him that electric appliances were prohibited from riding, and the doors of the taxis were so small that he couldn't squeeze through, and when he gave up and decided to walk, some dimwitted rapscallion had tried to make off with him.

"Goodness. What did you do?"

"I shouted at him 'Impudent wretch!' I cried, 'Darest thou lay a finger on the great Virgil!!!' As soon as he heard that, the little ninny ran off shrieking."
In the tale we learn that Virgil's metamorphosis took place after a party that featured other classic poets, including a very drunk Ovid, famed for the epic poem Metamorphoses.

The poetry teacher offers an explanation of what's happened to Virgil:
"See, the way I figure it, you're what you'd call a very rigid classicist; as such, you wanted to keep everything frozen, preserved just as it was. That makes sense, right? That urge was always a part of your deeper psychological makeup, but when it came into contact with Ovid it erupted. How's that?"

"Well, it does hold together, it's true. And it has a kind of simple beauty, sort of like a can of beer that's gone flat. Oh dear, oh dear -- don't think I meant that as an insult or anything, because I didn't. Shall I tell you my own hypothesis?"


"The poet's deeper psychological makeup contained a second urge entirely different from the one you mentioned. A poet is always aiming to commit the perfect crime. But what, you ask, is the perfect crime? It is to create an entirely indecipherable work of art, of course. And the refrigerator is simply a refrigerator. It's damn near impossible to find any sort of meaning or thought in a refrigerator. On the other hand, vermin, breasts . . . please, it's too obvious.

"Thus the mature poet channeled every ounce of his gift into the great plan: his murder in a sealed room. And this work of art -- it was the refrigerator. How does that strike you?"
"Sayonara, Gangsters," is not an entirely indecipherable work of art, of course. It is quite accessible even if, like me, the reader doesn't have the foundation in literature required to enjoy all of the jokes written between the lines.

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