Akutagawa Prize #137: Asatte no hito, by Suwa Tetsushi

Suwa Tetsushi 諏訪哲史. Asatte no hito アサッテの人. 2007.

Winner of the 137th Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2007.

The story has two strands. The first is a sort of character sketch of the author’s unnamed uncle, the titular character. Asatte, in this context, means odd, unexpected, out of left field (literally, it’s “the day after tomorrow”), and the uncle is that. He means to be that. As a child he’s a stutterer, and then when this suddenly heals he finds that he misses the stuttering because it gave him a safe abstracted remove from the world. He’s convinced that the world is controlled by a will that’s not his (a Schopenhauerian idea, the narrator posits – Suwa studied philosophy in college), and he’s obsessed with doing things that make him feel he’s escaped this inevitability. To this end he starts adopting little nonsense words that he interjects occasionally. It disconcerts people around him, but helps him feel like he’s putting one over on the intentionality of life. They’re purposeless, so they’re liberating. But his wife starts to think he’s going nuts, and then when she dies in an accident and leaves him alone, he does start to go nuts, feeling that the nonsense words stop functioning as well as they should. He clings to them more and more, until he really can’t interact normally with the world anymore. This strand of the story seems really Murakami Haruki-ish.

The other strand of the story is the narrator, who’s struggling to find the best way to tell his uncle’s story. This is the framing device, as he frets on paper over what to write, and then gives us a fragment of an “earlier draft” of this novel, or of his uncle’s “journals.” This part of the story seems a little Mori Ôgai-ish (as when he makes Shibue Chûsai as much about the process of evaluating his documentary sources as about the guy) – and his language is even faintly reminiscent of Meiji-era writing, as well.

The overall effect, though, is most like Laurence Sterne, but without as much humor. He keeps telling us he’s going to get to his uncle’s story, but always seems to be deferring it. For example, in the narrator’s present, the uncle has disappeared—he discovers the journals while crating up the uncle’s effects—but the story he tells never explains the disappearance. Throughout he calls what he’s writing a shôsetsu, fiction, and he includes some passages from the wife’s point of view that he, the narrator himself, wrote (rather implausible, too – she’s puzzled enough by the words to go through her husband’s books to try to find what they mean, but she never just comes out and asks him) – he’s not averse to making things up – but then at the end he says it would be too artificial to make up an ending, so things just peter out, along with the uncle’s sanity.

In short, it’s a very self-conscious novel. Self-conscious about the process of writing, about fictionality, about its themes – several passages of philosophical speculation (and name-dropping) make it fairly clear the exact sort of alienation that’s being discussed here.

It was rather engrossing, but I’m not sure how successful I’d judge it. Laurence Sterne without the laughs would be pretty dreary stuff, after all. This is a bit tendentious, and a bit precious. Still, it’s quite imaginative, and nothing like the last few A-Prize winners.