Akutagawa Prize #148: ab sango, by Kuroda Natsuko

Kuroda Natsuko 黒田夏子, ab sango (abさんご), 2012.  Winner of the 148th Akutagawa Prize, for the 2nd half of 2012.  Published in book form in 2013, with three other short stories.

This is easily the most difficult book to win the A-Prize in recent memory – at least since I’ve been keeping track.  Difficultly written – it’s just plain hard to read.  I consulted two native informants this time, both far smarter and more literate than I, and both agreed that it’s hard – one felt that it was hard but comprehensible, and the other agreed with me that it’s hard but borderline incomprehensible.  What I’ve seen of the judges’ and other critical reactions to it suggest that opinions are dividing along roughly those lines.  Everyone agrees that it’s hard to read, but some feel that it’s hard to read in an exhilarating, artistic way, and others that it’s hard to read in an unpleasant, inartful way.

I’m not entirely sure which camp I’m in.  I’ll readily confess that I was barely able to follow it (and I’ll describe the difficulty in a bit), but the one thing about the story that’s absolutely clear is that it reads the way it does on purpose.  This is an artistic choice, and given how openly it courts unintelligibility I’d have to say it’s a bold one, and I’m in the business of applauding that.  It’s experimental and I salute that.  On the other hand my own tastes run decidedly to the popular, and even in serious literature I do value things like clarity, precision, communicativeness.  I can’t say I enjoyed this story, not at all.  It was a slog to get through it.  And what I got from it, after wrestling with its difficulties, seemed commonplace enough that I didn’t quite feel it was worth the effort.

What makes it difficult?  Kuroda uses basically every distancing device available to her.  Let’s start with the thing that all the 30-second TV news reports in Japan mentioned:  the story is written horizontally, left to right, like a Western-language book.  There are certainly books written like this in Japan, but not fiction, normally;  certainly not serious literature.  This one is.  You open it on the right.  You read it sideways.  This doesn’t sound like a big thing but it’s definitely an alienating effect.

More alienating is her decision to to use only minimal kanji.  Her sentences are mostly hiragana.  Those who can read Japanese will know how difficult a page of Japanese written only in hiragana can be;  those who can’t may approximate the sensation by imagininganenglishsentencewrittenwithnospacescapitallettersorinternalpunctuation.  It’s not a perfect analogue but it’s in the ballpark.  Moreover it’s not like she’s adjusting her syntax so that she’s, for example, only using pure-Japanese words, which are arguably more intelligible in hiragana;  she uses plenty of Chinese-derived compounds, but often without the kanji, making it difficult to figure out which compound she means.  In other words, it’s not like she’s writing in a childlike language, or a very traditional mode, either of which would lend themselves to hiragana-only writing;  in fact, sometimes she’ll throw in a rather difficult kanji or compound where you don’t expect it.  She’s doing this, in other words, not to emulate a particular voice, it seems, but purely to force her readers to work – to slow down and think about her sentences in order to glean even a surface meaning from them.

She also employs a maddeningly circuitous mode of expression, with drastic and seemingly unmarked shifts in subject and topic midway through her (long and winding) sentences, so that they’re quite hard to follow.  And she chooses to withhold crucial information from her readers, employing ostentatiously vague expressions where the normal expression would be too precise.  Loosely the story is a memoir of a grown child who lost one parent as a child and the other parent as an adult – and Kuroda manages to get through a 78 page story without letting us know what sex the child is, and which parent died first.  That’s just an example.  She’ll construct an entire episode around the sharp, evocative smell of a peeled fruit, but not tell us what kind of fruit it is, only calling it “a drupe.”

What she’s doing is pushing the Japanese language to extremes of imprecision, but in a strangely precise way.  This isn’t the vagueness that some people impute to writers like Kawabata, who are more interested in suggestions of emotion than the niceties of intellect;  at least, I don’t think it is, because her style makes it difficult to extract much emotion from the text.  Rather, I think the difficulty of the style itself is the goal, mostly;  it’s difficult in exactly the measure and form that Kuroda intends.

What I can’t quite explain, though, is why.  Is this difficult prose opening up new possibilities for expression?  Is it reaching new nuances of meaning?  Is it extraordinarily evocative in its abstract way?  I don’t think so.  But I may be the wrong person for this;  I can imagine others really loving it.

I haven’t said much about the story, the things that are said in this tortured way of saying things, because frankly I found the story told to be so conventional and commonplace as to be hardly worth remarking on.  If this had been written in any kind of normal style, it would have been an utterly standard piece of junbungaku writing:  it’s memoiristic, impressionistic, focusing on mostly childhood memories with concrete details (objects, places, people) in snapshot moments meant to suggest larger movements of time.  Lots of nature imagery, lots of imagery connected with growing up, annual observances, small interpersonal traumas.  Utterly unremarkable;  but then, with every kind of zuihitsu-ey, shi-shōsetsu-y piece like this it’s the style that matters most.  So here too we’re back to thinking about the way Kuroda writes.


The story is getting probably more attention for the biography of its writer than for its content.  Kuroda was 75 when she won the prize, far and away the oldest person ever to win it.  Keep in mind that this is ostensibly a prize for new writers, which means that it tends to go to young people;  many writers debut in their 30s or 40s, so middle-aged winners are hardly rare, but this is something else again.  A cynic would say that, in a rapidly-graying society, this is a smart choice, something to make the prize seem relevant to the ever-increasing numbers of retired people who now have time to do things like read literature or even write it.  Life begins at 65, and all that.

The filler stories in this volume were all written in the 1960s, during Kuroda’s first stab at a writing career.  She won the Yomiuri Short Fiction Prize in 1963 for one, which was then published in the Yomiuri newspaper;  two sequels to that story were published in a coterie mag in 1968.  They’re all collected here – written vertically right to left, so that the book has two fronts, if you will.  You have to turn the book over to get to the other stories.

They’re written in a normal style that presents no particular difficulties, and they’re marginally more plot-and-character-oriented than the new story.  They all center around a girl named Tamie and her childhood or adolescent confusions and traumas;  mostly they’re impressionistic evocations of childhood, full of descriptions of flowers seen while playing hookey, or games played with other children.  But each has a narrative twist at the end;  they feel more like stories in that sense.  I’m not sure how I’d rate them, actually;  if she hadn’t written ab sango, I can’t imagine these stories would have ever been rediscovered.  They’re easier to understand, but they’re much less memorable for that.