May 2004

Sanford May

big in japan

A Boy's Life: The Chronology

Only in revisiting the first paragraphs of this review did I realize that I didn't particularly like Storm Rider. Frankly, because of what I'm trying to do with this column, I feel some obligation to like everything I read in the context of preparing each edition. It's not that Akira Yoshimura's fourth novel to see an English printing doesn't have potential in the vein of The Hardy Boys and Horatio Hornblower -- although it is not strictly youth fiction; rather, it's that Storm Rider fails to capitalize on what could have been a rousing adventure in the style of an old-fashioned romp.

The novel is unwound as the agenda of a young man's life, interweaved with significant historical events in both Japanese and American history. At the opening, Hikozo is a thirteen-year-old boy who has lost his father, then his mother, and finally is left in the care of his devoted stepfather, who takes him on as a cook's apprentice aboard the Japanese trade vessel the elder captains. Quickly Hikozo, or Hikotaro as he is called in youth, finds companions in the crew of another ship; and seeking his adventurous fate, he joins that crew only to soon find himself a castaway, the victim of a storm that cripples his ship, the Eiriki Maru. Fortunately for Hikozo, he lives until an American open-ocean sailing ship rescues the survivors of the disabled craft. Expecting a long, miserable death by starvation aboard Eiriki Maru, instead Hikozo departs on a lifelong journey worthy of Homer's Odyssey.

Unfortunately, Storm Rider doesn't even timidly approach the depth of emotion and spirit contained within that epic of verse. Yoshimura's novel is dry. Dry as a bone. For example, late in life and in the latter portion of the book, Hikozo marries and that event earns a one-sentence mention. His wife then earns perhaps another couple of discrete appearances of little significance. The homes in which Hikozo resides in his decline receive more attention. That's the tone of the book. It feels as though it's been written entirely from an outline, each event -- including audiences with three U.S. presidents, various stateside and Japanese intrigues, samurai attacks, deaths and dismemberments - ticked off a laundry list as it is committed to the page.

Indeed, it's almost impossible to conscientiously provide the typical synopsis of Storm Rider's plot, as one expects from fairly superficial criticism. To tell the timeline is to regurgitate, albeit in brief, the entire substance of the novel. Read that and you've very little, if any, reason to actually undertake the book.

Even Philip Gabriel, Storm Rider's translator, seems as though he's a bit bored with the whole works. Coming off a masterful translation of Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault, Gabriel's English interpretation is merely acceptable under the cloak of Storm Rider. That's lamentable, too, as I was solidly impressed with Gabriel's work on Somersault -- a difficult, complicated novel; certainly none too easy to reproduce in another language -- and I was quite looking forward to another fine sample of his craftsmanship.

I believe, in taking on the burden of criticizing another's creative product, it's necessary to hold to standards of fairness that rival any free nation's system of justice. Considering that, Storm Rider is not by reasonable criteria a bad novel. The plot hangs together; all digressions are wrapped up neatly, often with more attention to detail than novels that are a damn sight more delightful to read; and Yoshimura's prose is at least adequate. But I'd be remiss to even hesitantly recommend Storm Rider to an audience delving into Japanese literature for perhaps only the first or tenth time. I've made much in this space of the structure and discipline inherent in Japanese prose, the beneficial austerity of a large number of excellent writers. I'd hate for anyone to think this is what I mean in characterizing Japanese writing. This novel is just dry, a husk, and that supersedes any common elements of Japanese form. If you are a glutton for maritime adventure and you're trying to expand your reading into the product of other cultures, feel free to gallop along on the high seas with Storm Rider. I won't be accompanying you.

Storm Rider by Akira Yoshimura (translated by Philip Gabriel)
Harcourt
ISBN: 0151006679
384 Pages