Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, by Riku Onda, Bitter Lemon Press, 286 pp, ISBN: 978-1913394592
A man and a woman –Hiro and Aki ‑ spend one last night together in their Tokyo apartment. The next morning, each will go their separate ways. He will move in with his new girlfriend and she, supposedly, is off to holiday in Vietnam. They are seeking closure. Not just over their relationship, but they want to come to terms about the death of a man, who was their guide on a recent hiking trip in the north.
Are the two a couple or friends? Or perhaps they are siblings? All we know is that each thinks the other is behind the guide’s murder.
In addition to tennis, hiking had long been one of the activities they loved doing together. And they had been on many such excursions. But this time had been different. In the far north of Japan, in the ancient beech tree forests of Shirakami Sanchi, literally “Mountain Land of the White Gods”, their guide falls to his death.
How had it happened? Over a cobbled-together dinner of ready-made food with plenty of alcohol, the two sit across from each other, using her large suitcase as a makeshift table. They will stay up all night if necessary to try and work things out.
Ever since the tremendous success of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s 2008 Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, English language-readers cannot seem to get enough of international mystery novels. There are even publishers who specialise in international crime fiction, like Bitter Lemon Press, the London-based publisher behind the English translations of Japanese writer Riku Onda’s work. Onda is a prolific, prize-winning author in Japan, having won the prestigious Naoki Prize in 2017 for her book Honeybees and Distant Thunder.
Why do Americans read so few books in translation? Well, compared with the German or Japanese markets, which see about ten times as many books in translation published in any given year, not a lot of work in translation gets published. Crime fiction might be one notable exception to this since English readers have an unquenchable appetite for them. While Onda writes all types of fiction, from genre to literary, it is her mysteries that are getting picked up. First was New York Times 2020 Notable Book, The Aosawa Murders, and this year it is her Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight.
Both books have been expertly translated by prize-winning literary translator Alison Watts. Translators’ names need to be on the covers by default. Of course they are making these works available to us by reworking them in a different language. Moreover, when there are questions about whether an author is writing in English or not ‑ such as in the case of Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, for example ‑ readers would be clued in by the absence of a translator’s name on the cover.
In the case of Onda’s Fish in Dappled Light, the book is only loosely a mystery. While marketed as such, Alison Watts says: “It is so much more than that.”
Reminiscent of Keiichiro Hirano’s A Man, Onda’s latest in English is not grounded in the demands of genre fiction. There is no puzzle. No nod to the golden age of mystery novels. The novel is set up utilising a literary frame. The main story (or frame) is Hiro and Aki’s night spent together talking. As their last supper unfolds, sensory details trigger flashbacks and long meditations of interiority ‑ one after the other.
Another literary device is that short chapters switch back and forth between the points of views of each character. From his to hers. Back and forth till the denouement. Onda is slow to reveal who they are to each other and exactly what occurred on that mountain.
Japan has a long history of crime fiction. Starting as early as Edogawa Ranpo’s novels in the 1920s, mystery and crime novels (and more recently police procedurals) have been tremendously popular. Termed honkaku, or orthodox, traditional crime fictions follow the rules of the British Golden Age mysteries. Just as with Sherlock Holmes stories or the Agatha Christie novels, all the clues needed to solve the crime are given to the reader at the same time as the detective gets them, so that –theoretically ‑ a reader can solve the mystery in real time along with the fictional detective. Readers need only stay alert to successfully solve the puzzle and not fall for the any of the inevitable red herrings thrown out along the way. Many of these honkaku writers, like Seishi Yokomizo and Soji Shimada, specialise in puzzles like locked-room murders that consciously serve as homages to famous books, such as Agatha Christie’s Then There Were None.
One of the top-selling writers in Japan, Keigo Higashino, inverts this whodunnit pattern with his Inspector Galileo series. But these are still puzzles, since readers informed early on who did it, still work alongside the detective to figure out how the crime was done.
In addition to the honkaku (orthodox) and shin-honkaku (new orthodox) styles of genre crime fiction, Japan ‑ like Europe ‑ also has a tradition of literary fiction and crime writing with a stronger focus on literary form and philosophical ideas. This is what Watts is referring to when she states that “Onda has so much more going on in her books”.
For example, the title, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, derives from a Japanese word that denotes the quality of sunlight when it appears through the trees. Komorebi evokes this play of light and shadows. It is filtered light that has a flickering and dappled quality. It is a word known for being not easily mapped onto an English word.
And brilliantly, it is a perfect word to evoke the slippery nature of memory, self-identity, and human consciousness.
But how do fish swim in dappled sunlight? Onda writes:
Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool. Occasionally they rise to the surface with a flick of fins, but it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.
Our memories are just like that. Some recollections are so vivid, close-to-hand; while others seem to shimmer and flicker just out of reach. While others still are deep underwater, completely submerged.
Onda is concerned with the way we remember things. Like many people, she wonders if our identity is really the sum total of what we recall.
The novel begins with Hiro thinking about a famous historic picture. Taken in 1914 by German photographer August Sander, “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance” is a photograph of three men dressed in dark suits and carrying canes. American novelist Richard Powers, early in his career, wrote a book on the same photograph. There is something uncanny about the way these men stand dressed to the nines in the middle of what appears to be a hard earth after the harvest. All three are turned as if surprised by the photographer to face the camera directly, one with a cigarette in his mouth. Hiro is thrilled by the picture, which he happened to see on the cover of a book in a bookshop. It reminds him of something that he can’t quite recall. He is overcome with a feeling of déjà vu as the book opens.
As in Proust, sensory impressions trigger memories which rise to the surface. The smell of the grass or the taste of cigarettes call to mind moments of that hike, images from childhood, and how it was that the guide perished, as the sound of the kitchen fans brings forward a memory long buried in Aki’s childhood and unravels the artifice of their relationship. Reading the novel, one cannot help but think that Onda, like Thoreau before her, believes that human beings crave truth above everything.
Not unlike Kazuo Ishiguro and his hesitation to divulge clues, Onda gives us only bits and pieces. At each moment, we know no more than the characters, who are themselves struggling mightily to piece together not just what happened on that mountain but to figure out the nature of their own relationships. Memories are, after all, not contained just within one person’s mind. Most memories are shared. Anyone who has ever worked on a memoir will quickly realise that how we recall events is to some degree a product of our own imaginations. This is even more so in the face of trauma.
Not surprisingly, the image of the photograph comes back again. In the famous image, we have three men caught up in a moment. They are smiling. We all present this face to the camera. But what is beneath those faces, the memories – those vividly recalled as well as those deeply subjugated, is a future that will never arrive. Because it was never real in the first place. The horror of the book is not just that one can never truly know another human being with total accuracy. The real shock is to realise that you might not be able to understand yourself.
Onda Riku born in 1964, has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. Her work has been adapted for film and television. Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is her second novel to be published in English. The first was The Aosawa Murders, which won the prestigious Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel. Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosoph, and documentary film. Her short story “Bare Bones” won the 2020 Calvino Prize, judged by Joyce Carol Oates. Her book reviews have appeared in The Millions, Chicago Review of Books, Dublin Review of Books, Asia Review of Books, Books on Asia, Kyoto Journal, the New Rambler, and 3 Quarks Daily.