Friday 11 September 2020

New Japanese short fiction: One Love Chigusa

Soji Shimada is one of Japan’s best selling mystery writers. His latest work One Love Chigusa has been published in English as part of the Red Circle Minis collection. The collection, which began in 2018, includes short works from contemporary Japanese authors that have not yet been published in Japanese. This novel approach adds an interesting layer to the reading experience; literary criticism on the original texts is not yet available. 

The strange title One Love Chigusa is fitting for a novella that is indeed strange throughout. This strangeness slowly builds, reaches a crescendo in the final chapter, and then in the very last scenes recedes with the revelation of certain vital information. The bizarre array of characters and events that make up the work contribute to the disconcerting yet wonderful experience of reading One Love.

The story is set in Beijing, although it is easy to forget this as spatial descriptions are often very dream-like and dystopian. Surroundings are described to us from the perspective of the main character, Xie Hoyu. Xie has had half of his brain and body replaced by machinery, and this has fundamentally altered the way he experiences the physical world. People and objects often morph into more disturbing or mechanical versions of themselves. For example, when Xie has been wandering the city, we are given his observations: “the letters of the displays and the neon signs scattered on the walls and rooftops would suddenly start to change to numerals. Some changed slowly; some fluctuated violently... Were they stock prices?” Here, the hallucination itself questions the solidity of our linguistic system, while Xie’s question about stock prices points to the all-pervasive presence of financial motivation in our society. This extract thus evokes feelings of disorientation and instability, and conveys a cynical view of civilisation.

However, not all is bleak in One Love Chigusa. The other central character is Chigusa herself, a woman that Xie sees through a coffee shop window and subsequently falls in love with. To Xie, Chigusa is a distillation of traditional feminine ideals: beauty, grace, and virtue. This is immensely attractive to him and he constantly returns to the idea that Chigusa is his “reason to live”. Xie tells her, “you have become the god of my salvation...Wherever you are living in this world, I can also be alive.” This description of her picks up on the theme of divine power and omniscience that runs through the novella. Soji encourages us to contemplate the forces that exert control over our lives, whether they be spiritual, emotional, or technological. Chigusa is not only a godlike figure to Xie, but his source of purpose in life. These two concepts, of divinity and purpose, are heavily intertwined throughout One Love.

Although it is a “mini,” One Love Chigusa addresses a number of intimidating and complex questions. It investigates what it means to be human, the impact of the age of technology, and the mysteries of modern love. Its narrative instability is countered by the constancy of Xie’s obsessions, and the combination of these two elements makes One Love Chigusa an extremely compelling read.