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Review: Triangle
March 30, 2014

Hisaki Matsuura
Translated by David Karashima

Hisaki Matsuura's Triangle has elements and the mood of some European fiction, for example Andr? Gide's The Immoralist and Albert Camus' The Stranger. In these novels, moral and existential dilemmas provide obstacles for the characters to overcome, or mysteries to solve. It's no surprise then that Matsuura is a professor of French literature at the University of Tokyo, and received his doctorate from the University of Paris III.

In Triangle, Shun Otsuki is a thirty-something recovering drug addict who formerly worked in a shady so-called "research bureau". He is adrift in life, unmarried and without good friends except for a married woman, Hiroko, with whom is having an affair. One evening, Otsuki runs into Sugimoto, a former co-worker from the bureau. The rough and down-on-his-luck man recalls a scam where Otsuki would pretend to speak French with an actor posing as a consultant. Sugimoto would casually come across their meeting with a potential client. They would sell the client on investing in the imminent opening of a Paris branch of the bureau - a completely fictional branch, of course.

Sugimoto brought up the French scam because he just came from the house of a famous calligrapher, who happens to be looking for a French speaker. Despite Otsuki's reminders that he doesn't speak French, or very little anyway, Sugimoto insists he is perfect for the job and anyway the calligrapher?s house was just down the street. Otsuki had been curious about the octagonal western-style house Suimoto is pointing toward, so he agrees to go with him and inquire about the job.

Koyama sensei is the name of the calligrapher. After Otsuki settles in with the older man in the home?s conservatory, it becomes clear that the job isn't about translating something from or into French, rather it involves completing a film. Before showing him the partial film, Koyama tells him about an eerie phenomenon that happened to him late one night in Italy. Walking on a deserted street in the fog, he was following a shadowy figure that he never could catch up with or leave behind. Their movements matched perfectly, and when he eventually got closer to the figure, he realized that the figure was himself. Koyama speculated that it was his future, or past, self. The "now" in which we exist is just one of many "nows". As Koyama says: "I suppose you could say that the 'me' on the other side came back to the 'now' on this side ? in every 'now' is every other 'now'."

Otsuki doesn't fully grasp the idea, but Koyama doesn't seem to care. After discussing the nature of time and other topics, Koyama starts the film. Otsuki grows increasingly uncomfortable as the film cuts from close-ups of insects in their natural habitats to pornography. In those scenes, a very young woman - Otsuki speculates she might even be underage - is having sex with a man about his age. Koyama claims it's an art film to be distributed in France. Otsuki is still not clear what he is supposed to do, but agrees to think about it. On their way out of the house, a young woman appears - she is the woman in the film. Koyama introduces him to Tomoe, his granddaughter.

The story has been masterfully set up and what follows is not only driven by the moral and existential dilemmas, but also takes on the feeling of a work from the Theatre of the Absurd. Characters in this genre exist in an incomprehensible world, where rational thought and actions have no effect, or the opposite of that expected. Characters may or may not be who they claim to be. Seemingly coincidental relationships connect the characters in a web that draws them tightly together like a noose around Otsuki's neck.

But Matsuura's novel isn't all European influence. He also includes some uniquely Japanese twists, especially with the alternate kanji and meaning of "Tomoe", the (supposed) granddaughter of the (supposed) calligrapher. Indeed, the Japanese title of the novel is "Tomoe", a hint of the importance of the character as well as the "characters" of her name. Such word play is often used in Japanese literature. For example:
Tomoe. A pattern with a spherical base connected to a curving tail-like shape. ...

The word "spiral" immediately caught my attention. Tomoe was a curve after all. Not a horizontal line, but originally a spiral. So why was there a need for a curve to "complement" something that was already a curve? Or was she in fact a straight horizontal line, making her a fake Tomoe?
Triangle is a spellbinding, rich reading experience. And that the author can incorporate the best of multiple literary traditions is additional evidence of his skill as a writer.


Number of comments: 5
click here to add a comment

Lee Witte
Sounds unique all right. You definitely have me intrigued.

Jo Reed
Seems like a tough melange of styles to pull off. Will be worth reading to see if he really did!

Don't you believe me Jo ;-)

Well, let's just say that you are generally a positive book reviewer. I wouldn't have been as generous in some cases, not to mention any names...

Agreed, if I can't find anything positive, I won't review the book! That has happened, not to mention any names ...


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