Disclaimer: today’s book is a new entry in the Italian market, so it may slightly differ from the English translation Strange Tale of Panorama Island, (2013, by Elaine Kazu Gerbert).
The lucky thing among the misfortunes of being 9.583 km far from home is that in most cases you will never be completely alone, may be because the world shrunk, may be because Tokyo at a first glimpse can seem immense but in the end it is just a village. So much so that your office is a stone’s throw from the office of a friend who is not only Italian, but from your own city, and you often have your lunch breaks together.
The first time I heard about the Strange tale of Panorama Island was during one of these lunch breaks, in front of (can you guess it?) a ham sandwich, discussing with my friend how this book was not to be published, due to a series of delays and missed communications he was having with his contact persons and the publisher. Just a few days after this conversation, surprisingly the book came out and I immediately got a fragrant copy, just out of the printer — and complete with a special inscription just for me (!!).
Returning to read some non-contemporary Japanese works after four years (and please oh please spare me Murakami) made me feel at home. It was like getting under the covers after a long and hard day: ah, I thought, this is my area of competence, here I understand something, and when Ranpo writes this he certainly means that and that, etcetera etcetera.
Brief introduction for those who are unfamiliar with Ranpo: he was a writer active in the first half of the twentieth century, inspired by Sherlock Holmes-like Western novels; he was a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe (hence his pen name), a surprising breath of fresh air and a self-standing literary case at the time for the originality of his works, which condense mystery elements and a noir atmosphere to an overwhelming deductive logic.
In the Strange tale of Panorama Island, the protagonist Hitomi Hirosuke is an inept and lazy young man who maintains himself by writing stories occasionally published in various magazines. One day he learns that one of his fellow students called Komoda Genzaburō, the descendant of a wealthy family, died suddenly of an epileptic attack leaving behind his young wife Chiyoko and, needless to say, immense luck. This particularly attracts Hitomi’s attention, as when they used to study together the two were often mistaken for twins: hence the sinister idea of pretending his own suicide to replace Komoda and simulate his return from the grave. The second part of the novel focuses on spending a small fortune in creating an artificial paradise, a labyrinth of illusions made specifically to satisfy his delusions as an aesthete, and to arouse the terror of an already suspicious Chiyoko.
Poe’s imprint is quite evident, so much so that a keen eye can find several similarities with a short story in particular: who remembers The domain of Arnheim? The central theme is almost the same, the acquisition by the protagonist of a great amount of money and the consequent creation of an immense artificial garden/paradise. However, it is difficult to reduce the topics covered in Panorama Island to a list of mere definitions: the references to external works are varied, the themes rich and deeply rooted in the author’s style, even if in this case they are only briefly mentioned.
As the editor points out in the introduction to the translation, the presence of the concept of doppelgänger should not be surprising: this was a tool widely exploited by several authors, so much so that we could mention one immediately, whose name is well known to the international public: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, with his novel entitled The story of Tomoda and Matsunaga, published in the same year as Panorama Island (1926).
The Taishō period (1912-1926), despite being one of the shortest periods in Japanese history, is also one of the densest, characterized by a social estrangement that in the literary field determined the wide use of elements originating from the visual arts and science, including medicine – for example, translations of psychopathology texts have been circulating in Japan since the 1910s. The descriptions of “nervous” and hysterical sensitivities, of perceptions deviated by technology and so on took on great importance: in particular, the theme of the kaleidoscopic projections of the ego began to appear with increasing frequency, which can be read as double, alter ego, personality overlaps and, eventually, even doppelgänger. Tanizaki is also closely connected with Ranpo for the story The golden death (1914), which refers to the need of collecting works of art until this flows into the aesthetics of narcissism, in other words making one’s self a sublime artistic object.
It took me a few pages to fully immerse myself in this story and savor it as it deserves; accustomed to a more direct and concise Ranpo, I found the beginning a little slow and dispersed. But as I went on reading, the initial indecision was replaced by curiosity for the plot and the desire to understand how it would end. Knowing the author, I expected an ending worth of fireworks – and I wasn’t disappointed.
See you to the next lunch break.
Marsilio, Letteratura universale
Italian translation by Alberto Zanonato
I ed. 2019, pp. 186
Overall impression: ★★★★☆