Yumiko Kurahashi’s The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q (1969) is unlike any anti-Communist novel I have ever read, probably because it is a surrealist Japanese satire of Communism written by a female author, and there is reason to assume it is the only such book in existence. That pile of characteristics doesn’t occur together very often. For one thing, Japanese literature has no tradition of satire. I did not realize this until I read it in the translator’s introduction (“only deviations from accepted socials norms have tended to be the objects of criticism . . . where there have been attempts at satire in the twentieth century . . . one gets a stronger sense of personal grievance than of objective criticism”), and if he says it, I suppose it’s true. I have heard that Americans visiting Japan are warned not to speak hyperbolically because they are liable to be taken literally, and it is difficult to imagine satire without exaggeration. And while I hardly want to suggest that women never write anything but straightforward tales of flirtation and family, I can’t think of many great female novelists who are as political as Arthur Koestler or as experimental as Donald Barthelme, and I can think of no others who are both at the same time.

The novel takes place in the H Reformatory, where Q has been sent to serve as an instructor and, as a secret member of the Sumiyakist Party, to bring about a class revolution. (Sumiyakism is a stand-in for Marxism; the word translates to “charcoal-burners,” the same as “carbonari” in Italian.) His party training has taught him to anticipate the usual obstacles: the students and the menial staff, for instance, are illiterate, apolitical, and listless, and not at all interested in listening to him explain the tenets of historical materialism. His roommate, a theologian whose skin is red and crusty from constant self-flagellation, refuses to give up his irrational belief in God. His friend the literary instructor is more interested in writing an experimental pornographic novel than in observing the oppression around him. The one-eyed Doctor seems strangely well-read in the principles of sumiyakism, but considers it utter bunk. And the rector, who presides over all of them, is an obscenely fat man whose motto turns mens sana in corpore sano on its head: “An obese mind in a corpulent body.” Which takes on new shades of meaning when Q realizes that the meat served in the school cafeteria is harvested from reformatory “graduates” preserved in the Doctor’s freezer.

But these are not the obstacles to revolution that make Q so troubled or the reader so curious. The first interesting problem is that Q, who wishes to overthrow the school’s oppressors, can’t figure out who the oppressors are, if indeed any exist. There is an official calling himself “the overseer,” but it does not take long to notice that he has no power. He will occasionally inform Q of minor bureaucratic rules—like the one against entering the main building through the side door—but he never stops him or reports him to a higher authority, and no one but the overseer seems aware that such technicalities even exist. The rector is a tyrant, but a tyrant who will permit absolutely anything. He tells Q that instructors have no duties and are free to do anything or nothing, and when Q finally confesses that he is at the reformatory to incite a revolt, the rector only says, “Splendid, splendid!” The literary instructor, who has been at the school for a long time and answers Q’s questions about the way things are done there, explains it like this:

“Everything’s permitted here, you see. I suppose one could say with the theology instructor that if God does not exist then everything is permitted; but here it doesn’t matter if God exists or if he doesn’t, since one is free to do everything. The result of making use of this freedom is that the one freedom one does not have is that of knowing what is going on.”

This is philosophical satire. The political satire is where the book gets truly surreal and Marxism comes in for a real pasting. Every week the instructors are required to wager their entire salaries on a game of random chance. The winner of this arbitrary game gets the pot, and also gets to spend the night with the rector’s wife. Clearly the school was run on quasi-Marxist lines before Q ever showed up. But one instructor, with the rector’s permission, has set up a rival to the game by building a dog track on the grounds, where instructors and students are permitted to buy tickets in the betting parlor. Before dog racing can replace the traditional probability game as the school’s economic lifeblood, the impresario wishes to diminish the importance of size and natural gifts as much as possible, ideally with every dog finishing first equal. He has an impressive system of calculations based on each dog’s weight and past performance to determine what sort of “Harrison Bergeron” style handicaps to saddle them with—another step in the direction of Communism. The engineering instructor, who runs the game of chance, objects to this:
“The more you attempt to annihilate these disruptive, accidental factors, the more those factors remaining will take their revenge upon you. Even hastily assuming that you arrive at a situation whereby you can indeed impose such handicapping as you imagine will bring about your overall dead heat, should some accidental happening occur before the finish is reached—such as a dog wrenching its leg and falling, or two dogs running into each other—then your overall dead heat becomes impossible to realize.”

In the end, a sumiyakist revolution does occur, but not the kind that Q anticipated. Buy the book .

For reasons I cannot understand, the Japanese literary establishment’s biggest objection to Kurahashi was that her work was derivative to the point of plagiarism. Presumably they were thinking of different works than this one. Kurahashi admitted to a fondness for mimicry—“My novels are like an onion with one layer of pastiche after another”—but defended it as a necessary form of traditionalism. The translator’s introduction to Sumiyakist Q explains her argument: “Kurahashi said that the motive force behind the writing of her fiction was not that she had ‘something to say,’ but that she wished to create something in a certain style . . . thereby creating ‘imitations’ of these writers which would still be works that were totally her own.” Individuality and fidelity all in one, just as Oscar Wilde explained it . Rather conservative for an experimental novelist. Having understood her point of view, somehow it does not surprise me that in later life Kurahashi was most famous for her translations of Le Petit Prince and Shel Silverstein.

One contradiction remains. Kurahashi said she did not write because she had “something to say,” but if that was true, why write political satire? Sumiyakist Q was not her first venture into that territory. Her first short story to receive any attention, “ Parutei ,” which was written while she was studying for her masters in French literature (thesis subject: Sartre), is about a woman whose boyfriend convinces her to join “the Party” and who then becomes pregnant after a consciousness-raising session with a worker; she eventually leaves the Party on principle. Japanese universities saw violent radical protests in the decade leading up to Sumiyakist Q , and Communists were not a negligible force in national politics. Kurahashi herself lived in Portugal in the years right after Salazar and was forced to flee during the Carnation Revolution. She could not have been indifferent to politics.

The answer may be that she was less indifferent than disillusioned. In Sumiyakist Q , there are rumors of a war between the national government and uncivilized colonial rebels. Q decides that since the Party probably supports the savages as oppressed victims of the current order, he does too. He asks the Doctor for his opinion, and the Doctor says:

“Propositions such as ‘I oppose the war’ or ‘I support the war’ are of the same order as propositions such as ‘I love dogs’ or ‘I hate dogs,’ being empty philosophisms of the metaphysical variety . . . . Were I to say I opposed the war, no doubt this would structure a fixed emotional attitude on your part toward me, but I see no obligation to lend a hand in such a process. War is war, and all that we can do is put forward various hypotheses which aid our awareness of that fact.”

Sumiyakists latch on to radicalism because it “structures their fixed emotional attitudes” in a satisfying way—satisfying, but not satisfactory—and sumiyakists aren’t the only ones whose politics are born this way. There are not many anti-political political satires out there, and almost none that manage to avoid the trap of outright nihilism. That’s just one more way The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q is one-of-a-kind.

Articles by Helen Rittelmeyer


Show 0 comments