October 8, 2011


Filed under: books, Japan — theresaurus @ 11:34 am

From Lemon by Kajii Motojiro, translated by Robert Ulmer:

“Decrepit neighborhoods were the landscapes I favored and within them it was not the impersonal main roads that I found more congenial but the shabby back alleys with their grimy laundry hanging out to dry and paths of scattered trash. Peeking in the windows of the squalid rooms that faced the alleyways gave me pleasure as well.

“When I was in better shape, I loved to spend time in department stores like the Maruzen, with its shelves filled with imported goods. Red and yellow bottles of eau-de-Cologne and eau-de-quinine. Amber and jade-colored perfume flasks of fanciful cut glass in embossed rococo patterns. Pipes and pocket-knives, soaps and tobacco. After an hour of careful scrutiny, I would extravagantly purchase a single pencil of the finest quality. Now, however, Maruzen had become an oppressive, stifling place.

“Then I wandered down Teramachi to Nijo Avenue, finally coming to a halt in front of a greengrocer’s. … The greengrocer’s was especially beautiful at night. … Its awning jutted out like the visor of of a cap pulled down over the eyes. … Viewed from the street, where the naked bulbs sent spirals of light burrowing into my eyes, or from the second-floor window of the coffee-shop across the way, there were few other sights of Teramachi that inspired me as this one did. … This particular day, I took the unusual step of making a purchase there. For something was on sale — lemons. … Time and again, I brought the fruit up to my nose to capture its scent.

“How I arrived there I do not know, but suddenly I realized I was standing in front of the Maruzen department store. … Yet, for some reason, the sense of well-being that had filled my heart began to vanish the moment I stepped inside. The rows of perfume and tobacco left me cold. … I made my way to the art-books section. … As if bewitched, I compulsively pulled down book after book, gave each a quick glance, then moved on to the next without returning even one to the shelf. … The last book I chose was one of my favorites, a huge gold-colored collection of the work of Ingres. … In the past, I had leisurely leafed through books such as these, savoring the strange contrast between their beautiful illustrations and the dull surroundings. Why did they no longer attract me?

“With a start I recalled the lemon tucked in the sleeve of my kimono. If I were to try placing it atop of this jumbled collection of colors, what then? … I randomly stacked the books in a tower, roughly dismantled it, then threw it together again. … Controlling the trembling in my heart, I carefully placed the lemon upon the castle’s peak. … Amid the musty air of Maruzen, this spot alone seemed to possess a strange tension. I stood there for awhile, just gazing at the tower.

“A ticklish feeling came over me. ‘Should I? Why not!’ I briskly left the building.”

I used to love Maruzen, the ambiance, its Meiji-Taisho foreign exoticism. The fountain pens, Burberry raincoats and umbrellas, wonderful collection of art and photography books, the smell of coffee and hayashi beef from the coffee shop. I haven’t been there for a long time, it’s not fun anymore. The foreign language section shrinks with every passing year, prices don’t reflect the actual exchange rate. You need to take out a loan to buy a magazine. The last time I was there I looked at the prices and briskly left the building.


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