SBP Blog

A Japanese childhood explored in "The Silver Spoon"

Peter Goodman - Wednesday, October 07, 2015

We are just now releasing a new translation of Japanese author Kansuke Naka's memoir/novel The Silver Spoon. It is a sharp detailing of life at the end of the Meiji period (1912) through the eyes of a boy as he grows into adolescence.

Naka (b. 1885) was a student of Natsume Soseki and very much involved in the literary movements of his time. He never became a literary giant, but his work was widely admired by other writers.  The Silver Spoon has proved especially popular over the years. It is quite delightful to read. For many Japanese, it evokes an innocent nostalgia with its highly lyrical depictions of children's games and household settings and schoolyards.

But the eponymous silver spoon -- an almost Proustian object described at length in the very beginning of the book -- seems from the outset to suggest that such innocuous items have a bit more heft. They also provoke memories and pain, loneliness, and for Naka especially an enormous frustration at his own awkwardness and inability to fit in. Naka doesn't lack feeling but so often seems trapped in his own mental meanderings, everywhere obstructed by fools (his brother) and tyrants (his teacher).

As is so often the case with Japanese art, much resides below the surface, placed there by a craftsman interested in oblique forms of contemplation.

One side note: The Silver Spoon was my very first exposure to editing Japanese literature. My teacher Etsuko Terasaki asked me to work on her translation draft in 1973, which was published subsequently by Chicago Review Press. How odd that the same book should return to me (a very different me) over forty years later! The scene I remembered from forty years ago -- the last scene in the book -- is just as powerful now in Hiroaki Sato's very different rendering.


We are very grateful to Prof. Meera Sushila Viswanathan for the following comments, a portion of which was used on the back cover of our printed edition. Space did not allow us to reproduce the entire review, but we are happy to do so here:

Over the last four decades, English-speaking aficionados of modern Japanese literature have delighted in the numerous translations, both of prose and poetry, undertaken by the masterful hand of translator, essayist, and poet Hiroaki Sato. Characterized by a disarming simplicity of diction and form, these translations as a whole exude a freshness and immediacy that cannot but rouse us from our literary torpor.

The most recent offering by Mr. Sato is a marvelous new translation of the early twentieth century writer Kansuke Naka's iridescently poignant evocation of recollected childhood, The Silver Spoon (Gin no Saji). Naka's narrative hovers between and among many genres: autobiography, fairy tale, reminiscence, Bildungsroman and lyrical reverie, possessing a delicacy and vulnerability that enrapture and devastate the reader in turn. In Sato's nuanced and subtle rendering, we, as readers, re-experience the strange fluidity of a child's tentative apprehension of the looming world around, that wondrous and unsettling sense of discovery amid the flux.

Sensory perception, the exploration of inchoate emotional terrain, the surreal vistas provided by art, religion and the beauty of the natural world, though experienced bodily, all assume an uncanny and unpredicated air in this work. The child's world though ostensibly grounded in the familial reverberates around the unfamiliar at every stage, underscoring the isolation and loneliness that haunts so much of childhood, or even more the portrait of childhood recollected by the adult artist. Just as Naka's work is said to embody that much vaunted quality in Japan of makoto or "truthful sincerity," so too does Sato's deft translation compel us to confront with honesty the ironic pathos inherent in those irresistible and discomfiting memories of childhood that form the basis of art.

Meera Sushila Viswanathan
Professor of Comparative Literature
Brown University

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