Irreverent, insightful, at times beautiful as well as just plain fun, I Am a Japanese Writer is a novel about writing a novel, the contemporary publishing scene, the poet Basho, Montreal, race, identity, cultural politics, and well…life.
Written in 2008, I am A Japanese Writer was translated from the French by David Homel and recently released in the U.S. At this point I want to tell you that Laferriere was born in Port au Prince in 1953 and makes his home in Montreal, but I have the novelist’s voice in my ear: “I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Geothe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Seghor, Cesaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot—they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, ‘Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French language writer?’ I answered without hesitation. I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer” (14).
The novel, just under 200 pages and written in short titled chapters, starts off at a lightning pace…it’s dazzling to read a novelist with a voice as fresh Laferriere’s, and David Homel deserves kudos for capturing it in English. We follow Laferriere-- the writer’s alter ego, that is—as he traverses Montreal—on subway or by foot, with Basho as his companion, being treated all the while to his rich interior monologue. Given Laferriere’s resistance to pigeon-holing, it’s easy to see how the title is decided upon, and then once given and accepted—welcomed—by his publisher, he’s off, and the reader along with him, in search of a novel. First up: finding a Japanese character, or group of characters (a hip young group is decided on), and then, “a novel needs a death” which is soon provided by an unexpected suicide…One of the richest aspects of the novel is the interest the Japanese Consulate takes in this (not yet) novel with the arresting title. The sleuthing that ensues is richly comic, and well, worthy of a Japanese novelist. In this era of Murakami (this week sees the release of the American edition of his opus 1Q84 and suddenly Murakami profiles and reviews are everywhere), and to a much lesser extent, writers like Banana Yoshimoto and Natsuo Kirino, it’s understandable why Japanese is settled on, in the same way, thanks to Stieg Larsson, one might say, “I am a Swedish Crime Novelist” if one were writing mysteries. In fact, Murakami is given a nod in the novel, but it is Mishima and more so, Basho, whose sensibility guide it: “My intention is to live like Basho this time. Underneath a banana tree. But the winter is too harsh”(139). Indeed within the oddness of Laferreire’s quest and world, there are moments of poetry, beauty and tranquility. This is not a novel where quirkiness and zaniness rule for sake of it; rather, the novel offers a multiplicity of tones, textures, characters and scenarios. But it is the sensibility of the novelist—now like Basho, now like Murakami, always most essentially Laferriere--that prevails.