With Japanese literature as commercially successful as it has ever been — and unarguably more diverse — a collection of exciting new writing is almost guaranteed to be a success. That’s why publisher Motoyuki Shibata and translator Ted Goossen were eager to get their literary magazine, which originally ran until 2017 under the name Monkey Business, back up and running.
Monkey Vol. 1: A Monkey’s Dozen, by various contributors
MONKEY: NEW WRITING FROM JAPAN
For its launch, the magazine has a new name, Monkey, and a roster of well-known contributors: writers such as Hideo Furukawa, Aoko Matsuda and Hiroko Oyamada; and translators including Jay Rubin, Jeffrey Angles and Lucy North.
It’s a tall order to produce a magazine that is equal parts ambitious, literary and entertaining, and an even taller one for it to contain multiple stories that strike gold. So it’s vindication for fans of Japanese literature and a joy to anyone who loves to read that Monkey’s first volume most definitely delivers.
With minimal editorial interjections, a loose structure and a food theme in the mid-section, Monkey seems closer to an anthology than a magazine. It serves up a mix of contemporary stories, modern poetry and writings from North America, as well as a conversation between Haruki Murakami and Mieko Kawakami, a premodern play and a comic strip.
Monkey contains very sophisticated stories, and the magazine’s greatest triumph is making literary writing fun to read. Furukawa’s meditation on channeling Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Jordan A.Y. Smith, probes into what literary influence means and how stories impact lives. Makoto Takayanagi’s prose poems, translated by Michael Emmerich, latch on to metonymy and symbolism in singular concepts — a wall, the albatross, the dark side of the moon — to uncover layers of hidden meaning and narrative.
To balance out the complexity, there is also play. Matsuda’s short-short “Dissecting Misogyny: A Live Demo!” (translated by Polly Barton) is violent yet hilarious; Hiroko Oyamada’s “Something Sweet” (translated David Boyd) experiments with food, sickness and frogs; and Naoya Shiga’s “The Razor” (translated Ted Goossen) cuts with its knife-sharp twist.
“We cater to readers who are looking for something less serious and still literary,” says Shibata. “The prose of newer writers reads much more like music and is fun to read. The only excuse we can offer to readers is that we love this work.”
The highlight of the magazine is Kyohei Sakaguchi’s story “Forest of the Ronpa,” translated by Sam Malissa. Told from the perspective of a rat, Sakaguchi’s contribution is one of the most creative stories I’ve come across in English this year, as the rat protagonist embarks on a journey across the sea and grapples with its dreams, destiny and hunger. Malissa translates Sakaguchi with sensory and hyperbolic prose, creating a feeling of messianic dread evoked by few other stories.
Heartfelt, family-oriented entries about food and eating round out this enjoyable collection. Not every story is exceptional and none of the writing is straightforward. But overall, Monkey presents what I know Japanese contemporary literature can be at its best — wild, dizzying fun.