Filler content in translation – Part 3

Following on from last Thursday’s post, here’s the third and final part of the feature on horror in translation that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-


Japan now and Kazuki Sakuraba’s novel A SMALL CHARRED FACE (Haikasoru pb, 288pp, £10.99) which, at heart, with its depiction of a vampire society with functioning rules combined with human calumny, is arguably more paranormal romance than horror fiction, an oriental version of True Blood. There are three sections to the book, the first and longest of which is titled ‘A Small Charred Face’. In a town ruled by corruption the boy Kyo’s family is slaughtered by gangsters, but he himself is saved by one of the Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. He is raised by Mustah and Yoji, forced to pretend to be a girl so that the gangsters will not come after him again, but none of their precautions prevent Kyo getting involved with Marika, a renegade Bamboo who preys on humans, something that is strictly against their laws. But harbouring humans is even more taboo, and so the stage is set for tragedy. ‘I Came to Show You Real Flowers’ continues the story of Marika, now working with a young girl who is her lure for the humans she feeds on, but as she grows older Momo revolts against her protector’s practises. Finally in ‘You Will Go to the Land of the Future’ we are taken back into the past of the Bamboo, their origin in a remote mountainous region of China. Having lived in harmony with their human neighbours for so long, the Bamboo are taken by surprise when China’s Cultural Revolution pushes them beyond the pale. The tale is told from the perspective of a royal princess who, when the majority of the Bamboo head further inland to avoid persecution, joins a party heading to Japan in a boat, the Bamboo line that was to throw up Yoji and Mustah.

I’ve no idea if the Bamboo are rooted in legend or pure invention on Sakuraba’s part, but the book offers us an interesting variation on the vampire trope. While they share many habits with the occidental vampire – drinking blood, sleeping during the day, burning up in sunshine – the plant aspect gives these creatures a different slant, with their life coming to fruition when they bloom as a flower. Also different is their attitude to humans – mostly they want nothing to do with us and have laws to ensure this isolationism is observed. They can only drink a human’s blood if he or she is already dying, and so must restrict themselves to animal blood or, like Yoji and Mustah, purchase blood from the hospital where they work the graveyard shift (these are blue collar vampires, not aristocratic fops). Even the renegade Marika only attacks those she believes to be criminals, at least initially.

Sakuraba is excellent at working out the implications of the Bamboo’s existence and the ways in which they can interact with humans and each other, while her writing is razor sharp, particularly when it comes to capturing the rare moments of horror. And, as regards the latter, it is mostly the action of humans that cause these things, whether it be the slaughter of Kyo’s family, the general misery and hopelessness of people in the town in which he lives, or the fear of the other that sees the Chinese attack the Bamboo who were once their friends. In the abstract and in practice, the Bamboo treat humans better than we treat each other. For Mustah and Yoji, Kyo’s mortality is a precious thing, something that burns bright inside of him and which they can never share, can only envy, and so they will not convert him to one of their kind no matter how much he wishes it, because they see humans as the superior life form, the one with more potential. As far as vampire lore goes, that is radical, and it provides the perfect cap to this entertainingly different depiction of vampires.

Federico Axat is an Argentinian writer but KILL THE NEXT ONE (Text Publishing Company pb, 416pp, £10.99), his English language debut, is a novel set in America. Ted McKay has everything – a beautiful wife and two lovely daughters, a city house and another in the country, and the investment firm of which he is co-owner is going great guns. Ted McKay has an inoperable brain tumour, and one day when his family are away doing the Disney experience Ted decides to kill himself. Only then a young man turns up at his door to make an offer Ted can’t refuse – if he murders a criminal who deserves to die and then kills another man, somebody who like him wishes to commit suicide, then Ted will be added to a list and, in due course, he will himself be taken care of. Suicide by proxy is a scheme that appeals to Ted, not least because it will spare his family. But how did Lynch know that Ted was about to commit suicide and why did Ted write himself a note telling him to open the door? There are things here that don’t make sense, to either Ted or the reader. And then events start to replay, with some of the details changing and Ted’s reliability as narrator challenged, all of which leads to the book’s revelatory and shocking finale.

Initially I was absorbed by this book, but unsure how Axat would tie all the ends together. Usually I don’t like books of the “it was all a dream” or down to some psychotic interlude type, but Axat makes it work, giving us an intellectual jigsaw puzzle, one in which all the pieces fit together perfectly. The surreal quality of the early events and certain aspects of Ted’s stay at Lavender Memorial hospital, combined with the gruesome dreams that he experiences give the story an otherworldly, almost nightmarish quality. There are moments when it appears to be unconvincing, but in fact these are only clues to what is really taking place. The conflicts that tear Ted apart and have, in reality, alienated his wife, are entirely credible when we learn what has happened to him, and the idyllic fantasy world that he constructs will not endure the cold light of day. Ted himself is an engaging character, somebody who seems calm and in control on the surface, but is seething underneath, a man who has his faults and whom we cannot like unconditionally, but with an explanation that makes us see how he got to be the way he is. Adding extra depth to the character is his relationship with his estranged wife and children, the love shining through, and the passion for chess that he had as a child which is key to unravelling the things that happened so long ago in the formative years of his life. The events from his childhood add a chilling element to the story, with a pitch perfect portrayal of a serial killer going about his business.

The only reservation I have is in the depiction of Laura Hill, Ted’s doctor – I was taken with her desire to heal Ted, but at the same time found some of her methods, particularly with regard to soliciting favours from her superior at the hospital, to be uncomfortably manipulative. The relationship between Hill and supervisor Marcus doesn’t ring true for who they are, seems rather more like sitcom fodder than thriller. It’s a minor point though, and doesn’t spoil what has to be one of the cleverest and most absorbing thrillers I’ve read in recent years, with enough ghoulish grace notes to justify an interest for horror readers. And in the book’s epilogue Axat adds a final twist, one that invites us to question the veracity of everything that has gone before, a masterstroke that pushes the novel out of the psychological thriller category and into one having to do with the true nature of reality, so that some of the scenes in the mental hospital assume great significance. I loved it.

In closing a shout out to the translators of these books – in order they are Carlos Frías, Mike Mitchell, Imogen Taylor, Marlaine Delargy, Jocelyne Allen, and David Frye.

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