Yumeno Kyûsaku, Dogra Magra
December 4, 2011 § 3 Comments
Often, reviewers will settle for analogues whenever they are unable to devise an explicit explanation for what a particular story contains in its form and content. For example, “Kafkaesque” and “surreal” are often used to denote works in which the inexplicable is occurring, often in ways that seem to indicate a fatalism that underlies complex and often fractured narratives. It is a handy catch-all, as it allows the reviewer to say with a straight face and with some gravitas that “this shit is weird, fo’ sure.” Yet there are times where such catchphrases are useful shorthands for describing works that defy traditional description. Japanese author Yumeno Kyûsaku’s 1935 novel, Dogra Magra, is one of those novels.
Describing the premise for Dogra Magra will illustrate the problems reviewers have had in attempting to distill its essence in a few pithy comments. Ichiro, the protagonist, wakes up one day suffering from amnesia. He is in a psychiatric ward. He comes to learn, through the eponymous “Dogra Magra,” that he has attempted to kill his fiancée. Yet there is much more to this than just a psychological portrait of what leads one to kill what one loves. Turns out that much of the writing in the middle section is in the form of psychiatric reports written by two doctors who may or may not be characters in Ichiro’s narrative. Furthermore, the narrative fractures into an exploration of Buddhist concepts surrounding karma, particularly how it applies to Japanese culture in the period immediately following World War I, two generations removed from the beginning of the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s rapid industrialization. And if this does not sound complicated enough, Ichiro and a female character may or may not be reincarnated souls that are experiencing the memories and mental anguish of their ancestors.
Yumeno’s novel easily could be a mess, given the elements listed above. Yet it is a strangely coherent novel in which the narrative fractures reflect off of each other to create a fascinating detective novel in which the detective is an apparent criminal (or perhaps a victim of fate) and his search (a word often repeated in the narrative) for understanding leads him further and further down the rabbithole of madness and despair. Ichiro’s entrapment may remind readers of the mysterious imprisonment and trial of Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial. There are certainly some parallels with how Ichiro’s search for his forgotten past resembles Joseph K.’s trial, particularly in how the damning information is revealed and the effect it has on the reader. Yet there are key differences, namely Yumeno’s narrative is even stranger, more weird, than Kafka’s, particularly in how the mechanics of the psychological reports are employed within the novel. These long, oddly clinical accounts, heavily dependent on the then-current Freudian theories of the mind and its impulses, provide a sharp contrast to the portions of the novel told through Ichiro’s perspective. Here we see ideas on how the psyche works clashing with the more metaphysical, philosophical notions expressed by Ichiro and a woman he comes to meet in the psych ward who talks of how ancestral memories may be transmitted through generations to affect (infect?) the descendents. This alternation between the scientific and the Buddhist-influenced folk belief creates a narrative tension in which the boundaries of the “real” become stretched and one is left with a sense of estrangement occurring, as if one is stepping outside the bounds of a traditional plotted novel and into something that is odd, off-kilter, not “true” or “false,” but lying somewhere beyond them.
It is in the latter half of Dogra Magra where this sense of surrealness occurs most often. Before this midpoint, the story does resemble in form and structure a detective novel, albeit one that is odd in that the protagonist seems to be either truly amnesiac or insane. Once the reader manages to process the contents of the psychiatric reports, one begins to question as to whether or not everything is as it seems. Yumeno’s digressions into the ancestral memories, into the repetitive nature of certain memorable (and perhaps infamous) actions, causes the narrative to careen sharply away from earlier reader expectations and toward something that is inexplicable for the reader. Furthermore, there are hints that even those reporting on Ichiro may not be what they seem. This results in a conclusion that loops back, creating what appears to be an infinite loop that alters slightly at its end what it had begun narrating.
Dogra Magra succeeds in creating a sense of alienation and purposeful confusion. The reader, unlike in many detective novels, is no “smarter” than the characters and if anything, they (especially Western readers reading this in French translation – it is not yet available in English translation) are perhaps even more perplexed by what is transpiring than the characters, who seem to take the incipient weirdness in full stride before the narrative almost completely fractures in the latter third of the novel. For those readers who love weird fictions and who can read Japanese or French, Dogra Magra may be one of the best examples of 20th century weird/detective/psychological literature available. It is certainly a novel that will need several re-reads before I am certain that I have gleaned everything essential from it, which perhaps is the greatest compliment that can be paid to this seminal work.