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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q

Kurahashi Yumiko

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Title: The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q
Author: Kurahashi Yumiko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 1979)
Length: 373 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q - US
The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q - UK
  • Japanese title: スミヤキストQの冒険
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Dennis Keene

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Our Assessment:

B : has some off-beat appeal

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q is an odd novel, a mix of satire, dystopia, and political critique. The story centers on the eponymous Q. He got in a spot of trouble with the law -- he was accused of a "crime against public security" (which he is not guilty of) and remains in a legal limbo of sorts, as he remains: "a quasi-defendant whose case may be reopened at any time". He is, in fact, guilty of another, minor crime -- appropriating public funds -- but even though he has confessed to that, no one is interested in pursuing charges against him about that. Q did have to resign from his position working for the Economic Planning Bureau, and the novel begins with him arriving to take up the position of an instructor at a reformatory on an island.
       The reformatory is a surreal place. For one, little teaching (or reforming) goes on there. Indeed, instead, pretty much everything goes. As one of the other instructors explains to Q:

Everything's permitted here, you see. I suppose one could say with the theology instructor that if God does not exist then everything is permitted; but here it doesn't matter if God exists of if he doesn't, since one is free to do everything. Certainly the result of making use of this freedom is that the one freedom one does not have is that of knowing what is going on.
       Indeed, Q only slowly gets the lay of the land, and learns some of what is going on here -- much of which is quite disturbing. Given the grotesque figures he encounters -- some obscenely corpulent (a "tub of omniscience" the rector calls his body) and missing their sexual organs -- he perhaps shouldn't be surprised (and he perhaps should have been more wary of the rather sinister Doktor -- who dabbles in the medical but hardly seems much of a physician -- and should have managed to avoid the intrusive procedure he is subjected to). Of course, it's talk of the "time-expired students we put into storage" that should be the most unsettling to him,
       One of the other instructors is 'the literary man', who is trying to write a novel but is so caught up in what he wants his work to be that he doesn't make much headway:
I am trying to write in accordance with a very strict theory of the novel, and anything that is not in accord with my own theory I have to destroy quite ruthlessly. It's a process more like destroying a novel than making one.
       Nevertheless, some of his writing serves as guidance to Q in navigating this odd world and its characters -- though he's never quite sure how much to believe. As is, things consistently turn out to be near unimaginably worse than he initially is willing to consider. The generally cheerful anything-goes attitude of those in charge -- whereby practically nothing is taken very seriously -- leads to rather anarchic conditions (and, ultimately, near-complete chaos); the weird cheery attitude also contrasts nicely with the horrific goings-on.
       Q does find some hold in his ideology: he is a sumiyakist -- a thinly-disguised version of communism -- and this informs his own actions, as well as how he is treated. Once he learns of the true depravity of the place he plans to let the students know what is going on, and expects that to lead to the revolution. Of course, he doesn't really understand the students, either -- there's very little interaction between students and faculty, and for example when a student is sentenced to a punishment he has to inflict it on himself. Q does pen a plan and report, 'A Basic Policy for the Revolutionary Movement at H Reformatory', but the actual student uprising that follows does not quite follow his sumiyakist expectations and hopes.
       "There are walls of abstraction everywhere", the rector says, and Q, like the others, finds himself trapped behind these real and imagined and internal walls. The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q is an existentialist work, influenced by the French nouveau roman and writers such as Abe Kobo, exploring self and society in absurdist terms, and presenting absurd conditions, taken to extremes. Surreal though the tale seems, it remains very much grounded in the (horribly) possible. This world is a grotesque distortion of the real, but it is also too close to it for comfort.
       There is some playfulness with the notion of fiction and writing itself here as well, from the literary man's works to excerpts from what is called Doktor's Notebook, to Q's own attempt to formulate 'A Basic Policy for the Revolutionary Movement at H Reformatory'. Tellingly: "Q, in fact, had never even read one novel", and his belief in the mission of the reformatory -- to reform the students -- as well as his hope to fundamentally reform society itself suggests that his clinging to unrealistic sumiyakism is, in part, a failure of the imagination; familiarity with fiction would certainly have equipped him better for what he faces.
       Q's sumiyakist idealism has him believe:
Surely what we have to do is to take these delinquents, the social refuse that society has spat out, turn them into heroes who will revolutionize society, and then send them back.
       The real world -- of the reformatory, and elsewhere -- is, of course, something else entirely, and everyone else -- students and faculty alike -- know it. Indeed, as the literary man tries to explain to Q:
As far as I know, none of them want to return to society at all.
       Kurahashi's fiction is also experimental, in writing that is intentionally oblique, as well as in its echoes of other works (especially from that decade). Translator Dennis Keene's Introduction addresses some of this -- and also explains why, in trying to convey Kurahashi's effects, he offers an English that: "tends towards artificiality". While not always straightforward, the prose flows smoothly, and there is an appealing off-kilter quality to the descriptions, fitting for the bizarre world and events described here.
       While somewhat of a period-piece -- and, like the literary man's works, too concerned with the theory behind the form (and that theory then too evident in the final product) -- The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q remains of interest, and is a quite accomplished work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 February 2012

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kurahashi Yumiko (倉橋 由美子) lived 1935 to 2005.

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