“Eating and spitting, spitting and eating…”

The two novellas by Kanoko Okamoto I posted about this week, A Riot of Goldfish and The Food Demon, are not what you would call heavy on plot. Some stuff does happen, just not a whole lot, and most of the action occurs in the past. In A Riot of Goldfish, a middle-aged Mataichi reflects on his life in flashes that cover, unevenly, everything from childhood to the present. Besshiroo does almost the exact same thing in The Food Demon, though David Mitchell describes the former novella’s structure as “a downward diagonal” while the latter “is a loop.”

I’m not completely sure I agree with that assessment—it seems they are both similarly looplike—but in any case, Besshiroo views his life as a loop as well. His misfortune all stems from the death of his father, an important abbot. Though he and his mother spent his early childhood living well at a major temple, his parents never legally married and after his father died they were thrust upon the kindness of friends and his father’s many protegés. His mother dealt with the situation much better than Besshiroo.

‘The man was like a child. How could anyone blame him?’ she said. And then she told him what his father had said when Besshiroo was born. ‘I’m old and I might not be there when this kid starts to be conscious of the world. He might suffer without me and hate me for bringing him into this accursed world when he never asked for it. But you tell him it was the same with me. I didn’t ask to be born into this world of suffering and be a burden to my parents. So we’re even.’ These words seemed cold, but they also left a strange echo in Besshiroo’s heart that coldness alone could not explain.

The best explanation for that echo is that Besshiroo is his father’s son. Pressured into marrying the plain and quiet daughter of his adoptive aunt, Besshiroo too has a son. His wife, Itsuko, does her best to keep herself and their child out of Besshiroo’s way when he’s at home. The night of the novella, when, “inspired by the sticky darkness of the foggy night, Besshiroo decided to indulge himself in a rare moment of reflection on the life he had led up until then,” he does so during dinner alone, as Itsuko and child eat and go to bed in the next room. For a time, the novella flips between his thoughts and hers. Later, she “seemed to have fallen asleep in the next room, but from time to time when the baby was about to cry she would quieten him by whispering, ‘Daddy’s here. Daddy’s here.'” Daddy has a realization.

For the first time tonight Besshiroo felt pity for his little son, who had already learned to choke back his tears when he hear his mother say this to avoid the wrath of his moody father. His own father had told his mother to tell him he hadn’t asked to be born either if his son ever complained about being brought into this world, and as he thought back on that tonight it seemed like a conclusion his father had reached only after a great deal of thought. Now Besshiroo’s son too was saddled with a fate that he did not understand.

Besshiroo’s father had brought him into the world without understanding why, saying, ‘I didn’t ask for this either,’ and now Besshiroo was oing the same to his son. …All of this reminded him that nothing in this world is over in a single generation. …Like his father had said, we were all entangled with each other.

It may have taken his father years to reach his conclusion, but considering Besshiroo had access to those words from the time he was a child, it shouldn’t have taken him quite so long to catch on. It seems, though, that we must endure, even actively participate in, all this suffering ourselves before we can reach these realizations. And by then we’ll already have trapped so many others in the cycle.

“I do believe it’s true. Your art is tasteful!”

The Food Demon, the second novella reprinted along with A Riot of Goldfish, is also a story about art. Besshiroo longs to be an artist, above all to be called sensei by the high-born, privileged society he spends time with. He has serious talent in one area—cuisine—but in traditional Japan, cooking is not one of the four arts and the only ones who will call Besshiroo by his deserved title are chefs.

He wants to rebel. He keeps trying. He develops an interest in Western culture and tries to differentiate himself as an expert in the area. He has some success: “he managed to gain enough influence to get people to do things that only a very few had tried before, such as conducting a tea ceremony with a table and chairs, or including a few Western dishes in a kaiseki menu.” But one night at a party a poet crushes his dreams with her critiques of his art.

Besshiroo prepares an elaborate test after the poet pans his work as “tasteful.” He will cook a meal for her and her husband designed specifically to appeal to them. It will be a true work of art, and if she fails to recognize it as such, Besshiroo will know he can safely ignore her ideas about his other art. But to Besshiroo’s eternal despair, she agrees with her husband when he says, “I have to tell you that this is your true art.” “I could not agree more,” the poet tells Besshiroo after the meal. “It is not a figure of speech when I say that this meal was a true work of art.”

This is not, however, good news. Besshiroo’s true art is not a true art; his dreams of grandeur as a universally acknowledged sensei will never come to pass. But the very fact that Besshiroo knows the dinner is a valid test of artistic recognition should make this point moot—just as the fact that Besshiroo himself is more interested in combining Western elements with the traditional, thereby changing all Japanese art and culture, than in maintaining the four accomplishments untouched forever.

But you’ll note that it’s in being called a master that Besshiroo is most interested—not in being one. His difficult childhood has left him bitter toward society, especially toward anyone who doesn’t recognize his greatness. You see, this is not the life he deserves—he deserved to be rich and accepted. Still rebelling against the unfairness of life, Besshiroo, like Mataichi of A Riot of Goldfish, ends up with the worst characteristics of the artistic temperament, mistreating his wife and child and caring only about his thwarted projects.

“Goldfish were a force to be reckoned with!”

Kanoko Okamoto’s 1937 novella A Riot of Goldfish, recently reprinted by Hesperus Press along with The Food Demon, is a story of the artist’s desperate quest for beauty. Mataichi, the scion of a goldfish-raising family fallen on hard times, is able to pursue serious studies in aquaculture thanks to a wealthy benefactor whose daughter he is in love with. When the woman, pregnant, marries another man, Mataichi is left with the perfect goldfish as his only dream to pursue.

It’s an unexpected place for him to have arrived, previously considering goldfish “just fragile, slovenly creatures covered in red rags, pulled through the scummy pond water with rough holes torn in their bellies by little water bugs.” He only pursues the family trade because his wealthy neighbor is so personally interested in it. But then, he’d also never been interested in Masako, the beautiful daughter, before one particular incident that stuck in his mind for life: after years of bullying by the bitter child Mataichi, Masako’s “fist shot out of her sleeve and opened to shower him with a face full of cherry petals. ‘How’s that for ladylike?’ —she said, hopping back slightly and then retreating in a burst of girlish giggles.”

A cherry petal remained lodged for a few moments in Mataichi’s throat, and he still feels it tickle him there whenever he thinks about Masako and his love for her. After he leaves Tokyo for his studies, he continues to think of her, “an unstoppable woman who simply blossomed like a beautiful butterfly.” He believes she has no personality, and that “her charm was only of a physiological sort,” like “a mechanical doll that spoke through a special talking apparatus.” But he finds that leaving this doll behind is not easy; at the same time he begins to think differently about goldfish, in which he now sees “the shape of life itself.” “They…blithely brought to bear the real meaning of manliness by swimmingly rearranging life’s priorities according to their own convenience.”

In his loneliness and removal from his old life, Mataichi takes his ideas to a new, more abstract level. Masako and goldfish have been connected in his mind forever, since she used to buy them from him as a child. They become only more inseparable as his thoughts about life and beauty coalesce.

Mataichi’s heart, free from all entanglements, began to think in the space between dream and reality. The half-sacred and half-human creatures of Greek myths are not imaginary. They actually exist. They are alive in the world even today. They are tired of reality and have lost their patience with its violence and vulgarity. Their sensitive natures have made them flee it, but they have too great a life-force to die. Yet they are too childlike and attached to everyday life to become gods or heavenly creatures. So they linger in our world and have their fun. The true home of Masako and those dazzling goldfish lies in the other world, and they just poke their heads into the real world from time to time. Otherwise those beautiful faces, somewhere between the real and the ideal, could never remain so serene.

The goldfish have lost their red rags in Mataichi’s mind. He suddenly understands the centuries-long pursuit of goldfish perfection in Japan. He begins to view goldfish as “seducing and exploiting the weakest of human instincts—the one driven by beauty.” It’s a particular weakness of Mataichi’s, and he at least has been seduced and will be exploited until he is a disliked, cranky old man. The perfect goldfish is even further from the artist’s control than the perfect painting or piece of music, but arriving at it might involve a very similar process.