Born in 1907, Yasushi Inoue was 42 when he published his first work in 1949. He then proceeded to become an incredibly prolific writer, with somewhere around 50 novels and 150 short stories under his belt by the time he died in 1991. Recently, Pushkin Press has been publishing some of his earlier, shorter works, including his two earliest: Bullfight and The Hunting Gun (Bullfight went on to win the Akutagawa Prize). Most recently Pushkin has published Life of a Counterfeiter (1951; tr. from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich, 2014), the story of man who, while tracking the life of a genius becomes more fascinated by the life of a forger.
It took only the first paragraph of Life of a Counterfeiter for me to feel that I should have a long, happy literary relationship with Inoue. The narrator begins with a confession:
Nearly a decade has passed since the Onuki family first asked me to compile a biography of the painter Onuki Keigaku, and I have yet to complete it.
As it happens, the narrator has a good excuse for why things got delayed. Keigaku died in 1938. In 1942, the family first reached out to this potential biographer saying that they were not in any particular hurry, but they’d like to present the completed biography upon the seventh anniversary of their father’s death in 1945. The war intervened, and no one pressured the narrator during that time (“both the Onuki family and I were in such frantic straights that the biography was nowhere in our thoughts”). But once the war was over, the Onuki family contacted him again, asking him if he could write the biography, and, if so, to do so as quickly as possible, “the project could no longer be allowed to languish.” Now, once per year, they reach out to him to see how he’s progressing. Poorly, but he always buys some time by spouting off some excuse.
In some way, he believes the excuses that he doesn’t tell the family: their father’s life is far from straightforward. He seemed to be close to no one, so how on earth can he write the biography? Nevertheless, he’s decided it’s now time. And yet, again he is thrown off track almost immediately when he finds mention of that elusive person: someone apparently close to Keigaku. When looking through Kaigaku’s diary from 1897 to 1899, the narrator keeps running into the name Shinozaki. Then, suddenly, it stops.
Thinking back on research he’d done and, in particular, on a trip he made where he discovered in every house he visited some forged Keigaku paintings, the narrator realizes that this Shinozaki, apparently a close friend of the great painter, was also known as Hara Hosen, the disgraced counterfeiter.
As the title suggests, this book is hardly concerned with the great painter but rather with his friend who, talented in his own right, destroyed that friendship (and others) by creating and then selling counterfeit paintings. What does it mean when someone uses their creative powers to copy someone else? What do those copies mean to those who purchase them? The answers are not here; indeed, they are barely explored. Rather, what we have is a personal relationship to a wretched dead man, a relationship that begins to provide stability, perhaps like the art itself:
Needless to say, I kept quiet about the pictures, revealing their secret neither to the Ogamis nor to the village head. I had absolutely no desire to push unwanted information upon people who believed they owned a painting by Keigaku at a time when the very survival of the nation was in doubt. In all likelihood, their Hosen-Keigaku forgeries would never leave this mountaintop village; for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years, they would pass from hand to hand, from one person who had never even heard of Onuki Keigaku to the next. This wouldn’t change, no matter what became of the country, I though. And all of a sudden, I felt — though the feeling lasted only as long as the thought — that I was in the presence of something eternal.
I appreciate that that final thought is brief, dismissed quickly because, after all, Hara Hosen is a pathetic man, whose life is a catalog of seemingly needlessly desperate acts that continued to alienate him from his family and community. And yet, in Life of a Counterfeiter the forger’s quiet moments of work and creation are allowed to come to the fore, making the character more tragic than pathetic. Keigaku’s paintings are — and the narrator always remains firm on this — better than any of Hosen’s forgeries, but there’s also no doubt that Hosen’s life, or what we sense from it, is a more profound piece of art.
This edition of Life of a Counterfeiter also comes with two other Inoue stories, “Reeds” and “Mr. Goodall’s Gloves,” two related stories about the narrator’s childhood when he was raised by Kano, a woman he calls his “grandmother” though she was actually his great-grandfather’s mistress. Each story, with the kind of light touch I appreciate, looks at small moments — the grandmother sitting on the beach, the grandmother receiving a pair of gloves — and uses that moment to reveal the tender relationship at their heart, a relationship that is already part of the past and that even back then was rich with the effects of Kano’s own past.
Life of a Counterfeiter suggests that Inoue was sensitive to the inner lives of his characters, that as pathetic or meaningless as they may appear on the outside these individuals swim in the same sea of time as the greatest and often in more interesting patterns.