A few years ago I started reading a César Aira book late at night after a few long days of work. I was exhausted, but I really needed to clear my head a bit. Plus, it was a new Aira book. The next morning I tried to remember everything I’d read, and I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t simply fallen asleep and simply dreamed it all. It was so strange. I couldn’t trust myself. At the same time, Aira is capable of being so strange I couldn’t rule out that all of the dreamlike images weren’t exactly from the book. There’s more than a bit of that ambiguity in Junichiro Tanizaki’s lovely, dark novella Devils in Daylight, which is just out in J. Keith Vincent’s translation from New Directions.
We meet our narrator, an author named Takahashi, after he’s worked through the night. He receives a call from a friend, Sonomura, imploring him to meet him later that evening. He knows when and thinks he knows where a murder is going to take place later that evening and he’d just love to see it happen: “It is not every day you have a chance to watch a murder happen, and it would be a terrible shame to miss it.”
This might be disturbing coming from most people. However, coming from Sonomura, the thing that disturbs Takahashi most is thinking he’s witnessing his friend descend further into legitimate lunacy.
Sonomura made no secret of the fact that mental illness ran in his family. I had contracted an intimacy with him nonetheless and associated with him in full awareness of how impetuous, how aberrant of mind, and how willful he could be. And yet even I could not suppress my astonishment when he telephoned that morning. This time, it seemed, Sonomura really had been stricken with lunacy.
Takahashi tries to listen to his friend’s story, how he discovered the details of the murder plot (using the codex from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Gold Bug,” Sonomura says he decoded a note that a couple dropped in front of him at a packed movie theater), how he just wanted to witness the murder, and how he’d love to have his friend join in the fun.
But I want to watch it happen, in secret, without any of those involved knowing that I am there. And I would feel a lot better about it if you came with me. Doesn’t that sound more enjoyable than staying home writing a novel?
Takahashi is exhausted. He needs to write for a few more hours and then intends to go straight to bed. No, Sonomura says. Eventually Takahashi feels he should go just to take care of his friend who’s obviously losing it. Eventually Takahashi finds himself staring through a knothole as a horrifying and yet invigorating murder plays right in front of him. Maybe.
Devils in Daylight is a lot of fun. Part of this is the excellent plot that continues to surprise well after Takahashi and Sonomura watch a murder as if it’s being projected on a big screen in front of them. The plot takes some queues from Poe’s story, where two men follow a man bitten by a bug made of gold as he seeks a treasure; they fear the man is simply going crazy.
Another reason Devils in Daylight is so delightful is the exceptional translation and tone. Also taking queues from Poe’s story (which begins, “Many years ago, I contracted an intimacy with a Mr. William Legrad.”), Vincent’s prose is wonderfully formal and fitting for a story of the weird. It juxtaposes Takahashi’s attempts to reason with his inability to articulate what it is he is witnessing and, consequently, feeling. Admitting that his own mental state is probably not up to the task of watching his friend, Takahashi makes us wonder if we’re watching a real story play out or if we’ve got to sleep-deprived, crazy men running around the streets, perhaps simply catching the latest picture show.
Playful, with plenty to explore about the burgeoning art of the cinema, Devils in Daylight is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in months.