The epistolary novel is in contemporary culture and outdated style. So reading one written in a period when letting-writing was alive and healthy, 1949, may make one think some adjustment in reading is needed. But in Yasushi Inoue’s The Hunting Gun, translated with all its subtleties by Michael Emmerich, he shows that the form can continue to offer new inroads into the novel, into narrative and characters. The Hunting Gun is also a frame tale, and the two styles work to create both intimacy and detachment.
The brief first section is narrated by a poet who published a poem, oddly, embarrassingly, in a hunting magazine, before realizing how disconnected this poem of melancholy beauty is in a magazine celebrating the healthiness of hunting: “the brightly polished hunting gun leaves the imprint of its creeping weight on the middle-aged man, on his solitary spirit, on his body.” After the expected backlash does not come, he receives a letter from a hunter who believes, based on the description and location, that he inspired the poet. The possibility is admitted, but we can’t be certain, as much is vague, and made-up details by the poet are believed to be observed fact by the hunter.
What follows is a confession, the hunter showing the life that led to solitariness, but only through the letters of others. He sends three letters written to him, all goodbyes, letters of love and death, from Midori, his wife, Saiko, his lover, and Saiko’s daughter, Shoko. The hunter’s confession is always shaded and confused, coming from those outside himself. He reveals by admitting what others believe him to be, but hides what he believes himself to be. And at the heart of this is a poem that may only coincidentally suggest him without being him. With this, he uses a pseudonym, Misugi Josuke, and the poet acknowledges: “having him come forward and introduce himself as the the subject of my poem did very little for me: the living, breathing man behind the idea I had formed remained, even now, unknown.”
The three letters are distinct in tone, vary in style, and reveal aspects of three personalities and their relationship with J?suke and each other. It’s a wonderful accomplishment by Inoue, to create three such voices, and Emmerich to translate, without giving them tics or over the top individual styles, but maintaining simple, realistic writing. Shoko is melancholic, written after the death of her mother. She mourns her mother, her relationship with her “aunt” Midori, with Misugi, and she mourns the love between her mother and Misugi. Though it is a goodbye letter and a lament, it is beautiful and it is kind. She is angry that her mother kept this secret from her, lied to a friend, and wants to break from the man behind those lies. Then she writes towards understanding:
What happened between you and Mother has shown me that there is such thing as love no one blesses, love that must not be blessed. [. . .] How could I have imagined a love that stretched out secretly like an underground channel deep under the earth, flowing from who knew where to who knew where without ever feeling the sun’s rays?
The order of the letters, presented without a return to the poet narrator who received them, shades the differences. Following the lover’s daughter is the wife’s letter, so different that she cannot imagine one like Shoko’s, or Saiko’s, “a goodbye letter is what it is, and it will not be a thing of beauty, no matter who the author is.” That may be true for her own letter, but not the other two. Recounting their relationship, her early discovery of the affair, and her own various affairs, Midori is direct and cold: “Here, briefly, is what I desire: our homes in Takarazuka and Yase. Those two will be sufficient.”
Careful to explain that her coldness is a response to how Misugi treated her, Midori wants this goodbye to hurt, wants Misugi to know the truths of her own many affairs. The love she found in them is what makes her letter change tone and become lively, celebratory, “in those days I was in the throes of a fascination with the beauty of speed that made my whole body go numb.” But it would be impossible for Misugi to miss that his wife only found this escape because of his behavior, and that she knew it was an empty one, “that young jockey was lovable only as long as he was perched on Blue Glory’s back.” The lack of fulfillment in these affairs is yet another regret in The Hunting Gun. The poem of melancholy speaks to a man who has become so, and who then passes on the letters that, with their own sadnesses brought his about.
Saiko’s letter, delivered posthumously, closes out the collection. In tone it fittingly falls somewhere between her daughter’s and Midori’s. She writes with a fierceness that shows her capable of being indifferent to other’s pain if it interferes with her own pleasure. As she and Misugi watch the sea out of a hotel window, they see a boat burning, likely with people on it, “yet the horror of it didn’t touch us—we saw only how beautiful it was.” But even as she is capable of swearing to deceive Midori for the rest of her life, Saiko is unable to escape the source of her own dakrness, and sadness. She tells the story of Misugi showing her rows of snakes in cases, explaining that everyone has one inside them. Later, Saiko asks of that snake, “What is this thing we carry inside us—intolerably unpleasant, yet at the same time unbearably sad!”
Though only Saiko identifies her snake, we understand that Misugi is right, and that each of them does have a snake inside them, something unpleasant, but something utterly worthy of compassion. The snake is an absence, a part of them that hasn’t been fulfilled, hasn’t been shown to others and so cannot be handled with the care that could heal it.
It is the complexities of showing and not showing that make the slim Hunting Gun such a beautiful kaleidoscope of confession and hiding. All of the letter writers are not only confessing things about themselves but also about the hunter and each other writer. In each letter, we discover something new about all four people, but only ever from one perspective, and we know how incomplete that is. We get closer and closer to each, while constantly being moved away from true understanding.
The most haunting moment of this comes in Midori’s letter. She tells of the time that, from another room, watching her husband in a glass door turned into a mirror through glancing light, she saw him pointing his hunting gun at her, and wondered if he was imagining killing her. Midori reveals to Misugi that she knows of his possible desire, and we’re drawn in, but never deep enough to know what he was thinking, even though he could explain, if he wrote his own confession.
The kaleidoscope turns around Misugi himself. Each writer sees part of the poetic image of the hunter, the gun, the pipe, the weary walk, the back turned. They witness pieces of him as the poet witnessed him, and have moments where they see one of the other writers in a memorable, detailed, resonant image of their life, which we often see again later, from another perspective.
This is the beauty of The Hunting Gun, the depth of Inoue’s characters, their voices, emotions. In their movement towards and away from one another they are people who are in many ways are opposed to one another, but from our prospective we see them deeply sympathetic to each other, in shared pain, resting in their absent centers. The Hunting Gun makes an epistolary collection wonderfully intricate in three simple letters, framed carefully.