One Hundred Years of Vicissitude is a dark, funny but also subtly serious book set between life and death. It tells the tale of a purgatorial tour through 20th century Japanese history, with Kohana—a ghostly geisha who has seen it all—as the guide and a corrupt millionaire (the narrrator Wolram) as her reluctant companion.
Here is a teaser of what to expect from the novel, which will be published on October 26 through Perfect Edge Books.
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There I was, loafing back in the familiar cradle of the couch, with a hot toddy in one hand and my feet up on a medieval footstool. My head rested on a soft pillow and I even had on nice woollen socks that Kohana had kindly donated. It would be difficult not to be comfy.
‘Would his lordship like a pipe?’
‘By God—you wouldn’t have one handy, would you?’ Right away, I twigged she was teasing me again. Typical. ‘One of those South American numbers will do fine.’
The enamel case was whisked out of some pocket, sight unseen, the lighter flicked, and I was presented with a cigarette my hostess had pre-lit. Service, with a whimsical smile to boot.
‘Now you’re all battened down,’ she was saying, ‘I think I’m going to assail you with a good lecture.’
‘It’s not regarding my recent behaviour, I should hope?’
‘No, no, a different kind of lecture—a throwaway one on Japanese history.’ Kohana smiled again, facing me. ‘Now, try to imagine me as the teacherly type in a white lab coat, scrawling stuff across a patchy-coloured old blackboard—in green chalk, mainly because I can’t find the nicer yellow or orange pieces.’
‘Is the chalk important?’
‘No, shhh. I write this simple question, circled twice for effect: “What is the oldest novel in the world?” Straight after, I look at you, my star pupil, and await your perspicacious response.’
Kohana looked bothered. ‘Would that be regarding the novel, or the word “perspicacious”?’
‘May I opt for both?’
She blew out her cheeks. ‘Moving along, if you were to toe the Anglo-Saxon line, you might end up clutching at a name like Shakespeare.’ Here I threw up my hand, as I felt I had something solid to add to the conversation. ‘Yes, Wolram?’
‘Dubious, to be sure, Miss—I know there’s something older. By Chaucer? Please don’t tell me it’s Thomas Malory’s Arthurian drivel.’
‘You’d be backing the wrong horse, either way. They’re too recent. You could opt for Beowulf—anonymously put down on parchment some time between the eighth and eleventh centuries—but it’s a poem, not a novel, and if the original inscription did fall into the eleventh century, then it’s also too late.’
In spite of the whisky, I was beginning to feel drowsy. Lectures from other people tend to have that effect on me, no matter what the subject matter. This one was feeling particularly dusty.
Kohana, however, was on a veritable roll. ‘The earliest contestants for “prenatal novel” bounce between Satyricon, possibly written by Gaius Petronius in the first century AD, and Longus’ Daphnis and Chloein the second century—yet, while there were a couple of other novels hacked together in archaic Greek and Latin tongues around the same period, these in no way relate to the modern “classic” novel, with more emphasis on character psychology.’
‘Is that so?’ I noticed my nails were getting long and needed a trim.
‘Oh, of course it does.’
‘Wolram, have you heard of this book?’
Now she did sound like a teacher. ‘No,’ I admitted.
‘Then be a darling, shut up, and listen. Here, we have to introduce Murasaki Shikibu. She was a noblewoman at the Japanese imperial court, who composed The Tale of Genji in the early eleventh century, during the Heian period. Murasaki first mentioned the story in her diary—in the midst of an otherwise dull day’s activities—on November 1, 1008. The tale is supposed to have been finished in 1021.’
‘You’ve really done your homework.’
‘Actually, to be honest, I never read the book itself.’
I looked up from my nails. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘It’s enormous, it weighs a ton, and my other excuse is that the original text is illegible to contemporary Japanese.’ She leaned over, performed a theatrical glance to either side, and whispered in conspiratorial fashion: ‘I did, however, read the manga series Asakiyumemishi, which was published in the 1980s. That’s how I brushed up on the story and the characters, though it’s a modern adaptation.’
‘Are you sure that counts?’
‘In my opinion it does—there are thirteen volumes of the manga. Anyway, we’re veering wildly off course. Let’s get back to Murasaki’s original work.’
‘Which you haven’t read.’
Kohana cleared her throat. ‘Exactly. Hang in there. I’ll try to make it quick and painless. This yarn may have taken over a decade to complete, but the ink was dry forty-five years before the Normans invaded England, Harold Rex interfectus est, the arrow through the eye, and all that nonsense. Genji is also the first full-length novel still considered a classic—though some cranky people decry the honourary status, and whether or not Murasaki wrote all fifty-four surviving chapters. The story? Well, while he might be the dashingly handsome son of an emperor, for political reasons—namely, that his mum was a low-ranking concubine—Genji has no hereditary title, and he ekes out life as an imperial officer. As the tale unfolds, we quickly come to realize just how much of a womanizing character this man is, tempered with a debonair edge that leaves the womanized swooning.’
‘As fictional characters do.’
‘Unfortunately, the impact isn’t always mutual. Genji finds the dalliances dull, and sometimes said romps are fatal affairs for his partners. And, in an iddish twist worthy of Oedipus and Freud, our hero has a penchant for his father’s new wife, the beautiful, responsive Lady Fujitsubo, while forced to deal with his own cold, haughty spouse, Aoi no Ue. The Tale of Genji is a mix of James Bond’s bedtime antics, which you would like, with a dash of Don Juan histrionics, which you may not—distilled into a Romeo and Juliet pot-boiler. There’s also kidnap, court intrigue, danger, chronic infidelity, deaths aplenty, and other plot contrivances recently found in dramas on the other side of the Pacific, like that whipped up by the Bill of Deviations.’
‘Unsubtle hint, number two,’ I muttered.
Kohana shrugged. She took my cup from me to refill it, saying, ‘Subtlety tends to be pointless on occasion.’
I recognized the line from one of my business motivation speeches.