Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2016

Life of a Counterfeiter (2014), by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Michael Emmerich

Life of a Counterfeiter Late last year, I found myself unable to resist the tantalising reviews at Winston’s Dad and JacquiWine’s Journal,  and so I lashed out and bought myself a subscription to Pushkin Press.  The first title arrived today…

It’s a selection of three short stories by Japanese author Yasushi Inoue (1907-1991) but the story that gives the selection its name is at 82 pages by far the longest.  Life of a Counterfeiter is ostensibly about a journalist’s failure to fulfil a commission to write a biography of a famous painter called Keigaku, but it becomes a quest to find out more about Keigaku’s forger, a man called Hösen.  The lives of both men are difficult to trace, but the narrator finds the forger a more captivating subject.  Through his research he learns that Hösen was very clever at avoiding detection, and that he had wasted his genuine talent as an artist even though he probably made more money selling famous poor quality fakes than he would have selling his own good quality artworks.  Hösen was also a keen hobbyist in the art of making fireworks, and yearned to create one that is a perfect semblance of a bell flower.

The prose is spare and simple, and the narrator’s voice is self-aware and introspective.  Occasionally he is quite hard on himself.

After the war, my feelings came to be dominated by an odd reluctance to embark again on a once-failed project, and while I knew I had no choice, insofar as I had taken the job, my acute awareness of the particular annoyances I would face made it hard to pick myself up and do what had to be done.  What’s more, when the war ended, I had – quite out of the blue, even from my own vantage – quit my post at the newspaper, moved to Tokyo, and plowed (sic) headfirst into the world of literature, so that all my time was occupied by writing of that nature; thus, what with this and that, I allowed my work on the biography to languish, putting it off until tomorrow, then the next day, with the result that even now, after all these years, I have yet to produce anything beyond that incomplete timeline, littered with blanks, and two or three notebooks of fragmentary jottings.

So the situation stood.  The realisation that I had now failed to produce the biography in time for even the thirteenth anniversary of Keigaku’s death made me feel so ashamed of myself and my endless procrastinating, with respect both to the Onuki family and to the deceased himself, that I really could not have faced them; and so, ever since I received the announcement, I began to think that this year, at last, I absolutely had to cobble together at least the semblance of a biography, so that I would at least have half carried out my responsibility, and be free of that burden.  (p. 16)

However this guilt turn out not to be enough to keep him on task for very long! Hösen is a much more interesting man – and that’s because he’s a flawed human being compared to the rather anodyne Keigaku.  Research into the forger’s activities is much easier too.  Along the way, the narrator ponders the intrinsic value of real versus fake (as so many have in the world of art) and also explores the whole problem of fact and fiction in biography.  The story concludes with the narrator  resolving afresh to get on with the biography, but it doesn’t look promising:

These past two days, during which I added nothing to the biography of Keigaku, and sat staring out at the slopes of Mt. Amagi, the red crape (sic) myrtle in the corner of the garden suddenly lost most of its blossoms, colored so that they recall an earlier age, and at the same time, just like that, the white crape (sic) myrtle burst into bloom; the summer clouds that welled up constantly over the ridge of the mountain seemed – though I may have been imagining it – to have changed into autumn clouds, gliding along so slowly you could barely tell they were moving at all.  Looking at the calendar, I realised that it was indeed the first day of autumn. (p82)

(I really do not understand why an English publisher inflicts American spelling on its readers.  Plowed?  Crape?  It grates).

This is a calm and measured story.  There is little action, and as usual in the Japanese literature that I’ve read, there is a strong sense of restraint.  I suspect that perhaps there are semi-autobiographical elements in this story, and likewise I am quite sure that the story is full of Japanese myth and symbolism that has escaped me entirely.  Never mind, the only way to get to know another literature is to read it.  I have Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe on my TBR – I shall see how I get on with that…

Read Tony’s review too….

Author: Yasushi Inoue
Title: Life of a Counterfeiter
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781782270027
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: Life of a Counterfeiter


  1. Another nice story, although I’d say of the three ‘The Hunting Gun’ is the best (I posted on this, comparing two different translations, a while back). The American spelling is probably because the translator is American, and it seems these days that British publishers aren’t quite as keen on changing the spelling as was the case in the past. Many presses actually mandate a kind of transatlantic English with American spelling and as many idiosyncracies as possible ironed out…


    • I haven’t got The Hunting Gun: the other two are Reeds and Mr Goodall’s Gloves. Reeds is about memory and MGG explores identity. I quite like them, but of course I’ve missed most of the allusions.
      Most of the time I can tolerate American spelling, but plow and crape somehow look so banal spelt this way… as if an eight-year-old has attempted them phonetically. ‘Ax’ is another one that grates … it just looks wrong.


      • By the three, I meant the three books in the series (the other two being ‘The Hunting Gun’ and ‘Bullfight’). With Inoue having writing a lot of short fiction, I do wonder if Pushkin and Emmerich will get around to more of his work any time soon…

        Recently, I’ve been more annoyed by other Americanisms – ‘dove’ instead of ‘dived’, ‘shined’ instead of ‘shone’ and ‘lighted’ instead of ‘lit’ are examples of common verb usage which grate ;)


        • LOL we’d better stop this, our American friends may feel we are picking on them!


  2. I’m the same about American spellings – they really annoy me. Gotten is one that makes me really unhappy… But putting that aside, very jealous of yr Pushkin sub – I’m sure it will bring you many delights!!


    • Yup, I dislike ‘gotten’ too. It’s becoming common here in Australia, so I suppose we can’t complain.
      Re the subs: I used my money from the Stonnington Festival to pay for it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear, yet another Japanese book that is calling my name..


    • Aren’t we bloggers terrible, the way we all have this insidious effect on each other’s TBRs? As fast as we try to control them, we read another review that we just can’t ignore….


  4. Sounds like you’re off to good start with your Pushkin Press subscription, Lisa! Oddly enough, I’ve just read another Inoue, The Hunting Gun (as mentioned by Tony in an earlier comment). It’s very good, distinctly Japanese in its themes, and I can see similarities with the story you’ve reviewed here. “Restrained” is a good description for the style.


    • I think I first used it to describe that short story collection called Revenge…


  5. I have been tempted by Pushkin Press also. The books look so interesting. I know I will give in one time. This book sounds interesting and I will look forward to what other ones you get in over the year.


    • I’ll do my best to review them all:)


  6. This book looks really fascinating – I’ve made some great discoveries from Pushkin Press and this sounds like it will appeal to me too…


    • Hello Clare, I like the sheer variety of authors from around the world that comes from Pushkin.

      Liked by 1 person

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