Japan's Unlikely Love Affair With 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude'
In spite of the thousands of miles and cultural distances between Colombia and Japan, Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece has become a national treasure among Japanese readers and artists.
BOGOTÁ — For any self-respecting Japanese drinker, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the name of an exclusive and costly malt liquor made to a century-long recipe. Call it retail opportunism, even sacrilege, but the constant recurrence of this title across the world's third economy is evidence of Japanese respect for the eponymous novel's author, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the first Colombian writer to win the Nobel prize in literature.
The Japanese edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, translated by Tadashi Tsuzumi, was first published by Shinchosha in 1972. The publishers initially printed 4,000 copies, followed by 96 successive editions, with 275,000 copies printed by 2006. A spokesman for the publisher described the output as "outstanding," considering Japanese readers' general lack of enthusiasm for foreign literature.
After García Márquez won the Nobel prize in 1982, the book became required reading in Spanish faculties and it can be found today in any public library in Japan. It is usually placed with the classics, far from the latest literary trends.
It is easy to discern the influence of One Hundred Years of Solitude on contemporary Japanese culture. Playwrights, film producers and writers have enthusiastically described their encounter with Garcia Márquez's main work, which some have described as an epiphany.
Among the immortals.
The celebrated author Kobo Abe (1924-1993) said his literary life could be divided into "before and after" reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. He said in a speech in 1983 that García Márquez was not strictly Latin American, and his literary universe was better described in terms of time rather than geography. He cited his own, peculiar remedy for his countrymen's "excessive" seriousness, which was to stimulate the right side of his brain by eating spicy food. To properly enjoy One Hundred Years of Solitude, he said, the Japanese should eat sushi; the spiciness of the wasabi would perfectly complement the work of the Colombian author.
Years after his death, Abe's widow said that after reading the book, her husband entered into a period of depression and writers' block that lasted until 1982. He recovered only after García Márquez won the Nobel prize, since he considered the Colombian author was now "among the immortals' and ceased to be Abe's direct competition.
Another reputed Japanese writer, Natsuki Ikezawa, says that without García Márquez, he would never have paid attention to Latin American literature, and that without One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would not have written his own novel, The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matias Guili. The novel is set in a fictional Pacific island called Navidad, which, like the town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a universe unto itself, with allegories that try to explain modern Japan.
Ikezawa considers himself to be a promoter of Latin American literature in Japan, and when Japanese publishers ask him to select works for world literature collections, García Márquez tops his list of Spanish-language writers.
The most ambiguous and problematic relationship between a Japanese author and Macondo was undoubtedly that of the poet, filmmaker and theater director Shuji Terayama (1935-1983). The experimental writer, who touched on a range of genres, adapted One Hundred Years of Solitude for the big screen. But his version failed to convince García Márquez, who did not allow him to use the book's title for the film's commercial release.
The movie was re-edited and screened at the Cannes Festival in 1985 as a posthumous work of Terayama, with the title Saraba no Hakobune, or Farewell to the Ark. Like Ikezawa's universe, Terayama's Macondo is infused with Japanese folk culture as it depicts García-Márquez-ian situations: the disappearance of all the town's clocks, notes stuck on objects to identify them, or a woman punished with a chastity belt shaped like a crab.
Without One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would not have written his own novel.
García Márquez visited Japan in October 1990 as a guest of the Japan Foundation to open the Latin American Film Festival. On the eve of his arrival in Tokyo, I received a phone call from Spanish television to tell me he was going to meet with the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa to finalize details of a film based on his novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch. The meeting took place at Tokyo's Okura hotel, but when García Márquez came out, my team and I noted that he was both too excited from drinking sake for an on-camera interview, and annoyed by the ambiguous response of the Japanese director, who at 80, said he was too old to film in Colombia but reluctant to set the story in Japan.
We Spanish speakers who attended the festival still treasure the memory of the ever-pertinent words of García Márquez's inaugural speech.
He said, "Many years ago, when I was young and handsome, I visited Paris. I saw a Japanese man for the first time in my life. He seemed so remote and inscrutable that I asked a Chilean friend who accompanied me, "What the devil is this man doing so far from home?" "The same as us," my friend said. "Paris is as far from Tokyo as it is from Buenos Aires." I learned that day that the longest and most difficult distances are not geographical, but cultural."