Staff Picks

Pushkin Press and Yasushi Inoue's Life of a Counterfeiter

March 10, 2015


A peek at one of the UK's most outstanding small presses, and a review of a newly-reprinted classic of Japanese literature.

Reviving the Eye For Detail
A little over a year ago while browsing inside of Milwaukee’s Boswell Books, I stumbled upon a handsome little edition of Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, a book I now know to be a masterpiece of 20th-century Hungarian fiction. At the time both title and author were unknown to me, but what made me actually pick the book from off the shelf was the more superficial—the curiously attractive binding and cover design. I held the small paperback, bound in what I now know to be Colorplan wire embossed paper and finished with (and this is the icing for paperback editions) French flaps, totally delighted. For my book-buying standards, there is nothing quite like finding at random a gorgeous paperback by a relatively obscure European author, featuring a story hailed by the publisher as a “classic of 1930s literature.” I immediately bought the book.

Journey By MoonlightSince buying my first Pushkin Collection edition, I’ve become well-acquainted with UK-based press’s love of great literature and their equal love for high-quality, beautifully-produced editions. I’ve also had the fortunate opportunity to become better acquainted Antal Szerb, whose work has been reprinted in full by the press. The comprehensively qualitative approach to publishing that Pushkin Press brings to its readers is something worth mentioning. While the large publishing houses still represent a great many talented writers, designers, and editions, small presses like Pushkin are taking publication to greater heights—elevating the medium to the same level as the words they bear. To date, Pushkin Press has reprinted an array of great texts by top-shelf contemporary authors such as Ellen Ullman, Ryu Murakami, and Boris Fishman, alongside classics by writers like Stefan Zweig, Paul Morand, and of course Alexander Pushkin. Take a look at Pushkin Press’ website to read their own explanation on design and production for yourself. Now on to the most important part—the words between the covers.

Life of a Counterfeiter by Yasushi Inoue (trans. by Michael Emmerich), Pushkin Press, 144 pages, $18.00, Paperback, March 2015, ISBN 9781782270027

Original Thoughts, Replica, and Meaning
March brings the US release of Yasishi Inoue’s Life of a Counterfeiter on the Pushkin Collection. The book marks the third installment of Inoue’s work on Pushkin Press. True to the press’s aforementioned eye for detail, this edition is a stunningly bound gold-colored paperback—as much a pleasure to hold as it is to read. This edition features three stories—the novella-length title story, and two additional, shorter stories.

Life of a CounterfeiterLike much of Inoue’s writing, the story in Life of a Counterfeiter is on its surface very simple. The story’s narrator is a journalist who has been commissioned to write a biography for one of his era’s most renowned painters, nuki Keigaku. The narrator begins by admitting his failure to finish the painter’s biography, and what follows is his explanation. We eventually learn that our narrator has become distracted by the pervasive traces of another character’s presence. Just before the start of WWI, our narrator is traveling with the painter Keigaku’s son Takuhiko, in search of Keigaku’s paintings and interviews with their owners. It seems almost every place our narrator visits in search of the painter’s legacy, he is instead confronted with the work of another man—Hara Hsen. Hsen, once a close friend to Keigaku, has earned a kind of reputation for his work in creating counterfeits of Keigaku’s original paintings. It is these counterfeit paintings that our narrator continues to find instead of the originals.

While visiting a home in search of a temporary residence for his family, who is fleeing Kyoto because of the war, our narrator tells of his reaction to finding yet another Hsen fake:

I had absolutely no desire to push unwanted information upon people who believed they owned a painting by Keigaku at a time when the very survival of the nation was in doubt. In all likelihood, the Hsen-Keigaku forgeries would never leave this mountaintop village; for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years, they would pass from hand to hand, from one person who had never even heard of nuki Keigaku to the next. [...] And all of a sudden, I felt—though the feeling lasted only as long as the thought—that I was in the presence of something eternal.

Inoue’s contrast between real and counterfeit raises questions of the relevance of originality. What is the difference between the original and its 9th replica? To our narrator’s interviewees, there could be no distinction between one and the other because for them, the replica is the original, the only painting by Hsen-Keigaku they might have ever seen. And thanks also to the likely ignorance of each painting’s owner, whether there is some greater principle that guides whether a forgery is “wrong” or “right” is perhaps a moot point.

This concept of original vs. replica is one most of us live with daily. The post-industrial world is one of ideas and design, and virtually every inedible object we handle regularly is a replica. What matters is not whether the object is original, but simply that it performs for us the things we need it to. This can even be transferred to the realm of the arts, where we have film, music, and visual arts that are replicated for mass consumption. There is arguably a difference between viewing a painting in a gallery and owning a scale print, and a difference between seeing a musician live and listening to a record. But still, every day people buy records, buy prints, and pay to watch films. We are accustomed to consuming replicated art as much as we are accustomed to using more mundane objects that are produced in mass.

It happens that Hsen’s counterfeit paintings are only half of the story. The remaining part of Life of a Counterfeiter concerns the life of Hsen after his apparent retirement from painting—his life as an unlicensed firework maker. Our narrator’s original interpretation was that Hsen took up fireworks because he could no longer paint, but there is also a nagging indication that Hsen was driven to fireworks by something more—a quest for a very specific color:

Among the various stories Hsen’s widow had shared, I had been most intrigued by the one about his desire to launch a deep-violet chrysanthemum. At the time it hadn’t struck me all that forcefully, but it lingered with an odd insistence in my heart, and I found myself recalling it at odd moments.

As we near the end of the story, Inoue’s message comes more clearly into focus: Life of a Counterfeiter is a dirge for the uncelebrated copyist, the hard-working laborer whose entire purpose is to create beauty, but whose fate is not to revel in the rewards that generally accompany a life of an artist. Like a factory worker, Hara Hsen completed painting after painting, for no other reward than money, and to the credit of another painter. The life of the fireworks maker is certainly to be less glamorous than one of a counterfeiter, but the dilemma for the creator is the same: we celebrate the works but rarely know their origins.

For the artists and artisans, Inoue’s story is a tragedy, but it also illustrates the independence of a work of art or artistic expression. Perhaps this is a net gain for all. Owners of counterfeit paintings are like spectators at a fireworks show—for both the work is key, and automatically dissociated from its creator. Then what’s left is merely the work, and there can be no worry about distraction by intention, influence, or celebrity. What both the owner of the painting and the spectator enjoy is an experience, and those experiences have nothing to do with the artist and the artisan. This is illustrated one last time in the retelling of one of Hsen’s last fireworks shows, a scene in which Hsen’s labor in creating the spectacle prevents him from even seeing the fruits that the very labor produces:

...And so, having launched the last of the sixty chrysanthemums just as smoothly as could be, still bent over, he asked Tassan—
“How was it? Was it beautiful?”
He had been too busy launching the fireworks to look up.

Life of a Counterfeiter’s narrator is revisiting memories of experiences from before, during, and after WWII, and the storytelling reflects the persistent unease that accompanies people and places at times of war. Inoue’s style is simple and elegant. Like his narrator—an exceptionally forgettable character whose name I’m not sure is shared—Inoue becomes transparent while writing the story. What remains on my mind after reading Life of the Counterfeiter is only the copyist and his plight. So then perhaps the story itself is disposable once it has achieved its purpose; do away with the author and the narrator for the sake of the work, which here seems to be reminding readers that art and artists are separate entities.

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