I am absolutely fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of comedy. The complex, delicate relationship between comic and audience, and the contrast between the inner lives of struggling comedians and the persona they project on stage has always struck me as a gold mine for fiction, though not necessarily a humorous one. Last year I read David Grossman’s powerful novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), and there are some parallels with this Japanese novel, though Spark has a lighter touch. I was very intrigued to read it, and jumped at the chance to receive a copy from Pushkin Press (a publisher I have loved ever since discovering one of my favourite translated novels, Journey By Moonlight, through them) in exchange for an honest review.
In Naoki Matayoshi’s short novel, we are thrown into the world of manzai comedy, a double-act tradition involving the classic straight-man-plus-fool combo. The main characters, Tokunaga and Kamiya, are not comedy partners, but kohai and sempai, pupil and master, each part of their own separate comedy duo. The novel is narrated by Tokunaga, who is a sympathetic guide to the manzai circuit, a flawed individual, certainly, but possessed of a self-awareness and empathy that make him a pleasant protagonist to follow over the course of the book. The narrative fast-forwards through the stages of Tokunaga’s career, slowing down at intervals to explore his years-long friendship with Kamiya, mostly in the context of drunken nights out in Tokyo. Their relationship is absolutely central to the book, and it is beautifully drawn. The bond that they forge stands in contrast to the isolated existence of these two men, who are both young at the start of the novel; they seem to have little connection with their family, and even their comedy partners are colleagues rather than friends. Romantic interests are limited to Kamiya’s friend Maki, who lets him live with her but whom he keeps at arm’s length, saying that she deserves better. The delicate exploration of Tokunaga and Kamiya’s friendship is all the more affecting in the light of the absence of other bonds.
Kamiya, as presented through Tokunaga’s tender portrayal of his friend, is a fascinating, utterly original character; the image I couldn’t shake while reading about him was of a Janus-faced man wearing both the comedy and tragedy masks, though in fact it is his authenticity that stands out above all else. Tokunaga admires his friend’s courage, despairs at Kamiya’s inability to fit into the mould even a little bit in order to make a decent living, and, rather wonderfully, rarely tips over into jealousy of Kamiya’s flashes of brilliance. There is a strong lesson to be learned here about the importance of artists supporting one another, and it is handled with grace and beauty. As with much behind-the-scenes comedy, the novel is not laugh-out-loud funny – the dissection of humour is never as comic as the actual comedy itself – and it takes a while to get used to the specific style of back-and-forth repartee that manzai involves. I experienced the best kind of culture shock with this novel, the same unfamiliarity and almost other-worldliness that hits me when I read Murakami, who is shamefully pretty much my only other experience of Japanese literature. The translation, by Alison Watts, is skillfully done, with the touches of Americanisms bringing a subtly hip, edgy quality to the writing.
The ending of this book kicked it onto another level for me. I gasped out loud: the absurdity of the final ‘twist’ was funny, sad and quietly devastating. I certainly won’t spoil it here, but instead I would whole-heartedly recommend that you read this fast-paced, fresh, and surprisingly tender novel. And yes, I will be checking out the Netflix series.