Gangsters Go to Poetry School

Genichiro_takahashi Genichiro
Takahashi’s novel Sayonara, Gangsters is one of the legendary
texts of the postmodern era. Originally published in Japan in 1982, it wasn’t
translated into English until 2004. Yet long before that the novel somehow gained a reputation among
English-speaking readers as an important postmodernist novel. Even if it was
more widely praised than read in this country, the novel lent itself to
intellectually charged summary. First, there are Japanese gangsters; they’re
ritualistic and tetchy, like American gangsters, but better dressed and less
sentimental. The novel also features the Derridean conceit of naming: people
give each other names according to the whims of a particular moment. The novel’s
narrator is called Sayonara, Gangsters by a girlfriend, and other characters
sport zanily descriptive names like Relief Pitcher for the San Francisco
Giants. The narrator teaches in a poetry
school where he chats with Virgil reincarnated as a refrigerator and instructs yakuza in the fine art of verse writing. And, as one
might expect with a novel entitled Sayonara, Gangsters, it’s a bit of a genre
blender, mixing high-brow poetics and pulp fiction.

Takahashi’s crisp
sentences and amiable narrator carry the reader through the dull patches, such
as the conversation with Virgil that goes on way too long. Perhaps inevitably,
given the Takahashi’s ambitions, the novel is uneven. For every ill-advised detour
there’s a moment of genuine feeling. We’re told that a river runs through the
sixth floor of the poetry school, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort to try
to figure out what it may mean. But the death of the narrator’s daughter is
heartbreaking. I was equally relieved when both episodes were done.

Sayonara, Gangsters
is a playfully transgressive period piece, like a Shohei Imamura film. Its most
up to date quality is its abstract feel. Despite its literary roots in gritty
urban crime melodrama, the novel is almost completely lacking in place names.
It wears its déclassé influences lightly, unlike the more pop culture obsessed
narratives of the 1990s. The novel is a quick read, which, in a way, is too
bad, for it took such a long time to finally arrive.

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