The Cost of Kindness and Other Fabulous Tales, Shinichi Hoshi (1985)

October 14th, 2009

It was difficult to find this book. Shinichi Hoshi is not well known or popular in the U.S. probably because he wrote in Japanese and his stories have to be translated to English. Translations often lose the flavor of the original and, as is the case in these stories, read as overly formal or stilted. This is not the fault of the translator, but of the process. The music and flow of language cannot be translated well without changing the structure of sentences and paragraphs. In order to be true to the original words, the translation must lose much of the author’s literary coloration.

The book consists of about 30 very short stories. We would consider these to be "flash fiction" in that many are under 1,000 words. Stories this short are not really what I would consider a short story. Hoshi’s tales are usually studies in irony told as a parable, much more like an Aesop’s tale than a short story in the classic structure of Poe or O Henry. There is little or no characterization. Hoshi’s approach is to describe a situation involving very generic male or female actors and end it with a punch line. The conclusion is almost always ironic and does not reveal a truth about the characters, but about the world or people in general.

These stories would not be very marketable in the English speaking world. The viewpoint is too remote and the characters are too one dimensional. Players appear only as a vehicle for the logic of the story. Most characters do not even have names. They are often identified with a single letter or initial. Often characters from western culture and mythology, such as Santa Clause, appear in the stories. I found this strange coming from a writer whose subjects and style seem so immersed in Japanese culture. There is no reason, however, that an educated Japanese writer should not be aware of western ideas. Even in Japan these concepts would be hard to avoid.

I find that I cannot judge these stories based on comparisons to the short stories I have been reading all my life. They are more like Haikus. They seem to be little vignettes, proverbs or epitaphs ending with a subtle twist of an ironic knife. The stories seem to be very Japanese, although I am not familiar enough with the culture of modern Japan to be sure of this. I enjoyed reading the stories, although at first my expectations were very different. It took a while to settle in to Hoshi’s style. Once I got over the idea of what I think a short story should be, I began to enjoy Hoshi’s tales. I would like to thank my former student, Toshihiko Okawa, for steering me towards Shinichi Hoshi.

If you have time and can find a copy of one of his collections, you might give Shinichi Hoshi a try. There are a many interesting concepts in his tales and more than a few truly unique sciencefictional ideas. I am writing a story based on one of his stories, but with a western approach. The idea of the story was great, but the irony was not very personal and it should have been. All of these stories are carefully impersonal and polite. I think that I could use some of Hoshi’s cleverness and wrap a character around it to create an interesting amalgam.

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