Ono Suzue: A Man of Talent in the Meiji Era
Part One: The Pet Rabbit
by Silapa Jarun
Review by Alex Beecroft
Ono Suzue is the son of a samurai. His father took the boy to war with him, exposing him to horrors which have permanently scarred his psyche. Now he is a westernised doctor, whose hobby is the development of morphine. With the aid of morphine and hypnosis he takes over the life of one of his students, Kawano Tomoji, who he trains to be his docile pet rabbit. He also has a more sinister task in mind for the young man, intending him to kill the Emperor, in an act that Ono believes will finally bring peace to Japan.
This book, therefore, has an interesting concept. The protagonist, Ono, is vile, inhuman, unsympathetic, and yet he has understandable reasons for being as psychopathic as he is. There’s even the possibility that underneath his murderous exterior there may lurk the heart of someone who honestly is trying to do good. This too is an interesting concept for a protagonist, and in other hands this could have been a good book.
Unfortunately that is the best I can say of it. It’s a bad sign when a book begins with a piece of poetry which contains a prominent spelling mistake: “Now a piller of the state he stands”?
If the keynote poem in the very beginning is misspelled, what can we expect of the general level of proof-reading and literary merit? Not much, alas. And not much is exactly what we get. I hate to be completely negative but I have never encountered such clunky, badly written language in a published book. Listen to this:
“… Look into its eyes,” said the handsome teacher, “watch its pupils dilate”. The Kawano gently caressed the animal’s head and looked up into his teacher’s face and smiled, “they’re beautiful.”
“Mine or the feline’s?” Ono mused.
The student looked down at the animal and breathed, “yours sensei.”
Ono’s mask was enhanced with a warm expression, “Kawano-san please bring the cat to me.”
‘The’ Kawano is used instead of ‘Kawano’ – which is the man’s name. This interchange is going on in front of a lecture hall full of students – so what’s with the sudden, inappropriate descent into flirting? (Only a moment ago these two had never spoken to each other.) As for ‘Ono’s mask’ – I believe the author means ‘face’. Unless he’s actually wearing a mask, on which he’s drawn a warm expression, of course.
And this is only on the first page. It carries on. Point of view shifts in the middle of sentences; people being referred to by four or five different signifiers in a single paragraph…
“Do you have plans for this evening? If not, come by my estate,” he handed a card with his address printed in English, “Frock coat is adequate my servant will prepare a Western meal of course.”
How could Kawano decline? “I’m honored to attend.” He looked at the print, “Sensei, why is your first name Suzue?” It is usually a woman’s name.
“I’ll tell the story behind my name another day,” You have become fascinated with me and I with you.
Info-dumps, strange, jerky attempts by the author to convey what they want the reader to know in ways that the characters – if they were real people – would never behave or think. Irrelevances – I don’t believe we ever do find out the significance behind ‘Suzue’, though after this build-up I was waiting to see what it was.
The structure of the novel suffers from the same heavy-handedness and lack of coherency. For the first three quarters of the book Ono’s back story is interleaved between the ‘modern’ scenes with Kawano, so that you’ve only just settled into one period before you’re whipped back to the other. And the back story – which should be dramatic and traumatic – is hampered by the inability of the language to rise to the occasion.
Ryuichi looked as well and saw that some legs and fingers were black and curling in the bonfire. Many heads were thrown back or hung forward. The smell became unbearable and he buried his face in his father’s waist. Smoke began to assault the eyes of the perpetrators and spectators. They walked away from the burning heap of their own evil act.
Perhaps as a reader I’m not willing to put in enough work to turn this into a horrifying scene, but I generally expect that the language will not need my help. It should be up to the writer to hold me in their spell, not up to me to weave it for them.
Having said that, any possibility the author might have had of sucking the reader into their world and allowing the story to build up steam is thwarted by the massive footnotes which poke randomly into the ebook. As a lover of history I am glad to see the author did their research, but I would rather that – if that information was relevant – it was worked into the story. And if it wasn’t relevant, or couldn’t be worked in, I would rather it was left out altogether, or at least gathered in one lump at the back, where it wouldn’t keep interrupting the flow of the story.
As to the story itself – as I say, it could have been interesting, but in my opinion it failed in its promise. Not just because of the poor writing, but also because so much effort was put into telling how Kawano was made into a docile pet that the idea that he was suddenly also meant to be an assassin came across as a bit hard to believe. The training or pacification of the boy was, I believe, meant to be erotic. To me, however, it was so very reminiscent of Anne Cain and Barbara Sheridan’s Dragon’s Disciple books that I kept thinking with regret about how much more I had enjoyed those.
It does grieve me to say this, but other than the concept of the book, I cannot find anything to praise. There is the germ of a good book in there, but it’s unfortunate that the writer’s abilities are not yet at a level where they’re able to justice to it.