Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Pro Bono" by Matsumoto Seicho (review)

Pro BonoPro Bono by Seichō Matsumoto
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-92) wrote ”Pro Bono" (original title "Kiri no Hata" or "Flags of Mist" - Japanese titles are very beautiful and poetic, like French ones, something which is always lost in the all-too-practical English titles) in 1961. It was his 9th novel after his novelistic debut in 1958 with the interesting Points and Lines (and I'm not even counting his many short story collections). In that one year 1961 Matsumoto wrote eight more novels, including the well-known "Suna no Utsuwa," Inspector Imanishi Investigates (original title "Vessel of Sand"). Matsumoto must have had a severe cramp in his fingers that year... No wonder also that these novels, all first published as serials in magazines, could have been more polished, with better characterization, and sharper outlined themes, if Matsumoto had taken more time writing them.

"Pro Bono" is the story of Kiriko Yanagida, a young woman working as a typist, who travels from her native Kyushu in Western Japan to Tokyo (a very long trip in 1961 before the Shinkansen trains were introduced), where she wants to meet the famous lawyer Otsuka. Her brother has been accused of murdering an old woman, a moneylender, and his case looks quite desperate although she believes him to be innocent, so she wants Otsuka to take up the case. But she has no money to pay the lawyer's high fees. Although he hesitates a moment, Otsuka refuses to take on the case pro bono, mainly because he has no time to listen to her as he has a (to him more fascinating) golf appointment with his mistress. Kiriko's brother then is convicted and dies in prison. Privately, Otsuka feels a bit guilty when Kiriko notifies him about this by postcard, and he secretly studies the case records. The shrewd lawyer indeed discovers that a serious mistake has been made and that Kiriko's brother was innocent - but he does nothing with this knowledge, thinking it is anyway too late now. Kiriko in the meantime wants to take revenge on the cold-hearted lawyer. Having come again to Tokyo where she now works as hostess in a club on the Ginza, she waits for an opportunity to destroy his social position. She gets that chance when a second murder happens, which is related to the case of her brother and in which the mistress of Otsuka is implicated...

Kiriko is an interesting character, silent but very determined and going her course alone, refusing all help from others (such as from a newspaper journalist who tries to befriend her) - what in Japanese is called "shin ga tsuyoi," to have a strong core (to have backbone), which can be said about more Japanese, who are often wrongly seen as weak by Westerners just because they don't express themselves in words all the time. But as I mentioned above, Kiriko's characterization could have been much stronger and more interesting when Seicho Matsumoto would have had more time to write this story... Still, this book is certainly worth reading for the light it throws on Japanese culture (which has changed a lot since 1961, but there are also things which never change), and I would applaud more translations of novels by this author, who is rather underrepresented in English - what about his ゼロの焦点 Zero no shōten "Zero Focus," which I consider as one of his best and most atmospheric novels?

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