Originally published in Japanese in 1925, this naturalist noir masterpiece follows itinerant day laborer Ishikawa Sazuko as he prowls the back alleys of Los Angeles, looking for a meal, a job, or just some companionship. With an introduction by translator Andrew Leong.
December 6, 2012
Author Shōson Nagahara was born in 1901 in the mountains of southwestern Japan. He arrived in the United States at the age of seventeen in August of 1918. In 1920, Nagahara resided in a boarding house in Los Angeles and listed his occupation as “railroad worker.”
Lament in the Night, Nagahara’s first novel, was published in October of 1925 by Sōdosha, a Japanese-language press affiliated with Bunrindo, a bookstore in the heart of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. After its release, the novel received substantial attention from the regional Japanese-language press. The Rafu Shimpo, a daily newspaper with a circulation of several thousand readers, published not one, but two reviews of Lament. The attention garnered by Lament in the Night—both positive and negative—may have prompted the Rafu Shimpo to offer Shōson a six-month contract to produce a serial novel: The Tale of Osato, published from November 1925 to May 1926.
In his postscript to Lament in the Night, Shōson describes the novel as a “long fictional work” (chōhen shōsetsu). However, by Anglo-American publishing standards, it is more a “novella” than a full-length novel. With only three major characters and a finely tuned set of recurrent motifs, Lament is a tightly constructed work that was carefully edited before publication. The style and setting of Lament are also fairly consistent—we are never far from the thoughts of Sakuzō, the protagonist, as he wanders around a never-named Southern Californian city.
Although the urban geography of the city in Lament in the Night closely corresponds with the actual city of Los Angeles, the fact that the city remains unnamed is an important formal feature of the novel. Most of the street names in the novel (e.g., “M.N.” or “E.F.”) do not correspond to the names of actual streets in or around Japantown. Similarly, even when Sakuzō remembers his home village, all geographical markers of place are rendered anonymous through the use of single, Roman capital letters (e.g., “H” Prefecture, the “S” mountain range). The overwhelming absence of specific place-names makes Sakuzō seem literally “out of place,” estranged from his home and condemned to wander in a foreign city.
Taken together, Lament in the Night and The Tale of Osato are a remarkable achievement. Written in Japanese and published in Los Angeles, these two novels portray the lives of the lost and the forgotten: men and women on the margins of an already marginal immigrant community, desperate vagrants and petty thieves, delinquent youths and aging gamblers, bar waitresses and former prostitutes, failed artists and nameless suicides.
–Andrew Leong, translator
Ishikawa Sakuzō was starving. The night before, he’d picked up a piece of watermelon from the floor of the public market. That must have been what had given him food poisoning. He’d been up since dawn, wracked by five or six bouts of gut-wrenching diarrhea. Sharp, unending cramps tore through his belly. As the day grew dark and turned to night, his hunger grew even worse. He would have swallowed anything just to fill his stomach.
Stepping into a gloomy alley off M. N Avenue, he pulled out his tiny coin purse and took a look inside. Not that he expected to find anything. Just to make sure, he turned the purse upside down and gave it a good shake. Not a sound. Frustrated, he began to rifle through his pockets, one by one. When he got to his jacket pocket, his heart leapt. The tip of his finger had brushed against something round. Gripping it firmly between his fingers, he closed his eyes and mumbled an indecipherable word or two for luck. He grinned as he pulled out his tightly clenched fist. Walking into the light of a nearby arc lamp, he opened his hand.
Just one lousy copper penny.
“Chie!” he cursed. Sakuzō’s sunken cheeks suddenly turned pale. The truth of the matter was that with only a penny, he couldn’t get a damn thing to eat, not even a piece of candy to suck on. What the hell was he going to do now? Disgusted, he stuffed the penny back into his pocket and stepped away from the light cast by the arc lamp. Not that he had any place to go. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his yellowed, sweat-stained work pants and headed south down M. N Avenue. A crowd of people had gathered in front of the post office, but he wasn’t the least bit curious about whatever it was they were staring at. Without even turning to look, he circled around the edge of the crowd and continued on his way.
Half a block down the street, he saw a small, Japanese-run restaurant. He planted his feet in front of the store window and took a look inside. The place was empty except for two whites sitting at the counter. The smell of meat broiling on the grill streamed into his nostrils. He didn’t think, he just went in and took the counter seat closest to the kitchen. A young white waitress came up to him. Smiling brightly, she asked,
“What can I bring you sir?”
Sakuzō straightened the collar of his grimy jacket and said, without a trace of hesitation, “Pork chops!” The waitress called out his order in a clear and ringing voice, and soon the smell of frying pork filled the tiny restaurant. About ten minutes later, a large plate of chops was placed right in front of him. Coffee too. Sakuzō silently thanked his good fortune. Wriggling his nose, he stabbed his fork into a big looking piece of pork, popped it into his mouth, and gulped it right down. He didn’t even taste it. He ate the next piece more slowly, making an effort to take his time chewing it.
About five minutes passed. Not a crumb remained on his bread plate. Every last drop of his coffee was gone too. All that was left on his dinner plate was an unseemly pile of gristly pork bones. He shook some salt on the bones and picked them up one by one, carefully sucking them clean. Then he took the largest of the three bones and neatly wrapped it in a paper napkin. Thankfully, no one was watching what he was doing. He patted his chest and let out a deep sigh of contentment. Then he quickly slipped the paper-wrapped pork bone into his pants pocket. Sakuzō was completely full. He began to whistle a little tune. The waitress looked at him and smiled.
Sakuzō stood up and walked to the cash register. The waitress looked him in the eye and smiled again. This time, he frowned.
First, he was obliged to pretend to search through his pockets. Of course he knew he wouldn’t find anything. All he had was the penny he’d found earlier. But if that penny were to show up now, it would only ruin his act. At times like this, Sakuzō could become quite the performer. He continued pretending to look through his pockets.
“What’s wrong?” the waitress asked. She had a completely unsuspecting look on her face. This was his chance.
“What the…my wallet… I can’t seem to find it…” Sakuzō groaned.
“Really…? Your wallet?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. How embarrassing!” he said, still pretending to go through his pockets.
“You really can’t find it? Was there a lot inside?”
“Just ten dollars…’’
“Gosh…” She was quite surprised.
The Japanese cook and a woman, his wife, stepped out of the kitchen and walked up to the register. They listened as the waitress explained the situation.
“Oh my, how horrible!” The wife’s voice was full of compassion.
Sakuzō hung his head at a laudably low angle. He couldn’t have served up a more accomplished look of total misery.
Now the man spoke. “Don’t worry about it. You can just pay us the next time you happen to pass by…”
When Sakuzō heard the cook’s words, he felt instant remorse for what he’d done. However, there was nothing to be done now—he had to keep up the act.
“Thank you.” He bent his head respectfully. “My humblest apologies.”
After a moment, he walked out of the restaurant, but he turned around and bowed politely through the store window. A white man passing by saw him bowing and chuckled, but Sakuzō was serious. He bowed again, even more respectfully than before.
Sakuzō started walking again. He felt full of energy and light on his feet. He continued down M. N Avenue, then stepped into a dark side street. A solitary gas lamp hovered in the distance, fifty yards ahead. In its pale, bluish light, he could just make out his hostel, the Shimoda-ya, at the end of the long alleyway.
Small, dark houses crowded both sides of the alley. A watchdog growled. Sakuzō rushed past.
Since childhood, he had been terrified of dogs. When he was sure the dog had stopped barking, he struck a match and crouched down to the asphalt. He needed a cigarette. He searched the ground until he finally found a butt. He picked it up with the utmost care, lit the end, and took a deep drag, waiting for a second before he exhaled.
As he walked, he began to sing an old rice-planting song. He looked up at the sky. The August night was infinitely clear. The stars shone brightly in the deep indigo sky, innocently revealing the beauty of the world of dreams to the world below.
The next morning.
Sakuzō woke up a little past five. He jumped out of bed, threw on his ragged clothes, and went to the bathroom out back to wash his face. An old man, an early riser, was already using the sink.
“Good morning!” Sakuzō gave the old man a brisk, cheerful greeting.
“Good morning,” the old man replied.
After the old man left, Sakuzō went to the tap and splashed his face with water. When he looked up again, he was struck by the sight before him. Dahlias, zinnias, and asters, all in full red bloom, covered the ground beneath the cypress in the backyard. A neighbor’s rooster crowed. A morning breeze rustled the leaves of the palm trees. Sakuzō shook out his limbs and, after a moment, went back to his room. He took a seat in a chair next to a small table and sank deep into thought.
Five minutes… ten minutes… twenty minutes… no, even more time flowed by. All of a sudden, Sakuzō leapt up from his chair. He threw open the door and flew down the stairs of the Shimoda-ya. He rushed down the street, turning up the collar of his jacket. The cool morning breeze brushed against his cheeks. He could hear the squeaking wheels of a milkman’s horse-cart rounding a distant street corner. Dew glistened on the trees and hedges in the front yards of the low-roofed houses. The pale, pale light of the morning sun had not yet woken the sleeping city. Perfect tranquility.
He crossed E Street, then F Street. He turned right at West K Street, then walked south for half a block, and there he was again, back at the old familiar “S” Employment Agency. Sakuzō went up the low step and walked through the doorway. A thin haze of cigarette smoke hovered over the waiting room. The place was packed with Japanese laborers waiting for work.
He looked at the clock on the wall. It was already six.
“Late!” Sakuzō muttered the word as if it was a curse. He walked up to the manager’s desk. Sakuzō was starving, but at least he was able to offer a proper bow. The manager was flipping through an account book; he let his hand rest for a moment as he slowly looked up at Sakuzō.
“Do you have any openings?” Sakuzō asked politely.
“Nope. Sorry pal.” The boss brushed him off and turned away to speak to someone else.
Sakuzō got angry.
“Not even for a dishwasher?”
“Are you sure?”
That was the last straw. The boss had had enough of Sakuzō’s attitude.
“Look, I said no. Look around! Everyone else has been here for more than an hour, but not one job’s come in. Not one. Ain’t a damn thing I can do about it …’’
Sakuzō was speechless. Since his position was now compromised, he turned around and, without a word, sat down on one of the benches. He looked around. There were fifteen or sixteen other men in the room. Their eyes were tired, bloodshot. One was a whitehaired, tottering old man, but there was also a boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. “Why bother,” Sakuzō thought to himself, “it’s hopeless.” He stole a glance at the middle-aged man sitting next to him. Bloodless, pale—what a sorry profile! Unable to stand the sight, Sakuzō shut his eyes.
A few moments later, he was back on the morning streets. His hunger pangs were starting up again.
“Baka! Chikush?!” He cursed at himself. How could he be such a damned idiot?
The city was coming back to life. A factory steam whistle sounded its deep bellow. Fresh vegetables and fruits were already lined up in front of the produce stalls. The streetcars were packed full with passengers. Young office workers, beautiful waitresses, laborers in their blue uniforms, middle-aged factory women—a never-ending stream of people flooded the sidewalk.
In the pure, bright air of that summer morning, Sakuzō walked alone, dispirited. He bent his head and shuffled miserably down the street.