Tales from the Life

Of Japan's Great

Decadent Romantic

By Osamu Dazai

Kodansha International

230 pp. $18.95

OSAMU DAZAI's Japan is a world apart from the technological treasurehouse we hear so much about these days. Writing half a century ago, Dazai chronicled a Japan of mean streets teeming with petty criminals, prostitutes and misfits whom no amount of social regimentation would bring into line -- hardly the sort of thing to make him a popular writer in his own time, on the eve of the Second World War.

The Japan Dazai celebrates in Self Portraits is a mirror of the author's psyche: a land of despair, brutality, poverty. Addicted to painkillers and alcohol for much of his short adult life -- he drowned himself in 1948, at the age of 39 -- Dazai populates his novelistic world with elegant, educated and bitter characters for whom life has lost whatever meaning it once may have had. He offers a typical existential hero in the short story "No Kidding," a Tokyo street tough who haunts the central railroad depot, bullying and then robbing country folk as they venture into the big city. For Dazai this is all good clean fun, and a useful pastime as well: having relieved a young fieldhand of 20 yen (about $10), his hero exults, "My suicide was postponed for another month."

Ralph McCarthy provides a straightforward translation of Dazai's slangy, casual prose, along with a useful introduction and headnotes to the stories. But Dazai's autobiographical stories are very nearly lifeless, stills from an unpleasant documentary. They belong on the shelf alongside Yukio Mishima's darker tales, not to be read on a gloomy day.


By Zhang Xianliang

Translated from the Chinese

By Martha Avery

HarperCollins. 293 pp. $19.95

THE vignettes in Getting Used to Dying, published in Beijing in April 1989 and almost instantly withdrawn from circulation, bring the murderousness of the Deng Xiaoping government to life as pointedly as the news footage from Tiananmen Square later that year. A fictional memoir of the life of an artist very much like Zhang Xianliang himself, the book derives much of its power from real incidents. Condemned in the late 1950s as a "rightist," Zhang spent most of the succeeding three decades in labor camps in the far northwest of China, an inferno into which the reader is immediately drawn.

Zhang allows his alter ego, the nameless protagonist, to be "rehabilitated," travel abroad in the so-called Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization period of the late 1980s, and savor the pleasures of San Francisco, New York, Paris. Unable to adjust to Western freedoms, however, he returns home, a willing prisoner in his own land, with its familiar trappings: "He had long known the value of a piece of bread, a length of rope, a torn blanket. All man's scholarship talks of the inner life and extols ideals, but in reality everything confirms that the important things are what a man can hold in his hand."

Getting Used to Dying, translated and annotated by Martha Avery, is a journey into several hells. Its author is to be admired for both this fine book and his evident courage.


By Virgil Suarez

Available Press

212 pp. $7.95 paper

VIRGIL SUAREZ's fictional world, too, is a vast prison: the island of Cuba. The protagonist of The Cutter, a young man named Julian Campos, is detained by security police at the Havana airport while waiting to emigrate with his parents to the United States. The year is 1969, the political atmosphere one of postrevolutionary clampdown. As punishment for his parents' flight, Julian is shadowed and intimidated everywhere he goes, even at his dying grandmother's bedside. Suspected of ideological impurity, he is soon conscripted into the Young Pioneers and "volunteered" to harvest sugarcane.

Companero Julian labors away to meet impossible quotas, each hour a further slide into despair, keeping himself alive only by dreaming of escape to America. ("If this isn't slavery," one of his fellow cutters sighs, "then I'm out of touch with reality.") His dreams are not enough to sustain him, though, and the latter-day Papillon engineers one attempted flight after another, always betrayed by fellow inmates, always confounded by searchlights and baying hounds.

Julian is nothing if not determined, however, and in the end Suarez affords him a nightmarish escape from the island, the militia hot on his trail. At the close of the novel, the reader finds Julian busing tables in Little Havana, sweating his days away under the Miami sun, his fortunes little improved, and his parents off in still another alien world -- southern California -- another long journey away.


By Montserrat Fontes

Norton. 320 pp. $18.95

The narrator of Montserrat Fontes's impressive first novel, Andrea Durcal, is the definition of a scamp, the 9-year-old terror of a dusty border town. Her school is the busy streets and the Rio Grande that her Mexican father and American mother have forbidden her to touch. Wherever she goes, trouble follows.

In the company of her cousin Victor Escalante, also 9, Andrea has taken to spying on the town whore as she works her trade in the back of the corner market. (Fontes's depiction of the children's dawning sexual awareness yields some of her book's finest moments.) Eventually tiring of their game, the two steal the hooker's life savings, hidden away in a tall coil of rope. "It's sin money," reasons Victor. "It's not really hers."

It promises to be the perfect crime, but Andrea and Victor's theft sets off a firestorm of vengeance. The children -- suddenly now morally aware, in their small way -- grope toward some act of redemption, but, as they learn, they are far too late.


By Francesca Duranti

Translated from the Italian

By Annapaola Cancogni

Random House

165 pp. $17.95

ITALIAN novelist Francesca Duranti has been likened to Anne Tyler, and her work shares some of the qualities of her American peer's: an ironic sense of humor, scrupulous attention to everyday detail. Tyler's characters, though, are usually a likable lot, relative innocents buffeted by neuroses and fate. Duranti's are the kind one crosses the street against traffic to avoid meeting.

The narrator of Happy Ending is a voyeuristic art forger turned art dealer, but it hardly matters what he does: His role is simply to spy on his neighbors as they slide from one family crisis to another. Lavinia, Silvana, Violante, Cynthia (an uncivilized American) and Sandro are bored, arch and filthy rich; they collect relationships as they do Meissen china and walnut escritoires, dispassionately, always with an eye on the profit margin. Until, that is, a 22-year old drifter enters the villa and sets hearts afire, his significance telegraphed at every turn: "That punk in tennis shoes, that pip- squeak out of nowhere, has exactly what it takes . . . shallow, unperturbed eyes, the inscrutable face of a second-rate idol . . . sensuous lips, an air of danger -- the perfect alien."

Annapaola Cancogni provides a supple translation, but for all that Duranti's slight tale is merely high soap opera. Gregory McNamee is the author of "The Return of Richard Nixon," a collection of literary and political essays.