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Shoson Nagahara’s ‘Lament in the Night’: Rediscovering a lost L.A.

Shoson Nagahara’s ‘Lament in the Night’: Rediscovering a lost L.A.
The corner of 1st and San Pedro streets in Little Tokyo in 1933.
(Los Angeles Times)

Editor’s note: The following is Times book critic David L. Ulin’s introduction to “Lament in the Night” by Shoson Nagahara (Kaya Press: 452 pp., $19.95 paper), which collects two lost pieces of Los Angeles literature, “Lament in the Night” and “The Tale of Osato.” Together, these works reintroduce the writing of Nagahara, a Japanese immigrant to 1920s L.A. who wrote in Japanese for Japanese readers, uncovering the life of Little Tokyo from the inside.

On Saturday, Ulin and Andrew Leong, the book’s translator, are to be at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo to discuss Nagahara, his writing and its place in the culture of Los Angeles. There are also to be readings by Tamlyn Tomita and Gedde Watanabe, and a reception. The event is scheduled for 2 p.m.

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In 2001, as I was gathering material for “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology,” I began to realize that in a landscape such as Southern California, with all its overlapping cultures and communities, there was no way to get a comprehensive sense of local literature. How was I, a single reader, bound by the limitations of history and language, ever to understand, or even know about, the depth, the range, the eddies and the offshoots of the region’s written heritage?

At the time, I was thinking mostly of the contemporary: Korean authors in Koreatown, Vietnamese in Orange County, all working in their own tongues, for their own audiences, utterly inaccessible to me. But the same was true, I came to realize, of older material, that which had existed beyond the mainstream in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, homogenized out of memory by the relentless Anglo boosterism of old L.A.

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The more I tried to find it -- African American accounts of early Watts, Mexican Americans or Native Americans on the ranchos, the flip side of the myths perpetuated by Helen Hunt Jackson in “Ramona” -- the more I was forced to recognize that whatever might have existed was now largely irretrievable, hidden by inaccessibility and time. Because it had never been distributed to a broad-based audience, it may as well have never been distributed at all.

I was reminded of this experience while reading Shoson Nagahara’s “Lament in the Night,” a book that brings together two works of fiction by an author so lost (or overlooked, or neglected) that to call it a reclamation project would understate the point.

Rather, this is an excavation, a reinvention, a backward-looking telescope, a lens on a world that has long since disappeared.

Published in Japanese for Japanese immigrant readers, and set, for the most part, in the narrow streets and alleys of Little Tokyo, the narratives here speak to us from behind the curtain, offering a glimpse of the city’s hidden literature, exactly the sort of revelation that so eluded me a decade ago.

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The provenance is fascinating. The title effort, a novella, came out in 1925 from Sodosha, a press connected to the Bunkado bookstore at 1st and San Pedro; it is accompanied by a full-length novel called “The Tale of Osato,” which was serialized daily in the Japanese newspaper Rafu Shimpo between November 1925 and May 1926.

What we get, in other words, are not only two long-forgotten pieces of L.A. writing, but also a window into a community, with its own cultural infrastructure and outlets: “Lament in the Night” was reviewed on the front page of Rafu Shimpo, and the individual installments of “The Tale of Osato” appeared on the paper’s front page, as well.

And yet, equally compelling is how closely, in certain ways, this community reflects that of the larger city of Los Angeles, at least through Nagahara’s eyes. The characters here are hardly isolated; they interact with other Angelenos, from Anglos to African Americans to Chinese, and are influenced by Western culture, including “painters like Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin.”

The same might be said of Nagahara’s writing, which, although it predates noir by a few years, nevertheless possesses something of the genre’s rough edges, its lack of illusion, while drawing on the conventions of Japanese narrative -- “The Tale of Osato” is written in what Nagahara calls “the style of a monogatari,” recalling traditional sagas such as “The Tale of Genji” or “The Tale of Heike.”

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Both works are gritty, urban, highlighting the difficulties faced by their protagonists as they struggle for a sense of place, of belonging, in Los Angeles.

In "Lament in the Night,” a malcontent named Ishikawa Sakuzo drifts through the streets of the city, bumming change, cadging meals where he can find them, scouring the gutters for cigarette butts. He has a friend, a painter, whose success fills him with envy; he visits a woman, Otatsu, the hostess of a restaurant, whom he uses (or, perhaps, they use each other?) for companionship. She is married to a man 23 years her senior, “a notorious gambler and worse, a complete drunk.”

Toward the end of the novella, Sakuzo flirts with redemption, but he can’t keep his demons at bay.

“He had tried again and again to break away from the sordid path of his life,” Nagahara writes, “and now he was finished, exhausted to the core of his being. If his past and present life were made of nothing but empty dreams, what could possibly come from such a world of weariness and despair? If the souls of the dead were indeed reborn from the graveyards of torment, suffering, and defeat, then what bright promise might lie in Sakuzo’s future? Only death. ... The only thing waiting for Sakuzo was the dark, red specter of death.”

How much do I love that passage? Not just because it rings true as an existential statement, but also for its irresolvable sense of conflict, which seems, by turns, utterly contemporary and yet equally of its time.

What Nagahara is tracing is a quality of disconnection, of lost-ness, of a character severed from his roots. This is the flip side of the immigrant experience, the inside of it -- which outsiders aren’t meant to see. It makes me think of Philip Roth, excoriated by American Jewish readers in the 1950s and 1960s for sharing an unflattering, even troubled, perspective with the larger (read: unsympathetic) world. The difference is that Nagahara had no such intentions; he was writing for his community.

Nowhere does this resonate more fully than in “The Tale of Osato,” which, in a certain way, reads as a sequel, or at least a parallel work, to “Lament in the Night.” Its protagonist, Osato, is reminiscent of Otatsu: married to an older man, a drunken gambler, forced to make ends meet by working in a restaurant.

In the 1920s, waitresses were often considered little higher on the social scale than prostitutes, a shameful status anywhere but especially, perhaps, among immigrants. And yet, Osato perseveres, enduring tragedy (death and despair, the shame of her husband’s predilections) to thrive, for a while, as the proprietor of her own restaurant.

Unlike Sakuzo, she is a success, buying a large home, getting remarried, bringing in “fifty or sixty dollars in pure profit … [e]ven on slow nights” -- although the genius of the novel is how Nagahara sees all this for the illusion that it is, a tenuous state in which Osato must always, on some level, remain apart.

For Nagahara, this is both an American story and a Japanese story, or more fundamentally a story of the Japanese in the United States. It is also, along with "Lament in the Night,” a portrait of the “Issei Failure,” which translator Andrew Leong defines, in part, as “a general social type, a species related to ‘the bum,’ or ‘the drunk,’ or ‘the gambling addict.’”

That’s a fine description of Sakuzo, if not of Osato, but what Leong is really getting at is a broader context, in which not just these narratives but their disappearance represents a failure of a different sort.

“What if,” he wonders, “‘the Issei failure’ was not just an individual character type, but the collective failure of a generation to leave behind a single successful novel? What if the phrase also points to the failure of later generations to read those novels that were written? Was an ‘Issei novel’ even possible?”

It’s a fascinating question, returning us to the issues of accessibility and inaccessibility, what lingers and what evaporates. Even more, it suggests a synthesis that "Lament in the Night,” and especially “The Tale of Osato,” embodies at the core.

If we think about the latter, about its narrative, its sense of Los Angeles as a socially dynamic landscape, it becomes more than an Issei novel, but rather a novel of the city, a lost piece of Southern California literature, newly reclaimed. Perhaps most astonishing are the echoes between it and another novel, of a woman working her way from waitress to restaurateur, out of the ashes of a failed marriage and unimaginable tragedy: James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce.”

I don’t want to make too much of this; Cain published his book 16 years after “The Tale of Osato,” and there is no evidence that he ever knew about Nagahara, let alone had read his work. And yet, this is the way literature works, to create a fabric, a tapestry of a city’s inner life.

Just look at Raymond Chander, Nathanael West and John Fante, who in 1939 (L.A. literature’s annus mirabilis) produced, respectively, three of the touchstones of the city’s writing: “The Big Sleep,” “The Day of the Locust” and “Ask The Dust.”

On the one hand, these books couldn’t be more different -- a mystery, a Hollywood novel and a self-consciously literary work. At the same time, they speak to one another, reflecting a similar vision of Southern California as hard-boiled, sun-bleached, a landscape not of dreams so much as of dreams denied.

They are, or so I have always thought, a kind of trilogy, despite the fact that they are so distinct. Something similar, I want to suggest now, might be said about the work of Nagahara, which takes its place, miraculously, unexpectedly, in the literature of Los Angeles.

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