Review of “Tokyo Ueno Station,” by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles

This is a short novel translated to English from Japanese, so this review is of the original story, as much as it’s still present, and the translation. I think stories like this are difficult to translate because they are a mixture of stream-of-consciousness and standard narrative, with subtle variations in the narrator’s mood. In this case the story is told in the first person by the central character, examining his life and what brought him to his current situation. An interesting style which the translator did a good job of capturing (as far as I can tell).

I only found a half-dozen grammatical errors, mostly missing words. It was easy to read, but a little on the stilted side, which was probably intentional. The translator knew the author well and spent a great deal of time studying the locations described and talking with Yu Miri, so they probably got it right.

The central story is sprinkled with rather long and confusing segments of historical background. I had to go to Wikipedia to get some of this straight. I’m sure it’s technically accurate, but was oversimplified either by the author or translator; after all, this isn’t a historical novel. These soliloquies are thinly disguised as the words of characters sometimes but also are introduced by the narrator.

Otherwise, the writing style is terse, like the simple thoughts of the narrator. Very short paragraphs indicating someone who doesn’t have deep thoughts. Very evocative of their state of mind. However, a major decision that created the situation described in the book is utterly without explanation. Not a single word of justification. Nothing. If this behavior is common for people like the narrator, that could have been at least referred to. It’s like the author took a break at that critical juncture and, when they continued writing, forgot about the reason. There is an explanation of why some men do as the narrator, but no evidence at all that he would have made this decision. It left me confused.

This is a short review because this is a short book, even with all of the historical material, not much more than a short story. I would have preferred it without the extra material myself because it detracts from the real story. I would recommend it if you like to read about human experiences that are all too common, and very unpleasant, and learn a little Japanese history in the process.

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