Japanese literature review: “The Glimmer of Ink” (墨のゆらめき)By Shion Miura (三浦しをん)

By | August 15, 2023

Being busy with various things, I haven’t had a chance to read much paper-media Japanese literature in the last few months. But when I saw “The Glimmer of Ink” (墨のゆらめき)by Shion Miura (三浦しをん)in the Beaverton Kinokuniya bookstore, I decided to take another dive back into the delightful world of Japanese literature.

Shion Miura is known for the popular novel (and corresponding anime) “The Great Passage” (舟を編む), a story about a small group of people working on constructing a massive, comprehensive dictionary. I admit I only watched the anime, but I found it really interesting, especially in terms of the great depth and nuance words can have. So I had pretty high expectations coming into “The Glimmer of Ink”––partially because I have done Japanese calligraphy as a hobby off and on for the last few years.

“The Glimmer of Ink” is essentially a tale about their relationship, without a huge amount of action or story development, except for a few key events. Calligraphy is a part of the story, but it wasn’t nearly as much a major element as words were to “The Great Passage” (at least as far as I remember). While there were some great descriptions about how calligraphy is performed or how it looks, ultimately I was somewhat disappointed since I was expecting more of the book to focus on it. 

The book focuses on two people: A middle aged man who works at a hotel (Chikara san), and a younger man who makes a living as a calligrapher (Toda san). As calligraphic writing perhaps isn’t as important in other countries as in Japan, I should add that he makes money by teaching calligraphy as well as doing contact work writing people’s names in his professional style, often for events like weddings or the like. In fact, one such job is how the two characters meet, when Toda san is hired to do his brushwork for an event at Chikara san’s hotel. But more notable is the major contrast between these two characters’ personalities: Chikara is very polite and proper, whereas Toda san is casual and brusque, sometimes to the point of being rude. 

As usual, I am not going to get much into the development of the story so as to not ruin anything, but I will say that I was underwhelmed by some of the key turning point(s). But on the other hand, I feel that I did learn to appreciate certain aspects of Japanese culture to a deeper degree.

I think “The Glimmer of Ink” would be most enjoyable in movie form, where the personalities of the characters can really be emphasized, along with the visual elements of calligraphy. By the way, this book is one of the few I’ve read where a cat is given an important role as a side character, and the author’s descriptions of the cat’s movement and behavior were especially touching (I have a cat myself).

Miura’s style is beautiful and easy to follow, with the exception that she uses a lot of words you may have never heard before, especially if you are a non-native Japanese reader. But if you are learning Japanese this is a great thing, given that you have the patience to look up the words in a dictionary. At times I almost felt that the author was going out of her way just to use “literary” words that were not common in daily life, but given the emphasis on the beauty and depth of words in “The Great Passage”, I think Miura simply has a different, more diverse way of expressing herself than some other authors.

I’ll provide a (unoffical) translation from page 206 to give a short example of Miura’s style. 

Toda picked up the brush and softly touched its tip to paper, a movement so natural that I couldn’t help feeling he had chosen the perfect predefined moment, like a hunter pulling the trigger to bring down its prey.

After that things seemed to happen in an instant, yet it also felt as if the flow of time suddenly slowed down. I could only stand there and stare frozen as all of the sound and oxygen in the room were absorbed by the jet-black line produced by Toda’s freely winding brushwork.

The diversity of language in this book can also be seen in how Chikara san speaks with somewhat formal language, and Toda san speaks with very casual language, often using slang expressions. Besides the personality contrast element, understanding the difference between their styles is a good exercise in honing your ability to properly understand the nuances of Japanese speech. For example, in one particularly tense conversation Toda san switches from his usual polite “watashi” first-person pronoun to “ore”, a much more casual pronoun. Trying to pay attention to subtleties like this will help take your Japanese to a new level. And as a bonus, you get to learn a bunch of terms related to calligraphy.

The everyday settings and events of this book also make it great for language learners. I think it’s one of those books that gives you exposure to certain words and expressions that you might not easily come across in typical entertainment media, things that you would experience if you actually lived in Japan. To give you an example, there’s one dialogue line where Chikara san literally says, “Can I borrow your bathroom?”

In the end, while I wasn’t blown away by the storyline of “The Glimmer of Ink”, it had a quiet beauty that left an impression on me that I expect will last. I recommend checking out this book, especially if you are a Japanese learner and want to get into some real honest-to-goodness literature. There doesn’t seem to be an English version available yet, but given the success of “The Great Passage” I wouldn’t be surprised if one came in in the near future. But besides reading it in Japanese, there is also an audible audiobook available, which is nice.

As a side point, thanks to “The Glimmer of Ink” I have gotten back into calligraphy, and am practicing almost every day. Once in awhile I will post samples of my work on Twitter.

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