[Review] “Gold Rush” by Miri Yu

    I first learned of Miri Yu’s work in 1997 when she was awarded the 116th Akutagawa Prize for Family Cinema (Kazoku Shinema). She was the first zainichi Korean writer to win the prize since Yangji Lee in 1988. I read Family Cinema in Japanese shortly after the award, and it sparked an interest in literature by zainichi Koreans. In 2003, the editor of Persimmon (now defunct) asked me to review the English translation of Gold Rush (Gorudo Rasshu), a novel published two years after Family Cinema.


    Gold Rush by Miri Yu, translated by Stephen Snyder. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2002. 288 pages, $25.00 hardcover.

    Contemporary Japanese fiction comes in extremes of light and dark, and of these, light is the more popular. For most recession-weary Japanese readers, dark, psychological fiction forces uncomfortable realities to the surface, exhausting readers in the process. Light fiction in the form of mysteries and comics offers escape to the world of ordered fantasy. Miri Yu, the darkest writer to appear on the Japanese literary scene in years, is thus an odd candidate for literary stardom. Since winning the prestigious Akutagawa Award in 1997, Yu’s work has come to epitomize the darkness of an age of decay and decadence. Ryu Murakami, another popular writer on the dark side, still holds out hope that the “lost ten years,” as he calls the 1990s can somehow be recovered.

    Miri Yu is clearly beyond such hopes as Gold Rush shows so starkly. The novel is a curious choice to introduce Yu’s work in English because Akutagawa Award winner Family Cinema received more media attention and was later made into a film directed by Park Cheol-soo. Family Cinema was the first of Yu’s novels to appear in French. The choice of Gold Rush over the more popular and accessible Family Cinema perhaps came down to the depth of darkness. Published in 1998, a year after Family Cinema, Gold Rush represents the crescendo of darkness in Yu’s work that has since faded as she has branched out into other genres such as essay writing.

    The protagonist in the novel is Kazuki Yuminaga, a 14-year old boy who grew up in a dysfunctional family that became wealthy off a chain of pachinko parlors.  Within the first few pages, Kazuki turns violent as he joins a gang rape after snorting cocaine with his buddies. For Kazuki, violence is a way of being that the world around him justifies. Seeking to take over his father’s pachinko empire, Kazuki kills his father by hitting him over the head with a vase and cutting him up with a samurai sword. He hides the body in the basement vault stashed with gold bars. The rest of the story follows Kazuki’s failed attempts to gain control over his father’s business among bursts of guilt and consuming paranoia.

    The rest of the family is peripheral to the plot, coming and going as stage props in the drama of Kazuki’s troubles. His older brother, Koki, has Williams syndrome, which has left him naïve and unprepared for life in the “real world.” Blaming the disease on wealth and greed, Kazuki’s mother, Miki, joined an ascetic religious cult and lives apart from the family. His older sister, Miho, a victim of her father’s sexual abuse, ran away from home and has few contacts with family.

    As in Family Cinema, the theme of the family as a collection of indifferent and at times hostile strangers grinds through the plot of Gold Rush as it has through Yu’s own life. Born to zainichi Korean (ethnic Koreans who were born and live permanently in Japan without Japanese citizenship) parents, Yu’s own family was dysfunctional and she spent much of her teenage years running away from home and school. As a zainichi Korean on the run, Yu saw first hand the violence and despair that places social dropouts and outcasts in such peril in Japan’s tightly-wound society. The depth of Yu’s pain gives the darkness in her work an authenticity that distinguishes her from other writers who treat the dark side as social commentary rather than personal experience. The voice of Kazuki near the end could well be Yu’s: “The darkness in the floor in the basement spread out behind Kazuki’s eyelids. Total darkness. Darkness that illuminated darkness itself like a kind of negative light. He rubbed his chest, feeling affection for the darkness in the vault, darkness so much like that in his own heart.”

    The translator Stephen Snyder captures the plot and characters well, but, at times, has trouble capturing the range of speech levels in Japanese, particularly in informal conversation. The translation would have benefited from a translator’s preface to place Miri Yu and her work in context and to explain his choice of Gold Rush to introduce her work in English.

    The violence in Gold Rush may come as a surprise to readers who are familiar with modern Japanese classics by Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki, or to lighter contemporary works by Murakami Haruki and Banana Yoshimoto. Yet, Miri Yu has succeeded in revealing the darkest of the dark side of Japan in a richly authentic voice that more than makes up for the use of characters that seem too convenient for the plot. Gold Rush expands the range of Japanese literature available in English translation and is the first novel by a zainichi Korean writer to appear English. It raises hopes that more of Miri Yu’s work and that of other zainichi Korean writers will appear in English.


    Original Article: Fouser, Robert J, “Gold Rush by Miri Yu” (translated by Stephen Snyder, New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2003) Persimmon, Vol. 3, 3, 2003.

    © 2015 Robert J. Fouser

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