Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Counter-song to 'The Friendliness of the World'

Where is the literature of work? There are all sorts of theoretical issues and problems clustered around this question, to be sure, and labour’s harder, possibly, to draw out in narrative form in an era when – as Jameson has it - “representation is not conceived as a dilemma but as an impossibility”, but, all the same, the fact the question is asked so infrequently ought to give us pause.

There’s something grotesque in the claim that literature about work is boring, too. It’s one of those claims that seems, usefully, to be an aestheticism and willing impractical; I’m starting to suspect, though, that it involves a more knowing complacency, and comfort with the existing order, than usually needs acknowledged. A future historian could read many volumes of contemporary literature without realizing that there had never been a bosses’ offensive through the 1980s and 1990s.

What is the alternative? Part of my day job involves trying to keep up to date with contemporary literature, and so I can say this with confidence: there are few things more boring than ‘literary’ novels about middle-class people getting divorced, or having affairs, or experiencing revelations whilst travelling.  And yet these trash works, readers – the sub-genre Iain Banks calls the ‘Hamstead novel’ – are the works that manage to intimidate and brow-beat many any un-‘literary’ reader, and to dominate much of the reviews pages of the ‘quality’ press.

Perhaps the representational problems of contemporary capitalism aren’t all so very different from its earlier forms, and what we’re facing is instead a problem of strategy and outlook amongst writers. The details emerging in the last months about conditions onboard fishing ships in the Southern Ocean cry out for a Shelley or a Marge Piercy to record the disgust and indignation we all should be feeling. Workers have been kept in virtual slavery, subjected to violence, abuse, and sexual assault. They’ve had their wages denied, and have been sent into dangerous seas in what look (from reports and from my memory of seeing these ships in Dunedin) like rusted and decrepit wrecks. The entire situation is a scandal.

The desperation and horrors the international crews of these ships – the Oyang 77 and all the rest – face remind us too, though, of how a literature of work – by which I might as well make clear I also mean a means of communication for workers – may be reforged. It’s no accident that watersiders’ and seamens’ unions have been historical sources of militancy, clarity and courage: if the ruthlessness of shipping company bosses forced conditions in the industry to ghastly lows, long periods and sea together – and the spread of ideas, publications, and magazines from country to country – produced intense cultures of solidarity and class consciousness. Ships were, for many generations, the universities of the working-class movements.


In 2008 the Japanese book world was surprised by the sudden revival of a long-lost classic. Kobayashi Takiji’s Kani Kosen (The Crab Cannery Boat), first published in 1929, sold around 380 000 copies in the first part of 2008; its publishers would usually be happy with a run of 5 000 or so. A manga version came out that same year, and a film adaptation followed. Kobayashi’s novel – the story of deprivation, abuse and, eventually, resistance, on a fishing boat – has, for most of its life, been read as a piece of literary history, a classic of leftist ‘proletarian’ literature. Kobayashi’s new readers, though, were Japan’s ‘new poor’, casualised, underemployed and precarious workers in their 20s and 30s for whom the novel’s representations of workplace humiliation, sexual harassment and assault, isolation and drudgery had immediate, and contemporary, relevance.

Kobayashi’s surprise revival wasn’t altogether surprising; as Norma Field has pointed out, a number of figures in publishing and Kobayashi scholarship had been working for many years to make his rediscovery possible. But his new audience – and the new readings of his work they enable – is exciting nonetheless: the latest Kobayashi ‘wave’ has produced, as well as manga and film adaptations, a play and other creative interpretations.

Kani Kosen’s twenty-first century life demonstrates, for me at least, that the audience for literature about work is undiminished. The decline of interest in workers’ literature and literature of work (not always the same thing, to be sure) is more to do with the political struggle within literary criticism than it is to do with any real changes in society or the social struggle. Being a socialist working in literary studies has been, for many years, a lonely job of work; I’ve a feeling from the ‘year of the protestor’ last year that it may become less so soon.

Reading accounts from the Oyang 77 and others, it was Kobayashi’s work that came into my mind. His realism was dedicated to documenting these outrages, and his account of life on a fishing ship gives me more of a sense of this experience than anything I’ve read since.

Kobayashi’s is an openly propagandistic work. He aims to expose the conditions in the shipping industry, and is quite obviously moved to write by a righteous anger. Literature, motivated by this anger, isn’t solely a tool for organizing, but it has its role to play:

"Capitalism, intending that labour remain unorganized, has ironically created a situation where it has caused it (almost spontaneously) to organise. I have attempted in this work to show how inexorably capitalism infiltrates the new territories and colonies to carry out a primitive exploitation and, with the backing of the powers that be and the armed forces as guards, watchmen and bullies, carries out a never-ending series of brutalities."

What then of Kani Kosen’s literary qualities? The mainstream of criticism follows much the same predictable path here as it has elsewhere: Kobayashi’s isn’t a Hampstead novel. Roy Starrs in Modernism and Japanese Culture remarks rather sniffily on the “pedestrian quality” of most proletarian literature, but this is to miss the point of Kobayashi’s formal radicalism and aesthetic aims. Kani Kosen is written in a ‘flat’, broken, ‘objective’ style, recording – like Isherwood’s line ‘I am a camera’ – as if without narrator or narrative presence, drawing the reader into the thisness of that particular social situation.

The horrors this book records are horrific precisely because they’re normal, everyday events. A violent beating onboard; rape as a sanctioned form of punishment; dirt; poverty; danger: the crisis, Kani Kosen’s organization implies, is precisely that none of this is taken as evidence of a crisis.

Does ‘poetry make nothing happen’? The authorities in the early years of the Showa Era didn’t think so. Kobayashi was arrested repeatedly, held for his involvement with the Communist Party and the Proletarian Writers’ Guild of Japan and, on 20th February 1933, he died as a result of torture and beatings he’d received in police custody. Having lost his job over his publications – “The Absentee Landlord” is a classic alongside Kani Kosen – he was eventually to lose his life. He was the same age I am now when he died.

There have in fact been two Kani Kosen revivals. A 1953 film version linked the narrative to the post-war revival of union militancy in Japan, and matched by repression from the US occupying forces and newly reorganized Japanese capitalist class. This latest revival catches Japanese capitalism at a different stage in its history, and draws – inevitably, given the decomposition of the union movement and the loss of traditions of revolt – more on the details of suffering and victimization than the last time around. This new Kobayashi may further inspire anger, though, and, with it, action.


One last detail to link Kani Kosen and our current situation imaginatively. Much has been made of the nationality of the sailors on board the Korean-owned ships, and of the divisions between the foreign-owned vessels, the waters they work in, and the homelands of the crew.

It’s obvious there are tactics to divide and rule at work and that, at times, these have been successful. But this bosses’ strategy is a high-risk one, too; creating an internationalized workforce, they may find themselves with a newly organized, and unanticipated, opposition.

Kobayashi wrote Kani Kosen for internationalist purposes. He wrote in Japanese and for a Japanese market, but he never saw himself as a ‘Japanese’ writer – the label ‘proletarian literature’ is as much a utopian point of identification as it is a sociological-literary sign. Writing against racist and colonialist pieces on Korea and Koreas, Kobayashi insisted:

"The proletariat cries out that they are utterly opposed to imperialist wars, but I wonder how many workers in Japan really understand why they must protest. Nevertheless, they must be made to understand. This is a matter of utmost urgency."

This legacy revives, too. Norma Field reports that Kobayashi’s recent Korean translator and publisher - Yi Kwi-wðn and publisher Yi Sang-kyðng – travelled to speak at his birthplace in Akita in 2008. A more recent translation has appeared in Korean. On these affinities, Field observes:

Yi KwÄ«-wðn recounted how, as he translated the works of Marx or Lenin from Japanese translations in the course of underground activities in Pusan, he began to yearn for works of literature.  Encountering Takiji's works for the first time, and feeling a strong affinity for the portrayal of state violence (in "March 15, 1928") and underground struggle ("The Life of a Party Member") as well as the narrative of theCannery Ship, he translated the three, and his friend published them under the title of The Cannery Ship as soon as the Chun Doo-hwan regime came to an end.

Why did Yi Kwi-wðn feel the need for works of literature? Why, for that matter, did Takiji and his comrades feel the need to produce literature during their busy, danger-ridden pursuit of social transformation? And how important is the fact of its being a work of literature to the revival of the Cannery Ship?  We know that the title has provided an invaluable metaphor enabling people to grasp their current condition, but what about the work as a whole?

It remains to be seen if, and how, in these strange and familiar times, the experience of novelistic ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking will serve people seeking to redefine their world: from a collection of atomized consumers to a collectivity of citizens who, by forging solidarity around the necessity of work, have once gain begun to dream of a society dedicated to the flourishing of all.

The literature of work never disappeared, and it was never forgotten. We’ve faced, rather, modes of reading – and practices of criticism – that have operated as a kind of anti-memory, erasing these dissident, radical, internationalist traditions of proletarian literature.

The news from the Southern Ocean convinces me, though, that this is a tradition ready to be revived.


Norma Field’s essay in Japan Focus is excellent. Read it here, if you missed the links above. Thanks to Shomi Yoon, who first introduced me to Kobayashi, and who wrote on him here. Neojaponisme have a very good introductory piece on Kani Kosen - and a translation of chapter one - here.

Roy Starrs’ quote I take from his Modernism and Japanese Culture (Palgrave 2011), an otherwise very valuable book.

I was prompted to write this in part from the work I’ve been doing to support the Maritime Union of NewZealand in their current struggle at Ports of Auckland. If you’re reading from New Zealand, look up Save Our Port.


  1. In German literature that gets translated the 'Hamstead' novel reigns supreme, but in mostly untranslated works by writers who grew up in the former GDR there is often a non-didactic focus on the lives of the, for lack of a better word, underclass and particularly the impact of capitalism on people brought up in the former GDR. Of translated works the closest in this respect that I can think of is Ingo Schulze's Simple Stories whose construction mirrors the fractured reality of its protagonists. If you can read German then I recommend anything by Katja Lange-Müller (she is good at writing about the underclass in an unpatronising way - Böse Schafe is incredible) and the short stories of Gregor Sander (esp. Ich aber bin hier geboren).

  2. Thanks for the comment and the recommendations, Schultzie! I don't know Katja Lange-Mueller at all, and will look her up. Kerstin Hensel is a favourite of mine, and her "Tanz am Kanal" I think combines formal experimentation with an ethical seriousness and interest in the question of work (and its lack).