The challenge of translating a novel from another language is balancing the style and tone with the literal text. Lean too far towards literary flourish and you're radically altering the content of the book. Stay too true to the literal text and you lose the nuance of wordplay in the original language that probably can't carry over directly. The English translation of Ring by Koji Suzuki poses an even greater challenge. The novel centers on a newspaper reporter and a philosophy professor who use the scientific method and many hours of research to solve the riddle of a potentially deadly video tape. Is the blunt prose the intended effect of Suzuki to best represent the non-fiction world of the two main characters? Or is it an unintended side effect of translating a medical sci-fi novel so couched in Japanese culture?
Ring, the inspiration for the popular Japanese horror series and blockbuster US remake, is a quiet investigative thriller. Kazuyuki Asakawa, the newspaper journalist trying to find out how four teenagers all died at the same time from heart failure, is not a particularly engaging protagonist. He is a calm and understated man more than willing to take no for an answer. He would rather hold his cards close to his chest than risk being told no before he sees a story through to the end.
Ryuji Takayama, the philosophy professor who gets caught up in Asakawa's nightmare, is a loathsome protagonist. He brags about all the girls he has raped and is more concerned with drinking and his young female students than getting any work done. When he focuses, he's smarter and more intuitive than Asakawa. He just chooses not to focus as hard as he should.
Asakawa travels to a remote resort to spend a night in a cabin rented by the four deceased teenagers. He finds a note in the guestbook that mentions a strange unmarked tape and chooses to watch it himself for clues into the death. The man has convinced himself that the four young people died from an undiscovered virus and anything in the cabin could lead him to the cause. The end of the tape tells him he will die in seven days if he does not carry out a charm to save himself. However, the charm instructions were erased from the tape by the teenagers after they watched it.
The Ring series is now defined by the iconic image of the stringy-haired ghost Sadako (or, in the US version, Samara). Koji Suzuki presents a far more disturbing alternative. Sadako is not some monstrous child built of pure evil and chaos. She is a staggeringly beautiful young woman who faced overwhelming adversity throughout her life. Once you take out the evil element of the tape's curse, you enter a bizarre world where the plight of two men fighting for their lives is less tragic than the tale of the woman responsible for their ordeal.
Suzuki's Ring novels are willing to explore a very dark world. Your level of interest will come down to how well you respond to the translation. The prose is very dry and matter of fact. The tone doesn't change when the focus shifts between Asakawa and Ryuji and the description of the tape reads the same as a discussion over when to break for lunch at the library. Ring is a fascinating story that doesn't pop on the page like it could.
This review was written as part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read series. Go read some great book reviews for charity.