Quillion Sleigh, Poet

An American amateur sleuth in Tokyo

By William Wetherall

First drafted late 1970s
First posted 18 September 2006
Last updated 1 October 2006

Interview with Tsuzuki

Most of the following remarks are from the notes I typed after meeting Tsuzuki in 1976.

I met and briefly intereviewed Tsuzuki Michio at his Tokyo study on the afternoon of 2 August 1976. I had called him a number of times, sometimes getting his wife, sometimes him. Both always turned me down, on account of his being too busy finishing a story, before he finally granted me an audience.

I have never, since approaching Tsuzuki, attempted to contact another writer, though I was tempted to try and see Matsumoto Seicho. I am one close mutual friend away from Oe Kenzaburo, who has sent me a bottle of wine and an inscribed copy of A Quite Life through this friend -- but I have never wanted to invade his privacy, having myself discovered the necessity, and learned the art, of keeping the world at bay.

Tsuzuki's study

Tsuzuki owned two small condominium apartments, next to each other. He lived in one and worked in another. He received me in the apartment where he had been squatting on a zabuton editing a manuscript.

He cleared a place on the table and, a few minutes later, his wife came in with a couple of glasses of orange juice. This was a real treat in as how it was very hot, and the "orenjijyuusu" was the real thing at a time when it was likely to be orange drink.

Masaaki Kishi

A student of English-language detective fiction and a practioner of the traditions of such fiction in Japanese, Tsuzuki is also a published critic of "Asian" stereotypes in Euroamerican entertainment literature.

Tsuzuki was thus amused to hear that I had been comparing Quillion Sleigh with Mr. Moto. He was equally dismayed when I presented him with a copy of Masaaki Kishi's "Images of Americans in Japanese Popular Culture", which had recently been published in Journal of Popular Culture (Volume IX, Number 1, Summer 1975, pages 1-9), and he read the first paragraph (page 1).

The Life and Reasoning of Quillion Sleigh (1972) is the first Japanese detective story to have an American as its hero. Mr. Sleigh is an American college instructor turned avant-guarde poet. As an expatriate living in Tokyo, he solves a murder case involving a Negro. Mr. Moto, a Japanese detective J. P. Marquand created in 1936, had to wait thirty-six years for his counterpart to appear in Japan. It remains to be seen, however, whether Mr. Sleigh will succeed in establishing his status as firmly as Mr. Moto. In a homogeneous country like Japan, there is little room for an alien hero.

Tsuzuki's reaction to Kishi

Here I was talking to Sleigh's creator, and he was shaking his head. I had already concluded that much of what Kishi had written, not only about Quillion Sleigh but about images in popular fiction, were either misleading or wrong, and I wanted to witness Tsuzuki's reactions.

Tsuzuki laughed at a table with the heading "A List of Novels and Short Stories with a Title in Which the Word "America" or an American Place or Personal Name Appears" -- in which Kishi had included "The Life and Reasoning of Quillion Sleigh" -- italizing the name -- implying that "Quillion Sleigh" was an "American" personal name (Table A, pages 10-11).

Tsuzuki did not like Kishi's classification of the 1972 Sleigh book as "N" for "novel" either -- since actually it is a collection of short stories.

Kishi's English rendition of the Japanese title, too, gave Tsuzuki the impression that Kishi either (1) hadn't actually seen the 1972 volume, (2) saw it but failed to read it, (3) read it but neglected to take notes, or (3) took notes but lost them -- since a superior English title, created and preferred by Tsuzuki, is clearly shown in the Japanese edition of Kirion Surei no seikatsu to suiri as "The Life and Speculations of Quillion Sleigh, Poet".

To be continued.

Tsuzuki's Americanization

I had talked with Tsuzuki on the phone in Japanese, and though I would have accommodated him in English had he shown a desire not to speak Japanese with me (such people exist in this world, and I tend to be diplomatic) -- but we never exchanged a word of English. As he was a translator of fiction full of very vernacular English, I asked him if he could speak English, and he said not really. But he was a veteran translator and quickly seized the implications of what Kishi had written.

Tsuzuki confided that, unlike other writers of the genre who have worked out of Euroamerican traditions, he has not had professional non-Japanese acquaintances, and has not otherwise had American friends. Quillion Sleigh is indeed pure fiction based on little more than Tsuzuki's passively acquired knowledge of American culture and personality -- although his daughter, it turns out, has married an American and is living with him in the United States.

Tsuzuki's intentions

Tsuzuki insists that the Sleigh series was intended as simple parody entertainment rathere than personal expression. He resisted my suggestion that Sleigh represented his Japanese creator, who seems to have once been a "mystery nut" with unfulfilled writing ambitions. Of course, what a writer is capable of acknowledging about one's own intentions is not to be taken as definitive of the intentions that ultimately motivate literature of any form.

Tsuzuki commented that deep reflection on personal motives might prevent a writer like himself from creating his entertainment masterpieces.

Side comment -- But the outside observer has the opportunity to examine the life of the writer from the perspective of the writer's works, and while avoiding the fallacy that would oblige the observer to analyze the total literary production of the writer in view of the writer's life, and find at least superficial if not structural correlations. This is not to say that a literary work must be interpreted on the basis of what we know about its creator, for there are levels of creativity that allow a considerable psychological separation between personal behavior and fictional expression. But however we avoid intentional fallacies, we cannot avoid the psychodynamic link that must, in some sense, relate very literary work to its writer, no matter how wide or multilayered the psychological separation.

Coloring reality

Tsuzuki agreed that every detective fiction writer has to be a detective of sorts. The question is what kind of detective. If not a practicing or retired detective, one must at least be an armchair or closet detective. But while one is required to be familiar with basic police science and criminology, one also has to have a flair for the preposterous and unreal.

In mystery and detective fiction, the drab monochromes of the real cop and private eye burst into cathartic colors for the fantasy-craving reader -- only because the writer has the ability to color reality with fantasy.

Kishi's contentions

If Quillion Sleigh was intended as simple parody entertainment, this would be enough to prevent Sleigh from becoming an "alien hero" in the sense that Kishi seems to use the word. The popular "hero" may well be an object of sympathetic laughter. But no matter how sympathetic, laughter alone cannot sustain a "heroic" identification between character and beholder. The character must manifest behavior that permits the beholder a profoundly vicarious expression of one's own interests and aspirations. Parody rarely satisfies deeper vicarious needs or sustains momentary indentification.

I did not discuss the caricature of Sleigh with Tsuzuki, but it seems that most of his "American" protagonists have been the author's unwitting spoofs on the likes of "Asian" detectives in English fiction, like Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan. John Marquard and Earl Derr Biggers were no more knowledgable of the ethnic traditions they imputed to their "alien" protagonists than Tsuzuki is familiar with American life on the basis of first-hand experience with Americans.

Tsuzuki has criticized uninformed stereotypes that characterize much of the Euroamerican fiction set in "Asia" or depicting "Asians" in major or minor roles. Equally aaware of his own experiential limitations, he has not tried to represent "American" behavior in other than obviously stereotyped forms.

This is what makes Tsuzuki's approach somewhat different from that of either Marquand or Biggers: Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan are obviously caricatures, but their creators do not seem to have regarded them as ethnic parodies. Tsuzuki would probably not use the term "ethnic parody" to describe Quillion Sleigh, but his attitude towards his creation of Sleigh practically begs such a label.

More important, perhaps, is the probable impression of the reader who discovers Sleigh. In this regard, I would have to place Sleigh in the same category as Moto and Chan; all three caricatures ultimately invite sterotypic interpretations without the awareness that the interpretations are stereotypes. Seigh, however, seems to ahve the merit of being more obviously contrived, which possibly alerts the unintiated but otherwise sensitive reader to the danger of taking Sleigh as a real American. The portraits of Moto and Chan are, in contrast, so slick that even the sensitive reader is likely to believe that "Japanese" and "Chinese" really think and talk and behave like their fictional representatives.

The problem with even this is the relationship etween degree of initiation and sensitivity: the less initiated the reader in the complex culture of the personalities depicted in fiction, the less likely the reader's sensitivity will be strong enough to create an awareness of ignorance and hence a suspension of judgment -- the less the reader's ability to be able to identify the fictitious, the hyperbole, the caricature, the parody, the stereotype.

In other words, no degree of general humanistic sensitivity will compensate for ignorance when crossing cultural boundaries in literature. This is precisely the danger of Moto, Chan, and alas even Sleigh in their respective entertainment traditions. In the world of producers and consurmers, ultimately more dangerous than lack of knowledge and sensitivity on the part of the producers of pulp fiction stereotype, is the lack of intelligence and powers of judgment on the part of their consumers.

Future of series

Tsuzuki was still writing occassional Quillion Sleigh stories, he told me. But he also said the vein of creativity which had been inspiring them was playing out, so the Sleigh mine would probably close.