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Kyūsaku Yumeno: ドグラマグラ (Dogra Magra)

This novel was first published in 1935 to almost no acclaim whatsoever. Essentially, it disappeared for nearly thirty years. It was rediscovered by the philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi, who compared Yumeno to Kafka and Poe. Since then, it has been considered a classic of modern Japanese literature, though it has been translated into French and Chinese and into English through Lulu, the self-publishing company. However I would warn you that the English translation is awful.

It is easy to see both why it has become a classic of Japanese literature but also why it has not been translated into many languages. It is a detective novel (sort of) but also about what can best be described as psychological aberration. One of the main characters (who may be dead when the novel starts) maintains that everyone, without exception, is somewhat mentally deranged and this novel does its best to illustrate this point, as the most normal character in the book is a man who has forgotten his name and identity and who may or may not have been party to one or more major crimes. The other denizens of the institution (the University of Kyushu psychiatric ward), particularly the doctors, show a mental derangement which makes their patients seem relatively normal. Over seven hundred pages (in the Japanese edition) we follow the tale of the man with no name but also the writings of the key medical practitioners and there is no doubt that the doctors seem to be the more insane. Of course, as in any good detective novel, everything may not be what it seems.

In good Joycean fashion, the novel starts and ends with the sound of a clock. We meet our unnamed narrator. I say unnamed as, at the beginning, even he does not know his own name and the medical staff will not tell him because they want him to discover it for himself. In fact, we later learn that his name is Ichiro Kure or rather might be, if he is indeed Ichiro Kure, which he might not be. He is in a cell in a mental institution and has just woken up. He has no idea why he is there or, as I said, who he is. He hears the voice of a woman in the neighbouring cell calling to him. She calls him Big brother but says that she was his fiancée and that he killed her the night before their wedding. This disturbs him and, instead of answering her as she has requested, he tries to hide from the sound and eventually goes back to sleep. For the next a hundred plus pages we follow the story from his point of view.

The doctor is a large man, called Wakabayashi. He is not a psychiatrist but a professor of legal medicine (i.e. forensics) He has temporarily taken over, as the professor of psychiatry, Dr. Masaki, suddenly died recently. We later learn that he killed himself (or maybe he is not dead or maybe he did not kill himself). Professor Wakabayashi outlines to Kure the special treatment he has had. It seems that Dr. Masaki had predicted a long time ago that on this very day, he would regain his memory and remember everything. In particular, he would remember the details of the terrible crimes in which he was somehow involved and the real guilty parties. It seems that Dr. Masaki has come up with a technique which would allow someone to completely change the psyche of another person, so that they could effectively be controlled. Dr. Masaki kept details of this secret but Wakabayashi is worried that it may have somehow got out and someone has used it to control Kure and make him commit one or more unspeakable crimes. It is hoped that, if he recovers, he may be able to identify this person.

Wakabayashi tries various means to prompt Kure to remember who he is, including dressing him up in a student uniform, taking him to see the young woman next door, and, in particular, taking him to Dr. Masaki’s office, where, he hopes, Kure may recognise various items. Each time Kure examines something in the office, Wakabayashi is optimistic but Kure’s motive is just curiosity and not recognition. Kure looks at the photo of Masaki’s predecessor, Dr. Saito, who, oddly enough, died in mysterious circumstances, exactly a year before Masaki died and in exactly the same place (a river). He picks up a five-volume manuscript book called Dogra Magra. This had been written by a brilliant former inmate at the institution. After detailed research, they had found that Dogra Magra was a word used in Nagasaki and was used to indicate a religious incantation used by Christian priests, perhaps similar to our abracadabra. The student had written a strong criticism of Masaki and Wakabayashi, criticism they fervently denied but, at the same time, it was a detective story and a brilliant exposition of psychiatry; in short it seemed to be similar to the book we are reading.

We have learned of other works by Dr. Masaki and these are here, too, including his highly controversial doctoral thesis, a couple of interviews and his pre-suicide testament. The next (substantial) part of the novel consists of these texts, where we learn some of Dr. Masaki’s views. These include the idea that his theories are brilliant and others are too stupid to understand and appreciate them, that everyone is insane, that the idea that thoughts come from the brain is nonsense (they come from every cell in our body), that he has not published his great ideas as it would cause a great scandal, though it is, in his view, the greatest detective novel ever written, and that all humans are basically wild beasts.

We move on to a detailed case study of Kure, including the story of his life and, finally, the crimes which he may or may not have committed. In both cases, he was found with the bloody corpse. But did he kill the victims? If not, who did, as there is little evidence of anyone else having been present? Did he kill them without being aware that he killed them? Did he knowingly kill them but he has since forgotten that he did, because the trauma of killing them has made him amnesiac? Did someone somehow control him so that he killed them? Did he have a doppelgänger? Did someone come back from the past, an ancestor perhaps, and take hold of him and make him kill them? Did he have some genetic defect that made him kill them? And what is the role of the mysterious painted scroll of a dead woman?

Masaki and Wakabayashi look at these issues in their reports but, inevitably, it is more complicated than that, as we remain unsure of who is who, what is the nature of the relationships between the various characters and who is alive and who is dead. After the case studies, we return to Kure’s narration and, to his surprise, Masaki,who has killed himself, turns up. Or does he? Yumeno’s skill is to mix up the traditional roles of the detective story. Who exactly is the murderer, who the victim and who the detective? Yumeno is certainly not going to make it easy for us.

This is an absolutely brilliant novel. Half the time, you have no idea of what is going on or if the person speaking is who s/he says s/he is, made even more complicated because that person may himself or herself be unaware of his or her true identity. Yumeno was apparently a great enthusiast of detective novels and clearly was highly critical of contemporary psychiatric treatment. Indeed, this novel falls well into the literary tradition of seeing mental institutions as a way of brutally suppressing freedom of thought and as a symbol for repression of thought throughout society, as in such novels as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Чапаев и Пустота (UK: The Clay Machine-Gun; US: Buddha’s Little Finger). But whether you see this novel as a very clever and complicated detective novel or as a damnation of the psychiatric profession or, as you should, as both, it is a first-class novel. Sadly, it is not available in English, though someone seems to have briefly started doing so.

Publishing history

First published in 1935 by Shōhakusha Shoten
First English translation by Lulu in 2019