The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P
by Rieko Matsuura
Translated by Michael Emmerich
447 pages, $24.95
OVER THE PAST fifty years or so, Japanese literature has had a distinctive strain of what could be called magical realism. Many of its novels feature characters who undergo startling personal transformations manifested by uncommon, or downright bizarre, changes in their living situation or personal appearance. The work of novelist Kobo Abe, widely available in English translation, is perhaps the best example of this. In novels such as The Face of Another (1964), The Box Man (1973), and Kangaroo Notebook (1991), as well as a play titled The Man Who Turned Into a Stick (1967), Abe explores characters who experience physical dislocation, deformity, and even cross-species metamorphosis. Abe uses these for his exploration of the diffuse nature of identity.
The work of another novelist, Rieko Matsuura, who is less well known to English readers, fits squarely within this category of Japanese fiction. Her 1993 novel, The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, tells the story of a young woman, Mano Kazumi, who wakes up one morning to discover that the big toe of her right foot has transformed into a penis.