The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

themelancholy By Nagaru Tanigawa [LibraryThingAmazon]

Kyon just wants a normal high school experience, but that all changes when he meets the beautiful but highly volatile Haruhi Suzumiya. Soon he’s drawn into her S.O.S. Brigade, a club on the lookout for quest for the supernatural, the paranormal, and the extraterrestrial. But as he quickly discovers, the other members of the S.O.S. Brigade are precisely the paranormal beings Haruhi is looking for. Even more alarming is the news that Haruhi has the power to destroy the universe, if she so chooses – and Kyon is the only one who can stop her.

This is a bit of a tricky review to write, since Haruhi Suzumiya was originally a Japanese novel and my version’s a translation. Actually, Haruhi is apparently something of a phenomenon in Japan, with nine novels, three mangas (one of which is sampled at the end of the translation), three video games, and an anime for television. It’s hard to tell how much of the issues with the book stem from the translation, and it’s hard to know what judgments are fair to make on a novel that springs from a culture so different from my own.

That said…this book is pretty terrible.

I’m not sure who did the translation; my copy credits it to MX Media, LLC, so presumably it was fed through Babelfish or the like. It’s not just that idioms don’t match up. There are grammatical mistakes, tenses switch from past to present and back again willy nilly, sometimes multiple times within the same sentence, and even when there aren’t any technical problems the prose is stilted and hard to understand. Here’s the opening sentence: “The question of how long someone believed in Santa Claus is a worthless topic that would never come up in idle conversation.” I had to read that four times to parse it, and once I got it I was just irritated by the awkward, passive construction. And the whole book is like that.

Even worse than the translation were the bizarre sexual shenanigans. Haruhi drags Asahina, a girl who is even more beautiful than she is, into the S.O.S. Brigade because she believes that having what she describes as an incredibly sexy Lolita in the group will cause more adventures to happen. Then she gropes her. Then she blackmails the president of the computer club into giving the S.O.S. Brigade a computer by grabbing his hand, forcing it onto Asahina’s breast, and having Kyon photograph it; when his club protests on behalf, she threatens to accuse them of gang raping Asahina. Then she forcibly strips Asahina and forces her into various fetish outfits, including a bunny girl and a maid. Through all of this, Asahina cries piteously and begs for her to stop, but though Kyon thinks Haruhi’s behavior is wrong, and has promised Asahina he will stop Haruhi from doing it, he just watches. Not only that, but he says multiple times that it’s super hot watching all of this, and that Asahina’s distress just makes it more appealing, to wit: “Cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she was forced into poses accentuating her chest, Asahina awkwardly smiled at the camera, her eyes watering close to tears. She was oozing incomparable charm.” The real kicker, though, is when Kyon stops Haruhi from posting the sexy maid pictures on the club’s website – but saves them to a hidden, password-protected folder: “I’ll save them for my private viewing pleasure.” And yes, this creepily voyeuristic, pathetically passive accomplice to sexual harassment, blackmail, and false accusations of rape is the hero.

The sad thing is that the story itself isn’t bad. It’s fairly different than what I’ve seen before, at least as far as Western fantasy/sci fi goes, and without the icky sexual violence and with, you know, readable prose, I could see Haruhi and Kyon’s relationship being actually kind of adorable. There are certainly glimmers of likeability from Haruhi, when she’s not violating people. Part of me even wants to know exactly what Haruhi’s powers signify, and what’s going to happen next.

Because of all this, and because I feel like I should give it that benefit of the doubt rather than pass sweeping judgment on another culture, I’m not giving it a zero. But because it was so nigh unreadable – yes, it’s a translation, but somehow I feel like Little Brown can afford to hire a decent translator and/or editor – and because all the molestation, both literal and figurative, was completely unforgivable, I’m giving it as close to a zero as possible. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya gets half a cupcake, and not a crumb more.

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    4 Responses to “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”

    1. Garoben says:

      I uh… I haven’t read this novel. I only watched the anime – and not even all of it. Frankly, I didn’t like it that much. I just kinda got bored.

      What I wanted to comment on was the molestation of Asahina… I always took that to be a parody of Otaku culture. The thing about it is, japanese Otaku culture and American Otaku culture are pretty different – in Japan Otaku is an offensive word and Otaku are considered perverted freaks, mostly. So I always kind of took it as… jokey. Not in an okay way, but in a way that may shed some light on it. It’s very much a parody type of show.

      That said, frankly I got bored with Haruhi, and as I said, I never read the light novel.

      Also: A really interesting well translated series of light novels from Japan that I liked were the 12 kingdoms series. Not at all romantic, I would put them in the “political fantasy” genre, and they’re really quite different and easy to read and understand even if you know nothing about Japan. The first is Sea of Shadow, and they are written by Fuyuimi Ono (I think.)

    2. Sadako says:

      Wow, this sounds out there. The weird sex stuff I don’t mind (hey it’s a Japanese book, gotta be weird, right?) but badly written/translated stuff sucks.

    3. Taka says:

      Clearly you’ve never read the original Japanese…. The tenses are designed that way for reasons that are explained later on.

      “The question of how long someone believed in Santa Claus is a worthless topic that would never come up in idle conversation.”

      What’s wrong with that? It’s saying “how long they lasted until they stopped believing.” Paste tense is right there in the Japanese for that.

      The translator did a fantastic job adapting clunky dialog. It’s not the translator’s job to adapt it into flawless masterpiece if the original isn’t one.

      If you spoke Japanese, you’d understand.

    4. Jessica says:

      Taka-

      I believe I made it clear in my review that I didn’t read the original Japanese. I’m confused by your argument here – are you saying that the original Japanese isn’t very good and so the translation captures that mediocrity well, or that there are nuances in the Japanese language that can’t be translated and so this is the best we can hope for? If the former, I pointed out in my review that I couldn’t tell whether the weaknesses of the prose are the writer’s or the translator’s. If the latter, I don’t think that’s true, since I’ve encountered much better translations of Japanese. Either way it doesn’t excuse flat-out grammatical mistakes.

      As far as the switching tenses being “explained later on,” I’m not about to read the second book in a series if the first book is full of what looks like errors (which is what switching tenses are), even if they have a purpose. What reader would say “Well, this book is poorly written, but maybe that will be explained in the next book! I think I’ll buy it”?

      As regards the Santa Claus sentence, it’s simply very awkward and passively constructed, so much so that it becomes confusing. A clearer, more active version might read: “No one ever talks about when they stopped believing in Santa Claus. It’s a worthless topic.” (Of course, clarifying the structure of the sentence only makes it clearer that it’s not actually true, since I’ve heard that sort of conversation many times, but that’s beside the point.) And it’s not actually in the past tense – it’s a passive structure to a present-tense sentence.

      Finally, I would like to ask you to please read our comment policy. I thought you had some interesting points and I do want to hear from someone who has read the original Japanese, but your comment was borderline rude.

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