‘The Great Passage’ by Japanese author Shion Mura is all about the business of dictionary making. Majime is an asocial marketing professional, who is spotted and chosen by a senior retiring from the Dictionary division of Gembu books to carry on his work. A few pages into the novel, one wonders if one can finish what seems like a dry tale about a bunch of dedicated linguistic experts devoting years of their lives on publishing a mammoth dictionary called ‘The Great Passage’.
Translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter, this isn’t the kind of story you’d want to stay up all night for, but it did turn out to be something one could enjoy reading a few pages before turning to bed, for me at least. Shion Mura through this tale explores the nature of words, their eternal nature and their hold over mankind. Unfortunately, the essence of the book is lost in translation, because the chapters are peppered with Japanese phrases, and even though their meanings are explained, it just doesn’t hit the international reader the way it would it would affect someone who knew Japanese.
While there are about three primary characters, the hermit-like Majime is central of them all, who dedicates almost every waking minute of his life to making dictionaries. And yet, there’s also slight romance sprinkled amid all the nerd talk about words, their etymology, evolution, examples, distortions and cultural relevance. Majime’s relationship with his wife makes for an interesting study of a union between two people who are extremely attached to their profession, and yet make their marriage work, striking a kind of harmony (even if mundane) most couples can only dream of.
Story-wise, ‘The Great Passage’ isn’t exactly an exciting adventurous pick, there are no plot twists, no villains, and definitely no drama. However, it’s a tribute to the invisible men and women who put in their blood and sweat to produce something that might leave a lasting legacy. “A dictionary is a ship that crosses the sea of words,” the characters believe, and it takes them over a decade to bring that ship to conclusion. In some ways, this novel is a slow-burn romance, a love story between a small editorial team and their next big book.
It’s a 4/5 from me.
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