UNLESS one is a lexicologist, novels based on the production of a dictionary does not sound very appealing. However, The Great Passage is a hidden gem of a tale that deserves to be read.

The novel opens with two simple and direct statements: “Kohei Akari had devoted his entire life – his entire working life – to dictionaries. Words fascinated him, always had.”

From the start, readers are thrown into Akari’s world where, as a child of working class parents, he was told to stay out of trouble. That meant going to school in the morning and helping out in his parents’ shop after school.

Japanese author Shion Miura makes it known early on that words – and in particular the dictionary – did not hold much interest for Akari. Akari’s love affair with the dictionary only came about when he received the Iwanami Japanese Dictionary as a gift from his uncle for starting lower secondary school.

To demonstrate his love of words, Miura provides definitions for particular words that Akari is fond of and describes his fascination at how one word can have multiple meanings when used in different contexts. As an example, Miura goes to great lengths to describe how the word “dog” can mean more than just a four-legged animal. While this might seem a tad bizarre, the detailed explanation (which is almost clinically academic in its delivery) serves the storyline well.

Dictionary making is backdrop to an examination of social interaction in The Great Passage

The Great Passage by Shion Miura (AmazonCrossing, 2017)

It is within the opening chapter that Miura makes it known that after spending 37 years producing dictionaries, Akari’s retirement is coming up and the publishing house, Gembu Books, is looking for someone to take over the compiling and publication of The Great Passage, the new dictionary that is in the pipeline.

Mitsuya Majime from the sales department joins the dictionary team and learns from Akari the art of producing a dictionary. It is here that Miura delves into the technicalities of putting such a book together, from the choosing of words (there is a struggle from an experienced hand’s point of view at not using outdated terminology versus adding more current slang; this can be seen as a generational gap and how a point of reference such as a dictionary has to keep up with the times to keep itself from becoming obsolete), their definitions, the font size, the type of binding, the size of the book, the cover art.

Through Akari’s interactions with Majime, readers are given a glimpse of the highs and lows of not only The Great Passage project, but life in a Japanese publishing house. There are politics at play with staff members wanting to move up the career ladder; there is tension that The Great Passage may be shelved as the project is taking longer than expected; there is sorrow as Akari is forced to leave Gembu Books due to the passing of time.

It has to be mentioned that Majime is rather socially inept and has trouble interacting with people. Majime has feelings for Kaguya Hayashi but does not have the ability to let her know. Following Akari’s advice Majime starts to write love letters to Hayashi, borrowing words from The Great Passage to express himself to the woman he fancies. This social ineptness results in a bumbling of manners and misunderstanding, all of which serves as comedy.

The Great Passage is, admittedly, a rather quirky novel, and one that has passages awash in symbolism. The dictionary may be the backbone to the story but the novel is essentially about people and human emotions. Despite the characters’ aloofness, Akari’s interactions with Majime and Majime’s love for Hayashi propel the novel forward, bringing a touch of humanity to a thankless job and an industry that is more concerned about pushing numbers than their staff members.

The flaw in the novel lies in the translation, which veers between using American and British jargon or slang, which gives the novel an uneven feel. (If read in the original Japanese it can be assumed that the novel would have a better flow.)

That said, The Great Passage is a charming, heart-warming, funny and poignant tale of human behaviour and human interaction. Well worth a read.

The Great Passage

Author: Shion Miura

Translator (Japanese to English): Juliet Winters Carpenter

Publisher: AmazonCrossing, fiction