It's almost a commonplace in the field of Japanese literature to say that a certain novelist is understudied. Shimazaki Toson certainly qualifies for this perfunctory lament, though in his case the neglect seems especially unwarranted, almost inversely proportional to his renown and canonical status in Japan. So a full length study of this novelist and his major works like Michael Bourdaghs' "The Dawn That Never Comes" is certainly welcome.
But while most of Toson's major novels are treated at length in this book, this is not a general survey but an in-depth consideration informed by postmodern critical theory and concerned with a particular unifying issue (as the subtitle gives away): the intricate relation of Toson's works (seemingly apolitical at first glance) with articulations of nationhood and nationalism prevalent in Japan during his time. I don't necessarily share the author's apparent assumption that the most important thing about literature is its supposed politics, and the incessant invocations of canonized "Theory Saints" (Foucault, Derrida, Bhabha, Deleuze & Guattari, and so on) became rather tiresome and repetitive to say nothing of superfluous (except for Benedict Anderson, whose inclusion makes perfect sense). Still, I found the author's arguments and discussions extremely interesting overall, and he presents his case with a clarity and coherence rare for studies subscribing to his chosen methodology. Some of his interpretations seem far-fetched, some seem surprisingly convincing, but none are boring.
As for far-fetched, the worst offender is in chapter two, where we get utterly bizarre pronouncements largely to the effect that germs don't really cause disease, that modern improvements in hygiene were all ideological instruments concocted by national governments to hegemonically control the populace (even the Red Cross comes off looking a bit sinister, ridiculously). Stuff that on a private blog would be laughed off as the most crackpot of conspiracy theories somehow acquires an aura of legitimacy when published by a university press, but that really doesn't make it less unscientific and absurd. In the end some of the author's potentially intriguing insights on Toson's masterpiece "The Broken Commandment" are pretty much sabotaged by this silliness.
Frankly, if not for my compunction about always finishing a book I've started, I would have just tossed the book aside at this early point, and then I'd have missed out on the compelling tour-de-force that is chapter three. Toson's the "Family" is often critically praised or blamed (depending on the critic) for being unconcerned with society at large and oblivious to political considerations, exclusively focused as it is on the little world of the family. Bourdaghs then details the many contemporary debates on the family during the Meiji period and demonstrates conclusively how all sides concerned understood this debate to be an explicitly political one--this in turn casts radical new light on the novel in question, and one can readily see how in some ways it is indeed a rather blatant (though not completely unambiguous) political statement of sorts. Such a delightfully counterintuitive, eye-opening interpretation managed to make up for the prior Sokal-Hoax silliness quite well, and the rest of the book is closer in quality to chapter three than two, generally speaking.
As this suggests, too, the author pays a lot of attention to the various critical receptions of Toson's novels in Japan and is incredibly sensitive to how these may change and shift over time, often in tandem with key historical transformations. And of how earlier takes on a novel may tell us something important we might otherwise have missed. Some of the analysis is quite simply superb. It's quite clear that he's done extensive, careful research in this regard, and many of the most fascinating and (from my perspective) useful parts of the book were here. Indeed, much of this will stick in my mind long after the umpteenth citation of Deleuze & Guattari has thankfully faded from memory. Overall I would highly recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in modern Japanese literature.