I recently ran across a curious dictionary of nothing but one-letter words. The author of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary spent fifteen years compiling 275 pages of definitions of words consisting of only one letter. This is the dictionary, as one reviewer put it, for “anyone who has forgotten that Z was the Roman letter for 2000.” It also reminds us that “X” has no fewer than seventy meanings in addition to “10,” including everything from “wrong” (“batsu” in Japanese as well) to the place where one’s signature on a ballot should go, to a rating for an adult movie, a power of magnification and, of course, the symbol for a kiss.
I discovered this little alphabetical chrestomathy because its author, Craig Conley, cites as his inspiration a story by a detective novelist that I have written about and translated. “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I first got the idea to write a dictionary of one-letter words,” Conley writes. But “I remember once hearing about a bizarre Japanese crime novel from 1929, The Devil’s Apprentice by Shiro Hamao, and how the entire work consisted of a single letter. The single letter was obviously a written correspondence, but I initially envisioned a single letter of the alphabet. And I marveled at how bizarre indeed it would be to write a detective story that all boiled down to a solitary letter of the alphabet!”
Hamao’s story is indeed taken up by a single letter. It is written by a man in jail for murder, and addressed to his former lover, who is also the prosecutor trying his case, and whom the alleged murderer blames for leading him astray into homosexuality and other crimes. Conley’s productive misinterpretation of the story as a novel consisting of a “single letter” (一つとの文字) rather than “a single letter” (一通の手紙) is a great example of what can be gained, rather than lost, in translation. The misunderstanding, based on single scrap of text without context, opens his mind to the signifying capacity of single letters and leads him to produce his dictionary of one-letter words, like some queer companion volume to George Perec’s La Disparition, a detective novel that was famously written without ever using the letter “e.”
Might it be possible to tease a narrative out of just one letter? A single “character” one would have—protagonist perhaps. If not a majuscule, a miniscule character, one who could at least play a minor supporting role in a drama to which our imagination might supply the rest. Conley continues, “I imagined some sort of gritty retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, where a bloody letter A serves as the only scrap of evidence to unravel a seedy tale of adultery, heartbreak, and murder.” If Craig Conley could come up with thousands of meanings for the 26 letters of the alphabet, who’s to say how many stories might not be condensed into any one of those letters?