Sunday, 20 April 2014

'Oh, Tama!' by Mieko Kanai (Review)

Kurodahan Press were kind enough to support my January in Japan event earlier this year by offering a few prizes, and while I'd read one of the three offerings, the other two looked quite interesting too...  Luckily enough, I was able to get review copies for myself, and - just as importantly - I was also able to snatch a few hours recently to try one :)

Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama! (translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy) is just another in the long line of Japanese books featuring a cat (I'm sure you all know of at least one writer who likes to do this...).  The Tama of the novel is a pregnant black-and-white kitty who is unceremoniously brought to the apartment of Natsuyuki, an unemployed photographer, by Alexandre, the brother of his ex-girlfriend Tsuneko.

The cat belonged to Tsuneko, but she has gone into hiding after using her own pregnancy to fleece several potential fathers of a fair amount of money, so it's up to mild-mannered Natsuyuki to take care of Tama until the kittens come into the world.  However, the arrival of the cat in Natsuyuki's life is to cause several other changes, and from being a loner living a peaceful life in a small, quiet apartment, Natsuyuki suddenly finds himself at the centre of a noisy, chaotic social circle...

It would be an understatement to say that Oh, Tama! isn't really plot driven - in fact, there isn't really a plot to speak of.  Once the initial set up introduces us to the basic concept, and to the characters of Natsuyuki, Alexandre and Tama, it's simply a series of conversations, meals and friends dropping by for a drink.  In that sense, it has a lot in common with more traditional Japanese fare (such as, dare I say it, Natsume Soseki's I am a Cat), but in its tone it's a lot more modern - prostitutes instead of geishas, beer in place of sake.

Typical of this modern taste to the book is the character of Alexandre, an outsider due to his foreign blood (his father was possibly a foreign sailor, but his mother was very vague about this...).  He can't help but stand out in a very homogenous society:
"Alexandre, talking in a rather feminine way, opined that, judging from the color of his hair (reddish-brown) and eyes (light gray), his father would seem to have been a Caucasian; but he might have been a light-skinned Negro, or a Jew.  He was an unspecified person whose very ethnicty was unclear."
p.16 (Kurodahan Press, 2014)
A restless soul, who pops in and out of Natsuyuki's life randomly, Alexandre makes his living with a series of temporary jobs, the most intriguing of which is porn star...

As the novel progresses, though, we find that Alexandre is actually the norm, rather than an exception.  Tsuneko is only his half-sister, and it turns out that Natsuyuki and another of the possible fathers of her unborn (and possibly non-existent) child are related in the same way (this new half-brother becomes one of the occasional visitors to Natsuyuki's tiny flat...).  And, of course, if we're talking about absent fathers, it would be remiss of us not to mention the fact that Tama is also bringing up her kittens without a tomcat to help out ;)

Oh, Tama! is a difficult book to analyse in hindsight.  To use familiar J-Lit markers, it has a Haruki Murakami protagonist forced to socialise with a few of the nicer characters from a Ryu Murakami novel, and they all sit around and talk rubbish in the vein of Banana Yoshimoto's creations.  And nothing much gets done:
"What with thoughts like that swirling through my mind, somehow everything became too much of a bother.  The feeling that there was nothing I really wanted to do crept up from the tips of my toes." (p.85)
At times, you begin to wonder if the writer has fallen asleep on the job too...

By the end of the book though, a couple of themes have emerged from the alcohol-fuelled haze.  The unemployed photographer, the foreign-blooded porn actor and the confused psychiatrist are all connected in that they are existing outside the notoriously regimented constraints of mainstream Japanese society.  They all scrape by on a day-to-day basis and occasionally show that they're not quite as cheerful on the inside as it appears on the outside.

However, what they also have in common is a bond which allows them to seek comfort, and what Kanai does cleverly in Oh, Tama! is construct a cohesive social group from very different parts.  While Tama doesn't play a large active role in the story, her arrival in Natsuyuki's life is the catalyst for a change in his relationships with other people.  I said earlier that very little happens, and that's true - however, at the end of the novel, this very little is done by many more people.  Which is a progression of sorts ;)

I don't think this will be for everyone, but it's a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours, and there is a little more to it than may first meet the eye.  And, of course, if you're a cat lover, this may just be a book you'll enjoy spending some time with - whether there's a furry companion on your lap or not!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

'Revenge' by Yoko Ogawa (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 12)

Well, we've left the Middle-East behind, and today's leg of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey takes us to Japan, where we'll be enjoying some carrots, tomatoes and strawberry shortcake.  Don't get too comfortable though - in the hands of today's writer, any meal is likely to leave a bitter aftertaste...

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa - Harvill Secker
(translated by Stephen Snyder)
What's it all about?
Revenge is a collection of eleven stories, beautifully written in Ogawa's (and Snyder's) usual simple, clipped language.  Everything is set out precisely, and yet the reader always has the sense that the serene surface is hiding something:
"You could gaze at this perfect picture all day - an afternoon bathed in light and comfort and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing."
'Afternoon at the Bakery', pp.1/2 (Harvill Secker, 2013)
And right from the start, the writer is mocking us, telling us that something is not quite right.  But let's face it, we should expect that - Ogawa is the queen of the slightly askant...

What follows are a collection of tales where ordinary people going about their daily lives are shown to be somewhat other than normal.  From the woman waiting to buy some strawberry shortcake for her dead son ('Afternoon at the Bakery'), to the bag maker with an obsession for perfection ('Sewing for the Heart'), the writer casually introduces her cast onto the stage, gently setting them off walking, knowing all the while that just around the corner... well, you know.  She must be a *very* cruel woman...

There's a lot more to Revenge than isolated stories of oddballs and psychopaths though - as soon as the reader moves on to the second story ('Fruit Juice'), they realise that Ogawa has a slightly more complex idea in hand.  You see, each of the stories takes something from the previous one and runs with it, with minor characters suddenly appearing in the spotlight, their actions now centre stage.  Even better, the deeper we get into Ogawa's world, the more tangled the web of connections becomes, with people and objects harking back to several earlier stories.  By the time we get to the last of the eleven tales, 'Poison Plants', it's no surprise that the central character leads us back to the start of the book, completing a circle.

With this in mind, the reader is always on the look out for recurring themes, spotting reappearances by former characters and speculating on the significance of such innocent items as carrots, bags, clocks and strawberry shortcake.  Every action has to be analysed for similarities with previous (or future) events:
"When I'm curled up in his arms like this, I can never tell how my body looks to him.  I worry that I seem completely ridiculous, but I have the ability to squeeze into any little space he leaves for me.  I fold my legs until they take up almost no room at all, and curl in my shoulders until they're practically dislocated.  Like a mummy in a tomb.  And when I get like this, I don't care if I never get out; or maybe that's exactly what I hope will happen."
'Welcome to the Museum of Torture', p.82
A sweet description of a lover's embrace?  Hmm.  There are echoes there of a similar, less romantic scene from the very first story...

As with other Ogawa works, the central idea here is that people are strange and that it is impossible to see what lurks beneath a smiling face or within a beautiful body.  The idea of being 'normal' is held up to the light and examined, distorted, until it becomes hideous and unbearable.  Revenge goes one better, though, in the way that it also explores the interconnectedness of our society (one thought that popped into my mind is that it's like a dark, twisted version of The Beatles song 'Penny Lane'!), and one reading is nowhere near enough to uncover all the links between the stories.  This is a book that demands to be reread - possibly backwards ;)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Oh, yes.  This is easily the most impressive of the books I've read since the longlist announcement, one I devoured in a matter of hours (having started it about half an hour after it dropped through my letter box!).  It's a superb book, well written, with an excellent translation (I'm a big fan of Snyder), and another piece of what should become an impressive Ogawa legacy in English - with over twenty books published in Japan, we have a lot of treats yet to come.

Just one thing puzzles me, though - how on earth did The Housekeeper and the Professor get translated before this?!

Why did it make the shortlist
Because it's an excellent book, a clever collection of stories which is more akin to a novel really, and with the IFFP crying out for female writers on the shortlist, it's little wonder that Revenge made it.  And do you know what?  It stands a very good chance of taking out the whole thing too ;)

Next up on the itinerary is Germany, as we head back in time to Berlin in the fifties.  A woman with two children living in the country, a joyful, idyllic tale...

...sorry - I lied.  More doom and gloom coming up next week :(

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

'Nagasaki' by Éric Faye (Review)

As you might know, I'm a big fan of J-Lit, but there must be many more over in France, where the number of works of Japanese literature in translation far outstrip those available in the Anglosphere (I've been very tempted on occasion to dip into this pool of books to see what I'm missing...).  Apparently, though, the fascination with Japan doesn't stop there - it seems that for some, the country also provides inspiration for novels written in the French language too...

Éric Faye's Nagasaki (translated by Emily Boyce, review copy courtesy of Gallic Books) is a short work based on a real-life story, an event which happened in Japan in 2008.  It starts with a man in his fifties, Kobo Shimura, a worker at the bureau of meteorology who lives alone, never having found a lasting relationship.  Recently, though, he has begun to feel a little uneasy in his small house, and with good reason - a check on the level of juice in the bottle in his fridge shows that someone has been visiting while he's at work.

Shimura decides that he needs to investigate matters further, so he installs a camera in his house through which he can monitor his home from work.  Sure enough, he soon sees an intruder in his kitchen, drinking his juice and relaxing in the sun.  However, in pursuing the truth about these unusual intrusions, Shimura finds out that matters are much worse than he could ever imagine...

Nagasaki is a great little book, one which can be read in an hour or so, but which resonates for far longer.  Part of the charm is the voice of the main character, a man who... well, I'll let him tell you himself:
"Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets.  Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what else peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo.  That is where I live.  Who am I?  Without wishing to overstate matters, I don't amount to much.  As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features."
p.11 (Gallic Books, 2014)
It's a wonderful start to the book, and typical of the first part, in which Faye introduces a man whom time has passed by, a bit of an oddity at work for not wanting to join everyone for drinks at the end of the day.

Shimura struggles through everyday life, forcing his way to work amid the noise of trams and cicadas, and life is gradually wearing him down.  He's becoming a fussy old man, dull and a little deluded, and the writer (and translator!) manages to show this perfectly, gently mocking his disdain of a centenarian on the television who has never drunk alcohol.  It doesn't occur to Shimura that he isn't exactly the life and soul of the party himself.

It's when we get to the discovery of the intruder that all this becomes relevant, as the discovery of the woman in his kitchen forces Shimura to take a good, hard look at his life; it's fair to say he doesn't exactly like what he sees.  In fact, Nagasaki is less about the crime itself than its causes and effects, with the woman's capture leading to a crisis of kinds for the innocent Shimura:
"And that wasn't all.  The woman's presence had somehow opened a tiny window on my consciousness, and through it I was able to see a little more clearly.  I understood that the year she and I had shared, even if she had avoided me and I had known nothing of her, was going to change me, and that already I was no longer the same.  How exactly, I couldn't have said.  But I knew I wouldn't escape unscathed." (pp.56/7)
In fact, the event is to affect him markedly.  Already obsessed with news of the increasing number of old people, and the robots being developed to look after them, Shimura realises that this is his fate - to die alone, in the care of a machine...

It's not all about Shimura, though.  Faye actually switches the point of view about two-thirds of the way through, and we get to hear the woman's side of the story and her reasons for the home invasions.  The writer is attempting to add another angle to the story, showing how easy it is to slip through the cracks without realising and end up with nowhere to go (it's no coincidence that this all happens around the time of the GFC).  However, for me, this final third is a little unnecessary, and I would have preferred the story to stick with Shimamura, leaving the woman's motives in the dark.  As the Japanese know full well, there's a lot to be said for leaving the reader to figure some things out for themselves...

Overall, this a lovely little book though, deftly written with sly humour everywhere in the first half.  I particularly enjoyed the focus on the grey Sanyo fridge, with its rather apt slogan of 'Always with You'...  There were also some nice Japanese touches, such as when Shimura starts to suspect that he might have to look beyond the purely natural to find answers:
"What deity would demand offerings of yogurt, a single pickled plum or some seaweed rice?  Never mind that I was raised a Catholic, I often go to feed our 'kami' at the local shrine, but it never occurred to me for one moment they would come into people's houses and help themselves." (p.31)
If only it had been the household gods stealing his food ;)

Despite my reservations about the final section, Nagasaki is an excellent read, a thought-provoking look at the loneliness of modern life.  It's a book which makes the reader think about their own social ties, wondering if they too might be looking forward to empty twilight years.  And, of course, the book has one other effect on the reader - you won't be forgetting to check your doors and windows in a hurry...

Sunday, 13 April 2014

'Where Tigers are at Home' by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (Review)

As you may have noticed, I've been rather occupied with translated fiction prizes recently, what with shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and casting occasional glances in the direction of the American Best Translated Book Award.  However, it's important to remember that (as I've mentioned on several occasions) the judges for these things are far from infallible - and today's book is one which, somehow or other seems to have fallen between the cracks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Which is quite a feat, seeing as it's a very big book ;)

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès' Where Tigers are at Home (translated by Mike Mitchell, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is a big book in every sense of the word.  Running to 817 pages in my beautiful hardback edition, the novel is a wonderful look at history, geography and many other sciences besides, all wrapped up in several related stories involving characters who manage to reach across time and space to have an effect on other people.

We start off with expatriate French correspondent, Eléazard von Wogau, a man living in the provinces of Brazil sending occasional reports back home about Brazilian news, most of which are simply ignored.  With his geologist wife, Elaine, having left him, and his daughter, Moéma, off having fun at university, von Wogau uses his time translating a document he has been sent, a biography of the life of famed seventeenth-century Jesuit and polymath Athanasius Kircher.  It's a fascinating story, and one which intrigues both von Wogau and the reader, but there's a lot more to Where the Tigers are at Home than that.

Eventually, the writer introduces several other strands to the tale: we follow Elaine von Wogau as she sets off on a perilous journey into the Brazilian interior in search of fossils; Moéma's story is played out on the beaches and in the shanty towns; Nelson, a young crippled beggar, gradually enters the story, destined to cross paths with several of the other characters; and Governor José Moreira, a corrupt politician with plans to transform the region, will eventually cast his shadow across all of the stories...

If one thing has come across from the few paragraphs I've written so far, it's that Where Tigers are at Home is a rather expansive and ambitious work.  It's one where the reader is compelled to take the writer's intentions on trust, as it takes a long time for the underlying framework of the novel to become clear.  With Caspar Schott's biography of his mentor Athanasius Kircher taking up a good third of the novel (these sections begin every chapter), an impatient reader may well give up before the story gets into second gear.  However, the book is well worth persisting with, and each of the strands is interesting in its own right.

As mentioned, the biography takes up the bulk of the novel, and on its own it's interesting to read.  It follows the (real-life) Kircher throughout his travels, as he wanders Europe in a quest for knowledge, hoping to unlock the secrets of the universe and link them all back to an all-powerful deity.  While he is undoubtedly a genius, the trouble is that he is working from a false premise - and almost everything he comes up with is completely lacking in facts...

Much of the humour from this part comes from the hapless Schott, the Doctor Watson to Kircher's Sherlock, and while his master braves evil to further the church's aims, it always seems to be the assistant who has to take one for the team.  A particularly memorable episode is when Caspar encounters a beautiful lady of high standing, who turns out to be more interested in worldly pleasures than in heavenly delights.  Poor Caspar, trapped by events, is forced to submit to her wishes:
"Lingua mea in nobilissimae os adacta, spiculum usque ad cor illi penetravit."
p.269 (Other Press, 2013)
It's a little too racy for me to put into English here, but if you are interested in Latin porn, there's always Google Translate ;)

The whole point of Kircher's story, though, is the way it reflects on events taking place in contemporary Brazil, as the actions described in Schott's biography mirror those elsewhere in the chapters.  The debauchery at the prince's house is contrasted both with an evening party at Governor Moreira's mansion and with a frenzied native ritual in the jungle.  When Kircher foils a charlatan who claims to have the secrets of alchemy at his fingertips, Nelson then tells us of a girl who was tempted with sweets, only to wake up with no eyes...

The title of the book comes from Goethe's Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), from a passage that says:
"No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity,
           and ideas are sure to change in a land where
                           elephants and tigers are at home."
However, as Eléazard argues with a friend, what this passage actually means is up for debate.  Are we obliged to travel the world and broaden our horizons, or does becoming aware of the wider world blind us to what is going on around us?  To paraphrase, is increasing globalisation a good thing?  As Eléazard remarks:
"What can one say of a population that is incapable of visualizing the world in which it lives except that it's on the road to ruin for lack of landmarks, of reference points?  For lack of reality... Is not the way the world has of henceforth resisting our efforts to represent it, the mischievous pleasure it takes in escaping us, a symptom of the fact that we have already lost it?  To lose sight of the world, is that not to begin to be happy with its disappearance?" (p.782)
A rather telling thought in the land of the rapidly disappearing rainforests.

It's here that the Brazilian side of the story comes into its own, as several of the protagonists have their own encounters with indigenous culture, all falling victim to the lure of the exotic.  Moéma's desire to atone for her privileged upbringing takes her to some rather dark places, while her lecturer, Roetgen, finds his own connection with the past on a fishing trip with some locals.  It's Elaine, though, who has the most confronting encounter - in pursuing knowledge from hundreds of millions of years ago, she is brought face to face with a slightly more recent past...

At which point, I have to simply give up on analysis and recommend you to the work instead.  There's far too much here to be covered in a single post, and in the end I'm reduced to offering tempting comparisons, hoping to entice you into giving Where Tigers are at Home a read.  One of those would undoubtedly be David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, for while the set-up is slightly different, both books share an overarching ambition and a desire to let people know that what we think we know is not always right - and that progress isn't always a good thing.  If you're the sort of person who was able to stay with Cloud Atlas, trusting that the writer was steering you in the right direction, then this might be a book for you :)

Sadly, as I said in my introduction, Where Tigers are at Home has been strangely overlooked.  The Dedalus Books UK edition pretty much sank without trace, and while Other Press' US version has received more praise, it was still, inexplicably overlooked for the BTBA longlist this year.  Why?  Well, it's a rather off-putting beast, and I suspect that many people simply couldn't bring themselves to give it a go.  A book centred on a Jesuit priest, a novel which you might struggle to lift if you haven't been eating your greens - I can see how that could be a bit of a hard sell.

However, while taking a leap of faith isn't always a good idea (and there are several examples of that in the book...), this is one time when it's definitely worth the risk.  Yes, there might be tigers out there, but if you don't venture out into the literary jungle from time to time, you're never going to stumble across the gold that's buried in its midst.  Deep breath, turn the page - and off you go ;)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

'Exposure' by Sayed Kashua (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 11)

After a little time in Iraq, today's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize stopover takes us to Israel, where we'll hang around in Jerusalem and meet a couple of the country's Arab inhabitants.  They're very different people, but their lives are inextricably bound - by a small scrap of paper...

Exposure by Sayed Kashua - Chatto & Windus
(translated by Mitch Ginsberg)
What's it all about?
We first meet a lawyer in Jerusalem, a young Arab living in comfort with his wife and two children.  While he's happy with his lot, he knows deep down that he has missed out on certain facets of a more cultural upbringing, so he likes to buy books from time to time (even if he doesn't always read them...) in an attempt to build up some cultural street cred.

One day though, after buying a copy of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, he finds that he's getting more than he bargained for.  Inside the book, there's a love letter - one which the lawyer is convinced is in his wife's handwriting.  It's at this point that we jump back a few years to a second strand of the story, one in which a young social worker is about to meet an attractive young woman.  Perhaps the lawyer's suspicions aren't that far off the truth...

Exposure is an interesting, highly plot-driven book, a novel which, in addition to constructing a race against time over two different periods, takes a look at the lives of the (successful) Arabs of the Israeli state:
"Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors - brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities, a few thousand people, living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside.  They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable."
p.10 (Chatto & Windus, 2013)
Our lawyer is a prime representative of these people, and he has become fairly successful in his dealings with the poorer Arabs living in Jerusalem.

The social worker is a different story.  He has just started out on his professional path, wasting his time in a clinic where there's very little to do.  An outsider from a young age, he's in no hurry to return to his village, detesting the overgrown children who strut about there:
"I couldn't figure out how it was that these overgrown kids could still intimidate me.  You idiots, you assholes, if only you knew what I know.  If only you knew what you look like to people who don't live in these little hole-in-the-wall towns.  If only you could see how lame your lives are.  If you had even the slightest awareness of your social status, you'd lock yourself up in your house and never come out." (p.273)
However, he's also struggling to find a place for himself in a confusing, alien society, a second-class citizen living amongst the elite.  It's then that he begins a part-time job looking after a young Jewish man in a coma, a man who he actually resembles physically.  This resemblance leads to an idea which will both change his life and threaten the lawyer's attempts to track him down years later.

This book was published in the US under the title Second Person Singular, and both the title and the cover (with an Arab man hiding his face behind a book with a Jewish man's face on the cover) hint at a subtle, literary text.  This UK version, by contrast, is going for more of a thriller vibe, with its short title, familiar thriller-style design and an intriguing blurb:
"Maybe it was just a game, I don't know.  But suddenly, I was someone else, someone unfamiliar, foreign..."
Having read the book, I tend to think that the British publisher had the right idea - this is a book to pitch to thriller readers, not fans of literary fiction...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, sorry, not in my opinion.  It's not a bad book - although it starts very slowly, the pace slowly increases, and it's definitely a page-turner.  The two-strand idea works well, culminating in a meeting which closes the story off nicely (I'm still not completely sure whether the ending is clever or cheesy though...).  It's not really a book that I'd expect to see in this kind of prize, however, with some fairly pedestrian prose in places.

While it's actually not the worst of the books I've read from the longlist so far, I'd have been very disappointed if this had made it into the final six.  Which is not to say that I wouldn't recommend it.  If you like the sound of this plot, please go ahead and read it - just don't expect anything too profound...

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
I'm not really sure why it made the longlist, to be honest...

Well, moving on from Israel, it's time to pack up and head off to Japan, where we'll be meeting a whole array of characters in a fairly short book.  Once again, however, things beneath the surface are a lot darker than they first appear - if you were looking forward to a happy read, you might be waiting a while...

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

IFFP 2014 - Two Shortlists

Well, the judges began about a month back by announcing fifteen candidates for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the field has now been cut to just six.  While nine books will retreat, licking their wounds, the remaining half-dozen will live to fight another day, all hoping to be crowned top dog in May :) 

Just who are those top six?  Well, it's actually a top ten - you see, the Shadow Panel, as always, sees things a little differently ;)

This year, there are only two books overlapping (The Mussel Feast and A Man in Love), and while there's nothing on the official list which offends me (unlike the previous two years), I'd still have to say that the Shadow list is far stronger.  Lovers of beautiful prose will be dismayed at the exclusion of The Sorrow of Angels, The Infatuations and Brief Loves that Live Forever from the official list, and several people had The Corpse Washer down as a dark horse for the entire thing.  Still, Stu, David, Jacqui, Bellezza, Tony and myself all have the chance to give them their moment in the sun, as they're still in with a shout of the Shadow Prize :)

As for the real thing, a few points to note.  Firstly,three of the shortlisted works are by women, and while I can't help but feel that this is a deliberate choice, given the discussions about the lack of submissions by female writers in recent years, they're all great books and worthy of the attention.

Secondly, two of them are short-story collections, and that's a big surprise (I know a certain blogger who will be very happy to hear of their inclusion!).  Short stories don't always fare well in these competitions, so well done to both Ogawa and Blasim.

Finally, I'm very happy for two of my favourite small presses, Comma Press and Peirene Press, for managing to get a book onto the shortlist.  Peirene have had four successive longlistings, but this is their first shortlisting - well done!  Oh, and can I just say I told you so... ;)

That's all for the shortlists then - now we look ahead to the unveiling of this year's grand champion, the Yokozuna of the translated fiction world.  The official prize will be announced on the 22nd of May, and I'm sure the slightly more prestigious Shadow Prize will be awarded a day or two before.  Stick around, though - there's a lot more to read and discuss before all that happens :)

Sunday, 6 April 2014

'At Least We Can Apologize' by Lee Ki-ho (Review)

It's time for another selection from Dalkey Archive's Library of Korean Literature, and today's choice is a fairly recent one, a novel which looks at modern society and all the bad things that exist within it.  You haven't read it?  Please, no need for apologies...

Lee Ki-Ho's At Least We Can Apologize (translated by Christopher J. Dykas, review copy courtesy of the publisher) starts off in a mental institute, where two men, Si-bong and our narrator Ji-man, are whiling away their days, taking their pills and packing socks for sale to the outside world.  Suddenly, though, they are co-opted by a new inmate into appealing to that outside world for help, and shortly afterwards they find themselves released, free to return to their former lives.

As Ji-man has no memory of his home, the two stay with Si-bong's sister, Si-yeon, but with few skills their lack of money soon starts to bite.  One thing they're very good at, however (a skill picked up in the institute), is their ability to apologise, and with the help of Si-yeon's partner, they begin a business offering their apologising skills to the public.  Soon though, they discover that a case they've been offered, one involving a man who abandoned his family, might just be a little more than they can cope with...

The book revolves around a very clever idea.  For two men with limited intelligence trying to reintegrate into society, the only thing they really have to offer is a keen sense of the idea of 'wrongs' and apologies.  It may sound bizarre at first, but it's a service that is more in demand than you may think, particularly when you consider that everyone has something to hide if they look hard enough.

These 'skills' were first developed at the institute, and much of the important action happens there, mostly in the form of flashbacks.  It's here that the casual tone is interrupted by the brutal truth of time inside:
"After we confessed a wrong, we always made sure to commit it.  That was on account of feeling unsettled after having the confession in our heads all day long.  So, on days we said we didn't take our medicine, we really threw it away instead of taking it.  On days we said we'd cursed the superintendent in the bathroom, we really cursed him,  We made sure to commit exactly the wrongs we confessed, and only those wrongs.  Only that way could we ease our minds and sleep soundly."
p.26 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
In fact, the inmates are persecuted by the 'caretakers', and these confessions  are accompanied by savage beatings.  The abuse doesn't stop there though - the two friends are also used to cover up some inconvenient occurrences...

Lee uses a deliberately understated, neutral style, one excellently conveyed in English by Dykas, and we can only infer that this is meant to be representative of the limited intelligence of the narrator.  Despite this, there's often a surprisingly dark humour running though the novel too - as when Jin-man thinks back to the institute's superintendent:
"Sometimes he would suggest we put on a play.  He said that it would help our treatment.  We were always the mother, and the superintendent was always the child being spanked.  The dialogue was always the same: We would spank the superintendent on the behind with a pointer while shouting, "That's it?! Is that the best you can do?!"  Then the superintendent would yell out loudly, "Mother! Mother, please, more! Hit me more!"  With his behind facing us, raised high into the air, sometimes he would even start to bawl.  Then, when the play was over, he would give us chocolate milk or a yogurt drink." (p.45)
Even in telling us this story, Jin-man doesn't blink an eyelid...

Having developed a tough mental shell, the two friends are able to carry out their apologies and are surprisingly effective at manipulating people into using their services.  It's not an easy job though.  You see, apologising involves taking whatever action is deemed necessary to right the wrong, and the bigger the wrong, the more drastic the action required to right it.  The case which they take on involves a pretty big wrong, and the price of the apology seems far too high.  However, this is where a bit of lateral thinking comes in handy - sometimes thinking differently can be a distinct advantage.

At Least We Can Apologize is a clever, cutting look at society seen through the eyes of an outsider.  While Jin-man and Si-bong are treated like little children, when you see all the sex, violence and abuse happening around them, you begin to wonder.  At times, it's difficult to decide who the crazy ones really are in this novel.

It's an interesting story, one which ends ambiguously in many ways.  As mentioned, Lee has done an excellent job in constructing Jin-man's voice, allowing him to manipulate the reader's opinions of the main characters.  Despite the signposting and clues, the way matters come to a head is still a rude shock.  It seems that no matter how much you apologise, in the modern world, you just can't trust anyone.

I'm sorry about that - I really am...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

March 2014 Wrap-Up

March is, of course, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize month, and once the longlist was announced, I leapt straight into it (luckily, I'd already finished seven of them...).  Still, with enforced waits owing to library lists and delivery times from overseas, it was a good job I had a few other books to tide me over ;)

The stats?  This way...

Total Books Read: 17

Year-to-Date: 34

New: 12

Rereads: 5

From the Shelves: 6
Review Copies: 7
From the Library: 3
On the Kindle: 3 (2 review copies)

Novels: 11
Novellas: 3
Short Stories: 2
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 14 (5 Japanese, 2 Korean, Russian, Swedish, Icelandic, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish)
In Original Language: 0
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)

Books reviewed in March were:
1) Ekaterini by Marija Knežević
2) The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov
3) No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin
4) Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir
5) Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov
6) The Dark Road by Ma Jian
7) Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

Tony's Turkey for March is:
Auður Ava Olafsdóttir's Butterflies in November

While Butterflies in November wasn't an awful book, it simply wasn't what I would have expected from one on the IFFP longlist - slightly disappointing.

Tony's Recommendation for March is:

Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes

Not many reviews to choose from in March, and to be honest there weren't really many strong candidates.  Honorable mentions go to Vladimir Lorchenkov and (especially) Jang Eun-jin, but Le Grand Meaulnes was really in a class of its own this month...


Looking ahead to April, there'll be the rest of my IFFP reviews (although the reading should all be done by now); in fact, there'll be a lot of posts going up as I read a heap of books in March.  Something to look forward to, then ;)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

'The Corpse Washer' by Sinan Antoon (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 10)

Stop number ten on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize magical mystery tour takes us back to Iraq, a country we last visited in encountering The Iraqi Christ.  Today's book also has a religious side as we meet a young man involved with sending people on their way to the afterlife - with a few bowls of water...

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon - Yale University Press
(translated by the author)
What's it all about?
Jawad, the son of an Iraqi mghassilchi (washer of corpses), is expected to follow in his father's footsteps, especially after his brother's death in the Iran-Iraq war.  The young man has other ideas though, having been inspired by one of his teachers to become an artist, later choosing to concentrate on sculpture.  Braving his father's disapproval, he decides to escape the cool, dark wash-house and dreams of studying abroad.

However, these dreams are dashed by the outbreak, and aftermath, of the Second Gulf War.  With Baghdad occupied by American troops, the idea of time at a European university seems light-years away, and when his father dies, Jawad is forced to rethink his decisions.  Money is scarce, but in a city rocked by sectarian violence, corpses are not...

The Corpse Washer was a surprise to most of the Shadow Panelists, perhaps the least-known of the books on the longlist.  It was definitely a nice surprise though, an elegant little book which gives a fascinating insight into a time and place which, while  known superficially from the news, is in reality almost completely alien.

The book begins by introducing the concept of the mghaysil, a place for Muslims to be ritually cleaned before being buried.  Jawad's father is a master of the art, and for decades he has been preparing the people of the city for their final resting place in a calm, professional, caring manner.  At this point, the writer describes the process masterfully, choosing to use short, simple unhurried sentences, dispensing with sequencing words; it all gives the impression of a well-rehearsed ritual, taking away any mixed feelings the reader may have on entering a house of the dead.

This life is not for Jawad, though.  Even on his first professional visit, there to help his father out during the summer holidays, we sense that this is not what he wants for himself.  On a later visit, the signs are even more ominoums
"I got to the mghaysil, the washhouse.  The door was ajar.  I crossed the walkway and saw the Qur'anic verse "Every soul shall taste death" in beautiful Diwani script hanging over the door.  The yellowish paint on the wall was peeling away because of the humidity from the washing.  Father was sitting in the left corner of the side room on a wooden chair listening to the radio.  Death's traces - its scents and memories - were present in every inch of that place.  As if death were the real owner and Father merely an employee working for it and not for God, as he liked to think."
p.11 (Yale University Press, 2013)
For Jawad, this is the realm of death, and for a young man bursting with life, escape is the only possible choice.

As much as The Corpse Washer is a story of Jawad's choices, it's also a picture of Iraq during the American occupation.  This is the period that Antoon focuses on, and the occupying forces, while only briefly shown, do not come off in a good light, being portrayed as uninterested in preventing the inevitable decay of Baghdad.  Of course, suicide bombers and power cuts don't help the situation any, and when Jawad's uncle returns from Europe for a visit, he's astounded by what he sees:
"Wasn't this the most beautiful neighborhood?  Look at it now.  Then you have all this garbage, dust, barbed wires, and tanks.  There aren't any women walking down the street anymore!  This is not the Baghdad I'd imagined.  Not just in terms of the people.  Even the poor palm trees are tired and no one takes care of them.  Believe me, these Americans, with their ignorance and racism, will make people long for Saddam's days." (p.96)
Baghdad was a city long known for tolerance and learning, but the American occupation, far from restoring the city to its former glories, unfortunately appears to have made things worse.

In the end, though, the reader always returns to Jawad and his journey.  Despite his best attempts to escape, through art, love and flight, he is destined to return to the mghaysil, unable to throw aside a rather weighty legacy.  Like the old pomegranate tree outside the wash-house, kept fresh by the water running from the body of corpses, Jawad's life is made possible by the wages of death, his whole existence financed by corpses.  The question we are left with is whether that's really such a bad thing...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
My initial feeling was not quite.  It's not that the book isn't very good - on the contrary, it's probably one of the finds of the longlist.  However, while there are few real stand-outs this year, the level of the top eight or so books is very high, and I'm not sure this one quite makes it into the top six. 

One reason for this is the way the American occupation is handled.  With the Iran-Iraq war and the brutality of the Saddam regime glossed over, it seems a little strange to focus purely on this period as a bad one.  No doubt this would not come across in the same way to an Iraqi reading the original Arabic text, but to me the style of the book as a whole was interrupted by some of these scenes.

I'm also on the fence a little about the self-translation decision.  It's definitely not a bad translation, and you sense that the writer has been able to give the book a flavour that an outsider might not have been able to recreate.  However, there were a few inconsistencies and odd phrasings which I felt that a more accomplished translator would have ironed out.  Of course, the main problem with translating the book yourself is that everyone knows you did it - and is waiting to pounce on errors ;)

Coming back to the question, I'm starting to change my mind a little.  It's been about a week since I finished The Corpse Washer, and its stocks have continued to rise.  Hmm - I think I'll reserve judgement here ;)

Will it make the shortlist?
I think it'll go close :)  I wonder which book will impress the judges more - the calm, elegant prose of The Corpse Washer or the horrifying, heart-breaking violence of Ma Jian's The Dark Road.  If they decide to go down the literary path, I think Antoon's book may have a shot, but this is the IFFP, and you never know what those judges are thinking...

Time to wrap things up in Iraq then and get moving.  No need to hurry though, as our next destination isn't too far away - I'll meet you all in Jerusalem for the next leg of our IFFP journey :)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

'The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature' by Michael Emmerich (Review)

Despite having read many works of Japanese literature over the past five years or so, one which I haven't managed to get around to as yet is the undisputed classic of J-Lit, Murasaki Shikibu's epic The Tale of Genji.  Having decided, then, that 2014 is the year to rectify this shortcoming, I thought that a nice way to warm up for the main event might be to learn a little more about the book and its history.  But how, you might ask?  Well, it's funny you should say that...

The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature (from Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a non-fiction work by well-known scholar and translator Michael Emmerich, in which he takes a close look at the legacy of Lady Murasaki's classic novel.  Surprisingly, though, it's not a work which lingers overly on the actual book itself; instead, Emmerich discusses the myth of The Tale of Genji as the quintessentially Japanese novel and focuses his energy on some fairly surprising areas.

The book begins in November 2008, with Japan in full Murasaki fever, ready to celebrate the millenium of her work.  As the nation rejoices in Genji's anniversary, praising a novel which has been read for a thousand years, Emmerich takes the reader by the hand, leading them back to the early nineteenth century - where we discover that the idea that The Tale of Genji was always popular is actually not all that accurate.

The truth of the matter is that the 1673 Kogetsushō edition of the book was to be the last new publication of the novel for over two centuries, which meant that while most people had heard of The Tale of Genji, by the start of the nineteenth century, very few had actually ever seen a copy.  When you also take into account the fact that the original book was written in an archaic Japanese, rendered in a script illegible to the uninitiated, you begin to realise that Murasaki's work was in danger of becoming nothing more than a faded memory...

So why is The Tale of Genji world-renowned today?  Emmerich has several explanations for this, and they all revolve around the idea of translation, in one form or another:
"Any academic study of 'Genji' will inevitably connect, then, in one way or another, to the fields of canonization and translation studies, and to the recent burgeoning interest in world literature."
p.8 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
However, this idea of 'translation' is not limited to what we would expect (a version appearing in a foreign language) - the word is used in a much wider context, explaining a wide range of adaptations.

The first of Emmerich's 'translation' choices is an illustrated serial which began appearing in 1829, Ryūtei Tanehiko's Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (A Fraudulent Murasaki's Bumpkin Genji).  This work, a beautifully-illustrated adaptation of the original Genji, brought Murasaki's story back into the minds of the ordinary people, preventing the classic from disappearing completely from view.  Emmerich devotes the first half of his book to Tanehiko's creation, arguing that far from being a cheap knock-off of a sacred text, the Inaka Genji was actually a worthy adaptation of Genji itself, one that replaced the original in the eyes of most Japanese.

Another important step was the translation of the original work into English, and here too the writer is eager to right common misconceptions.  While many credit Arthur Waley's full translation of The Tale of Genji (the first volume of which was published in 1925) with spreading awareness of the work in the West, Emmerich shows that the earlier partial translation by Kenchō Suematsu in 1882 actually made a much bigger splash than many people realise.  It is Suematsu's work, both in translating and promoting The Tale of Genji, that raises the profile of the novel and leads to the first modern reprints of the book in Japan in 1890 - translation leading to a reappreciation of the text in its native country :)

Finally, Emmerich turns his focus towards the first translations of the original text into modern Japanese, a turn of events which allows ordinary Japanese readers to experience the book for the first time.  However, even here, he has a few surprises up his sleeve.  Instead of heaping all the praise on Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, the famous writer who published three modern translations of the classic, Emmerich again looks at two slightly neglected figures when he apportions praise.

The first is Akiko Yosano, a poet who actually brought out a modern translation of The Tale of Genji a quarter of a century before Tanizaki did.  The second is Hakuchō Masamune, a literary critic whose essays on Genji, particularly the ones written after having read Waley's translation, were a major factor in influencing Tanizaki to take up his pen on behalf of Lady Murasaki and her amorous hero.  As he said:
"I have the feeling, though, that if this English translation were translated anew into Japanese, it might attract a large and avid readership that would enjoy it as one of the great novels of the world." (p.328)
And Tanizaki was obviously listening.  Were it not for these two unsung heroes, Genji's return into the public domain may have been even further delayed...

While a little scholarly at a times, Emmerich's book is eminently readable, even for lay persons such as myself, and the story behind Genji's resurrection from literary oblivion is a wonderful one.  The first half of the book, centring on Inaka Genji, contains many fascinating illustrations, and the writer explains their significance so skilfully that the reader almost envies the old Tokyoites (Edoites!), wishing there was a copy of Tanehiko's book to hand.  Perhaps not everyone will be as intrigued as I was - however, this is a book that anyone with an interest in Japanese literature is sure to enjoy.

And yet....  There's something missing from Emmerich's book, for all its dedicated research, and that's the original itself.  You see, after four-hundred pages about the modern history of the work, I am still, unbelievably, none the wiser as to what actually happens in Murasaki's story!  Some might say that this is an unforgivable oversight on Emmerich's part, but in fact the opposite is true.  All this talk about Genji has just whetted my appetite for the real thing :)

That's enough for today, but if you liked the sound of all this, stay tuned for some more Genji news - I'll be setting off on my great journey soon enough, and I'll be happy to have some companions along for the ride...

***Footprint Books say that this book is available in good Australian bookshops and directly through their website :)