Thursday, 16 September 2010

Forgotten Treasure - No Passport Required

One of my big themes this week, and one that I was unaware would be a theme until I started writing all these posts, is the importance of variety and diversity in the blogosphere.  I have been heartened to see that there are a few like-minded souls out there, blogging on less mainstream fare and content to cater for the few, rather than the many, exposing little-known books and authors to the eyes of the select group who occasionally drop by these back streets of Lit City, content to leave the bright lights of the glitzy blogs behind for a while.

As well as encouraging the promotion of niche literature in general, I am keen in particular to espouse the reading and reviewing of foreign-language fiction, in my case German, French, Japanese and (to a lesser extent) Russian novels.  If there is one criticism I would level at blogging in general, it is that it can concentrate on contemporary American and British literature at the expense of classic and foreign-language works, a focus that can only be bad for the medium as a whole.  Just as more multi-cultural cities (hopefully!) means a more vibrant and tolerant society, a broader focus in your reading can open your mind to different ways of thinking, similar to the effect of learning a foreign language (and much easier and cheaper!).

Anyone who has visited my blog and perused the reviews on offer will have noticed the emphasis on some of the cultures mentioned above, and I'd like to discuss two of them here to elaborate my point.  I have long been a fan of Haruki Murakami's fiction, but it wasn't until the middle of 2009 that I began to become more seriously interested in Japanese literature in general, thanks mainly to two, virtually simultaneous events: the discovery of Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge and reading about something called the Book Depository in my weekend newspaper.  Together, these two discoveries have brought me an abundance of joy - and cost me a few hundred dollars...

It's hard to say what I love about Japanese novels, but if pressed, I would say that it's the nuances of the prose and a focus on surrounds, rather than a plot.  Whether it's the tranquility of Natsume Soseki, the barely-repressed hostility of some of Yukio Mishima's work or the simmering sexual tension depicted by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, the end is rarely as important as the means of arriving there.  Some of the descriptive writing about nature is simply breathtaking, and it's easy to forget, or to overlook, the fact that this description is often conveying ideas which the untutored may be unaware of. 

You see, the Japanese culture, in contrast to its American counterpart (I believe - thinking back to my communication studies subject at university - British culture sits somewhere in the middle) is high-context, meaning that it is all about what is not said.  The reader must create their own meaning from the text, picking up on subtle hints left by the writer (and I'm not saying for one second that I pick up on them all!).  This idea of reader responsibility contrasts with the Anglo-Saxon idea of writer responsibility - which will be very familiar to those of you who have had to write university essays and theses...

Naturally, if you do not read Japanese (and, like most fans of J-Lit, I don't), you are at the mercy of the translators, at times an unpleasant position to be in.  Luckily, Japanese authors seem to have a plethora of skilled translators, mainly American, ready to convert their work into English worthy of the original.  I posted earlier this year in detail on this topic (and touched briefly on the issue of American translations in a recent review post), so I won't go over that ground again today, but I would like to reemphasise my gratitude that someone has gone to the effort of bringing these works to an English-speaking audience.

The second area I want to touch on is one which I, fortunately, am able to enjoy without the intervention of a translator.  I have been reading German-language literature, on and off, since my school days, and the last couple of years have seen an increase in the number of books I have read in this language, allowing me to make the most of my otherwise fairly useless Bachelor's Degree in Modern Languages.  Despite some difficulties with vocabulary and style, I have enjoyed my forays into German-language classics, revisiting old friends like Kafka and Dürrenmatt, and discovering the joy of Goethe and Mann.

Of course, when you get to later German literature, it's impossible to avoid a certain topic, and two of my favourite writers deal with the events, and consequences of the respective World Wars.  Erich Maria Remarque, best known for his novel Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), wrote about the difficulties faced by civilians and returning soldiers in post-WW1 Germany, describing the situation which allowed the Nazis to rise to power.  Coming from the other side of the front, reading Remarque's work has been an eye-opener, leading me to rethink my ideas of what actually happened during the wars.  The fact of his books being burned by Hitler's regime is proof enough of the importance of his novels, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the three I've read so far.

Probably my biggest discovery of the past few years though has been Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll, whose works are set during and after the Second World War, analysing the guilt and responsibility Germans felt (or pretended to feel) once the fighting was over.  Many bloggers have commented that they aren't interested in War literature, but the themes and issues covered here are just as relevant today, in an increasingly-fractured world, as they were back in Böll's time.

So that's my gift to you all on the fourth day of BBAW 2010: a wish for peace, harmony, understanding and a world of wonderful literature.  There's a wide world of books out there - make sure you don't miss out :)