Monday, 18 April 2011

Another Taste of Japan

I have been avoiding writing posts for a while now, but I thought I might just do the occasional one to catch you all up on certain books I've been reading, and what better way to kick that off than to look at some of the Japanese literature I've encountered over the past couple of months?  None, that's what ;)

After the understated beauty of Snow Country, it's back to the Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, this time with the (very) slim novella A Thousand Cranes (translated by Edward Seidensticker).  Kikuji, the son of a tea ceremony master, is invited to a ceremony by one of his dead father's mistresses.  This seemingly innocuous event is the start of a tangled web of relationships involving another of the mistresses, her daughter Fumiko, and Yukiko, a beautiful young woman who has been suggested as a future bride for Kikuji.  Oh yes, and we mustn't forget the first mistress, the sinister Chikako...

It is Chikako who is planning events from the background, constantly interfering with Kikuji, pushing women in his direction and then pulling them away from him.  First, the young man falls for Mrs. Ota; then events conspire to bring Fumiko into his life.  For an experienced reader of Japanese fiction, a happy ending is far from expected, and Kawabata doesn't fail to satisfy (or disappoint!).

Thousand Cranes is another beautifully-constructed tale, but that's all it is - in the sense that it is deceptively short.  My beautiful new Penguin Classics edition is just over 100-pages long, with fairly large print, and I raced through it in an evening.  I enjoyed it, just as I did Snow Country, drinking in the elegant, sparse prose, but I was left wanting something a little more substantial, more than a three-act play of a novella.  I have The Master of Go winging its way to me from England as we speak, so we'll see if that scratches the itch ;)

Moving from one end of the J-Lit spectrum to (pretty much) the other, one of the good things to come out of the collapse of Angus & Robertson was my $2.50 purchase of Hitomi Kanehara's Autofiction (translated by David James Karashima).  I'm ashamed to say that even at that price, I still almost decided to leave it as I was a little concerned that it was going to be a bit of a gory slasher book (a lot of contemporary Japanese fiction can be a little... well, let's just say aesthetically unpleasing).  However, I took the plunge, and I was pleasantly surprised :)

Autofiction, as the title suggests, is loosely based on Kanehara's own life.  In the first section of four, we meet Shin, a young, recently-married woman on her way back to Japan with her husband.  He goes to the toilet, she has a panic attack, thinking he is having a good time in there with another woman, and that is how we find out that she is a bit of a... shall we say a nutter?

Of course, where there is stress and angst, there is usually a very good reason for it, and Shin is no exception.  The reader follows her back in time, to when she was 18, 16 and 15, learning gradually what she has experienced and suffered though, and what exactly has made her so damaged.  By the time we make it to the end, or perhaps the start, of the story, we understand, and sympathise, with her feelings a little more.

As mentioned above, I had my reservations about this book as I have heard a lot about writers such as Ryu Murakami and Natsuo Kirino (who don't sound like my cup of tea), and Kanehara is often lumped in with them.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by Autofiction.  There are some graphic scenes, and some mind-boggling attitudes displayed (including a very blasé attitude towards an impending rape...), but on the whole the book is very well written, presenting Shin as a sympathetic character who has been toughened up by life's trials and tribulations.  The more we learn about her ordeals, the more we understand and condone her later erratic behaviour.  If written in reverse (i.e. in chronological order), it would all make more sense, but the effect would definitely be spoiled :)

Autofiction is Kanehara's second novel, and her first, Snakes and Earrings, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.  It's one that I may well end up buying one day...

All for now, but not for this topic - look out for another J-Lit round-up in a few days :)