Thursday, 21 April 2011

Yet Another Taste of Japan ;)

As promised earlier this week, after the first of my little summaries, here is the second of my J-Lit round-ups, this time featuring a couple of very familiar names...

The first is a writer who is fast becoming one of those whose entire back catalogue will someday be gracing my shelves.  After reading a few of Natsume Soseki's earlier works last year, I recently obtained one of his final novels, Kokoro (translated by Meredith McKinney), an absolute Japanese classic and a standard high school text back in Japan.

Kokoro tells two stories in one.  The first is that of a young student who makes the acquaintance of an older man he calls Sensei.  After numerous visits to his house, they become friends, but there is always a sense of reserve, something hidden from the narrator's consciousness, perhaps connected with the monthly visits which Sensei makes to a friend's grave.  The narrator is then forced to leave Tokyo, and his friend, behind to return home when his father becomes unwell.  Bored at home, he writes to Sensei constantly without reply until, finally, one day, he receives a letter - a very long, very unusual letter.

This letter is actually the second of the stories and takes up the latter half of the novel, telling the story of Sensei's life as a student and clearing up many of the mysteries that have puzzled the narrator.  We are told of his family background, his romantic aspirations and (most importantly) we finally learn about his dead friend K.  As the narrator returns to Tokyo, at a very critical time for his family, he is left to wonder what will await him there...

Kokoro is another wonderfully-written novel, poignant and elegant, but different from Natsume's earlier works.  Where Botchan and I am a Cat poked friendly fun at Japanese society, and Kusamakura sparkled with wit and sunshine, Kokoro is much darker, building progressively through the novel to a tragic end, for both Sensei and the narrator.

The novel discusses, among other things, the idea of duty and honour, and the way people behave (or fail to behave) under difficult circumstances.  Sensei's story reveals several instances of the dark side of human nature, some explaining his disillusionment with the world, others revealing more about his own character.  Ironically, the receipt of his letter is the catalyst for the narrator's own crisis of conscience, forcing him to choose between friend and family.

This novel began life as a novella consisting entirely of the third 'letter' section, and the section with the narrator came later.  Sadly, this was pretty much the last completed work Soseki produced as he passed away (unusually for a Japanese writer it seems ) of natural causes a couple of years after Kokoro's publication.  When I lived in Japan a decade or so ago, Soseki's face was on the 1000-Yen note, proof of just how important a writer he is in his home country.  It's a shame it took me this long to get into his work :(

Another author whose works cause the slender shelves in my bookcases to groan under their weight (and who himself is a big fan of Natsume Soseki) is Haruki Murakami, and I recently read another collection of his short stories, entitled The Elephant Vanishes.  I had actually read this collection before, and I don't think I was overly impressed first time around, preferring his novels to the bizarre worlds of his shorter fiction.  However, as is often the case, this time around it was a very different story - I loved this book and discovered some excellent writing, as well as further insights into his longer works.

One aspect I had completely forgotten was the use of a female narrator in a few of the stories, something which has not happened (so far) in his novels.  One of my favourite stories, Sleep, a tale of a woman who stops needing to sleep at night, uses this ploy, and it gives the usual Murakami style an added twist.  In the story, a suburban housewife uses her extra eight hours a day to reevaluate her life, finding the time to rekindle her love of literature and think about whether she is actually wasting her life.  As a tale of taking stock of your life, a metaphor for sleepwalking through your daily existence, it's a good one, reminiscent of something Banana Yoshimoto would write (but in reverse!).

Another story, Barn Burning, actually reminded me of my most recent read, Marcel Proust's Du Côte de chez Swann, as strange as that may sound.  While comparing a simple fifteen-page short story to a 600-page epic of descriptive prose may be drawing a long bow, some of the ideas Murakami explores are similar to those Proust expounds upon.  One of these is the idea of memory and time, and the way these are individual, often brought back to our consciousness by random triggers, be they cakes (Proust) or marijuana (Murakami).  Memory, being less than perfect, becomes faded, blurring at some point into fiction - and who can say where that line is....

The collection has two translators, Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin, and I would have to say that I prefer Rubin's style to that of Birnbaum.  A good reference point here is the first story, The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women, translated by Birnbaum.  This later became the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated by Rubin, and if you compare the first page of the two versions, Rubin's (for me, at least) has a much smoother feel.  Of course, the two original Japanese versions may have been different too (if only I could read them!).

There are a couple of strange, less-than-perfect stories in this collection, but all in all it's a worthy companion to Murakami's novels and well worth the effort.  I read it over about a day and a half, but I would recommend spacing it out a little more - these are stories to be savoured, individually wrapped.  Very Japanese :)