Friday, 24 June 2011

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop - A Mother of a Book

Greetings to all those visiting Tony's Reading List as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (and I hope you are going to visit all the other participants too!).  Today on my little blog, there will, as promised, be a giveaway - the down side is that you'll have to sit through the review first (it's a small price to pay, no?).

Friedrich Christian Delius, the recipient of this year's Georg-Büchner Prize, is a well-known and highly successful German author, and as you would expect, Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau (Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman), a 2006 novella, is a wonderful piece of writing.  For those of you who are not fluent in the teutonic tongue, don't panic - the wonderful Peirene Press have an equally wonderful English-language version available :)

The story follows Margherita, a young, pregnant German woman, who has been left to spend the time leading up to the birth of her first child alone, after her husband was called away on business.  Which doesn't sound so bad until you hear that she is in Rome, in January 1943, and that the business her husband has been called away to is on the North African war front...

In one long sentence spanning 120 pages, we literally follow Margherita on her way through the eternal city.  Ostensibly, we are watching a young woman stroll to her church to watch a concert; in reality, we are privy to her internal musings and are able, by sifting through the confused thought patterns, to gradually build up an image of Margherita, her life, Rome, Germany, the War, Christianity - everything.

Margherita is a product of her time, a faithful member of the German Girls' League, conditioned to love her husband, bear many children and support the ideals of the Fatherland, and it is is tempting to see her as a vapid, clinging woman, unwilling to give an opinion and unable to function properly, even to stray from the straight line between her home and her church, without her husband.  However, the longer the story goes on, the more she opens up, and the less convinced she appears that what is happening back in her homeland (and all around the edges of Europe) is right.

The main source of her doubts can be found in her deep faith, and the quiet warnings from both her father and her husband about the way the Führer has effectively put himself on a pedestal alongside God.  Once we begin to see past her seemingly-blind obedience to her country, cracks appear in the facade.  Margherita worries about the difficulty of reconciling her national and spiritual duties, lamenting:
"die täglichen Konflikte zwischen Kreuz und Hakenkreuz", p.100
("the daily conflicts between the cross and the swastika")
In this light, her seeming indifference to what is going on is in fact a form of defence mechanism, protecting her from her own inner turmoil and doubt.

This Christian theme pervades the book, with Margherita stranded on an island of Evangelism in the middle of the most Catholic city in the world.  She seeks comfort in her church, comparing its rituals favourably with the more ostentatious scenes she sees elsewhere in the eternal city.  However, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Delius is playing with the reader a little in this respect, with his portrait of the pregnant young woman, wandering around in a time of conflict, the father of the child absent and seen only in her thoughts.  Is it any coincidence that Margherita's trip to the Vatican takes place on the occasion of the holiday of the "unbefleckten Empfängnis" (p.17) - or, in English, the immaculate conception...

Whether this is really the author's intent, or a happy accident (or, more likely, just the blogger's overactive imagination), what it all adds up to is a brief, leisurely, compelling stroll through a beautiful city, a brief moment in time and a period of world history which will never be forgotten.  The magic of this novella is that Delius is able to cover all aspects of his story from the micro to the macro in such a short space of time (and in such a seemingly limited style).

And the sentence?  Well, I'm not 100% convinced, and there were a few times when I really thought it was continuing simply because it had already been going for so long that it would have been a shame to end it.  Still, I'm not going to criticise such minor details when the book is such a success overall - and especially not when (for the writer) it is a particularly personal affair.

If you want to know what I mean by that, just look up Herr Delius' date (and place) of birth...

So on to the giveaway!  I will be giving away a copy of the book reviewed above, either in the original German or in the 2010 Peirene Press English-language version.  If you want to enter, simply:

  - comment on this post, stating whether you want the English or German version
  - write the word 'please' somewhere in your comment; manners are important :)
  - a contact e-mail would be nice, but I will endeavour to track down the winner!
  - commenting on my review is welcome but not obligatory ;)

This competition is open to all, but please note that I will be using The Book Depository to send this prize, so it is limited to people living in countries where The Book Depository has free delivery.  Entries will close at midnight (Melbourne time) on Thursday, the 30th of June, 2011, and I'll be announcing the winner shortly after.  Good luck to all, and to all a good night...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Triple-Choice Tuesday and Other Housekeeping

Today, over at Kimbofo's Reading Matters blog, I am featured on her wonderful Triple-Choice Tuesday feature, expounding merrily away upon some of my favourite reads.  If you want to see my thoughts on a favourite book, a book that changed my world and a book that should be read more, then just click here :)

If you don't, then what are you doing here in the first place?

In my previous post, I challenged my readers to name a female champion to take down the ogre that is V.S. Naipaul in literary single combat.  In addition to my original trio of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and the mighty George Eliot, the following writers were suggested:

   - Wendy put forward Canada's favourite not-fantasy writer, Margaret Atwood
   - Biblibio agreed with my favourite, George Eliot.
   - Eva had a terrible twosome of Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid
   - Em also mentioned Atwood, as well as praising Mary Shelley
   - Colleen chose Eliot too, but also thought Hilary Mantel could walk the walk

If anyone has any other suggestions (particularly from non-English-speaking backgrounds), please join in the misogynist-bashing fun :)

On Saturday, June the 25th, there is going to be another Literary Giveaway Blog-Hop - and this time I have decided to join in.  Along with dozens of other bloggers in the literary corner of the Blogosphere (a nice, cosy, comfortable niche, with good books, fine wines and luxurious armchairs), I will be giving away a book to one of the people who comment on my blog post.

The post, specially written for the event, will appear this weekend and will feature an in-depth review of a book plus details on how to win it.  Yes, you have to wade through the review before you get to the freebies - life's like that sometimes :)  And the name of the book... well, to find that out, you'll just have to come back at the weekend, won't you?  Bye for now!

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Challenging Time for Me and V.S. Naipaul

No review today, but while I'm up and typing, I thought I'd just ramble on about a few things.  Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 5 started in June, and I'm already well under way, with reviews of Yasunari Kawbata's The Master of Go and Shusaku Endo's Silence already posted.  I have a copy of Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter waiting to be read, and somewhere in transit, at the bottom of a ship in the Pacific Ocean (possibly!), I have Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, and Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain and Beauty and Sadness straining to reach Australian shores.

This focus on J-Lit is also part of a slight change of emphasis for my blog.  Since the impressive collapse of book-by-book posts earlier this year, I have thinking about how best to balance my desire to review and my various aches and pains.  Recently, I have been trying to keep up with one post a week, particularly related to my favourite challenges, and I think devoting that post to a particular book, rather than madly trying to write one paragraph on everything I read, suits me better.

That doesn't mean that it will all be J-Lit around here though.  I have a German-language copy of Friedrich Delius' Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau, which some of you may know better as Peirene Press' Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, and I'm hoping to read and review that very soon.  Also, I'd like to continue to promote good Australian contemporary literature, so look out for more writers like Steven Carroll and Tim Winton.

Time permitting, of course...

Finally today, I just wanted to give you my humble thoughts on the recent V.S. Naipaul incident (in which, as you probably already know, the always-cantankerous writer calmly dismissed all literature written by women as beneath him).  I'm not even going to bother discussing his misogynistic opinions (there is no discussion possible); rather, I want to pick up on something I saw in the reports.  The interviewer, from what I gather, asked his mightiness if he thought he was better than all female writers, even Jane Austen...

...and that's what interests me.  If you were going to choose a knight in shining garters, an Amazon warrior to slay the ugly dragon Naipaul, the one representative to defend female literary honour, would you honestly choose Saint Jane?  Really?  Austen wrote classic novels, stories which will endure long after old V.S. has been committed to the filing cabinet of history, but is she really the automatic choice?

Personally, I think there are other, worthier female writers to saddle the horse and joust with the nasty Nobel Laureate.  How about Virginia Woolf?  I'm sure she'd be handy with a sharp lance and an even sharper tongue.  Or perhaps Edith Wharton?  With her cool observational skills, she would be bound to find the chinks in Naipaul's metaphorical armour.

My choice, however, would be George Eliot, a titan(ess) of the arena, guaranteed to make any male writer think twice about crossing swords (or pens) - and thick-skinned enough to cope much better with any pre-fight trash talk than the demure Austen...

So, dear readers, do any of you have any champions you'd like to suggest for this imaginary grudge match?  Who should don the armour and put the Trinidadian motormouth in his place?

Yes, you're right - it is time I took my pills...

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

It's Oh So Quiet...

Last year, I read David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a novel set in 17th-century Japan at a time when Dutch traders were the only westerners allowed into the country.  While I enjoyed the book (it is a David Mitchell creation, after all), I couldn't help but feel that he had missed an opportunity as I was eager to learn more about life in Japan at that time, rather than just the trading post at Dejima where most of the novel was set.  Luckily for me, Shusaku Endo's Silence (translated by William Johnston) fills that gap nicely - and, more importantly, is a very, very good book.

Silence follows a Portuguese Catholic missionary,  Sebastiao Rodrigues, on a quest for the truth behind a rumour which makes its way back to Europe.  Cristovao Ferreira, the most senior priest left in Japan, has apparently committed apostasy (the act of renouncing one's religion) and has taken on a Japanese name.  In order to ascertain the truth of the information that has leaked out from behind Japan's curtain of exclusion, Rodrigues and two colleagues set off amid pomp and cheering on the long voyage to the Orient.  While the start of the quest is a joyous affair, the enormity of the task, and the strength and faith required to undertake it, gradually begin to sink in.  Having picked up an expatriate Japanese in Macao, the suspicious, cowardly and sly Kichijiro, Rodrigues eventually manages to reach his destination, where he goes into hiding and prepares himself for his greatest test of faith...

The first part of the book is written in the form of letters written by the Portuguese priest, and this is apt as the novel as a whole is concerned more with Rodrigues as an individual than with his mission as a whole.  In a country where Christianity, especially for those who refuse to renounce it, can be punishable by death, being a missionary is something of a suicide mission and only possible for someone with the strongest of beliefs.  However, when people suffer for those beliefs, when innocent souls are tortured, burned and killed, when God refuses to intervene... is it possible to maintain your beliefs?  Can you keep the faith in the face of God's continual silence?

As can be expected from the title, silence plays a major role in the novel.  Rodrigues, determined as he is to maintain his faith, must nevertheless question God's lack of intervention at a time when, in his eyes, it is most needed.  As the people he has come to save lay down their lives for his religion, he struggles to accept their sacrifices and see them as part of a greater scheme.

However, it is not only a metaphorical silence which pervades the novel, but also a literal one.  In several important passages, particularly those involving great pain and suffering, God's reluctance to act is married to an eery quiet falling upon events, further trying Rodrigues' strength. Villagers are drowned in the sea, and the only sound is the gentle murmuring of waves; a man is brutally beheaded for refusing to apostatise, and all that can be heard is the occasional cicada; Rodrigues stumbles upon the scene of a massacre, and all that remains are a few cats amidst the wreckage - and still God remains silent...

One of the more interesting points about this book is the idea of a western point of view, written by a Japanese author.  Endo is a Catholic himself, and his sense of confusion and compromise comes across in his portrayal not only of the suffering Rodrigues, but also of the intriguing Kichijiro (of whom more later...).  One thought I had at the start of the story was that it would be very easy to turn this book into a pro-Christian anti-Japanese tale, but the writer balances the sympathies very nicely.  For those Christians among you, it might appear that the Japanese behaviour is unjust, but the reality is that the missionaries were illegal spies in a foreign country, expressly breaking the law and inciting disobedience amongst the local people too.  And let's face it, the Catholic church itself was no stranger at the time to intolerance and cruelty against people with different opinions to their own..

The prevailing opinion seems to have been that whatever the intentions of the Christian missionaries, Japan was a 'swamp', a field in which Christianity's roots could not take hold, and the ensuing perversion of the tenets of the religion (along with the suspicion that conversion was paving the way for later subjugation to the European powers) proved that the best path forward was to eradicate the foreign faith, described by one of the characters as an ugly, barren woman.

Rodrigues suspects several times that the Japanese form of Christianity is not all that it should be, observing that many villagers appear to attach more importance to the Virgin Mary than they should, but is this any different to his own obsession with Jesus - in particular with the beauty and expression of his face?  In fact, in light of the immense sacrifice made by these early Japanese martyrs, who really had the greater belief in God?  This is a thought for the reader to ponder as you follow Rodrigues through all the stages of his own private ordeal, until he is forced to decide what his religion means to him and what is more important - theoretical doctrine or human kindness.

I was going to end my review there until I remembered that I read a short story by Endo in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories last year - and decided to go back to take a second look.  Unzen is the tale of a Catholic novelist who travels to the scene of the torture of early Christians to see for himself the place of their pain and suffering.  At the time, it wasn't one of my favourite stories among the collection, but after reading Silence, the tale takes on a whole new dimension.

The main reason for this, apart from the continuation in the main theme, is the reappearance of perhaps the most fascinating character in Silence, the apostate Kichijiro.  He plays the role of Judas to Rodrigues' Christ, and in Unzen we get a glimpse of his backstory as the novelist reads of his tearful attendance at the torture of those Christians who refused to renounce their beliefs - and were therefore scalded by hot springs for weeks, before being burned at the stake.

Throughout Silence, Rodrigues views Kichijiro with distaste, bordering on disgust, but despite his obvious cowardice, the Japanese apostate is a much deeper character than first appears.  His weakness is tempered by his inability to truly abandon his religion, and he finds himself continually drawn to his former friends, even following them on the road to their martyrdom, hoping to appease his conscience a little with offerings of food to the doomed Christians.  Indeed, it is also tempting to view his apostasy in a more positive light, seeing as he remains alive, yet still a believer.

Whatever you think of Kichijiro, he is somewhat of an enigma.  Is he a coward, a wise man, a traitor or a fool?  Or maybe all of the above?  Perhaps it's best to avoid judgement and leave the last words to Kichijiro himself:
 "The apostate endures a pain none of you can comprehend"

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Happy Endings and New Beginnings...

I have spoken before about my guilty pleasure, a German telenovella called Alisa - Folge Deinem Herzen (follow your heart) which I downloaded (free!) from iTunes, and I recently finally made it to the end of the series.  After 240 40-minute episodes (which, considering that there were no adverts, would approximate to around fifteen years of your average American drama!), Alisa and Christian have finally tied the knot!  With the happy couple about to jet off to Canada, and with evil Uncle Oskar, the villain of the piece, safely behind bars, it's time to bid a fond farewell to Schönroda and look around for something else to watch...

Well, that was the plan :)  You see, the good people at ZDF were so pleased with the show that half-way through they changed their minds and decided to extend it for a further 130 episodes.  Thus, about ten episodes from the end, a few new characters began to appear, including Hanna, a chef who, though living in Hamburg, hails from our favourite little town.  On a short trip to the Spanish island of Gomera, she meets a friendly, good-looking German man (as you do), and after an evening of gazing at the stars, they kiss.  So far, so good, but the problem is that they don't ask each other's names!

Before you can say 'star-crossed lovers', Hanna is back in Schönroda to care for her sick father and attend the big wedding.  Meanwhile, her dream man is also there - he happens to be Christian's cousin (!) - and makes a big impression on another woman: Hanna's best friend Alex.  Unbelievably, Hanna and the mysterious Max somehow manage to miss each other completely, despite being in the same building for the same event... If you can't see where this is going by now, then you really have led a sheltered life!

So, I'll be continuing with my weekly visits to Schönroda, this time to see how Hanna, Max and Alex work things out (an unconventional ménage à trois would be interesting, but even the Germans might find that a little risqué for a show which airs in the early afternoon!).  And the best thing of all?  Another new character, Max's mother, Edith, has just visited Oskar in prison and appears to have a bit of a hidden past with him.  It seems that he might just be getting out after all - and that can only be a good thing :)

Friday, 3 June 2011

More than Black and White

It's that time of year again :)  Belezza, of Dolce Belezza, has sent out the invitation to participate in her fifth Japanese Literature Challenge, and, for the third year in a row, I will be participating.  To complete the challenge, you only need to read one Japanese book, but as this is one of my specialist areas, I would imagine that I'll be looking to complete a dozen or so before the end of the challenge (the 31st of January, 2012).  And, entirely (un)coincidentally, here's a review I made earlier...

The Master of Go (translated by Edward Seidensticker) is Yasunari Kawabata's semi-fictional account of a true event, a championship match of Go (an Oriental game played on a board with black and white counters) between the Master and a younger, more aggressive opponent.  The match took place in 1938, and Kawabata actually covered the match for a Japanese newspaper, later turning his heavily descriptive reports into a book.

The result of the match, and the Master's subsequent death, are revealed at the very start of the book, and it is clear that the story has little to do with the details of the match, or even the result.  Rather, the novel is a magnificent detailed psychological portrayal of a person obsessed with the game, a man whose life has been spent improving his understanding of the tactics and the more intangible essence of the art.

The Master is a frail old man, at times taciturn and grumpy, at others garrulous and in need of company, obsessed with spending his free time playing all kinds of games with anyone (un)fortunate enough to be around.  His total focus while at the board, and his 'vagueness' away from it, are in contrast to the challenger's constant chatter during play.  This clash is to be his swansong, his final match at the top level, and the tense atmosphere in the resort where the two players find themselves sealed off from the outside world gradually becomes unbearable, both for the players and the observers.  Mind you, if you were watching - or playing - a game for six months, your nerves would be slightly frayed too.

The match is actually more than a battle between two individuals; it is a changing of the guard, a passing away of the old and an attempt to usher in a new, more democratic age of Go.  Rather than deferring to the Master's wishes on rules, as has traditionally been the case, the association sets down stringent conditions, treating both players as equals.  As the game progresses, however, you begin to wonder whether the conditions are so equal after all - perhaps they have been loaded against the Master...

It is the narrator, a thinly disguised Kawabata, who points us in this direction.  In the vein of one of Kazuo Ishiguro's less than trustworthy speakers, he muses, considers and suggests, all without committing himself, pointing out irregularities in proceedings, hinting at events happening beneath the surface, but always letting the reader decipher the meaning he is half concealing.  Has the schedule been designed to grind down the old man's health?  Is the Master more concerned with the spirit of the game than the actual result?  That's up to you, dear reader, to decide.

Most readers who consider starting this novel are a little daunted by the subject matter, and this is probably the one drawback of this book.  While the details are, for the most part, of little relevance, there are a few sections where the game takes over (and where my attention levels abruptly dropped).  For Western readers, a more fictional approach would probably have worked better, with even more focus on the players, especially during the breaks between sessions, and less emphasis on the play.  Of course, it wasn't produced for our benefit, so we'll just have to take it as it was written :)

All in all, The Master of Go is another wonderful piece of J-Lit and a worthy addition to my quickly expanding Japanese mini-library (the Chinese have been expelled from the top shelf, and an invasion of the Russian-held middle shelves is only a matter of time).  Despite the minor quibbles noted in the previous paragraph, this has probably been my favourite long Kawabata work so far (my favourite work would probably still be the long short story The Izu Dancer), and I'm keen to move on to the next one.  So, when are the Book Depository and Abe Books having their next 10% off sale?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

May 2011 Wrap-Up

Not many books on my list for May - that may have something to do with the fact that I spent ten of the last eleven days of the month on something I haven't even finished yet (more of that next month!).  However, there were still plenty of good books around :)

Total Books Read: 9
Year-to-date: 57

New: 9
Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 3
From the Library: 5
On the Kindle: 1

Novels: 7
Novellas/Short Stories: 2

Non-English Language: 4 (1 Japanese, 1 German, 1 Turkish, 1 Dutch)
5) Unwiederbringlich by Theodor Fontane
6) Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen
7) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8) Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor
9) Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Murakami Challenge: 0 (2/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 3 (10/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 1 (12/15)

Tony's Recommendation for May is: Steven Carroll's The Time We Have Taken

Many worthy contenders this month: my continuing project to read more classic German literature paid off with my first (and far from last ) Fontane novel; Peirene Press have picked another gem with Jan van Mersbergen's macho road novel(la); and I loved the two American classics I finally got around to reading (thanks, as always, to the lovely people at Narre Warren library!).  However, both for the book itself, and the trilogy it caps off, Carroll's The Time We Have Taken was probably the easiest choice I've made this year.  I attempted to explain why in my review, but you really should take the time to find out for yourself - these books are wonderful :)

That was May - I'm sure June will be just as fun ;)