Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Shades of the Other Shore' and 'Ballade Nocturne' (Review)

It's been a while, but I've finally found a few hours to devote to the other two beautiful Cahiers I received from Daniel Medin at the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris.  Last time, I looked at an interesting piece from László Krasznahorkai and an alphabetical guide to the life of a translator - today's offerings are just as interesting and varied :)

Shades of the Other Shore, like many of the cahiers, is another mix of prose and imagery.  Writer Jeffrey Greene and artist Ralph Petty are two Americans with a new life in France, and their words and paintings provide an outsider's view on the country.  Petty's vivid watercolours accompany Greene's mix of poetry and prose nicely, but (of course) I'm more focused on the literary side of the partnership...

The writing shows some interesting juxtaposition at times (e.g. Jeanne d'Arc and Steve Irwin...), but many of the pieces come back to the two constant themes of his mother, who lives with him in France, and death.  In 'On Hoarfrost', the writer turns cleaning his frosty windscreen into something deeper in his attempts to remove the white, equalising covering:
"My mother is already seated in the car, engine running with the defroster blowing, and as I scrape away the hoarfrost, her face and figure emerge from under the glass, looking out as if I were exhuming her from the next world into this one."
p.8 (Sylph Editions, 2013)
'The Silent Gardener' treads a similar path, but in a more poetic vein:
"My mother sleeps under a fig tree
 with no leaves, only the spring sun" (p.16)
The title also seems to examine this preoccupation with 'the other side', although he might just be talking about France.  If I'm honest, this wasn't really my thing, but there were some nice lines, and the pictures were very pretty :)

The second work was one I was a little more interested in checking out as it was by a writer whose work I've enjoyed before, Gao Xingjian.  While all the work I'd previously read by the Nobel laureate had been prose works, the subject of this cahier is a short play, originally written in French, translated (by Claire Conceison) into English directly, but with a possible Chinese version in mind.

The play, Ballade Nocturne, is a short piece, with a focus on music, pictures and dance.  There are just four roles: a musician, two dancers and an actresss who also plays a character called 'she'.  Anyone familiar with Gao's prose work, especially Soul Mountain, will recognise the focus on shadowy pronouns as descriptors...

'Elle', the focus of the piece, is all woman:
"On dirait une femme nature,
 mais pas fatale.
 On dirait une femme perdue,
 mais sans rien de public,"
p.2 (Sylph Editions, 2010)

"One might call her a natural woman,
 but not a femme fatale.
 One might call her a lost woman,
 but not a common whore." (p.17)
First we are introduced to her as a person, then the writer positions her as a representative of her gender in a battle of the sexes:
"Oh là là, femme contre homme,
 une dure bataille.
 Qui sera le vainqueur?
 Et qui sera conquis?" (p.4 )

"Oh la la, man versus woman
 a tough battle.
 Who will be the conqueror?
 And who will be conquered?" (p.19)
In the eternal struggle, Gao suggests that men need first to understand women to be worthy of them.

This theme of the struggle is taken up more literally as the play continues (at one point, the musician - the only male character - is trussed up and dragged off stage!).  It's very clear that 'she' is protesting against a man-made world and would like to propose some alternatives:
"et s'il ya une religion en laquelle croire,
 ce sera notre propre corps." (p.11)

"and if there is a religion worth believing in
 it will be our own bodies." (p.29)
If women ruled the world...

There is an intense focus on what is going on around the actors, and the cahier is full of stage directions, descriptions of the background music, and the dances the two dancers are to perform.  To an uncultured novice like myself, it's all rather arty, and Ballade Nocturne is described in the translator's introduction as a 'polymorphic' work, one which can't be pigeon-holed into 'theatre', 'dance' or 'art'.

As always, there is an abundance of beautiful extras.  In addition to Conceison's insightful introduction, the 'reader' is treated to Gao's beautiful ink-wash illustrations, as well as the original French-language version in a pamphlet insert.  It's a book which is a joy to read and admire - being totally honest, I'm not completely sure I'd enjoy sitting through the actual play though!

The Cahiers Series produces beautiful pieces, coffee-table books for those interested in good literature and translation, and I'm very grateful to M. Medin for sending some my way.  Sadly though, with two young kids around, they're unlikely to be sitting on my coffee table any time soon.  Perhaps some of my readers will have more luck with that idea...

Thursday, 26 September 2013

'High Tide' by Inga Ābele (Review)

Today's post features a review of another work of translated fiction from Open Letter (a publisher based at the University of Rochester, which is also behind the renowned Three Percent blog).  The writer is a fairly new name in translated fiction - and (excitingly) it's another new country for me...

Inga Ābele's High Tide (translated by Kaija Straumanis, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is the story of Ieva, a single mother in the Latvian capital of Riga who is approaching middle age.  She's a script-writer, one not in the best of spirits, and she has been deeply affected by the recent death of her grandmother.  However, there's more to her story, much more - this will become clearer as we progress...

...or, more accurately expressed, regress...

The writer (as you might expect) takes the reader on a journey through Ieva's life, but backwards.  As we meet the important people in her life - her gran, her mum and dad, her brother, Pāvils, and her daughter, Monta - things begin to take shape.  The story always returns to two other people though - her dead lover, Aksels, and her ex-husband Andrejs - two men forever linked by one woman and a fateful event.

Ābele's novel looks at how life rarely unfolds the way we expect it to, even if it usually offers you things you never thought possible.  Is it worth it though?  Well:
"Like an Indian who gets glass beads in exchange for gold, you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread.  The feel of a dog's wet nose against your hand.  The look in your children's eyes.  A bird feeder.  May it all bring you joy, says this opposing, unwanted, huge opportunity - Life."
p.8 (Open Letter, 2013)
I suppose though that life is what you make of it...

Ieva starts the novel jaded, cynical and world-weary, and the backwards path through her life allows the reader to see why she ended up where she did, with the reader seeing the results before the causes.  This can be confusing at times, as when Ieva returns to the prison to visit Andrejs time and time again, a little like a moth to the flame.  It takes us a long time to realise exactly why she does this...

Once you have an overview of the whole novel, it can be seen as a work (and life) in three parts, with Ieva's life changed by two pivotal events: Aksel's death and her final rejection of Andrejs.  Ieva passes from young love and freedom, through a miserable existence chained to a jailbird, followed by a life as an artist - although the novel's structure turns that order on its head.  Are you still with me?

The strained relationships the main character has, both with the two men in her life and her parents, has a wearing-down effect on Ieva and causes a rift in her relationship with her daughter, Monta.  In fact, some of the more interesting parts of the book are when we see Ieva through the eyes of the other characters.  She's a middle-aged woman sleeping around, working her way through... what exactly?  Grief? Trauma? Depression?

Of course, Ieva isn't the only one struggling - it's a bleak life, and it's hard to be happy, so you snatch moments when and where you can.  Aksel seems to realise this best, letting go of his anger and trying to appreciate life outside prison, his returned, if monotonous, freedom:
"It's his, Andrejs's moment.  A moment of existence.  He's gotten so good at capturing these moments over the past years.  He sniffs them out like a bloodhound, extracts them like a pearl diver and brings them to the surface of his consciousness, breaks and grinds them down like a nutcracker.  He's almost happy, dammit - happy!" (p.54)

The three main characters have their own ideas on how to be happy though.  While Aksel prefers to go his own way, lost in punk music and drugs, Ieva escapes into a fantasy world of words.  For Andrejs, whose escape lies in hard work on the land, this choice of paper over trees is a suspicious one:
"Independence and betrayal.  The entire breed of book readers are traitors.  Because they use words however they see fit, and they're as sly as foxes.  They'll forever twist the world into something they like better.  Everyone else sees black, but they say it's just the opposite of white.  Obviously you can say it like that too, but it will always be connected to a selfish purpose so tangled it's sickening." (p.64)
Yep - never trust a reader ;)

High Tide is beautifully written in parts, and the writer often plays with the imagery of tides, high and low, usually metaphorically.  In seizing opportunities when they come, the characters are battling through the tough, low-tide times, waiting for the tide to turn in their favour.  There's also a tide-like contrast in the structure between frequent short sections, extended conversations and the few, pivotal, lengthy prose sections.  These long quasi-monologues (for example, a section at the start of the novel with Ieva and Andrejs at the flat) are long, pensive and elegantly written, and are probably the parts I enjoyed the most.

However, not all the writing is as good as in those long sections; some of the shorter parts were a little clumsy, especially in conversations.  Also, once the reader knows the full story, the book peters out a little, and the last few chapters didn't really do much for me.  A life told backwards is a nice idea (c.f. Hitomi Kanehara's Autofiction), but High Tide ends with a whimper more than a bang really...

I'm not sure it all comes together in the end, but Ābele does create some excellent scenes, and High Tide is definitely an interesting read.  In part, some of my misgivings might come from the e-format I was using, which is not ideal for this book - it would have been nice to flick back and forth to refresh my memory (not as easy as I'd like on my antiquated Kindle...).  Despite coming form the digital age, I think High Tide is a book which might best be enjoyed on paper :)

Monday, 23 September 2013

'The Foxes Come at Night' by Cees Nooteboom (Review)

A few months ago, MacLehose Press reissued some books by Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom to coincide with his eightieth birthday, and I was lucky enough to receive copies of them.  At the time, I reviewed his debut novel, Rituals, but today's post looks at a far more recent work, allowing me to compare books from very different periods of the writer's life and career...

The Foxes Come at Night (translated by Ina Rilke) is a short collection of eight stories, first published in Dutch in 2009.  The pieces are very much thematically linked, with Nooteboom using the collection as an opportunity to examine age, memory and reflections on the past, usually from the perspective of a character remembering a lost partner or friend.

A common device used is the humble photograph, and the first story, 'Gondolas', is a good example of this.  In the story, a Dutch art journalist returns to Venice to stand in the place where he took a photograph forty years earlier.  Rather than lamenting the loss of a friend, the protagonist muses about how unimportant people are to the world:
"How extraordinary that things should still be the same!  The water, the cormorant-shaped gondolas, the marble step on which he sat.  It is just us making our exit, he thought, we leave the décor of our lives behind."
'Gondolas', p.11 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
By the end of the story, the reader is unsure as to whether the main character is here to bid his friend farewell, or to be rid of her memory...

Another story which uses a photograph to kick things off is 'Heinz', the longest story in the collection, one which sees a Dutchman reminiscing about his time living in Italy, and his friendship with the titular honorary Vice-Consul.  An alcoholic businessman secluded on the Italian coast, Heinz has an aura about him, one which attracts everyone around.  Sadly though, he is destined to burn out after shining brightly, and his friend studies the photograph looking for evidence of this eventual disaster in the faded picture...

While many stories focus on those who have departed, others focus more on the fate of those left behind.  In 'Late September', an elderly woman on an out-of-season Spanish island waits for some afternoon delight in the arms of a (slightly-) younger local, an event which feels more like a transaction than real pleasure.

'Last Afternoon' also focuses on an elderly woman, this time one who is lost in bitter-sweet memories of her late partner.  Her story revolves around amorous adventures, flowers and tortoises(!), but it is really about finally letting go of unfinished business:
"It was only now, at this mysterious moment of the cypress's shadow creeping up against the garden wall, that he was dead to her.  How could you be so sure about something like that?  There had in fact been three such moments, she reflected: the moment he left, that of his dying, and the present, long-drawn-out moment of beginning to forget him, of his passing into a shadow of himself, his real death."
'Last Afternoon', p.97
Once again, the living must realise that there is no point in dwelling on the actions of the long dead.

The Foxes Come at Night is the fourth of Nooteboom's works I've read, and his deceptively light touch is instantly recognisable.  In fact,  I'm also pretty sure that a minor character in a couple of the stories, Wintrop, is the 'hero' of his debut novel, Rituals... The stories should be depressing, but in Nooteboom's skillful hands, they are imbued with a touch of sarcasm, a subtle wink rather than a mournful sob.  We are told stories of loss and grief, but the underlying message seems to be to keep our chin up :)

Most of the stories are one-sided tales of mourning the lost, but the culmination of the collection is a two-part story which has a slightly different approach.  'Paula' shares many of the features of the other stories: we have a man looking at an old photograph, remembering a lost friend, telling us about the good old days in the company of a beautiful, charismatic figure.  He remembers a shared night in bed, a holiday in Africa and the last night he saw her...

...and then she gives her side of the story.  You see, 'Paula II' allows Paula to have her say from beyond the grave, and her memories are slightly different to those of the living.  She allows us to see the events we've just heard about from her angle, and she is actually the one who feels pity for her friend:
"Take your Zen monastery - I saw it coming miles off.  Forgive me for saying this, for someone still among the living you make rather a dead impression, as though you have taken an advance on your mortality."
'Paula II', p.129
It's a chilling reminder that the living have a responsibility to keep on living - even if they would rather mourn their dead...

While I've enjoyed all the Nooteboom books I've tried, I hadn't really found one I loved until now, but The Foxes Come at Night is definitely a work I'd recommend.  This is easily my favourite of the four I've read, a beautiful collection of thought-provoking stories which fit together perfectly - an example of a crafted collection of stories, rather than a selection of tales randomly bundled into a book.  It's one I hope to reread soon, especially the stories 'Paula'/'Paula II', as I think they are pieces which need a second look to appreciate them fully.  Perhaps Nooteboom is one of those rare writers who improve with age...

Thursday, 19 September 2013

'The Nihon-ryōiki' by Kyōkai, translated by Burton Watson (Review)

Over the last few years, I've gradually been making my way through the classics of Japanese literature, and I've come (like many readers) to have a few favourites among the publishers in this area.  One publishing house of note is Columbia University Press, who make J-lit classics (and I mean classics) available for everyone.  However, I'm not sure that today's choice is one for your casual reader...

The Nihon ryōiki, or Record of Miraculous Events in Japan (translated by Burton Watson, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books***) is something a little different.  It dates from around 822, and the writer, the monk Kyōkai, is actually more of an editor than an author.  He collected stories from around the region and put them together in a book of 'setsuwa' - anecdotal tales promoting the virtues of the recently-imported Buddhist faith.  These stories were for explaining the importance of adherence to religion to the common folk who had little idea of Buddhism (and virtually no idea of literacy).

In effect, these are classic tales which play a similar part in Japanese literature as, say, Aesop's fables do in the west.  Short folk tales with a Buddhist slant, they're little vignettes which are part of Japanese culture and, therefore of interest to anyone wanting to look a little more closely at Japanese literary history.

As mentioned above, their primary purpose was to promote Buddhist beliefs.  The stories are rather short, many taking up less than a page, with some comprising a single paragraph, and they display examples of 'karmic retribution' or 'karmic causality' (in layman's terms, what goes around comes around...).  Each story hammers the point home in the last paragraph with a summary of the tale and a heavy moral:
"In appraisal we say: The Venerable Monk went far away to study, met with trouble, and could not return.  Having no way to escape, he rested on the bridge, meditating on the Sage or Bodhisattva.  He depended on the power of the heart, and this caused the appearance of the old man, who disappeared suddenly once they had parted.  In time, he made an image and always paid it honor, never ceasing his devotions."
p.26, 1:6 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
In fact, other stories go further, claiming that 'It was a miraculous event!' or asking the reader 'How can we fail to believe in the law of karmic causality?'.  Which can get a tad annoying at times ;)

Though the stories are short, the titles are very long, and rather illuminating.  When you read headings like 'On Paying for and Freeing Turtles and Being Rewarded Immediately and Saved by them', you have a fair idea what will be happening over the next page or two...  Overall, there is a feeling of common-sense teachings with familiar morals: the idea of might not being right; doing to others as you would have them do unto you; and the importance of living right, rather than being especially pious.

After a while, recurring themes begin to stand out from the blur of short tales.  One is that of reincarnation, with debtors in particular often falling foul of this precept (and being born as an ox in the next life).  Another is the frequent karmic penalty incurred for mistreating animals, an offence usually 'rewarded' by some healthy suffering for the wrong-doer.  Filial disobedience is (naturally) high on the agenda too, and those who disrespect their parents are likely to meet a sad demise.

It's not all about punishment in this world though.  Many of the tales feature journeys to the kingdom of King Yama, a Buddhist equivalent of the western underworld of Hades.  Monks die and come back to life after a few days (luckily, they usually have the foresight to tell people in advance not to burn the body..), and after their reawakening, they interpret the events of the 'journey' (or dream).  These usually lead to improvements in future conduct (as the chanting and copying of sutras does your karmic soul the world of good).

The main idea though is a predictable one - if you mess with monks, or misuse temple funds, you'll meet with a painful, gruesome end...
"The officiating monk saw him and tried to explain, giving reasons of doctrine, but he refused to listen.  "It's no use explaining!" he said.  "You're trying to seduce my wife!  You should be knocked in the head, you worthless monk"  His language was too vile to describe in detail.  He called his wife to go home, and when they got there he violated her.  But an ant bit his penis, and he died in great pain." (2:11, p.84)
Ouch.  Please note, the punishment was for the 'vile language' and not his behaviour towards his wife - these were very different times...

Burton Watson's translation reads fairly smoothly, and the style chosen makes the stories easy to read.  It is am academic text though, and as such is replete with footnotes.  While they can get repetitive after a while, they are useful - and some are surprisingly candid:
"Some kind of stunt?  The meaning escapes me." (1:26, p.46)
It's nice to have honesty in footnotes ;)

However, the short nature of texts, and the fact that many ideas are repeated, means that casual readers may get frustrated.  After the tenth talking ox, your eyes may well glaze over, and even the visits to Hell will pall after a while.  In fact, for those who enjoy a good narrative, the lack of a progression in the stories may make this a challenging read at times.

But it all depends on how you approach the book; it's definitely a resource to be dipped into.  The Nihon ryōiki runs to just over 200 pages, and I read it over the course of five days (and perhaps should have stretched it out more).  As I said in the introduction, it may not be ideal for the complete J-Lit novice, but for those (like me...) who have a deeper interest in Japanese literature, it's a book which will add an extra dimension to your private library :)

***Footprint Books assure me that this book is available in Australia and New Zealand, both online and through bookshops :)

Monday, 16 September 2013

'The Sorrow of Angels' by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Review)

After enjoying the excellent Heaven and Hell recently, I was eager to dive into the next instalment of Jón Kalman Stefánsson's trilogy set in the wilds of Iceland.  It's a bit risky sometimes, reading a sequel of a book you really liked, as the possibility of being disappointed is always at the back of your mind.  Luckily then, I have very good news for those of you who liked the first book - this one is better :)

The Sorrow of Angels (translated again by Philip Roughton, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) picks up very shortly after the end of its predecessor, with the boy settling in to his new home in the cold, isolated village.  Taken in by the beautiful Geirþúður, he is beginning to enjoy a more comfortable life, his days spent helping housemaid Helga with domestic tasks and reading translations of Shakespeare to the blind sea captain, Kolbeinn - that is, when he's not flirting with the beautiful young Ragnheiður.

However, this semi-civilised existence is interrupted one day by the arrival of the local postman, an arrival which is both comical and serious at the same time:
"Helga looks down at Jens and the horses, all three nearly unrecognisable, white and icy.  Why don't you come in, man? she asks, somewhat sharply.  Jens looks up at her and says apologetically: To tell the truth, I'm frozen to the horse."
p.17 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
Once the burly postman has recovered from his ordeal, he decides to set off on another long trek, deputising for a sick colleague.  With a long, arduous journey ahead of him, some of which will involve rowing across treacherous fjords, it is decided that Jens will need a companion this time if he is to make it back in one piece - and so the boy sets off into the wilderness once more...

From the very start, The Sorrow of Angels grabs the reader's attention and doesn't let go for the next three-hundred odd pages, sweeping them up and taking them on a guided tour of the writer's creation.  The first part of the book is set in the village, and as well as meeting familiar faces and hanging around inside old haunts, the reader is introduced to a few new people as Stefánsson widens the circle of our experience.  One highlight is getting to visit the local hotel and restaurant, drinking with the local intelligentsia (the schoolmaster, the watchmaker) while the local big-wigs (including Ragnheiður's father...) dine in another section.

As interesting as this is though, we soon sense that this is merely the introduction, and that the restless Jens will soon be setting out again into a hostile landscape - and if you thought the boy had problems in the first book, think again.  Compared to the journey he undertakes in The Sorrow of Angels, his first trip through the mountains was a walk in the park...

The false comfort of the village gives way to the reality of life outside the small settlements people have created to protect themselves from the elements.  This is Iceland in the nineteenth century, and the reality is that many people live far away from company, isolated (literally) in their sturdy cottages, buried beneath the snow for the extent of the winter.  How long is the winter?  Well, it's hard to say.  In some places, it's difficult to know if spring ever comes at all.

When Jens and the boy stumble across these outposts of civilisation, islands of warmth in a sea of endless snow and driving winds, they become the centre of attraction, sources of news and novelty, people to talk to (often, the first company in months).  In an age of instant gratification, with digital downloads and online grocery shopping, it's confronting to see people thirsty both for letters and books, and for coffee - using the last of their precious grounds to warm up the unknown visitors...

...and they certainly need warming up.  Much of the novel takes place on the heaths, with Jens and the boy lugging the postbags from farm to farm, a task made more difficult by the constant snow storms and the ever-present threat of freezing to death.  The titular 'sorrow' refers to snow, but while it certainly brings sorrow, at times it also entices, invites, the weary traveller to sink into its embrace.  It is little wonder that the further the two wanderers get from civilisation, the greater the feeling they have of not being alone in the storm - out on the wiley, windy moors, indeed...

Bleak?  Unreadable?  Not at all.  The Sorrow of Angels is a beautiful book, one you need to savour - a novel to read over a good few days.  It's certainly one I enjoyed reading and coming back to after a break.  Once again, Stefánsson's writing is wonderful (and if that's the case, it's also important to acknowledge Philip Roughton's immense contribution in bringing it into English).  He has a wonderful, light touch with words, and most pages had something I was tempted to mark for inclusion in my post:
"Stars and moon vanish and soon day comes flooding in, this blue water of the sky.  The delightful light that helps us navigate the world.  Yet the light is not expansive, extending from the surface of the Earth only several kilometres into the sky, where the night of the universe takes over.  It's most likely the same way with life, this blue lake, behind which waits the ocean of death." (p.24)
It's a beautiful idea, and one which sums up the themes of the novel.

Which isn't to say that Stefánsson isn't equally adept at changing the mood and tone, adding a wry aside for the reader's enjoyment.  As mentioned in my review of Heaven and Hell, there's a touch of Saramago in his style, and the book is full of witty one-liners:
"Kjartan would curse roundly if he dared, but God is, despite all else, higher than all storms and men; he hears everything, forgets nothing and collects his dues from us on the final day for every thought, every word, every touch, every detail.  It can be tedious and downright depressing to have such a God hanging over one; we'll likely exchange him as soon as something better is available." (p.188)
Or how about:
"The dead are egoists, making the living toil for them, as well as filling them with guilt for not doing so well enough." (p.287)
There are plenty more where those came from...

Alas, while Stefánsson is a master of his game, I am but a poor scribbler, out of my depth when describing books like The Sorrow of Angels, so I'll leave it there with just a few more words to help emphasise my feelings about the book.  To the publisher: please submit this for next year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  To next year's IFFP panel: please shortlist this book.  To the wider audience out there: please read the book - it's great :)

Thursday, 12 September 2013

'Open City' by Teju Cole (Review)

My focus on literature in translation means that I rarely read English-language fiction, but there is the odd exception.  My last-minute decision to attend an event at the Melbourne Writers Festival a while back led me to make one of those exceptions, as I really enjoyed the way American writer Teju Cole talked about the future of the novel in his keynote address (and the ensuing discussion).  Of course, it's a little risky to read a novel because you like the person, but don't worry - the book certainly lived up to the good impression the writer made on me...

Open City probably needs little introduction; Cole's first novel has been a worldwide success, winning a string of awards.  It centres on Julius, a Nigerian-born Psychology resident working and walking his way through the New York winter.  Having recently broken up with his girlfriend, he spends much of his time outside work alone, listening to classical music, reading good books and pounding the pavements of his adopted hometown.

Julius enjoys his walks, which allow him to process, and escape from, the mental rigours of his daily work.  He's a man who needs solitude, and even when he does catch up with friends, there's a sense of detachment, a feeling that while he is present in body, the mind is still roaming the streets of New York.  A short trip to Brussels, a vain, half-hearted attempt to reconnect with a family member, is a short distraction, but it proves to be in vain.  Julius is a successful, well-educated man, one who you'd expect to be happy, and the reader gradually begins to wonder if his detachment has a cause...

Cole's novel is a beautiful book, an elegant story of a city in four dimensions, and a haunting tale of a man who struggles to find his place in it.  What strikes the reader on reading the first few chapters of the novel is the importance of the setting, and Open City, at times, comes across as a love letter to New York, a subtle ode to the big city.  Within a few chapters, the adjective 'Sebaldian' came to mind, as Julius' tangential asides about the buildings he passes and the streets he walks through instantly reminded me of the style of The Rings of Saturn (as I quickly found out, this wasn't exactly a unique comparison I was making...).

What makes Cole's novel even more Sebaldian though is the way in which Julius sees beyond the current status, experiencing the past of the city as well as the present:
"Out, ahead of me, in the Hudson, there was just the faintest echo of the old whaling ships, the whales, and the generations of New Yorkers who had come here to the promenade to watch wealth or sorrow flow into the city or simply to see the light play on the water.  Each one of those past moments was present now as a trace."
p.54 (Faber and Faber, 2011)
Julius' New York is not just a maze of skyscrapers and subway stations; it's a hole where the World Trade Center used to stand, which once stood on narrow streets, which had replaced markets, which in their turn had been built on land inhabited by native Americans.  Most people don't notice the traces of the past that hide amongst the clamour of the present, but Julius (and perhaps Cole) feels almost more at home amongst these reminders of a distant past.

Which is not to say that the novel neglects people, individuals - far from it.  Julius has many encounters with fellow citizens and travellers, and the majority of them are, like our 'hero', newcomers, immigrants, men and women who are straddling the divide between two (or more) cultures.  From Professor Saito, Julius' academic mentor, to Dr. Mailotte, a Belgian surgeon Julius meets on a plane; from the man who shines his shoes to the aggressive autodidact running an Internet café (and studying) in Brussels; Cole shows that the world is full of people struggling to adapt to their own four-dimensional existence, trying to reconcile past and present.

Just as the novel deals with both the then and the now, it also discusses the global and the individual.  Julius talks with the people he meets about their lives and concerns, but the bigger picture is never far from our view.  One of his clients, a native American historian, writes about the conflict between her people and the conquering white settlers, and the effect history has at a personal level:
"I can't pretend it isn't about my life, she said to me once, it is my life.  It's a difficult thing to live in a country which has erased your past." (p.27)
In many ways, Open City is a gloomy, pessimistic novel, with a sense of decay and entropy, leaving the reader feeling that it is not so much about progress as it it about decline.  Then again, I suspect I'm beginning to read a little too much into things here...

It's not just what the book's about which makes Open City such a good read though; it's Cole's style which really makes it enjoyable.  The soothing, flowing prose accompanies the reader on a thinker's tour of New York, and while you may struggle to discern a plot of any kind (especially throughout the first half), there is a gradual development of sorts.  In the talk I attended, Cole mentioned the slow solace of the novel, something which helps you to slow down from the hectic pace of the digital world, and it's an idea he has definitely built his own work upon.

In fact, you suspect that there is a lot of the writer in the book, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, I wonder how he plans to follow up the success of Open City and where he wants to go from here.  Will he continue with his Sebaldian mixture of descriptive narrative, or will the next book bring something completely different?  I have no idea, but I'll be very keen to accompany him on his next walking tour :)

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

'Under this Terrible Sun' by Carlos Busqued (Review)

Today we're looking at an offering from another new translated fiction press, Frisch & Co., run entirely from Berlin.  How does that work, you ask.  Well, you see, it's all electronic - we're moving into a paperless era here ;)  Once again, I'm delving into Spanish-language fiction - we're off to Argentina...

Carlos Busqued's Under this Terrible Sun (translated by Megan McDowell, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short, laconic and occasionally disturbing book.  The story begins when Javier Cetarti, a man approaching middle age with little to show for it, gets a phone call from someone he's never met - unsurprisingly, the news the call brings is not great:
"Daniel Molina", retired petty officer of the air force and represented here by Mr. Duarte," had killed his lover and a son of hers at noon the previous day.  That is, Cetarti's mother and brother"
(Frisch & Co., 2013)
Cetarti manages to get his act together and drives all day to get to the provincial town of Lapachito, where he meets the aforementioned Duarte, has his mother and brother cremated and goes along with Duarte's ruse to scam some insurance money.

On his return to Córdoba, Cetarti decides to quit his apartment and move into his brother's old place, a ramshackle house full of rubbish - and an axolotl salamander.  As he settles into a life of smoking weed, eating pizza and watching the Discovery Channel, he slowly makes plans for heading off into the sunset.  Little does he know though that Duarte is not who he seems - and that their fleeting meeting in Lapachito is to have far-reaching consequences...

Under this Terrible Sun is a book which starts off incredibly slowly (despite the dramatic phone call), and after a few of the many, fairly brief, chapters, I was starting to wonder if anything was going to happen.  All of a sudden though, we get to see beneath the dull veneer, and it's fairly disturbing.  The fact of the matter is that the air-force veteran Duarte is a nasty piece of work.  Whatever you do, don't go down to the basement...
"Without untying him, he adjusted the boy until he was in a stable seated position"
This sentence appeared just as randomly and disturbingly in the book as it did in my post.  It comes out of nowhere, and the reader suddenly suspects that the book is about to take a new direction.

Let's be blunt - Under this Terible Sun soon becomes a dark twisted story about some sad, nasty people.  The initially affable Duarte is a criminal, sick and unforgiving, one with a penchant for model planes and vile pornography:
"There's some pornography you don't watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go."
Let's just say that he's not a very nice man...  He is ably supported by Danielito, a big man addicted to junk food, marijuana and the Discovery Channel, one who is a side-kick to both Duarte and his own (rather strange) mother...

However, the central character of the novel, Cetarti, isn't much better.  He's listless and drifting, spending his days smoking joints and avoiding anything which might lead to action.  He's a man who really doesn't like to get involved - in anything:
"But getting out of the car, talking, making himself understood, paying etc., it all seemed like an unworkable task that broke down into an almost endless series of muscular contractions, small positional decisions, mental operations of word choice and response analysis that exhausted him in advance."
Danielito's father provides a connection with Cetarti, but the two men have more in common than their messy family ties.  They're both losers with little going for them apart from a messy apartment, a bag of weed and an interest in TV documentaries.  Sad men, with wasted lives.

A symbol for this sense of inertia is the pet Cetarti finds at his brother's house, an axolotl - a salamander which doesn't need to evolve or grow up.  It lives at the bottom of its tank, stagnant, unmoving.  It's a rather apt pet for the unevolved Cetarti...

Under this Terrible Sun is a short read, and interesting in parts, but it's not a book I loved.  For me, it never really got going, and I was rarely sure where it was going (or why).  Also, as alluded to above, it's another of those Latin American books with some very graphic scenes, which reminded me (in passing) of certain sections of Carlos Gamerro's The Islands.  If you didn't like those (and those who have read Gamerro's book will know exactly what I mean), you may not like this...

While the book wasn't really one for me, I'm definitely still interested in the publisher.  An all-electronic press, which is a fairly new concept, has the advantage of allowing Frisch & Co. to deal with other publishers and get books out quickly.  With contacts to various big European presses, they should be able to bring out a few exciting books.  I'll definitely be trying another one - hopefully, I'll enjoy the next one a little more ;)

Sunday, 8 September 2013

'Ghosts' by César Aira (Review)

It's the final stop on my reading tour of Spanish- (and Portuguese- ) language literature, and the last author on the trail is César Aira.  My first encounter with the Argentine novel(la)ist was the enigmatic, and slightly confusing, Varamo, but I'd been assured that today's selection was a much more enjoyable choice...

Ghosts (translated by Chris Andrews, published by New Directions) takes place in, on and around an apartment building in Buenos Aires on the final day of the year.  A Chilean family is living on the roof of the unfinished building while the father, Raúl Viñas, works there as a caretaker.  On a sweltering morning (northern hemisphere folk, take note: December = summer), the future residents of the building come to look at how things are progressing.  All in all, the building is fairly packed - workmen, tenants, children and ghosts.  Yep, ghosts.

The ghosts are real, gliding about in the background, men covered in dust, naked and invisible to the visitors.  However, the Chilean family living on the building are able to see the strange apparitions, and most of them simply accept the figures as part of the background.
"The children weren't there, but the other characters, those bothersome ghosts, were legion.  They were always around at that time.  To see them, you just had to go and look."
p.47 (New Directions, 2008)
Fifteen-year-old Patri is a little different though, and the quiet young woman observes the ghosts as she walks up and down the stairs.  And then they begin to talk...

Ghosts is confusing, but strangely comforting, a story which initially makes little sense but is nevertheless enjoyable.  The story meanders along, wonderful rambling vignettes interrupted by tangential asides and the odd glimpse of naked men hanging in the air.  At one point, Patri has a dream during her siesta, one which serves as a lengthy digression on the nature of architecture and the importance of non-building in primitive cultures.  While it's nice to see a few pages devoted to the culture of Australian Aborigines in the middle of the book, you do start to wonder if Aira might have got ever-so-slightly sidetracked...

There is a method in his apparent madness though, and despite its brevity, Ghosts does deal with a few clear ideas.  One is the difference between the Chilean main characters and the Argentines they are living among; in the sense that they are invisible migrants, the family are just as much ghosts as the real things.  Aira describes the contrast between the Chileans and Argentines as one between rich and poor, delicate and brash, real and superficial.  Patri's mother Elisa explains that in Argentina, money is the only form of virility (I think the writer is trying to say something about his mother country here...).

In contrast, the extended family are shown as people who can enjoy life and use time as they see fit rather than being strangled by it.  Theirs is a relaxed existence, seizing the moment with little thought of the future, and it's one which appears to work well.  Raúl's drinking may well end up badly, but it gets him through the day, and the wine (which he cools by putting the bottles inside the ghosts...) is drunk at exactly the right time.  Even the melon eaten at the party has reached its exact peak at the time it is to be consumed.

However, Patri is the odd one out, tenser and more preoccupied, and Ghosts is really about how she starts to think about what the world may have in store for her.  The ghosts are reminders of masculinity and her inevitable fate - and they're not exactly subtle reminders either:
"Although well proportioned in general, some of them, the majority in fact, had big bellies.  Even their lips were powdered; even the soles of their feet!  Only at odd moments from certain points of view, could you see the foreskin at the tips of their penises parting to reveal a tiny circle of bright red, moist skin.  It was the only touch of color on their bodies." (pp.54/5)
In a sense, the ghosts may represent a metaphor for a sexual awakening, and only Patri's mother senses that her daughter might be in danger.  While the other children race around the building with little fear of a slip, Patri might just be falling for a rather dangerous idea of happiness.  Waiting for the ideal man is a little like waiting for a ghost to appear...

While I enjoyed Varamo, I wasn't quite sure if Aira was my kind of writer, but Ghosts has convinced me that he's definitely on my wavelength.  There's so much to like in such a short book, and while a lot is made of his 'process' of writing a page each day and then just letting himself be forced to move the story along, I suspect that a lot of thought does go into the stories.  Certainly, I felt that this story was extremely cohesive, with all the tangled strangs coming together in a dramatic climax.

And that's it - I've finally made it through my library loans :)  Since finishing my IFFP reading, I've managed to try twelve books by six new writers (in between racing through my ARCs and a few choice works from the shelf).  Hopefully, I'll be able to find some time to revisit a few of them in the future - and if I do, I'm sure Aira will be high on the list :)

Thursday, 5 September 2013

'Multiples' by Adam Thirlwell (Ed.) (Review)

I first heard about today's book a good while back when McSweeney's Quarterly Concern devoted a whole edition to its game of literary Chinese Whispers.  Having been tempted to give it a go back then, I was very pleased to hear that it would be appearing elsewhere in book form - and it's now even reached Australia...

Multiples, edited by Adam Thirlwell (review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Allen & Unwin), is a book centred on a simple, yet potentially dangerous, idea.  An original text is taken, translated into a second language, then translated into another language, then... you get the idea.  There are eleven strands to the book, and most of the original stories eventually end up in six different, mutated versions.  As you can imagine, the end product rarely bears much of a resemblance to the original...

The cover proclaims that the book consists of "12 stories in 18 languages by 61 authors", and if you think I'm going to review all of them, you've got another think coming.  While not all of the efforts were stellar, there were several which had me noting the writer's name down for future reference (and a couple which had me adding names to my Sheldon-Cooperesque list of mortal enemies).  The best way to look at this though is probably to take a couple of examples from the strands.

One of the shorter pieces was 'Geluk', originally written by Dutch author A.L. Snijders, and Lydia Davis' (presumably) faithful translation ('Luck') was followed by Yannick Haenel's French version, 'Chance' - one which was a lot smoother and may have betrayed the style of the original a little.  Of course, as Haenel says in his endnotes:
"And no doubt I wanted, when translating this heartbreaking text in which a young man and a young woman do not manage to fall in love, to re-establish the love that - I'm sure of it - exists between them.  I make them live together when, it seems, everything keeps them apart.  I swear that I didn't do this deliberately.  I really believed what I wrote, while I was writing it.  You see, I'm not an anarchist, a little antichrist, and above all, whether I like it or not, I am French."
p.94 (Portobello Books, 2013)
You see, it's not his fault he changed the story - his blood made him do it ;)

I was quite happy to accept Haenel's tongue-in-cheek excuses, but the next step wasn't quite as palatable.  Heidi Julavits ('Chance') back-translated Haenel's version into English, but as her French wasn't amazing she decided to use a dictionary guess the words she didn't know...  Which meant that Peter Stamm's typically elegant version ('Zufall') used, and built upon, some of the ludicrous errors Julavits incorporated (including moving the music lessons detailed in the story from the attic to the garden!).

Once Jeffrey Eugenides had given the story its third lease of life in English ('Happenstance'), it was over to Sjón to tie things up in Icelandic ('Atvik').  Sadly, I wasn't able to make much of this one, except to note that it was about a third of the length of the original.  Happily, the great man cleared this up for us in the notes - you see, he allowed his son to memorise Eugenides' version and then had him recite it back three weeks later.  And into the book it went...

Hopefully, the above description gives you the idea.  Each time the stories go through another pair of hands, something happens to them.  Sometimes the changes are minimal, occasionally the style changes radically, and in some versions the story is radically altered.  Danilo Kiš' story 'Cipele' ('Shoes') survives several interpretations virtually unscathed, but when Camille de Toledo gets hold of it, it is transformed into a tale of a writer's struggle to the death with Google Translate (and a most interesting one it is too!).  While John Banville's subsequent rendering is a beautifully elegant piece of writing, I'm not quite sure how he managed to return to something close to the original after de Toledo's effort...

Of course, these digressions are what makes Multiples worth reading; if the job had been carried out by professional translators, with larger foreign-language vocabularies and smaller egos, the end result would probably have been more accurate, but not half as entertaining.  I'm not sure many readers would have stuck around for six fairly similar renderings of a short story, especially when half of them are in a foreign language...

Having said that though, Thirlwell cleverly acknowledges that many readers will not be that proficient in foreign languages themselves, and every second story in each strand is in English.  I suppose that's just the way the world is...  English is also privileged in another way - the stories written in foreign languages actually use a slightly smaller font (possibly as the publisher isn't expecting those stories to be read as much...).

As you would expect, I gave it my best shot, and while the Icelandic, Urdu, Hebrew and Chinese stories were beyond my reach, I did attempt to read as many of the versions as I could (or thought I could, which is by no means the same thing!).  Luckily, thanks mainly to the predominance of Romance and Germanic languages, I was able to at least struggle through all but seven of the interpretations.  I'm not saying it was easy though ;)

There's one more point to be made about Multiples though, and it's one which may surprise you.  The original stories come from a variety of languages and include some by very well-known writers (e.g. Enrique Vila-Matas, László Krasznahorkai, Franz Kafka, Kenji Miyazawa), but... they don't actually appear in the book in the original form.  When I first realised this, I was a little confused (not to mention disappointed), but the further I got into the book, the more I thought that this was a shrewd decision.  You see, it seems rather apt that the reader gets to see copies of copies of an original whose existence we have to take on trust, which all makes for an elaborate construction based on a hollow centre - very deconstructionist ;)

I'm not sure this will be everyone's cup of tea (and you'll certainly enjoy it more if you have at least some background in languages), but Multiples is a fascinating look at what happens when writers are let loose on a task which really belongs in the hands of trained professionals.  While some of the authors do their best to stay on task, often doing a respectable job, many are unable to resist the temptation to adorn the texts with their own style.  Perhaps the final word, addressing this point, should go to Dave Eggers, in what is the whole of his comments on translating his Kafka piece:
"I took some liberties." (p.159)

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

'Days in the History of Silence' by Merethe Lindstrøm (Review)

My first attempt at requesting books from Netgalley, a couple of years back, ended in confusing cyber-failure, and the e-mail suggestions I've received from them on a regular basis since then have been, well, let's say 'underwhelming'.  A while back though, I saw on Twitter that there was something a little different available, a novel which had won the Nordic Council Literature Prize (the Scandinavian equivalent of the Booker Prize).  I clicked a few buttons, and the publishers (Other Press) were kind enough to allow me an e-copy.  So how did my second Netgalley adventure end up?  Let's find out...

Merethe Lindstrøm's Days in the History of Silence (translated by Anne Bruce) took out Scandinavia's top literary prize in 2012.  It's a fairly shortish novel, one which is written in the form of an extended monologue.  Eva, a retired school teacher, lives alone in her house with her older husband, Simon.  If that sounded like a strange sentence, it was deliberately so; Simon has retreated into his shell, and the silence is becoming deafening for his frustrated wife.

While she considers whether or not to fill in the application form for a nursing home, Eva thinks back over her life and particularly over the last few years.  While Simon had a tough start to life as a Jew in 1940s Europe, it is a more recent event which may have triggered his withdrawal, the sacking of the couple's Latvian housekeeper, Marija.  As Eva thinks back to what she might have said to change events, she begins to discover that secrets can come back to haunt you, even when there's nobody to tell them...

Days in the History of Silence has a very tense opening, when a stranger enters the house, for no good reason and leaves after a few nervous minutes.  The event has no real tangible connection with the rest of the novel, and this is very typical for the book.  It is full of unrelated events, occurrences which the reader will try to connect, looking for unspoken links below the surface of the page (or screen!).  It's a very subtle story for the most part, Eva's monologue serving only to keep the most important matters hidden from view.

As Simon's descent into silence becomes more complete, Eva's frustration increases.  Suddenly, she feels as if she is alone, trapped inside a large, empty house:
"I need to tell this to someone, how it feels, how it is so difficult to live with someone who has suddenly become silent.  It is not simply the feeling that he is no longer there.  It is the feeling that you are not either."
(Other Press, 2013)
Eva is understandably upset at being abandoned, emotionally, by her husband; however, it can't be said that she's entirely free from blame herself.

One of the major themes in the book is the importance of the unsaid, and in Eva's house there are plenty of topics which were never mentioned.  The house invasion at the start of the book is a secret which has been kept for years, and Simon was never able to tell their three daughters about his experiences during the war.  When the couple decided to let Marija go, the daughters are unable to understand why their parents would fire a woman who had become a part of the family - and Eva simply cannot bring herself to tell them.  By keeping silent for all these years, Eva has created her own cocoon of silence, one she's unlikely to escape from.

One of the better aspects of the novel is the way it describes the life of the elderly (or, in Eva's case, the not-quite-elderly).  Life goes on elsewhere, but for Eva and Simon it's winding down, leaving them trailing along in the distance - alone, together.  At times, it seems that there are no more words simply because it's too late; the time for them has passed and gone forever.

It wasn't all good though.  Eva's monologue was a little tiring at times - there was nothing really outstanding in the writing, or in her voice, to make the reader enjoy the experience of her company.  The book also places a lot of weight on the reason for Marija's dismissal, dragging out the pivotal event until near the end.  When it finally arrives, it feels like an anti-climax, a revelation that wasn't really worth waiting for (although it does fit in nicely with the understated nature of the novel).  I get the feeling that many people will love this book, but for me it just drifted by.  At times, it was just too understated for its own good...

With all the stories from the past (the intruder, the dying dog, Simon's past, Marija...), you get the impression that there's something there, something that remains tantalisingly beyond reach.  I'm really not certain what it is though.  One thing's for sure - Eva is afraid of what lies ahead:
"Again that thought pops up, that underneath everything, the house, the children, all the years of movement and unrest, there has been this silence.  That it has simply risen to the surface, pushed up by external changes.  Like a splinter of stone is forced up by the innards of the earth, by disturbances in the soil, and gradually comes to light in the spring.  And that is what really frightens me.  How that reminds me of something else.  Is it meaninglessness?"
Perhaps the worst thing for Eva is not the upsetting events of her past.  It's the realisation that this is the way it's going to be from now on - a life of silence and regrets...

Sunday, 1 September 2013

'From the Fatherland, With Love' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

As you may have seen, back in May Pushkin Press laid claim to 2013 as the year of Ryu Murakami, releasing four of his novels (three reissues and one new translation) in a striking series.  I've had this hardback monster on my shelves for a while now - so it's high time I finally got to grips with Murakami's nightmare take on Japan's future...

From the Fatherland, with Love (translated by Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf and Ginny Tapley Takemori - review copy courtesy of the publisher) was originally released in Japan back in 2005, so its 2011 setting pushes it into the realms of speculative fiction.  In this near-future scenario, Japan is on a downward spiral, economically weak and politically right-wing, and its former allies are beginning to distance themselves from Asia's one-time powerhouse.

Meanwhile, just across the sea, North Korea is slowly beginning to improve relations with its neighbours, and the US, while sticking to its hardline beliefs.  Of course, if attention could be further deflected from the regime, perhaps by involving Japan in a domestic crisis, this might ease the tension on the 'Fatherland' even more.

The idea the 'dear leader' comes up with is a scheme which, while initially sounding unworkable, quickly becomes a reality.  A small group of elite commandos lands near the Japanese city of Fukuoka and takes hostages, pretending to be a group of dissidents fleeing North Korea.  As the disorganised Japanese government dithers, unable to make a decision to take action which may endanger Japanese lives, more Koreans set off for the Land of the Rising Sun.  With international opinion split by Japan's inaction, it appears that Fukuoka is destined to become a rebel North Korean province.  However, anyone who has read a Murakami book before will know that even in mild-mannered Japan, there are a few people who are not averse to a little ultra-violence...

From the Fatherland, with Love is a long roller-coaster of a novel, an attempt to analyse the state of the Japanese nation, take a peek behind the Iron Curtain dividing North Korea from the rest of the world, and write a scenario which would be best made into an action movie.  How to describe it?  How about Tom Clancy meets Pokémon?  There can't be many novels which switch between cabinet discussions and a teenager whose weapons of choice are metal boomerangs with serrated edges...

One of the more interesting features of the novel is its focus on the North Koreans, and Murakami (who interviewed defectors from the country) does a great job of describing them.  The invaders are lean, mean fighting machines, albeit puzzled by lacy undies, bright lights and free tissues from taxi companies.  When the first commandos are en route to Japan, they are asked to make small talk to practise their disguise of South Korean tourists - and struggle:
"And yet they had not learned how to engage in the joking banter of South Korean tourists.  Time had not allowed for that, and such instruction was unavailable in any case.  There was no shortage of instructors in the art of killing people or blowing up facilities, but no-one in the Republic could teach you how to behave like a traveler from the puppet regime."
p.94 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Killing?  Yes.  Banter?  Not in North Korea...

The writer gradually focuses more on the individuals, rendering them a little more human.  The effect of relative freedom - and nice clothes - has an apparent softening effect on them, and there are times when they don't appear all that different from the locals.  Every so often, though, the writer reminds us (and usually not very subtly) that they are still, first and foremost, killing machines.

Murakami also turns his critical eye on Kasumigaseki, the Japanese governmental precinct in Tokyo, and he's not too happy with what he sees there.  The government is old-fashioned and moribund, totally unable to deal with new threats, concentrating on sealing off Fukuoka after the invasion instead of actually dealing with the real issue:
"Yamagiwa felt a sense of hopelessness wash over him.  On turning fifty, he had gone through a midlife crisis and had been on anti-depressants for a couple of years.  Here in the crisis-management room, watching these people frantically at work, he got the same sour taste of futility that sometimes made him feel like saying to hell with it all.  At first he thought it was because he'd been left out in the cold, but he was beginning to feel it was more than that.  Being outside the frenzy of the round table, he had become painfully aware of the Japanese government's inability to see the big picture - and if he could see it, no doubt other outsiders could see it too." (p.230)
There is a dawning realisation that Japan just can't cope with this attack, and this fiddling while Fukuoka burns shows the weakness of democracy.  In a landscape of vested interests, politicians are scared of taking risks and unwilling to make unpopular, risky sacrifices.

You'd expect the inhabitants of Fukuoka to feel upset at being abandoned, and they are, initially at least.  However, not everyone is distraught, and as time passes, many people start to think that it's time to get on with life.  Having been abandoned by Tokyo (which sees them as country hicks anyway), the locals begin to cooperate more willingly with the 'Koryos'.  It's a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts, and the daily television broadcasts by a photogenic and charismatic Korean soldier help make the occupation more palatable.  Only those locals who have closer dealings with the Koreans know that the friendliness doesn't extend much below the surface.

So, with the Japanese government neglecting its responsibilities, it's inevitably left to the outcasts, the dregs of society, to do something about it.  One of the survivors of the apocalyptic events of of Popular Hits of the Showa Era has gathered a gang of misfits around him, and unable to fit into society, they don't have same inhibitions as most Japanese people.  While they initially see the invaders as kindred spirits, eventually they decide that this is the real enemy - and set about plotting a way to bring the invaders down for good :)

As I mentioned at the start of my post, Pushkin released four of Murakami's works this year, and having read them all, the choices make perfect sense.  In a way, the three reissues prepare you for the style, location and ideas of From the Fatherland, with Love.  We have the gangs living in abandoned shopping towns of Coin Locker Babies, the joys of youth (and Kyushu!) from Sixty-Nine and, of course, the crazed losers of Popular Hits of the Showa Era.  This novel is Murakami's big (ambitious) attempt to tie it all together - and in this regard it's very similar to what namesake Haruki was trying with 1Q84...

...however, there is another, less flattering, similarity with that book - it's too long.  There are frequent info dumps, pages and pages of unnecessary information which can slow the story down.  At times, the writer gives lists of names, with plenty of unnecessary backstories - there's a Tolstoyan list of characters at the start of the book, but most of them are superfluous.  There's also a whole lot of of repetition, and you can't help feeling that the book needed some more critical editing (obviously, writers called Murakmi are immune to this sort of editorial interference...).

Still, it's a great story, and one whose ending works very well.  Without giving too much away, there aren't too many happy endings floating around - real life doesn't work like a Hollywood movie.  And Murakami?  Yes, he's synonymous with violence, sex and darkness, but these four works show a far more versatile author than you'd think. He's definitely a writer whose novels warrant a try :)