Monday, 30 June 2014

'All Played Out' by Pete Davies (Review)

As the observant among you may have noticed, there's a little football tournament on at the moment down in Brazil, and (understandably) I've been slightly preoccupied recently.  For many teenagers all over the world, Brazil 2014 will turn out to be the tournament that all others will be measured against.  For me, however, my formative footballing experiences happened a good generation ago - and today's book tells everyone exactly how it went...

Pete Davies' All Played Out (recently rereleased - and filmed - as One Night in Turin) is the story of Italia '90, the most memorable World Cup of my younger years.  As many of you may know, one of the better performers in the competition was England, and Davies takes the reader on a ride with the team, starting with the qualifiers, moving onto the first, stuttering steps in Sardinia during the group stage, before getting lost in the euphoria of England's success in the knock-out stage.

While the focus is on the football, what makes All Played Out so good is the way in which Davies sets the team's progress against background concerns.  Each game is sandwiched by interviews with the team, comments on the chaotic organisation of the Italian hosts and the constant tussle with the hyper-critical press.  However, the overriding theme of the book is that of a country which has lost its way - in the era of the hooligan, England, to the outsider, certainly appears all played out...

From the very first paragraph, touching on the wonderful opening game of the competition, the memories came flooding back.  It's the start of a story about the beautiful game, and of the importance of the national team to the country, as the then England manager confirms:
"The national team is the flagship of that - but it's more than that, the dimensions of it are frightening.  When you become the national manager, you realise how important it is to the country, because people are patriotic about it.  And winning does mean such a lot."
p.84 (Mandarin, 1991)
That being the case, can the England team do the country proud and improve the country's mood?

As anyway who remembers those times will recall, it was certainly needed.  1990 was a time when football was at its nadir in England, what with the clubs still being banned from European competitions after the events of Heysels, and the stadium tragedy at Hillsborough the previous year.  Much of the focus pre-tournament was on the notorious hooligans and their constant running battles with the police:
"These, it seemed, were the new horror days of a nation that was all played out, a nation of riot and yobbery, a nation whose football was oafish and whose fans were louts, a nation with a ridiculous government, an economy in a tailspin, food you daren't eat and weather you daren't go out in... England, England, whatever the hell happened to England?" (p.6)
And, twenty-four years on...  It was little surprise when England were exiled to Sardinia for the group stages, only being allowed into Italy 'proper' once the knock-out stage had begun.

Sadly, the football was just as dire as the behaviour off the pitch, and another running theme of the book is the need to change a failing system - or, to put it in footballing terms, to 4-4-2 or to 3-5-2.  In many interviews with the manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson, Davies tries to understand the thinking behind his stubborn defence of his tactics (and the violently sudden about-face during the tournament).  Robson is a man from another generation, and it shows in the way he views the World Cup, with war metaphors never far from his description of England's (ahem) 'campaign'.

We also get access to the players, and with the book not coming out until after the tournament, the men in the middle were surprisingly candid in their views about the team and the country.  There are several great in-depth interviews with stars like Chris Waddle, John Barnes and Gary Lineker in which they voice their frustration about the way in which they are forced to play.  Of course, the football fans amongst us will know that there was a happy ending :)

Of course, off the pitch, thing are slightly different.  Davies spends a lot of time talking about the England followers, and the conclusion he comes to is that the fans are simply a reflection of the country; expecting ill-educated, boorish young men, most fuelled by alcohol, to act as if they were sitting at Wimbledon's centre court is slightly unrealistic.  It's English society which has created the issue, and the hooligans are merely the public face of the country's failings.  However, Davies also discovers that the hype doesn't always match up to reality:
"Because people behaved, people paid, and they were welcome to come back.  But this, of course, is one headline you'll never read:

And this is where we come to the first villains of the book, the English press.  With legions of reporters sent to the country, there's a need to find content, even if that involves making up stories - or urging hooligans to throw bricks through windows.  Once the indignation has been dialled up to eleven, it's then time for the politicians to get involved (as was the case when Margaret Thatcher wanted to withdraw the team from the competition...).

Of course, as fascinating as the background is, it's ultimately all about the football, and if the press are the minor villains, it's Argentina, and Maradona in particular, who are the ultimate supervillains.  From their initial catastrophe against Cameroon, the ugly Argies march on and on, upsetting fans, players and knee-caps aplenty.  With a supporting cast of efficient Germans, flawed Brazilians and nervous Italians, it all makes for one hell of a show ;)

All Played Out is simply a great football book, particularly for those who remember the summer of 1990, and it's one I highly recommend.  I'll just finish this post by sharing a little story with you all, one of my experiences of the tournament.  As a fifteen-year-old Ireland fan, this was a great competition to watch, except for when it came to the second-round penalty shoot-out against Rumania/Romania.  As it was about to begin, there was a knock on the door, and our rent collector, a proud Irishman, asked politely if he could just come in and watch the shootout.  After eight goals and one save, David O'Leary stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty - and the rent collector, my Dad and I danced and cheered all around the living room...

What memories will be made at Brazil 2014, I wonder?

Thursday, 26 June 2014

'Modern Korean Fiction', ed. Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon (Review)

Whenever I've taken my first, tentative steps into a new literary culture, I've simply gone straight for a few seminal texts, hoping to get a taste for the style from some good examples.  However, once I have more of a feel of what's going on, I always like to try a short-story collection, as it can give you a small taste of more writers (and can often show you where the next port of call should be).

Having said all that, and with 2014 being my year of Korean literature, it was inevitable that I'd get around to a K-Lit anthology sooner or later - and today's book is a great way to broaden your knowledge of what - and who - is out there :)

Modern Korean Fiction (edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kim, published by Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books) was released back in 2005, but it still seems to be a good place to start if you're looking for Korean short stories.  It contains twenty-two pieces, arranged chronologically from the colonial period to the late nineties, and it's great value for money too, running to a good 380 pages.

As you'd expect, there's a fair sprinkling of big-name authors around.  Writers included whose work I've already tried include Kim Young-ha, Yi Mun-yol and Cho Se-hui (in fact, the stories included by those last two writers have already been read and reviewed on the blog!).  However, there are several other well-known authors who were new to me, as well as a whole host of brand-new names to discover.

One of the best stories in the collection was an absolute classic, namely Yi Sang's 'Wings' (translated by Walter K. Lew and Youngju Ryu).  It's a long, rambling monologue told by an unusual man, a kept writer whose wife sleeps with other men on the other side of a thin partition wall.  The narrator is a half-crazed innocent, who doesn't really understand what is happening - although he tries his best to work it out:
"Was there nothing else that motivated the movement of money from the guests to my wife and from my wife to me - besides "pleasure"?  I resumed my research from inside my bedding.  If it is pleasure, then what sort of pleasure?  I continued to probe.  But there was no way to answer these questions by means of under-cover investigations.  Pleasure, pleasure... To my own surprise, it was the only topic in which I felt any interest."
'Wings', p.73 (Columbia University Press, 2005)
'Wings' is a great story and beautifully written.  It comes as no surprise to find that Yi Sang lends his name to one of Korea's most prestigious literary awards.

There are several other well-known writers among the contributors.  Ch'ae Man-shik's 'My Innocent Uncle' (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a satirical monologue about a 'lazy' uncle, a good-for-nothing who spends his time reading and thinking 'scotchalist' (socialist) thoughts.  It's a piece with a great voice, and the story develops nicely, with the reader's sympathies slowly changing the further the tale progresses.  Another interesting one is Choe In-ho's 'Another Man's Room' (tr. Kevin O'Rourke), a strange, confusing story of a man whose return home finds an empty apartment.  The thing is that we're not really sure if he's there either...

One thing I noticed in the excellent introduction is that the editors hoped that this collection would be more balanced in terms of gender than some others.  Personally, I wouldn't call four out of twenty two balanced, but there are some good stories among those four.  Park Wan-suh's 'Mother's Hitching Post' (tr. Kim Miza and  Suzanne Crowder Han) isn't one of them, though.  It's a rambling, loose tale about a rather unlikeable woman, which takes forever to get to the point.  Park may well be a revered figure in Korea, but based on this (and my previous experience), she's just not my cup of tea ;)

The other stories by female writers, however, were much more to my taste.  Ch'oe Chong-hui's 'The Ritual at the Well' (tr. Genell Y. Poitras) is a moving story where a woman goes to help with an annual ritual.  Unfortunately, things don't go to plan, and while we witness the ceremony, we find out about the problems the villagers face:
"For these young people, not even the simplest ceremony was in the realm of possibility.  Marrying off daughters would be reasonable, since that would reduce the numbers in a family.  In the case of sons, however, with food already scarce, there was fear about adding one more to the household.  This, then, was the reason, and this alone, why so many of the young folk were unmarried."
'The Ritual at the Well' (p.127)
This rural tale is nicely balanced by Ch'oe Yun's 'The Gray Snowman', a story set in the capital.  It depicts a few months in the life of a young woman in the 1980s, caught up in the underground protests against the harsh rule of the government.  It's one of the better stories here, and the subject matter definitely has shades of Shin Kyung-sook's recent novel (in English), I'll Be Right There.

The last of the female-written stories is definitely up there as best in show.  O Chong-hui's 'Wayfarer' (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) focuses on a woman just released from some kind of hospital.  Over the course of the story, we slowly learn why she was there as well as finding out about her life since being discharged.  The writing is excellent, and the story is a detailed, psychological insight into both the protagonist's issues and the social constraints which are used to tie her down.

There's a lot to like from men and women alike, then, but I do have one last treat for you - a story from the North...  Yes, Kim Puk-hyang's 'The Son' (tr. Marshall R. Pihl) is an officially sanctioned story in the DPRK - and it shows.  It's the story of a man who discovers that his perfect son isn't quite as perfect as he'd thought.  So, is the problem drugs?  Violence?  No - non-conformism...

For a western reader, the propaganda is suffocating, but this is the kind of story they like up Pyongyang way.  It's full of cliches of hard-working comrades, and wherever the father can show he is a model citizen, he does his best to oblige.  The final scene, with the boy and his teacher proudly cresting a hill is especially heroic - and ludicrous at the same time ;)

As always with short-story collections, there's a lot more to enjoy here than I was able to cover in the post.  It's an enjoyable collection with several really good stories, and (thankfully) most of the translations are good too.  The next step, of course, is to hunt down some longer pieces from some of the better writers here - time to hit the online bookshops/ library databases :)

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in good Australian bookshops :)

Monday, 23 June 2014

'The Days of Abandonment' by Elena Ferrante (Review)

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Trilogy has been getting rave reviews from just about everyone who has read the first two books (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name) - everyone, that is, apart from this year's IFFP judges, who didn't think the second book worthy of a place on their longlist.  Still, everyone else is keenly awaiting the third volume, out later this year, and while I'm itching to get my hands on it, I thought I'd scratch the itch by trying another of the elusive Ms. Ferrante's works...

The Days of Abandonment (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) is a shorter novel than the other two I've read, but it packs a lot into its 188 pages.  The story begins with a bombshell, when Olga, a Neapolitan living in Turin, is informed by her husband that he is leaving her.  With that, Mario walks out of the apartment, and his shattered wife is left to adjust to a life without him.

While she initially attempts to deal with events calmly and rationally, this facade soon crumbles, and her fiery southern nature comes through.  She becomes more aggressive and louder, taking her anger out on innocent bystanders.  However, it's only when she finds out the true reason behind Mario's departure that she really begins to unravel...

The Days of Abandonment is an extremely emotional novel, a story which is by turns intense, passionate and violent.  Olga is a woman completely thrown by an unexpected event, unable to comprehend why exactly her husband has left her.  She begins to blame herself and also deludes herself into believing he'll be back, despite knowing full well that the break is for good.

The break-up has a devastating effect on her, emotionally and mentally, as she begins a descent into madness, becoming a different person:
"I began to change.  In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully.  I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter.  Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity."
p.26 (Europa Editions, 2013)
This complete change of character brings her to do things she normally never would, and what ensues is violence - and sudden, random sex...

The calm collected woman of the start of the novel can no longer think straight.  She is unable to remember the smallest detail, forgetting whether she turned off the stove or not.  The frustration she feels boils over, ans she lashes out at her kids (and the poor dog) as she, and her apartment, spiral into sickness and decay.  The broken phone, with random, intermittent hisses, is an apt metaphor for the break with the outside world.

Of course, this is all made worse by the fact Mario is happy without her, returning with a smile and a glow:
"Mario entered loaded with packages.  I hadn't seen him for exactly thirty-four days.  He seemed younger, better cared for in his appearance, even more rested, and my stomach contracted so painfully that I felt I was about to faint.  In his body, in his face, there was no trace of our absence.  While I bore - as soon as his startled gaze touched me I was certain of it - all the signs of suffering, he could not hide those of well-being, perhaps of happiness." (p.38)
Olga is resentful, and quite rightly so.  After years of love and sacrifice, moving around to support her husband in his career, she has been, quite simply - abandoned...

The writing is excellent, as is the translation, with Goldstein recreating Olga's internal monologue in English, an anguished, desperate cry for justice.  It's violent and breathtaking, and often intensely claustrophobic - at times we sympathise, at others we cringe.  It makes for extremely uncomfortable reading at times, but it's always compelling, driving the reader on towards the culmination of the tragedy.

Ferrante has certainly succeeded in creating a story of the woes of abandonment, but whose abandonment is it?  While it's true that Olga is abandoned, she, in turn, abandons everyone else in her life.  She's certainly not a character you can support without reservations.  The Days of Abandonment is a still a great tale, though, of the dangers of taking things for granted - and of refusing to accept the inevitable, no matter how hard it is to swallow...

Thursday, 19 June 2014

'Black Flower' by Kim Young-ha (Review)

Another of the Korean writers I was introduced to recently was Kim Young-ha, a man with a reasonably high profile in the West - and with a few books in English already.  His most recent work in translation is a work of historical fiction (certainly a departure from the shorter works of his I've read), and it takes the reader far away from Korea.  Shall we set sail?  There's a long voyage ahead...

Black Flower (translated by Charles La Shure, published by Mariner Books) begins in 1904, with the Korean Empire entering its final days.  A thousand or so people have decided to leave their homeland, hoping to make a living (and some cash) by working hard as farmers in far-off Mexico.  Few of the emigrants know anything about their new home (only one can even speak Spanish), but they're all convinced that this will be a change for the better.

The truth, though, is that the new start isn't quite as wonderful as everyone had hoped.  After a traumatic crossing of the pacific, the Koreans end up in Mexico only to find that their future has been signed away.  For four years, they are to work on the infamous haciendas, sold into indentured servitude - for most, the hope of returning home one day as a wealthy person is nothing but an impossible dream...

While a work of fiction, Black Flower is based on real events - this mass emigration really happened.  As the Korean Empire was in the process of being dismantled by Japan, a shipload of Koreans set sail for Mexico, hoping to gain fortune and fame in a new world.  It is this story that Kim uses as the springboard for his novel - the crossing, the haciendas and the struggles in Mexico and Guatemala.

The six-week crossing is a terrible experience, but the culture shock really kicks in once the Koreans arrive in Mexico.  As farmers, used to a hard life, the immigrants expect that their work will be fairly similar to what they did back home, but their new environment is startling different to the Korean landscape:
"The vastness of the plain was felt strongly by the Koreans, who had never in their lives seen the horizon on land.  They realized they had been born between the mountains, had grown up looking at the mountains, and went to sleep when the sun fell behind the mountains.  This endless plain, with no Arirang Hill of their folk songs, was a truly strange sight, and they tossed and turned not so much because the ground was hard but because of the boundlessness and emptiness around them."
p.81 (Mariner Books, 2013)
No mountains, little water, no rice paddies - Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Seoul anymore...

As is the case with most expansive historical fiction, Kim creates a cast of characters for us to follow.  The writer introduces us to soldiers, thieves, an enterprising interpreter and an apostate priest, each of whom will play their role in uncovering the country they find themselves in.  However, the main focus is on orphan Kim Ijeong and Yi Yeonsu, the daughter of an aristocrat, who soon become drawn to each other.  Their romance starts on board the boat, bringing to mind Jack and Rose from the film Titanic, and in fact the first part of the story has a lot of a Titanic feel about it (just dirtier...)

In the environment they find themselves thrust into, the Koreans soon notice the erosion of the rigid social barriers which separate people back home.  Yeonsu's father Yi Jongdo, a distant relation of the Emperor, can't bring himself to work, preferring to sit at home rereading Confucius.  However, he is the exception; the majority quickly grasp the new reality:
Ijeong spoke.  "Do you really think the distinction between high and low, old and young, and man and woman will be as severe as it is in Korea?  Look at this ship we are on.  Aristocrat or commoner, all must line up to eat." (p.68)
The reality is that the Korea they knew no longer exists, and in the New World, they will all have to forge new lives and identities.  This is especially true as, soon after their departure, their old country actually ceases to exist...

There's a lot to like about Black Flower, and I've enjoyed filling in another little gap in my (enormous) ignorance of Korean history.  However, several people have said this is not Kim's best work, and I can certainly see why.  The writing is a little bit flat, almost wooden at times, and the novel is so didactic in places that it reads more like a history text.  Also, while Ijeong is the one I'd pick as the central protagonist, he's a hero who goes AWOL at times, and as a result, the story meanders a little.

A bigger issue, though, is that at 300 pages it actually feels too short.  It's as if the writer, having gone to the effort of researching the story, ran out of steam towards the end and decided to wrap it up quickly.  That's a shame because this is a great story, and it feels like it should, or could, have been an epic.  In the second part, events happen far too quickly, and the third part, thirty pages detailing the creation of 'New Korea' in Guatemala, could have been a short book in its own right (especially as the writer says, in his afterword, that this is the part that intrigued him!).

Still, it's not as bad as some had me believe before I started (I've certainly read worse...).  I enjoyed reading Black Flower, and it was a fascinating look at a little-known part of history, especially in the Anglosphere.  I'll certainly give Kim another try, and I suspect that his other books will be more to my taste.  One thing I remember from the 10 Magazine Book Club interview I watched a while back is that he talked about his interest in taking genres and twisting them in his own manner.  Historical fiction doesn't seem to be his thing, but perhaps... spy fiction?  Your Republic is Calling You - and me too;)

Monday, 16 June 2014

'Our Twisted Hero' by Yi Mun-yol (Review)

After my introduction to Yi Mun-yol a while back via some free online works, I was keen to move on to some more of his well-known books.  Luckily, I stumbled across one in the university library, a short book, but one which had been recommended by several people.  It's a story which looks back to the narrator's school days, but the reader always has the sense that there's a lot more to it than that...

Yi Mun-yol's Our Twisted Hero (translated by Kevin O'Rourke, published by Hyperion East) is a short work, but one which is extremely powerful.  It begins with Han Pyongt'ae, an intelligent twelve-year-old from Seoul, moving to the provinces after his father is transferred at work:
"It's been nearly thirty years already, but whenever I look back on that lonely, difficult fight, which continued from spring of that year through the fall, I become as desolate as I was at the time."
p.5 (Hyperion East, 2001)
The cause for this depression is not so much the move as his experiences at his new school.  Where Pyongt'ae is used to a hierarchical structure based on academic excellence, things are very different outside the big city.  The teacher introduces him with a few mumbled words, leaving the new boy bewildered and struggling to find his feet.

Before long, though, he realises that the teacher is of minor importance in his new environment.  The true centre of power is the class monitor, Om Sokdae, an older student who holds the sixty students of the class in the palm of his hand.  Pyongt'ae, horrified at the despotic nature of Sokdae's control, decides that he will stand up to the older boy, hoping to attract others to his side.  However, he soon discovers that power has a way of making others dance to its tune...

The strength of Our Twisted Hero is Sokdae, an imposing figure who towers above his younger classmates.  He is cunning and powerful and has used his talents to impose himself, creating his own unchallenged fiefdom within the walls of the classroom.  However, when Pyongt'ae attempts to stand up to him, he is careful to avoid using his fists to beat down the small newcomer - but why should he?  With five-dozen followers to take care of the dirty work, Sokdae doesn't need to lift a finger...

You would expect that the teacher might be the one to stand up to the class monitor, but the reality is that he is content to use Sokdae to make his own life easier.  Interestingly enough, even Pyongt'ae realises that he may be onto something with this:
"The more I examined Sokdae the more clearly I saw that the teacher's reasons for having to trust him were verified time after time.  Our class under Sokdae was a model for the whole school.  His fists were more effective than the perfunctory disciplinary control of any on-duty teacher or sixth grade prefect in keeping the boys from eating sweets or breaking any other petty school regulation." (p.30)
When Pyongt'ae does try to alert him to what's going on, the teacher is no match for the code of silence Sokdae has ingrained in his loyal followers, and it's the outsider who comes off worst once again.

Of course, the main issue here is that while Sokdae's rule is highly effective and productive, that doesn't necessarily make it right.  The students are suffering under a mass delusion, believing that as long as they kowtow to the monitor their lives will be easier, whether or not that's morally acceptable.  It's a perfect example of 'groupthink', with the boys happy to bow to the status quo.  What they fail to realise is that every dictatorship, even Sokdae's, has its expiry date...

While Our Twisted Hero is primarily the story of a brutal schoolyard, there is also an obvious allegorical use to the story.  The novella is discussing the world of violence and brutal political regimes in general, while also attempting a (slightly) hidden attack on the strict right-wing government of the South Korea of the time.  With a hostile Communist neighbour just over the border, South Korea experienced decades of autocratic rule, and it is this might-is-right tendency that Yi Mun-yol is criticising in his book.

The story is also rather Kafkaesque in the way it focuses on an outsider thrust into an unreasonable situation.  As much as Pyongt'ae struggles, he does it mainly within the status quo, accepting the existing structure by the very nature of his struggle.  Moreover, all too soon he is tempted to embrace the enemy:
"Although the end of the fight had been all too hollow and my submission all too simple, nonetheless the fruit of submission was sweet." (p.70)
Here we move from Kafka to Orwell, with definite shades of 1984 in the temptation of enjoying the peace and the rewards of giving in.

Our Twisted Hero is an excellent book, a clever story, almost a single-sitting read yet thought-provoking and intriguing.  By the end, we find ourselves wondering just who is meant by the title - the enigmatic Sokdae or the rebellious Pyongt'ae (you could really make a case for either of them).  The reader, in their comfortable armchair, might find themself thinking that they would have acted differently, but the truth is that this is the way things nearly always go.  Even when they don't, as Pyongt'ae and his classmates find out, matters don't necessarily change for the better.  In reality, revolutions are often just a matter of exchanging one yoke for another...

Thursday, 12 June 2014

'Granta 127: Japan', ed. Yuka Igarashi (Review)

As much as I love good writing, literary magazines are a fairly unknown quantity for me (virtually all of my reading is good old-fashioned books, preferably novels).  However, I'm always open to new literary experiences, and receiving things like the work you can see in the photo make it very easy to try something a little different.  Be careful, though - looks can be deceiving ;)

Granta 127: Japan (review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) is the latest edition of the quarterly magazine for new writing.  This issue has been released to coincide with the first-ever edition of the Japanese version of the magazine, and for this reason, the content is a hybrid of work from Japanese writers and artists and contributions from Western writers.  Oh, and it's very pretty, too :)

The layout and design are excellent, and (naive as I am) I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a book, not a magazine, with full colour throughout.  There's a mix of genres (stories, poems, non-fiction) plus art and photos, the most memorable of which is the cover, from Yuji Hamada's 'Primal Mountain' series:
"With this work, what is most important is the image of a mountain in the viewer's mind.  In other words, it is not the maker of the images who establishes and delivers what is to be seen; rather, I surrendered the work to the viewer's first impression, which led me to title the series 'Primal Mountain'." (translated by Ivan Vartanian)
'Primal Mountain', p.97 (Granta Publications, 2014)
Oh, and there are some ads too - it is a magazine, after all ;)

Of course, our focus is on the writing, and there are some big names on board.  One of those is Hiromi Kawakami, author of The Briefcase (AKA Strange Weather in Tokyo), and her contribution is 'Blue Moon' (translated by Lucy North), a real(?) story of an agonising wait to see if the writer has cancer.  It's a poignant piece, with haikus in snowy Russia and reflections on death:
"The Universe, I myself, the birds winging through the skies, the snowflakes swirling through Moscow... No one sees the beginning of these things, and no one can predict how they will end.  How precious it is, how precarious it is to be living."
'Blue Moon' (p.113)
The writer's brush with death encourages her to think more about what it means to actually live.

David Mitchell is another of the big guns, and his story 'Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut' is an excellent piece - well, six, actually.  The story looks at a brief moment in time in one of the ubiquitous budget coffee shops, seen by six different people, each of whom has arrived at that moment by a very different path.  The grumpy old man, the hard-working manager, the foreign 'English teacher', the Burberry-clad young woman - a nice cross-section of Japanese society gathered around one shiny counter :)

Perhaps of more interest, though, are the new discoveries to be made, and there are plenty of good writers here who aren't quite so well known in the West.  I enjoyed Kyoko Nakajima's 'Things Remembered and Things Forgotten' (translated by Ian M. McDonald), a clever story about memories of the past (and how they might not always be too accurate).  Another to impress was Hiroko Oyamada's 'Spider Lilies' (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), another of those odd, slightly off (Ogawaesque!) tales which Japanese writers excel at, this one connecting flowers, breast milk and maternal jealousy...

As can be expected, recent events have made their mark on Japanese writing, and Toshiki Okada's 'Breakfast' (translated by Michael Emmerich) is one which touches on post-Fukushima depression.  In this story, a woman flies back to a Tokyo she denies exists, merely in order to cut her only remaining tie - with her husband:
"An awareness of how impossible it was for her to visit Tokyo without marking out the beginning and end of her stay, anger at the circumstances that made her feel this way, a wrenching sense of guilt toward Tokyo and all the people who lived here, this tangle of emotions bore down on her relentlessly, crushing her."
'Breakfast' (p.35)
It's an excellent story, made better by its elaborate, comma-laden style, wonderfully written - and translated :)

The gloomy outlook isn't confined to Okada's piece, with several of the other writers sharing his sense of pessimism.  Yukiko Motoya's 'The Dogs' (translated by Asa Yoneda) is a strange story set in the mountains in winter, with sinister canine companions and a town slowly disappearing without a trace.  However, when it comes to strange, Tomoyuki Hoshino can always come up with the goods (c.f. We, the Children of Cats and Lonely Hearts Killer), and in 'Pink' (translated by Brian Bergstrom), he describes a freak heatwave which drives people to spin around and around - cooling themselves and speeding up time in the process...

As mentioned, apart from the great translated J-Lit, there's plenty here from outsiders looking in.  Ruth Ozeki's 'Linked' is a short piece looking at her grandfather's life, attempting to understand him and his art.  Another interesting view is from Pico Iyer's 'The Beauty of the Package', in which the writer examines the tacky Japanese wedding 'experience' and wonders if it's actually beautiful after all if you look more closely.  There's also a non-Anglophone view, as Andrés Felipe Solano's 'Pig Skin' (translated by Nick Caistor) was originally written in Spanish.  It's an amusing story about a writer who gets inspiration from a chance encounter on a ferry, a Colombian-Japanese-Korean co-production, brought into English by the excellent Mr. Caistor :)

Sadly, there are limits to my energy (and the length of a review people can be expected to read) - there's just too much here to do justice to.  I haven't even mentioned Sayaka Murata's amusing take on the sexless Japanese in 'A Clean Marriage' (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) or Toh Enjoe's 'Printable' (translated by David G. Boyd), a story set in a post-3D-Printer world.  Well, I have now, obviously ;)

Granta 127: Japan is an excellent addition to my Japanese library, and it's a must have for anyone interested in J- Lit (and with Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 8 starting this month...) - but wait, there's more!  If you go to the Granta website, there's some exclusive online content free of charge, including excerpts of some stories (with comments by the translators) and extra stories, including one by Yoko Ogawa.  What are you waiting for - get over there, now!

It all makes for an intriguing, multi-faceted look at a fascinating country.  As it says on the back cover:
"Everyone knows this country and no one knows it."
That may be very true, but this collection will help you learn just a little more about the land of the rising sun ;)

Monday, 9 June 2014

'The House with a Sunken Courtyard' by Kim Won-il (Review)

Having just received another batch of books from the Library of Korean Literature (courtesy of the ever-generous Dalkey Archive Press), it's time to review the next one from the series.  Today's choice is one which takes us back in time, looking at life just after the end of Korean War - one year in the city of Daegu, spent in a large, interesting house...

Kim Won-il's The House with a Sunken Courtyard (translated by Suh Ji-Moon) is set in 1954, shortly after the armistice brings an uneasy end to the conflict in Korea.  After spending some time apart from his family, twelve-year-old Gilsam is summoned to the southern city of Daegu to rejoin the rest of his family - two younger brothers, an elder sister and his hard-working, over-bearing mother.

While the war is finally over, times are still tough, and the five of them are cramped together in a room they rent in a large, sprawling house (the titular house with a sunken courtyard), sharing close quarters with other refugees.  As 1954 turns into 1955, we see the relationships between the residents of the house unfold, and the six families, including that of the landlord, living in such close proximity give us a representative cross-section of the Korean people of the time.

Kim lets the reader know from the first page that the setting is far from salubrious:
"Janggwan-dong was a small district of about two hundred and fifty houses, and the street, that stretched for only three hundred meters, was narrow and winding, too narrow for automobile traffic and only wide enough for hand-drawn carts, and was bordered by other administrative districts on either side.  Along both sides of the street ran open sewers, so it stank except during the winter, and in the summer pink mosquito larvae swarmed in them."
pp.5/6 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
This squalor continues when we get to see where Gilnam's family lives, as despite the splendour of the landlord's main house, the refugees' quarters are dirty, cramped rooms in another building, right next to the sewage trench.  The sad thing is that, by the standards of the day, these families are actually the lucky ones.

Having arrived too late to try to get into a middle school, Gilnam is persuaded to go out onto the streets of Daegu to try to make a living, taking the role of the head of the family in place of his father (possibly dead, possibly living in the North).  While he would prefer to study, he realises that the family needs money to supplement his mother's income from sewing, so he pounds the streets selling newspapers, hoping one day to be able to share in the delights he sees richer people enjoying.

While The House with a Sunken Courtyard mainly focuses on the struggles of day-to-day life, there are some political elements.  One of the sub-plots is centred on a family from the North who are frequently harassed by a detective, and there is plenty of talk about the way society has changed since the war:
"This war has corrupted everyone," Jeongtae argued. "Everyone has become money-mad and would grovel before the worst of thieves if they had money.  Everyone thinks of nothing but making money fast and escaping poverty, and won't stop at anything, even stealing.  But under this system only the capitalist thieves can make more and more money, and the honest poor folk remain poor no matter how hard they work." (p.115)
True or not, this is dangerous talk in post-war South Korea.  When even the mere fact of praising Communism can land you in prison, it's sometimes best to keep as quiet as possible...

In reality, though, the book concentrates on Gilnam's family, and the figure who presides over them is the mother, that quasi-mythical Korean creature.  Deserted by her husband, she will go to any lengths to support her family, even if that calls for some (very) tough love at times (it's no coincidence that Gilnam is recalled to Daegu too late to try out for Middle School).  In order to help everyone survive in the long-term, she is quite prepared to inflict short-term pain and hunger on her unwitting children.  For a Westerner like myself, she's a very ambiguous character, but I suspect that a Korean reader would see her in a much more positive light, even when she's whipping her children and making them go without dinner.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that The House with a Sunken Courtyard is a rather depressing novel, but that's not entirely true.  It's actually a nostalgic look back at the narrator's youth, a time when things were very different and, despite the poverty, not always worse.  There's more than a hint of The Wonder Years about it, and I could easily imagine the narrator's voice taking us back through the decades to a poorer, simpler time (in fact, there are a couple of connections here, with that show starting around the time this novel appeared in Korea - and featuring a veteran of the Korean War as the father!).

The sepia-tinged air is created, in part, by Suh Ji-moon's translation.  While it's very well written and highly effective, there is a deliberate choice of old-fashioned vocabulary and syntax.  I was a little dubious at the start, but as the novel progressed, I could see how it was a deliberate stylistic choice, distancing the reader (and narrator) from the action and fixing the setting as a very different time and place.  It won't be to everyone's tastes, but I suspect that it reflects the intentions of the original very well.

In The House with a Sunken Courtyard, Kim has recreated a slice of history, a photographic record (in black and white, of course) of a fascinating period in his country's history.  Anyone with an interest in Korea will enjoy reading about the struggles people faced after the war and the way in which they began to come to terms with the new world order of living in a state separated by ideology.  While it's not the best of the Library of Korean Literature books I've read so far, it's a certainly one I'd recommend, a sombre reminder that the country wasn't always a high-tech marvel...

Thursday, 5 June 2014

'Tirza' by Arnon Grunberg (Review)

The last few months on the blog have been taken up with two major projects, shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and plunging into the world of translated Korean fiction (and two very good projects they are too).  However, when you devote so much time to particular areas, it's inevitable that something will fall through the cracks, and today's book is one I really meant to get to a good while back - even before it got longlisted (then shortlisted) for the Best Translated Book Award.  Still, better late than never...

Arnon Grunberg's Tirza (translated by Sam Garrett, e-copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) is a fascinating novel, a story of a man's disintegration in the face of events he is unable to control.  The man in question, Jörgen Hofmeester, is a Dutch editor who has been put out to pasture by his employers.  He still receives his pay, but he no longer actually has to go to work, a state of affairs which has thrown his world out of balance.

That's not the only change he has to cope with.  His wife, who walked out on him three years earlier, recently turned up on his doorstep and has walked back into his life as if little has happened in the meantime.  While Jörgen is struggling to adapt to her return, another impending change is causing him even more angst.  His beloved eighteen-year-old daughter, Tirza, having just graduated from high school, is planning to travel around Africa for a few months with her latest boyfriend.  Jörgen decides to throw a party for her before she leaves, but it's at this party that all of his problems finally catch up with him...

Tirza is a novel about a man whose life is slowly falling apart, and what happens at his daughter's party is partly the result of past events, and partly the catalyst for what's to come:
"Tirza has thrown parties before, but tonight is different.  Like lives, parties can be a failure or a success.  Tirza hasn't said it in so many words, but Hofmeester senses that a great deal depends on this evening.  Tirza, his youngest daughter, the one who turned out best.  Turned out wonderfully, both inside and out."
p.8 (Open Letter Books, 2013)
The comment is rather prescient.  A lot will happen during the party, not all of it for the good - the course of the future is set here...

While the novel is named after the daughter, it's the father who is at the centre of everything, a man in the midst of great change.  Hofmeester is a man who lives life by the book, and these life-altering events, particularly the return of his runaway wife, cast him adrift on a sea of uncertainty:
"He didn't understand the reason for this visit, and Hofmeester was a person who wanted to understand things.  He detested the irrational, the way other people detest vermin." (p.15)
Add to this the disappearance of his retirement money, swallowed up by post-9/11 stock-market fluctuations, and you can see that Hofmeester isn't exactly in a good place.

The reader is initially sympathetic towards Jörgen, feeling pity for the confused, abandoned husband.  However, it soon becomes clear that he's really not that nice at all.  He's violent towards his wife, a dictator with his children and penny-pinching (to the point of fraud) with the tenants in the flat upstairs.  The key to understanding Grunberg's book is solving the puzzle he has set for the reader as to what kind of a person his main character actually is.

His experiences with sex provide an interesting window into his psyche.  The relationship with his wife is certainly unusual, based on a mutual loathing and violent 'games', and he looks for satisfaction elsewhere, including with his cleaner.  His attraction to the forbidden, especially what he sees as 'dirty' women, will confront him at the party, in the form of one of Tirza's classmates.  And as for his rather close relationship with his younger daughter...

What Grunberg does well here, though, is create a much more rounded figure than the above would suggest - Jörgen's's by no means a complete monster.  While his wife (justifiably) complains about Hofmeester's lack of understanding, she is a piece of work herself - a flirt, an absent mother, an artist for whom domestic duties simply don't exist.  This leaves Jörgen trying to raise two daughters he doesn't really understand, a clueless father struggling in unfamiliar waters (anyone who thinks reading Tolstoy to a teenage daughter will help with emotional issues really is lost).  These human touches help to make him a complete character and allow the reader to empathise - at times.

The real beauty of the book is the way in which Grunberg constructs his scenes, putting two people together in a seemingly-normal conversation, one which turns uncomfortable and just won't end, no matter how much we'd like it to.  The writer simply won't let the reader go, forcing them to read on, squirming in their seat, and the novel is packed with these lengthy, gripping, horrible scenes.  If it's painful to watch, imagine what it must be like for the characters. 

Tirza is very skilfully written, with an excellent translation which captures the feeling of subtle horror nicely.  Throughout the book, there are scattered hints of what's to come, with clever parallels and echoes of future events.  One obvious one was:
"The remains of his life stretch out before him like a desert." (p.79)
Knowing that Hofmeester will be heading off to Africa at some point lends this chance comment extra significance...  However, it's the little mentions of racism, money, violence and Hofmeester's lovelife which are more intriguing as Grunberg casually places clues as to how things might (or might not) play out.

In short, Tirza is a wonderful book about a very strange man, not a figure you'd like to have in your family.  One book it shares features with is Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast, with its focus on a tyrannical father figure.  However, Grunberg's novel is a much longer, more in-depth examination of the pater familias, placing him at the centre of the novel, rather than in the wings.  Strangely enough, though, despite his prominence in the book, Jörgen Hofmeester actually prefers to stay away from the limelight, even at his own parties:
"Hofmeester is standing in the middle of the room with the platter in his hand.  He feels invisible.  Not an unpleasant feeling.  He's there without being there.  The man no one notices, that's what you might call him.  And oddly enough, he is proud of that." (p.217)
It's always the quiet ones you have to be careful of...

Monday, 2 June 2014

'I'll Be Right There' by Kyung-Sook Shin

There aren't many rules around Tony's Reading List, but one informal guideline that has developed over the years is that it's always fair to give a writer a second chance, even if I didn't think much of the first try.  It's not always easy, though, especially when you're so disappointed first time around - which is why today's post should be taken as evidence to support the rule, even when the first book was a real stinker ;)

Shin Kyung-sook's I'll Be Right There (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is an excellent novel set in and around Seoul in the 1980s.  It all begins when a middle-aged lecturer, Jung Yoon, receives a call from a former boyfriend, in which she finds out that her favourite teacher from her university days is close to death.  As she gazes out of the window, with snow starting to fall slowly on the city, her mind drifts inevitably to her time as a student.

We follow Yoon back to the start of her student days, where she encounters several people who are to have a dramatic impact on her life.  The first is Professor Yoon, a slightly eccentric English Literature lecturer who appears out of place in the turbulent political environment of the Eighties, a man who kindles his students' love of poetry.  The second is Myungsuh, a boy who spends half of his time at the university and the other half demonstrating on the streets of the capital, and through him Yoon gets to know Miru, a young woman scarred by events of the past.  Together, they have to make their way through both young adulthood and a critical time in Korean history...

Let's get this out of the way now - I loathed Please Look After Mother.  However, I'll Be Right There is a far, far better book.  It's a story which as well as portraying those pivotal, magical years bridging childhood and adulthood, touches on a fascinating period of Korean history, where students demonstrated on the streets, in a way unimaginable now for us in the West, in an attempt to change the hardline right-wing government.

Initially, it seems as if the wider political protests, as the writer suggests in her comments on the book, will stay in the background, but when Yoon walks home from class one day, she suddenly finds herself caught up in the troubles:
"Just then a tear gas canister exploded overhead, and a huge crowd of protesters surged into the underpass to try to avoid it.  I was shoved forward with them..."
p.77 (Other Press, 2014)
What, up to this point, has been an abstract, theoretical political issue, suddenly becomes frighteningly real.  Shin switches the tempo superbly, from a casual, steady walk through a quiet city to a heart-stopping, full-speed flight for survival.  From this point on, even when the political side stays in the background, we know that it's there, waiting to play a role in events again.

On the whole, though, I'll Be Right There focuses on the micro, rather than the macro, and much of the story is centred on the small group of young adults, each of whom has their own issues to work through.  Perhaps the most fascinating figure is Miru, shy to the point of abstraction, a woman who writes down what she eats in a journal, always wears the same skirt whatever the weather - and has unsightly scars on her hands.  Despite her shyness, she builds up a close friendship with Yoon, one which helps both of them in their attempts to leave the past behind.

Strangely enough, though, this friendship threatens the blossoming relationship between Yoon and Myungsuh, as the ghosts of the past prove trickier to ignore than they had all hoped.  The structure of the novel, with Yoon's narrative chapters being followed by short extracts from Myungsuh's journal, allows the reader to see the way the two can act at cross-purposes, never quite getting to where they would like to be.  For every step they take towards each other, there always seem to be a few steps back, either because of the troubles or because of Miru.

One of the central themes of the novel is this lack of communication, or a surplus of miscommunication, which Myungsuh is quick to blame on society:
"A society that is violent or corrupt prohibits mutual communication.  A society that fears communication is unable to solve any problem.  It looks for someone to shift the responsibility to and turns even more violent." (p.158)
Sadly, each of the characters (including Dahn, Yoon's childhood friend, a man who struggles to communicate his true feelings to her) seems trapped inside their own thoughts and emotions, unable to reach out and help others - or get help themselves.  This is symbolised by the constant phone calls in the middle of night, which either go unanswered or have no one on the other end...

I'll Be Right There is an excellent read, and it has the potential to do very well for Shin in the Anglosphere.  Sora Kim-Russell's translation was excellent, balancing on the tricky tightrope between literality and over-westernising without toppling to one side, and Charles Montgomery (over at Korean Literature in Translation) does a great job of highlighting this in his review.  It's a book which you need to keep reading, and want to get back to after you've stopped; more importantly, it's also a book which stays with you long after you've finished.

Whether this will be a welcome comparison or not, I'm not really sure, but for a J-Lit fan like myself, there are obvious parallels with another big hit in translated fiction, Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood.  This begins with the first scene, where a middle-aged protagonist is whisked back to memories of their glory days, but there are far more similarities than that.  The setting of a time of student unrest, the gloomy undertones of a depressed generation, the hours of walking through the big city - all are reminiscent of Murakami's hit.

However, I'll Be Right There is a lot more than just a copy of Norwegian Wood.  Where Murakami leaves the political side in the background, having Toru avoid the university while it's going on, Shin confronts it head on, pushing her characters onto the battlefield, refusing to allow them to hide away in safety.  While Yoon, Myungsuh, Miru and Dahn also seek refuge in the arts, unlike Toru their escape isn't Jazz, but literature, and mentions abound of Emily Dickinson, Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge and even Natsume Soseki.  Yes, there are echoes of Murakami's Bildungsroman here, but this is most definitely Shin's own story - and it's a very good one.

It would be nice to think that this might be another big success, both for Shin and the wider translated fiction community - it certainly has the makings of a popular novel.  While some (like me) might be more intrigued by the historical and social aspects, most will be pulled in by the human element, and the troubles of youth:
"We each get one life that is our own.  We each in our own way struggle to get ahead, love, grieve, and lose our loved ones to death.  There are no exceptions for anyone - not for me, not for the man who had called me, and not for Professor Yoon.  Just one chance.  That's all." (p.13)
Sadly for the characters of the novel, this idea of carpe diem more often than not gives way to fatalism.  It's no coincidence that some of the most common words in the novel are 'some day'...

I really enjoyed I'll Be Right There, and I'm confident that most people will too; it's definitely one to put on your list for future reference.  And as for Please Look After Mother...

...well, let's just pretend that it never happened ;)