Sunday 1 February 2015

Tony's Reading List is on the move!

Many of you will already have heard about this by now, but after just over six years of blogging Tony's Reading List is on the move!  From this week, I'll be doing all of my blogging from my new site, (which, as you will see, is pretty much the same thing but through a different host), so I hope you'll follow me over to my new digital home :)

But Tony, I hear you ask (as always, my hearing is excellent), why the move after all this time?  Well, there are a number of reasons.  First and foremost is the issue with comments.  Any regular blogger and commenter will have realised by now that Blogger and WordPress seem specifically designed to make any interaction with each other as difficult as possible, and while WordPress at least seems to be getting a little better, Blogger (if anything) is getting even worse.

In addition, I've had a feeling for some time now, that being on the losing team in terms of web hosts has affected my reach.  After six years of blogging, I should be getting my message out to far more people (and receiving more comments too).  There are no guarantees, but I suspect that the move to WordPress will make it much easier for people to access my posts in future.

The Blogger blog isn't going anywhere; for one thing, most of my old posts have numerous back links to it, and I can't see that being cleaned up this side of Armageddon.  However, from today, any new content will be posted over at the WordPress site, so I suggest you get over there and bookmark the link if you want to keep up with my ramblings in future ;)

So, there you have it.  The new place to go is - here's hoping it's a change for the better...

... 'cos I'll be *really* embarrassed if I have to come crawling back to Blogger in a few weeks' time...

Saturday 31 January 2015

'The Strange Library' by Haruki Murakami (Review)

I thought that I had my January in Japan reading fairly well regulated this year, a mixture of library choices, review copies and shelf dwellers, some modern, some classic and some plain old.  However, when you get a text from the library, informing you that a book you weren't expecting to arrive for some months is waiting for you at the local branch, well, there's nothing for it but to make a gap in your schedule and cram one more book into the month.

So, have I saved the best for last, or will JiJ end on a sour note?  Let's take a trip to the library and find out...

The Strange Library (translated by Ted Goossen) is the latest Haruki Murakami work to arrive in English, coming a matter of months after the (fairly) triumphant appearance of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage.  It's a little different to most of what we've seen before, a children's story accompanied by a range of illustrations (mostly sourced from old library books), but the style is unmistakeably Murakami, and we even get to run into an old friend :)

It all begins when a young boy goes into his local library, hoping to drop a few books off and pick up some more.  He is told to go down to the basement, where a stern old man informs him that his chosen books can't be taken out and must be read in the library.  The boy (an obedient child) follows the man down some more stairs towards the reading room - too late does he realise that he's actually being locked in a prison cell...

Anyone hoping for another full-scale novel will be disappointed by The Strange Library, but (hopefully) most people will have been aware of what was coming and will enjoy it for what it is.  Murakami has written several of these illustrated stories, with many already appearing in various European languages (I read a fan-translation of one, The Sheep Man's Christmas, a couple of years back), but this is the first time that any have made it into English publication.  While it smacks a little of profiteering to publish a book aimed at adults which takes about twenty minutes to read, I suspect that even for this morsel the rights weren't all that cheap ;)

The story itself is entertaining, and rather tongue in cheek too.  The boy is a frustratingly passive figure, walking happily into disaster just because people are telling him too (I'm sure there's a moral in there somewhere...), and Murakami pokes fun at him along the way.  The books he returns to the library (How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd) are typical Murakami jokes, and I can't really imagine a real-life schoolboy musing about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire...

And speaking of shepherds, The Strange Library sees a welcome appearance by a rather familiar figure:
"Finally, we reached the bottom of the staircase.  I could see a glimmer farther in, just a feeble glow, really, but still strong enough to make my eyes hurt after the long darkness.  Someone approached me from the back of the room and took my hand.  A small man clad in the skin of a sheep."
pp.17/8 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
Yes, the sheep man is back (I believe he's a frequent flier in Murakami's children's stories), and while he doesn't have the sinister air, or idiosyncratic speech patterns, of the character encountered in A Wild Sheep Chase, it's definitely the same guide through the bizarre parallel Murakamian underworld.

There's a need for this familiar face, though, as the book can get a little dark at times.  The gruff man is a fairly frightening, if cartoonish, protagonist, with a terrible secret kept in the labyrinth beneath the library.  The sheep man, a reluctant accomplice, fills the boy in on the true nature of libraries:
     "But, hey, this kind of thing's going on in libraries everywhere, you know.  More or less, that is."
     This news staggered me.  "In libraries everywhere?" I stammered.
     "If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?" (p.26)
And there you were thinking that librarians were benevolent forces for good, educating you all out of the kindness of their hearts.  I'll leave you to read the book and find out just exactly what their ulterior motive is...

Despite the mortal peril the boy finds himself in, though, this is a Murakami book, and there's always time to relax.  While you and I would be in a panic over the impending danger, the boy is able to get sidetracked by the strangest of topics, whether it's the book on Ottoman tax collector Ibn Armut Hasir or the doughnuts he's been brought to eat:
     "This is the best doughnut I've ever eaten," I said.
     "I just finished frying them up," said the sheep man.  "I make them from scratch, you know."
     "I bet if you opened a doughnut shop, it'd be a big hit.
     "Yeah, I've thought about that myself.  How great that'd be."
     "I know you could do it." (p.40)
Wait a minute - impending doom, danger?  Talk about Stockholm Syndrome...

The Strange Library may just be a short story for kids, but it's immensely entertaining, and I'd love to read more of the same.  It's a book which uses a fairy-tale structure to pay homage to libraries and praise the ability of books to allow us to escape our humdrum lives.  Goossen's translation beautifully captures the ludicrous, yet straight-faced style, a fact which bodes well for his retranslations of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, coming later this year.

As sweet as The Strange Library is, it wouldn't be a Murakami book without a poignant twist, and on this front it certainly delivers.  Just when you think that you're on top of what the book is trying to do, you discover that there's a subtle undertone, one which only becomes apparent in the last few lines.  It may not be the best book I've tried for January in Japan this time around, but it's certainly a fitting book to round the event off - I highly recommend that you go and get a copy from your library.

Just promise me, whatever you do - don't go down to the basement...

Thursday 29 January 2015

'N.P.' by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

As we head towards the end of the third January in Japan, I've been looking back at all the posts I've written for the event over the years.  There's been a mixture of modern books, old masters and some real classics (and when I say classics...), but only two writers have featured in all three editions.  One is the father of modern J-Lit, Natsume Soseki - the other... shares a name with a yellow fruit high in potassium.

Now, how did that happen?

Banana Yoshimoto's N.P. (translated by Ann Sherif) is the story of Kazami Kano, an English-language research assistant at a Tokyo university.  The start of the book sees her looking back to a relationship she had with an older man while she was at high school, a translator working on a collection of ninety-seven short stories.  The book never appeared in Japanese as the translator committed suicide soon after, just as the writer (a Japanese man living in the US) had done years before.

Years later, Kazami is reminded of this passage of her life when she reencounters Saki and Otohiko Takase, the writer's children, whom she met briefly at a partly long ago.  Falling into the orbit of the Takases, she discovers that there is more to learn about the untranslated book 'N.P.'.  Not only are there some extra stories, relating some rather personal family affairs, there's also the fact that everyone who has attempted to translate the story into Japanese has killed themselves.  The major discovery, though, is that Kazami is connected to the Takases by a woman she has yet to meet, a former girlfriend of the translator with a very close tie to Saki and Otohiko...

Over the years, my relationship with Yoshimoto's work has very much been one swinging between enjoyment and loathing (on the same page), so you might find it surprising that I've gone back for more this time.  However, N.P. is the one book continually cited whenever people put Yoshimoto forward as a favourite writer, and with its being the only one of her major works in English I hadn't read (as far as I'm aware...), I thought it was time to give it a go - and I'm glad I did.

From the very start, N.P. is a novel which is recognisably Banana(s).  As I mentioned last year, while everyone knows about Murakami Bingo, J-Lit aficionados would agree that Banana Bingo is the main game in town, and in this regard, N.P. certainly doesn't disappoint.  Lesbian tendencies?  Page 42.  Mysterious illness?  Page 17.  Eerie ability to dream the future?  Page 6.  Suicide?  Page 1, Line 4.  That's a full card, and I'd like the stuffed teddy as my prize, please ;)

Despite the almost parodical adherence to these themes (which the writer emphasises herself in the afterword), N.P. is actually a very good book, possibly the best of the ones I've been able to try.  Kazami is another of Yoshimoto's stock characters, the woman ever-so-slightly outside mainstream society.  She comes from an unconventional family, deserted by the father, with her sister living overseas and her mother a freelance translator.  This gives her a different perspective on the world, and the novel has a calming feel of a step outside the rat race, a slice of summer with perpetual sunshine and blue skies.

Otohiko and Saki, strangers in their home country, see Kazami as a kindred spirit, latching onto her in an attempt to find a foothold in Tokyo.  Kazami is quickly pulled into their lives, even though she senses the darkness beneath their charming exteriors:
"But I could do little to lessen the fatigue that had been building up in him before we even met, the weariness over the complications of his life.  I was incapable of truly understanding the darkness that made up a large part of his personality, the blackness that I found so attractive."
p.28 (Faber and Faber, 2001)
However, it isn't until the arrival of the final major character that matters really get interesting.  You see, the real focal point of the story is Sui Minowa, an intense, willowy beauty, half-sister to the Takases, inspiration for one of the secret stories - and Otohiko's lover...

It's this darkness that lifts N.P. above much of Yoshimoto's other work.  While there's still a lot of light nonsense, with the writer balancing on the tightrope between the profound and the trite at times, there's a mood hanging over the story, an acknowledgement that tragedy is in the air, and that it's unavoidable.  The incestuous strands to the story, both metaphorical (Kazami's growing attraction to all in her tight-knit group) and literal (the Takases really believe in keeping things in the family), mean that it's difficult for the reader to relax too much.

Yoshimoto balances this nicely, though, with her descriptions of the hot Tokyo summer, allowing us to soak in the sun in peace with the characters.  The story, what little there is of it, often takes a back seat as Kazami and her friends look to snatch a moment of calm:
"The three of us stood there.  Cars proceeded slowly around the plaza, and a line of buses stood at the stop.  So many things filled the space of that very ordinary, clear afternoon.  The many complications, the things that had evolved over time, the varying distances between Japan and the rest of the world.  People walked right by us, and their voices interrupted our conversations, without any of them realizing all that was going on between us.  It felt strange." (p.140)
Sadly, even in a Banana Yoshimoto novel, time can't stand still forever.  The summer has to end eventually, and when it does, the friends who met in the sun are likely to go their separate ways.  Will they make it through in one piece, or will the curse of 'N.P.' strike again...

There's a lot to like about N.P., and while Amrita (which nobody else seems to have read - or liked) was my favourite Yoshimoto book before, I have a feeling that this one might take its place.  This is a book where the writer explores all her usual themes and gets it right, creating a novel more memorable for its feel than its plot.  A good way to round off my Yoshimoto reading, then, and a book which almost leaves me wanting to go back to her other work.

Maybe next year ;)

Tuesday 27 January 2015

'The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine' by Akiyuki Nosaka (Review)

When I first heard that Pushkin Children's Books were bringing out a Japanese title in February, I was keen to get my hands on a copy, mainly so that my daughter Emily could take part in January in Japan.  The only thing I knew about the book was the title, and it sounded harmless enough - however, when it arrived, a cursory flick through was enough to tell me that this was a book I'd be reading alone.  Let me explain why...

Akiyuki Nosaka's The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of seven stories written for children.  Each takes place (both inside and outside Japan) on exactly the same day in history, the 15th of August, 1945.  For those unaware of the significance of this date, this was the day Japan surrendered, and the Second World War finally ended...

The seven stories act as an educational tool for young readers, describing the plight of the Japanese people at the end of the conflict.  The writer touches on the futility of war while focusing on the hardship felt by those not involved in the actual fighting.  It's written in a style that will enable children to understand what's happening, but be warned - interesting as the stories are, they can certainly be a bit grim...

While the tales here are far removed from Disney films, one thing they do have in common is an abundance of animals in starring roles.  In 'The Parrot and the Boy', the bird is a companion that reminds a boy of his father, killed years earlier in the war.  The story takes place in an air-raid shelter in a bombed-out neighbourhood:
"Originally it had  been constructed at the side of the road, but in the air raid two months earlier the town had been completely razed to the ground all the way from the mountain to the sea, and in the burnt-out ruins it was no longer possible to tell where houses had once stood and roads had once run."
'The Parrot and the Boy', p.22 (Pushkin Children's Press, 2015)
While the boy has survived the initial onslaught (as has his parrot), shell-shock and hunger will make life in the shelter difficult.  Hopefully, the parrot will be able to keep the boy's spirits up until help arrives.

The animal theme continues with 'The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl', in which a dying wolf falls in with a girl abandoned by refugees flooding out of Manchuria, and 'The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach', where a young kamikaze pilot takes his insect 'friend' on a last, fatal mission.  As for the title story, it does exactly what it promises, portraying a whale who mistakes a Japanese submarine for an attractive female of his species.  It's a particularly sobering tale in which it's fair to say that the poor love-lorn whale has a tragic end...

Even where the focus is on the people, the suffering keeps coming.  'The Mother that Turned into a Kite' features a woman caught in an inferno with her young son doing everything she can to give him a chance of survival:
"Even her sweat was hot, she thought, as she desperately fumbled for more.  If only the trickle of perspiration could be more like a waterfall.  When she rubbed it on Katchan's bare hands and feet, the dryness gave way to a smooth and pleasant sensation, as if he'd just got out of the bath."
'The Mother that turned into a Kite', p.41
In 'The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl', we meet another lost couple, an escaped POW and an orphan girl, as they await the end of the war together.  If only there could be a happy ending in this one (here's a hint - probably not).

It's an excellent, if sombre, collection, nicely translated by Tapley Takemori.  While the language used is simple, the stories flow smoothly and are always compelling, making for a deceptively polished text.  The mood is further enhanced by the illustrations of Mika Provata-Carlone.  Each story has several black-and-white ink drawings, simple, effective and poignant companions to the texts.

The book is heart-breaking at times - with many sacrifices in vain, most of the stories have a bleak ending.  In fact, it's not until the final story, 'The Cake Tree in the Ruins', that a ray of light appears.  This one is a strange tale of a tree sprouting from the ashes of a burnt-out home.  When some local boys eat the leaves, they discover that the tree is actually made of cake, leading the reader into a back story of an ailing boy and his childish dream.  It's an allegorical piece giving hope for the future, the writer telling the children that the grown-ups started the war, not them - it's time for the children of Japan, and the world, to take the stage and shape the coming years.

It's an important message for children to hear, and Nosaka's book is full of stories they need to be told.  The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine is a book I'd definitely recommend for upper primary children as it's important for them to learn about the past to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.  However, for a seven-year-old (and a rather sensitive seven-year-old at that), this would be far too much too soon.  You can't shelter your child from the realities of the world forever, but I'm going to leave it a little while longer before Emily gets to read this one...

Sunday 25 January 2015

'The Tale of the Heike', translated by Royall Tyler (Review)

Having only recently explored the mythical origins of the Japanese people, you would have thought I'd spend the rest of January in Japan looking at more modern books.  However, today's post sees me going back in time once more, with a 14th-Century text recounting a series of 12th-Century conflicts.  You've all heard about the face that launched a thousand ships, but how about a mirror that did the same?  Let me tell you a story...

The Tale of the Heike (translated by Royall Tyler, review copy courtesy of Penguin Classics) is a monumental work, a collection of stories from a period of history which together form something akin to a Japanese Iliad.  We begin in the middle of the twelfth century, where under the leadership of the great Tadamori, the Taira (or 'Heike') clan has become the most powerful family in the land, eclipsing the fortunes of the other major clan, the Minamoto (or 'Genji').  The first books of the work chart the rise in the strength of the Taira, who eventually come to possess most of the important imperial positions, in addition to providing a wife for the reigning emperor.

Under the leadership of Tadamori's son, Kiyomori, the Heike reach the zenith of their influence, banishing and executing most of their serious rivals, and when the Empress gives birth to a male heir (later to be made Emperor himself), it appears that their power is unmatchable:
"This, our island land of Japan,
 has only sixty-six provinces,
 and the Heike ruled over thirty.
 Half the realm and more was theirs,
 quite apart from all their estates, 
 their countless fields, paddy and dry."
Book One, p.15 (Penguin Classics, 2014)
Pride, however, is known to come before a fall, and the way in which the Taira clan seize power doesn't please everyone.  In the provinces, the exiled Genji are waiting, and in the space of a few short years, the dynasty Kiyomori has built up will be swept away forever...

The Tale of the Heike is a monumental work, seven-hundred pages of poetry, myths, intrigue, battles and noble deaths.  It's the foundation of many later Japanese works, not only in literature, but also in Kabuki, Noh and art, and it's a story any self-respecting Japanophile has to read at some point.  In many ways, it can be compared to Shakespearean tragedies, with its handling of major historical events enhanced by the psychological insights into the minds of the major protagonists.

The flawed character of the piece, a strong man with none of the doubts of a Hamlet or a Macbeth, is Lord Kiyomori, a nobleman who has rendered great service to the Imperial family over the years, putting down insurrections and removing all threats from the capital.  However, in his desire to strengthen his family's position, he is blind to the resentment he is sowing.  His son, Shigemori, has a cooler, wiser head than his father and attempts to warn him of the dangers of his actions:
"The deeds of the fathers, good or bad,
 clearly touch their descendants' lives.
 The house with a rich store of good
 will thrive far into times to come;
 the one long given to evil ways
 faces only calamity -
 so I have heard..."
Book Two, p.84
Despite the respect the father has for the son, the overbearing behaviour continues, and when Shigemori passes away, it's inevitable that Kiyomori will continue down his all-or-nothing path.

Eventually, the tide begins to turn, and the enemies of the Heike begin to think seriously about how they can remove the hated family from power.  With the tacit acceptance of the cloistered (retired) Emperor Go Shirakawa, exiled members of the Genji, under the leadership of Minamoto no Yoritomo, begin to gather their forces in preparation for the battles to come.  The spark comes when a tentative uprising led by an Imperial prince is crushed, leading to the burning of temples in Nara and the removal of the capital to Fukuhara (now Kobe):
One might say that the Heike had now committed their greatest outrage yet.
"Ever since back in the Angen years," people kept saying,
"that man has banished or killed senior nobles and privy gentlemen,
exiled a regent, appointed his own son-in-law regent,
shifted the cloistered emperor to a Seinan Palace,
and murdered his second son, Prince Mochihito.
In short, moving the capital is probably just the last affront he could think of."
Book Five, p.252
With the support of the neutrals wavering, and armies of Genji warriors massed to the East, life in Kyoto is about to get very interesting indeed...

While the writing of The Tale of the Heike is attributed to 14th-Century Buddhist monks, the English-language version is very much Tyler's work (and a wonderful work it is too).  From the forbidding picture of Kiyomori on the cover to the detailed maps at the back, the whole book shows how much work has gone into its creation.  In addition to the above, the reader is also treated to an introduction setting the scene, family trees, glossaries and copious footnotes for those who want them.

The handling of the actual text is also rather interesting.  Tyler has chosen to put the book into three differing styles: one is a descriptive prose, one a declarative recitation style and the other reserved for songs or Japanese poetry.  This mix of styles lends the text a Homerian air at times, and in addition to the imagery of words, there is also the real thing.  The book includes many ink drawings from a 19th-Century Japanese edition of the book (drawn by Tesai Hokuba, a pupil of the famous Hokusai), each detailing a pivotal, and well-known, scene from the story.

None of that would be important, though, if the story was no good, so it's lucky that The Tale of the Heike is a cracking read.  Like the Iliad, it's full of stories of heroic warriors and their deeds, with soldiers challenging their enemies and performing miraculous feats of strength and courage.  There are sea battles (in which the Genji attempt to recover the boy Emperor and the three treasures of the imperial line - including Amaterasu's mirror...), political intrigue, infighting for positions and even a cast of thousands of warrior monks - what's not to like? ;)

In fairness, I'd have to say that there are a few dull areas.  The writers had a tendency to give warriors lengthy back stories after their death, and the repeated descriptions of prayers and lists of warriors on the march can pall after a while.  There's also a lot more repetition than is accepted in English (I lost track of how many times a character turned away with 'their sleeves soaked by tears'...), and it would take a very determined reader indeed to absorb every word of the book.

These are minor quibbles, though, and the truth is that I loved it.  The Tale of the Heike is a truly epic, spectacular book, a classic of world literature, and Tyler deserves immense praise for making it into a novel that many an Anglophone reader will enjoy.  It's a work which underpins Japanese cultural history, and any J-Lit fan who gives it a try will come out of the experience with their knowledge of the area greatly enriched.

So, where to from here?  Well, it just so happens that Tyler is also the man who put out a highly-acclaimed version of the all-time Japanese classic, Lady Murasaki's magnum opus, and after reading this, I'm keener than ever to continue my adventures in classic J-Lit.  I said it last year, and I'll say it again this year (hopefully, with more accuracy!) - 2015 will be the year of The Tale of Genji ;)

Thursday 22 January 2015

'Grass on the Wayside' by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

It wouldn't be January in Japan without looking at a book by the great Natsume Sōseki, and today's choice is one I've had on the shelves for far too long.  One of his last completed novels, appearing not long before the incomplete Light and Dark, it's an intensely personal work (as much for me as for the writer), and what's more, it's a landmark review in one other way - this is the tenth of his I've written about :)

Grass on the Wayside (translated by Edwin McClellan) is the story of Kenzō, a university lecturer in his mid-thirties.  Living and working in Tokyo, having recently returned from a few years abroad, he's a rather nervous, slightly pompous intellectual who struggles to relate to others:
"That he might leave his desk once in a while and indulge in some sort of recreation never occurred to him.  A well-meaning friend once suggested that he might take up Nō recitation as a hobby.  He had grace enough to refuse politely, but secretly he was quite shocked at the man's frivolity.  How can the fellow, he asked himself incredulously, find the time for such nonsense?  He could not see that his own attitude toward time had become mean and miserly."
p.6 (Tuttle Publishing, 1971)
Kenzō would love nothing more than to be left alone with his work, but it's unlikely to happen - this is not a culture where an individual can remain cut off from those around them.

As a relatively successful man, Kenzō is responsible for helping his relatives out when necessary, including his asthmatic sister and her no-good husband, his elder brother and his wife's parents (while his father-in-law was once a successful public official, he has come down in the world and now needs assistance himself).  To top it all off, while out walking one day, our friend sees a familiar face from the past.  The old man standing on the corner is Shimada, an important figure from Kenzō's childhood.  What ensues is less a happy reunion than another claim on Kenzō's time and finances...

Grass on the Wayside was written shortly before Sōseki's death.  Suffering from stomach illness at the time, he was not in the most optimistic of moods, and this is reflected in the book.  It's actually an extremely personal novel, and McClellan's short introduction explains both the prevailing trend of 'I' novels of the time and the parallels between Kenzō's story and the writer's own circumstances. 

The main plot concerns the connection between Kenzō and Shimada.  Between the ages of two and eight (as was the case with Sōseki himself), Kenzō was adopted out by his family to Shimada, a situation which was not too uncommon in the Japan of the time.  While all legal and financial issues were settled when the boy was returned to his real parents, Shimada is nevertheless hoping to take advantage and squeeze money out of his former 'son':
"Kenzō did not quite know what to say.  He looked at the tobacco tray he had placed in front of the visitor, and thought of the old man with the shoddy umbrella staring at him through the rain.  Kenzō could not help hating him.  He remained silent, torn between his sense of indebtedness and his hatred." (p.21)
A modern (Western) reader might wonder why he is unable to simply brush the claim off - unfortunately, both Japanese culture and Kenzō's personality render that more difficult than it might first appear.

Like many of the characters in the novel, Shimada is able to take advantage of Kenzō's weakness.  The lecturer may be intellectually able, but he's certainly not a man of the world, and this causes most of his problems:
"The trouble with him, however, was that behind the obstinacy there was a rather indecisive streak in his character.  He simply did not have the courage to refuse outright to lend his signature; he was afraid of seeming too heartless." (p.119)
However, his reticence to act is due not only to any perceived weakness, but also to a genuine moral dilemma.  Unlike his wife and brother, who are concerned about any possible legal claim, Kenzō is actually more worried about whether Shimada truly has a moral claim on his assistance...

The other main theme explored in Grass on the Wayside is that of marriage, and the novel provides great psychological insight into a standard (unhappy) relationship.  Both Kenzō and his wife are at fault (although by modern, Western standards, Kenzō is certainly the main offender); they are two people separated by minds and attitudes, observing basic formalities and little else:
"Her expression was blank.  I could have shown pleasure, she thought, if only he had said something kind.  Kenzō, on the other hand, resented her seeming indifference, and blamed her for his own silence." (p.34)
This miscommuncation is typical of the way they go about their daily life.  The two do attempt to get along in their bumbling way, but they are simply never able to open up to each other.

As mentioned, this is a late Sōseki, and the style and subject matter are typically dark and heavy, very different to the light touch shown in earlier work (e.g. Botchan, Kusamakura).  As a character, Kenzō has echoes of Daisuke in Sorekara/And Then (again, a much lighter book).  Both men are vacillating and western-influenced, unable to cope with the more practical, mercenary people around them.  In terms of style, however, Grass on the Wayside is more similar to the writer's final (unfinished) work, Light and Dark.  The closing piece in Sōseki's oeuvre takes the marriage themes introduced in previous works and examines them in exhaustive detail; the handling of Kenzō's marital woes can be seen as a warm-up for the longer novel to come.

Grass on the Wayside is not a book for everyone, but Sōseki fans will love this.  It's an absorbing, psychological tale - and a warning to the unwary...  I finished this on New Year's Eve, around the time the story comes to an end, and Sōseki's tale of a busy man, surrounded by family, stress and fatigue is, unfortunately, all too familiar.  Grass on the Wayside can be read not just as a novel, but as a warning to those who set matters intellectual above domestic affairs.  Consider it a warning heeded...

Tuesday 20 January 2015

'Masks' by Fumiko Enchi (Review)

Today's post looks at another of my January in Japan finds at the university library (as can be seen from the unfortunate placing of the bar code...).  As always, I'm a little light on female writers, and this is a book, and an author, I've been meaning to get to for some time.  Be careful, though - in this one, the writer's main theme seems to be that women are not always to be trusted.  Consider yourselves forewarned...

Fumiko Enchi's Masks (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) begins in Kyoto, where Tsuneo Ibuki and Toyoki Mikame, two university lecturers from Tokyo, meet by chance in a café.  The two friends are in town for conferences, but as luck would have it, they are about to see something very special.  Meeting up with Ibuki's student, Yasuko, and her mother-in-law, Mieko Toganō, the men are privileged to visit the home of a master of the Nō play, a Japanese art form which uses masks to display characters and emotions.

The masks the group are allowed to view then act as leitmotifs for the story: the 'Ryō no Onna', or spirit woman; the 'Masugami', or frenzied young woman; and the 'Fukai', or deep, middle-aged woman.  Each comes to be associated with one of the female characters, and while the masks may seem rather fixed and one-dimensional, in fact they are incredible works of art, allowing the knowledgeable onlooker to discern shades of emotion.  What's more, they display while concealing - and the men in the story are to find out that the women in their lives are quite adept at using their masks in affairs of the heart...

Masks is a short novel, but it's a superb examination of the way people manipulate and are manipulated in turn.  The action is mainly seen through the eyes of the two men, but it's clear from the start that it's the women who hold all the cards in this game.  With Yasuko's husband having died in an avalanche, the young woman is a tempting prize for Ibuki and Mikame; the problem is that this prize will come at a cost (and has some hidden conditions...).

One of the issues is that there is a tight connection between Yasuko and Mieko.  The two professors are aware of the link, but have differing views as to who holds the power in the relationship.  Ibuki, while attracted to Yasuko, senses something amiss:
"She made the appeal prettily, her head tilted to one side, but to Ibuki her soft smile was repugnant, seeming to reveal within her an unconscious hint of the harlot."
pp.15/6 (Tuttle Press, 1984)
However, Mikame, less inclined to analyse, has a different view:
"...but to him Mieko resembled less an outsize drawing of a beautiful woman than a slightly vulgar background of some sort - a heavy, ornate tapestry or a large blossoming tree - against which Yasuko's youth and charm showed off to heightened advantage." (p.17)
Of course, both of these images are mere masks, and finding out what lies beneath is set to be a difficult and costly experience.

As much as we experience events through the men, the key figure in the novel is Mieko.  She's an attractive middle-aged widow, a poet living with her daughter-in-law and a daughter who has only recently returned to the family.  Like the other main characters, she has an interest in the depiction of spirit possession in literature and folklore, and the chance discovery of an essay she wrote decades ago provides an insight into her character.

In her piece, she focuses on the Rokujō Lady, one of the many lovers the main character has in The Tale of Genji, and while this woman is considered a minor character, for Mieko she is much more important.  The Rokujō Lady attacks other characters unconsciously through her spirit, and while many despise her for this, Mieko sees something very different, a powerful woman, too strong for the men around her.  Mmm - I wonder if that has a relevance in Enchi's novel...

Another interesting focus in the novel is on relationships in Japanese society, with the way marriages, courtships and extra-marital affairs are handled being very different to what we (in the West) might expect.  As Ibuki gets closer to Yasuko, his wife becomes suspicious, but the way she reacts (and Ibuki's reaction to her reaction) is slightly alien.  Mikame's calm acceptance of the way matters unfold is also puzzling - the very idea of what a marriage is (as shown by Mieko's husband's 'traditions'...) is completely different to the Christian norm.

Masks is a novel that unfolds elegantly, with an excellent plot which is gradually revealed.  The men are pawns in a game, that much is clear from an early stage - we're just not quite sure what the game is and who the main player is:
"You and I are accomplices, aren't we, in a dreadful crime - a crime that only women could commit." (p.126)
Yasuko's comment to Mieko towards the end of the novel may give you a hint of what is to come, but only a hint.  This is a very subtle game ;)

Although I've read some of Enchi's work before (in the form of short stories), this is the first longer piece I've tried, and I found it excellent.  There's great command of the characters, with a focus on dialogue and the psychological development of the mian figures, and the writer's knowledge of Japanese literary culture comes through in the way classic stories are used in the text to foreshadow later events (it comes as no surprise to learn that Enchi translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese).  Praise must go, of course, to Winters Carpenter, who has created an excellent English-language text, a credit to Enchi's story.  In particular, the dialogue and thought are rendered superbly, an area which can often let a translation down.

Masks is a short novel, but it's a very good one by a writer who certainly knows her craft.  It's a warning of the perils of human relationships and an examination of woman as both comfort and danger.  As Mieko concludes in her essay:
"Just as there is an archetype of woman as the object of man's eternal love, so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions.  The Rokujō lady is an embodiment of this archetype." (p.37)
Perhaps she's right - but I can think of another one...

Sunday 18 January 2015

'The Hunting Gun' by Yasushi Inoue (Review)

After starting their expansion into Japanese literature with a collection of Ryu Murakami books last year, Pushkin Press went a little more traditional with their second major J-Lit writer.  Yasushi Inoue was a well-respected figure in twentieth-century Japanese writing, and the retranslation of his Akutagawa-Prize-winning novella Bullfight was a big success on its release.  Since then, Pushkin have brought out a couple more of Inoue's works in their beautiful mini-paperbacks, and today's is a story every bit as beautiful as the paper that contains it :)  I haven't just stopped at a review today, though - keep reading afterwards for a more in-depth look at the text...

The Hunting Gun (translated by Michael Emmerich, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a haunting story of love and lies, related in a series of letters.  The tale is set up by a frame narrative told by a writer, a man who submits a prose poem to a hunting magazine.  Once the piece appears in print, he realizes that it's slightly out of place and expects some harsh responses from the magazine's readership.

In fact, the submission elicits just one reply, in the form of a letter from a certain Jōsuke Misugi.  While Misugi enjoyed the poem, his reason for writing to the narrator is his belief that he is the figure depicted in the piece, lost in thought; having read it, he decides he'd like to explain to the poet just why he looked so distracted on that crisp early morning:
"You will no doubt be puzzled by what I am about to explain, coming as it does out of the blue, but I have here three letters that were addressed to me.  I intended to burn them, but now, having read your poem and learnt of your existence, I find myself wanting to share them with you."
p.17 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
Thus, the writer comes into possession of the three letters, all from women in the melancholy hunter's life - together, they tell quite a story...

The Hunting Gun is a classic novella, very Japanese in its content, but similar in style to many Western works, particularly Victorian epistolary classics (e.g. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).  Inoue calmly, gradually reveals the story behind the poet's image, the hunter lost in thought, casually holding his gun.  Each new letter is a further layer to the story, shedding new light on proceedings, both in terms of the backstory and Misugi's character and behaviour.

The first of the three letters is from his niece, Shōko, ostensibly thanking him for his concern in helping with the arrangements after her mother, Saiko's, death.  However, in reality, she is writing to reveal that she knows about the secret he has been keeping for decades.  The second letter is sent by Misugi's wife, Midori, one in which there's a nasty surprise awaiting the husband.  Finally, we get to hear (posthumously) from Saiko herself, and this letter fills in the final details of the story behind Misugi's forlorn condition.

While the plot isn't that hard to guess, I'd prefer to leave most of it unspoken (this is a J-Lit review, after all) - part of the beauty of the book is the way in which the story unfolds, with differing points of view transforming events described in earlier passages.  The writing is beautifully elegant (and I'll be looking at Emmerich's work in more detail soon), and great work has gone into the creation of the voices.  There are actually five different speakers, including the narrator and Misugi, and each is distinct, from Misugi's clipped, formal style to Midori's indirect chatter.  Still, a lot is left between the lines for us to infer - this isn't a story which imposes its meaning upon the reader.

The Hunting Gun is a nostalgic tale, one of lost loves and a painful longing for the past:
"Each of you was silent, lost in your own thoughts.  The adult world was so lonesome, scary and sad that I could hardly bear it." (p.45)
As Shōko discovers, the adult world is full of secrets and lies, and there is a stark contrast between the poetic images we see from a distance and the truth that lies behind them.  Inoue's tale is a wonderful story that shows that every poem or painting has a backstory which is every bit as fascinating as the work of art itself...

I'd actually read this story before, albeit in a different version.  In the classic anthology Modern Japanese Stories (edited by Ivan Morris, link is to my review), the story appears as Shotgun, in a translation by George Saitō, and the 1962 version has a rather different feel in places to the 2014 translation.  Let's take the passage at the start of the story where the narrator explains how his poem came to be in the magazine:
"It so happened that an old high-school classmate, the editor of 'Fellow Hunters', asked me to write a poem - noting that even at my age I was still writing after my fashion for obscure poetry magazines.  He probably asked me in a mood of fancy and out of courtesy after a long lapse in our association.  Ordinarily I would have declined such a proposal, since I had no interest in the magazine and his request was that I write about hunting.  It happened, however, that I had thought of some day writing a poem about the hunting rifle and man's solitude.  This would be exactly the right outlet." (Saitō, 1962, p.417)

"It just so happens that the editor of 'The Hunter's Friend' is a high-school classmate of mine, and when he heard that even now, at my age, I haven't outgrown the habit of publishing my somewhat idiosyncratic poems in a privately printed journal some of my poet friends and I put out, he asked if I would contribute a piece to his magazine.  Presumably he was only being polite, suggesting this on a whim as a way of making up for our having been out of touch for so long.  That's all it was.  Ordinarily I would have demurred without a moment's hesitation, seeing as the magazine focused so narrowly on a topic with which I had no connection, and because he had stipulated that the poem had to deal in some way with hunting; but as chance would have it I had recently been led to feel a certain poetic interest in hunting guns and their relationship to the solitude of the human condition, and I had just been thinking that I should write something on the topic one day.  His magazine seemed like the best possible venue for such a work..." (Emmerich, 2014, pp.9/10)
The first thing that stands out, more clearly than I'd thought, is the length of the respective passages.  Saitō has managed to dash his off in a breezy, matter-of-fact manner (I imagine here Dickens asking Trollope - over a few beers - to contribute something to one of his monthly magazines and Trollope cheerily agreeing - although with the subject matter, perhaps it should be the other way round...).

Emmerich, however, has lengthened the passage considerably - or, should I say, kept the original length (if anyone out there has the original...).  In particular, the last two sentences of Saitō's version expand to almost double the length in the newer translation, and the extra detail included is rather effective.  Emmerich's narrator seems to be attempting to justify his decision to write the poem, going beyond the call of duty to explain his reasons to the reader.  Why?  Well, that's for the careful reader to decide ;)

Reading the two texts (not just the passages above) side by side, I noticed several other clear differences in the way the translators have gone about their work.  I suspect that in terms of faithfulness to word order and cohesion, Saitō sticks to the original more closely (which is not always a good thing - Japanese repeats the same coordinating conjunctions frequently, where English opts for a variety of subordinating conjunctions).  Emmerich appears to have made judgement calls on where best to position clauses in sentences to make the text read more naturally in English.  Having said that, the passages above also suggest that the older translation deliberately omits 'unnecessary' details to move the plot along more quickly.  Again, a look at the original text would be handy here...

There's also a major difference in the length of the sentences used by the two translators.  Both Saitō and Emmerich use five sentences to convey the information; however, with Emmerich's version being much longer, the sentences, necessarily, contain much more information (in fact, the one short sentence in the middle of Emmerich's version, merely echoes information from the end of the previous sentence), and his final sentence actually goes on to include information rendered in a further two-sentence paragraph in Saitō's text.

One of the effects of the extra length of the newer version is that the language appears much more tentative in the modern version: 'as chance would have it', 'been led to feel a certain poetic interest', 'had just been thinking', 'seemed like the best possible venue'.  I certainly had the impression that Emmerich's narrator was a much more careful writer, a poet to Saitō's prose novelist.  Perhaps a better indication of this might be seen in the first lines of the actual prose poem the narrator submitted to the magazine, 'The Hunting Gun' (or, less poetically, 'Shotgun'):
"Large pipe clamped between his lips, a setter just ahead, the man trudged up the path towards the summit of Mount Amagi, through early-winter brush, crushing hoar frost beneath his rubber boots."
(Emmerich, p.10)

"A man with a big seaman's pipe in his mouth went up the path slowly, weaving through the bushes on Mt. Amagi in early winter, walking a setter before him and treading the frost needles under his boots." (Saitō, p.417)
Well - what do *you* think? ;)

Thursday 15 January 2015

'Manazuru' by Hiromi Kawakami (Review)

Today's post sees my review of the first of the two January in Japan group reads, and while the writer is very familiar, the book itself is perhaps less well known.  It's the story of a woman trying to find herself, and looking in one particular place...  The weather's nice - let's take a trip to the coast ;)

Hiromi Kawakami's Manazuru (translated by Michael Emmerich) is centred on Kei, a middle-aged woman living with her daughter, Momo, and her mother back in the family home.  Twelve years ago, her husband, Rei, vanished without a word, and while her life has stabilised to a certain extent, thanks in part to a relationship with a married man, she certainly has a lot of unfinished business.

One day, on a whim, Kei sets off for the seaside town of Manazuru, hoping to find answers in the course of her travels.  It's the first of several visits, and the only one she spends alone.  On the next outing, she's accompanied by her daughter; after that, her companion is someone slightly less familiar...

Kawakami is well known for her novel The Briefcase (AKA Strange Weather in Tokyo), and for those who have already tried that one, Manazuru may come as a bit of a surprise.  It's certainly a little darker and edgier, with a more surreal style in parts than The Briefcase.  Of course, with only the two novels out in English, who's to say which is the more representative of her style.

The main theme explored in the novel is that of letting go and finding closure.  Kei, understandably, was shattered by Rei's disappearance, and you get the sense that her daughter and her mother have been tip-toeing around her for a long time - only now are questions being asked about Rei, and the couple's life together.  Through fleeting glimpses of a diary in which we see random messages, and Kei's flashbacks to Rei's (imagined) affair, we start to piece together what actually happened.  The truth is, though, that we are just as confused as Kei herself is.

One of the coping strategies she uses is her long-term affair with Seiji, a married man, a relationship which definitely feels like a crutch to help her carry on:
     "To become involved is not to be close.  It isn't exactly to be distant, either.  When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation."
p.7 (Counterpoint Press, 2010)
While she seems like the clingy one, the truth is that Seiji's stand-offishness is more of a defence mechanism - he senses that Kei still has another man in her life...

A large part of the book is about the relationship between the three women.  Having returned to her family home after her husband's disappearance, Kei is now one of three generations of women under the one roof:
     "Now that we were living together again, were we close?  Three women, our three bodies.  Like spheres joined in motion, that is how we are.  Not concentric spheres, each sphere cradles its own center, not flat but full, that is how we are." (p.21)
With Momo going though her teens, Kei is trying to hold onto her daughter's love, regretting the loss of the closeness they once shared.  Only gradually does she realise that her mother feels the same way about her.

Of course, while the human is important, it's the supernatural that stands out.  The striking feature of Manazuru is the spirits that follow Kei around, appearing both at home and in public.  While most are indistinct blurs, one eventually coalesces, a woman who keeps drawing Kei back to Manazuru, threatening to pull her across into the other realm:
"I notice, suddenly, that there is no sound at all.
     Gripping my half-drunk cup of coffee in one hand, I have been gazing down at the woman's face, reflected in the puddle.  The size of a bean at first, it grew to walnut size, then finally assumed the the size of an actual human face." (p.97)
It's in this other realm that she hopes to finally find out what happened to Rei - but is he even there?  What if her trips to the coast are all a big mistake?

Manazuru is a book I enjoyed a lot the first time around.  It has a subtle style, written in short, clipped sentences, with a cinematic air to the whole story.  In typically Japanese fashion, you sense that the important information remains unspoken, with much lying beneath the surface.  Each of the main characters, while generally acting calmly, were adrift in a sea of emotions: Kei's rage at Rei's disappearance; Momo's hurt and desperation; the Mother's fury at her son-in-law and desire to help her daughter; and Seiji's hidden desire to get closer to Kei.

However, when I looked at other's comments, not everyone seems to have enjoyed it as much as I did, and on a second reading, a few weeks later, it did appear a little less appealing.  The language was more troublesome on the second attempt - deliberately short and confronting, the spiky sentences sometimes get in the way of the reading.  I also found Kei a little more annoying at times, and knowing where we were going, I actually found the story a little too vague this time around.

Most readers will prefer The Briefcase, but this is still a good read, one I'd recommend (particularly if you like the understated variety of J-Lit).  If you want to see what others thought, check out the dedicated page over at the JiJ blog, and if that's not incentive enough, I've got a few surprises for you.  Kawakami may only have two novels translated into English, but the page does have a few other bits and pieces I've managed to dig up.

Off you go, then ;)