Sunday 29 November 2009

84 - 'The Woman in the Dunes' by Kobo Abe

As many of you probably know by now, I quite enjoy the odd Haruki Murakami work (no sniggering at the back), and it is through him that I got into Japanese literature in the first place. To find out a little more about the area, I joined a Facebook group, only to abandon it earlier this year. Why? Well, apart from the fact that I've become a tad bored with the superficiality of most Facebook groups, I got fed up of defending Murakami against a nameless (and, judging by their profile picture, faceless) individual who seemed to regard themself as a master of Japanese literature and who didn't consider Murakami to be a writer of literature at all.

Now, anyone is entitled to give an opinion, but I just got sick of the general, sweeping nature of the comments, the contradictory sense of certain remarks (Everyone in Japan thinks Murakami is a bad writer: he's only a popular writer...) and the lack of any recognition of the points made in favour of the great man. In fact, any negative comment made by anyone remotely more famous than... well, me, was treated as the final nail in the coffin of Murakami's reputation.

The only real positive contribution this phantom made to the discussion was to ask whether anyone had read any Kobo Abe, claiming that he was a great influence and (of course...) a much better writer than Murakami. All of which drags us (screaming and kicking) towards the actual point of today's post - and you doubted there was one -, Abe's classic novel 'The Woman in the Dunes'. Shall we?

School teacher, and amateur entomologist, Junpei Niki sets off on a holiday he has planned in secret to visit the coast and search for new kinds of insects which could make him famous. He stumbles across a small, run-down village and accepts the offer of accommodation for the night in a small hut, where the only occupant, a woman, is engaged in a never-ending battle against the sand which slips down onto the building from the steep embankment surrounding it. Only the next day does Junpei realise that the offer of a bed for the night was actually a lure into slavery: the walls of the embankment are too steep to climb unaided, and the villagers have no intention of helping him out...

A quote on my (Penguin Classics) copy describes the book as "A haunting Kafkaesque nightmare", and if Murakami is supposedly indebted to Abe, Abe must have taken a great deal of his inspiration from the Czech master (in particular from 'Der Prozess' or 'The Trial'). Just as Josef K. finds himself held against his will, unable to obtain a reason for his 'arrest', so too does Junpei struggle (in vain) to understand why is being held against his will. Where K.'s prison is psychological, in the sense that he is actually free to carry on his usual life and plan his defence from home, Junpei's is physical and, at least at first, impossible to escape from. However, later in the book, he too becomes trapped by his mind, and the physical barriers to escape become less important.

Although we are told his name, Junpei Niki is usually referred to as 'he' throughout the book while we are never told the woman's name. None of the (few) other characters in the book are named either, a deliberate, alienating tactic on the part of the author. However, there is one more major character (apparently especially vivid in the film version) and that is the ever present sand which forms the barrier to escape and gradually seeps into the hut, covering every surface with a fine layer of dust. In addition to its physical role, the sand also plays a more metaphorical role in the sense of the sands of time, ever-moving, ever-changing, burying things in the past with its slow, inexorable march across the dunes.

In this context, Junpei's plight can be seen as a struggle against everyday life. All of a sudden he is plunged into what is, essentially, a marriage, forced to live in a small home with a woman, granted the small essentials of everyday life by the strange villagers, but unable to survive without submitting to the drudgery of scooping sand into buckets to protect the house from burial. This 'domestic bliss' is contrasted with his gradual loss of interest in entomology, the reason for his visit to the coast in the first place. As the book progresses, the reader sees how his attitude changes from one of anger against his captors, to secret plans for escape, to sullen acceptance of the necessity of playing along, for the time being; each time he accepts something from the villagers (be it water, sake, newspapers, or sex...), he loses a little bit of his will to escape and begins to accept the inevitability of what is actually an unacceptable situation.

'The Woman in the Dunes' is a very powerful and intriguing book, and there are definite influences on Murakami's work to be found here. The anonymity is an obvious one , and the idea of ordinary people coming to terms with the extraordinary is another. However, that is not to say that Murakami is in any way derivative. I'm not sure how representative Junpei is of Abe's other characters, but he's definitely not the prototype for any of Murakami's laid-back characters (most of them would probably have found it quite relaxing down in the hole...). I'm not sold on the 'read Abe, and you'll see through Murakami' mantra.

A final note on parting: I haven't really talked much about the woman of the title, and that is deliberate. Firstly, Junpei is the main character, so I have focused on him, particularly in light of the parallels with both Josef K. and Murakami's heroes. Secondly, I would find it difficult to because the way she is handled is, in many ways, a little unsettling. Anyone who has lived in Japan would have seen how women are portrayed (graphically - both metaphorically and literally; see any Manga book...) in a sexual light. There is a tendency in Japanese culture for there to be a very fine line between aggressive courting and rape; anyone who feels especially strongly about this should be warned before they read this book (and they may well be less than well disposed towards Junpei for the behaviour he exhibits towards his new 'de facto').

Influences are useful to know about but do not render an artist's work any less interesting. Kafka (obviously) influenced Abe. Abe (definitely) influenced Murakami. All this means is that they are likely to be enjoyed by the same readers. Well, with one possible exception...

Thursday 26 November 2009

83 - 'Der Weg Zurück' by Erich Maria Remarque

In one of my recent posts, I talked about my experiences with German literature, but I probably didn't start quite at the beginning. In fact, as mentioned in an even earlier post, my experiences with German history began earlier, when I was studying Germany for my twentieth-century history class. A lot of the interest I have in German literature today stems from the reading I did at that time about the two World Wars and the events of the inter-war period.

When it comes to books about World War 1, one of the stand-out pieces of literature is Erich Maria Remarque's 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' (translated into English as 'All Quiet on the Western Front'), a book I reread last year. As a teenager, the title always confused me (until I found out it had been written by a German) as I couldn't work out where the British Army's Western front could have been during World War 1 (were we fighting the Welsh?!). Of course, this book relates the experiences of a young German soldier, Paul Bäumer, who skilfully sketches out what life was really like in the trenches.

'Der Weg zurück', although not a sequel in the strictest sense (unlikely for obvious - and heart-breakingly sad - reasons), continues the topic covered in the earlier novel, following another soldier from Bäumer's troop, Ernst Birkholz, from war to peace. As the 11th of the 11th finally arrives, the shattered and defeated German troops finally leave the mud and death of the trenches behind and make the way back (der Weg zurück) to Germany. However, the long-awaited cessation of hostilities and the break-out of peace do not take things back to normal, and before long Ernst and his 'Kameraden' are left wondering what is left for them back at home.

The title has a double meaning as the soldiers are seeking a way back not only literally (to Germany and their hometowns) but also metaphorically: after years of war, they attempt to fit back into their old lives. Unfortunately, this proves to be considerably more difficult than they had imagined. Smothered by families unable to understand what their sons and brothers actually went through in the trenches, patronised by teachers who expect the battle-hardened war machines to go back to being good little schoolboys, despised by patriotic politicians (who never went to war) for their lack of enthusiasm for songs of glory and revenge: eventually the soldiers return to the only support they feel they can trust in - their fellow soldiers.

Yet even here, things are not as they were. Where life in the trenches depended on one's ability to function under pressure and kill or be killed, back in peace-time Germany social status (worth nothing in Flanders) begins to rear its ugly head. Men who were afraid to talk to certain of their colleagues, in awe of their presence and 'warcraft', now look down upon those they previously venerated, money, education and status replacing calm under pressure and the ability to lob grenades accurately into a column of advancing British soldiers.

The tight-knit group of friends starts to crumble as they find different ways to cope with post-war life. Some choose marriage; some throw themselves into work; some take advantage of the chaotic political and legal situation to advance themselves either socially or financially; however, others are unable to cope and, after struggling to understand what they had been fighting for, succumb to their depression...

Just as in 'Im Westen Nichts Neues', Remarque has sketched here a remarkable portrait of what was happening on the German side of the war; the big difference in this book though is that it is highly political. The book was written in 1930/31, when Germany was once again beginning to think about 'The Great War' and justify steps to remedy the 'injustice' done to the country by the Treaty of Versailles. Near the end of the book, as Ernst and a few of his friends are relaxing in a meadow, a group of boys led by a scout leader (or Führer...) march by, dropping to the floor and pretending to blow the unsuspecting rabbits and bluebirds away with their walking sticks, temporarily metamorphosed into rifles. As one of the characters rightly pointed out earlier in the novel, "it's all happening again"...

Sadly, as we know, Remarque's comments were prescient. Hitler's elevation to President was only a couple of years away - as was the infamous burning of books in Berlin, at which both 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' and 'Der Weg Zurück' were condemned to the flames. Within a decade of the writing of this novel, the German people had once again plunged Europe (and most of the World) into a catastrophic, crippling war, which was to produce (amongst other things) its own generation of misfits unable to return to society.

Together, these two books tell the tale of what really happens at war and what effects it has on those who fight them when they finally come home. Over the past few decades, we have slowly come to understand more about the horrors of combat and rehabilitation. In Vietnam, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan... wherever there is bloodshed, there is misery and a generation of broken people. The sad thing is that despite the information left for us by Remarque almost eighty years ago, we still struggle to understand the problems soldiers have when they try to find their way back home.

Monday 23 November 2009

Free E-Day (1/12/09) - We Need You!!!

The rather nifty little picture to the left is the logo of Free E-Day, a wonderful idea which I am happy to be a part of.

What is it? Glad you asked...

Basically, this is a day on which we can celebrate the wonderful talent of people who are prepared to make their work available (electronically) for free! On the 1st of December (and, in many cases, beforehand), dozens of writers, bands, poets, artists etc. will make some of their work free to download. Stuff for free: brilliant!

The whole shebang is the brainchild of the, quite frankly, amazing Dan Holloway (or, as I call him, "The Man Who Needs No Sleep"), whose first novel, 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall' was reviewed on this site a few months back (just in case the FBI are listening in, yes, Dan did send me a paper copy of the book, but only after I'd reviewed it - be gentle with the handcuffs). Among other goodies available on the day, you can download PDF versions of both 'Songs...' and his latest book, the written-in-chapters-on-Facebook novel, 'The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes'.

So where do you go to join in? Well, a couple of places to begin are the official web-site and the Facebook group, from which you can hop off to hundreds of interesting (virtual) addresses; if you live in Oxford (UK), there's even a live event - free, of course...

And my part? Well, aside from acting as Dan's personal pom-pom girl, I will be giving away a short story (my first work of fiction) for free. Hopefully, it's worth it... Anyone interested should check out my blog on the first of December and follow the link - just don't blame me if you don't like it ;)

So what are you waiting for? Check it out for yourself, and have fun discovering great new talent; you may even stumble across the next big thing! Here's a tip: it won't be me...

Friday 20 November 2009

82 - 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy

Books. The more of them you read, the more links you see between them. Presumably, if you manage to read all of them, you will become omniscient and be able to tease out the strands linking every piece of writing in creation to every other scrap of text. At least, that's what I imagine having a PhD in English Literature to be like.

The reason for this random short aside is that this is the third book I've read recently where important times in someone's life are contrasted, and the second in a row where the author has decided to play with time, dancing back and forth across the years like a yo-yo in a tutu (now there's an image). However, where 'The President's Last Love' used a fairly straightforward approach to this time-travel nonsense, keeping the stories fairly untangled and linear (well, as linear as its possible to get when you're telling three stories at once), 'The God of Small Things' switches between two main time periods but jumps back and forth repeatedly during the first, revealing, teasing, concealing, hinting. Oh, and it's bloody brilliant...

A bold statement, perhaps, and one which should be backed up by a postgraduate-level analysis of the themes and motifs, but, seeing as I just scraped a B for GCSE English Literature in the fifth form (simpler days - more football, less Shakespeare), that's not going to happen. In fact, as discussing the plot in any great depth would destroy the pleasure you would get from reading the novel, I'm not going to go too deeply into that either. So, as the majority of you start muttering and heading for the exit, what exactly am I going to talk about? Wait, I'll think of something.

'The God of Small Things' takes place at two different times in a small, rural Indian village, before and after a devastating event which destroys the family at the centre of the story. It deals with several important themes, but the main one is love (in particular who should and can be loved, and the effect it has on those around you). Choices made contrary to what Roy describes as the 'Love Laws' not only lead the participants into deep water, but also cause ripples which reverberate throughout th neighbourhood and overthrow the smooth sailing of everyday family life. Four relationships of differing types - three consummated, one platonic (and longer lasting)- test these rules about who can love and be loved and the consequences for breaking them. As you may have gathered, there aren't a lot of happy endings, and yet the ending is happy. It does make sense.

The consequences of the protagonists' action are not limited to the human participants of the story. One of the compelling features of the book is the way the sprawling house owned by the Kochamma family sinks from its bustling status into decrepitude and decay. The lack of hope in the family is transferred to the walls it lives in; dust piles up, insects invade and take over. The garden, freed from the strictures of its tenders, reverts to wild jungle, overgrowing paths and even claiming a car as its own.

At the same time, outside influences start to creep into traditional life, displacing local customs and subtly altering the villagers' way of life. The arrival of satellite television accelerates the decline of the household as the shattered old women abandon reality for reality TV. The travelling Kathakali dancers, forced to perform bastardised twenty-minute shows of six-hour classics for an ignorant, uncaring tourist audience, seek solace in private performances away from the visitors, wailing and twirling their way through the dark hours in front of whoever happens to be around (a story which reminded me of what happened in 'Dirty Dancing' - see, everything is linked to everything else...).

However, in lieu of actually discussing the plot, I'd like to look at another feature of both this book and the other Indian novels I've read this year, namely the language and the way it is manipulated. Language is intrinsically linked to culture and mentality, and it seems that Indian writers are able to use English in a very different way to that of 'native speakers'. Roy has written poetry, and the way she approaches her writing can be very poetical. Rahel and Estha, the child (and, later, adult) protagonists, are given titles with Capital Letters, Elvis the Pelvis, Ambassador Stick Insect, names which run through the novel, at times humorous, at others sad, juxtaposed with heart-rending events in their lives. She also captures the way children speak and understand their environment, running words together and breaking them up incorrectly (the Bar Nowl living in the pickling shed) and seizing upon misspellings and repeating them throughout, often to great effect. While this may not seem unique to Indian writers, I believe that writing in what is a second language forces Indian writers to think more about what they write, and the first-language influences they have behind them contribute to creating a rich, unique variety of English, sometimes silly, sometimes beautiful.

Well, I know I haven't given you much to go on, but (as you may have seen from the cover above) 'The God of Small Things' was the winner of the 1997 Booker Prize, so I'm obviously not alone in finding it a pleasant read. There's just one thing which annoys me about this book, and its author, and that's the fact that Roy hasn't written a novel since, preferring to write essays and works of non-fiction (is it just me, or is that incredibly selfish?). Of course, one way of looking at that is that there's no point trying again if you get it right first time out, and that is exactly what she did with this book. Those of you out there in the blogosphere who haven't read this novel should seriously think about adding it to your list for Father Christmas. It is very, very good.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Not mentioning the war...

The photo you see to the left is a little souvenir from my time in Germany, now (unbelievably) over a decade ago, and this little pennant is serving as an introduction to the next in my series of posts on my reading interests and influences. More on the pennant later...

I was introduced to German (by which I mean literature written in German, not just books from Germany) when studying the language for A-Level. We had a small class (only five people - there were six, but one girl did the test lessons at the end of the fifth year and promptly chickened out), which allowed us to discuss the books we were studying in more depth (and which even led to our finishing our A-Level revision at our teacher's house over tea and chicken soup!). The first book we read, 'Der Richter und sein Henker' by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, was a marvellous literary crime novel and is still one of my favourite books today. Along with this novel, we read Hans Fallada's 'Kleiner Mann, was nun?', Max Frisch's play 'Andorra' and Brecht's 'Mutter Courage', and, for me, it was a revelation that it was possible to read novels in a foreign language (albeit very slowly and with the aid of a dictionary) and enjoy them.

I read some more works in an ill-fated (and ill-advised) attempt to get into Oxford, but the next lot of reading came when I started my Bachelor's degree at Leeds University. The first year was fairly easy (Leeds had been wonderful enough to choose most of my previous books for the first-year set-text list), so it wasn't until the second year that I got into some new works. As well as diving further into Dürrenmatt with 'Der Verdacht', 'Das Versprechen' and his famous play 'Der Besuch der Alten Dame', I was also introduced to Kafka in the form of 'Die Verwandlung' ('The Metamorphosis').

On finally moving to Germany, firstly during my third year, for what was loosely described as 'study' (but can more truthfully be described as drinking, sleeping and playing football with the Dutch boys down the corridor), and later for work (although at that early stage, my 'work' consisted mainly of my giving German businessmen something to read and then getting them to chat about it in pairs), I discovered that it's difficult to keep up a good reading regime when you don't actually earn very much money (and have no idea where the local library is). It is to this situation that I owe the pleasure of possessing a small collection of cheap German chick-lit and a translated Agatha Christie omnibus. Ouch.

Now I work at a big university with a lovely little second-hand book shop, and it is here that I discovered my next big German author, Heinrich Böll. The Nobel prize committee did discover him in 1972, but (to be fair) I wasn't alive then. Better late than never...

If you have been waiting patiently for me to tell you why I like German books, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed; I really can't say. Part of my reason for reading them stems from not wanting to lose the language proficiency I had built up to a reasonably high level by the time I left in 1999 while another reason is to see life from a different perspective. Damn, didn't want to mention it... You see, a lot of my reading has been from the twentieth century, and anyone with a passing interest in history (or just the Earth in general) will know that this period lends itself to certain themes in German lit. Whether it's the futility of war portrayed in Remarque's 'Im Westen nichts neues' ('All Quiet on the Western Front'), the attraction of the Nazis to a struggling family man in 'Kleiner Mann was nun?', the difficulties of surviving the war at home in Böll's 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' or the absurdity of Nazi sympathisers being able to transform themselves into solid, democratic citizens in post-war times ('Ansichten eines Clowns', 'Billard um halbzehn'): it's difficult not to mention the war...

Still, enough of that for now. Give a German book a go and you won't regret it (and if you do, don't blame me). Oh, you want to hear about the pennant; I'd almost forgotten about that. You see, one of my other passions is football, and I spent two seasons playing for the fourth team of my local club, making some good friends along the way. When it was finally time for me to move on and leave Germany for good, I packed up my things and walked down to the train station to get the NRW-Express to Düsseldorf airport. When I got to the platform, I found four of my team-mates who had come along to say goodbye, and one of them presented me with this pennant from our football club as a final present (in addition to the parties and barbecues we'd had as formal farewells). It now hangs just to the side of where I am writing this post as a reminder of the times I had back in Germany; perhaps as a reminder as to why I continue to read German books.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

81 - 'The President's Last Love' by Andrey Kurkov

As mentioned in an earlier post, I came across this book at a campus book sale a while back, and it has been sitting patiently on my Russian/Chinese shelf for the past two-and-a-bit months, waiting for me to get around to reading it. I now have absolutely no idea where I got good vibes about the work of Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian author who writes about his home country (but in Russian), but it must have been somewhere I trust as I had no hesitation in snapping up this novel when I spotted it.

The story follows the life of Sergey Pavlovich Bunin, by 2013 President of Ukraine, through three different stages of his life: as a young man drifting through the last days of the Soviet era and the first of his country's new found independence; as a successful government official attempting to start a family; and, finally, as a President recovering after an operation to insert a new heart. Nothing unusual there, you might think - you'd be wrong...

For starters, these three stories are not told consecutively, but simultaneously. The book consists of over 215 chapters, each lasting a page or two, most of which tell Bunin's story in alternating sequence. Thus, in the space of a few pages, the reader will see Bunin sleeping off an alcohol-induced rush in a Kiev police cell, flying off to Switzerland with his wife, his (mentally-ill) brother and his (equally mentally-ill) wife, and attempting to run the country with the help (or hindrance) of his manic and, quite possibly, suspicious assistant Nikolai Lvovich. Got all that? It takes a while to get your head around the constant flicking back and forth through time, but once you do, it helps to create a complete picture of the President and how he came to make it that far.

The book centres on Bunin's heart transplant and the problems it causes. Little by little, strange details are revealed about the procedure, an operation which seems to have been carried out with ulterior motives behind it. However, this cat-and-mouse detective story is merely a bizarre and humorous backdrop to the sketching out of a public life lived behind (and after) the Iron Curtain.

In the first strand, we follow Bunin through the streets of Kiev, drifting (but with nowhere to go), numbing the boredom of his days with copious amounts of alcohol and attempting to deal with the petty bureaucracy, widespread corruption and accommodation issues which plagued the communist world. In the second, Bunin must now walk the tightrope which is the lot of all ambitious politicians in democracies which are not quite living up to their names. In addition to attempting to balance private and public spheres, he has to negotiate the tricky playing field of corruption and bribery while keeping as clean as possible. By the final strand, having been elected as President, his standing seems safe, and he is, literally, master of all he surveys. However, the stress he experiences forces him to seek peace anywhere he can find it (including his nice big bathroom) and to look back and wonder if it was all worth it.

Bunin is a likeable character, a very sociable drinker (by Eastern European standards - by Western measures, he'd be off to rehab), a man who looked for success and love and only really found one. It's a pleasure to read about his alcohol-fuelled escapades and attempts to subdue his presidential staff (and locate his stolen Ottoman couch). Having said all that, this book fell between two stools for me. The writing was good, but not extraordinarily special while the plot was interesting, but not intriguing enough to carry the reader's attention for the whole journey. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through, I thought the story was about to take a whole new direction - only to be disappointed when the resolution turned out to be less intricate than (and nowhere near as exciting as) the one in my head. Where this book works best is when concentrating on the pathos of Bunin's lonely life at the top. The image of a national leader reduced to snatching five minutes of privacy in his bathroom, drinking whiskey while gazing out of his window at the fog-enveloped monuments of his national capital is the one I will take from this book.

In short, this didn't quite hit the spot but would be, nevertheless, a very enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in matters Eastern European, slightly left of centre, or just soaked in vodka. I hope that makes sense... I'd like to read Kurkov's most famous novel now - 'Death and the Penguin' -, mainly because I don't think there are enough good novels starring penguins, and I am assured that the penguin has a major role in this one.

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday 7 November 2009

80 - 'A Wild Sheep Chase' by Haruki Murakami

So now we come to Murakami's first 'real' book, his first real novel, and the first one available in English without resorting to Amazon and internet searches for pirated PDFs. 'A Wild Sheep Chase' is the third book in 'The Trilogy of the Rat' and marks the first time that Murakami painted his views, themes and slightly bizarre imagination on a wider canvas. The first time I read this book, I think I must have been suffering from Murakami overload as I remember the story dragging a little. On a second reading, this was a superb story.

Our old nameless friend (whom, as regular readers will know, I decided to nickname 'Toru' - for the sake of convenience...) is now approaching thirty and is still working with his friend in their company, which has branched out from translation into advertising. In the five years which have elapsed since 'Pinball, 1973', Toru has married (possibly the secretary introduced in the previous book) and recently divorced, leaving him at a crossroads in his life. His good friend The Rat has recently made contact by letter for the first time since leaving their hometown five years ago and has sent Toru, amongst other things, a picture of a sheep farm, asking him to use it at some point. And then, one day, things take a turn for the... well, the only word for it would be weird.

Without giving too much away, the rest of the book involves a girl with the most beautiful ears in the world, a henchman of one of the most successful businessmen (and exerters of political influence) in the country, a strange hotel (where sheep are the main topic of discussion) and the enigmatic Sheepman (whotalkslikethisfornoapparentreasonthaticanthinkof). And that's without mentioning the sheep who may be looking to control the world...

It sounds crazy, and it quite possibly is, but the whole scenario is grounded by the everyman central character arbitrarily known as Toru. As a reader, we experience the events of the novel, the mundane and the extraordinary, through the eyes of an average Japanese man, disillusioned by life and the modern world. While the things that happen to him seem incredible, the reality is that, presented in the way they are, any of us would probably approach them in the same way.

Toru, in effect, has nothing to lose. As he says, once he makes the decision to quit his company, he has nothing to hold him down: no wife, no job, no hometown. His decision to go on, what is literally, a wild-sheep chase, is unsurprising given his situation in life and could even be a very attractive proposition for those of us who have left the globetrotting days of our twenties behind us. This quest for the sheep with the star on its back is also a search for a way to return to the carefree days of his youth, an attempt (an excuse even) to find The Rat again and go back to the good old days where the two of them sat for nights at a time at the counter of J's bar, talking about nothing and drinking way too much.

The search for the sheep is also a reaction against the modern world and its obsession with consumerism. Since taking on the added work in advertising, Toru has felt unhappy, and his partner has started drinking too much. The world has moved on from the simpler times of Toru's childhood (indeed, in his hometown, even the beach has moved on as the town has reclaimed land from the sea!), leaving him feeling at odds with the world he is now living in. Several scenes in the book, including his musical tastes, show that Toru has a strong sense of nostalgia and struggles to adapt to a modern, commercial environment.

One example of this is the way he interacts with the smooth-talking, highly-educated, well-dressed sidekick of the big boss. This is the classic encounter of capitalist success versus suburban mediocrity (and any casual Murakami fan will know which one the great man prefers...). The man in the suit represents everything which is bad with capitalism, everything which renders the common man paralysed in his dealings and comfortably numb in his everyday life. By standing up to him and taking him on, even at the expense of his livelihood, Toru represents all of us in our struggles to be more than just a statistic contributing to GDP (especially poignant to many readers and bloggers who are more concerned about quality of life than quality of furniture).

And the sheep (yes, there is a sheep)? Don't quote me on this, but I feel the sheep represents ambition and a drive to be as successful (as opposed to happy) as one can be. I'm not going to expand on this (I don't want to spoil the book for you); I just think that the sheep represents the driving force behind the ideology which Toru and The Rat are obviously so uncomfortable with.

But, of course, there is no Toru; this is just a name I chose (not entirely randomly) to represent a character whose name we never learn. This trick of generalising his characters, either by a lack of names or by spelling their names in the katakana syllabary (usually reserved for foreign loanwords), is a deliberate attempt on Murakami's part to make his 'heroes' as universal as possible. Our main man makes this quite clear himself in 'A Wild Sheep Chase': in a conversation with his girlfriend, he claims not to really need names - he, you, they, are all you really need. Before you scoff - how often do you actually use your partner's name (at least in their presence)...

'The Trilogy of the Rat' technically ends with this book (which, in case you hadn't realised, I now think is brilliant), but Murakami obviously wasn't quite finished with his first group of characters. Our friend returns one more time in 'Dance, Dance, Dance', a novel which I enjoyed immensely the first time I read it and one which I am planning to read before the end of the year. So here's an idea: why don't you come back in a month or so, and I'll tell you all about it? Agreed? See you then...

Thursday 5 November 2009

79 - 'The Temple of Dawn' by Yukio Mishima

Well, we're three-quarters of the way through 'The Sea of Fertility' series; the end is in sight. Whether there's an answer in sight is another question altogether. 'The Temple of Dawn' is a very different book to its predecessors ('Spring Snow' and 'Runaway Horses'), not only in its settings but also in the focus on character and Buddhist theology. Let me explain further...

The third book of the series begins in 1940 in Bangkok, where our old friend, Shigekuni Honda, is working on behalf of a Japanese trading company. Either side of a mystical trip to India (where he visits a couple of the locations described in 'A Suitable Boy' - only a decade or so earlier!), Honda is taken to meet a Thai Princess, the daughter of one of the Princes he knew during his school days. Of course, it's not as simple as all that; you see, Princess Chantrapa, or 'Ying Chan', claims to be the reincarnation of a Japanese man...

After his return to Japan (and glossing nicely over the war years), Honda is disturbed in his relaxed and successful life by a further encounter with Ying Chan, now a seductive nineteen-year-old exchange student who has forgotten about her youthful claims of former lives. He struggles to balance two counteracting emotions in his life: his desire for the young woman's body and his belief in reincarnation coupled with his link to Kiyoake and Isao. Is Ying Chan really who she once claimed to be?

As mentioned, one of the major differences in this book is the focus on Honda. Where, in the first two parts, he was the foil to Kiyoaki and Isao and a sort of entry point for the reader, in 'The Temple of Dawn' he is drawn out as a major character, and the results are not always flattering. His success in his work has allowed him to indulge in his hobby of reading Buddhist tracts, and a later stroke of fortune enables him to retreat into his private world. However, the more he steps back into his cocoon, the more his energies start to go in other directions. We are told of (and shown) his penchant for voyeurism, and his pursuit of the young Thai princess, while starting innocently enough, becomes increasingly desperate as the novel progresses.

The timescale of the story, stretching from 1940 to 1953 (with a postscript in 1967), also contributes to the change Mishima makes his subject undergo. His financial success seems inversely linked to his physical appearance; as Honda passes through the autumn of his life, we are exposed to his growing stomach, his shrinking muscles, his troublesome teeth. In this context, the nubile, lithe, tanned body of his obsession stands out all the more.

Honda's obsession is all the more consuming as it is linked to his past. He swings between his lust and his desire to find out whether or not Ying Chan is the reincarnation of his friends. In fact, this fact is to be the deciding factor in his decision as to whether or not to sleep with the Princess (a decision which is not really his to make).

It is a little unfair to compare 'The Temple of Dawn' with the first two books, but I never claimed to be fair. This book does not have the poetic beauty of 'Spring Snow' or the fiery anger and passion of 'Runaway Horses', and there are some issues with the story. As you will read in any review of this book, the long section on reincarnation tends to stop the reader dead in their tracks; the theological discussions act like a giant pool of quicksand, sucking the reader down and draining them of their reading energy. Yes, reincarnation is the central theme of the tetralogy, but a quick summary here and there would have sufficed...

Once past this (looooooong) discussion, however, the story does pick up, Once you realise that Honda is the star of the show and that Ying Chan is merely the foil for his character development, the book becomes much more enjoyable. We experience with him the frustrations of his life and his regrets for the conventional way he has lived it so far. Unlike Kiyoaki and Isao, his actions are not underpinned by the beauty and dynamism of youth, and, therefore, seem tawdry and out of place. Nevertheless, the reader stays with him to the fiery and (in some ways) unexpected crescendo, an ending which sets up the final part of the series. And, of course, Mishima's life. Drop by in December for the conclusion...

Tuesday 3 November 2009

78 - 'The Twyborn Affair' by Patrick White

What's 1474 divided by 10? What is 432 divided by 6? Answers (and relevance) later...

Anyway, I 'm here to review my latest read, 'The Twyborn Affair', a 1979 novel by the only Australian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White (oh, alright, two if you count Coetzee). This book was nominated for the Booker Prize, but White insisted it be removed from the shortlist to allow younger writers the chance to win - which says something about him (but I'm not sure what). A brief warning: don't read this if you are planning to read the book as it's difficult to review without giving away information which could impair your enjoyment of the text.

As if any of you could tear yourselves away. Anyway, White's novel is centred on the life of a confused creature who takes on several names and identitites in a search for peace and satisfaction. We meet our hero(ine) at three different points in his/her life: in provincial France, shortly before the outbreak of World War I; in rural New South Wales in 1920; and in London around the start of the Second World War. So far, so 'normal'. However, the reality is that in the body and mind of the Sydney-born son of a Judge and a socialite, multiple personalities and sexualities are to be found.

The book follows him/her on their quest to find a place in a world which, while well aware of differences in sexual orientation, forces people to suppress them - or, at least, keep them hidden. Whether as Eudoxia, the young Australian 'wife' of an ageing Greek aristocrat, as Eddie, the supposed 'real' identity, who attracts both genders, or the middle-aged Eadith, the chaste matron of a house of ill repute, peace of mind is hard to come by.

Gender identity is far from being the only conflict in this novel. Another major theme is the cultural difficulties felt by Australians at the time vis-a vis their colonial masters. The 'cultural cringe' felt in the past has largely subsided (or may merely have moved on to idolising American culture, rather than British); however, in 'The Twyborn Affair', the Australian characters are keen to tone down their boisterous personalities - and their broad accents - in seeking the approval of the English they meet.

Another area of interest is the relationships between parents and children. Eddie/Eadith's link to their mother is strongly felt, first in the background, then more strongly foregrounded, and the issue of parental influence and relationships crops up in other characters (including a strong hint of incest in one case). In fact, it is tempting to link Eadith's issues to his mother and her youthful bedroom indiscretions (tempting, but wrong).

From what I have read about White, there is a lot of the writer in this novel. He too was tortured by his homosexuality and spent time in the outback as a Jackaroo (his parents were trying to drive out literary, not sexual, tendencies) before finding success as a writer. At the time of writing this book, his health was in steep decline, and the language of this book, especially the first two parts, is steeped in the language of entropy and decay. The reader is constantly confronted by descriptions of pungent smells, bodily emissions, decaying objects and people. Oh, and there are farts a-plenty.

Time to come back to my maths questions. 1474/10 = 147.4 while 432/6 = 72. Yes, I may have a bit of a hangover from 'The Housekeeper and the Professor', but the sums posed actually show how difficult this book was to get into. The first shows the number of pages of my previous book (Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy') divided by the number of days I read it in. The second... well, I'm sure you've got it now. Basically, I read Seth's book twice as fast as White's novel, and while that can be put down largely to the difference in complexity, it must also be attributed to my investment in the story.

In addition to the rather unpleasantly descriptive nature of certain parts of this novel, I felt that the second of the three parts dragged unnecessarily. It was about forty pages longer than the other two (and felt about 140 pages longer). I'm not quite sure why this section failed to grab me; perhaps Eddie just wasn't as interesting as his female alter-egos. I would also have liked some hints, if not the full story, as to how Eddie became Eadith. The change is presented as a fait-accompli, which is, for me at least, rather unsatisfying.

'The Twyborn Affair' is, obviously, an excellent piece of writing, unique even, from an extremely famous and talented writer. I did enjoy it, but it was a bit of a slog, and, at times, I wasn't convinced that I would actually get there. As an analysis of the problems faced by those who slip between society's neat gender divide (and a critique of the hypocritical society which attempts to maintain that distinction), it's a very powerful work. As an entertaining way to spend your time, I'd take 'A Suitable Boy' any day. However, life would be much duller if books only followed the pattern of one of these books; asking the difficult questions is just as important in literature as answering them nicely with a wedding.