Friday 26 February 2010

Review Post 9 - You don't have to be Irish

You may remember recently, dear reader, that I took you on a journey through space (well, the Kansai region of Japan anyway). Well, today's post is more of a journey through time instead, as I guide you (with the help of three books) through Ireland's recent history, from the mid-fifties up to a few years ago. It's OK, you can thank me later...


We start in the 1950s with Heinrich Böll's Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Diary), a delightful collection of reflections and sketches covering his time travelling and living in Ireland. Böll has quickly become my favourite German writer, and his usual humorous, non-judgemental style works even better here in an informal setting than it does in his weightier (fiction) works. From a land far away, where people smoke anywhere and everywhere, pounds still have shillings, and footwear is a luxury, rather than a necessity (even in a country of incessant pouring rain), the German novelist brings forth the true character of the Emerald Isle.

The work successfully evokes an image of an Ireland of the past, and while the writer touches on the down side of Irish life, the overall effect is one of a gentle, admirable way of life. In many ways this book reminds me of the way Luciano de Crescenzo (in Thus Spake Bellavista) lifted the life of Naple's poor out of the gutter and gave it a sort of nobility in its (involuntary?) rejection of modern business norms. The anecdotes of the 'bona-fide travellers' who cycle from their village to another at least three miles away (passing each other in the process), in order to circumvent the Sunday drinking laws; the traffic policeman who, after a long meandering conversation, asks for a driver's licence and is not at all bothered that the driver hasn't got it; travelling from Dublin to the West of Ireland on the promise of paying at some later date: all these tales are told with a wry humour which emphasises the affection the writer has for the country, and people, he is describing.

The darker side is, as mentioned, touched upon, but this too is done in an almost poetic manner. Böll and his family, out for a weekend walk, stumble upon a ghost village, deserted and left to decay in the countryside. This collection of houses, roads and even a church, left behind by those who fled for pastures more fertile during the potato blight epidemic and the ensuing famine, leaves the family spellbound and dumbfounded. The locals hadn't even found the spectacle worth mentioning; after all, it was just one of thousands dotted all over Erin's fair land...


Let's move on to the 70s and 80s now, as we take a look at life through the eyes of one of Roddy Doyle's most impressive inventions, Paula Spencer. In my post on The Van, I mentioned that the slightly misogynistic view marred my enjoyment of the book: well, perhaps Roddy realised this himself. In the wonderful The Woman who Walked into Doors, Doyle creates a Dublin housewife, a prisoner of the soul-crushing suburban poverty of a poor country - and a victim of brutal abuse.

Against a background of boom and bust, and the faded dreams of the Irish in a post-decimal, IRA-present, heavy-drinking (and smoking) era, Paula tells us how she met Charlo Spencer, how she fell in love (violently) and how she was knocked off her feet (metaphorically and then literally). Still in love with her husband, despite the frequent beatings, she drowns herself in drink, denying the abuse and making it through her days as best she can, trying (and failing) to bring up her four children properly. From the very start, we know that Charlo is dead, shot by the police at the scene of a violent crime - and we know that Paula is well rid of him.

The first three-quarters of the book are absorbing and thought provoking: Paula is brutally candid about what she is, what she was and what she is unlikely to become. And then... And then Doyle lets loose. Where in the first part of the book the abuse is mainly hinted at, reported, suggested, all at once the reader is confronted with a sickening train of events, a constant barrage of attacks which leave us feeling almost as shell-shocked as Paula herself. The assaults pass by, one after the other, no end in sight... It is brilliant writing. It is horrible writing.

At the end of it all, Paula is free, but shattered. Her life is in tatters, but she has the support of her family. Her children are scarred but (mostly) still functional. We are left wondering what has become of Paula and her family...


For about six hours anyway! I've had a copy of Paula Spencer, the sequel to The Woman who Walked into Doors, for a fair while now, and this seemed like the perfect time to read it. We rejoin Paula about a decade later: the Celtic Tiger has roared, and panic-stricken emigration has now turned into mass European and African immigration; the Pound, whether decimal or not, has disappeared over the Irish Sea, replaced by the Euro; and cigarettes have finally become a social stigma with smoking banned in pubs and restaurants.

Paula has been sober for around a year when we meet her again, and she is slowly getting herself back into a 'normal' way of life. Her four children are now grown up: baby Jack is sixteen and working hard at school; Nicola, the eldest child, is a mother herself (and just as much to Paula as to her own kids); Jon Paul has returned from his drug-induced absence, a calm example of how to survive life after addiction. And Leanne? Well, it was too much to expect four well-adjusted children to emerge from the wreckage of Paula and Charlo's marriage...

Paula Spencer is actually less about Paula herself and more about the effect her marriage and her alcoholism have had on the people around her, especially her children. Emerging from decades of drunken numbness, she is trying to mend the ties strained by her neglect, mostly succeeding but, in Leanne's case especially, occasionally unable to make things right. In Jon Paul, she has a picture of what you need to do to avoid temptation, but it is hard: very hard.

Although it's a good read, the sequel does not have the kick of the original. There's no defining purpose to the novel, no scenes of physical abuse (or even the eventual disintegration of a family as described in Paddy Clarke... ). I kept thinking that there was a twist around the corner, that Jack could not be as well adjusted as he appeared, that Paula's various ailments were concealing something more serious. It never appeared.

Still, a third installment of Paula's life would not come amiss. Perhaps a post-GFC story chronicling Ireland's downturn and the wave of emigration back to Eastern Europe of the workers drawn by the Irish success story. Roddy Doyle has already written The Barrytown Trilogy and the Henry Smart trilogy, so you never know. I wonder what Ireland's future will bring... Sorry, my trip through time isn't going any further today; you'll just have to imagine it for yourselves.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Review Post 8 - We Are Family

As mentioned in an earlier post, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's most famous work, The Makioka Sisters, is set in the Kansai or Kinki region of Japan, the area I lived in for three years around a decade ago. Reading books set in places you know is always a particular pleasure, and this is especially true when the book is one you've wanted to read for a good while.

The story, as you would expect from the English title (the Japanese title translates as a light shower of snow...), relates a few years around the start of World War II in the lives of the Makioka sisters, four scions of a famous Osaka family. Although there are four sisters, the eldest, Tsuruko, is slightly distant from her sisters, and the book focuses on the trials and tribulations of the younger three sisters. Sachiko, married to the admirable Teinosuke, is the focal point. She spends her time attempting to arrange a marriage for the traditional (and shy) Yukiko and worrying about the headstrong, westernised baby of the family, Taeko.

The book is a work of many contrasts. The familiar East-West, Kanto-Kansai rivalries appear, with life in the new capital, Tokyo, contrasted with life in the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe conurbation. Tsuruko's symbolic distance from her sisters is emphasised by her husband's move to the capital, deserting the stuffy old Osaka family seat. There is also a contrast between the epic struggle to find a husband for the incredibly shy Yukiko and the way Katharina Kyrilenko, a Russian emigre living in Japan, sets off for England by herself and is married within months.

The differences between the Japanese way of life and that of the foreigners the Makiokas come into contact with are outlined subtly by Tanizaki, and the relationships are much less black and white than is sometimes the case. Sachiko often compares her family to the German neighbours, the Stolz family, and Taeko's acquaintances, the white Russian Kyrilenkos. While their habits may occasionally seem strange, the comparisons are not always made to the good of the Osaka natives. When it comes to Japanese who have returned from extended trips abroad, however, there is a strong sense of scepticism and prejudice...

This year, I have been influenced in my reading approach by the studies I am doing for my master's degree, Intercultural Communication in this semester, and it is fascinating to read The Makioka Sisters in this light. The picture sketched in the book of elaborate nuptial rituals and the importance of family connections in any possible relationship ties in neatly with the reading I have been doing on Collectivist cultures. I also read each spoken exchange with literal and pragmatic meaning firmly in mind: there were many very interesting exchanges from a socio-linguistic point of view!

It's a very good book, the closest thing I've read so far in Japanese literature to the long Victorian pot-boilers I love, but that's not to say that I was totally convinced. One of the blurbs on the cover claimed that Tanizaki was the greatest Japanese author of the twentieth century, but I would not go that far on the basis of this book. I found the style a little too repetitive on occasion, a string of events recounted one after the other with little variation of pace and tone. Compared to some of the Mishima, for example, that I've read over the past year or so, it all seemed a little dry at times.

Of course, as always with foreign novels in translation, it may not be the author's fault. There were a plethora of typos in my version (always annoying), and I'm not convinced that the translation was all it could have been. I'm not sure when the translation dates from, but I doubt it is that recent; one clue for this was a translator's footnote to explain a Japanese delicacy - sushi...

Those slight quibbles aside though, The Makioka Sisters is well worth reading. Get your sukiyaki ready, pour out some sake and sit down and relax with a very enjoyable novel. As for Tanizaki's greatness, however, I'll reserve judgement until I've read some more of his novels. Now, where's that Akashi-Yaki got to?

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Review Post 7 - Naughty and Nice

February began with the second of the Barchester Chronicles, the wonderful Barchester Towers. The story takes up life in Barchester a few years after the events of The Warden, where the old Bishop is on his deathbed, peacefully passing away just too soon for his son, the ever-formidable Archdeacon Grantly, to get political approval to replace him. A new bishop is appointed, but it soon becomes clear that despite the official decision, there are several people in Barchester who believe themselves to be top dog...

Don't be fooled into thinking that Trollope's stories are too clerical to be entertaining; the Barchester Chronicles are less about religion and the church than they are about petty fighting, internecine warfare and a love of tribal conflict. The invasion of Barchester by the Londoners who now hold the palace represents the incursion of industrialisation and progress into England's peaceful, bucolic heartlands. Mr. Harding's tribulations with The Jupiter in The Warden were merely the first warning shots of the coming struggle: this is the real thing.

Dr. Proudie is the Bishop of Barchester by appointment; Obadiah Slope, his personal chaplain, has the run of the diocese and enough intelligence to make himself pre-eminent in Barchester; Archdeacon Grantly virtually did the job himself during the final years of his father's life and sees no reason why he should not continue to do so; and Mrs. Proudie... well, you'll need to read the book to see how and why this Amazon hopes to take the power for herself!

These petty wars with their mini-Napoleons are beautifully characterised by a writer who had an unerring eye for the beautiful and absurd in the everyday. One of the best scenes in the book is the confrontation at the palace where, for the first time, the contenders for the real power of the Bishopric stand arrayed, each intending to be unrivalled in Barchester, scrutinising the other claimants with an experienced eye and preparing to dive headlong into battle. Of course, also present, standing quietly to one side, is Mr. Harding, whose readmittance to the post of warden is the field upon which the battle is to be fought. Four proud, worldly gladiators - and a modest, sincere, religious man (who, ironically, fades into insignificance whenever his matters are discussed).

Throw in a family of clerical absentees, whose return to Barchester from Italy stirs up affairs in the cathedral town, a wealthy young widow, wooed by three suitors from all the different camps and a couple of deaths and marriages, and you have a wonderful 500 pages of Victorian literary magic, perfect for a rainy day curled up on your favourite armchair. How does it end? Well, I'm sure you'll know after about 100 pages, but that really isn't the point: the writer himself hints at certain points what will and will not happen - and, in some cases, reassures the reader that certain feared events will not come to pass. It's not the destination, but the journey which is the attraction, and I, for one, am happy to go along for the ride. Next stop: Doctor Thorne at the start of March ;)


I mentioned above Trollope's intrusion into his novels as a narrator, albeit an occasional, benevolent and good-humoured one, and Milan Kundera also likes to put himself into his works. However the emigre Czech writer's style is very, very different. Laughable Loves, a collection of (longish) short stories about love, lust and the games consenting adults play, is one of his earlier works; however, in some ways, it is more reminiscent of later works (Immortality, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) than his debut novel, The Joke.

The seven stories relate the interactions in relationships between men and women in post-invasion Czechoslovakia, a place of great cynicism and little hope if one goes by the atmosphere of the book. Infidelity is rife, despite the nosiness of the neighbours, and there seems to be a curious disregard for the notion of staying faithful. It's a very male-centred universe, with an expectation that it is simply part of a man's daily life to pursue, and conquer (if desired), any attractive woman one comes across. This is not to say that the women are the victims; they are quite prepared to use their charms as currency to find an easier life for themselves.

It all sounds a little pessimistic and unappealing (and no wonder given the external context), but the stories are intriguing, a fascinating insight into the battle of the sexes - which is just as much mental as it is physical. The reason for this is Kundera's detached, quasi-scientific style of writing, which treats his characters almost like specimens in a laboratory. The great skill in his stories lies in his ability to take his subjects, drop them into a setting, add a catalyst (in the form of an attractive woman, a weekend out of the city or a political investigation) and watch them continue in their lives as best they can.

This scientific approach comes across especially well in the style he adopts in discussing relationships. In some of the stories, short, alternating chapters tell the reader the thoughts of the two protagonists: we sit in the stark living room or the hotel restaurant, flitting from the mind of the man to that of the woman (and back again). Kundera has been criticised for the lack of development of his characters, with some saying that they are not characters at all, merely vehicles for Kundera to get his ideas across. This may be true; it does not, however, detract from the writing.

Two very, very different books. Trollope makes you laugh and allows you to while away many a pleasant hour - in your study pretending to work with a glass of port in hand. Kundera makes you think; you pause to reflect and stare out of the window as the long train journey you're on takes you through endless bleak, frosty plains. Very, very different ways to spend your time: but both enjoyable...

Tuesday 9 February 2010

There's nothing wrong with being KinKi

Let me take you, dear reader, on a journey through my Japan. We'll begin seated on a Shinkaisoku (Limited Express) train standing ready at the main Japan Rail (JR) station of Himeji, a large city in Western Japan. If you stretch your head out of the window, you may just be able to catch a glimpse of the majestic Himeji castle towering above the city...

Alas, it's time to head off now. The train moves quickly through outskirts and small towns, making a brief stop at the city of Kakogawa, with its new raised station, before continuing on its way eastwards. We hurtle through some more suburbs (Tsuchiyama, Uozumi, Nishi-Akashi), and we come to a smooth halt at Akashi station (my Japanese hometown and birthplace of the famous Akashi-Yaki style of Tako-Yaki).

As we bid a fond farewell to Akashi, the express calmly rolls out of the station. To your right, you can see the impressive bridge linking Akashi to Awaji Island (where, if legend is to be believed, Momo-Taro defeated the ogre), a shimmering mirage of concrete and steel in the summer sky. But on we must go, and on we do go, through Hyogo, the small (and slightly dull) prefectural capital, stopping briefly at Kobe station, near the harbour, the Port Tower and the Oriental Hotel (and, formerly, the Sizzler restaurant with the best view ever), before stopping at Sannomiya station, Kobe's main transport hub. If you look to your left, you can see Mount Rokko rising beyond the city's high rises (Arima hot springs may be a little too far away to see from here...).

On we go. The train now hurtles on past Kobe's inner suburbs, streaking past Ashiya (home of the rich and the birthplace of a certain writer I may have mentioned once or twice...) bringing us gradually out of Hyogo Prefecture and into Osaka (we have crossed the river!). Having arrived at Umeda station in Osaka, it's time to leave the train, but our journey has not ended, oh no: there's many a mile to go before we sleep. Follow me now as I guide you through the labyrinthine shopping area concealed beneath the station (keep close; you wouldn't want to get lost down here...), for we must change train lines for our next destination.

And now we board another train, just in time; the Tokkyu express train is about to leave. Feel free to gaze in wonder at the view from your windows: in Osaka, Blade Runner was just a documentary. Eventually, the sea of high rises and randomly scattered wooden remnants recedes into the distance, and we are able to enjoy a little greenery before the train drags us back into the urban sprawl of Kyoto. Of course, I hear you cry. Kiyomizu-Dera, Kinkaku-Ji, Sanjusangen-Do, Heian-Jingu...

Sadly, we have no time for sightseeing - onward and upward. The train now rattles merrily along through small towns and countless rice fields. From the window, you may be able to spot several mounds in the distance (ancient royal burial mounds, no less). And here we are at our destination: Nara - the first (semi-)permanent capital of Japan. Feel free to wander through the temple grounds, feed the tame deer that roam the streets and marvel at Todai-Ji's Daibutsu. Our journey is done.

The point? This is my Japan, the region where I spent three years of my life a decade ago. It is also the setting for Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters.

Consider this an introduction...

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Review Post 6 - It's All David Mitchell's Fault...

It's all David Mitchell's fault. Well, him and Murakami. You see, as well as being a part-time blogger, full-time worker, occasional student and stressed out father, I harbour ambitions of one day actually getting a little book out there myself (first, wobbly baby steps towards that goal can be seen here). But then, whenever I start thinking that I might be able to knock off something half-decent, something other people may like to spend their time casting an eye over, I read one of David Mitchell's books and scream out, "Crap, that's exactly the kind of book I want to write!!!". Which probably explains why nobody wants to sit next to me on the train in the morning.

But I digress. What I actually want to do today is have a little chat about Mitchell's debut novel Ghostwritten, a frankly brilliant piece of work (his debut novel too! I hate him). There are definite tinges of Murakami in this book, quite apart from the parts set in Japan. The foregrounding of the issue of the pace of progress, the highlighting of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the jazz... All these things leave the reader thinking that Mr. Mitchell has a fair few of Haruki's novels tucked away somewhere. However, Ghostwritten takes some of these aspects and runs off into the distance with them, often in several directions at once.

The book is divided into nine parts which would, in most books, be wholly unrelated. Starting in Okinawa and gradually winding its way westward around the world, the book explores how technology and consumerism have changed our world both for better and for worse. While we are now able to travel and expand our cultural horizons, some are also free to use this privilege to attack those they disapprove of or take advantage of the riches available.

One of the most prominent ideas set out is that of inter-connectedness and the way we are all linked to what happens on Earth. Just as a butterfly's wings may cause a typhoon on the other side of the world, tiny, seemingly unimportant actions can have enormous implications on humanity. Can saving a woman from being run over by a taxi lead to the end of the world? Quite possibly... The writer lays out the disparate events unfolding with a unifying plot in mind, forcing both the characters and reader to consider carefully what they believe in: are we buffeted by the winds of chance or manipulated by the hand of destiny?

One of the things I admire about Mitchell is an ability to tightly plot his books, despite an apparent lack of connections. Throughout Ghostwritten, there are a wealth of both anaphoric and cataphoric references as people, places, events, books and songs pop up repeatedly, both after and before our first sight of them. Young Satoru from the Tokyo section is later mentioned on the radio show in the Night Train section as a successful jazz musician; Mo Muntevary appears at least three times in different sections (twice before we know who she is!). For the die-hard Mitchell fans, there are also some exophoric references as we are told of information which will occur in some of his other books. Ingenious (still hate him).

Mitchell also writes about the inexorable rise, or rather spread, of consumerism and progress, and our attempts to either run away from it or create our own way of dealing with it. Satoru hides from the bustling Tokyo outside by listening to the jazz records in his shop; Caspar and Sherri are wandering nomads, seekers of civilisations lost (with huge backpacks and water purification tablets); Quasar finds his sanctuary in simply abdicating individual responsibility for his actions and turning his mind, and possessions, over to a cult. This advancement has, you see, come at a cost - a loss of connection with family and cultural roots. It is no coincidence that the majority of the characters (like an increasing number of people today) have uncertain, heterogeneous backgrounds. This contributes to the feeling of unease which they live with and which forces them to seek new connections.

There are differences in the extent to which the world has changed within the nine scenes. In the Asian sections, the world has become so crowded that it is only inside your own head that you can map out a little piece of the universe for you alone. On Clear Island, off Ireland's Atlantic Coast, life is still relatively simple and unchanged, yet even here (in the shape of Mo's pursuers) progress is slowly catching up.

Of course, by the end of the book, with the emergence of the Zookeeper, Mitchell shows us where his world of infinite interconnections is heading. Artificial Intelligence, designed to protect us (or, at least, those of us with the right skin colour) turns out to be more intelligent than those who created it. As mankind spreads over the planet, destroying and devouring (reminiscent of Agent Smith's description of humanity as a 'virus' in The Matrix), it becomes more and more difficult to save us from ourselves. We are left with a warning of the consequences of mankind's technological achievements outstripping its capacity to ethically consider whether they really are achievements.

Ghostwritten is brilliant. David Mitchell has created a stunning, thought-provoking piece of work. And for that, as you already know, I hate his guts.