Monday 31 January 2011

Fire and Ice

After 120 minutes of action at the weekend in the Asian Cup Final, Australia's national team, the hapless Socceroos (after dominating play and chances), went down 1-0 to Japan's national selection, the Blue Samurai.  Some would say that this post presenting some literature from both countries is a timely homage to the event: others, more cynical, might argue that it was complete coincidence that I read an Australian book and a Japanese book around this time.  Whatever your thoughts, here it is :)

We'll start with the Australian contender, and my second read for this year's Aussie Author Challenge is Tim Winton's debut novel An Open Swimmer.  Set in Perth and on the West Australian coast south of the capital, it focuses on Jerra, a young twenty-something who has recently dropped out of uni and is on a camping trip with his best mate Sean (note: using the word 'friend' in reviews of Australian books is frowned upon - 'mate' is the preferred expression).  A chance encounter with an old bloke living near the beach (note: as above, 'bloke' not 'man') has repercussions for Jerra, for whom the trip is less of a holiday than an attempt to run away from the past.

The story is divided into three parts: the first describes Jerra and Sean's short camping trip; the second follows Jerra's attempts to create a normal life for himself back in Perth; the third sees Jerra taking off again in the vain hope of finding some answers back where he started.  It's a short work, and if you were expecting all the answers to be set out for you by the end of it, you'll be sadly disappointed.

Winton is very adept at revealing his stories little by little, teasing the reader with half-sentences thrown away, hinting at a dark secret buried in the past (but liable to surface, rising up from the deep, at any minute).  We slowly find out that Jerra's drifting is connected with several events: a pearl found in the head of a large fish; his relationship with Sean; and a connection with Sean's mother, Jewel.

The prose, what little of it there is, switches between elegant, poetical descriptions of the sea and short, stark simple sentences, one per action, focusing the reader's attention in on Jerra. A lot of the text, however, is dialogue, real, spoken Australian, jumping around, using slang, something which contributes to the sometimes maddening feeling that there's something happening beneath the surface which the reader can't quite fathom.  Along with the constant fishing jargon, the use of local idiom makes this a book which non-natives would probably struggle a little with unless they are willing to go with the flow.  If this book ever made it into an American edition, I suspect that it was a fairly gutted, unrecognisable version of the original...

For a first novel (written at uni!), it's a stunning effort, but I suspect that it's not for everyone.  An Open Swimmer requires a lot of thought and concentration, and it's not the sort of book that gives up all its secrets in one reading.  If that sounds like your kind of read though (and especially if you've already tried - and liked - some of Winton's other works), I heartily recommend it.  Just get a dictionary of fish names handy first...

Opaque as it is though, An Open Swimmer could have its themes written ten-feet high in purple crayon in comparison with my next book.  Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country, one of the works cited by the Nobel Prize committee in bestowing that award, is a typically beautiful piece of Japanese writing, meaning (of course) that the majority of the sub-text went floating far over my head.  But I digress.

Shimamura, an idle Tokyoite, takes a train journey to the mountains in the north, returning to a small village where he met the intriguing Komako, a geisha in training, earlier in the year.  On the train, he sees another beautiful young woman, caring for an unwell fellow passenger, and when he arrives at his destination, he learns that the young woman (Yoko) lives in the same house as Komako.  Throughout the rest of the short novel, he crosses paths with Yoko, never quite spending time together, always on the periphery of genuine communication.

I'd talk more about the plot if there was one; the book consists merely of Shimamura's two visits to the mountains (his married life in Tokyo is largely ignored...) and the time he spends there with the irascible but charming Komako.  It's all about the pictures Kawabata paints with his words, the portraits of the vivacious Komako and the reserved Yoko, the images he puts in our mind of the stark, wintry landscape - effortless and enjoyable to read.

However, I feel that this one is a little too sub-textual for my liking.  I felt myself constantly sensing that there was something there, something I should be getting, grasping around for some little allusion, some point the writer is making (and concealing).  While part of the beauty of Japanese literature is this sense of the unstated (and understated), Snow Country was a little too much of a good thing in this regard.

I was also comparing it in my mind with another Japanese book I read not long ago, Natsume Soseki's Kusamakura, and, unfortunately, Kawabata's book by no means came off best.  Kusamakura could be a summer version of Snow Country (without geishas), and it's a book I enjoyed more, combining the elegance of style with a disarming humour and frequent quotable bon-mots.

Before you all get the wrong impression, I did enjoy Snow Country, but I think (and hope) that his later work will impress me more (this was his debut novel, if you can stretch these pages out to a novel).  Of the two Japanese Nobel Laureates, Oe has impressed me more - so far: there's a lot more to read before that decision is final though ;)

This was my final review for Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 4.  I managed to read twelve Japanese books in the time allotted, well more than the single required work!  My collection of Japanese literature, which has become a bit of a hobby, now almost stretches across one whole three-foot shelf, and before long, it will have colonised the whole space for itself.  This challenge saw me read numerous works by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki and Natsume Soseki, and I have just scraped the surface with Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata.  Thanks again to Belezza for hosting this wonderful challenge, and I'll definitely be joining in the next one, whenever that may be :)