Monday, 23 May 2011

A Few Odds and Ends

I've already managed to put up a couple of reviews this month (which constitutes a good month at the moment!), so I thought I'd continue my weekly trend, this time with bite-size reviewettes of the other books I've got through in May so far.  Shall we?

Let's start with a Nobel prize winner (just because)Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (translated by Erdag Göknar) is a mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, involving the beautiful, but fading art of traditional Arabic 'illumination' of literary texts.  One of a group of four master artists has been been murdered,  presumably by one of the other three, and Black, recently returned from a long absence in the East, is charged with finding the guilty culprit.  If he can win the hand of the beautiful Shekure along the way, so much the better :)

The novel consists of many chapters, each having its own voice, told by one of the characters (or a drawing...).  It's an interesting way to tell a story, especially as the murderer actually has two voices - his real character, and that of 'the Murderer'.  It makes for an intriguing tale, but I didn't really love this book.  I was never really able to lose myself in the story, partly because of the, at times, slow pace, but perhaps more due to the unfamiliar setting which (to be honest) didn't really interest me that much.  As a tale of masters of a dying art form struggling to cope with the inevitable overthrow of their way of life, it is a fascinating story - I'll need another example of Pamuk's work before I can really say whether I like his style though.

The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai (translated by Donald Keene) is, as I'm sure you can guess, a little more in my line.  A fairly short novel, it tells the tale of Kazuko and her family, Japanese minor nobility who have descended in the world following the death of the father, and the financial strains caused by the aftermath of the Second World War.  Kazuko and her mother move away from Tokyo in order to stretch out their meagre reserves, but their lives are turned upside down again by the arrival of Kazuko's brother Naoji, believed lost in the Pacific War.  Far from this being a happy family reunion, however, it is merely the start of a final freefall into poverty and distress.

I've read a lot of Japanese fiction over the past few years, but most of it has been set either before or after WWII, and I have the feeling that there isn't as much literature dealing with this time as is the case in Germany (where it's virtually its own genre...).  While it's possible that I just haven't found these books yet, even Mishima's The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, which spans fifty years between 1920 and 1970, conveniently skips the war years completely.  The Setting Sun then is a welcome insight into post-war Japan and the problems people had in adjusting to a new style of life and government.  The old aristocracy has lost its importance, the Emperor is not longer a deity, and Americans roam the streets of the conquered people (albeit very much in the background).

This leaves people like Kazuko and Naoji with a lot to work through if they want to carry on with their lives, and, in Japanese literature, that 'if' is never a given.  A quick glance at Dazai's Wikipedia page will soon give you an idea of his, shall we say, lack of optimism for the future, a sense of negativity which is shared by his protagonists.  It all makes for an interesting slice of Japanese social history and a very entertaining read - just don't expect many happy endings here...

A while back, I read Andrew McGahan's 1988 and was impressed enough to make a library request for Praise (written before 1988 but set after), where we meet Gordon on his return to Brisbane.  Fed up with his job, he uses a management reshuffle as an excuse to quit, sinking gently into the bludger lifestyle of drink, drugs and trips to Centrelink.  Still paranoid about his lack of sexual prowess, he somehow slips into a relationship with Cynthia, whose appetite for bedroom activities far outstrips his.  When she decides to forgo a move to Darwin to give their nascent relationship a chance, Gordon isn't entirely sure that it's for the best - especially as his high school crush Rachel is back on the scene...

Praise reminds me a little of Helen Garner's Monkey Grip, and could be seen as making a similar account of early-nineties Brisbane to the one Garner's novel made of mid-seventies Melbourne.  I'd have to say though that it doesn't do it nearly as well.  I liked 1988, with its subtle, psychological undertones, a story of a city boy stuck in the middle of nowhere and forced to face up to his inadequacies.  On the other hand, Praise just felt like a detailed list of one person's sexual exploits and drug-fuelled indiscretions over a particularly unproductive period of his life.  I got through it fairly quickly, and, although I enjoyed reading it, I was happy to move onto something else - and not much of the book has stuck in my mind.

McGahan went on to win the Miles Franklin award with The White Earth (which I'm planning to read at some point), so I trust that his later books are more similar in vein to 1988 than Praise.  I know it sounds like I really hated this book, but that's not the case; it's just that I was expecting something very different - a progression, both in character and writing - to what I found.  I forgot that what I was reading actually predated what I'd previously read...

Has anyone else read this - and do you have a different opinion?  Please let me know :)