Thursday 31 January 2013

'The Briefcase' by Hiromi Kawakami (Review)

Well, we've just about made it to the end of our month of Japanese delights, but there is one more stop before we say farewell to the land of the rising sun.  The last day of January brings the reviews of our chosen group readalong, and happily it is a good one.  Don't believe me?  Well, the judges for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize (who chose it for their short-list) beg to differ ;)

Hiromi Kawakami's The Briefcase (translated by Allison Markin Powell) is a brief but powerful novel about the development of a rather unusual relationship.  Set in present-day Tokyo (largely in a Japanese bar, or 'izakaya'), it tells of a chance meeting between Tsukiko, a single woman closing in on forty, and her old Japanese teacher Harutsuna Matsumoto - the man she simply calls 'Sensei'.

What begins as occasional drunken conversations in the bar turns into a much closer friendship.  The odd couple go for long walks, embark on shopping trips, have dinner together, and later even go mushroom hunting.  The two enjoy their friendship, but with an age gap like theirs, surely there can't be romance here - can there?

The Briefcase is a bitter-sweet love story, a development of the rather unorthodox relationship between two people who stand out a little from the crowd.  Sensei is retired and divorced, an old man, but one who is always dapper in his suit (and with his briefcase ever in hand).  Beginning as a figure of fun, his character is sketched out a little more with each appearance, allowing the reader to get to know him just as Tsukiko does.

Tsukiko though is very different from the good-natured former teacher.  She is reclusive, spiky, and adept at avoiding affection.  Her life is empty, virtually devoid of meaningful relationships, as she realises when she tries to analyse her connection to Sensei:
"When I tried to think whom I spent time with before I became friendly with Sensei, no-one came to mind.  I had been alone.  I rode the bus alone, I walked around the city alone, I did my shopping alone, and I drank alone."
p.25 (Counterpoint Press, 2012)
In fact, while the reader initially struggles to accept the May-to-December nature of the relationship, later on it is Tsukiko's (in)ability to surrender her independence which is of more interest.  Can she even allow herself to enter into a real, mature relationship?

The Briefcase is an enjoyable novel to read due to the episodic nature of the text.  The story is divided into seventeen chapters of fairly equal length, taking us unhurriedly through the build-up of the relationship (in fact, it is very similar to The Old Capital in this regard...).  There are three two-chapter sections (Mushroom Hunting, The Cherry Blossom Party, The Island) spaced out over the novel, each one a turning point in the relationship.  It all makes for a very smooth read.

Of course, the success of the novel hangs entirely on how believable Sensei and Tsukiko's relationship is, and Kawakami handles this very well.  Before starting, I thought it might be a little like Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor (a book I liked but didn't find particularly special), but that wasn't the case.  The relationship progresses naturally, convincing us not only that it is possible, but also that it is natural, and the addition of a catalyst in the shape of Kojima, Tsukiko's old classmate, helps to push the story along when it is in danger of drifting.

The way the story is written means that the reader experiences events through the eyes of Tsukiko (Sensei, even as we learn more about his past, remains fairly enigmatic to the end).  It is tempting to look at Tsukiko and wonder why she is so attracted to spending time with Sensei - and why she is so alone in the first place.  She drifts by without analysing the relationship much, at least until the stay on the island:
"Since when had Sensei and I become close like this?  At first, Sensei had been a distant stranger.  An old, unfamiliar man who in the far-away beyond had been a high school teacher of mine.  Even once we began chatting now and then, I still barely ever looked at his face.  He was just an abstract presence, quietly drinking his saké in the seat next to mine at the counter." p.126
In many ways, she is rather childish and immature, often blurting out the first thing that comes into her head.  Of course, there is another, more disturbing way to account for her behaviour.  Perhaps she is merely unable to sacrifice her personality for a partner in the way the patriarchal Japanese society demands...

All in all, The Briefcase is an excellent book, well drawn out and thoroughly believable.  There are a few moments of kitch, and a little melodrama towards the close of the novel, but Kawakami rescues it nicely with the ending.  I'll certainly be getting myself a copy of Manazuru at some point, and I'm already looking forward to the new one in English (Strange Weather from Tokyo), out from Portobello Books later this year - as you may have gathered, this was just a retitled UK version of The Briefcase :(.  All that remains to say is that if you haven't read this, you could do worse than give it a try...

...oh, and good luck to Kawakami for the Man Asian Literary Prize :)

You've read my thoughts on the book - why not see how others found it?
Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
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brilliant years

Wednesday 30 January 2013

One More J-Lit Giant...

January in Japan is almost over for 2013, but we do have one final J-Lit Giant to introduce to you - and today's choice is a writer keen followers of my blog might just be familiar with...  Off you go, then ;)

Monday 28 January 2013

'Coin Locker Babies' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

Pushkin Press, one of my favourite publishers, is well known for its European fiction, but (alas) it hasn't had any J-Lit on its books - that is, until now.  You see, in 2013 Pushkin is going Japanese by bringing out four books from J-Lit bad boy Ryu Murakami.  As you can tell from my picture, they won't be out for a while yet, but if this first taste is anything to go by, they'll be worth the wait :)

Coin Locker Babies (translated by Stephen Snyder) gets off to an explosive start.  A woman leaves an unwanted baby in a train station coin locker in Tokyo, but the boy is luckily found before he comes to too much harm.  The officials name him Kikuyuki, and he is sent off to an orphanage where he eventually becomes friends with Hashio, the only other of that summer's coin locker babies to survive.

Kiku and Hashi become inseparable, but after Hashi displays some unusual behaviour, the two boys are packed off to see a psychiatrist.  His unorthodox techniques have short-term benefits, but the two boys are destined to have trouble later in life.  Kiku takes up athletics in an attempt to control his latent anger while Hashi's way of coping with reality, one he adopts after running away to Tokyo, is slightly more glamorous...

Coin Locker Babies is a bleak look at what happens when you have a bad start in life.  Kiku and Hashi, rejected by an uncaring society, grow up to plan revenge for its negligence.  While Hashi is at times suicidal and full of self-loathing, the enigmatic Kiku is slightly more homicidal, hatching a secret plan to take revenge on the city that spawned him.  Ever heard of DATURA?  No?  Well, that's probably for the best ;)

A very unfamiliar city it is too.  While the usual bright lights of the metropolis are there, Murakami invents a new area of Tokyo.  Toxitown is an abandoned quarter, a chemical waste dump surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and government security officers with automatic weapons.  However, it's far from impossible to get in, and once you do, you find yourself in a parallel society where anything is possible.  Sex, drugs, rock and roll and casual violence - for a pair of messed up kids with a death wish, it's just like coming home.

It's hard to avoid comparisons with a certain other Japanese writer, and not just because of the nameThe two Murakamis were born just a few years apart and burst onto the literary scene around the same time.  Both write books about people who feel alienated from Japanese society - but the similarities stop there.  While Haruki writes fairytale fantasies, Ryu's tales (on the strength of this one) are decidedly more Grimm.  Haruki's characters exist on the margins of respectable life; Ryu's live deep in the alternative underground world.  Haruki's creations are trying to cope with society, but Ryu's are attempting to destroy it...

Coin Locker Babies is a great story, a 500-page novel which avoids the usual quaint J-Lit clichés and takes a good hard look at the underbelly of Japanese society.  There are no tea ceremonies or beautiful gardens here - it's urban sprawl for most of the way.  As Hashi muses:
"From outer space, Tokyo must look like a big, bright blob with no place to hide from the light.  It seemed to penetrate every barrier, the smokiest glass, the thickest membrane, to find its way into every corner of every room, every nook and cranny, every bird's nest and beehive.  There was nowhere to run, nowhere they couldn't find you by your shadow."
p.70 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Kiku eventually ends up down in Okinawa, swapping the urban jungle for the real thing, but no matter how hard the two boys try, they can't escape their fate.  Despite all apparent progress, they are still trapped in a prison of sorts:
"Nothing had changed, not one thing - not since he'd let out that first scream in the coin locker.  The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering about half-naked, and you could keep pets - yes, this one had all kinds of shit: museums, movie theatres, and mental hospitals - but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall." p.400
Don't expect a happy ending...

To finish off, I thought I'd just let you know of Pushkin's plans for Ryu Murakami in 2013.  They will be releasing four of his novels in May (currently scheduled for 9/5/2013).  This one, 69 and Popular Hits of the Showa Era are all rereleases of previous translations, but From the Fatherland with Love is being published in an English translation for the very first time.  Whether you're a fan or not, this is great news for J-Lit lovers (and a welcome new direction for Pushkin Press)...'ll have to wait a few months to get your copies though ;)

Sunday 27 January 2013

Yet More Nichi-Yōbi News...

January is drawing to a close, but January in Japan is not quite done with yet!  Over at the blog today, we have more Nichi-Yōbi News, with a reminder about our readalong, more fun links and details of another giveawayThis way, please :)

Thursday 24 January 2013

'The Old Capital' by Yasunari Kawabata (Review)

After our trip to Tokyo, it's time for a change of scenery - from the new capital, to the old one.  Today's choice is a book every bit as elegant and calming as its cover would suggest.  It's time to just sit back and watch the cherry blossoms...

The Old Capital (revised 2006 translation by J. Martin Holman) is one of Yasunari Kawabata's masterpieces.  It is set in Kyoto in the 1950s and introduces the reader to Chieko, the adopted daughter of a traditional Kimono wholesaler.  The beautiful young woman has known for some time that her mother and father are not her real parents, but discrepancies in the way they tell the story of her 'kidnapping' make her wonder what really happened.

As Chieko drifts from festival to festival, admiring trees, flowers and hand-crafted kimonos, she begins to think about her future, and three young men begin to come into focus against the crowd of other acquaintances.  Soon though it is her past that starts to influence her life, and a chance encounter is to change everything...

The Old Capital is one of the three works cited by the committee when awarding Kawabata the Nobel Prize, and it is easy to see why.  It is a beautiful novel, typical of Kawabata's work in the way it subtly explores the steady changes to traditional Japanese life.  The story shows how post-war Japan is moving on, leaving certain aspects of its history and tradition behind.  Traditional businesses are starting to fade away as imported business techniques take hold, and artisans struggle to find and train successors; the next generation is not always interested in continuing the traditions.

This story is told against the backdrop of the beautiful city of Kyoto, and The Old Capital is full of luscious descriptions of nature.  Every temple and festival has its own special flower - the weeping willows bow to the ground, the tall cedars tower over gravel walkways, their branches forming an awe-inspiring canopy above the people walking through the park...  Kawabata contrasts the ephemeral nature of the blossoms, and the beauty of young women, with the lasting splendour of the mountains and temples.

Like many Japanese novels, this one is played out against the changing seasons, a story in a year, allowing us to see the city in all its guises - and its many traditional festivals.  While this cycle of life may suggest the idea of permanence though, even here change is evident.  Some of the festivals are being abandoned for lack of money, or interest, and one of the main festivals is shown to be a fairly recent innovation.  Despite the slow pace of change, it is coming, and it is inevitable.  As Chieko's father says when he goes to look at a possible new house, seeing the spread of inns in the area:
"The house itself is all right, but this just won't do," Takichiro whispered as he stood at the gate.  "I wonder if time will turn all of Kyoto into nothing but inns... "
p.128 (Counterpoint Press, 2006)
This prediction of possible change in Kyoto is a prescient one, as anyone who has visited Kansai more recently will know...

Rather than the plot though, the beauty of The Old Capital lies in the way Kawabata sketches the surface of the story, leaving the reader to imagine what lies beneath.  The best word to describe the writing is subtle: conversations are laden with deeper meaning which the reader has to unearth; true feelings are concealed beneath the exterior, requiring us to peel back the layers.  To understand the book, we need to find what is implied, not explicitly stated.  An example of this is a conversation Chieko has with her childhood friend, Shin'ichi:
"Are you completely obedient to your parents?"
"Yes, completely."
"Even when it comes to something like marriage?"
"Yes.  For now I intend to be obedient," Chieko answered without hesitation.
"What about yourself?  Don't you have your own feelings?" Shin'ichi asked.
"Having too many seems to cause trouble."
"So you suppress them... you stifle your feelings?"
"No, not that."
"You're speaking nothing but riddles." (p.17)
It's good to see that, at times, the characters can be as confused as the reader ;)

We are never quite sure what the main impetus of the novel is, whether we are hoping to find out the secret of Chieko's birth or learn who will steal her heart.  In the end, of course, it doesn't really matter (which is a good thing as Kawabata is unlikely to tell us...).  As with other classic J-Lit works, there is no neat end - the reader must make their own judgement...

...or you can just sit and look at the pretty flowers - your choice ;) 

Wednesday 23 January 2013

J-Lit Giant Time Again...

Over at the January in Japan blog, Gary (from The Parrish Lantern) has been kind enough to supply us all with another J-Lit Giant post.  Who is it, you ask?  Well, why not click through and find out? ;)

Monday 21 January 2013

'Rivalry - A Geisha's Tale' by Nagai Kafu (Review)

After a week spent in constant danger of running into molten lava, I thought that a change of pace might be nice.  Today then we're heading back to 1912 to spend a little time relaxing in the Tokyo pleasure quarter of Shimbashi, in the company of some rather accomplished women.  Is your obi tied correctly?  The rickshaws are waiting...

Nagai Kafu's Rivalry - A Geisha's Tale (translated by Stephen Snyder, published by Columbia University Press) is an excellent trip through the world of the fascinating Japanese courtesans.  It begins with a chance encounter at a theatre, as Yoshioka, a successful businessman, notices a face from the past.  His conversation with the beautiful Komayo is our ticket into the hidden world of the geisha.

Komayo, formerly known as Komazo, had retired from her career as a geisha after marrying one of her clients and moving to the provinces.  However, after her husband's death, a combination of homesickness and her new family's attitude brings her back to Tokyo.  She returns to Shimbashi and the career she thought she had put behind her - and for the new girl in town, picking up again with the brash Yoshioka might just be the break she needs.

However, it's not quite as easy as all that.  Yoshioka already has a geisha dependent on him, one who is unlikely to take kindly to the idea of losing her benefactor.  In the slightly incestuous atmosphere of Shimbashi, this is always going to cause problems.  And, of course, in accepting the patronage of a wealthy man, Komayo is going to be in big trouble if she really loses her heart to another man...

Nagai was no stranger to the delights of the pleasure quarters, and some of his best writing is set in and around these areas.  He portrays a parallel society, one far removed from the conventional office and home environment, where men stray from the 'other' Tokyo in search of entertainment, companionship and (occasionally) a little more.  Shimbashi is described as a pressure valve, a place to let off a little steam:
"Yoshioka's need to experience the carnal delights of civilized society was not unlike the urge that in ancient times led men to mount their steeds and chase wild beasts across the plains, to kill them and eat their flesh; the same urge that led medieval warriors to don fine armor and shed their blood on the field of combat.  They all were simply manifestations of that pathetic, and yet seemingly limitless, human energy known as desire.  With the advance of civilization, this energy was transformed, expressing itself now as the pursuit of luxury and pleasure, or else as the will to dominate in the business world.  Fame, wealth and women - these were the driving forces in the life of the modern man."
p.70 (Columbia University Press, 2007)
I suppose, as a hobby, it beats fox hunting...

What makes the setting of Rivalry so intriguing is the gradual uncovering of a whole interdependent society.  The centres of this world are the theatres, where actors, the leading lights of the quarter, entertain the hordes of businessmen and their female companions.  Later, the audience might head off to a tea house, where they will listen to music played by their favourite geisha, or perhaps indulge in a little harmless flirting.  Behind the scenes though, there are thousands of other people dependent on this night-life: maids, rickshaw drivers, bath house attendants, kimono makers...  The more we read of Rivalry, the further we are allowed to see into this world.

Which is not to say there's no real plot to the book.  Our focus is principally on Komayo, our guide to the world of the 'water trade'.  She is both an old hand and a new face, and in her attempts to adjust to life back in the quarter, the reader is slowly inducted into the secrets of the geisha.  We see the sacrifices she makes and the unpleasant side of her profession, one which strides an unsteady path between skilled artisan and sex toy.  There is no judgement here though - Nagai is just telling it how it is...

What exactly is it he's telling us though?  Is Rivalry glorifying the geisha, à la Memoirs of a Geisha?  Is he showing the reader how the profession empowers women?  Is he lamenting a system of sexual quasi-slavery?  Erm, the answer to all those questions is probably no.  The book concentrates on description, not proscription, and it is up to the reader to make up their own mind about how palatable it all is.

In fact, Rivalry is probably not best read in an analytical way but in a historical light.  It's a book which, for its size, contains a vast array of characters, each there to describe the pleasure quarters in more detail.  The more people we meet (and the more they interact with each other), the more we see of the intricate, tangled web of relationships upon which Shimbashi rests.  The book is less about Komayo than about creating a picture of the time and place she lived in.  Don't worry though, it all makes for pleasant reading - and (unlike many J-Lit classics) this one has an ending to look forward to :)

Sunday 20 January 2013

Another Edition of Nichi-Yōbi News!

It's Sunday, and that means that over at our January in Japan blog it's time once again for Nichi-Yōbi News!  There are lots of great links, some recent Japanese literary news and other assorted gems - why not have a look for yourself?

Thursday 17 January 2013

'The 210th Day' by Natsume Soseki (Review)

I was always planning to read something by Natusme Soseki (my inaugural J-Lit Giant!) for January in Japan, and I was wondering whether to try his late classic, Grass on the Wayside, or a collection of stories inspired by his time in England, The Tower of London.  However, as regular readers will know, I enjoy finding connections between the books I'm reading, so when I finished reading Shusaku Endo's Volcano, I knew there was only one possible choice for my next book...

The 210th Day (translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu) is an entertaining novella based on a real-life trip the writer took with a friend in September 1899.  Two men, the educated Roku and the rough-and-ready tofu seller Kei, have decided to climb Mount Aso, a volcanic peak in the centre of Kyushu, and the story details their adventures as they stay at traditional inns and go wandering through the countryside.  The story is told in the present tense and mainly consists of the slightly rambling conversations the two men have on their trip.

The volcano draws immediate parallels with Endo's work (the fictional Akadake of Volcano is based on the south-Kyushu volcano of Sakurajima), but that's where the similarities end.  Natsume's work is a piece of fun, consisting of the same joke-filled dialogues that punctuated his first work, I am a Cat.  In fact, if you're looking for something to compare it to, you'd be more likely to reference Three Men in a Boat than any J-Lit classics.

Of course, there is more to The 210th Day than knockabout humour.  The volcano is not just a fiery mountain, the destination for Kei and Roku's weekend walk; it is a commonly-used literary symbol in Japan, one I've come across three times in a week (if anyone can tell me the Murakami short story I saw it in, ten J-Lit spotter points are yours!), and here it represents the potential for change in Japanese society.  The excitable Kei frequently engages his friend in discussions on the possibility of changing the world, to the amusement of the laid-back (and better off) Roku:
"Even if one wants them, there are lots of things society does not allow, aren't there?"
"That's why I said 'the poor creatures!'  If one is born into an unjust society, it can't be helped.  Whether it permits it or not, is not of much importance.  The main thing is to want it oneself."
"And what if one wants to be something and still does not become it?"
"Whether or not one becomes it is not the problem.  One has to want it.  By wanting it, one causes society to permit it, " says Kei in peremptory tones.
pp.24/5 (Tuttle Press, 2002)
Kei is certain of the possibility of revolution, of turning society upside down and ensuring that everyone has a chance to live life to the fullest.  While it sounds fanciful, the book was first published in 1915 - just a couple of years before the Russian Revolution...

Despite the social themes which the writer would return to in later, more mature, works, The 210th Day is more closely connected to Natsume's early books, mainly because of its comical nature.  Roku is not really cut out for wandering around in the mountains, struggling with sore toes and a dodgy tummy.  Despite this, he manages to keep his sense of humour:
"Whenever you say 'whatever happens' you finally get the better of me.  A little while back, too, because of your 'whatever happens' I ended up eating udon.  If I now get dysentery, it will be because of your 'whatever happens'."
"It doesn't matter.  I will accept responsibility."
"What good does that do me, your accepting the responsibility for my illness?  After all, you yourself are not going to be ill in my place!"
"Don't worry.  I'll look after you.  I shall be infected myself and see to it that you are saved."
"Oh, really?  That reassures me.  Oh well, I'll go on a bit further." (pp.62-3)
If that sounds like two men just talking rubbish - well, that pretty much sums up the book ;)

The 210th Day is an interesting read, but it's probably only one for the Soseki completists.  It's fairly slight, in both depth and pages, compared to his more famous works, and the translation is not the best I've seen.  Tsunematsu has perhaps been a little too faithful to the text, translating it in a rather old-fashioned style of English which (for me) doesn't really suit the kind of story it is (on a side note, translations can be an issue with Natsume Soseki - I have ten of his works, and virtually all of them have been translated by different people...).

Still, if you do happen to come across a copy, it's a pleasant way to while away an hour or so.  I won't reveal whether or not our two friends ever actually manage to reach the top of the mountain, but that is most definitely not the point.  The journey, as is often the case in Japanese literature, is of much more importance than the destination.  The reader just has to strap on their hiking boots and go along for the ride :)

Wednesday 16 January 2013

The Latest J-Lit Giant...

Over at the January in Japan blog, it's time for the next in our J-Lit Giants series.  Today sees another guest post, this time on Osamu Dazai - please take a moment and have a look :)

Monday 14 January 2013

'Volcano' by Shusaku Endo (Review)

Of the three books I received for review from Peter Owen Publishers last year, there was one that I immediately earmarked for reading during January in JapanShusaku Endo is fast becoming one of my favourite J-Lit writers, and having heard good things about today's book, I was sure it wouldn't disappoint.  Luckily enough, this was Endo at his explosive (!) best...

Volcano (translated by Richard A. Schuchert) introduces us to Junpei Suda, an old man about to retire from his position as section chief at a Kyushu weather observatory.  The town he lives in is overlooked by the (fictional) volcano Akadake, and ever since arriving in the town fifteen years earlier, Suda has been obsessed by the mountain which, literally and metaphorically, casts a shadow over his life.

Asked by a local councillor and businessman to give assurances that the volcano is unlikely to erupt again (and thus endanger a hotel project he is planning), Suda is able to trot out the results of his (pseudo-scientific) research.  Comparing himself to Akadake, he believes that they are both moving closer and closer towards death.  However, what if the research he has poured his heart into turns out to be wrong?

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is the set-up for a Hollywood disaster movie, but that is most certainly not the case.  This is J-Lit, and the volcano is not here to destroy the city but to act as a symbolic backdrop to Suda's story.  The words of the professor whose research Suda is attempting to carry on compare the volcano's actions to human life:
"What a mount of heartache it is.  A volcano resembles human life.  In youth it gives rein to passions, and burns with fire.  It spurts out lava.  But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of those past evil deeds, and it turns quiet as a grave.  You younger man can hardly fathom the pathos of this mountain."
p.27 (Peter Owen, 2012)
Suda swallows the professor's opinions whole - which makes it even more upsetting when the volcano shows unexpected signs of life in its old age...

This side of the story, one in which the ailing old man, loathed by his family and quickly forgotten by his colleagues, has to face up to his life's shortcomings, would be interesting enough.  However, this strand is contrasted with another story, one in which Durand, an apostate Catholic priest, begins to meddle in the affairs of his former parish.  The new priest attempts to treat the Frenchman with respect, but Durand has no interest in fitting in.  Having lost his faith in the work he was sent to do in Japan, he intends to spend his final few hours proving that there is no point in spreading Christianity among people who are unable to understand it.  As he says to the shocked priest:
"'s because there isn't a single one of them that pays any attention to that enigma in the Japanese heart which makes their work completely sterile."
"Give me an example, Durand San.  What are you talking about?"
"For example...," Durand grinned again.  "For example, among the Japanese people there seems to be absolutely no concept of sin." (p.44)
Durand's views on sin and shame lead him to tempt a member of the congregation into behaving improperly.  After all, if you don't really feel guilty, where's the harm...

Suda and Durand end up in neighbouring rooms in a hospital, and there are many things which connect them.  Both are on their last legs; both are facing massive disappointment after the failure of their life's work; both are a burden on (and an embarrassment to) the people closest to them.  There is one major difference though - Durand would like nothing more than to see Akadake wipe the city off the face of the earth...

Volcano isn't overly long (only about 180 pages), but it packs a lot of ideas and imagery into its story.  Akadake looms over the town and the novel, but we don't really need to know whether it is going to erupt or not.  It represents everything that affects our lives, the ideas we are unable to escape from, despite living the fantasy of a 'free' existence.  Suda, typically, attempts to ignore the signs he sees on his trips to the mountain, just as he deliberately ignores the growing coldness of his wife and children.  Durand though attempts to fight against his 'volcano' with his petty attempts at corruption.

All in all, this is another success from a wonderful writer.  Combining the Christian elements of Silence with the more contemporary setting of When I Whistle, Volcano shows that Endo rarely fails to deliver with his novels.  I'd certainly recommend this one, and I'm already thinking about which of his I can get next.  Any suggestions will be gratefully received :)

Sunday 13 January 2013

More Nichi-Yōbi News

Over at the January in Japan blog, it's time again for the weekly news round-up, Nichi-Yōbi News.  You'll find some reviews, a new J-Lit Giant, news about some recent J-Lit success and a couple of links - just because :)  Ikimasen ka?

Thursday 10 January 2013

'Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words' by Jay Rubin (Review)

Jay Rubin is an American academic who is well known for his translations of Japanese literature, including works by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Natsume Soseki.  However, he is undoubtedly best known in the west for his work on some of Haruki Murakami's back catalogue, including Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and After Dark.  Not content with just translating Murakami's fiction however, Rubin, who knows the writer quite well, decided to write a book about the man and his creations - and a good one it is too...

Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is the next logical step for Murakami fans to take when they've burned through all of his translated works.  It's a book which gives an insight into the author's life while also shedding some light on what it is he is actually trying to say in his writing (something which has puzzled me for a long time...).

We follow Murakami through his less-than-stellar school days and his riot-interrupted time at university, finding out about his early marriage and his years running a jazz club along the way.  He was never a typical Japanese writer, showing little interest in his native literature or culture, preferring instead to experience American novels and jazz (which will come as little surprise to anyone who has read any of his books).  Eventually though, he decided to try his hand at writing - and the rest, as they say, is history...

As interesting as Murakami's life is though, what we're really here for is the guided tour through his books, and Rubin is just the man for the job.  He carefully takes the reader through assorted novels, stories and non-fiction pieces in chronological order (which isn't always the order, or the format, they appeared in overseas), explaining the thought processes behind the books and highlighting connections between the various works - some obvious, others not quite so easy to spot at first glance.

Rubin shows how Murakami was the first of a new breed of writers, one who (unlike his predecessors) was in tune with the new Japan:
"...Murakami has been called the first writer completely at home with the elements of American popular culture that permeate present-day Japan.  He has also been seen as the first genuinely "post-post-war writer", the first to cast off the "dank, heavy atmosphere" of the post-war period and to capture in literature the new Americanised mood of lightness." p.17 (Vintage Books, 2005)
As well as this difference in style, Murakami was also a literary outsider in other ways.  He was not a member of any literary group (very unusual for a Japanese author), and his books were initially frowned upon by such heavyweights as Kenzaburo Oe.

However, this difference was not quite as marked as first appears.  His stories, with their typical unresolved endings, are compared to traditional Japanese writers such as Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, and he is also the latest in a long line of writers to enrich Japanese literature through his work in translation (following in the footsteps of Tsubouchi and Futabatei!).  In fact, for those not overly familiar with Murakami, his work as a literary translator may come as a bit of a shock.  According to Rubin, he has translated dozens of American novels and short story collections and has been responsible for a resurgence in the popularity of American literature in Japan.

For me, the most useful part of the book though was the focus on themes in Murakami's work.  Rubin concentrates very heavily on Murakami's handling of the subject of memory and its unreliability, claiming that:
"Perhaps no other writer concerned with memory and the difficulty of reclaiming the past - not Kawabata, not even Proust - has succeeded as well as Murakami in capturing the immediacy of the experience of déjà vu." p.60
While I'm a little dubious about that boast (and in certain blogs I frequent, I'm sure them's fighting words...), it's true that the writer is fascinated with the way we see the world and the impossibility of ever knowing the truth about the past and other people.

Rubin also devotes a lot of time to Murakami's concept of 'the other place', the space occupied by the things that are not present in our current location.  Whether it refers to the psyche, an afterlife or another dimension, it's ever-present in Murakami's writing, and many of his protagonists are trying to bridge the gap between here and 'the other place'.  How?  Well, some of you may have noticed that there are a fair few wells, tunnels and corridors in his books...

While I could misinterpret Rubin's ideas all day, I think I'll leave the analysis there.  Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is an excellent book and one I enjoyed immensely.  Still, there are a few issues I'd like to quickly point out.  If you haven't really read a lot of Murakami, I'm not sure that this is for you.  Part of the fun lies in recognising the stories Rubin is discussing - and there are a lot of them.  I was able to frequently refer to the many books on my Murakami shelf to jog my memory and spent a lot of time rereading certain short stories.  If all you've read is Norwegian Wood, leave this one for the future.

Another possible issue is that it doesn't always pay to see your heroes up close, warts and all.  On the whole, Rubin (a close friend) paints a very favourable picture of the writer (and any mention of his wife Yoko verges on hagiography), but I was a little troubled by a couple of images.  For one thing, his style of writing appears a little haphazard, and he rarely seems to know where he's going with the books he's writing.  He could also be accused of writing for the sake of writing as his output is truly phenomenal (and covers all kinds of areas and genres).  For a fan of translated fiction like me though, perhaps the most worrying revelation is that he is comfortable with translations of translations, preferring his work to get to readers quickly, even if it isn't quite what he wrote in the first place...

Still, nobody's perfect, and anyone expecting perfection deserves all the disappointments they get.  Readers who set their bar a little lower will have great fun with this book - just don't blame me if you get hooked on hunting down translated rarities of Murakami's work...


...speaking of which, I have a little story to tell you ;)

I recently saw a comment on the January in Japan blog where someone signed up for the challenge, and (like a good host) I popped over to check out the blog.  The blogger was Carola of brilliant years, and she had just published a post - one in which a link was given to a translation of a rare Murakami work.  It's called The Sheep Man's Christmas, and while the quality of the translation (and the formatting) may leave a little to be desired, it's still a fun piece of writing with that inimitable Murakami sense of humour.

I was very happy with my unexpected Christmas present, and I'd urge you all to have a look too :)

Monday 7 January 2013

'Some Prefer Nettles' by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (Review)

Jun'ichiro Tanizaki is definitely a writer worthy of my J-Lit Giants series, one of the best-known Japanese authors of the twentieth century.  His most famous novel is possibly The Makioka Sisters, but today's offering, Some Prefer Nettles, would be up there among his best.  As well as being an excellent read, today's choice has one more point (for me) in its favour - once again, we're heading back to the region where I spent my time in Japan...

Some Prefer Nettles (translated by Edward Seidensticker) is set in the Kansai region of Japan, the gritty polar opposite of the cultured Kanto area around Tokyo.  The story is constructed around Kaname and Misako, a married couple who, for a number of years, have been husband and wife in little more than name.  As the unhappy couple attempt to pluck up the courage to sever their ties for good, Kaname starts to regret the effect the divorce will have on his relationship with his father-in-law, Hideo.

Hideo has completely surrendered to the alien Kansai culture and is enjoying his old age in Kyoto, along with a young lover who has taken the place of his dead wife.  O-hisa, a doll-like classical Kyoto beauty, is very different from the Tokyo-bred Misako, but Kaname starts to wonder whether that is really such a bad thing after all.  Like his father-in-law, Kaname begins to see that new is not necessarily better...

Some Prefer Nettles is a short, semi-autobiographical novel with two main focuses.  The first is the problem of working through, or ending, an unhappy marriage.  Kaname lost interest in sex with Misako soon after the start of the marriage, and his inability to feel anything for her has caused her heartbreak - and driven her to take a lover (with Kaname's blessing...).  Yet the hapless husband is still undecided about forcing the issue of a divorce as he's not convinced that love and sex are vital to a happy marriage:
"Who, looking at them now, could know that they were not really husband and wife?  Not even the servants, who saw them every day, seemed yet to have suspected it.  And indeed weren't they husband and wife?  He thought of how she helped him even with his underwear and socks.  Marriage was after all not only a matter of the bedroom.  He had known women enough in his life who ministered to that particular need.  But surely the reality of marriage lay as much in these other small ministrations.  Indeed, he could almost feel that through them marriage was revealing itself in its most basic, its most classical form, and he could think of Misako as an entirely satisfactory wife..."
pp.12-13 (Vintage, 2001)

Anyone who thinks that Kaname is a satisfactory husband though is very wide of the mark.  While he may appear generous and cultured, especially in comparison with his rough-and-ready father-in-law, he is actually an extremely cruel man.  The more the reader learns about his 'marriage', and the more we reflect upon his treatment of Misako, the more loathsome he becomes.  Having lost all sexual desire for his wife, he simply goes on sleeping in the same room as her, listening to her tears night after night for years, virtually forcing her to seek affection in the arms of another man (while he runs off after Eurasian prostitutes...).

If he could only take some initiative and instigate a divorce, he might salvage some dignity.  However, he is unable to actually bring himself to make a decision which may disrupt his comfortable life, shying away from the thought of a scene:
"He was guided by a Tokyo-bred sense of how to comport himself, and with his dislike for the unrestrained Osaka drama, he could only with revulsion see himself as the contorted, weeping principal in a scene from an Osaka melodrama." p.45
As the novel ends, we are no closer to a resolution - which is very in character...

As mentioned above, Tanizaki used this novel to work through some issues in his own life.  He too divorced his wife, virtually passing her on to a close friend.  While this may seem a little off to non-Japanese, he did at least ensure that his wife would be provided for in future, with a new husband he knew and trusted...

The second issue is his own experience with the Kanto - Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe) divide.  While some of his characters believe the Tokyo way of life to be more refined and elegant than the mercantile Osaka lifestyle, Kaname gradually comes to see the honesty in the traditional Kansai customs, something which has been lost in the east.  Like Misako, Tokyo is described as having been coated with a layer of refinement and civilisation - albeit, one which only runs so deep...

Some Prefer Nettles is an excellent read, a slow-moving, psychologically-intense work (although if pages of descriptions of puppet shows are not your thing, you may disagree).  In Kaname, Tanizaki has created a 'superfluous hero' worthy of being the successor to Futabatei's Bunzo Utsumi (although he's a little nastier than the hero of Ukigumo).  There is no real ending, and the loose ends remain anything but tied up - but that's the point.  Tanizaki himself said that if you've understood the characters, you'll know how the story ends.  Read it for yourself, and see if you agree :)

Sunday 6 January 2013

Introducing Nichi-Yōbi News

Over on the January in Japan blog, today marks the start of a regular feature, Nichi-Yōbi News.  Every Sunday this month, I'll be rounding up the news from the challenge and pointing you all in the direction of any interesting items I find on the web - please check it out :)

December 2012 Wrap-Up

My last wrap-up post of 2012 is a fairly quiet one, but it's just the calm before the storm.  January is going to be very busy around these parts...

Total Books Read: 14

Year-to-Date: 125

New: 14

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 9
Review Copies: 3
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 2 (1 review copy)

Novels: 9
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 2
Non-Fiction: 2

Non-English Language: 10 (8 Japanese, 1 Italian, 1 Faroese)
In Original Language: 0

Murakami Challenge: 1 (1/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (7/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 1 (6/10)
Japanese Literature Challenge 6: 8 (14/1) 

Books reviewed in December were:
1) Long Days by Maike Wetzel
2) A History of the World by Andrew Marr
3) The Old Man and his Sons by Heðin Brú
4) Frozen Dreams by Wahei Tatematsu
5) My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
6) Accabadora by Michela Murgia
7) The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Tony's Turkey for December is:
- Michela Murgia's Accabadora

While this tale of an old woman and her adopted daughter in a Sardinian village started well, it really went downhill in the second half of the book.  My fourth turkey for 2012, but (as you may already be aware) not quite bad enough to be the golden turkey ;)

Tony's Recommendations for December are:

Heðin Brú's The Old Man and His Sons
and Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career

I loved both of these books, and I was really struggling to separate them for the final spot on my best-of list for 2012.

So I didn't ;)

The end of another year, a time to relax and think about what the next year of reading will hold...  Well, it would be, if only there wasn't a little something called January in Japan in full swing!  I've been looking forward to my first hosting event for a while now - hopefully it'll be a success :)

Thursday 3 January 2013

'Ukigumo' ('The Drifting Cloud') by Shimei Futabatei & Marleigh Ryan (Review)

I've been interested in Japanese literature for a while now, but I feel that the interest may have got a little stronger over the past couple of years.  This has left me wondering if there is a line between interest and obsession - at what point does your harmless pastime start to become a little too serious?

All of which coincidentally brings me to today's book, a 1960s translation of (and commentary on) a nineteenth-century Japanese novel, one which is extremely difficult to find, meaning I had to buy it second-hand and have it shipped from the US. I suspect that if there is a line, it may just have been crossed...

Ukigumo (The Drifting Cloud) by Shimei Futabatei, translated by Marleigh Ryan, is often described as the first modern Japanese novel.  The hero of the piece is Bunzo Utsumi, a civil servant living with his uncle's family in Tokyo while saving up money to establish his own house with his mother.  While his aunt, Omasa, is not overly keen on Bunzo, his uncle intends to marry off his daughter, Osei, to her young relative, and the young couple are slowly working their way towards an understanding.

That is, until Bunzo unexpectedly loses his job, a victim of office politics.  Now his aunt is free to convey her displeasure (especially as his uncle is almost permanently away on business), and her attitude is bound to rub off on Osei.  Enter, at this point, Noboru Honda, a former colleague of Bunzo's who has managed to keep his job.  In fact, thanks mainly to his sycophantic attentions to his boss, he has even managed to get a raise - and now he is turning his attentions towards Osei...

If Bunzo could only pull himself together, he would easily be able to master the situation.  Sadly, he is the very model of indecision, brooding over his unjust treatment in his room, while Honda works his charms on both Omasa and Osei.  Although Bunzo is a much better person than any of the people surrounding him, he is repeatedly humiliated - what's more, rather than admitting defeat and moving out, he stays in his room, hoping that Osei will change her mind.

By the end of novel, he has burnt most of his bridges, with none of the other main characters willing to talk to him.  Yet still, as the story comes to its conclusion, Bunzo harbours hopes of a reconciliation and reinstatement to his old position.  At which point, the average reader may well decide that he deserves everything he gets...

Ukigumo is an interesting story, but it's not amazing by modern standards (and some people argue that it was never really finished...), so you might think I regret buying it.  Nothing could be further from the truth - this was a great buy.  Why?  Because the actual novel is accompanied by Marleigh Ryan's extensive 200-page commentary, which contains an extended biography, background information about Meiji-era Japan and the creation of Ukigumo.  Wait, come back - that's a good thing...

In what is suspiciously reminiscent of a PhD thesis, Ryan introduces the reader to Futabatei, but also to his friend Shoyo Tsubouchi, a minor novelist who became a much bigger name in the field of literary theory.  Tsubouchi was one of the first Japanese theorists to champion foreign styles of writing, demanding that Japanese writers pay far more attention to characterisation than had previously been the case.  His ideas greatly influenced Futabatei, who ended up writing the style of novel Tsubouchi himself was unable to manage.

Tsubouchi was also responsible for starting Futabatei off on a career in literary translation.  The young writer had studied Russian at university and was the first to translate certain classic stories into Japanese, including many by Turgenev.  This double career as writer and translator (a situation copied by later Japanese writers - including a certain Haruki Murakami...) enabled Futabatei to draw on these Russian realist influences, especially the idea of the 'superfluous hero', when he came to write Ukigumo.  And his translation work would also help him with another rather tricky problem... see, for me one of the most fascinating aspects of the commentary was Futabatei's struggle to create a variety of language which would suit the style of literature he was hoping to write.  Up to this time, Japanese had a very formal Chinese-influenced writing style which was totally unsuitable for modern literature; however, the only other option was the spoken language which, as well as being considered unworthy of literature, was divided into mutually unintelligible dialects.  In order to drag the Japanese novel out of the middle ages, and create something which measured up to the Russian works he loved, not only did Futabatei have to persuade readers to accept characterisation over a sensational plot, he also had to codify a new style of literary language.  Now that is a tough task.

Once you understand the issues the writer faced in creating Ukigumo, its importance in modern Japanese literature becomes a little more understandable.  By itself, the novel is merely a pleasant read.  However, when combined with Marleigh Ryan's excellent supplement (and the fascinating footnotes), it becomes a whole lot more, fully deserving of the title bestowed upon it.

While I'm very happy that I decided to buy this book, an excellent addition to my burgeoning J-Lit library, I'm not sure it's for everyone.  Before you start trawling through second-hand book sites, perhaps you should first ask yourself which side of the metaphorical line you're on.  I suspect that Ukigumo is for those of you who are already a lost cause as far as J-Lit is concerned...

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Another J-Lit Giant

Over at the January in Japan blog, it's time for the third in the J-Lit Giants series - but the first by a guest reviewer.  Gary, of The Parrish Lantern fame, introduces Ryuichi Tamura and gives a couple of examples of his poems.  Why not stop by and check it out?  And if this inspires you to write about your own J-Lit favourites, you know who to talk to... :)

Tuesday 1 January 2013

'Lizard' by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

A Happy New Year to everyone out there, and welcome to January in Japan!  I hope you're all ready to get 2013 off to the best possible start - with some great J-Lit :)

My first choice for the month is a book by an author who can polarise opinions like few other J-Lit writers.  While some adore Banana Yoshimoto's female take on late-twentieth-century angst, others dismiss her work as over-hyped pop fiction - occasionally at the same time.  Which description fits best?  I'm not sure I'll be able to answer that question in one little post...

Lizard (translated by Ann Sherif) is a collection of six short stories, each of which is written in Yoshimoto's instantly recognisable style.  Once again we are taken on a tour of middle-class Tokyo to meet a group of characters who would probably be described on Twitter as having #firstworldproblems.  Despite this, the protagonists are, on the whole, interesting people, and the stories draw the reader in, time passing without your being aware of it.

The first story, Newlywed, sets up the collection nicely.  A man on a train decides not to get off at his usual station, bored with his stale marriage, and is joined in the carriage by a hobo - who suddenly turns into a beautiful woman.  This magical touch is also evident in the title story, Lizard, where a young woman with a dark secret has magical healing powers.  More than any of the other Yoshimoto books I've read, this one immediately seems to be drawing on a very familiar influence...

By the time the third story, Helix, appears, the Murakami parallels are uncanny.  In this story, a man goes on a surprise date in a café which has already closed for the night.  He ends up talking the night away with his girlfriend, discussing the concept of memory and the difficulty of deciding which memories are important.  The third story in a row with a male protagonist makes the collection seem a little different to Yoshimoto's other works, even if the themes are very similar.

The second half of the collection though returns to the familiar ground of the writer's twenty-something women struggling to cope with society's expectations.  Whether it's the heroine of Dreaming of Kimchee, who is learning to cope with her role as a scarlet woman, the main character of Blood and Water, who has run away from a benign cult to find herself in the big city, or the prospective bride of A Strange Tale from Down by the River, a woman learning secrets about her past but with plenty of her own - these are the characters readers have come to expect from Yoshimoto.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing...

If you like Yoshimoto's work, you'll definitely enjoy Lizard.  The writer is expert at creating a light, airy atmosphere in which her characters can talk about the things polite society politely ignores.  These people often stand out because of their belief in (or mastery of!) supernatural powers and alternative healing, and in a similar way to Murakami, Yoshimoto shows their struggles to find a place in a rigid, unforgiving society.

Yoshimoto likes to concentrate on the dynamics of relationships more than pushing the plot forward, and this can be successful at times:
"I liked just watching Lizard - the way she threw her coat over her shoulders, the way she bowed her head when she crouched down to tie her shoes, the way her eyes glittered in the mirror when she took a peek at herself.  I loved watching Lizard in her different poses.  The cells of her body dying and coming into being, the curve of her cheeks, the white half-moons on her fingernails.  I felt her brimming with the fluid of life, flowing with the universe.  Her every gesture, every move, brought life to me, a man who had been dormant for so long."
p.42, Lizard (Faber and Faber, 2001)
However, she can also be guilty at times of some very clunky, clumsy writing:
"In fact, we met at his father's funeral, which I attended in my boss's place.  The ritual moved me tremendously.  People had told me what a dignified, splendid man the president had been, how he had run his business innovatively and with integrity.  I had also heard that his employees loved working for him.  When I saw the many people who came to pay their last respects, I knew all these stories must be true."
p.126, A Strange Tale from Down by the River
The last couple of stories, in particular, contain far too much flat, informative prose, at odds with the mood of the rest of the collection.  As always with Yoshimoto though, you do start to wonder how good her translators are...

As to whether Yoshimoto is a hit or a miss, I'm still (and always have been) firmly in the undecided category.  Every book of hers I've read has had an indefinable something that I've enjoyed - but they've all also let me down ever so slightly at some point along the way.  Having said that, Lizard is one I would recommend.  While not all of the stories hit the mark, I enjoyed my little foray into Banana's world, polishing it off in a couple of hours.  When she gets it right, she can (just like old Haruki) hit a nerve with her views on the rigidity of Japanese society:
"It's the way society is now.  You're not supposed to be by yourself.  You get caught in the net, and you can feel it tugging at you as you try to get away from it, just as if you've walked into a spider's web.  You struggle to free yourself, but you can't.  It's in the air; there's no escape from this force, one so inferior to the life force, the energy within us.  You can pretend to ignore it, but it still obscures your vision."
p.75, Dreaming of Kimchee
Like I said - #firstworldproblems ;)