Saturday 29 June 2013

June 2013 Wrap-Up

June has been a busy month on the reading month.  I've read more this month than in any other month so far this year, and (surprisingly) I've been keeping up with the reviews too - so expect a lot of posts over the next month or so.  For now though, just enjoy the usual monthly round-up of what's been going on :)

Total Books Read: 16

Year-to-Date: 62

New: 16

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 2
Review Copies: 10
From the Library:4
On the Kindle: 2 (both review copies)

Novels: 8
Short Stories: 2
Non-Fiction: 2

Non-English Language: 15 (4 Spanish, 3 Japanese, 2 Dutch, 2 French, Polish, Italian, Croatian, Hungarian)
In Original Language: 1 (French)

Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (3/3)

Books reviewed in June were:
1) American Stories by Nagai Kafu
2) The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
3) Sixty-Nine by Ryu Murakami
4) Blindness by José Saramago
5) Stone upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski
6) We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino
7) The Infatuations by Javier Marías
8) The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker
9) Milky Way Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa
10) My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Tony's Turkey for June is: Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat

More because of thwarted expectations than the fact that it's a bad book, but still...  I was expecting quality literature from a Nobel Prize winner - instead, what I got was a fairly standard piece of historical fiction.  I'll be giving Vargas Llosa's work another try, but this one is being plucked and prepared for Christmas dinner ;)

Tony's Recommendation for June is:

Wiesław Myśliwski's Stone upon Stone

For the second month in a row, this was a very tough decision.  While I didn't have quite as many to choose from as was the case last month, there were three very strong contenders, and it took me far too long to make the decision.  In the end though, Myśliwski's long, rambling monologue just inched out Saramago's tale of a world gone blind and Hoshino's magical stories.  Only just though ;)


Time to look forward to July then.  I don't really have major plans for next month, but that pile of review copies on my shelves just keeps getting higher and higher...  There'll be a few more Spanish-language reads, courtesy of my wonderful local library, and you never know - I might even get around to reading a few of my own books too :)

Thursday 27 June 2013

'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante (Review)

While the photo to the left may suggest that I'm at the cutting edge of translated fiction, those with keen eyes may judge that the opposite is the case.  You see, while Europa Editions were kind enough to send me a copy of today's book, the only reason I got an uncorrected proof is that there were no reading copies left - because the book was published last year.  Yep, I've got my finger on the pulse all right ;)

Still, better late than never - and the book was definitely worth waiting for...

Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein) is a wonderful novel, one I enjoyed from start to finish.  It tells the story of two girls growing up in 1950s Naples and is actually the first part of a trilogy.  The story is narrated by Elena, a bookish girl you suspect is an alter-ego of the writer, but the central figure of the novel is her best friend Lila, a character who defies description, both for the reader and Elena herself.

Lila is a young woman who can't be pinned down.  A poor girl with a fierce intelligence and an undeniable charisma, she chooses Elena as a friend at a young age, and while Elena is never able to rid herself of the feeling of coming off second-best in every possible way (looks, intelligence, sexual allure, success), she feels proud that Lila has singled her out as the only person in her neighbourhood worthy of being her confidante.

The neighbourhood is itself a focus of My Brilliant Friend.  The two girls are growing up in a poor area of a poor city in the poorer part of Italy, and Elena acquaints the reader with a suburb used to violence:
"I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.  Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don't recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad.  Life was like that, that's all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us."
p.37 (Europa Editions, 2012)
Violence, actual or imminent, pervades the novel: husbands and wives brawl; fathers and sons injure each other in senseless quarrels; and on the streets, knives and guns are more common than you would expect...

The concept that drives the story along is that this is a place, and a life, to escape from, and while the two friends start off with the same idea, studying hard in the hope of some day becoming rich enough to escape, they eventually drift onto different paths.  While Lila is the genius, it is Elena who manages to stay on the academic straight-and-narrow, striving to be top of the class each term despite having no clear idea of what advantages might arise from her efforts.  Lila, on the other hand, decides that a long-delayed possible future success is not for her - instead, she thinks that marriage may well be the way to escape her fate.  Towards the end of the novel, flaws begin to appear in Lila's perfection though, and we begin to wonder which of the pair the 'brilliant friend' actually is...

There's a lot to like about My Brilliant Friend.  In its depiction of an unequal friendship, narrated by the less confident of the two friends, it reminds me of classic novels like Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes and Günter Grass' Cat and Mouse, and as in those novels, it becomes increasingly clear that the lot of the 'superior' friend is not always the happier one.  As a child, Lila is streets ahead of everyone else, but even she cannot extract herself completely from the social ties binding her, slowly pulling her down into the traditional fate reserved for Neapolitan women.  It appears that she has made her choices freely, but how free can she be in a man's world?

The book is also a stark, at times brutal, look at class differences, and the way your future can often be ordained at birth.  Most of the action takes place in Elena and Lila's neighbourhood, but the girls do venture further afield at times.  When they do, it can come as bit of a wake-up call, as is the case when they walk into a richer area of Naples:
"It was like crossing a border.  I remember a dense crowd and a sort of humiliating difference.  I looked not at the boys, but at the girls, the women: they were absolutely different from us.  They seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of wind." (p.192)
The group of friends from the poor suburbs feel out of place among the well off.  The choice they have is to retreat to their part of town, or adapt and fit in.

This class difference is also shown linguistically.  The native language for most of the characters is dialect, and the switches between dialect and Italian usually represent class differences between characters and situations.  The more educated Elena becomes, the more she uses Italian, even if she still retains mastery of her first language.  It's tricky to balance these two sides of her character though - some areas (such as the mysteries of the Holy Trinity...) just can't seem to be discussed in dialect...

My Brilliant Friend is a book which makes for compelling, compulsive reading, one I sped through in a couple of days, and it's also a novel which makes you reflect long after the last page has been read.  While we are living the story through Elena, and following her slow progress towards an education, maturity and (possibly) future prosperity, we are also witness to the alternative path taken by Lila, wondering if she has miscalculated in her plan to escape a life of poverty and drudgery.

The book ends dramatically, and not in the way you expect.  Even if I hadn't known My Brilliant Friend was the first part of a trilogy, I would have been expecting a sequel - there are too many questions here left unanswered.  Luckily, we won't have to wait long, as Europa are publishing the second part, The Story of a New Name, in September.  Rest assured, I won't be leaving it as long to get around to Ferrante's work the second time around ;)

Monday 24 June 2013

'Milky Way Railroad' by Kenji Miyazawa (Review)

Bellezza's theme for June in the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 was children's literature - and it's one which is not exactly my preferred genre (to say the least).  However, as luck would have it, I did happen to have a Japanese children's classic hanging around on my J-Lit shelves, one which will be very familiar to any Japanese readers out there - and it all takes place up in the Milky Way...

Kenji Miyazawa's Milky Way Railroad (translated by Joseph Sigrist and D.M. Stroud, published by Stone Bridge Press) was originally written around 1927, and it's a fantasy tale about a boy and a rather unusual train.  One night, on the Japanese celebration of Tanabata, Giovanni walks down to the village in search of the milk which was not delivered that day.  Forced to wait, he wanders up to the top of the hill, when suddenly:
"Giovanni heard a strange voice calling, "Milky Way Station!  Milky Way Station!"  All at once everything before his eyes was illuminated, as if a billion fireflies had been fixed in one perpetual flash and inlaid in the sky."
pp.47/8 (2009, Stone Bridge Press)

The next thing Giovanni knows, he is seated in a train, speeding through the night with his best friend, Campanella.  This is no ordinary train though - instead of riding the rails, the two boys are actually traversing the Milky Way...  How is this possible?  And why has Campanella suddenly appeared to join in Giovanni's journey?  All will be revealed in good time...

First things first.  Milky Way Railroad is a children's book, and if you don't approach it as such, you will be sorely disappointed.  Although my copy is 143-pages long, I read the whole thing in about half an hour, and I suspect most readers would be able to do the same.  The language is fairly simple, and the story is a straight-forward narrative in which the two friends ride the train until it is time for one of them to get off.  Anyone expecting the brilliance of Kawabata or Oe is both misguided and likely to be disappointed ;)

Which is not to say that there isn't more to the story than first meets the eye.  Miyazawa was a schoolteacher (hence the children's fiction), but he was also deeply interested in religion, particularly Buddhism and Christianity, and Milky Way Railroad is, in part, an attempt to reconcile different belief structures.  The travellers actually visit Heaven (well, Northern Cross Station which apparently services it!), and the Italian names given to the two main characters contrast nicely with the Japanese names borne by the obviously western children who get on the train at a later stop.

If you're suspicious of how much I seem to have got from flicking through a kids' book about magic trains, you're right to be.  Most of my insights come from the excellent introduction which D.M. Stroud, who updated Joseph Sigrist's original translation, wrote for this edition.  The translator does a great job of explaining the background of the Tanabata festival and the author's religious and scientific beliefs - in fact, were it not for major plot twists being discussed, this would be very helpful to read before starting the book itself :)

If Milky Way Railroad sounds like something you (or your kid!) would enjoy, then I'd recommend it - just remember that it is a book for children.  Even so, there is a lot to like about it - and plenty of wise words to remember:
"And everyone is Campanella.  Everyone you meet Giovanni - every time you ride on a train -  everyone you ride with and eat apples with.  So it's just as you were thinking before.  Take every opportunity to look for the greatest happiness of all people, and quickly join them on their way." (p.129)
Life is a journey, and you'll meet plenty of people along the way.  Most of them will get on and off at different stations to you; the important thing is to laugh and have fun while you're riding the rails together...

Saturday 22 June 2013

'The Twin' by Gerbrand Bakker (Review)

I'm very keen to take part in blog events for translated fiction, so I was always going to find something for Dutch Lit Fortnight, hosted by Iris on Books.  Surprisingly though, the matter of what to read was also taken out of my hands.  I recently received a copy of The Twin from a kind Twitter follower (@OpShopReading) who had just finished it (thank you!), so when Iris announced that this would be one of the readalong choices, the only thing to do was start reading it ;)

The Twin (translated by David Colmer) was writer Gerbrand Bakker's first novel for adults, and as you can see on the sticker in the picture, it won the IMPAC Dublin Prize in 2010.  It's set in the Dutch countryside, where Helmer, a fifty-something farmer, lives in his family's big, old house, with only his aged father for company.  With his mother and his twin brother, Henk, both long dead, you would think that Helmer would be more friendly to his last remaining family member.  In fact, he appears to harbour deep-seated resentment towards his father, keeping the frail old man locked up in an upstairs bedroom.

The days go by without much change in Helmer's life, despite the changing demands of the seasons - that is, until the farmer begins to suspect that someone is trying to contact him.  A shadow glimpsed outside the house; a ring on the doorbell at night; a phone call where nobody speaks...  Eventually, the stranger announces herself.  The woman trying to summon up the courage to talk to Helmer is Riet - his dead brother's fiancée...

Anyone who has read The Detour, Bakker's IFFP-winning novel, will be on familiar ground with The Twin.  The setting is very similar (if much less hilly), and the central premise of a life interrupted by a chance visitor is too.  However, The Twin is a slower, less urgent book than The Detour, and Helmer is a very different character to Emilie.  This is a man who never really wanted to take over the family farm, and only tragic circumstances have forced him to stay.  Now, he spends his time feeding the cows, checking on the sheep and making polite conversation with the neighbour's wife when she drops by.  There is little evidence of anything else in his life.

Of course, Helmer does have a past, and it is one of missed opportunities, one life cut short and another twisted to take its place.  Part of his resentment towards his father stems from this insistence that Helmer stay on the farm.  The son's dreams of escape, studying literature in the big city and creating a life that doesn't involve cow shit, dissolve in the harsh reality of his brother's death.  It's little wonder that he feels bitter.

Still, the father is not the only one in Helmer's bad books.  Riet, a woman he hasn't seen for decades, is also partly responsible for his situation (as the reader soon finds out).  Quite what her motivation is to send her son, coincidentally called Henk, to work as a hand on Helmer's farm, I'm not really sure.  In any case, in agreeing to take the young man on, Helmer further disturbs his tranquil existence.  After all, Henk is almost family:
"Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there.  He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit.  A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law."
p.192 (Scribe, 2011)
Just as Bradwen interrupts Emilie's solitude in The Detour, Henk the younger makes Helmer reflect on his life and his relationship with his father.  Perhaps it's time for a change - if only it isn't too late...

The Twin is an interesting book, and with its stripped-back style, it's an easy read too.  I'd have to say though that, contrary to what I've read elsewhere, it doesn't really reach the heights of The Detour.  I much preferred the poetry of that book, the majestic peaks of the Welsh countryside and the hidden depths of the main character.  By contrast, Helmer (and the setting) can come across a bit flat...

However, while The Twin is fairly slow-moving, that's not to say that there's nothing going on beneath the surface.  The story is nicely book-ended by the fleeting visits of canoeists paddling past the farm, and while the image the canoeists have is of an unchanging part of the scenery, the reader is aware that a lot has happened in those few months.  Some people have died, others have moved on, and Helmer's life has been changed for good - and perhaps for the better.

On finishing the book, I had a good think about what else was hidden between the pages, and one theme that kept coming to mind, one I haven't seen mentioned much elsewhere, is Helmer's sexuality.  While it would be jumping to conclusions to pigeon-hole a single middle-aged man as gay (or to assume that studying literature in Amsterdam was code for coming out...), there's enough here to make you wonder.  A lot is made of his sleeping naked in the same bed as his brother (and then the other Henk), and his relationship with the farmhand Jaap also has a slight sense of sexual tension (swimming naked, kisses on the lips).

Overthought?  Perhaps?  Important?  Perhaps not.  The reason the idea keeps coming back to me though is that it helps to explain the antagonism between Helmer and his father, one which seems too strong to be put down to the decision to keep Helmer on the farm.  For me, it's an added layer to the story, one which gives Helmer a depth he'd otherwise lack.  Does anyone out there agree, or am I barking up the wrong tree here?  Comments are always welcome ;)

Thursday 20 June 2013

'The Infatuations' by Javier Marías (Review)

After the success of A Heart So White, the only question for me was which Javier Marías work to try next.  Should I look for one of his older works, or could I wait until his next one was released in a few months' time?  Which is when I discovered that the new novel was actually already out in the UK (and Australia), and that my library had a copy available...

The Infatuations (translated, once again, by Margaret Jull Costa) takes place in Madrid, where we follow María Dolz, a young woman working in publishing, who comes to a cafe every morning before work to prepare herself mentally for the day ahead.  Often she sees a man and a woman there, a pair she silently dubs 'The Perfect Couple', and though she never makes contact beyond occasional nods and glances, they become part of her routine.

The couple disappear for a while, and María eventually finds out that the man, Miguel Desvern, was killed in a tragic, senseless street attack.  María sees the wife, Luisa, again one day and condoles her.  She is invited back to the house, and meets a family friend, Javier Díaz-Varela... and it all gets a little bit suspicious from here.  You see, while María is infatuated with Javier (who is happy to have some fun), he only has eyes for the fair widow - which leads the attentive reader to think a little harder about the circumstances of poor Miguel's untimely demise...

The Infatuations is the story of a death which turn out to be less straight-forward and tragic than it first appears.  It soon becomes clear that there is a lot more to the story than what was publicly reported.  However, every time the reader starts to understand (or think they understand) what happened, the writer shifts the goals, changing the question and giving us more food for thought.  While the plot could be a thriller, the way Marías handles it makes it much more.

It's another deeply written work, a novel where every word seems important, or possibly important.  The success of the book depends on the narrative voice, and it's a very good one.  María (sarcastic, hard-bitten, cynical, but loving) tells us the story, one of love, loss, death and murder.  While María is suspicious of Javier's intentions, what interests her (and the reader) is how it all happened - and why.

María's connection with the couple is an interesting one in itself.  Despite seeing them on a regular basis for years, she never gets to talk to them - modern life is busy, and we are left with no time to reflect.  After Miguel's death, she catches herself thinking about ambulances, and the way we moan at delays in traffic instead of thinking about the poor soul inside the vehicle.  Of course, we always think about the dead when it's too late... 

But no matter how much we mourn the dead, do we really want them back?  Marías gently prods at the sore spots of our conscience, suggesting that this is not always the case.  Often, the one left behind is (eventually) better off, and Luisa, in her muddled, grief-affected way, seems to recognise this:
"Like I say, it's changed my way of thinking, and it's as if I don't recognise myself any more; or, rather, it seems to me sometimes that I never knew myself in my previous life, and that Miguel didn't know me either: he couldn't have, it would have been beyond him, isn't that strange?  If the real me is this woman constantly making all these connections and associations, things that a few months ago would have seemed to me completely disparate and unrelated; if I am the person I've been since his death, that means that for him I was always someone else, and had he lived, I would have continued to be the person I'm not, indefinitely."
p.53 (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) 
More importantly, Javier is a firm believer in this philosophy, and hopes that time will heal all wounds...

As much as it is about death and loss, The Infatuations (as you'd expect from the name) also examines love and lust (with a slightly Latin slant).  The book has several overlapping couples, chains of lovers waiting to see which way to jump.  While Javier pursues Luisa, María waits patiently with another lover for distraction:
"...with a little bad luck and a few more lovers of the kind who allow themselves to be loved and neither reject nor reciprocate that love, the chain could have gone on for ever.  A series of people lined up like dominoes, all waiting for the surrender of one entirely oblivious woman, to find out who would fall next to them." (pp.125/6)
It's an endless chain of hopeful lovers waiting for one grieving widow to move on...

Another interesting aspect to the novel is the clever intertwining of stories from classic French fiction with the main story.  Balzac's Colonel Chabert (a story of a man returning from the dead, and the consequences of his return) and Dumas' The Three Musketeers (particularly the part about the origins and return of the ominous Milady) become key to Marías' story, but gradually and skillfully, so that the reader only slowly becomes aware of the significance of the books.  There is also a mention for Old Goriot and (of course!) Macbeth - I am beginning to sense that Marías is obsessed with this play ;)

There are similar themes here to those found in A Heart So White, particularly the idea of letting the past stay there, and the style is again a wonderful creation of long sentences and phrases whose significance only becomes clear later on.  However, there are also some striking differences.  María's voice gives the novel a very different slant, and the humour of the publishing world (hated writers, boring parties, delicately turning down requests to source class-A narcotics...) makes a welcome relief from some of the darker episodes.

One criticism I had is that it is a little slow at times, particularly in the conversations between Javier and María (which appear to be happening at real-life speed...).  Nevertheless, the story keeps the reader's attention to the very end, and (just as in real life) our questions are never truly answered.  After 350 pages, we're no closer to uncovering Marías' secrets than we were at the start - which can be a good thing.

Great writing, and a good story.  If I were a betting man, I'd be putting a few bob on this to make next year's IFFP longlist (and possibly shortlist).  You heard it here first ;)

Tuesday 18 June 2013

'We, the Children of Cats' by Tomoyuki Hoshino (Review)

This year was a bad one for J-Lit in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with no Japanese book on the longlist for 2013.  Over in the US though, one Japanese work did make it onto the (very) longlist for the Best Translated Book Award, the American equivalent of the IFFP, so with Japanese Literature Challenge 7 upon us, I thought it would be a good chance to check it out - mainly to see if the BTBA judges knew what they were doing :)

Tomoyuki Hoshino's We, the Children of Cats (translated by Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser, review copy from publisher PM Press) is a collection of the writer's assorted short works.  It offers us five short stories and three novellas (although one of the novellas is only 32 pages long), enough for the reader to get a good overview of Hoshino's style and themes.

The first story, 'Paper Woman', gives us an insight into Hoshino the writer, right from the very start:
"As I've continued my professional writing career, I've come to think of it as an art that wavers, like a heat shimmer, between joy at the prospect of becoming something else and despair at knowing that such a transformation is ultimately impossible.  One could say that a novel's words trace the pattern of scars left by the struggle between those two feelings.  Which is why a novel should never be seen as a simple expression of an author's self."
p.1 'Paper Woman' (PM Press, 2012)
This idea of transformations is an important one for Hoshino.  In fact, in this story, the transformation is a very unusual and literal one...

Another thing we find out about Hoshino from this collection is his fascination with all things Latin-American.  Whether it's a privileged tourist searching for something worth living for ('Chino'), a dangerous teen sent to Peru to avoid trouble with the law ('Treason Diary'), or a bizarre, tango-influenced novella in an unnamed, imaginary city ('A Milonga for the Melted Moon'), the writer returns to stories of tropical lands, with guerillas, dancing, poverty and football of the round-ball variety.  While it would be easy to ascribe Murakami influences to Hoshino's stories, in this case García Marquez is probably a more likely source.

Many of the stories look at outsiders fleeing from rigid, dull Japanese society, and a couple look at the idea of 'Japaneseness'.  The young man in 'Chino' knows that his attempts to transform into a Latino freedom fighter are doomed from the start:
"No matter how dirty I might look, I knew my travels were buoyed on that lighter-than-air aluminum one-yen coin.  A mode of travel little better than drifting and staring: never to touch down, never to make contact with other worlds, never to dive right in.  I knew my body stank of yen, and would show me up as an outsider wherever I went."
'Chino' (p.37)

On the whole though, Hoshino is more interested in minorities than bored rich kids.  'Air' takes a magical look at gender identity, describing a man and a woman who both fall somewhere in the middle of traditional binary gender descriptions.  Forced to keep their 'irregularities' secret, they eventually find each other (at a GLBT Mardi-Gras-type event), culminating in a gender-bending climax which leaves both in a new state.

Interestingly, several of the stories are based (rather loosely) on real-life incidents, with Hoshino providing an alternative take on facts.  The novella 'Sand Planet', the longest piece in the collection, uses the story of Japanese settlers in the Dominican Republic, and a mass curry poisoning at an elementary school (a news event I remember very well from my time in Japan!), to create a fabulous story of a journalist attempting to make sense of his life.  The events of 'Treason Diary' are also based in fact, as the two main characters were suggested by two teen criminals whose families spirited them out of the country...

As fascinating as the true(ish) stories are though, it is Hoshino's imagination and style which catch your attention.  From the frankly bizarre 'The No Fathers Club', a piece in which the eponymous club is suggested by a strange sport called no-ball soccer, to the mind- (and gender-) bending events of 'A Milonga for the Melted Moon', the writer creates incredible, uncanny landscapes.  The latter story is the strangest (and best) in the collection, and it is a difficult tale to follow at times, mainly because of the constant switch in perspective between the two main characters, a man and a woman who switch clothes, viewpoints and bodily fluids (and if you think you know what that means, you don't...).

It really is a question of where one person ends and the other begins, and the language used reflects this.  At times, words and sentences melt into one another, and the image created is of a slightly off-kilter world, recognisable but foreign:
"You and I both, as we walk this earth, are nothing more than shadow sculptures carved from light.  Everyone here is just light thrown by the city in the sky as it shines in the night.  This city is so filled with light the night shines like the midday sun, the silver from the sky as it falls on the surface of the river builds up and combines with the new light falling from the sky, the proof is in the way the light comes not just from the sky but from the ground beneath our feet: no shadows trouble the surfaces of this city.  Instead they hang suspended, unmoored from the ground, and eventually turn back into birds, back into people."
'A Milonga for the Melted Moon' (p.186)
The final story of the collection is fifty pages of elegant confusion and madness, and it's brilliant :)

While two translators are listed, Brian Bergstrom does most of the heavy lifting (Lucy Fraser's 'Chino' is the exception), and he also provides a wonderful thirty-page essay on the stories to complete the book.  This afterword discusses Hoshino's influences and fascination with Latin America, and also examines each of the stories in turn, teasing out common themes.  It's an addition which helps the reader to understand where Hoshino is coming from, and another example of the kind of extras which can make a great book even better (if only all publishers of translated fiction did this...).

I loved this collection, and I'm very glad I decided to check it out.  Having also received a copy of Hoshino's novel, Lonely Hearts Killer, from the publisher, he might well turn out to be my next new favourite J-Lit writer.  If you're in the market for well-written, fantastical literary fiction, this one is for you :)

Sunday 16 June 2013

'Stone upon Stone' by Wiesław Myśliwski (Review)

After all the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize business was completed, I was planning to read the winner of the Best Translated Book Award, to see how the two laureates compared.  Of course, that idea was shelved when the BTBA winner turned out to be Satantango, a book I'd already reviewed...  Instead, I turned back to 2012, to see how last year's American choice matched up to the IFFP winner, Blooms of Darkness.  Seconds out, it's round two in the IFFP-BTBA duel of champions ;)

Wiesław Myśliwski's Stone upon Stone (translated by Bill Johnston, published by Archipelago Books) is a hefty novel, but a surprisingly smooth read.  It consists of eight thematic chapters, all narrated by Szymek Pietruszka, an elderly farmer in the Polish provinces.  In effect, the book is a lengthy monologue, one in which Szymek tells stories about life, land and family - and he certainly knows how to tell a story...

From the initial tale of his struggles to find the time, money and materials to build a family tomb, Szymek takes us on a trip through time, recounting stories of his days in the Polish resistance during the Second World War.  While it's difficult to keep the narrator on a path free of digressions, the patient reader is eventually rewarded with more glimpses of what came between the end of the war and his current situation.  If Szymek appears to be a lonely old man stuck on a farm in the middle of nowhere, there are reasons for the way he has ended up.

Szymek is a man heading towards the end of his life, and his stories help us to see how society has progressed in his home country.  While modern comforts have made life a little easier, on the whole, Szymek thinks life has gone downhill since his youth.  The best example of this comes from the chapter 'The Road', where the newly-surfaced route through the village allows people to drive to neighbouring towns in comfort.  Unfortunately, the farmers now find it hard to get their horses and carriages across the road with the harvest (traffic lights were obviously a later invention...):
"There's no more peace to be had in our village.  Nothing but cars and cars and cars.  It's like they built the road for cars alone and forgot about the people.  But are there only cars living in the world?  Maybe a time'll come when there won't be any more people, only cars.  Then I hope the damn things'll kill each other.  I hope they have wars, worse than human wars.  I hope they hate each other and fight and curse each other.  Till one day maybe a Car God will appear, and it'll make him angry and he'll drown the lot of them."
pp.67/8 (Archipelago Books, 2010)

The narrator (and perhaps the writer) also feels uneasy about the loss of connection with the land.  In his father's day, the land was everything, coming before school, illness or hunger, and it was the farmer's duty to tend to it - man is short-lived, but the land goes on forever.  When the war starts, Szymek's father uses this as an excuse to try to stop his son leaving the farm:
"What do we have to fight about?  We plow and plant and mow, are we in anyone's way?  War won't change the world.  People'll just go off and kill each other, then afterwards it'll be the same as it was before.  And as usual it'll be us country folk that do most of the dying.  And nobody will even remember that we fought, or why.  Because when country folks die they don't leave monuments and books behind, only tears.  They rot in the land, and even the land doesn't remember them.  If the land was going to remember everyone it would have to stop giving birth to new life.  But the land's job is to give birth." (p.156)

However, now it is the land's duty to make man a profit, and the farmers follow whatever trend will make the most money in the shortest time, even if this has negative long-term consequences.  Fields are sown with unsuitable (but lucrative) crops, and liberal sprinklings of nitrates are used to increase yields.  Worst of all, the younger folk are abandoning their homes for the city, leaving the land to the mercy of the old and frail.

While the land plays an important role, the heart of the book is the enigmatic Szymek though, and it is his personal story which fascinates us.  Despite his measured, friendly tone, we gradually learn that he's not quite as nice as he may appear at first glance.  He's a drinker, a fighter, a user of women, a man we shouldn't really warm to.  He's a charismatic old bloke though, and he does have redeeming features (quite apart from his war hero status) and the more we learn, the more we understand about why he grew up that way, and why he is still alone...

Stone Upon Stone is an excellent read, and a fairly easy one at that.  I wolfed it down in four days (not bad for around 560 pages), and that is due in part to the fairly simple language used in the book.  In the excellent interview with Scott Esposito (available as a Two Voices podcast), Bill Johnston talks about how the key to translating the book into English was finding the right way to bring Szymek's voice across into the new language.  His solution was to avoid complex Latin-based words, sticking with simpler Germanic-based vocabulary.  Whether that's the reason for the success or not, the voice definitely works.

Whether you're interested in twentieth-century Poland or just a sucker for a good story, this is a book for you.  Szymek's rambling tales, with digression following digression until the chapter (and, eventually, the whole book) comes full circle, are entertaining and thought-provoking, whether they are stories of joyous drunken rampages or suspense-filled moments in the cold, Polish forests, waiting for the enemy to appear.  In the end, it's a book about life - but one, that begins, and ends, with the inescapable image of a tomb...

...that is, if he can get the cement.

In terms of BTBA v IFFP then, I'd have to say that the score is 2-0 to the American prize.  While the 2013 contest was a close one, with Satantango just edging out The Detour in a battle of very, very different styles (Krasznahorkai's never-ending sentences against Bakker's stripped-back prose), the 2012 bout was a no-contest.  I have made no secret of the fact that Aharon Appelfeld's Blooms of Darkness was one of my least favourite books on the 2012 IFFP shortlist, and Stone Upon Stone is simply a far better novel.

I quite like the idea of a transatlantic translation showdown - watch out for more BTBA-IFFP battles in the future ;)

Thursday 13 June 2013

'Blindness' by José Saramago (Review)

Recently, I read my first book by José Saramago, and the success of that venture inevitably led to a second look at the Portuguese Nobel-Prize-winner's world.  While Raised from the Ground is perhaps a lesser-known work, today's review looks at what might be his most famous novel.  As always though, the question is, is it any good?

Blindness (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, some revision by Margaret Jull Costa) is a great example of literary speculative fiction, with the whole premise of the book hinging on one single 'what if'.  The novel begins with a queue of frustrated drivers at a set of traffic lights, angry at a man who is sitting in front of a green light.  When someone comes to see what has happened, the explanation is unexpected - the man has gone blind.  But he's just the first...

Slowly, the blindness begins to spread, first to those around the blind man, and then to all the people they have contact with.  Before long, the government is forced to lock those affected in an old, abandoned mental institute in an attempt to stop the spread of the blindness before it is too late.  However, one of the people detained in the makeshift hospital-cum-prison has a secret - you see, she seems to be immune to the sickness...

It's a great premise and a great book, the story of an unprecedented epidemic and its consequences.  Even the type of blindness is unusual: not only is it contagious, but also milky-white...  As the first man to go blind says:
"He had even reached the point of thinking that the darkness in which the blind live was nothing other than the simple absence of light, that what we call blindness was something that simply covered the appearance of beings and things, leaving them intact behind their black veil.  Now, on the contrary, here he was, plunged into a whiteness so luminous, so total, that it swallowed up rather than absorbed, not just the colours, but the very things and beings, thus making them twice as invisible."
p.8 (Vintage, 2005)
The doctor's wife, the only person untouched by the epidemic, acts as the reader's eyes in this world of the blind.  Through her, we can see how, after initial panic and imprisonment, society starts to crumble as people come to terms with the thought that this may not be a passing event.  What would we do if everyone eventually went blind?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the action taken by the authorities.  Those affected are immediately isolated from the rest of society as the government tries desperately to halt the possibility of an epidemic.  Despite claims that those afflicted would be looked after, the ethical dilemmas of the situation mean that they are effectively abandoned, with those outside struggling just to keep their sight.  The recorded loudspeaker announcements each day (the only way many of the 'patients' have of marking time) become increasingly ludicrous.  In claiming that "everything is going to be all right" if the blind people cooperate, there are obvious allusions to Nazi labour camps...

The scenario also allows the writer to explore what happens when people are unable to look after themselves.  Trapped in the hospital, with no supplies of any kind (and with soldiers ready to shoot them if they set foot outside the building), the norms of hygiene quickly disappear.  The floors are covered with human waste, and very soon other diseases begin to spread.  However, things are no better outside: cities are soon brought to a standstill (driving, for obvious reasons, is decidedly tricky), and the streets fill with rubbish and filth.  It doesn't take long for society to revert to a system of small groups or clans, each looking out for its own interests.

While the physical degradation is bad enough, the effect the blindness has on people's morals is worse.  The inmates immediately descend into squabbles and try to cheat each other out of food.  The soldiers outside loathe and fear the people (or things...) they are guarding, and once it becomes clear that the outside world is not going to get involved in matters inside the hospital, things get very ugly indeed.  This is a book which can be very disturbing in parts...

In such a disturbing world, it's the little things that help.  Rather than money or jewels, people just want some food, a bath, clean clothes.  Even water is becoming a luxury, one to be savoured when it is available:
"This time she took the lamp and went to the kitchen, she returned with the bottle, the light shone through it, it made the treasure inside sparkle.  She put it on the table, went to fetch the glasses, the best they had, of finest crystal, then, slowly, as if she were performing a rite, she filled them.  At last, she said, Let's drink.  The blind hands groped and found the glasses, they raised them trembling.  Let's drink, the doctor's wife said again.  In the middle of the table, the lamp was like a sun surrounded by shining stars.  When they had put the glasses back on the table, the girl with the dark glasses and the old man with the eyepatch were crying." (p.262)
It's a nice moment, but one which is surrounded by (a milky-white) darkness.  Surely, this can't go on for ever?

The story, in itself, is impressive enough, but Saramago's style gives it a little something more, making the novel even more fantastic.  Although there are chapters, most of them consist of fairly long paragraphs, full of unbroken sentences, streams of thoughts connected by commas.  There are no quotation marks, and a change of speaker is indicated by a comma and a capital letter - long, quick-moving conversations can be very tricky to follow.  Blindness has no real names for its characters, with each being described by their function or distinguishing features (the first blind man, the doctor, the girl with dark glasses), a choice which intensifies the (deliberate) feeling of disorientation.
"...we're so remote from the world that any day now, we shall no longer know who we are, or even remember our names, and besides, what use would names be to us, no dog recognises another dog or knows the others by the names they have been given, a dog is identified by its scent and that is how it identifies others, here we are like another breed of dogs, we know each other's bark or speech, as for the rest, features, colour of eyes or hair, they are of no importance, it is as if they did not exist..." (p.55)
In the land of the blind, voices are much more useful than names...

Returning to my question - is it any good?  Of course it is - it's a wonderful novel.  Credit must go again to the translator, this time Giovanni Pontiero, for the excellent work done in bringing this unique style across into English.  I can't wait to read more of Saramago's work, in particular Seeing, the sequel to Blindness.

I do like it when I find another great writer who's written lots of books :)

Monday 10 June 2013

'Sixty-Nine' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

Today marks the third stop on my Ryu Murakami tour, and it's time to get away from the capital.  This time we're on the southern island of Kyushu, with a schoolkid who just wants to have fun.  Oh, and we're heading back to the sixties...

Sixty-Nine (translated by Ralph McCarthy, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is the story of a year in the life of writer Kensuke Yazaki.  At the ripe of old age of thirty-two, he is looking back to his final year of high school in 1969, a time of music, free love and university demonstrations.  Well, in Tokyo perhaps - things are a little different in the provincial town of Sasebo...

Stuck in a small town miles from anywhere, where the only people having fun are the sailors on the US navy base, Ken wants to rebel and comes up with a couple of crazy ideas.  His first plan, a barricade of the school, brings him a certain notoriety, and he then decides that what Sasebo really needs is an arts festival, a celebration of all things cultural (it is the sixties, after all).  He has little clue how to do it all, but he is definitely of the 'if you plan it, they will come' school of thought.  Ken is a young firebrand, a rebel with a cause - the cause just happens to be impressing the beautiful Kazuko Matsui...

Sixty-Nine is a great read.  It's hugely entertaining, very funny in parts, a reminder that our school years weren't quite as bad as we sometimes imagine them.  While the writing occasionally slips into teen fiction, there's always a little more beneath the surface (and Murakami is most definitely an adult writer...).  The story takes us back to the end of the sixties in the sticks, where the kids are desperately trying to imitate what they think is happening in major world centres.

The centre of the book is the character of Ken, and he's the best one Murakami has come up with in the three books I've read so far.  He's brilliantly selfish, completely shallow - and yet he's an irrestible, loveable kid.  Typically hormone-driven, his mad quixotic plans are fuelled by lust, and he'll run any risk (and offend any onlooker) in an attempt to impress the object of his desire.  Cast her in the lead role of his play?  No worries.  Steal a friend's LP to 'lend' to his potential girlfriend?  Done ;)

He's also fairly clever and more than a little sardonic, constantly suckering the reader into believing his tall tales before pulling the rug out from under their feet:
"The winter I turned sixteen I'd run away from home.  My reason for doing so was that I'd perceived a fundamental contradiction in the entire examination system and wanted to get away from my home and school and out on the streets in order to better think about this and to ponder the significance of the struggle that had developed that year between the student radicals and the aircraft carrier 'Enterprise'.  Sorry.  That's not exactly true.  The truth is that I didn't want to take part in a long-distance race at school.  Long-distance running had always been a weak point with me.  I'd hated it ever since junior high school.  Now that I'm thirty-two and wiser, of course, I still hate it."
p.21 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
However, he's not quite as all-knowing as he claims; he's good at talking the talk, but he doesn't always walk the walk (he knows a lot of books, but he's never read them...)

His energy gets things done though.  It's the old miracle of youth - Ken walks through fire and somehow always comes out unscathed, whether he's up against school teachers, political groups or hulking schoolboys with big wooden swords.  While his friends Adama and Iwase help sort out the logistics, it's Ken who is the big thinker, the one who always comes up with the vision (usually an impressive one).

While Sixty-Nine is essentially a humorous book, there are some serious moments.  Ken's rebellion often comes from his libido, but it has a serious side too.  He is rebelling against a stifling world order as he doesn't want to become another drone, and this leads him to question the filtering system Japan's education department uses.  In a world where adults are the enemy, any support is welcome:
"I felt tears brimming up.  Ever since the bust, we'd been under constant attack from adults.  My father was the first to offer any sort of encouragement.
     "If the revolution comes, you boys could end up being heroes, and the principal could be the one hanging from a rope.  That's the way these things go."
     He started waving the sparklers around again.  Sparklers burn themselves out in no time at all...
     But they're beautiful." (pp.106/7)
It's a touching moment, one of several which pop up unexpectedly throughout the story.

At times though, Sixty-Nine is just plain funny.  The chapter on the school barricade is a great one, even if it does descend into toilet humour at one point (and I chose those words very carefully...).  Other scenes are just, well... judge for yourself:
"Whatcha gonna do with 'em?" said the man who ran the place as we walked around inside.  He was a small, bald, middle-aged guy who looked exactly as you'd expect a chicken farmer to look.
     "We're going to use them in a play."
     "A play?  What is it, a play about a poultry farmer?"
     "No, it's by Shakespeare.  And there's just no way to stage it without chickens." (p.170)
Chickens - just priceless...

The novel is typical R. Murakami style, but much lighter than the previous two I've read.  Whether you're into heavy literature or pulp fiction, you'll love it, and you'll be hoping Ken can pull off a miracle and make the festival a success (and get the girl to boot!).

See - he can write a novel without destroying Tokyo ;)

"Ryu Murakami has no connection with Haruki Murakami"
This sentence comes from a press release that came with my copy of From the Fatherland, with Love (a book I'll getting to fairly soon), and I can understand how poor Ryu must be sick of the questions and comparisons ;)  But...

...a few things struck me after finishing the book.  Let's compare Sixty-Nine with one of H. Murakami's most famous works...

Norwegian Wood was published in 1987, but was set in the late 1960s.
Sixty- Nine was published in 1987, but was set in 1969.

In Norwegian Wood, a loner reads books, avoids political events, and drifts into sex with nice girls.
In Sixty-Nine, a gregarious school-kid pretends to have read books, makes things happen, and chases impossibly gorgeous girls.

Perhaps that sums up the similarities and differences better than any essay ever could ;)
But if you want more sweeping generalisations...

This is Toru Watanabe:

This is Kensuke Yazaki:

And do you know what?  There's room for both in this world ;)

Thursday 6 June 2013

'The Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa (Review)

I'm not a big believer in coincidences, but sometimes it's hard not to believe that the universe is trying to tell you something. On the same day I was to start my latest venture into Spanish-language literature, several sources reported that the book had been voted best Spanish novel of this century so far. I was a little confused by the news, as I was fairly certain that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was actually Peruvian...  As it turns out, he has Spanish citizenship, so he's eligible to be on that list - but does the book deserve it?  Let's find out...

The Feast of the Goat (translated by Edith Grossman) is a political thriller set in the Dominican Republic, one which looks at the end of the country's Trujillo dictatorship in May 1961.  The novel starts decades after though, when Urania Cabral, a New York lawyer (and the daughter of a Trujillo supporter), returns to Santo Domingo after thirty-five years of self-imposed exile.  She visits her father, paralysed by a stroke, and has dinner with relatives - but none of this is her real reason for returning to her home country after decades away.

Meanwhile, back in 1961, the seventy-year-old dictator is getting ready for the day, unaware that, in a third strand of the story, a small group of men is getting ready to put an end to both the regime and his life.  Over 400 pages, and three discrete strands, the reader will find out exactly what happened on the fateful day, and what the consequences were for the country.  We might also find out what made Urania stay in the US for so long...

The Feast of the Goat, despite its multiple strands, is a fairly straight-forward piece of historical fiction, with Trujillo, the great dictator, at the heart of the story.  Despite his age, he is still a formidable figure; however, sanctions and pressure from without (America) and within (the Catholic church) means that he has to be on his guard.  Initially, he comes across as a stereotypical sociopathic despot, one who has a whole country cowering. The more we learn though, the more subtle his depiction becomes.  While we could never condone his behaviour, Vargas Llosa helps us to understand what makes him tick.

The same can't be said for his family.  His two sons are blood-thirsty playboys, swanning around the world playing polo and sleeping with any woman they deem desirable enough, and his wife cares only for money (and revenge for any perceived slights).  The writer is careful to provide us with details of the excesses the ruling family allow themselves:
"The crowning events of the commemoration were the promotion of Ramfis to the rank of lieutenant general, for outstanding service to the nation, and the enthroning of Her Gracious Majesty Angelita I, Queen of the Fair, who arrived by boat, announced by all the sirens in the navy and all the bells in all the churches of the capital, wearing her crown of precious jewels and her delicate gown of tulle and lace created in Rome by the Fontana sisters, two celebrated modistes who used forty-five meters of Russian ermine to create the costume with a train three meters long and a robe that copied the one worn by Elizabeth II of England at her coronation."
p.98 (Faber and Faber, 2002)
It's little wonder that the Trujillos have enemies.  When you enjoy yourselves at the country's expense, you're always likely to be heading for a fall.

That fall is closer than the dictator realises.  A mixed bag of conspirators (some activists, some former supporters - one is even Trujillo's bodyguard) have decided that the time has come to redeem themselves and sanitise the land.  In the words of Antonio Imbert, one of the conspirators:
"It had been this malaise of so many years' duration - thinking one thing and doing something that contradicted it every day - that led him, in the secret recesses of his mind, to condemn Trujillo to death, to convince himself that as long as Trujillo lived, he and many other Dominicans would be condemned to this awful queasy sickness of constantly having to lie to themselves and deceive everyone else, of having to be two people in one, a public lie and a private truth that could not be expressed." (p.141)
The group hopes to take out Trujillo surgically and usher in a new era of peace in the Dominican Republic.  Sadly though, operations are rarely as clean and surgical as one would like...

While it's fairly easy for the reader to understand why Trujillo needs to be assassinated, the question of his popularity is not quite so clear.  The writer gradually helps the reader catch up with the region's history, detailing the occupation by Haiti, the push for independence and Trujillo's defiance of invasions and sanctions alike.  There's also the small matter of the Generalissimo's persona, as described by one of Trujillo's military commanders:
"He never allowed anyone to treat him with disrespect.  But, like so many officers, so many Domincans, before Trujillo his valor and sense of honor disappeared, and he was overcome by a paralysis of his reason and his muscles, by servile obedience and reverence.  He often had asked himself why the mere presence of the Chief - his high-pitched voice and the fixity of his gaze - annihilated him morally." (p.309)
We are witness to several examples of the effect the dictator's aura has on those around him - and with complete control of newspapers and radio stations, he has ample opportunity to show it to the rest of the nation as well.

Urania's story, of course, takes place long after the events of 1961, but her experience is somehow tied in with both of the other strands of the story.  What made her leave the Dominican Republic?  Did it have anything to do with her father's dismissal?  What is her connection with Trujillo?  While the answers to these questions are not really key to the main story, they do keep you guessing right to the end.

Overall, The Feast of the Goat is an interesting book, one which people fond of historical fiction will like.  However, I had several issues with it, and I can't say that it lived up to the rest of my recent reading.  The prose was fairly pedestrian, with none of the sparkle of Saramago, the languid skill of Marías, or the dry, Borgesian elegance.  In particular, the first part was incredibly slow-paced,  full of info dumping, tedious in parts.  It's definitely not a bad read, but the best Spanish novel of last 12 years?  Not in my book...

I'm sure I'll give Vargas Llosa another go at some point (he is a Nobel winner, after all), but in my opinion this was just an OK book.  There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose.  It's just that (as you can see from my May wrap-up post) I really don't do ordinary ;)

Tuesday 4 June 2013

'American Stories' by Nagai Kafu (Review)

Japanese Literature Challenge 7 has just started, and to kick off my contribution, I thought I'd review a book I received quite recently, but one I'd been after for a while.  When I initially requested a copy from Columbia University Press, the hardback had gone out of print, so I was delighted when a paperback copy unexpectedly dropped through my letter-box a few months later :)  The name of the writer is probably familiar, the book perhaps less so, but it does just what it says on the cover...

Nagai Kafu's American Stories (translated, and with an introduction, by Mitsuko Iriye) is a collection of short works written during the author's time overseas.  While Mori Ogai chose to pursue medical studies in Germany (and Natsume Soseki had a horrid two years studying literature in England), Nagai's coming-of-age trip to the west took him to the United States - and (naturally) he decided to write about his experiences in a country he considered to be the new capital of the world.

American Stories is a strange book in many ways though.  While at times it reflects Nagai's own experiences (similar in tone to Heinrich Böll's Irish Diary or a more literary Bill Bryson), other parts are straight fiction, short stories reflecting the people and places he came across on his travels.  What links many of the stories is the way Nagai uses frame narratives and stories within stories, perhaps hiding his own opinions within a Russian-doll structure.

There are a few common themes the writer explores in American Stories.  One is the plight of poor immigrant workers, many from the west or south of Japan, who head to America in search of a more lucrative existence.  Sadly, many of them find themselves living in cramped, dirty, Japanese quarters, and Nagai has an almost unnatural interest in penetrating the darker regions of his new home.  'Night Stroll' recounts a nocturnal visit the narrator pays to a Japanese area of New York, while in 'A Night at Seattle Harbor', he visits a seedy bar over on the other coast.  In both stories, Nagai (or an alter-ego) comes across as a casual visitor, a scientist examining creatures of interest...
"It is strange how one develops a taste for evil.  Why is it that the forbidden fruit tastes so delicious?  Prohibition adds the sweetness and transgression increases the fragrance.  As the flow of a mountain stream does not become violent unless there are rocks, so too is man incapable of discovering the excitement of crime, the pleasure of evil, unless he has conscience and morality."
'Night Stroll', p. 207 (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Nagai is well-known for his stories of Tokyo night-life, and he often covers the same ground here.  Several of his stories revolve around men bewitched by ladies of dubious morals.  In 'Long Hair', a Japanese student enters into a relationship with a woman whose marriage ended because of her infidelity, abandoning his studies and becoming her plaything.  In a sign of what might be to come for that student, a later story, 'Old Regrets', has an old professor telling the story of how his marriage ended - after confessing to an embarrassing affair with a low-class actress.

The tales of sexual tension and frustration don't end there.  Many of the Japanese men featured in the stories appear to be struggling with balancing respectability and libido in a place far from home (you do start to wonder how much of this is autobiographical...), and we eventually move from extra-marital affairs to the pleasure quarters.  There is much talk of the difference between prostitution in Japan and the US, and in 'Ladies of the Night', the Japanese reader is 'treated' to an insight, in the form of one night in a New York brothel.

Rest assured that it's not all about sex.  Nagai does a great job of exploring the continent through the eyes of a newcomer, comparing the wide-open, continental expanses with his home landscape, and marvelling at the newly-built skylines of Chicago and New York.  In one of the final stories, 'A June Night's Dream', he describes a tender, doomed love affair, a last encounter with a woman (and the country) before he has to sail off across the Atlantic...

On the whole though, the stories look at characters with ambiguous feelings towards their mother country and their adopted home.  'Daybreak', set on one night on Coney Island, sees a young Japanese man explaining to the narrator why he has run away from his responsibilities and joined, if not the circus, the carnival at least.  'January First', set during a New Year's party of ex-pat Japanese, looks at the role of women in Japanese society, one which the main protagonist compares unfavourably to that of American women.
"I rejoice each time I see a young woman taking a big bite out of a sandwich or an unpeeled apple at a spring picnic in the fields, or married women drinking champagne and chattering away at a restaurant late at night after the opera or the theater with little regard for their husbands or the other men in their group, or even more extreme examples; at least they are enjoying themselves, having fun, and are happy.  Because I never saw a mother or a wife in a happy state, such scenes are so soothing to me." 'January First', (p.141)

Translator Michiko Iriye does a good job, even if the dialogue is a little too faithful to the original at times (I would have preferred a bit more realistic, earthy dialogue considering some of the people who are talking...), but where she excels is in the introduction.  It contains a great background to Nagai's travels and an excellent explanation of the state of Japanese literature at the start of the twentieth century.  In contrasting Nagai's style with what was in fashion at the time, she allows the reader to see why these stories would have been seen as a breath of fresh air.  And perhaps still are :)

I loved this collection, and I'm hoping to dip into it again from time to time, but I do have a word of caution for anyone thinking about picking it up on my recommendation.  The stories were written right at the start of the twentieth century, and a century later some of the casual racism and sexism may be startling.  There are comments about Negroes, women, sweaty meat-eating westerners and even his fellow Japanese - Nagai certainly wasn't afraid of speaking his mind.  I wouldn't let it put you off - just bear in mind that these stories were written in very different times...