Thursday 30 January 2014

'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Murakami (Review)

It's time for the second January in Japan readalong, and our choice is a novel I've read several times, but not since I started blogging.  It's a great book and one which is very close to my heart - as you'll find out...

Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood (translated by Jay Rubin) begins with thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe flying into Hamburg on business.  As the song Norwegian Wood comes on over the plane's music system, he feels a pang of nostalgia and is transported back to his youth...

We follow him to 1969, where young Toru is a university student, sitting out the student protests and walking the streets of Tokyo every Sunday with Naoko, an old friend from his high school days.  After their relationship intensifies, she suffers a breakdown, running away to a sanatorium outside Kyoto.  Meanwhile, Toru's friendship with the outgoing Midori threatens to become something more, leaving the confused student wondering which path he should take.  It's a crossroads in his life, one where a false step will have serious consequences for the future.

Let me be clear - it's very hard for me to be totally objective about Norwegian Wood, one of my very first J-Lit encounters.  I initially read it a couple of years after coming back from Japan, and this coloured my interpretation of the book, with my first few reads focused on the nostalgia.  Toru's adventures forced me to think back, both to my time in Japan (the names, the places, the food, the trains...) and to my own student days, which were fast receding into memory.

What surprised me this time was how differently I saw the book.  I'm different now, older, a little better read perhaps, and a lot more analytical (a good example is the mention of Toru's copy of The Magic Mountain, a detail which has added significance since I read Mann's work last year).  This time, Murakami's book wasn't the comforting, meandering story I remembered, and initially I wasn't sure if it was still one for me...

As I got further into the book, what became apparent was a much more serious approach than I remembered.  This time, I was far more aware of the dark side of the novel and the examination of the issue of mental illness.  Right at the start, we come across a familiar topic:
"As we ambled along, Naoko spoke to me of wells."
p.2 (Vintage, 2000)
Anyone who has read a few of Murakami's works will have come across a well or two, and while this is a real one, it's also Murakami's favourite metaphor for the psyche.  Just as the people in Naoko's village warn of the danger of falling into the abandoned well, so too do the characters in Norwegian Wood risk tumbling into the hole of depression.  Toru's childhood friend Kizuki has already succumbed, and Naoko is tottering on the edge of the abyss.

However, I never really noticed before how close Toru himself is to plunging into depression - if he hasn't already.  More than just the monotony of student life and Naoko's absence, it's a deeper, more troubling worry which is affecting his moods and behaviour:
"At 5.30 I closed my book, went outside and ate a light supper.  How many Sundays - how many hundreds of Sundays like this - lay ahead of me?  "Quiet peaceful and lonely," I said aloud to myself.  On Sundays, I didn't wind my spring." (p.262)
Again, looking back on my student days, this is painfully close to home.

We see several examples of what one character describes as 'the snap', where a life can spiral out of control in an instant, even if the real causes have been present for some time.  Toru's difficult relationships drag him towards this point, and he is forced to make a choice between Naoko and Midori, one which Jay Rubin, in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, describes as one between life and death.  However (as Rubin rightly points out) Toru's final actions are more than a little confused, and the decision he eventually makes is not quite as clear cut as you might think...

Norwegian Wood was Murakami's big breakout book in Japan, a novel which disappointed many of his fans because of its apparent conformity, while also selling millions to people who had never wanted to try his work before.  It's a slightly autobiographical work, Murakami's attempt at the popular Japanese obsession of the I-Novel; Rubin (again) comments on obvious similarities with Murakami's time at Waseda University and his first encounters with his eventual wife, Yoko.

It's still recognisably a Murakami work though.  In addition to the obvious surface features (cats, wells, ears, jazz - you know the drill...), there are plenty of other links to Murakami's fictional world.  The parallel lives of Naoko's 'hostel' outside Kyoto and the events in Tokyo are reminiscent of the two worlds making up Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, while the themes of suicide and depression are very familiar to anyone who has read books (e.g. A Wild Sheep Chase) in The Trilogy (or Tetralogy) of the Rat.  Toru's disappointment with the (hypocritical) student protesters is a further criticism of capitalism, with Toru as just another of Murakami's silent protesters against the soulless progress of modern society.

Amidst the darkness though, there are plenty of lighter moments, and the writer's dry humour manages to penetrate the tension:
"Hey, are we counter-revolutionaries?" Midori asked me when we were outside.  "Are we going to be strung upon telegraph poles if the revolution succeeds?"
"Let's have lunch first, just in case." (p.75)
While I focused more on the serious issues in this review, in the end, it's a book which can't help but win you over with its abundant charm and its echoes of youth.

The adult Toru's decision to write down his memories came from the realisation that his memories of Naoko had faded and changed, and I'd have to say that I felt the same way.  I'm a different me, and this was a very different reading.  Today's post is my attempt to nail down my impressions of the novel at this point in time, to analyse what it is that I get from Murakami and his book.  I'm sure next time will be different too - and there'll definitely be a next time :)

Tuesday 28 January 2014

'Deep River' by Shusaku Endo (Review)

Shusaku Endo is one of our recent additions to the J-Lit Giants hall of fame, and a well deserved one.  I've enjoyed several of his books, and I've had this novel, highly recommended, on the shelves for a long time.  Fortunately, it didn't disappoint...

Deep River (translated by Van C. Gessel, published by New Directions) is centred on a package tour to India by a group of Japanese tourists in October 1984 (the date is significant...).  Over the course of just over two-hundred pages, we meet many people, all with different motivations for making the trip abroad.

Four of the group members stand out.  There's Numada, a children's author, who finds peace in nature, preferring animals to people; old soldier Kiguchi, returning to the subcontinent to make offerings to his dead colleagues;  Mitsuko, a single woman searching for meaning in her empty life; and Isobe, an old man whose wife recently died of cancer.  Her last wish was for him to look for her after her death - you see, she believes in reincarnation...

The story starts off slowly as we learn about the background of the main characters and their reasons for joining the tour.  While interesting in its way, I was a little impatient at times, with the writer taking half the book to get us to India.  It is important though, as these first chapters set up everything that happens when we arrive.

Of the main characters, it's perhaps Isobe and Mitsuko (who nursed Isobe's wife in hospital) who stand out.  Isobe is a typical, unemotional Japanese salaryman, learning to cope with life alone after decades of being cared for in a conventional, dry Japanese marriage.  His wife's death throws him off guard, leaving him unable to quite grasp what has happened:
"Isobe could not bring himself to believe that the strangely pallid fragments of bone strewn in the box were those of his wife.  What the hell is this?  What are we doing? He mumbled to himself as he stood beside his weeping mother-in-law and several other female relatives.  This isn't her."
p.18 (New Directions, 1994)
He doesn't believe in reincarnation, but with his life partner gone, he decides it's worth thinking about.  And so he sets off to look for his wife...

Mitsuko is a very different case.  Divorced, jaded, angry - she's looking for something to occupy her as she exclaims:
"Just what the hell is it I want?" (p.68)
Despite her affluence and attractive appearance, she's trapped in an empty life, seeing herself in the tragic heroine of a French novel she reads, Thérèse Desqueyroux.  Her fate is linked with that of an aspiring catholic priest Otsu, her former lover, who she attempted to seduce and steal from God during her university years.

Otsu, while absent for long periods of the novel, is another important figure.  He's a Japanese Christian with dangerous heretical opinions, views which prevent him from ever progressing in his quest to become a priest.  Pantheistic and inclusive, he's a Christian of the east, unable to accept the strict doctrines of the Catholic church.  In many ways, it's inevitable that he'll end up in India.

When he sees the Ganges, it's as if he's found what he's been looking for all this time.  It's a river of life and death, inclusive and welcoming:
"The river, as always, silently flowed by.  The river cared nothing about the corpses that would eventually be burned and scattered into itself, or about the unmoving male mourners who appeared to cradle their heads in their arms.  It was evident here that death was simply a part of nature." (pp.144/5)
The river is a backdrop to the later story and the scene of several pivotal events.  Those who stay by the river, giving up on the usual tours, get to catch glimpses of the 'true' India.  There are weddings, beggars, caste discussions and filth...

The tour group, of course, is no homogeneous unit, but a small microcosm of society.  It consists of many people with different reasons for making the trip, each of whom sees India in their own way.  In addition to the main characters, we also have a young married couple who loathe the dirt and noise of the country - and a tour guide who loves the country and hates the people he has in tow...  The tourists are chance fellow travellers, people with little in common thrown together for a short time - but isn't that exactly what life is?

Deep River is a beautiful novel containing stories about people with issues in the late 20th century.  In a consumer society which has lost its way, it seems that everyone has their own cross to bear.  In discussing pantheism and Christianity, reincarnation and nihilism, Endo (along with his creations) asks us how we should live our lives.  Otsu, who perhaps has thought most about this problem, eventually finds an answer of sorts in the words of Gandhi:
"There are many different religions, but they are merely various paths leading to the same place.  What difference does it make which of those separate paths we walk, so long as they all arrive at the identical destination?" (p.191)
That could just about be a fitting epitaph for a great book.

Sunday 26 January 2014

'Hardboiled \ Hard Luck' by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

January in Japan rolls on, and today we meet up again with an old friend - or perhaps I should say acquaintance...  You see, while I've read a fair bit of Banana Yoshimoto's work now, we haven't always seen eye to eye - I wonder if the latest encounter will be any different?

hardboiled \ hard luck (translated by Michael Emmerich) is a book containing two thematically-linked novellas.  While my copy runs to 150 pages, that's a rather generous amount of paper (with large, spacious print) for two stories which you can rip through in an hour or so.  This isn't a book which is going to hold you up for too long, whether that's for better or worse :)

hardboiled, the longer of the two pieces, begins with a woman walking through some mountain woods in search of the small town where she has reserved a room for the night.  She walks past a spooky looking ring of black stones, and when she reaches her destination, she is shocked to find that one of the stones has somehow ended up accompanying her.  Finally, she arrives at the hotel, but that's just the start of her adventures - this is going to be a very long night...

The second story, hard luck, revolves around a family tragedy, with the narrator's sister lying in a hospital bed with a cerebral haemorrhage which is to end her life.  The one bright point in this dark time is when the narrator meets Sakai, the brother of her sister's (useless) fiancé, a man who is prepared to believe that death isn't necessarily the end.

Let's get it out of the way immediately - sometimes Yoshimoto's writing is simply infuriating.  Some of you might recall the Murakami bingo graphic that made its way around a while back (with squares for cats, wells, jazz etc); well, playing Yoshimoto bingo would be a lot easier.  Lesbian experiences?  Dreams?  Uncanny feelings?  Fog or mist?  Ghosts?  Death of a loved one?  I think I had a full house after ten minutes of reading...  Three pages in:
"Suddenly, just as I came to a bend in the road that led back into a slightly more remote part of the mountain, beyond the reach of the streetlight, I was overcome by an extremely unpleasant sensation.  I had the illusion that space itself had bent gelatinously out of shape, so that no matter how long I walked, I would never make any progress.
  I've never had any supernatural powers.  But at a certain point I learned to sense things, even if only faintly, that my eyes can't see.
  I'm a woman.  Once, just once, I went out with another woman..."
'hardboiled', p.5 (Faber and Faber, 2005)

As you can imagine in two stories about death (in hardboiled, the narrator is dreaming about her dead ex-girlfriend), there is plenty of opportunity for this kind of reflection, but sometimes it's just off the scale, out of nowhere:
"Then something occurred to me: the evil person or thing or whatever it is that's responsible must have been buried alive in a cave near that shrine I saw earlier!  I can't say how I knew this, but I did.  Things were falling into place."
'hardboiled', p.33
Well, if you say so, Banana - I'm happy to trust your intuition...

So why do I bother?  If I know that Yoshimoto's work is bound to be full of ridiculous coincidences, trite dialogue and awful clichés, what's the point?  And that is the enigma that is Banana Yoshimoto: when she's bad, she's horrid - but she isn't always bad.  Despite myself, I found myself becoming absorbed in the story she unravels, a calming, numbing tale that works around familiar themes.

Beneath the bland surface of the stories lie hints of desperation and suffering as her protagonists are forced to face the trauma they've been suppressing for so long.  While the supernatural features can be laughed at, everyone in the book takes them so seriously that you almost start to doubt your doubts.  It's hard to laugh too much when the characters are literally haunted by the past.

Yoshimoto is returning to her favourite theme here, the examination of the absolute nadir of your life, and the realisation that this will all soon pass, and things will get better.  In both stories, the narrator is stuck in a rut, and has been for some time, but by facing up to her fears, she is able to take the first step towards the future.  And it's in these moments that Yoshimoto's writing begins to make sense:
"And it struck me that if anything was a miracle, it was this: the lovely moments we experienced during the small, almost imperceptible periods of relief.  The instant the unbearable pain and the tears faded away, and I saw with my own eyes how vast the workings of the universe were, I would feel my sister's soul."
'hardluck', p.123
Trite or insightful?  This time, the decision is not quite so clear...

Once again then, a quick tussle with Ms. Banana ends up in a split-decision, and I'm not sure which way the verdict actually falls.  I doubt it's a book I'll reread in a hurry, but it does have a lot to recommend it, especially if you haven't read too much of Yoshimoto's work.  I think I'll take a break from her books for now though; I've read virtually all of her books in English anyway.

Although, I've heard that N.P. is supposed to be a good one... ;)

Thursday 23 January 2014

'A True Novel' by Minae Mizumura (Review)

When I first heard about today's choice, I was intrigued and very keen to get a copy.  I'm always happy to find new-to-me female Japanese writers, and a nice long book based on a Victorian classic sounded like something I would enjoy, especially during January in Japan.  I'm happy to report that it definitely lived up to expectations - truly, a novel that reached great heights :)

Minae Mizumura's A True Novel (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is an 850-page reworking of the classic novel Wuthering Heights.  However, it's far from being a simple rewrite, being transplanted to Japan and progressing much more languidly than Brontë's tempestuous novel.

The prologue is told by a writer called Minae, a Japanese woman who has spent large parts of her life in the United States.  One day, a young Japanese man, Yusuke, approaches her, wanting to talk about a man that they've both encountered, Taro Azuma.  Azuma started off in the States as a chauffeur, a protégé of Minae's father, but eventually became a wealthy businessman before disappearing from the public eye.  Curious, Minae agrees to hear Yusuke's story - and it's a good one...

Burnt out by work the year before, Yusuke spent a week in the Karuizawa region, where he encountered Azuma and an elderly woman, Fumiko Tuschiya, at a small cottage.  She then spent several days telling the visitor a story, one about a man, a woman, two houses and a childhood love that extends beyond the grave.  For those obsessed with Victorian literature, it's a very familiar tale :)

A True Novel is a wonderful book.  It's a novel which compels the reader to take the time required to enjoy it; in fact, the writer (through Fumiko) makes sure that we are very clear as to what kind of tale this is going to be:
"I'm afraid there'll be a lot of digressions"
"That's all right."
"A lot.  Really a lot."
"No, it's okay."
The woman joined him on the porch and began.
p307 (Other Press, 2013)
Let me warn you now - she's most certainly not joking...

The reimagining of Wuthering Heights is a very clever idea, and for those who have read Brontë's novel, there are many instantly recognisable parallels.  The Heathcliff character is the brooding Taro, a moody outsider with an incomplete education and a dubious cultural heritage.  Even Minae recognises the clouds in his soul with her excellent comment:
"Why does he have to be so gloomy?' (p.57)
Yoko, the daughter of the family that helps Taro, fills the Cathy role, and she is every bit as headstrong, passionate and stubborn as her Victorian counterpart.

A True Novel is a much expanded version of Brontë's novel though, and much of that is because of Fumiko, the Nelly Dean of Mizumura's work.  In many ways, she is actually the main character here, and the story she tells Yusuke concerns herself just as much as it does the two star-crossed lovers.  We learn far more about her than we ever do about Nelly Dean, but there is something she has in common with the Victorian housekeeper - there is a lot more to her than meets the eye...

If A True Novel were simply a transplantation of Wuthering Heights into the Japanese countryside, then it would just be a superior form of fan-fiction, an entertaining curiosity.  However, there's a lot more to the novel than the Brontë factor.  One of the more interesting features of the book is its portrayal of the evolution of Japanese society after the Second World War.  As Fumiko progresses from farm girl to maid to successful working woman, we are shown a society recovering from the wartime disasters.  Mizumura describes the shift from post-war ruin to the economic boom, an event which showered money and Japanese ex-pats all over the world.  Later, we also see the bubble burst, an event which has serious consequences for several of the protagonists.

There's also a personal dimension to this social description.  In Minae's prologue (and post-script), the writer describes a woman caught between two worlds, one nostalgic for the country of her childhood.  She misses Japan, the books, the language, even the smell of the earth around her childhood home.  The irony is that when she returns, it's not her Japan any more; she is too Americanised, and Japan itself is unrecognisable from the country she left behind...

At the risk of outstaying my welcome, there's yet another aspect of the novel which has to be mentioned.  In addition to the Wuthering Heights parallels and the autobiographical side to the story, A True Novel is also an examination of J-Lit traditions.  In Japan, there is a strong culture of the 'I-Novel', a semi-autobiographical, confessional style of writing, and this is often contrasted with the imported European style of big, chunky novels told by an omniscient, impersonal narrator - in Japanese, a 'true novel'.  In this book, Mizumura (along with her alter-ego Minae) plays with the two different styles.  She says:
"What I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese." (p.159)
In fact, she succeeds in combining the two forms - the prologue is an I-Novel, the rest is her attempt at a 'true novel'...

All of which simply means that it's a wonderful book, a great story with an excellent translation.  However, it's actually a beautiful object too - a two-volume box set with gorgeous covers and several black-and-white photos inside, depicting some of the settings for the novel.  When you consider how long this rambling review has been (and that I could have written a whole lot more), you'll realise what kind of book this is.  Perhaps some readers will find it a little slow, particularly in the middle of     Fumiko's extended story, but anyone schooled on Victorian blockbusters will know that there's nothing wrong with a story that takes its time :) 

A True Novel is a book which will appeal to readers of both of J-Lit and V-Lit, and if you love Wuthering Heights, it has that extra appealing dimension.  I'll leave you with one last quotation, this time from a scene where Yusuke (the Lockwood character...) is struggling to sleep in an unfamiliar bed:
"The night was warm, yet a chill ran through his body.  A ray of clear, bright moonlight shone at a sharp angle through the doorway.  In that clear light stood a girl wearing a summer kimono.  With her frizzy hair flaring out around her head, she stared up at Yusuke in the top bunk, her eyes wild, her tiny fist tightly clasping a round festival fan..." (pp205/6)
It's me, it's Yoko, I've come home - I'm so cold...

Monday 20 January 2014

'Light and Dark' by Natsume Soseki (Review)

You may have seen our current Golden Kin-Yōbi giveaway of the book on the left, but I was actually lucky enough to recently get a copy of my own.  Columbia University Press very kindly sent me one of these beautiful hardbacks of the master work of a great Japanese writer.  Unfortunately, he never got around to finishing it - although some beg to differ on that question...

Light and Dark (translated by John Nathan) is a novel Natsume Soseki was writing during his final, fatal illness.  The book, a meticulous psychological study of a married couple around the time of the First World War, first appeared in daily serial form in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and it consists of 188 sections, each around two pages long.  Very different to his early, humorous works, it's generally considered Soseki's masterpiece.

The main characters of the story are Yoshio Tsuda, a thirty-year-old recently married company worker, and his wife Nobiko, usually called O-Nobu.  What little plot there is centres on Tsuda's stay at a small doctor's clinic to undergo, and then recover from, minor surgery.  Before the operation, he visits a few friends and relatives, and he receives people in turn while he is convalescing.  Not a lot really happens in terms of action, but beneath the surface...

Soseki uses his story to probe at the mental state of his main characters, and he takes turns in following the husband and wife.  As each stumbles into social encounters, the bland words they utter are of less significance than the thoughts churning inside their heads - the writer is much more concerned with what's going on inside than out.  A good example is a typical thought Tsuda has when 'talking' with his wife:
"Tsuda had the feeling that a failure to declare the absence of any particle of doubt would reflect on his character as a husband.  At the same time, to be seen as a pushover by a woman would be painfully distasteful.  Despite the battle for supremacy inside him between these two aspects of his ego, he appeared cool and collected on the surface."
pp.106/7 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
Soseki, in a Henry James-esque manner, offers us an insight into each speaker's thoughts and strategies - for this is all about games...

The main theme of the novel is married life and the way two people negotiate their roles and identity inside a marriage.  Tsuda and O-Nobu are recently married, but the two are not ideally matched; thus arises a battle for supremacy, one full of misunderstandings and conflicts.  While O-Nobu feels lighter away from husband, she is determined to possess him wholly, feeling that only she understands what is going on beneath his implacable exterior:
"Everything I have written in this letter is true.  I haven't lied, or exaggerated, or gone out of my way to put your minds at ease.  If anyone doubts this, I shall detest him, disdain him, spit in his face.  Because I know the truth better than he.  I have described the truth beyond the superficial facts on the surface.  A truth that is understood only by me.  But this is a truth that will have to be understood by everyone in the future." (p.178)
Both she and Tsuda profess to love each other; but what does that actually mean in a Japanese marriage... 

Their marriage is certainly not a relationship in isolation though.  They are surrounded by concerned (or interfering) family and friends, and in the Japan of the time, these are rather strong, heavy ties (in fact, more akin to chains...).  With many of these people, particularly Tsuda's younger sister O-Hide, quietly despising O-Nobu, both Tsuda and his wife have battles to fight on several fronts.  This makes it even more important for the two to resolve their differences and show a united face to the Okamotos, Yoshikawas and Fujiis.

There is, however, an obstacle to this coming together, and Soseki gradually hints at a deeper issue.  The reader eventually guesses at (then is told of) Tsuda's prior attachment to a woman who has since married someone else.  This strand takes us to the final pages of the book, where Tsuda goes to a spa resort in an attempt to revisit the past - whether to exorcise it or accept it we'll never know...

Reading Light and Dark is not always easy work, but it's a wonderful creation.  Where the surface is calm, with all the 'players' keeping an even, smiling countenance, beneath the facade a whirling pool of emotions is to be found.  It's almost like a chess game with each player desperately trying to stay a few moves ahead of the opponent.  However, there is the occasional eruption, such as a confrontational scene with O-Hide and Tsuda, one which is wrought with emotion.

With slightly old-fashioned language, little plot and a slow pace, I doubt that this would be a book for everyone.  However, I found it excellent, and Light and Dark is a must for real J-Lit aficionados.  I'm a big Soseki fan, and this takes pride of place in my personal library

A welcome added extra in this edition is an introduction by the translator, John Nathan, in which he discusses the plot and his treatment of the translation.  He explains that the decision to keep as much of the style of language as possible was a deliberate one, and a decision which avoids homogenising the text (the James comparison was his too).

Interestingly, he also touches on the abrupt ending and informs us of four attempts in Japanese to complete the book (including one by Minae Mizumura, author of A True Novel), plus an attempt by Kenzaburo Oe to analyse how the story may have continued.  However, Nathan also suggests that perhaps Light and Dark is complete in itself - it's not as if the ambiguous ending is rare in J-Lit  (e.g. Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles or The Makioka Sisters).  My opinion?  You'll just have to read the book and decide for yourself ;)

Thursday 16 January 2014

'The Diving Pool' by Yoko Ogawa (Review)

Today's review is a special one as it's a post on the first of the January in Japan readalongs :)  I'll be collecting the thoughts of all participants over at the JiJ blog, but first I'm posting my review here.  The book?  Well...

The Diving Pool (translated by Stephen Snyder) was the first of Yoko Ogawa's works to appear in English, although the word 'work' is a bit of a misnomer.  The book is a collection of three of Ogawa's novellas and is a great introduction to her dark, twisted world...

First up is the title story, 'The Diving Pool', in which we meet, Aya, the daughter of a pastor and his wife who run an orphanage called Light House.  Life isn't so sunny for Aya, who is bitter that she is growing up along with the abandoned kids in the orphanage.  Her main pleasure lies in secretly watching Jun, a fellow resident, as he practises his dives at the school pool, and she cherishes her secret crush...

However, increasingly bitter and neglected, Aya has developed an evil streak, and Ogawa slowly reveals Aya's true nature.  In her treatment of Rie, an eighteen-month-old orphan, she shows unthinking, ruthless cruelty.  It's not only when she's bad that Aya seems a little off though; even the most commonplace discussions can seem not quite right:
"I hurt my wrist today," he said.  "I must have hit the water at a funny angle."
 "Which one?"
 He shook his left wrist to show me.  Because his body was so important to me, I lived in fear that he would injure it.  The flash in his eyes as he was about to dive, the glint of light on his chest, the shapes of his muscles - it all aroused in me a pleasant feeling that usually lay dormant.
'The Diving Pool', p.15 (Harvill Secker, 2008)
We're never quite sure how events will play out in this tale, and there is a great twist to finish the story off...

The middle story, 'Pregnancy Diary', is Ogawa's Akutagawa-prize-winning piece.  A pregnant woman's sister keeps a diary, which as well as documenting the progress of the pregnancy sets the sister's feelings down on paper.  Once again, our narrator is a twisted soul, and the further we get into the pregnancy, the darker the story becomes.

Initially, the focus is on the description of the pregnancy's progress.  We get detailed accounts of the woman's morning sickness and her visits to the psychiatrist.  The writer has little sympathy though, for her sister or her brother-in-law:
"My brother-in-law seems particularly pitiful to me, since he has no reason to feel sick, and I find myself getting angry over his little sighs and whimpers.  It occurs to me that I'd fall in love with a man who could put away a three-course French dinner even when he knew I was paralyzed by morning sickness."
'Pregnancy Diary', p.73
She's really not a very nice person...

Eventually, we see this passive distaste turn into more active anger.  After her sister recovers her appetite, the narrator begins to make jam on a daily basis - but with an ulterior motive.  It's another dark twist to what could be a very straight-forward story, and the word which comes to mind is 'bitter'...

The final story, 'Dormitory', is a little different to the first two.  In this one, a married woman helps her cousin to find a room at her old university dormitory.  Although she enjoyed her time there, it's a strange place - deserted and run-down:
"...and that place was my old college dormitory, a simple, three-story building of reinforced concrete.  The cloudy glass in the windows, the yellowed curtains, and the cracks in the walls all hinted at its advanced age, and though it was meant to house students, there was no sign of student life - no motorbikes, tennis rackets, sneakers, or anything of the kind.  It was, in short, the mere shell of a building."
'Dormitory', p.110
It's run by a man with his own distinguishing features, one prosthetic leg and no arms, and as the narrator comes to visit the dormitory more and more, matters spiral into the surreal.  The dormitory is almost empty, and it's only a matter of time before we find out why.  Why are there so many bees?  What's up with the tulips?  And what is that strange stain on the wall...

'Dormitory' is a little different from the first two stories as the protagonist is not bitter, but lost.  With her husband overseas, she feels detached from daily life and is unable to concentrate on anything.  She's very reminiscent of the style of Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto (the dormitory especially reminded me of Dolphin Hotel in A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance).  Rather than following a dark character here, the darkness is provided by the eerie setting and the fear of the unknown...

The Diving Pool is a great book, one I enjoyed immensely.  The publishers have chosen three superb stories, all with great writing and a dark undertone, and Snyder's translation is excellent.  The narrative flows smoothly and never jars - it's clear, elegant and simple.  I'm very happy I chose this for the readalong (and Ogawa as our first female J-Lit giant) - I wonder if everyone else agrees ;)

Monday 13 January 2014

'Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids' by Kenzaburo Oe (Review)

Kenzaburo Oe is a writer I haven't read much by for one reason or another, so January in Japan is the perfect time to remedy that.  I recently acquired three of his works second-hand from Abe Books, and I'm starting today with his first real novel - a book concerning youthful misdemeanours and something far more sinister...

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (translated by Paul St John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama) is a story of reformatory kids during wartime Japan.  A group of sullen boys are in the process of being evacuated to a rural village when the narrator is joined by his younger brother.  The young boy isn't a juvenile delinquent though; his dad is just taking advantage of the evacuation...

When the kids arrive at their destination, they soon find that the villagers despise them (and that there is no chance of escape from the isolated location).  However, when an illness breaks out in the village, the kids are abandoned by the villagers, left stranded in the middle of nowhere with no hope of rescue.  It's time to fend for themselves...

It's a superb story, very easy to read, but with a deeper meaning.  We see the young delinquents as the dregs of society, at the mercy of the heartless villagers.  After being forced to bury the animals that have died from the sickness, they are left to their fate:
"The primitive Japanese, so terrified of the resurrection of their dead, had folded the legs of the corpses and piled their graves with massively heavy slabs of stone.  We too stamped the earth with legs strengthened by fear of our friend, once a comrade of ours, rising up from out of the earth and rampaging in the village where children had been left behind alone and cut off."
p.102 (Picador, 1996)
Is it all too late though? The germs are spreading...

Nip the Buds,... is a very Lord of The Flies-like novel in the way the young protagonists are left to sort out their own affairs.  After the initial confusion, they are forced to concentrate on organisation, including a choice of leader, allocating accommodation and working out how to get food.  As they start to hunt and gather, the reader is cheering them on in their quest for survival in the harsh mountainous terrain. 

One of the best parts of the book is its depiction of the children, and it's important to remember that despite their 'crimes', that's just what they are, kids.  Initially locked up overnight without water, then abandoned without food, the kids talk big but don't really understand the big picture.  There are several examples of the children exposing themselves, or sitting around, masturbating, time out from idly killing time in the sun.  For children who have never experienced freedom, the question of how to live without a rigid structure is a weighty one.

Another interesting theme is the relationship between the narrator and his younger brother (Oe doesn't provide us with many names here...).  The central figure is the tough one, the delinquent, and the leader of the group.  He becomes increasingly torn between his roles as elder brother and leader, and his growing affection for a girl left behind by the villagers.  Despite his best efforts, he can't keep everyone happy, no matter how much he wants to, and eventually he is going to have to make some painful choices...

There's a lot more to Nip the Buds,... than this though.  It can also be read as an allegory of the atrocities of war and the failure of Japanese society:
"Through our experience of escape and failure as we shifted from village to village, we had learned that we were surrounded by gigantic walls.  In the farming villages, we were like splinters stuck in skin.  In an instant we would be pressed in on from all sides by coagulating flesh, extruded and suffocated.  These farmers, wearing the hard armour of their clannishness, refused to allow others to pass through, let alone settle in.  It was we, a small group, who were just drifting on a sea which never took in people from outside but threw them back." (p.25)
In fact, this is true for all Japanese of the time - you can shut up and fall in line or else.  This attitude, Oe argues, got Japan into this mess in the first place - the horrors of the war were a consequence of ordinary Japanese following the lead of the insane military.  Woe betide anyone who thinks of standing up against this system...

At the end of the novel, we see order reasserted, with cruel, savage consequences.  It would be nice if we ended on a bright note with hope for the future - instead we are back in the dark, primeval forests, cold and scared.  While Oe believes that the results for society of people blindly following their leaders is tragic, the consequences for individuals who stand up for their beliefs are horrific...

Thursday 9 January 2014

'Modern Japanese Stories - An Anthology' by Ivan Morris (Ed.) (Review)

It's time for another January in Japan post, and today we're looking at short stories.  I've already tried two J-Lit collections (The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories and Donald Keene's Modern Japanese Literature), and I had my eye on another collection for quite a while.  Eventually, I managed to get an old first edition cheap on Abe Books - and I'm very glad I did :)

Modern Japanese Stories - An Anthology does exactly what it says on the cover - well, almost.  Ivan Morris brought together twenty-five great stories by some of the best modern Japanese writers, translated by himself along with Edward Seidensticker, George Saitō and Geoffrey Sargent.  There is one thing which you need to know before we begin; while the book says modern, it was first released in 1962.  At the time Yasunari Kawabata was the president of Japanese PEN (with his Nobel Prize in the distant future), and Yukio Mishima was merely a promising new talent.  If you're looking for something by the likes of Murakami, Ogawa or Yoshimoto, you'll be sorely disappointed ;)

Several of the stories are by very familiar names.  Kawabata contributes a typically elegant tale called 'The Moon on the Water', a story where a woman looks back to her time with her first husband, regretting the choice she made to remarry after his death.  Kafu Nagai's 'Hydrangea' is also instantly recognisable in its telling of an incident in old Tokyo's pleasure quarters, and as for Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's 'Tattoo'... well, anyone who has read any of his novels will be at home with this short, erotically-charged piece...

As always though, the real strength of the collection is in the great stories it showcases from less famous writers.  Even though the anthology barely reaches the post-war years, there are some great stories from a wide variety of styles and eras; anyone with a fair knowledge of J-Lit wanting to expand their horizons could do a lot worse than trying this collection to get some ideas for their next book.

Some of my favourite stories were among the longer pieces, and most were by writers I'd never encountered before.  One of these was Fumio Niwa's 'The Hateful Age', a superb story about a very contemporary issue, the burden of caring for elderly relatives in an ageing society.  There's no false respect for the aged here - it's a very bitter, selfish tale:
"As Ruriko trudged toward the station, she soon realized that though Granny weighed no more than a child, her body with its long legs and relatively short trunk was very much harder to carry.  The thin lanky legs were clamped like a painful brace around Ruriko's waist, and by the time they approached the station, walking had become an agony.  The ordeal was not only physical.  In carrying someone eighty-six years old, one is supporting not just a body, but all the weight of a personal history that has accumulated ponderously over the decades."
'The Hateful Age', p.326 (Tuttle, 1987)
There's little Confucian respect for the elderly here, but when you see how the old lady of the piece behaves, you may just sympathise with the long-suffering relatives.

A slightly more historical perspective is provided by Kan Kikuchi's story 'On the Conduct of Lord Tadano', set in the early seventeenth century.  Taking place at the end of the Warring States era, the story begins with the fall of Osaka castle, where Lord Tadano distinguishes himself in the battle.  Praised by Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, the young nobleman is at the height of his powers - until he discovers that his belief in his supremacy in all areas of life is based on a huge lie, sending him into a dangerous downward spiral...

'Nightingale', by Einosuke Ito, provides a comforting change of pace.  The story begins with an old woman hobbling into a police station... and that's where we stay for the next forty-something pages.  The longest story in the collection, 'Nightingale' shows us how the police station of a small town is the true focal point of the community, a bustling centre of government with people dropping in at all hours.  In the twenty-four hours we spend in the company of the law, we meet midwives, peddlers, thieves and philanderers, yet they are all treated fairly and kindly by the hard-worked public officials :)

The last of my selections is Ango Sakaguchi's contribution, 'The Idiot'.  Set during the Second World War air raids on Tokyo, it's the story of a journalist who takes up with a simple-minded woman when he finds her hiding in his room.  It's a bitter, spiteful tale, one which lashes out at the stupidity of war and the people who expect everyone to take part in it.  I haven't read a lot from this period of Japanese history, so this is a fascinating look at what was happening in Japan towards the end of the war.  Be warned though - it is a little gruesome at times:
"Among the ruins of the great air raid of March tenth, Izawa had also wandered aimlessly through the still rising smoke.  On all sides people lay dead like so many roast fowl.  They lay dead in great clusters.  Yes, they were exactly like roast fowl.  They were neither gruesome nor dirty.  Some of the corpses lay next to the bodies of dogs and were burned in exactly the same manner, as if to emphasize how utterly useless their deaths had been."
'The Idiot', p.403
As Sakaguchi's 'In the Forest, under Cherries in Full Bloom' was also one of my selections from the Oxford collection, perhaps it's time I looked for more of his work :)

Apart from the stories themselves, there's a lot to like about this collection.  Morris' thirty-page introduction discusses the origins of modern Japanese literature, explaining why there was such a break in tradition after the Meiji restoration, and it gives a great overview of the major names, styles and schools.  Each story also has a brief biography of the writer before the main feature begins and a full-page woodcut painting of a scene from the story (all by artist Masakazu Kuwata) - now that's what I call added extras :)

Of course, it's not perfect.  There a couple of omissions (Natsume Soseki for one), and with only two female writers in the whole collection, it is definitely the choice of a very different time.  However, I enjoyed this book greatly and would recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their J-Lit horizons.  Of course, you've got to get hold of a copy first - the best of luck to you with that...

Monday 6 January 2014

'The Frontier Within' by Kobo Abe (Review)

After a short novel to kick off my January in Japan reading, it's time for something slightly different today.  I'm not a big one for non-fiction, but when Columbia University Press told me about the book you can see in the photo, I was very keen to give it a whirl.  Let's see what we can learn about a famous Japanese novelist when he steps outside his fictional comfort zone...

The Frontier Within (edited, translated and with an introduction by Richard F. Calichman, review copy courtesy of the Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a collection of essays by Kōbō Abe, the author of such novels as The Face of Another and The Woman in the Dunes.  While Abe is mostly known in the West for his bizarre novels, Calichman argues that we need to read his non-fiction to fully understand his ideas.  The essays collected here cover a range of topics from philosophy to literary theory, politics to education, the military to the role of the state - and he has some very strong views too...

The first essay, 'Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)', is not exactly the best start to the collection.  After Calichman's clear introduction, Abe's confusing, meandering style had me wondering who was responsible for my not really getting anything - me or Abe.  The next few essays, where he talks about what he understands by Literary Theory (quoting Stalin and Mao along the way...), didn't really make things any better...

For anyone used to a clear, logical Anglophone style of exposition, Abe's circular argumentative style might cause some headaches.  His writings appear to be more a set of connected musings, at times arranged in a loose question and answer format, and the effect is often clunky to my western ears (I'd certainly be down on my students if they came up with a similar style).  Occasionally, he comes out with sweeping claims, with no evidence to support it:
"It is well-known throughout the world that Japanese reportage writers are not very observant..."
'Possibilities for Education Today', p.86 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
Hmm.  I can't say that was a fact I'd come across before...

Thankfully, after reaching a nadir in his ramblings on education, a topic I know a little too much about to fall for his unfounded claims, the writing, and the ideas improve.  In 'Beyond the Neighbor', Abe sets out some of his views on writing and tradition, and after a brief discussion about the importance of military uniforms in fascist (and democratic...) states, he moves on to a final trio of essays about society in general, probably the most interesting ones in the collection.

In 'Passport of Heresy', the writer takes us on a journey into the far past, discussing the habits of early humans, before explaining how the split between nomadic hunters and sedentary agriculturalists is still evident today in our urban structure.  While this short piece initially seems like a pleasant diversion, it actually serves to introduce the final two essays of the collection, 'The Frontier Within', in which Abe, as an outsider, ponders the trials and tribulations of the Jewish race.  Abe declares that most societies regard the farming community as the 'real' natives, treating urban dwellers with suspicion; this means that the Jews, bound to cities both by mediaeval laws and their own statelessness became natural scapegoats for unscrupulous politicians.

It's an intriguing idea (even if you constantly feel that Abe is carefully treading the line between dispassionate observer and prejudice), and in his follow-up talks, entitled 'The Frontier Within, Part II', he pretty much goes over the same ground.  It's a shame this isn't another essay as it would have been interesting to see him expand on the ideas outlined in the first part.

Overall, though, I'd have to say that this book just didn't do it for me.  The writing is fairly clunky, with several repeated formulaic expressions, and I was expecting something a little tighter and much more logically arranged.  I remember reading some non-fiction by Virginia Woolf a few years back, and I loved the way she laid out her arguments with sparkling prose.  On the evidence of this, Abe is no Woolf - and this is certainly not A Room of One's Own.

Abe himself perhaps explains my feelings in a pithy one liner:
"It is difficult to convey one's intentions, but it is easy to be misunderstood."
'Does the Visual Image Destroy the Walls of Language?' (p.61)
It's very possible that there's more to this book than I got out of it, but I suspect that it would take someone a lot more versed in Japanese literature than myself to find it.  If you're a die-hard Abe fan, or a PhD candidate in modern Japanese literature, this might be one for you.  However, I suspect that the casual J-Lit fan might not enjoy it quite so much...

***Footprint Books say that this book is available in good Australian bookshops and directly through their website :)

Saturday 4 January 2014

December 2013 Wrap-Up

December has been a month of catching up and looking ahead.  I managed to get through a few review copies and library books I had lying around, before moving on to the next big project, more J-Lit for my January in January event :)  Still, before we get onto 2014, let's close off 2013 first...

Total Books Read: 12

Year-to-Date: 130

New: 12

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 6
Review Copies: 5
From the Library: 1
On the Kindle: 1 (Review Copy)

Novels: 8
Short Stories: 3
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 12 (7 Japanese, 2 French, Spanish, Czech, Romanian)
In Original Language: 0
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (5/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 7: 7 (20/1)

Books reviewed in December were:
1) The Inflatable Buddha by András Kepes
2) Uppsala Woods by Álvaro Colomer
3) Beauty on Earth by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz
4) Brief Loves that Last Forever by Andreï Makine
5) Blinding: The Left Wing by Mircea Cărtărescu
6) The Seamstress and the Wind by César Aira
7) The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira
8) The Devil's Workshop by Jáchym Topol
9) The American Senator by Anthony Trollope

Tony's Turkey for December is: Nothing

With four turkeys already for the year, my job is done :)

Tony's Recommendation for December is:

Mircea Cărtărescu's Blinding

I reviewed some great books to round off the year, several of which may have taken out the prize in a weaker month.  Special mentions go to Álvaro Colomer, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz and Andreï Makine; however, Blinding was simply too good to ignore, a worthy recipient of the final book of the month award for 2013 :)


That's it then for 2013, but (as you may have seen) 2014 has already kicked off with January in Japan.  Here's hoping you can join us to kick-start the new year with some great J-Lit!

Thursday 2 January 2014

'Shipwrecks' by Akira Yoshimura (Review)

Welcome, one and all, to the first of my reviews for January in Japan 2014!  The event kicked off yesterday over at the JiJ blog, with the induction of our first female J-Lit Giant, and there'll be a lot more going on over there throughout the next month.  Back here though, it'll be the usual fare of reviews (with a J-Lit flavour), so let's get going with the first of many Japanese posts for January :)

Akira Yoshimura's Shipwrecks (translated by Mark Ealey) is a piece of historical fiction set on an isolated part of a remote Japanese island in mediaeval times.  Our guide through the story is Isaku, a nine-year-old boy forced into the position of the man of the household after the departure of his father.  In a village perpetually on the brink of starvation, the only way to stay alive at times is to sell yourself as a bonded worker, and Isaku's father is in the middle of a three-year stint at a fishing port.

With a mother and three brothers and sisters to support, the young boy quickly learns how to master the skills needed to keep the family in food, soon becoming a valued member of the community.  However, crossing the threshold of adulthood also means becoming aware of the village's traditions and secrets, including that of o-fune-sama.  With food in short supply, the villagers pray for ships to founder off the treacherous coast - but Isaku learns that there's more to these shipwrecks than he might have thought...

Shipwrecks is a fairly short novel, clocking in at 154 pages, and it's typically, recognisably Japanese with its emphasis on description over action and depth over surface, with nature playing a prominent role.  However, it also evokes other fringe cultures; the isolated coastal settlement is reminiscent of the Faroe Islands setting for The Old Man and his Sons, and the hardship is similar to that faced by the villagers in Jón Kalman Stefánsson's Heaven and Hell and Sjón's From the Mouth of the Whale.

The key to the story is the phenomenon of O-fune-sama, the hope that a ship carrying cargo will wash up on the shore, and the lengths the villagers go to in order to give the gods a helping hand with the task.  Rites and prayers (such as a pregnant woman kicking over a bowl of food) are all well and good, but sometimes God helps those who help themselves:
"Rare though it might be, the coming of O-fune-sama was looked upon in the same light as unexpected schools of fish appearing near the shore, or unusually large quantities of mushrooms or mountain vegetables being found in the forest.  O-fune-sama was part of the bounty offered by the sea, and its deliverance barely saved the people in the village from starvation."
p.94 (Canongate Books, 2002)
It takes a while, but the reader eventually becomes aware that the villagers are actually luring these ships in.  Later, like Isaku, we find out more about what actually happens when their ship comes in...

At first, the story is fairly pedestrian, albeit extremely descriptive.  We are treated to descriptions of daily life, and the writer skillfully portrays the changing of the seasons, both on land (with plum blossoms and autumn leaves) and sea (the coming of octopus, saury and sardines).  In truth, the first half could almost be mistaken for non-fiction, such is the lack of plot development.  Later though, Yoshimura slowly ratchets up the tension, to the extent that we can tell there's a tragedy in the offing.  We're just not sure where it'll come from (although there's a fair chance that it'll be brought by the sea...)

While the fate of the village is the major concern, Shipwrecks is also an individual story, describing Isaku's path to manhood.  At the start of the story, he's only nine (and in Japanese years, that's probably eight), but these are different times where the children need to mature early.  Near the start of the novel, he is summoned for an interview with the village chief, receiving confirmation of the responsibility to be placed on his scrawny shoulders:
"His face flushed with excitement as the tension disappeared.  The order to work through the night on the salt cauldrons meant that he was recognised as an adult.  Ever since he had been allowed to help with the cremation he had felt that this might happen, but knowing that it was actually about to come to pass filled him with irrepressible joy." (p.20)
Having long left childhood behind, it's time for Isaku to grow up even more.  He has to go out and fish for his family, gather bark in the woods to be made into cloth - oh, and there's the small matter of a developing love interest too.

Overall, it's an interesting story, simple, stark, but with powerful messages and a sobering conclusion.  Many reviews I've seen use the word 'bleak' although I don't quite agree (having read a lot of J-Lit, perhaps I have higher standards for that adjective!).  It's not perfect though; the writing is a little too plain at times, and the first half was very slow.  There was also a lot of unnecessary repetition, and several other reviews pointed out some inconsistencies in vocabulary use which I agree with.

While these points may put some off, I suspect most people would enjoy Shipwrecks.  It's an interesting story with a nice, easy style of writing, and the history and traditions of an isolated village (hundreds of years behind the times) are fascinating.  I doubt it'll be my best read this month, but it's definitely got January in Japan off to a good start :)