Thursday, 12 June 2014

'Granta 127: Japan', ed. Yuka Igarashi (Review)

As much as I love good writing, literary magazines are a fairly unknown quantity for me (virtually all of my reading is good old-fashioned books, preferably novels).  However, I'm always open to new literary experiences, and receiving things like the work you can see in the photo make it very easy to try something a little different.  Be careful, though - looks can be deceiving ;)

Granta 127: Japan (review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) is the latest edition of the quarterly magazine for new writing.  This issue has been released to coincide with the first-ever edition of the Japanese version of the magazine, and for this reason, the content is a hybrid of work from Japanese writers and artists and contributions from Western writers.  Oh, and it's very pretty, too :)

The layout and design are excellent, and (naive as I am) I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a book, not a magazine, with full colour throughout.  There's a mix of genres (stories, poems, non-fiction) plus art and photos, the most memorable of which is the cover, from Yuji Hamada's 'Primal Mountain' series:
"With this work, what is most important is the image of a mountain in the viewer's mind.  In other words, it is not the maker of the images who establishes and delivers what is to be seen; rather, I surrendered the work to the viewer's first impression, which led me to title the series 'Primal Mountain'." (translated by Ivan Vartanian)
'Primal Mountain', p.97 (Granta Publications, 2014)
Oh, and there are some ads too - it is a magazine, after all ;)

Of course, our focus is on the writing, and there are some big names on board.  One of those is Hiromi Kawakami, author of The Briefcase (AKA Strange Weather in Tokyo), and her contribution is 'Blue Moon' (translated by Lucy North), a real(?) story of an agonising wait to see if the writer has cancer.  It's a poignant piece, with haikus in snowy Russia and reflections on death:
"The Universe, I myself, the birds winging through the skies, the snowflakes swirling through Moscow... No one sees the beginning of these things, and no one can predict how they will end.  How precious it is, how precarious it is to be living."
'Blue Moon' (p.113)
The writer's brush with death encourages her to think more about what it means to actually live.

David Mitchell is another of the big guns, and his story 'Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut' is an excellent piece - well, six, actually.  The story looks at a brief moment in time in one of the ubiquitous budget coffee shops, seen by six different people, each of whom has arrived at that moment by a very different path.  The grumpy old man, the hard-working manager, the foreign 'English teacher', the Burberry-clad young woman - a nice cross-section of Japanese society gathered around one shiny counter :)

Perhaps of more interest, though, are the new discoveries to be made, and there are plenty of good writers here who aren't quite so well known in the West.  I enjoyed Kyoko Nakajima's 'Things Remembered and Things Forgotten' (translated by Ian M. McDonald), a clever story about memories of the past (and how they might not always be too accurate).  Another to impress was Hiroko Oyamada's 'Spider Lilies' (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), another of those odd, slightly off (Ogawaesque!) tales which Japanese writers excel at, this one connecting flowers, breast milk and maternal jealousy...

As can be expected, recent events have made their mark on Japanese writing, and Toshiki Okada's 'Breakfast' (translated by Michael Emmerich) is one which touches on post-Fukushima depression.  In this story, a woman flies back to a Tokyo she denies exists, merely in order to cut her only remaining tie - with her husband:
"An awareness of how impossible it was for her to visit Tokyo without marking out the beginning and end of her stay, anger at the circumstances that made her feel this way, a wrenching sense of guilt toward Tokyo and all the people who lived here, this tangle of emotions bore down on her relentlessly, crushing her."
'Breakfast' (p.35)
It's an excellent story, made better by its elaborate, comma-laden style, wonderfully written - and translated :)

The gloomy outlook isn't confined to Okada's piece, with several of the other writers sharing his sense of pessimism.  Yukiko Motoya's 'The Dogs' (translated by Asa Yoneda) is a strange story set in the mountains in winter, with sinister canine companions and a town slowly disappearing without a trace.  However, when it comes to strange, Tomoyuki Hoshino can always come up with the goods (c.f. We, the Children of Cats and Lonely Hearts Killer), and in 'Pink' (translated by Brian Bergstrom), he describes a freak heatwave which drives people to spin around and around - cooling themselves and speeding up time in the process...

As mentioned, apart from the great translated J-Lit, there's plenty here from outsiders looking in.  Ruth Ozeki's 'Linked' is a short piece looking at her grandfather's life, attempting to understand him and his art.  Another interesting view is from Pico Iyer's 'The Beauty of the Package', in which the writer examines the tacky Japanese wedding 'experience' and wonders if it's actually beautiful after all if you look more closely.  There's also a non-Anglophone view, as Andrés Felipe Solano's 'Pig Skin' (translated by Nick Caistor) was originally written in Spanish.  It's an amusing story about a writer who gets inspiration from a chance encounter on a ferry, a Colombian-Japanese-Korean co-production, brought into English by the excellent Mr. Caistor :)

Sadly, there are limits to my energy (and the length of a review people can be expected to read) - there's just too much here to do justice to.  I haven't even mentioned Sayaka Murata's amusing take on the sexless Japanese in 'A Clean Marriage' (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) or Toh Enjoe's 'Printable' (translated by David G. Boyd), a story set in a post-3D-Printer world.  Well, I have now, obviously ;)

Granta 127: Japan is an excellent addition to my Japanese library, and it's a must have for anyone interested in J- Lit (and with Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 8 starting this month...) - but wait, there's more!  If you go to the Granta website, there's some exclusive online content free of charge, including excerpts of some stories (with comments by the translators) and extra stories, including one by Yoko Ogawa.  What are you waiting for - get over there, now!

It all makes for an intriguing, multi-faceted look at a fascinating country.  As it says on the back cover:
"Everyone knows this country and no one knows it."
That may be very true, but this collection will help you learn just a little more about the land of the rising sun ;)