January in Japan: Dazai Osamu

Osamu Dazai: A Shameful Life (No Longer Human), transl. Mark Gibeau, Stone Bridge Press, 2018.

Zoe’s surprisingly enthusiastic reaction to this book – it had the effect of catnip on her!

Biographical background

Mishima may have captivated me in my late teens, but my absolute favourite Japanese author of the modern era is Dazai Osamu. He is not as much read or appreciated abroad, but in Japan he has achieved cult status, even appearing as a suicide maniac detective in a manga and anime series called Bungo Stray Dogs. He is often seen as the epitome of the romantic decadent scoundrel – a Lord Byron with less of a penchant for wild animals or ability to buy his way out of trouble. To me, he continues my long line of infatuation with literary bad boys: a slightly less manipulative Rimbaud, a less cynical Baudelaire. N.B. This did not translate into liking American bad boys like Jack Kerouac, Bukowski or Norman Mailer. But clearly, the myth of the genius creator who is terminally depressed and incapable of relating well to people is still powerful when it comes to authors who died before I was born.

Osamu in a bar, photographed by Tadahiko Hayashi, who was not aware at the time who was in the picture.

Superficially, there are quite a few biographical similarities between Mishima and Dazai, even though they were born sixteen years apart. Both were younger sons of quite wealthy landowners, who spent a significant part of their childhood years away from their family (raised by aunts, grandmothers or servants). Both of them were academically gifted and went to the prestigious Tokyo University (although Dazai dropped out and Mishima never practiced law) and both showed early promise in their writing. Both were shattered by their country’s experience of war (although neither of them served on the front because they were diagnosed with tuberculosis – mistakenly, in Mishima’s case).

Above all, both of them had tortured psyches, were over-sensitive and self-critical, and had destructive tendencies. But this is where their differences start. Dazai directed all that hatred inwards, bent on destroying himself, while Mishima turned it onto the outer world, bemoaning the loss of Japanese pride and ancient code of values. The world crushes Dazai, while Mishima sets out to crush the world.

Politically, of course, they could not be further apart: Dazai was a lukewarm member of the Communist Party in the early 1930s (which was banned at that time in Japan), while Mishima created his own private right-wing militia in the 1960s. Both of them had problems with their love lives: Mishima, for all his macho posturing, clearly had gay tendencies which he (and his family, posthumously) vigorously denied, while Dazai, for all of his more effeminate, unhealthy looks, was an inveterate womaniser. Mishima started publishing his stories and his first full novel (Confessions of a Mask) just as Dazai was ending his career by committing suicide. They had one single awkward in-person meeting. Apparently, Mishima had previously expressed some admiration for Dazai’s writing, but when they met, with Dazai very much the fêted established writer surrounded by courtiers and Mishima the unknown student, the younger man was tongue-tied, felt his ego was somewhat bruised and declared that he found Dazai too weak and that he despised his tendency towards self-dramatizing. (Pot calling the kettle black!)

What was truly problematic about Dazai of course was that his alcoholism, addiction to painkillers, adultery and suicidal tendencies did not just impact him, but also others. I have already mentioned how it impacted his children and will mention it again in my next review of Yuko Tsushima. He attempted a double ‘love’ suicide several times (a much more popular pastime in Japan than over here, with many notable examples in literature), before he finally achieved it successfully, and in one instance the consequences were fatal to the woman involved although he survived.

Novel or memoir?

The reason I insist upon all of these unsavoury biographical details is because they heavily influence Dazai’s work, particularly his last completed novel Ningen Shikkaku, translated by Donald Keene in 1958 quite literally as No Longer Human, while the new translation has opted for A Shameful Life. This new title (a bold decision, if I might say so) refers to the quote below (I will use Keene’s version here, which I feel captures the gravitas of the statement slightly better):

Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.

To summarise the story as succinctly as possible, the ‘author/narrator’ is handed three notebooks (the first one opens with the quote above) and three photographs by an old lady, a former bar- and now coffee-shop-owner, who knew the writer of the notebooks many years ago. She thinks it might inspire the narrator to write a novel. The narrator is intrigued by the appearance of the man in the photos, reads the notebooks and concludes that this story of physical and mental destruction sounds ‘a bit exaggerated here and there’ (Dazai ever ready to poke some self-depecratory fun at himself), and that he too might have been tempted to lock him up in an asylum if he’d encountered the man.

The failed love suicide, the addictions to morphine and alcohol, the involvement in a banned political group – all of these biographical details are present in the novel, but it would be simplistic to believe that they are just pages from Dazai’s diaries. In this age of blogging and extreme sharing via social media, we have seen that unedited ranting, vast outpourings of feelings of anger or despair are actually not all that readable.

The book may be one of the best descriptions of general despair, deep depression and alienation that I have ever read, but this is not achieved by unmediated access to the author’s thoughts. Although the bleakness with which Yozo regards life is probably very similar to the author’s own outlook, there is great craft in giving us that feeling of ‘nothingness’, no exit, in deliberately unadorned ‘honest’ prose. Authenticity is a lot harder to write than it looks – what Dazai leaves out is as interesting as what he puts in.

Dazai Osamu with his two older children (Yuko Tsushima’s sister and brother), showing that there must have been happy times in his life too.

The autobiographical novel – shishōsetsu or I-novel – is a staple of modern Japanese literature – but I would argue it was there long before the 20th century. Although it is most often associated with the confessional, naturalistic style popular from the 1920s onwards, there are earlier examples of what one might call ‘creative non-fiction’ (with a huge emphasis on ‘creative’) in the ‘zuihitsu’ (random jottings/ personal essays) genre of the 13th and 14th century Japan. There is almost what one might call a ‘myth of sincerity’ in the I-novel: some of the thoughts may well reflect the author’s own preoccupations, but ultimately we are being misled – or rather, led precisely in the direction where the author wants us to go.

Last but not least, this is not just the story of an individual – it is also the story of a generation of Japanese who have had to come to terms with being perceived as monsters in a long and cruel war, and who find themselves utterly vanquished, unconditionally surrendered, and having lost everything they ever believed in (including the innate goodness of their fellow countrymen).

Translation Comparison

Overall, Mark Gibeau’s translation tries to create a more contemporary feel to the book. He is at pains to point out that this is by no means a criticism of Keene’s translation, but his choices are substantially different from those of his predecessor. I believe he is trying to be more immediate, to really convey the protagonist Yozo’s voice in all its weary cynicism and self-hatred, his sense of alienation from the world of humans as if we are there going through it with him, while Keene tries to make the horror more palatable by keeping it somewhat detached.

That doesn’t mean that the original translation is too cold, but it is now over sixty years old and can feel a little bit dated or too formal at times. However, although this new translation is lively and easy to read, at times I feel it gets the register of suffering just a little bit wrong. Here, for example, is how the narrator of the framing device describes the pictures of Yozo, which come together with the notebooks:

I think that even a death mask would hold more of an expression, leave more of a memory. That effigy suggests nothing so much as a human body to which a horse’s head has been attached. Something ineffable makes the beholder shudder in distaste. I have never seen such an inscrutable face on a man.

Donald Keene’s translation

Even the face of someone slipping into death holds some kind of expression, leaves some kind of mark. But this, maybe this is what it would be like if the head of a carthorse were sewn onto a human body. In any case, a vague sense of revulsion shivers up my spine. Never in my life have I seen a man with such a peculiar face.

Mark Gibeau’s translation

That word ‘peculiar’ just doesn’t seem to do Yozo sufficient justice, almost brings in a tone of levity. There are also several occasions when Keene has Yozo wondering if trustfulness or non-resistance is a sin, while Gibeau’s Yozo wonders if these things are crimes. I feel that some of the profundity of the original gets sacrificed for the sake of appealing to modern audiences. Perhaps there is a reason why Kafka and Camus (two near-contemporaries of Dazai’s) chose to write about similar themes – but few publishers or translators seem to feel the need to modernise them. They continue to speak to us directly.

However, in other instances, Gibeau sounds spot-on. Here is Dazai voicing universal concerns about hiding your true self, about living behind a mask and attempting to fit in at all costs, which Yozo decides to do early on in life, and which results in tremendous personal pain and disconnection from other people:

I lived in quivering terror of people, and since I had no confidence whatsoever in my ability to speak or behave like a human being, I gathered up all of my fears and anxieties and concealed them in a box, deep inside my breast. I took enormous pains to conceal my melancholy and nervousness, and devoted myself instead to cultivating an air of innocent good cheer. Thus, little by little, I was transformed into an eccentric clown.

Mark Gibeau

I have always shook with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak or act like a human being, I kept my solitary agonies locked in my breast. I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed. I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.

Donald Keene

Here I feel that the more elegant, stylised language of Keene keeps us at arm’s length from Yozo’s suffering.

But are we in fact supposed to take Yozo’s suffering that seriously? Is this a person who is crushed by life or someone who has disengaged and fled? We never find out if he is still alive or not, if he committed suicide, or if all of those notebooks that he sent to the former bartender were performative pieces, cries for help, or even… fiction. Or could it be that he was being far too hard on himself, that he never really fully understood his own effect on others? After all, the book ends on the words of this old woman, who knew Yozo in real life, and who disbelieves pretty much everything she read in those notebooks:

‘It’s all his father’s fault,’ she said absently. ‘The Yo-chan I knew was kind and so gentle. If only he didn’t drink – no, even when he did drink… He was such a good boy. An angel.’

Friday Fun: Hidden in the Woods

Not sure if it’s the romantic or the crime writer in me who has a hankering for isolated (yet stylish) cabins well hidden in the forests – even little urban parks will do.

A townhouse in a rainforest – this contradiction in terms does not prevent this Mexican development from being hugely attractive, from Casa Chipicas Valle De Bravo.
Who doesn’t want a house on stilts – just what our ancestors ordered! From jolijolidesign.com
Modern and yet feels so natural, with this terrace overlooking the stream, from design-milk.com
Isn’t this a perfect place for just reading? From Buzzfeed.com
Such cosy cabins are nice all year round – if they have Scandinavian style triple glazing and plenty of firewood. From Cozyplaces.

#KokoschkasDoll by Afonso Cruz, transl. Rahul Bery

I interrupt my season of January in Japan for a quick trip to Portugal, via Dresden, Paris and even Budapest.

I don’t usually take part in blog tours, but this is an unusual, one-day ‘make some noise’ for an unusual book, which I might not have picked up otherwise, although the title intrigued me. Perhaps I should clarify from the word go that this is not a biopic of Kokoschka nor about his obsession with Alma Mahler, which led to the creation of that monstrous doll he commissioned. This story is briefly mentioned in the book, but it is tangential to the main plot. If this meandering tale sparked by another tale sparked by a reminiscence sparked by a minor character who then writes their own story can be called a plot. It is in fact rather like a set of Russian dolls, one story nesting within another, although not progressing from the big to the small as neatly and predictably as Russian dolls. Of course, there is also the metaphor of the doll – of women, in particular, even ones the men obsess over (or particularly the ones they obsess over) having to be the beautiful silent partner, or being viewed as a possession.

In the first part of the novel we are introduced to Bonifaz Vogel, who has lost all of his family in the war-time fire-bombing of Dresden and now lives above the bird shop he runs, appropriately enough (Vogel is bird in German, but ‘to have a bird’ also means to be crazy or obsessed – the book is full of such puns and word games). When he hears a voice coming out from underneath his floorboards, his first thought is that it’s all in his head. In actual fact, it is Isaac Dresner, a Jewish boy who has hidden in the cellar, after witnessing his best friend being shot by a Nazi. A little later, a third person joins this little ‘family’: Tsilia Kacev, a waif of an artist’s model who wants to become a painter herself.

But that is just the first layer of the story. We are then taken into the swirling eddies of family histories, and particularly a lost manuscript of Thomas Mann’s, although the name of the author is Mathias Popa, an unsuccessful writer, who apparently stole it and tried to pass it off as his own. This mysterious Popa seems to have lived a million different lives all over the world, and in what follows we are never quite sure what is real and what is fiction, what is the world of his novel and what constitutes other people’s memories. Popa tells Isaac that he has decided to put him in a novel:

‘I’m going to be one of your characters?’

‘On the contrary, Mr Dresner, you are one of my character’s characters. My creation is far more perfect than you are… My character is the true you.’

‘But you hardly know me.’

‘We’ve met a few times, and that’s enough for me. I am able to see people the way they really are and not how they appear or how they dress in this world. I understand a person just by looking at them.’

If this reminds you of Fernando Pessoa and his personas or heteronyms, then this book certainly has an echo of that, and it is resolutely tongue-in-cheek about whether we can trust anyone to give us a coherent, truthful account of their life. I did occasionally get lost in the labyrinth of stories. This is almost certainly a book that needs to be read several times to be fully understood or appreciated. But there are moments of fairly straightforward and fun narrative that will appeal to any reader. One recommendation: it might be easier to keep track of the different stories and families if you have a paperback edition rather than e-book. I struggled a bit with the formatting for Kindle.

Rahul Berry translates from both Spanish and Portuguese, and seems to naturally gravitate towards quite experimental fiction. I was very intrigued by this interview I uncovered from when he became the Translator-in-Residence at the British Library in 2018.

I want to focus on how people’s identities change and adapt as people start existing in other languages. Though I grew up speaking only English, 3 of my grandparents spoke 4 languages between them (Hindi, Sindhi, Punjabi and Welsh) but spent most of their lives existing in English. I also want to play a small role in challenging the hegemony of English, which, under the guise of utility, ends up being ubiquitous, making the world a more predictable and less exciting place.

In a way, this novel challenges the hegemony of ‘received’ narrative, showing us that everything is always open to interpretation, and that we need to be open to new ways of looking at things. Our stories are constantly being constructed, and never quite finished.

January in Japan: Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, transl. Ivan Morris, Vintage Classics, 2001.

In 1950 a young Buddhist monk-in-training set fire to the temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto. The young man was diagnosed as schizophrenic and died a few years later, but his apparently inexplicable act of destruction has captured the imagination of creators ever since, most notably in Mishima’s best-known novel, but also in numerous film, stage and even opera and dance adaptations.

Mishima was not content to just label the young man as ‘mad’; instead he tried to delve deeper into the psychology of such an individual, even visiting the arsonist in prison. Of course, this is a fictional, speculative account, but such is the beauty of Mishima’s writing and his understanding of twisted minds and feelings, that it feels truer and more interesting than perhaps the real story could have been.

This was one of those novels that changed my understanding of life when I was a 19 year old student of Japanese language and literature, but I had not reread it since. I was almost afraid to, in case it failed to live up to my memory of it. For the first half or so of the book, I struggled. I was nearly convinced that it was a mistake not to consign it to the attic of my memories: the self-absorbed, sulky teenager is not the kind of character for whom I have any patience left. Yes, he stutters and has problems communicating with others, yes, his mother has cheated on his dying father, and yes, he has no place really to call home other than this almost far too beautiful temple where he has been sent to train to become a priest… but is that really sufficient reason to be such a bastard? There is a crescendo of unpleasant scenes that the narrator Mizoguchi observes and takes part in, so the final act should really not come as a surprise, but the journey there can be quite distasteful.

However, despite the occasional pretentious philosophising (typical teenager, I suppose), there are passages of great beauty throughout. The final chapter or two, in particular, reminded me why I loved this novel so much. The part of the story which has always fascinated me was still there and still intact. It’s the eternal artist’s dilemma, which reminds me of Andrei Rublev, except that Mishima tries to answer the questions that Tarkovsky only asks (and Mizoguchi is no artist). How can actual, real-life beauty ever live up to the beauty in our imaginations? Are the creation and destruction of beauty our only possible responses to an indifferent, cruel world? Does the artist have to sacrifice everything for the sake of beauty – is that the only thing that gives art authenticity? Can we ever really understand and fully appreciate beauty until we feel its loss? And doesn’t darkness or ugliness make the beauty stand out all the more?

Like a moon that hangs in the night sky, the Golden Temple had been built as a symbol of the dark ages. Therefore it was necessary for the Golden Temple of my dreams to have darkness bearing down on it from all sides. In this darkness, the beautiful, slender pillars of the building rested quietly and steadily, emitting a faint light from inside.

Mizoguchi has two friends who almost act as the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders: Tsurukawa, the naive, idealistic friend who believes the best of everyone, and Kashiwagi, whose birth defect has turned him cynical and cruel. [There might be a lot to say here about Mishima’s aversion towards bodily defects, he who indulged in bodybuilding and modelling, but we’ll leave that aside for now.] Mizoguchi wants Tsurukawa to be his conscience but is fascinated and swayed by Kashiwagi. Tsurukawa is weak in his moral rectitude, while Kashiwagi is strong in his corruption. The narrator also feels let down by his mother and by the Superior of the temple – for they are nothing but ordinary human beings, with all sorts of flaws. Meanwhile, he wallows in his self-hatred and grows to resent anything that reminds him that he too is imperfect and weak. Does beauty not become tarnished by familiarity? So why does this temple he knows so well still exert so much fascination upon him? Why does it render him impotent (both literally and metaphorically) and how can he rid himself of the hold it has over him?

A less common picture of the Golden Temple in the snow.

Perhaps beauty was both these things. It was both the individual parts and the whole structure… the mystery of the beauty of the Golden Temple, which had tormented me so much in the past, was halfway towards being solved. If one examined the beauty of each individual detail… the beauty was never complete in any single detail… The beauty of the individual detail itself was always filled with uneasiness. It dreamed of perfection, but it knew no completion and was invariably lured on to the next beauty, the unknown beauty…. Nothingness was the very structure of this beauty.

Many have taken issue with Mishima because of his problematic life, opinions and death, and it’s true that in this particular book (and a few of his other ones) the main character is a complete knob. But the author shows his character in all his ‘knob-ness’: it’s this self-awareness of his own personal flaws, this distancing from the sentiments described, this ability to make us pity and understand even the strangest of compulsions, the worst of human nature, that make me still appreciate Mishima. This is a man who was afraid of unpredictability, of too much freedom, of lack of structure, a repressed homosexual… and this tension is clearly visible and unresolved in his books. Alas, in his real life, it manifested itself in a reverence for military discipline and authority, a tendency to see things in binary terms which is more Western than Japanese. Am I reading too much in this book in saying that Mizoguchi is incapable of seeing any other solution than either destroying the temple or allowing himself to be destroyed by it (and that this is presented as a major error of judgement)?

The book was published in 1956 and the event it depicts was still fresh in people’s memories at the time, but it can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the emptiness and self-hatred that many in Japan felt after the end of the war. This translation came out in 1959 in the US, although it wasn’t published in the UK until 1994. Ivan Morris belongs to that first generation of translators and scholars, who did so much to familiarise the Western world with Japan after the Second World War, and humanise the people we had previously demonised. I group him loosely together with Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker (Jay Rubin, John Nathan and Michael Gallagher came a little later, thereby representing the second wave). We owe them so many of the translations of the classics: Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but also the modern storytellers that really aroused our interest in Japanese literature: Kawabata, Tanizaki Junichiro, Oe Kenzaburo, Mishima, Dazai Osamu and Kobo Abe.

If you look at these two lists, what do you notice? That it was largely male translators translating male writers (with the exception of the Heian classics). Of course, that is not to say that these writers were not brilliant and did not deserve to be translated, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there was a certain element of pre-selection going on there, so our image of Japanese literature was slightly skewed until at least the 1990s, when other (ahem – female) authors and translators began to appear, and when it became possible to admit that maybe the Japanese economic miracle was not all light and beauty.

Two writers in particular stood head and shoulders above the others in the early 1990s, when I was studying Japanese – and they remain among the most translated Japanese writers, at least until Murakami Haruki came along. I am referring, of course, to Kawabata and Mishima, Kawabata because of his Nobel (this was before Oe won his), and Mishima because of his highly-publicised, dramatic death. Their literary styles were very different: Kawabata’s prose is bare, restrained, detached, full of ellipses and hidden meanings, while Mishima is ornate, intense, visceral and dramatic. The battle between the fans of the two writers was as acute as the one between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky fans. If you like Dostoevsky at all, I would encourage you to give Mishima a try, and forget about the unsavoury aspects of the man, simply succumb to the magic that is his writing style.

Friday Fun: Location Hunting

I’ve been immersing myself in the world of my novel – and very much enjoying it. It does help that a lot of the locations in the novel (which takes place predominantly in Romania) are so picturesque.

The fatal accident that leads to everything that happens in the novel takes place on this road over the mountains, the Transfăgărășan crossing the Carpathians. From Romania Visitor Center.
Some crucial scenes take place at the Chalet on Lake Balea at the top of the mountain.
Our two main protagonists meet up with former classmates to try and find out more about the deceased here, on top of the National Theatre, at Enache’s Milk Bar. From bucurestiulmeudrag.ro
They make an important ally and friend in Curtea de Arges, not far from the site of the accident, and spend a short while in the grounds of this beautiful monastery. From TouristinRomania.wordpress.com
Eli does some research in the archives at the Central State Library in Bucharest, from Agerpres.ro
Clues lead them to the beautiful Transylvanian city of Sibiu, and they have lunch in the Big Square in the centre, from RomaniaExplore.com

January in Japan: Tokyo Ueno Station

Yu Miri: Tokyo Ueno Station, transl. Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019.

Ueno Park is an oasis of beautiful greenery in the heart of Tokyo. It houses several museums and cultural venues, a zoo, a Shinto shrine and is the site of the most exuberant cherry blossom gazing in the Japanese capital. When I first went to Japan in the summer of 1989, it was one of my favourite places to escape to from the humid heat of the city.

However, when the Japanese economy stagnated in the 1990s, the park became notorious for its large population of homeless people, who have created a makeshift town of blue tarp tents and cardboard boxes under the unusually large, sheltering trees. On my most recent trip to Japan in 2015, I was shocked to see how vast this community of the disenfranchised was. Japan has a tendency to sweep this problem under the carpet – for the longest time they wouldn’t even admit to having any homeless people. Nowadays, the problem is acknowledged but there is very little effort to deal with it in a concerted and humane way. The only positive is that the restaurants and shops in the neighbourhood give them their surplus, about-to-expire food. The police periodically disperses the homeless people, particularly when there is a formal event at one of the Ueno venues, with imperial attendance, but since there is nowhere else for them to go, they slowly drift back there. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon in 2020 (now 2021), the past two years or so have seen widespread attempts to ‘discourage loitering’, i.e. setting up of camps.

Yu Miri’s book gives us the life story of one of these marginalised people (and, in his company, we get to meet others from this community, which is by no means as homogeneous as you might expect). Kazu is a labourer in the construction industry, who left his family in Fukushima to make money in the big city in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics.

I never took my children to Ueno zoo… I didn’t take them to the zoo, nor to the amusement park, the seaside, the mountains; I never went to their beginning-of-the-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents’ open day or to a sports day, not even once. I went back only twice a year, in summer and in winter…

Unsurprisingly, his children grow very distant, and he feels completely disposable and superfluous when he goes back to his home village. But things are no better in Tokyo: as a member of the homeless community, he is well-nigh invisible. ‘To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past while still being in full view of everyone.’ Of course, we soon find out that Kazu is in fact a ghost, so he is literally invisible and can eavesdrop on the conversations of those wandering through the park. There are interesting contrasts between the visitors to the park and museums, and the homeless community. We also get to know other homeless people like Shige, extremely well-educated, who spends a great deal of his day in the public library, but is so ashamed of one single event in his past, that he can never return to his family.

Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum of Art

However, it is Kazu’s memories, his guilt and pain, that are at the forefront of the book. Kazu has always felt a special bond or affinity with the Emperor Akihito (who has since the writing of the book abdicated in 2019 in favour of his son Naruhito).. They were born in the same year (1933), they had their first son born on the same day in 1960, and Kazu even saw the old emperor (Akihito’s father) up close back in 1947. Despite his hard work, his submission, his feeling that he has done everything he was supposed to do, Kazu’s life has been full of bad luck. I want to avoid spoilers so I won’t say anything more specific here, although you are probably not going to read this book for its suspense. The narration glides from one conversation to another, from past to present, so that we often lose track of who is talking and what is real, what is experienced and what is merely observed and overheard.

There are some parts of the book where the author gets sidetracked into lengthy descriptions of a historical event or person, or descriptions of different types of roses interspersed with the dialogues Kazu hears in the park. I have to admit I was not quite sure what the author intended with these digressions. It might be to add to that overall effect of no escape, no enlightenment for Kazu. He is stuck in limbo and there is no end to his suffering and no meaning to his life or that of those around him.

I thought that once I was dead I would be reunited with the dead. That I could see, close up, those who were far away, touch them and feel them at all times. I thought something would be resolved by death. I believed that at the final moment, the meaning of life and death woudl appear to me clearly, like a fog lifting…

But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside of life looking in…

Time does not pass. Time never ends.

Critics have made much of Yu Miri’s own outsider status – as a Japanese of Korean descent, she belongs to a group that is heavily discriminated. She herself has said that she wants to give voice to those who are voiceless and marginalised, but resists being stereotyped as a ‘minority writer’. Her only other novel to be translated thus far into English Gold Rush is about a less obvious kind of outsider. [You can read an excellent review of it on Tony’s blog.] Another writer who also struggled with this tension between giving voice to the type of experiences often unacknowledged by Japanese society is Kenji Nakagami, who was a Burakumin, so-called hereditary outcastes of society because they engaged in ‘unclean’ trades.

P.S. I should also add that I had the pleasure of discussing the book in December 2020 at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Press, a wonderful initiative that introduces books published by small independents, translated from all over the world.

So my first two January in Japan reads have shown the darker underbelly of Japanese society. Will my next one live a little more up to the expectations we might have of this country? I’ll give you a clue…

January in Japan: Yuko Tsushima’s Short Stories

A pleasure to take part once more in Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. My favourite way to start the year, with January in Japan.

Tsushima Yūko: The Shooting Gallery and other stories. (transl. Geraldine Harcourt), The Women’s Press, 1988.

It’s a puzzle to me why Yūko Tsushima is not better known to the English-speaking world. During her life she won pretty much all of the major Japanese literary prizes. She did not produce a huge body of work, but wrote steadily throughout her life. Quite a bit of her earlier work was translated into English in the 1970s and 80s by respected New Zealand translator Geraldine Harcourt, who had a personal connection with the author. Tsushima also fitted in with the feminist preoccupations of the Western world during that period (the time of Spare Rib magazine and Virago Press) – although perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.

I am hopeful, however, that after the success in recent years of her novel Territory of Light (which was reissued in 2018 in the Penguin Classics edition), the rest of her work might be discovered. Like her father, she does not have an enormous range in terms of subject matter or stylistics, but what she does write is magnificent, just like her father’s work.

I do realise that perhaps I shouldn’t be allowing her father to enter the conversation, really, even if he is Dazai Osamu, a writer greatly revered in Japan (perhaps less well known abroad, because he too presents too gloomy a view of Japan and of mankind more generally). I certainly don’t think they can or should be compared to each other. After all, Tsushima was just a baby when her father died. However, her father’s highly publicised double suicide with his lover and abandonment of his family clearly had an enormous impact on Tsushima’s worldview and on her work. (She confronts this situation and imagines her mother’s reaction in a short story called ‘The Watery Realm’ which is not part of this collection, but has also been translated by Geraldine Harcourt).

So when Tsushima explores the life of single mothers, she is not only mining her own experiences as a single mother, but also memories of herself growing up in a single parent household. She was bemused by the ‘feminist’ label that often got stuck on her, and it’s perhaps the age-old truth that if a man writes about the very heart of loneliness and lack of communication, even (or perhaps especially) within a family, they are perceived as addressing the great universals of human experience, while if a woman does it, then it’s a domestic theme or less important women’s fiction.

Set against a backdrop of harsh realism, of dirty dishes piled high in the sink, cramped flats, whining children, fluorescent lights with insect corpses piled high, Tsushima’s protagonists, most of them mothers, but some of them young girls or boys, try to escape into their dreamworlds. But reality often comes chasing after them, crushing their carefully constructed alternative worlds.

In the title story, an exhausted mother tries to find the magical seaside memories of her youth once more and recreate them for her sons.

The thought of the sea had come to her suddenly the night before… She’d made up her mind to take the two children to the beach. There she had been, hemmed in by the cracker crumbs, plastci blocks, empty juice cans, underwear and socks that littered the room, the sinkful of dirty dishes, the washing hanging from the ceiling, the sound of the TV, the younger child’s crying, her own voice talking at the office, and the weariness – a weariness that turned her body to a desiccated old sponge. Unable to lie down, she was sitting having a cigarette with her elbows resting on the table when a trasnaprent blue gleam streaked before her eyes… It could only be the sea. It had completely slipped her mind.

Needless to say, once they get to the sea, it does not live up to their expectations at all. No cool, beautiful blue – the sea is grey, the light dull, the beach full of concrete and rubbish and dog poo, the children complain that they are tired, they have to pee, they can’t walk any longer… She closes her eyes and dreams of some sort of release:

… one day my back will sprout a pair of lance-shaped wings which will begin to beat, my body will visibly expand, and when the metamorphosis is complete I’ll be a dragon that ascends spiralling to the heavens. I’ll leave everyone watching astounded on the earth below as I soar aloft. my golden scales gleaming. Refreshed.

In another moving story ‘The Silent Traders’, a walled park in the middle of the city becomes a place for abandoning unwanted animals and develops its own microcosm, becoming a fantasy land for the lonely children growing up around it. People thoughtlessly or casually hurting and neglecting animals is a recurrent motif – undoubtedly a parallel with the way they marginalise and overlook certain people. Another theme that crops up time and again is that of feeling invisible. In ‘Clearing the Thickets’ we seamlessly move from a young woman relinquishing her lover to a woman in a bright red dress and wondering if she is visible at all, to a scene where the wayward daughter returns home to help with clearing the weeds in the family garden and, seemingly out of sight and mind of her mother and older sister, she overhears them viciously gossiping about her.

Yūko Tsushima author photo from The New Yorker.

The mother-daughter relationship in particular is often fraught with problems. All of the characters are flawed, and yet we cannot help but empathise with the yearning of many of them for escape from the everyday worries, their need to be loved and understood and appreciated. But to what extent do they weaken themselves by relying too much on others to be rescued? And when they understand that rescue is not forthcoming, how can they not despair and fnd the strength to carry on? It’s this wonderful rich complexity of each character, this understanding of the contradictory impulses in every one of us, that I find so satisfying in Tsushima’s work.

These are stories to read carefully and savour every word. They move effortlessly between the bland everyday and daydreams or even pure fantasy. I hesitate to call them magical realism, but there is often a strong reliance on symbolism. Stories that will make you uneasy, that will lodge themselves into your mind and never quite leave you.

You can read an excellent review of this story collection here, and thank you also to this blogger for referring me to this very revealing autobiographical essay by Tsushima published in the Chicago Tribune. I will leave you to read it for yourselves, but this paragraph in particular describes her subject matter perfectly:

I have never written about happy women. This is not because I like unhappiness, but it comes from my firm belief that misfortune is not always bad. Happiness can spoil people. Happy people can lose sensitivity, and as a result they become poor in terms of human qualities.

Friday Fun: Library Lockdown

I wouldn’t mind getting locked down in any of these home libraries. Of course, some of them are fictional, but no need to limit yourselves to reality!

Under the eaves yet not dark at all, from deavita.fr
Another attic library, with a more realistic cluttered look, from mediabookbub.com
If you’ve seen the film Knives Out, I’m sure your pulses raced faster at the thought of having a study/library like this.
Another fictional library, from the TV series Gotham, as shown in Architectural Digest.
Slightly more rustic, but still incredibly inviting, from zillow. com
And if you have a few bob to spare, Bilotta.com creates custom-made libraries, wine-cellars, walk-in wardrobes and the like.

How to Finish The Brothers Karamazov on Your nth Attempt

This is not a review of one of the best-known books in the literary canon. Instead, it’s my reaction to it, how I finally tamed the monster.

We all have at least one of the great classics lurking in our subconscious, taunting us with its impregnable unread status. My Achilles heel has been The Brothers Karamazov and I considered myself beaten after abandoning it no less than five times in three decades. It wasn’t even that I didn’t like Dostoevsky – he is, in fact, one of my favourite Russian authors and I lapped up all of his other work, even the gloomiest ones. Nor was it the length that put me off. I managed to get through Remembrance of Things Past (where far less exciting stuff happens) and War and Peace (although the war scenes did not enthrall me) relatively unscathed, while Genji Monogatari is one of my favourite books of all time.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in December to read straight after the hugely enjoyable Sakhalin Island by Chekhov. To my astonishment, I not only managed to finish it in less than a month, but I actually enjoyed it this time! What made it different this time? Here are some top tips for vanquishing the beast (some of them tongue-in-cheek, some of them perfectly serious).

Clear your schedule:

I knew I had the Christmas holidays coming up, and that I wasn’t likely to go anywhere very soon, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to lie in bed for an hour or two in the morning and another couple of hours in the evening. I’d often find myself gravitating towards it during the day as well for a few pages.

Pick a good translation:

I had tried reading the book in Romanian, German and English translations, but none of them stuck. This one by Ignat Avsey (Oxford University Press World’s Classics) felt very fresh natural, really conveyed the feel of the spoken language of rural Russia, without sounding old-fashioned or ‘too exotic’.

Alternate with lighter reads:

When the going got tough, when bad news was forthcoming and I just couldn’t stomach any more Russian gloom and drama, I would switch to something lighter and more escapist, for example crime fiction like Ruth Ware’s skiing holiday from hell One by One, or John le Carre’s A Murder of Quality or the cosier puzzle mystery of The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood. I also watched plenty of lighter films over the holidays, and they too helped to lift the mood.

Skim read the bits that bore you rigid:

This will not be a popular piece of advice with the purists, but it’s what got me through. Classic though he is, Dostoevsky does tend to go on and on upon the slightest provocation. Alyosha and Ivan go to a tavern together and Ivan launches into several chapters’ worth of lengthy explanations about his world view and doubts and metaphorical tales. It sometimes feels like every single character has far too much of a back story, and that the unnamed narrator has to share all the gossip. As for the scenes in the monastery – that’s where I abandoned the book in the past. Father Zosima’s life and sayings were just a step too far for me – especially since he then disappears from the book without too much of an impact on the actions of any of the other characters (other than Alyosha). Even the sub-plot with the schoolboys befriended by Alyosha was not really all that necessary to the main story, although I personally quite liked it.

So yes, Dostoevsky tries to bring pretty much everything into this story: all of human philosophy, faith, psychology, as well as a good deal of discussion about the unique Russian traits (if those exist). At times it is simply too much, and he could have done with a good editor, but if you find some bits less enthralling than the others, read them a bit diagonally instead of giving up, because there will be plenty of good bits to follow.

Make notes as you go along:

I half-filled the book with post-it flags. There were so many interesting quotes and paragraphs that I wanted to reread, to remember, to return to. Perhaps, with so much currently going on in the news, and so much anger and sadness at the state of the world, the quotes that particularly struck me were the ones that seemed to show that human nature has not really changed over the years and has certainly not kept pace with any technological improvements.

Everyone says they hate wickedness but deep down they all love it.

Miracles never bother a realist. A true realist, if he is a non-believer, will always find within himself the strength and the ability not to believe in miracles. And if he believes, it’s because he wants to believe.

He prided himself on his ability to judge by appearances, a pardonable weakness in one who was 50, an age when an intelligent, well-to-do man starts to take himself seriously, sometimes even against his better judgement.

He who is false to himself is also the most likely to get offended. After all, it is sometimes very gratifying to feel offended… blow it out of all proportion so as to attract attention.

One can love one’s neighbour in the abstract and sometimes even at a distance, but close up almost never.

What is horrifying is that such dreadful crimes have ceased to shock us. What should horrify us is not that a certain individual commits an atrocity, but that we take these atrocities for granted.

We can be enthused by the noblest of ideals, only on condition that we don’t have to expend any effort, make any sacrifices, above all, that we needn’t pay anything. Paying is something we really resent…receiving, that’s really up our street.

The real world not only bestows rights but itself imposes enormous obligations… if we want to behave like civilised human beings… we must act rationally… not to harm our fellow man.

Additionally, I shared my enthusiasm by tweeting the shorter quotes, which sometimes led to people commenting. This helped to create a sense of community, even though I wasn’t reading it at the same time as anyone else.

Don’t expect to like the characters or identify with them:

Let’s be honest: the Karamazov family is pretty vile, as are many of the people around them. Dostoevsky seems to be playing with animal stereotypes there. The father is a greedy, selfish pig. Dmitry is a vain, flighty, spendthrift peacock. Ivan is a self-absorbed, supercilious fox. Smerdyakov is a secretive, nasty, double-crossing rat, while Grushenka and Katya are both volatile, extravagant and catty. Even my dear Alyosha is too much of an idealist, a bit of a rabbit or deer caught in the headlights and often used by those who are bolder than him. What struck me most is how operatic and over the top the whole story is, with lots of melodramatic set-pieces.

There was perhaps only one character in the whole book that I could somewhat identify with, and she is a very minor one: the mother of one of the schoolboys, Kolya Krasotkin, a single mother with a gentle but cheerful character, who does so much for her only son that he gets teased about it at school.

It always seemed to her that Kolya was aloof towards her, and on occasion she would weep hysterically and begin to reproach him for his aloofness. The boy did not like this, and the more anyone tried to elicit expressions of sentiment from him the more stubborn he became, as if on purpose. However he behaved thus not deliverately but involuntarily – such was his nature. His mother was mistaken; he loved her dearly, what he hated was ‘all this soppiness’…

These little observations, the psychological depth and understanding the author often shows for even his secondary characters, the subtleties of language or rich hidden meanings make this book feel both hugely specific and yet truly universal. What to make of that strange narrator, for instance, who seems to know far more than he really should, but is not an objective omniscient point of view at all, and even claims he cannot remember details from the trial.

Appreciate the humour:

Amid all the serious philosophical debate about the presence or absence of God, about the flaws of mankind and the absurdity of existence, I had forgotten that Dostoevsky can also be very funny. There are several scenes that have great comic potential, for example the clash between the Poles and the Russians, the misunderstanding between Dmitry and Mrs Khokhlaķova when it comes to her giving him money (and how she insists she is giving him far more than that, she is offering him the possibility to get involved in mining). But my favourite is the scene when the devil appears at Ivan’s side in the guise of a fairly polite, former serf-owner who has now become a mere hanger-on, and mocks all of his assumptions and beliefs. I could imagine him as a rather ridiculous looking Jacob Rees-Mogg, apparently all reasonable and cultured, but actually deeply vicious and immoral.

I’m a much maligned person… I’m blessed with a kind and cheerful disposition; I’ve turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing. You seem determined to cast me as a grey-haired Khlestakov, but I’m destined for far greater things. I was singled out by some sort of prehistoric decree, which I’ve never been able to understand, as epitomising ‘negation’, but in fact I am genuinely kind and just not suited for negation. But no, I have to go forth and negate; without negation there would be no staire, and what’s the good of a magazine without a critics’ section… they made me the scapegoat and forced me to contribute to the critics’ section.

What torments? Oh, don’t ask, we used to have all sorts, but now we’ve gone over to moral torments, ‘pangs of conscience’ and all that rubbish. We owe that to you too, to your ‘relaxation of moral standards’. And who has benefited? Only the unscrupulous, because what are pangs of conscience to those who have no conscience?

I’m very sensitive and impressionable when it comes to artistic effects. But common sense… kept me within the proper bounds… purely out of a sense of duty and because of my social position, I felt bound to repress my virtuous impulse and to stick to nefarious deeds. All the credit for virtue goes to someone else, and I’m left with just a handful of dirty tricks.

Yes, if I were Dostoevsky’s editor in the present-day, I would advise him to start with the crime and the trial instead of the long lectures in the first half of the book, which made me abandon ship so many times. Nevertheless, I am not only glad I persevered with it, but I truly liked it this time round. There is a reason why some books are classics, why they still have so much to say even hundreds of years after they were first published. I have no idea how Shakespeare or Dostoevsky or Stendhal or Flaubert or Chekhov managed to gain such deep insights into human psychology, but their characters are unforgettable, and both modern and timeless.

#6Degrees January 2021: From Hamnet to…

This is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month she chooses a book as a starting point and you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. It doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, merely to the one next to it, although some participants choose a theme for all of the links. This month we start with  Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which was one of my top reads of the year 2020.

So the first link is a very obvious one, namely another favourite read of the year, a book published in 2020, and whose author I got to see in an online literary event: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami.

The second link is the only other book I can think of with ‘eggs’ in the title, namely Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. I not only loved it as a child, but I read it so many times to my own children (during their fussy eating phases) that I know it by heart. As a former fussy eater myself, I could really empathise with the candid cry: ‘I do not like them in a house./ I do not like them with a mouse./ I do not like them here or there./ I do not like them anywhere.’

The more spurious link to my next choice is the name Sam – a marginally less obnoxious character than that insistent, nagging Sam-I-Am is Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The charismatic, brooding, cynical private eye was not the first hardboiled detective but truly defined the genre for all who followed.

Another book with the name of a bird of prey in the title is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, set in Roman Britain and exploring the supposed annihilation of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army. I was fascinated by this book when I was a child, but my children never quite got into it.

By way of contrast, one of the series that my older son really got into and which I never quite loved was Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I thought they were quite poorly written and derivative, and much preferred Diana Wynne Jones. But of course I was an adult already by the time they came out, so who knows how I’d have felt about them as a child.

My final link is to the wonderful Tales of Beatrix Potter, which was much loved by all three of us. As a child I was probably most like Tom Kitten getting his clothes terribly mussed up, but nowadays I most identify with poor Mrs Tittlemouse desperately trying to keep her house tidy against a deluge of visitors. (Well, not this year, but you know what I mean…)

This has been a nostalgic little trip down memory lane – and I wonder if that is because subconsciously the theme has been one of motherhood (with the exception of Sam Spade, who perhaps needs a mother to soften him a little). Or maybe my subconscious is troubled by the endless debates about schools reopening safely (or not). Anyway, here is our beautiful edition of the Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, a treasured birthday present for my older son’s second birthday.