January in Japan: The Poet Yosano Akiko

Yosano Akiko: River of Stars (Selected Poems), trans. Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson, Shambhala, 1996.

For my last #JanuaryinJapan or Japanese Literature Challenge 15 contribution, I picked one of my favourite Japanese poets, who wrote both in freestyle ‘Western-type’ verse but also in the traditional Japanese tanka. The last time I wrote about a tanka poet was back in 2012, soon after starting this blog, and it remains one of the perennial favourites of my blog posts. It was about Tawara Machi, who exploded onto the literary scene in the 1980s and modernised the traditional tanka format. However, long before Tawara became the symbol of her generation of women, there was another woman writer who provoked scandal, ire, but also great admiration. That poet is Yosano Akiko and she is a true giant of Japanese literature, who deserves to be better known outside her own country.

She was also quite a contradictory person both in her personal life and in her writing. Born in a very traditional and reasonably well-off Osaka merchant/shopkeeping family in 1878, she demonstrated a precocious talent for poetry and, thanks to a family tradition of scholarship, was allowed to continue her education until she graduated from high school. At the same time, she was barely allowed to go out even in daylight without an escort.

Nevertheless, once she started participating in the literary circles of Osaka and Tokyo, she became involved with Yosano Tekkan, a still-married poet and editor. She soon joined him in Tokyo, they married and had no less than thirteen children, but he continued his affairs with other women, including his former wife. Akiko seems to have been devoted to him, but was also willing to engage in love triangles with her husband’s female admirers, with whom she even wrote poetry. Although eleven of her children survived to adulthood, she repeatedly protested against motherhood being the primary source of identity for a woman.

Above all, she continued her literary endeavours, co-editing the literary journal, publishing 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of prose and essays, translating the epic novel Genji Monogatari and the Manyōshū (earliest collection of Japanese poetry) into modern Japanese, founded the first co-educational cultural college in Japan, and also became renowned for her feminist and pacifist activism. She dared to be openly critical of the Japanese Emperor during the Russo-Japanese War at a time when no one else raised their voice, saying that militarism was a form of ‘barbarian thinking which is the responsibility of us women to eradicate from our midst’… yet appears to have supported the rise of Japanese militarism in the Second World War (maybe it was what she had to write under censorship: she died in 1942).

For me, however, she is above all the poet who completely revitalised the traditional tanka form. By the late 19th century, writing a tanka had become a party trick more than anything else, following rules very closely, cliche-ridden, unimaginative. Akiko blasted through all the fussiness and cobwebs with her highly individual and erotically charged poetry in her debut collection Midaregami (Tangled Hair – or Bedhead in contemporary parlance). There hadn’t been that kind of frankness and sensuality, that uninhibited description of women’s passion for centuries. I think we do find some of it in the Heian period with Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, and it’s not surprising that Yosano Akiko revered and translated these women writers, but she also added Western Romanticism and Modernism to the mix.

きのふをば千とせの前の世とも思ひ御手なほ肩に有りとも思ふ

Was it a thousand years ago or only yesterday we parted?

Even now, on my shoulder I feel your friendly hand.

ゆあみして泉を出でしやははだにふるるはつらき人の世のきぬ

Fresh from my hot bath I dressed slowly before the tall mirror,

a smile for my own body, innocence so long ago.

くろ髪の千すぢの髪のみだれ髪かつおもひみだれおもひみだるる

My shiny black hair fallen into disarray, a thousand tangles

like a thousand tangled thoughts about my love for you.

What was even more scandalous was the way she provokes (and somewhat mocks) the Buddhist priest who has renounced love and fleshly delights.

You’ve never explored this tender flesh or known such stormy blood.

Do you not grow lonely, friend, forever preaching the Way?

Throughout her love poetry, we find this contradiction between absolute confidence in her womanly power and the sadness or despair at never quite achieving the love she seeks. Some of it is no doubt stylised (see Genji Monogatari for similar examples), but some of it feels very personal, reflecting her own life. Compare:

In return for all the sins and crimes of men, the gods created me

with glistening long black hair and pale, inviting skin.

with:

Yesterday you spoke of your love life’s history. Alone and sleepless,

twisting, my jealousy burns through the merciless night.

The gods wish it so: a life ends with a shatter – with my great broadax

I demolish my koto, oh, listen to that sound!

Yosano Akiko

Finding Yosano Akiko’s work in English is not easy, so I suppose I should be grateful that this translation is available (out of print though, quite expensive second-hand), but I have some issues with this book. This has to do both with the selection of the poems (which do not necessarily give quite as comprehensive a view of her poetry, which is really versatile), and with the translation. Japanese poetry (especially tanka and haiku) is so full of allusions, ellipsis, references to classical poetry that the same poem can be translated in wildly different ways, for example:

“Spring doesn’t last,” I said to him…
“You don’t believe in permanence, do you?”
And I took his hands in mine
Leading them
To my young full breasts. (Roger Pulvers)

This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands. (Kenneth Rexroth)

Gently I open
the door to eternal
mystery, the flowers
of my breasts cupped,
offered with both my hands.

The final translation is the one contained in this volume, and it feels quite far removed from the original, as if the translator has already done all the thinking and feeling for the reader. As a translator, however, I am often tempted to do the same. What do you think? Do you like to have a puzzle to figure out when you read a translation, or do you prefer to have the work done for you?

The anime Yosano Akiko. Long may her memory live on!

P.S. For manga/anime fans amongst you, I should point out that Yosano Akiko is a popular character in Bungo Stray Dogs, the doctor of the Armed Detective Agency (an advocate of rather hardcore treatments, but also a feminist and pacifist).

January in Japan: Endo Shusaku – Scandal

Endō Shūsaku: Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, Peter Owen, 1988.

Back in the late 1960s to late 1980s, during the time of the Japanese boom, Endō Shūsaku was one of the most highly regarded and translated Japanese authors, regularly tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. If Kawabata represented aethereal Japanese beauty and cherry blossoms, Mishima the darker yet more ornate world of modernity clashing against Japanese tradition, then Endō represented something more familiar to the Western reader: a practising Christian (a Catholic, moreover).

Often compared to Graham Greene (inaccurately, I believe, although the two authors are said to have admired each other greatly), he is best known for his historical fiction such as Silence (about a Catholic missionary in 17th century Japan) or Samurai (about a Japanese diplomatic mission to Mexico and Spain in the 17th century). This novel Scandal is very much set in present-day Tokyo (at the time the book was written).

It is about a well-known 65-year-old Catholic novelist Suguro (clearly the author is capable of being quite self-critical and poking fun at himself). He has won prizes, has been successful, is content in his marriage with a fellow Japanese Christian, even though it’s all become very routine.

In the seasons when her limbs did not ache they would sometimes have lunch together and then go out for a walk. They always took the same route… They would sit together on a bench in the park, watching the young people play badminton. Even if they said nothing to each other, after more than thirty years of marriage there was a poised tranquillity between them that Suguro could feel almost palpably as she sat beside him… he was a novelist who peered into the depth of his soul and disgorged what he found there. But as a husband he was careful not to expose himself beyond the essential boundaries.

This double standard has led some critics to accuse him of being a ‘phoney’, of being afraid to face sex (and other sins) openly. It all flares up when a woman shows up at an awards ceremony, claiming to know him from his regular nocturnal wanderings around the red-light district. Suguro vehemently denies it, but the rumours of sightings continue and he decides he must have a doppelgänger who pretends to be him, especially when he sees the sly, obscene smile in the portrait that a street artist has painted of him.

Suguro starts investigating, hoping to catch this man posing as him, while a hack journalist Kobari initiates his own investigation, hoping to make his name by uncovering a juicy scandal about the famous author who is not at all as moral as he claims to be. Suguro encounters a voluntary worker at the hospital, Mrs Naruse, who seems to have no qualms confiding her secret darker desires, despite appearing to be extremely caring and loving with the children that she looks after when they undergo surgery. She tells Suguro that she considers that ‘our erotic behaviour expresses our profoundest secrets, the ones we ourselves aren’t aware of’, making the author begin to question his own decent, quiet life, his distinction between ‘healthy and unhealthy sex’ and begin to confront his own dark desires that he would prefer to maintain submerged. He hears about one woman’s masochistic tendencies, which is in fact a death wish – and she does indeed die as a result of the sexual games she engages in. But it takes Suguro longer to admit to his own obsession with an underage girl (which seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of Japanese literature written by middle-aged men, and is very prevalent in Japanese culture more generally, which I personally find icky). However, in this novel, the purpose of this strand of the story might be for Suguro to get his come-uppance, to realise that he cannot blame all his wicked desires and impulses solely on a stranger who resembles him.

There’s magma buried inside every person at the time they’re born… Even a child has fun tearing the wings or legs off a dragonfly. These days even elementary school kids will gang up on a helpless child and beat him up. They do that… because it’s fun… When the magma erupts in the form of sex, it comes out as sadism or masochism.

I wonder how many of the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey would be interested in this quite slow-paced, cerebral analysis of the human soul? The main character wondering if he needs to go ‘to the very end’ so that he can express all the depths of the human soul as an artist. Especially when the characters start having conversations about Jesus:

‘As Jesus, bathed in blood, carried his cross to the execution ground, the crowds reviled him and threw stones at him. Don’t you think they did that because of the pleasure it gave them?… Jesus was too blameless, too unblemished … so much so that they wanted to destroy him… That feeling is shared by all of us…. but no one wants to stare it in the face.’

All this soul-searching is also related to aging, and there are several passages where the writer makes it clear that Suguro is beginning to doubt the value of his life’s work (and possibly his entire life). If he has not been truthful to himself, then how can he have been truthful with his readers? All of these questions that people are planting in his head, all these doubts and confusions that are besetting him, run contrary to his belief that things will become more peaceful and certain in old age.

Old age doesn’t mean being free from perplexity as Confucius claimed; there’s nothing serene or mellow about it. To me, at least, it has loomed up in ugly, nightmarish images. With death staring me in the face, I can no longer prevaricate, and there is nowhere to escape.

Endō plays around with the conceit of the Japanese ‘I-novel’ (what we now call auto-fiction), and you cannot help feeling that at times he is thinking aloud, as he too was in his sixties when he wrote this book and suffering from ill-health. I did not rate it as highly as the other novels I have read by him, but it certainly made me both squirm and think. Like it or hate it, it is undoubtedly a book that will make you uncomfortable, that asks tough questions about core values and whether virtue is a myth, an accident.

The last but one, I think, of my posts linking to Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

#JanuaryinJapan: Nakagami Kenji

Nakagami Kenji: The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, transl. Eve Zimmerman. Stone Bridge Press, 1999.

Like many other countries, Japan has an outcast community of untouchables – the Burakumin. Unlike in other countries, this underclass is not discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnic group, but because of their occupation: traditionally, they engaged in jobs considered undesirable or polluting according to Shintoism or Buddhism. such as animal slaughter, leather-making, prison officers, executioners. They are mentioned as a separate caste during the Heian period, but it’s during the Edo shogunate (from the early 17th century) that they become considered as ‘less than human’. This discrimination officially ended in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system, but the Burakumin continued to live in segregated communities until the 1960s, and are still socially discriminated against when it comes to employment or marriage if their ancestry is discovered.

So it’s not surprising that Nakagami Kenji was the only post-war Japanese author to admit that he was of Burakumin origin, and, throughout his short life, he tried to give a voice to this community on the margins of Japanese society. The Burakumin have a reputation for being poor, dirty, chaotic and criminal – so a handy comparison in Europe might be the Roma communities. Nakagami himself said once in an interview: ‘I write for a public that cannot read me. My mother, my sister, my brothers are illiterate like all the Burakumin.’ But at the same time, he is writing about the Burakumin families of his day to allow the rest of Japanese (and international) society an insight into their daily lives. He also felt that he was writing ‘against the clock’, as these Burakumin neighbourhoods were being pulled down in a well-meant (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at assimilation.

At first glance, these are indeed chaotic, brutal and sad lives that he describes. ‘The Cape’ is the first in a loose family chronicle of a post-war Burakumin family, seen predominantly through the eyes of Akiyuki, who feels like a double outsider: both in Japanese society and in his own family. He is the only son in his family who has a father who never lived with his mother. His family history is complicated by remarriages and adoptions: he has two older half-sisters who have married (and one has moved far away from their home town) and a half-brother who hung himself. He is a labourer in his shady brother-in-law’s construction company and lives with his mother, stepfather and a younger stepbrother. Akiyuki feels that the whole family is based on lies, whether outright lies or lies of omission. is constantly haunted by the image of his real father who had two other children by different mothers, one of which is a ‘coddled girl’ from a ‘proper’ family, while the other is a prostitute. He is terrified of ending up like his ‘lustful father’ and has thus far abstained from any sexual relationships.

It is an atmosphere of Greek tragedy, heightened by poverty, alcohol, obsession with sex and lack of education. There are petty (and not so petty) sibling rivalries and squabbles, family feuds and gossip, violent and drunken scenes, and it all escalates, leading to murder and incest. Yet would it be fair to blame it all on the outcaste status? The neighbourhood is full of other outsiders and misfits: drug addicts, prostitutes, new immigrants. Besides, in many ways, this reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, featuring another dysfunctional but far wealthier and certainly not marginalised family unable to escape their tragic fate.

There are two other stories in this volume, in addition to ‘The Cape’. ‘House on Fire’ is still very much rooted in Akiyuki’s family and universe, although the characters don’t appear with any names. Instead, we have ‘the mother’, ‘that man (father)’, ‘son’ and so on. This was an earlier version of ‘The Cape’, and it centers around the bastard son of an arsonist, who hears that his father has been badly hurt in an accident and remembers his father’s endless appetite for violence and destruction. Here too we have the matriarchal family line and the struggle and hatred between father and son powerfully described – which must have been revolutionary for Japan at the time, where family lineages are still very patriarchal.

The third story ‘Red Hair’ is quite different: far less plot, more reliant on atmosphere. Kozo is a disaffected young man whose unskilled job is about to be made redundant. The only thing he looks forward to in his life is the red-headed woman waiting for him at home. Very graphic sex with her provides a welcome release for all the frustrations going on in his life. Their relationship, however, is so fragile, as we see when they meet with a neighbouring couple, who try to dig into the red-haired woman’s past, which they suspect is unsavoury. Ultimately, as the young lovers look at the rain and decide to go back to bed, they recognise that all they have is that moment of pleasure, and the illusion that they can prolong it at will.

There are few translations of Nakagami available in English (the French seem to like him more), but this particular edition – if you can find it second-hand – has a very informative preface and afterword by the translator. Tony is the only other book blogger who has reviewed Nakagami, as far as I know, but if you have read him, do leave your comments and links below.

I am linking this once again to the wonderful Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Meredith.

January in Japan: Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami Haruki

Murakami Haruki: Sputnik Sweetheart, trans. Philip Gabriel, Vintage, 2002.

Back in the 1990s – early 2000s, I really liked Murakami Haruki (although I would often say that I like the ‘other Murakami’, namely Ryū, just as much). This is because our Japanese professor really loved Norwegian Wood and we read it together in class. In fact, at the time I read the Japanese in parallel with the original translation by Alfred Birnbaum, which was intended for students of the Japanese language. Jay Rubin translated the better-known version available for Western readers and that is the one I have now on my shelves.

Kafka on the Shore (2002) and his non-fiction book about running (2008) were the last books of his that I truly enjoyed and I haven’t bothered much with his more recent novels (although I did fall for the hype and pre-order a limited edition of Killing Commendatore from Waterstones).

Sputnik Sweetheart was one of the earlier books (published in 1999) that I had not read, so I took advantage of January in Japan to see if I could recapture some of my earlier excitement about Murakami. And, on the whole, I did! There were fewer of the typical Murakami tics (or bingo sheet of elements) that crop up time and again in his novels and stories. It was more realistic, but with just a slight tinge of surrealism.

The narrator K is best friends with the idealistic and stubborn would-be novelist Sumire, who used to go to the same college as him. Now he is a schoolteacher and Sumire an aspiring writer. Truth be told, he is in love with Sumire, but she never seems to think of him in that way. Instead, she falls desperately in love with the glamorous businesswoman of Korean origin, Miu, who convinces Sumire to be her assistant.

Sumire shares her dilemma with K (without noticing the parallels to his own situation): should she tell Miu how she feels? Can she bear to be in Miu’s proximity without a physical relationship? Does a love affair like that mean she abandons her principles and aspirations as a writer or would it help her to gather the experience she needs in order to be a more well-rounded writer?

I particularly enjoyed reading the tongue-in-cheek description of Sumire’s writing abilities, which is evident in spite of K’s supposed admiration for her (and he hastens to add that he appreciates the direct power and honesty of her writing):

She had so many things she had to write, so many stories to tell. If she could only find the right outlet, heated thoughts and ideas would gush out like lava, congealing into a steady stream of inventive works the likes of which the world had never seen… A photo of her, smiling coolly, would appear in the arts section of the newspaper, and editors would beat a path to her door. But it never happened that way. Sumire wrote some works that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning and an end. Not that she suffered from writer’s block – far from it. She wrote endlessley, everything that came into her head. The problem was that she wrote too much.

In the end, Sumire accompanies Miu on a business trip to Europe, which they wrap up with a holiday on a Greek island. One night, K receives a phone call from Miu: could he please come to Greece at once? Sumire has disappeared.

This isn’t really a detective novel, although they try to find out what has happened to Sumire with the somewhat lacklustre help of the Greek police. Although K never quite finds out what happened to his friend, he starts to uncover possible reasons why she chose to disappear, when she realised that Miu would never be the lover she would have liked her to be. Although the ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ nickname that Sumire gives to Miu is a private joke (Miu mistakes the word ‘Beatnik’ with ‘Sputnik’), this book is very much about the essential loneliness of the human being, that no one ever fully understands or accepts us, or can travel the whole distance with us.

And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.

Just like Norwegian Wood, this is a coming-of-age novel full of yearning. K recognises what Sumire brought into his life and what is now missing when he loses her.

Like the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had would never ever take place again. We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our life. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it’s gone for ever. What I’d lost was not just Sumire. I’d lost that precious flame.

Call it the love of our lives, our youthful idealism, our illusions, our dreams – we all learn to live with our losses as we grow older, but we cannot always express them as wistfully or as wittily as Murakami does here.

I can now safely say that Sputnik Sweetheart is on my list of Murakami Haruki novels that I love (together with Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). I still have to read South of the Border, West of the Sun, to see where it fits in. I also love this super-quick graphic summary of the book: https://www.deviantart.com/larsony/art/Sputnik-Sweetheart-144045829

#JanuaryInJapan: A Cat, a Man and Two Women

Tanizaki Junichirō: A Cat, a Man and Two Women, trans. Paul McCarthy, Daunt Books, 2017.

Tanizaki Junichirō (I’m sorry, I just can’t cope any more with the Western habit of reversing Japanese author names to suit our own standards – it is surname first in Japanese and in many other languages) was one of the leading Japanese authors of the 20th century and one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1960s (he died in 1965 and in the end it was Kawabata who was the first Japanese to win it). His obsessions with eroticism, fetishism and violence did not endear him hugely to me when I was a student, but I should add that not all of his books are like that.

He was a huge fan of Genji Monogatari and translated it into modern Japanese, so it’s no surprise that the clash between tradition and modernity, between East and West are recurring themes in his (often best) work. The Makioka Sisters has a Chekhovian or Thomas Mann Buddenbrooks feel to it (not just because of its title, which is actually Sasameyuki – or ‘thin/lightly falling snow’ in Japanese); it depicts the decline of a merchant family in Osaka, but also the end of an era. His collection of essays on Japanese art and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is also worth a read. But I can’t say I ever found his work amusing or charming… until now.

The 120 page novella A Cat, a Man and Two Women is one of Tanizaki’s lighter-hearted works and was written perhaps as a bit of a relief from the struggles of working for five years on the translation of Genji. A love triangle – or should that be a square? – it clearly shows that the author understood cats (and perhaps women too) very well. Shozo is a simple, unsophisticated man, somewhat easily manipulated (certainly when it suits him) by his mother or his second wife Fukuko. Meanwhile, his spurned first wife Shinako claims that she wants custody of their tortoiseshell cat Lily. But why does Shinako, who seemed to be jealous of Lily while they were all living in the same house, really want the cat? Is it because she knows that Shozo is so smitten with his pet that he will start visiting her once more?

Each of the humans in the story sets out to use Lily as a pawn, but in the end the cat proves to be the mistress of them all, drawing out both the best and the worst qualities of the people fighting over her. What is most touching about the story is the description of Lily as she ages – these are the passages where it becomes clear that Tanizaki must have been a great cat lover himself.

There were many signs of Lily’s rapid decline: one of them, for example, was her no longer being able to jump up with ease to Shozo’s height and snatch a bite to eat… each year the number of leaps grew fewer, and the height she reached lower. Recently, if she were shown a bit of food when she was hungry, she would first check to see if it was something she liked or not, and then jump; and even so, it had to be held no higher than a foot or so above her head. If it were any higher she would give up the idea of jumping and either climb up Shozo’s body or, when even that seemed too much for her, simply look up at him with those soulful eyes, her nose twitching hungrily… When Shinako got that sad look in her eyes, it didn’t bother Shozo very much; but for some reason, when it was Lily, he was strangely overcome with pity.

It seemed oddly appropriate to be reading this story about love for one’s pet during the week when the Pope expressed dismay that people prefer pets over having children (Shozo does not have any children with either his first or his second wife). Certainly, the closeness between Shozo and his cat is excessive at times – forcing his wife to cook something she hates for the sake of feeding it to the cat instead of eating it himself, or exchanging farts under the bedcovers. Yet I dare any animal lover not to be moved by that final scene, when he holds Lily on his lap and she purrs and allows herself to be stroked, but doesn’t seem to recognise him. Of course, you can also see it as the transience of life and marriage itself…

A slight story, but a beautifully observed and sensitively written study of human (and feline) nature. Tony Malone reviewed this when it was first reissued by Daunt, Karen aka Kaggsy reviewed it for #1936Club, while Annabel reviewed it for last year’s Japan challenge. This post will be linked to Meredith’s record-breaking 15th (fifteenth!) Japanese Literature Challenge.

#JanuaryinJapan: Keiichiro Hirano

Keiichiro Hirano: A Man, trans. Eli K.P. William, Amazon Crossing, 2020.

Rie Takemoto’s husband Daisuke Taniguchi was an incomer to their little town S in the Miyazaki Prefecture of Japan. He moved to the town at the age of thirty-five wanting a complete change of career, and he worked in forestry for four years, three of which he spent married to Rie, before being crushed by a tree.

Upon his death, Rie discovers that her famously reticent husband was actually not who he claimed to be. Shocked at the possibility that her marriage was a complete lie, she contacts the lawyer Akira Kido to try and find out more about the man she married. Kido becomes obsessed with the investigation, as he uncovers layer after layer of mystery and hidden identities. It turns out that Japan’s old-fashioned, paper-based family register system is open to manipulation, and that people buy and sell identities to get rid of a troublesome past.

But this is not simply a mystery novel. Kido himself is a zainichi (of Korean origins), although he grew up in a very Japanese environment and doesn’t even speak Korean. After the 2011 tsunami, he has been forcibly made aware of his heritage and starts to feel that his Japanese wife is perhaps ashamed of it. One of the people he investigates changed his identity to escape his family heritage (his father was a notorious criminal) – and Kido sees parallels to his own situation.

In all honesty, I don’t like when other Zainichi try to claim me, as though we were somehow separate and special… Whether it’s being a lawyer or being Japanese, the same applies. It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.

The novel becomes a meditation on what makes up ‘a man’ or our ‘real self’. But it’s also a poignant description of failing to live up to our youthful aspirations and wondering whether we too might be tempted to turn over a completely new leaf and reinvent ourselves if we could do so without grave consequences.

Such is the intriguing premise of this novel, the first by Hirano that I’ve read. I was aware of the author from the sterling blog run by J.C. Greenway, who actually lives in Japan.

Although I enjoyed the story overall (and in particular the characters of Kido and Misuzu, Daisuke’s former girlfriend), I have to admit that the multiple swaps of identity and the deliberate obfuscations of the ‘identity broker’ in prison got confusing and irritating after a while. I also found the prose rather pedestrian, occasionally clunky, with the more philosophical meditations shoehorned in rather than feeling like an organic, inevitable part of the story. I am not sure if that is the author’s style in Japanese or if it’s the translation. At the same time, I appreciate the book for its realism, its accurate description of the hard-working, less than glamorous everyday of life in contemporary Japan, rather than the surreal flights of fantasy encountered in Murakami, for instance.

Having said that, I am about to embark upon a Murakami book for my next read, so…

Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

Best of the Year: Delving Deeper

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – more than 160 books this year! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. This is yet another of my posts by categories, this time of authors that I have enjoyed in the past and finally got a chance to read more.

Yuko Tsushima: The Shooting Gallery and Of Dogs and Walls, transl. Geraldine Harcourt

Not just the daughter of my favourite Japanese writer, but an astounding writer in her own right. It’s a puzzle to me why she is not better known in the English-speaking world, even though she had been translated in the 1980s, but wondered if it was…

 … 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 was very moved to read her rather personal stories (or are they really all that autobiographical?) about her own family, which are especially poignant in the two stories Of Dogs and Walls.

A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

One of my absolute favourite writers. I have all her books on my bedside table, but there are still one or two of her novels that I haven’t read (because they were out of print for a long while). Now, thanks to the Penguin Classic reprint, I had the opportunity to read this tale of claustrophobia and manipulation, of growing up and trying to fit in.

I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

Marlen Haushofer: We Kill Stella

Despite my love of Austrian literature, I only discovered Haushofer last year, when The Wall seemed the perfect companion piece to a pandemic. I have since made an effort to acquire most of her work in German and this novella bears all the hallmarks of her disquieting style, a quietly simmering surface hiding real horrors beneath.

It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.

Javier Marias: The Infatuations, transl. Margaret Jull Costa

Another author whose books I instantly acquired upon first discovering him, but never quite got around to reading more. This year I finally cracked open the less intimidating standalone The Infatuations and once more allowed myself to be lulled by that apparently meandering, baroque style.

Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.

David Peace: Tokyo Redux

The final part in the Tokyo trilogy has been a long time coming, so I simply had to get hold of it as soon as it came out this year. David Peace is a bit of a marmite author – and I have to admit that his style can get occasionally grating at times, with its excessive use of repetitions and oral effects. However, this book is a triumph, striking just the right balance of mystery and self-unravelling, of conspiracy and societal transformation.

You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude, transl. Michael Henry Heim

A slim volume, but containing so many layers, so many ideas that I will no doubt have to reread it many times to fully grasp it. Quite unforgettable, this story of a humble paper-compactor who has learnt so much from the books he is pulping, and whose work is about to become automated.

Much of the action takes place in cellars, underground, there is a lot of dirt and danger, there is even sacrifice, for example the small mice that regularly get compacted together with the paper. But there is also indifference to that sacrifice. The author repeatedly refers to the sewers of Prague, the scene of a senseless war between two armies of rats. He often shows university-educated men who are doing back-breaking manual labour, even refers to them as ‘Prague’s fallen angels… who have lost a battle they never fought’

Now that I see all my favourites in this category listed together, I realise they all have the common theme of the solitary protagonist, often an outsider, a person who is a little uncomfortable with society as it is, who questions things, who is often crushed, but very, very occasionally might rise – maybe not triumphant, but at least surviving.

Russians in the Snow: Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Children, transl. Michael Pursglove, Alma Classics, 2015.

There seems to be a bit of revisionism going on with the titles of Turgenev’s work, and I wonder if this is because he was translated so early on, even during his own lifetime, since he lived abroad for much of his life, became good friends with Flaubert, and met all sorts of luminaries of the English literary establishment on his visits to Britain. For example, this novel was originally translated as ‘Fathers and Sons’ (which is largely accurate in terms of the characters portrayed), but the Russian original would be closer to Fathers and Offspring/Children – or so I am told. Another of his novels has been translated as ‘Home of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of Gentlefolk’.

Because Turgenev was quite concerned with the plight of the Russian peasant and was often satirical about the inertia of the noble classes in Tsarist Russia, even after land reforms, he was perceived as one of the acceptable Russian classics even during Communist times. Needless to say, that kind of praise was enough to put me off him, although I enjoyed his play A Month in the Country (which I seem to remember seeing performed in Bucharest at some point) and many of his short stories or novellas. I was very moved at the ti,e by ‘Mumu’ – the story about a young serf who sacrifices his dog, the only creature he has ever cared for and the only one who ever shows him some affection – although the interpretation of it from the dialectical materialist point of view left much to be desired.

Nowadays, I quite like a bit of social critique with my reading, but I wasn’t expecting Turgenev’s description of the conflicting points of view of the different generations to hit me personally. As a parent who is now older than the ‘forty-something’ Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, one of the fathers in the story, I found myself more often than not siding with the older generation, understanding their eagerness to not displease their sons when they (infrequently) come home to visit, eager to keep up with their thoughts and vocabulary, even if privately thinking them a bit pretentious or exaggerated.

Nikolai is waiting for his son Arkady to come home after graduating from university. He is the owner of a modest estate in the provinces, which is not doing too well since the liberation of the serfs, probably because Nikolai is too kindly and weak as a landowner. Arkady brings his friend Bazarov, who is a self-proclaimed nihilist (the first time such a figure appears in literature, it is believed), and whose radical views have clearly influenced young Arkady very much. Arkady’s uncle Pavel, although normally a strong proponent of Western values and culture, poo-poohs Bazarov’s philosophy, but Nikolai is unsettled by it.

‘At the present time the most useful thing is rejection – and we reject.’

‘Everything?’

‘Everything.’

‘What? Not only art, poetry… but also… I’m afraid to say it.’

‘Everything,’ Bazarov repeated with ineffable calmness.

‘However, allow me,’ Nikolai Petrovich began. ‘You reject everything or, to put it more precisely, you destroy eveything… But one must build as well, mustn’t one?’

‘That’s none of our business… First of all we must clear the ground.’

Hmmm, I can see why the Communists liked this aspect of Turgenev! Although the author was clearly sympathetic to nihilists, seeing them as being of a scientific turn of mind, who will not accept anything without seriously questioning it, the term ‘nihilism’ soon acquired negative connotations following the publication of this book. You can see why, because Bazarov is not an easy character to like at first. He is smug and arrogant, delights in putting other people down and is often manipulative. While he might be justified in mocking the ‘all talk no action’ conservatism of Pavel, he is unnecessarily cruel and distant to others around him, including his own parents.

‘My dear [this is Bazarov’s father talking to his wife], on Yevgeni’s first visit we were a little bit of a nuisance to him: now we need to be a little wiser.’

Arina Vlasyevna agreed with her husband, but did not gain much from this because she only saw her son at the table and finally became frightened of talking to him at all.

‘Yevgeny, darling,’ she kept saying, and he would scarcely have time to glance in her direction, when, starting to finger the laces of her reticule, she would babble: ‘Never mind, never mind, I’m all right’ but would turn to Vasily Ivanovich and say to him…:’How can we find out, my dear, what darling Yevgeny wants for dinner today, cabbage soup or borsch?’ ‘Why haven’t you asked him yourself?’ ‘But I’ll bore him!’

In the constant battle between the old and the new, Turgenev does a great job of showing that both sides have their flaws. He allows Pavel, for instance, to land a few satirical punches as well, even if he is a typical representative of what Turgenev elsewhere called the ‘superfluous man’ – a well-educated dandy who does not use his position of power in society for any reform, but instead engages in all sorts of vices to allay his existential boredom. Blind to his own shortcomings, Pavel describes the nihilists in similar terms:

Young people used to have to study; they did not want to have the reputation of ignoramuses, so they worked hard willy-nilly. But now all they have to do is say “Everything in the world is rubbish” and the thing is in the bag. Young people are delighted. Before, they were simply dolts; now they’ve all suddenly become nihilists.

Yet it is Pavel who stands up for his brother’s honour by protecting his lower-class mistress, although his motives are not entirely pure. Incidentally, the father’s relationship with the daughter of the housekeeper, Fenechka, mirrors Turgenev’s own life: both he and his brother had affairs (in his brother’s case, even a marriage) across class boundaries.

Pride comes before a fall, and Bazarov finds out the limits of his philosophy and how deluded he was when he falls in love with the wealthy young widow Anna Sergeyevna. She invites him and Arkady to her home, enjoys their verbal sparring, but rejects him when he somewhat shame-facedly breaks down and admits his love for her. Anna is perhaps the personification of the philosophical stance he has tried to adopt: ‘having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong convictions even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life’. She either does not recognise the depth of her feeling for Bazarov or else does not confuse temporary fascination with love. ‘Was there the truth, the absolute truth, in their words? They did not know themselves, and the author even less. But they had a conversation as if they completely believed one another.’

An attempted seduction, an almost farcical duel, a marriage proposal, an eavesdropped conversation and a death later, some of the sympathetic characters in the novel reconcile and have a happy end, while others are left to nurse their disappointment, or sorrow — or else embark upon new adventures. Arkady no longer is the eager disciple, but Bazarov himself (whom we have grown fond of once we realise his bark is worse than his bite)… well, let’s just say we can either describe him as a man whose dreams have been shattered, or else a young man who has suddenly become mature. Sadly, the author does not give him many years to redeem himself, but instead lambasts the Russian students abroad once more:

… the young Russian physics and chemistry students, who flock to Heidelberg, and who at first astonish their naive German professors with their sober outlook on things, and later on astonish the same professors by their complete inactivity and total laziness.

Throughout his life, Turgenev was both praised and criticised for his often scathing depiction of Russian society. To some, he showed no respect for traditions and had an irreverent attitude towards religion, while for others he was not intransigent enough. In this novel, in which he is critical but also sympathetic towards both sides, we can see that his chosen path was moderation, and that he tried to reconcile these extremes within his own life and his work. But it would always be difficult to write about the homeland when you are accused of living too long abroad!

I also found him much easier to read than I expected and was amused to discover that Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert and Nabokov all rated him higher than Dostoevsky (and even Tolstoy for some). I did get a little weary of the author giving us the full back story of every single character we are introduced to, certainly a writing technique that is not recommended nowadays. The translation does read a little old-fashioned in parts, but no more so than reading a Victorian novel, which is probably exactly the kind of effect that the translator was aiming for. After provoking a lot of excitement about Turgenev on Twitter, I decided to ignore all recommendations (which tended to favour ‘Nest of the Gentry’) and got myself the novel Smoke instead. I will certainly be reading more of him in the future but I don’t think he will topple Dostoevsky and Chekhov in my heart any time soon.

Best of the Year: New Discoveries

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – 160 books and counting! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. Bear with me, as this is yet another of my posts by categories. When I say New Discoveries, I don’t mean books that were published this year (I’ve already got a post on those), but authors that I may have previously heard about from social media or my blogger friends, but I’ve only just started reading this year.

Ioanna Karystiani: Back to Delphi, transl. Konstantine Matsoukas, Europa Editions.

Quite a challenging read for a mother of sons, this is the story about a middle-aged woman trying to reconnect with her son, who is on a brief release from prison for a rather grim crime. Told first from the mother’s point of view, and then from the son’s, it is a powerful story of the emotional baggage we all carry around with us and the challenges of communicating within the family.

…no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. 

I’m not sure that anything else by this author has been translated into English, and I wish my Greek were good enough to read more. I hear she is also active as a scriptwriter, so maybe I can dig out some films written by her.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence.

I was at work in London the day they announced the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I instantly rushed upstairs to the library to seek out the work of this British/Tanzianian writer. This was the first one I picked up, and on the strength of it, I have bought two more of his books (including a signed copy of his latest Afterlives from the London Review Bookshop, who organised a Q&A one evening with him recently, with Kamila Shamsie as the interviewer). His novels of displacement, of recreating an identity, of the impossibility of a return to your old life, really spoke to me. The quote below, for example, really shook me to the core (a sense of guilt I’ll probably carry for the rest of my life):

we need you here. Forgive me for saying this, but they don’t need you there. They have enough of their own people to do whatever is necessary, and sooner or later they will say that they have no use for you. Then you will find yourself in an alien land that is unable to resist mocking people of our kind. If you come back, you’ll be with your own people, of your own religion, who speak your own language. What you do will have meaning and a place in the world you know. You’ll be with your family. You’ll matter, and what you do will matter. Everything that you have learned there will be of benefit to us. It will make a difference here, rather than being… another anonymous contribution to the petty comfort and well-being of a society that does not care for you.

Marian Engel: Bear.

After hearing Dorian enthuse so much about this book, I had to read it and make up my own mind. I was certainly intrigued by it – although it was far less titillating than some recent reviews have tried to make it out to be. It felt much more like a fable, a simple story but with hidden depths. It is a novel about loneliness, about losing and regaining your passion, about reconnecting with nature and with your own true self.

What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is 

I immediately went on to read another novel by Marian Engel, the far more messy and obviously feminist Lunatic Villas, which I liked less, perhaps because of its sprawling nature. Yet I will certainly explore more of her body of work (not all that extensive, unfortunately, since she died relatively young).

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder, Vintage.

Of course I’ve read many reviews of Ogawa’s books, a number of which have been translated into English. But somehow, I never quite took the plunge. Hearing her talk about The Memory Police (published nearly 30 years ago) at the Edinburgh Literary Festival last year made me think it would be perfect reading matter for me, but I did nothing about it. That’s just how it goes sometimes with inertia! Luckily, book expert Jacqui and her colleagues at the Chorleywood Bookshop sent this to my son as part of his subscription, so I got a chance to read it before he did. I am still discombobulated by the beautiful descriptions which contrast with the rather frightening subject matter of enforced collective forgetting.

… this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife.

Another shocking omission from my reading: Irish (later Canadian) author Brian Moore. I have heard of his work, even bought the Judith Hearne book a few years back, but it’s still sitting patiently, unread, on my shelves. So it’s thanks to the #1976Club and several of my favourite book bloggers reviewing this title that I finally made his acquaintance – and it certainly was memorable, even if the book and its premise feel slightly dated. It is a Madame Bovary for the 1970s, I suppose, but the 1970s in Northern Ireland, which was probably more like the 1950s in England. Nevertheless, I became completely immersed in the story and felt sorry for everyone concerned. Even when they don’t deserve it.

The other thing that most readers take issue with is her apparent readiness to abandon her son. I wonder if Moore is once again pointing out double standards here (how many men readily abandon their children and embark upon new relationships and build new families), but also pointing out that uncomfortable truth that mothers discover their own redundancy when their children hit their late teens, especially boys, who might side more with their father. 

Isn’t it funny how, even when you are sure that a certain writer will be your precise cup of tea, you keep on postponing that moment of becoming acquainted? Maybe I am saving them for a rainy day? Well, these past two years have certainly taught us to make the most of things, and not delay for the rainy day…