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.

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.

Annual Summary: Contemporary Writing

This post was going to be named Contemporary Fiction, but I actually had a very good year of reading poetry and non-fiction, so I wanted to include those, and didn’t know if I (or you) would have the patience for separate blog posts for every single category. So these are books published recently (not just this year, but in the past few years), some of them have been reissued or have only just been translated. There are 59 books that would fit in this category out of my total of 127, so roughly half of the books I read. A higher proportion than I expected, driven partly by my desire to help small independent publishers and bookshops in this difficult year.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Here are the ones that stayed with me:

Fiction

Aoko Matsuda: Where the Wild Ladies Are – a clever, ferocious, fun subversion of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales, made all the more interesting by getting a chance to hear the translator Polly Barton talk about it at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene after lockdown in March

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women – another short story collection with a wry look at the gender gap (I seemed to find short stories more accessible and suitable for my attention span, particularly during the first lockdown). Although these stories were written during the 1950s and 60s, they have been collected and reissued recently… and still have a lot to say about today’s world.

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – two novellas about life as a Jew in the increasingly intolerant Romanian society of the 1930s (and the Second World War) – fascinating initially because of its subject matter, the writing turned out to be truly evocative of its time and place, with a dry, dark sense of humour

Nino Haratischwili (or Haratishvili): The Eighth Life – a mammoth of a family saga, which captivated even me, a reluctant convert to the family saga genre, always balancing between the personal and the historical, the well-trodden and the barely known.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet – this book was a case of right time, right subject matter for me, not just as a Shakespeare fan, but also because I read it at a time when I was so worried about the health of my own children; perhaps slightly over-written, but with moments of real beauty, lyricism and psychological depth.

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow… – so clever, such a beguiling voice, a great insight into a person, a way of life and a rural society, both tragic and comic all at once

Sarah Waters: Fingersmith – finally understood what all the fuss was about, just could NOT stop reading this thrilling example of master storytelling; sadly, was not quite as enamoured of the other books by the author that I then borrowed post-haste from the library

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs – a strange novel, composed of two parts that don’t really have much to do with each other, and yet I loved the way it explored women, bodies, sisterhood, families and the meaning of parenthood in contemporary Japan

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season – one of the most breathlessly enthralling and difficult stories I’ve read this year or perhaps in any other year, with voices that will leave you shattered – one of those life-changing books

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest – by way of contrast, a gentle, subtle, utterly charming book about an exceptional man and author, Chekhov – a fictional account of his summers in the Ukraine

Poetry

I read a lot of poetry this year, but as usual haven’t reviewed much. The two that I have reviewed, however, both shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award – and one the winner of this award – were truly unforgettable: Jay Bernard’s Surge and Sean Hewitt: Tongues of Fire. But this year I also discovered Jericho Brown, Safiya Sinclair, Caroline Bird, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Nina Boutsikaris and a new translation of Cavafy by Evan Jones, so it’s been an excellent year.

Non-Fiction

Deborah Orr: Motherwell – not just a family history – and the gap between generations – but also the history of a community, which helped me to understand a lot more about the UK and its working class history

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting – reminded me of just how much I loved certain women authors and introduced me to a couple of new women to admire – a thoughtful recreation of a period and women’s aspiration to be independent of thought (and financially too, if possible). Perhaps forced together into the Mecklenburgh Square concept, but it worked for me and I really regret not writing a proper review of it

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling – micro-memoirs, witty, charming, sharp-tongued, experimental – a delight that I discovered thanks to the recommendation of Anne-Marie Fyfe, whose poetry workshop was one of the last things I was able to attend live in 2020

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – an absolute must for literary translators, but for all readers, this is both an insight into the science and art of translation, and throws up all sorts of knotty problems for debate – another of those ‘life-changing’ books, especially since I just started being a literary translator this year.

#SakhalinIsland: The Humanity of Chekhov

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know and appreciate Chekhov. We had an actress family friend who performed in The Seagull, so I saw that at a very tender age. I then went through a spell of imagining myself performing in each one of his plays. Of course, I also appreciated his short stories and I knew some biographical details about his life as a doctor and how he supported his family.

I didn’t, however, realise the full extent of his compassion and humanitarian commitment, until I read his non-fiction book Sakhalin Island as part of a #ChekhovTogether readalong with Yelena Furman, Alok Ranjan, Todd, Elisabeth van der Meer and Herb Randall. This also fits in with my Russians in December reading plan. The next one I’ll be tackling will be The Brothers Karamazov, the only Dostoevsky that I’ve not been able to read so far.

Nobody is quite sure why Chekhov at the age of thirty decided to go on a lengthy trip to the penal colony of Sakhalin in 1890. He was not really a militant journalist and he did not go there in any official capacity as a health expert either, yet the book is both a triumph of social (and medical) anthropology and a remarkable piece of investigative journalism. It almost certainly accelerated the progression of his tuberculosis and robbed him of a few months of life, but it was perhaps partly motivated by the recent death of his brother and the fact that he had recently been diagnosed himself with the same dreaded disease.

What Chekhov has given us here is a clear-eyed, empathetic but by no means sentimental account of daily life in the colony, based on his own statistical and qualitative research. As an anthropologist, you can imagine how much I enjoyed this combination of the general and the very specific examples and personal stories. According to Sakhalin officials, Chekhov possessed a remarkable gift for gaining the prisoners’ confidence. It’s equally undeniable that he was moved (and shocked) by what he saw there, so he continued to study documents about Sakhalin’s history, particularly under the Russian administration, and made recommendations for improving living and working conditions for both convicts and settlers (most often composed of freed exiles). The Tsarist bureaucratic machine obviously feared too much negative publicity and therefore assigned ‘helpers’ to him as he went about his interviewing (under the pretext of census-taking). Chekhov himself was aware of the danger of seeing only what he was allowed to see and described it as ‘seeing everything but missing the elephant’. He sought to be balanced and thoughtful in his approach, but he was quite critical both about the system (and its policies):

It seemed to me that I was seeing the extreme and utmost degree of human degradation, lower than which it is simply impossible to go…

Penalties which humiliate and embitter a criminal, long since acknowledged as injurious to the free population, have been retained for convicts, as if a population of exiles is in less danger of becoming hardened and embittered.

And about the people who implement the policies on the ground: the prison wardens, governors and officials in Sakhalin:

In the labour camps served people who were unscrupulous, unsqueamish, difficult to get on with, to whom it was all the same where they served, as long as they could eat, drink, sleep and play cards.

He really would have made a terrific, empathetic anthropologist. He describes the native populations of the islands as well – or what remained of them – the Gilyaks and the Ainu, and is not complimentary about the way they have been treated by either the Japanese or the Russians in this disputed territory:

General K told me that he wished to Russify the Gilyaks. Why this should be necessary I do not know… proximity to a prison will not Russify, but only totally corrupt…

After claiming that the Russians freed the Ainu from the quasi-serfdom they suffered under the Japanese, he then describes at some length the brutalisation of the Ainu by Cossack Lt. Chorny, who boasts: ‘That’s how we do things in Russia!’

Unsurprisingly, Chekhov is not only able to see the monstrous behaviour in people placed in positions of power, but he is always able to view with compassion the weaknesses of marginalised people, or those labelled by society as ‘monsters’.

I was told that at one time there had been benches standing on the path to the lighthouse, but they had been forced to take them away because, while out strolling, the convicts and settled exiles had written on them and had carved with their knives filthy lampoons and all sorts of obscenities. There are a lot of free lovers of this so-called “wall literature” too, but, in penal servitude, the cynicism surpasses all limits and absolutely no comparison may be made with it. Here, not only benches and the walls of backyards, but even the love letters, are revolting. It is remarkable that a man will write and carve various abominations on a bench while at the same time he is feeling lost, abandoned and profoundly unhappy.

Given the rather grim subject matter, I wasn’t expecting much humour in this book, but there are plenty of wry asides, especially about the inclement weather and unforgiving landscape:

What they say about Sakhalin is that there is no climate here, just bad weather… most inclement spot in Russia… When Nature created Sakhalin the last thing she had in mind was mankind and his benefit.

Yet there are also instances when the writer in Chekhov seems to be awestruck and inspired by the endless solitude:

All around there is not a single living soul, not a bird, not a fly, and it is beyond comprehension who the waves are roaring for, who listens to them at nights here… who they would roar for when I was gone..

Sadly, I understand this remote landscape is no longer quite so pristine, but echoing constantly to the drills of oil and gas companies, both on land and offshore.

Sakhalin-2 Offshore, Gasprom/Shell.

I read this book in a beautiful edition from Alma Classics, with a new translation by Brian Reeve, invaluable annotations/endnotes by both the author and the translator, and further enhanced by the presence of related documents, such as impressions of his trip through Siberia, as well as letters to relatives and friends.

#GermanLitMonth: World War One

With apologies to Caroline and Lizzy for this very late review for #GermanLitMonth.

I was planning to read more for one of my favourite annual reading challenges, namely the German Literature Month, but the Young Writer of the Year Award reading took priority this time round. Besides, even though it was a reread, Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is not a book to be read in a rush. I obviously had a stronger constitution as a teenager, as this time nearly every chapter left me in tatters and I needed a day to recover before attempting the next.

The book is based partly on own experience (although Remarque was only very briefly on the front) and mostly on eyewitness accounts. The First World War has been dragging on for several years now. The ‘Hurrah- patriotismus’ fervour and speeches of their schoolmaster Kantorek, which made the four friends and schoolboys join the army in 1914, has turned to disillusionment and ashes. The frontline seems to be stagnating, as they fight over the same piece of land over and over again, fruitlessly. There is no glory, no heroism here, just endless drudgery and pain. The young soldiers know nothing else but despair, death and fear. The narrator, Paul, paints the contrast between those espousing the necessity of war and the virtues of the Fatherland with those who actually experience the futility of it.

While they wrote and talked about it, we saw the military hospitals and the dying; while they talked up one’s duty to the state, we knew that fear of death trumped it. We didn’t become rebels, deserters, cowards – all those terms that they bandied about so easily – we loved our home just as much as they did, and we advanced courageously at every attack. But we were now able to distinguish between the two, we had learnt to see. And we could see that there was nothing left of their world. We were suddenly left all on our own – and we had to deal with it on our own.

Little wonder that this book was banned when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, as it goes against all of the ideology that they espoused. But it wasn’t just them who objected to this book – quite a few other German readers were concerned that it didn’t portray their country (or its military doctors and nurses) in a good light, that it was badly written, sensationalist, piling on horror upon horror merely to further the author’s pacifist agenda.

I personally found the style often dry and matter of fact, rather than melodramatic, but the simple factual description of some scenes makes them truly horrific and unforgettable – both visually and auditively. There is the constant booming of gunfire, the whistle of grenades, of course, but there is also the crying of the wounded and, in one particularly gruesome scene that I had somehow managed to suppress from my earlier reading, the agonised groaning and whinnying of wounded horses.

Another vivid scene is when they head off to the frontline and on the road they see piles upon piles of freshly-made coffins, with the smell of resin and forest still upon them. The soldiers joke about them, but they are in fact intended for them: heavy casualties are expected. The narrator says drily:

The coffins are indeed for us. In such matters, the army is very organised.

This contrasts with the lack of food and boots (one pair of boots gets inherited from one member of the platoon to another when their owner dies).

What Remarque manages to convey so well is how war has damaged these young men beyond redemption: they are numbed, they have become dehumanised, they don’t fight – they are cornered beasts, merely defending themselves from being annihilated. They have lost the connection with their home and family. When Paul goes briefly home on sick leave, he struggles to explain his experience, he doesn’t want to talk about the war, and he realises that he no longer belongs in his quiet town. Although he is glad to see his dying mother again, his conclusion is that it’s best not to go home from the front. There is a refrain of ‘What will become of us now, even if the war ends?’ that is typical of a lost generation, regardless of which side of the war they were fighting on.

Another reason for the delay in reviewing this book, which I appropriately enough finished on the 11th of November, is that I wanted to compare it with the reread of another favourite war book, this time about a lesser-known front during the First World War, the Eastern Front, as described in The Forest of the Hanged (Pădurea Spânzuraţilor) by Liviu Rebreanu. This was published in 1922, even earlier than Remarque’s novel (published in 1929), and likewise shows the pointlessness of war and the psychological damage it wreaks on participants. Interestingly, enough, it too is written from the point of view of what one might call ‘the baddies’ or the ‘wrong side’ and it too has been accused of bad writing, not so much melodrama but for having a style that is too dry, too banal. I wonder if in this case it is a bit of a cultural dig towards the Transylvanians, who had just united with the ‘Kingdom of Romania’ after 1918. The Transylvanians are renowned for being less verbose, more phlegmatic and colder than the rest of the Romanians from other parts of the country (as well as more organised, more disciplined and more Westernised – too German, in other words, make of that what you will!).

Liviu Rebreanu’s book is an account of Apostol Bologa’s internal journey from blithely joining the Austro-Hungarian army as an ethnic Romanian living in Transylvania (which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to becoming a tormented soul, disenchanted by war, who decides to desert and is condemned to death as a traitor. Bologa’s moral dilemma is all the greater because he is actually not fighting for his fatherland. The ethnic Romanians were often oppressed by their Hungarian overlords and his own father had been one of a group of militants for equal rights. Yet Apostol joined the army mostly to impress his girlfriend Martha. His mother and the local priest are frankly horrified when he tells them he has joined up. ‘You are going to fight for the Hungarians, who beat us up? This is not our fatherland. When you have a “fatherland” like ours, you are not at all obliged to step up to do your duty, on the contrary!’

Nevertheless, Apostol does his duty, somewhat grumpily, having to endure some needling from his fellow officers. His first moment of doubt comes after witnessing the execution by hanging of a Czech officer who had been caught while trying to run away. Apostol initially brands him a traitor and shows little understanding or mercy, but after a conversation with his superior office, Klapka, also a Czech, who describes a forest of the hanged which he encountered on the Italian front, a tiny crack appears in his facade.

And then the bad news comes: their regiment will be moved to the Romanian front. Romania was on the side of the Entente powers during World War One. In other words, Apostol will have to fight against his own ethnic group. He begs to be sent to another frontline, he even attempts to cover himself in medals and glory to impress the Hungarian general and be excused from fighting in Romania. But to no avail. So, for the rest of the book, we witness partly the absurdities and ruthlessness of war, but above all a man’s inner turmoil, a fight between mental deterioration and a struggle for forgiveness and salvation. Unlike Paul in Remarque’s work, Apostol does find connection with other human beings (interestingly, he falls in love with Ilona, an ethnic Hungarian, showing that it’s not about ethnic animosity, but about the hollowness of nationalistic discourse). There are touches of religious mysticism which some modern readers may find old-fashioned, but remind me of Dostoevsky.

As is the case with Remarque, Rebreanu did not personally experience the war, although he was briefly in the Hungarian army in 1906, but he left both the army and Transylvania and settled in Romania in 1909, working as a journalist and novelist. However, his brother Emil faced precisely the dilemma he describes in this novel. Emil was executed for desertion in 1917, but his family only found out after the end of the war. Of course, the author was profoundly shocked and influenced by this personal tragedy, but he explained that the novel was not his brother’s story, but rather the story of an entire generation.

Update: For those showing an interest in the Romanian novel, there is an English language translation (I cannot find the name of the translator) from Casemate Publishers, which is a publisher of mostly military history. There is also a film adaptation from 1965 directed by Liviu Ciulei, which won the Best Director Prize in Cannes that year.

November Reading and Film Summary

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: until the very last week, when I finally got a well-deserved holiday, the month of November has been all work and no play. And that shows in my reading: 11 books, virtually all of them external commitments.

Books

I had committed to reading the shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award, though, so those five books made up most of my month. I loved the two poetry books, Surge and Tongues of Fire, I was impressed and discomfited by Inferno, and I appreciated the talent of young writers Naoise Dolan and Marina Kemp, although these debut novels didn’t necessarily work that well for me.

I also tried to take part in the German Lit Month event, always one of the highlights of my year. But, although I reviewed Marlen Haushofer this month, I have to admit I read her back in October (together with Dear Oxbridge, which I also reviewed then), and I barely managed to sneak in one other German book, a reread of All Quiet on the Western Front. That book led me to a reread of another book about the First World War on a lesser-known front, so I tried to compare it with The Forest of the Hanged by Liviu Rebreanu.

For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had the pleasure of discovering the zany but hugely enjoyable crime meets magic series by Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London. I was expecting an equally pleasurable experience from rereading Dune in tandem with my older son. I had read the trilogy when I was his age or even a little younger, but could remember next to nothing about it, and was looking forward to the new film release. Unfortunately, this time round, the plodding style distracted me, and neither my son nor I were driven to finish it. It will have to live on as a fond teenage memory, lost in the mists of time.

Crimson Snow is an overhang from last month, so ignore the pretty picture of it, but I have nearly finished Tombland by C.J. Sansom, now that I finally had time to devote to such a massive volume during my week off. Norwich is the one place in England that I am seriously considering as a possible future home (I also have a place in mind in Scotland and in Wales respectively), and knew very little about the Kett Rebellion, so the Shardlake series is always a great opportunity to educate myself as well as enjoy a good murder mystery. As a counterpoint to that detailed, long read, I played around with the short, fun novel set in Lausanne by Muriel Spark The Finishing School. It isn’t one of her best, and I found it difficult to believe that it was as recent as 2004, but her sarcasm is always welcome.

Films

My older son finally convinced me to join Letterboxd as a way to keep track of the films we watch (previously I was doing it on pieces of paper which invariably got lost all over the house). However, although he now follows me there, I am not allowed to follow his reviews, because he finds that ‘stalkerish’! Kids, eh? (OK, maybe my comment on his use of apostrophes might have had something to do with this!)

So I can now report with confidence that I have rewatched 5 films, watched 6 films that were new to me and one TV mini-series.

The mini-series was The Queen’s Gambit, which everyone else seems to be watching this month as well. It was a fine recreation of the period and does a good job for promoting chess, and I also liked the way it refreshes the ‘genius’ trope by making it a female genius. But I can’t help but feel it does rely quite heavily on cliches and feels overrated.

The rewatches I cannot be entirely objective about: there is too much sentimental memory attached to them. Yes, Rocky Horror Picture Show may be flawed, but it’s still one of the most fun films I’ve ever seen. Alien remains one of my favourite sci-fi films, both for its threatening atmosphere and for its smart, brave heroine. Tokyo Story and The Apartment are undoubtedly great works of art, while Minghella’s Talented Mr Ripley captures the attractions of expat lifestyle in Italy so well, even though I tend to lose interest after Tom murders Dickie.

The new films were: Inception (possibly one of the most interesting of the Nolan films), Ivan’s Childhood (an early Tarkovsky that already shows his obsessions and beautiful cinematography), I Vitelloni (an early Fellini which makes for a poignant social study) and L’Enfant d’en Haut (an early and depressing Ursula Meier, set partly in Verbier). The film which I liked least this month was Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage – it just didn’t seem to have the wit and humour of some of his other work and the main protagonist annoyed me with her obsessive pursuit of a man who is uninterested in her. The film I liked most was Grave of the Fireflies, although it tugged at every single heartstring I had. An anti-war film that does not have to hammer home its anti-war message, but just shows its impact on children.

#YoungWriterAward: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

There are two ways in which I judge poetry.

First, if it it feels like the top of my head were taken off at first reading (to quote Emily Dickinson). In other words, does it produce a moment of epiphany, of feeling ‘that is what I’ve always thought but never quite found the words to express’ or ‘wow, I didn’t even realise that?’. There are quite a few timely, urgent, angry poems being written now which fulfil that first criteria.

Secondly, are these poems that I will return to again and again, reread, bathe in the sounds and colours, images and smells evoked, and find new meanings every time? Those poetry collections tend to be rarer – there may be one or two poems that I treasure in a collection, but not necessarily all of them.

Author photo copyright: Brid O’Donovan

Seán Hewitt’s debut collection meets both of my criteria. It is not a showy piece of work, but it’s not self-effacing either. Each poem releases little hooks at first reading, which then sink into you and never quite let you go, merely bury themselves deeper and deeper. Because of the beauty of the images, the closeness to nature and the musicality of the language, it is a pleasurable experience… and yet you realise there is a lot of grief, a lot of pain in this poetry as well.

The book is composed of three different parts: the first part is closer to what one might call ‘pure’ nature poetry, although the poet is always mindful how the natural cycle mimics the human life cycle. The natural landscape is also the landscape of the mind. The darkness and stillness of nature and then its rebirth in spring has strong parallels to sinking into disease and depression, and then finding hope and recovery.

I turn home, and all across the floor

the spiked white flowers

light the way. The world is dark

but the wood is full of stars.

Throughout, we also have parallels between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human body, an exploration and celebration of sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, which has been considered ‘unnatural’ for so long.

The second part of the book is a retelling of the story of Suibhne (or Sweeney), a legendary Irish king, who was cursed, became a mad poet and was doomed to wander forevermore, never quite finding rest. This was a myth I was less familiar with, but the tension between transience and permanence, between loneliness and finding a place to call home with loved ones resonated with me, particularly in a year when we have all struggled with not seeing loved ones. Also, the recognition that to love is to open yourself up to the possibility of loss and of being hurt.

There was a time when I thought

the sound of a dove cooing and flitting

over a pond was sweeter than the voices

of friends. There was a time when

I preferred the blackbird and the boom

of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think

that the chanting of the mountain grouse

at dawn had more music than your voice,

but things are different now. Still,

it would be hard to say I wouldn’t rather

live above the bright lake, and eat watercress

in the wood, and be away from sorrow.

The poems in the final part of the book were written mainly in the last few months in the life of the poet’s father, who was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died before the volume was published. There is so much tenderness here, as well as the feeling of being lost without a much loved person.

But hush. No one is coming.

We are handed our lives

by a fierce work. Onto which

blank space will I lock my gaze

when my father

is gone? How am I to wear

his love’s burning mantle?

The language feels very simple, unadorned, but always uncannily ‘right’ in context. There is a lot of restraint here, plenty of breathing space, which makes the impact all the more powerful. This might be called confessional poetry, and certainly there seems to be plenty of autobiographical detail in these poems, but it’s a delicate, elliptical emotion, recollected in tranquillity. The poet himself recognises that this quieter, more personal type of poetry may feel too much like a retreat to an ivory tower at this particular moment. In an interview with the Irish Times, he says:

The lyric poem – its patterning, its rhyme, its insistent “I” – has for me a beauty that is perhaps unfashionable, and might seem to make it isolated from the political imperative. But it is my wager that in speaking of ourselves, we will find readers who share something of that emotion, that experience, that flash of strange perspective. In other words, it is my contention that no poem is ever isolated, if it is done right.

I certainly agree with that. The cover of the book features a rust fungus (also called Tongues of Fire): it is basically a cancer eating at the heart of the juniper bush. Despite its yellow beauty, it is lethal. And that is precisely the effect this volume of poetry has had on me. At a time when so many people have died of a disease we barely see or understand, it feels like an elegy, a way of coping with the unspeakable.

I think you can tell that this was my favourite of the shortlisted titles for the Young Writer of the Year Award. But was it the favourite title overall of the Shadow Panel and did we pick it as our winner? Ah, well, you will have to wait and see…

#YoungWriterAward: Surge by Jay Bernard

I was fortunate enough to hear Jay Bernard perform several of the poems in this collection and have never forgotten them. It was an excellent introduction, because many of them gain immeasurably from being heard, particularly Songbook, whose almost jaunty sing-song rhythm belies the underlying horror.

Make no mistake, this book is as much of a punch in the gut as one of the other books on the shortlist (Inferno by Catherine Cho). Except it isn’t a memoir. It’s a poet’s exploration of historical facts. In 2016 Jay Bernard was a writer in residence at the George Padmore Institute, an archive and research centre for radical black history in Britain. During the course of the residency, Bernard examined the documents pertaining to the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the indifference with which the deaths of thirteen young black people was treated in the media, by the authorities and the general public. A short while after engaging with these historical records, in 2017, the Grenfell Fire took place and the poet felt as if history was repeating itself.

Surge is not a political manifesto, but an emotional response to these disasters and their aftermaths. Of course it expresses sorrow and anger, it calls for justice, and therefore might be called political. There are also some harrowing scenes of retrieving the charred bodies, of parents having to identify the remains, of private and public grieving. But it feels like it’s teaching us a way to come to terms with almost unimaginable pain.

Going in when the firefighters left

was like standing on a black beach

with the sea suspended in the walls,

soot suds like a conglomerate of flies. […]

The black is coming in from the cold,

rolling up the beach walls, looking for light.

It is also the story of the Windrush generation and their descendants. It warns of the dangers of believing yourself at home in a community, and of feeling a homesickness for a place or for people who may no longer exist anywhere except in our memories.

don’t let me die in England I said to the pavement –

to the sea-black rain –

and never tell my grandmother why I never called –

never called to say that I thought of her daily –

that I suffered with the weight of what she had freely given

Author portrait copyright: Joshua Virasami

But it’s also an intimate, touching portrait of growing up black and queer in South London, of feeling part of and apart from several different cultures. Personal sorrows and fears blend with those of the larger community, small joys and triumphs are a source of almost guilty pleasure.

Some day when we can all go to in-person theatre again, I would like to see this book in an immersive experience format, with film projection, audio recordings, something to be felt with all the senses, painful thought it might be. As it was, I felt the words and images fairly jumped off the page, as the poet ably combines pictures, witness statements, newspaper articles and video archives. Jay Bernard shows a remarkable craft and tonal range, far beyond their years: from the auditive delights of spoken word poetry to lyrical minimalism. It was often the quieter, more elegiac moments where the emotion gripped me most:

Will anybody speak of this

the way the flowers do,

the way the common speaks

of the fearless dying leaves?

Will anybody speak of this

the coming of the cold,

the queit it will bring

the fire we beheld?

Will anybody speak of this

the fire we beheld

the garlands at the gate,

the way the flowers do?

#YoungWriterAward: Marina Kemp – Nightingale

When I first saw the shortlist for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I thought that Nightingale by Marina Kemp sounded like the closest to what we might think of as a traditional novel, and that has certainly proven to be the case now that I’ve read it. I don’t say that in any disparaging way: in fact, I’ve often wished that some so-called auto-fictions or experimental novels had erred on the side of tradition and a coherent narrative and overarching structure.

From the beautiful cover, to the blurb promising dysfunctional families, secrets and lies, to the setting in the sleepy south-west of France, it has all the hallmarks of the perfect summer holiday read. It is the story of Marguerite, a young Parisian raised in a well-to-do family, who has trained as a palliative nurse and who has been hired to look after grumpy, wealthy Jérôme Lanvier, once the most powerful and feared men in the village. Marguerite’s past and the reason why she might be working in such an ‘unprestigious’ job become a source of speculation and gossip in the village. Yet the patient and the nurse very slowly, very cautiously develop some sort of understanding and even a grudging respect.

However much Marguerite may wish to keep to herself, she cannot help but become involved with some of the villagers: bolshy Brigitte who has been tasked with checking up on Jérôme’s nursing companions; her gentle farmer husband Henri; the old man’s sons who make a brief appearance from their successful Parisian careers and seem to care more about the inheritance than about their father; and Suki, whose family fled from Iran, and who feels the eternal outsider in a community of ‘mediocrities’.

So we have an intriguing cast of characters, and we have hints (actually quite broad hints – more like public road signs) of past pain and secrets that certain of the characters would do anything to protect. We also have trips to the boulangerie, drinking wine among the olive groves and picking ripe tomatoes on the vine. We have careful observation of gestures and dialogue, a gradual reveal of motivations and tensions, good pacing generally. There are also passages of lyrical, yearning intensity that are simply beautifully written. Yet, overall, the book failed to win me entirely over.

Firstly, despite all of its cultural references, I did not feel fully immersed in a stifling French village atmosphere with sinister overtones, as described so accurately by French authors such as Sylvie Granotier, Sébastien Japrisot or Pascal Garnier. Nor did it have the almost overwhelming charm and specificity of the novels of Joanne Harris or Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series. Yet Marina Kemp is one of a long line of English-speaking authors to choose to set her novel in France, so I have no quarrel with that.

Secondly, there were quite a few instances when the author was not merely content to show us an emotion or interaction between her characters, but she also had to tell it. It felt like everything had to be underlined, emphasised, dwelled upon, to make sure that we don’t miss it as a reader. In French novels and films, so much is left unsaid, so much is merely implied, which is why the contrast struck me all the more forcibly. Finally, some of the secrets were dealt with in a rather melodramatic fashion which might have made more sense if the book had been set a few decades ago.

Having made all of the critical remarks above, I have to admit that I read the book in just a couple of days and found it an enjoyable experience. However, I don’t think it will be the most memorable book from the shortlist for me.