Whenever I worry that I have too many books, I remind myself that there are still lots of ‘dead’ spaces that are wasted in a house, when they could contain perfectly adequate shelves and books. Here are some eloquent examples.
For some reason, book people are also often quite fond of stationery products – and of course, as a writer, one can never have too many notebooks or pens. It’s quite funny to see how popular expensive stationery is, when we are writing less and less by hand! I will be including some Japanese products as well, for January in Japan, and because they are masters of paper production!
It has been a cold winter in Egypt, one of my work colleagues tells me, and an unseasonably warm one in many parts of Europe. There has been more snow for skiing in Aberdeen than in Switzerland. So here I am wishing for snow to fall in places where everyone can cope with the snowfall, where people’s livelihoods depend upon it falling, and where it looks as pretty as in the pictures below.
Apologies, I still call this January in Japan, because I love the alliteration, but it is actually the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza for the sixteenth year(!). I eased myself in with two books at the opposite ends of the crime fiction spectrum.
Matsumoto Seicho: Tokyo Express, transl. Jesse Kirkwood
This author’s work spanned most of the 20th century (born 1909, died 1992) and he is considered one of the classics of Japanese crime fiction. The blurb on the Penguin Classics edition of the book entitled Ten to Sen in Japanese (literal translation: Points and Lines) says ‘His exploration of human psychology and Japanese post-war malaise, coupled with the creation of twisting, dark mysetires, made him one of the most acclaimed and best-selling writers in Japan’. But I didn’t see much psychology in this book – on the contrary, it is the type of mystery that relies very much on tiny details and an encyclopedic knowledge of train timetables to break an alibi, more reminiscent of the work of Freeman Wills Croft (who was a railroad engineer before he started writing crime novels). It comes as no surprise to hear that the author holed up in Room 209 of the Tokyo Station Hotel with the train timetables while writing this in 1958.
Needless to say, this kind of story heavily reliant on accurate train times (with four minute gaps and consecrated platforms for each train) could only work in that particular place and time. Can you imagine trying to replicate that in the current chaos of train travel that has become the norm in the UK? (Let alone how expensive it would be to take a train to commit a murder – you’re better off hiring a contract killer!) It turns out that there is a whole subgenre of Japanese literature based on crimes occurring near or on trains (most recent examples: Bullet Train), or else where alibis rely on a timetable. Although commercial domestic flights had begun in Japan in the 1950s, it was not a widespread form of transportation yet.
The death of a young couple on a beach in Fukuoka is instantly classified as a double love suicide, which was still quite common at the time in Japan (Dazai Osamu died in this fashion less than ten years before this book was published). Interesting and rather sad sidenote: double suicide (or homicide-suicide) for couples is now far more common among the elderly in Japan, for economic or health reasons. A wily old local detective doesn’t quite buy it, and his Tokyo counterpart becomes equally obsessed with proving that there is something more behind it, possibly linked to government corruption. But all of their efforts to find evidence to support their theories seem to hit a brick wall, at least at first (and for most of the book). I thought it was an interesting look at the sheer drudgery of police work, checking and double-checking every minute detail, especially before the age of computers.
What spoilt the mystery element of it for me, however, was that the very first chapter pretty much gives away the whodunit and why, although not the details of how. We also gain next to no insight into the private lives of the two detectives, nor get a glimpse into the psyche of any of the characters, perpetrators or victims. Tthe entire focus of the book is on the puzzle – how all of the pieces fit together.
Onda Riku: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, transl. Alison Watts
By way of contrast, Onda’s book is all about psychology, about observing and outwitting each other, about digging deep into the past, into trauma and guilt. In fact, we are not even sure if a crime has been committed, or if it was an accident, although the two main protagonists blame each other for it.
Hiro and Aki, a man and a woman, have packed up all of their belongings and are sitting for one last night in their shared flat before going their separate ways. Their relationship has broken down, they no longer trust each other after going on an excursion in the mountains a year ago, where their guide had a fatal accident. They buy food and drink to last them through the night, and see this as an opportunity for a ‘face-off’, i.e. get the other to confess that they were responsible for the death of their guide. Along the way, of course, they unravel all sorts of feelings of guilt and resentment about their own unconventional love story.
Just like with the Aosawa Murders by the same author, this is not the kind of book you read for the crime element. Although it is a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, it is above all a sad story about loneliness and the need for connection. The fish metaphor of the title hints that there are hidden depths here, and that we can only ever hope to catch glimpses of the true nature of people and the essence of a relationship, but those are things that will always ultimately escape us.
If I were younger, I might have been able to let the emotions of the moment carry me along, and throw everything away. Or I might have been capable of ending our relationship with a single stroke and leaving on the spot. But the older one gets, the harder it is to do that kind of thing. All manner of compromises and caluclations must be taken into account, and above all the fear of loneliness is real. If a few sad memories and hurt feelings are the sole price, then closing one’s eyes to the other’s faults and curling up in retreat is easy enough to do.
The backstory feels a little far-fetched to me, but the author does a good job of drip-feeding us more details, with the chapters alternating between the two narrators, Aki and Hiro, which allows us to see differences in their approaches and ways of thinking. While not quite as ambiguous and clever as The Aosawa Murders, this is perhaps a more comfortable entry point for Onda’s work.
So this book was all psychological depth but no proper investigation, while Tokyo Express was all investigation and no psychological depth. If you want to read a book that combines both, I would recommend Higashino Keigo’s A Death in Tokyo, which made my best of the year list in 2022.
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Apologies, the pictures below are not fun or escapist by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt compelled to include them as a reminder of how far we have come and that one of the key missions of the EU was to prevent future wars in Europe (which it has not always succeeded in). This week Ireland and Denmark are celebrating 50 years since joining the EC (now EU). The UK also acceded to the EC on the same date, but, of course, has nothing to celebrate anymore.
The only escapist pictures included today are those of my books read in December and a pile of musical books I acquired yesterday, so apologies if you were expecting charming castles or cosy libraries.
I’ve already done my annual summary, or rather a four-part review of my year, covering Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn, with the most memorable books for each season. I’m not making this a competition in any way, as I don’t value quantity over quality, but I read 166 books (although about 4 of those were DNFs), which sounds like a lot but has to do with the fact that it wasn’t a very nice year personally, so I found my refuge in books. It is not the highest number of books I’ve read in a year: 2014-2016 were rather rotten years and that’s when I read more than 175 books each year.
December was the month I finished the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias, which greatly impressed me, although I was not entirely sure about it at first. For the other books (with the exception of Lysistrata, which was a book club read), I simply followed my whims. I did not finish the Michel Bussi or the Luca D’Andrea crime novels, because the stories simply did not grab me and the locations didn’t make up for that, so the actual number of books I read this month was 15. Eight of those were crime fiction, which I suppose is the easiest, most entertaining kind of read, that I invariably turn to when I want to relax.
Ghost Signs was the only non-fiction book I read, a timely reminder of those first few months of the pandemic and an indictment of the poverty experienced in cities all over England. The only children’s book I read was Marlen Haushofer’s Bartl, about the youthful adventures of a much-loved family cat. I quite enjoyed the spooky atmosphere of The Retreat, and of course the satire about artistic retreats (just like I loved the satire about writers’ egos, MFA courses, the publishing industry and stealing plots in The Plot and Yellowface). I know many readers cannot bear those self-absorbed books by writers about writers, but I find them irresistible, even if they aren’t entirely memorable. Tessa Hadley’s book The Past was beautifully written and an in-depth observation of family tensions… but after reading Javier Marias, it all felt a little too well-bred, too cautious, too bloodless.
Yesterday I went to visit my beloved primary school teacher from the English School in Vienna from when I was in Year 2 (6 years old). She not only encouraged my love of writing and storytelling, improved my English (which was not great when I started school – Romanian was my first language, German my second), but also opened me up to the world of classical music, opera, ballet and folk dancing. All the things that my parents (who hailed from poor smallholders in the countryside and were first in their families to go to university) had never had the opportunity to experience until they were adults, and therefore could not really pass on to me.
You know how much I have benefited from the wisdom and generosity of older women, so it was lovely to catch up with her. She still seems to be in splendid spirits, still goes dancing every week, but insisted that I take as many of her music books as I could, since she wants them to go to a good home, where they will be appreciated. They will indeed – just look at the wonders below, from libretti, to music criticism, to biographies and letters.
This is the final post of the year – so I would like to wish you a very happy slip-slide or nudge into 2023 (a Rutsch, as the Germans would say), may it be a good year for all of us!
In summer we might be islands in the stream, but in winter, I feel more like a castle in the snow, don’t you? And, since it’s escapist Friday, we won’t even worry about the heating bills!
Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating, and a happy end of the calendar year to everyone! Hope you get a chance to rest and recharge your batteries!
There are so many holidays all over the world during this period: Christmas, Hannukah, New Year, any thing to drive out the cold and gloom. Here are some scenes that should cheer us up, even if we haven’t yet put up our Christmas tree or sent any cards.
Traditional old houses in Japan tend to lose their value and are difficult to restore. Few people want to be saddled with them, as they are frequently in remote locations and badly insulated. However, you can’t fault their aesthetics – and since these Friday posts are all about escapism, I will simply look for the positives: that elegant, minimalist style which is so good for my mental health. (They are also very much present in Studio Ghibli productions)
It’s the time of the year when all I want to do is drop everything and hide away in a cosy little place, preferably in the mountains, preferably with snow and skiing nearby, with a log fireplace and plenty of good books to keep me happy.