#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.

Fire Flowers and the War in Japan

fireflowersEuropa Editions are a reliable source of translated fiction, but more recently they have also started publishing a small number of books written in English. One of these books is Ben Byrne’s debut novel Fire Flowers, set in the apocalyptic landscape of post-war Japan.

The story is told from alternating points of view of the four main characters. Satsuko Takara is a good girl, devoted daughter and sister, who believes her family was killed in the incendiary bombing of their neighbourhood of Asakusa in Tokyo.  Her brother Hiroshi, badly scarred by fire, is likewise convinced his sister died. Her boyfriend Osamu dreamt of becoming the Japanese Tolstoy or Oriental Zola, but was forced to go and fight in New Guinea and was presumed dead. Finally, American bomber pilot turned photographer, Hal Lynch, is wracked with guilt at the part he played in the war.

In the rubble, despair and confusion that is defeated Japan, it all becomes a story of survival. The author does not spare us the details of ruins, famine, smallpox, the taking of Philopon (the so-called ‘courage pills’, formerly used by kamikaze pilots, now used to make up for lack of food and hope). Hiroshima is described as a pulverised wasteland, a vast expanse of reddish-brown dust. One little girl survives the atomic bomb and comes all the way to Tokyo by herself, joining Hiroshi’s little band of children.

Satsuko is forced into prostitution ‘for the sake of her country’ at the so-called comfort stations provided for the American occupying forces. Hiroshi heads a gang of street children and goes underground, living off petty theft and hustling. Osamu tries to recreate his dream of a writer’s life, even though at present he is pandering to the public’s need for comfort, titillation and pornography. Finally, Hal Lynch uncovers information about the long-term consequences of radiation sickness in Hiroshima, things which are covered up by the American military and politicians.

Two thirds of the way through the book, Hal and Satsuko finally meet – you just knew it was going to be a love story, at least partially. Brother and sister also finally reunite, but there is no traditional happy ending. There are hints of the Cold War already starting.

There is much to like in this book: it is well researched, atmospheric, and very ambitious. Perhaps it tries to pack too much in (a common enough failing in a debut novel). It seeks to provide a fresco of a whole country through the fate of these four people – and for the most part, it succeeds, although not always in a very smooth and uplifting way. There are several excellent passages and scenes, which just about manage to steer clear of sentimentality. One of my favourites is the scene of carol singing with a group of elegant old ladies in kimonos – Japanese Christians who are now for the first time allowed to celebrate Christmas.

And then this bold young man and these delightful, wrinkled women whose country I’d helped raze to the ground, well, we all stood there outside of a ruined train station as flakes of DDT floated down from the sky like snow, and then, God help me, we began to sing ‘Silent Night.’

The book provides an interesting alternative view of Japan after the war, something that has not been as widely portrayed in literature as post-war Germany, for instance.

In memory of my long-defunct BA thesis on reflections of the war in Japanese literature, here are some Japanese modern classics on the same topic. (I’ve followed the Japanese convention of surnames first, followed by first names for the authors)

settingsunDazai Osamu: Setting Sun

One of my favourite Japanese writers – or writers of any culture, full stop. The story has a similar premise to Fire Flowers: it’s the story of a small, formerly aristocratic family – sister, brother who has been away fighting in the Pacific, and their mother. They are forced to move to the countryside, work the fields, figure out a new place for themselves in a society they no longer understand or want. It is such a subtle and painful reading experience, so rich in symbolism and steeped in uncertainty and regret. What Ben Byrne spells out loud and clear, this book implies, alludes to, conceals. Fire is a powerful image in this book as well, but it’s not just destructive – it has a multitude of meanings.

firesonplainOoka Shohei: Fires on the Plain

This book reminded me of The Heart of Darkness. It is less about life in Japan and more about the life of a Japanese soldier who deserts the military and attempts to survive in the jungle in the Philippines. It’s a powerful indictment of the idiocy and pointlessness of war.

 

Noma Hiroshi: Zone of Emptiness

Another story told from the point of view of a sensitive young soldier caught up in Japan’s relentless war machine. Soda is a slightly naive and idealistic soldier who is trying to rehabilitate his friend Kitani’s name. Kitani has spent two years in a military prison for a petty theft which he did not commit. The book is a wholesale denunciation of the brutality, corruption and narrow-mindedness of the military regime in Japan at the time, but it also raises important questions about what in the Japanese psyche is so attracted to this ideology of strength through cruelty.

KuroiameMasuji Ibuse: Black Rain

This depiction of immediate and long-term consequences of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima made a profound impression on me, especially since I read this around the time I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The novel was written in the mid-60s, quite some time after the bombing, and focuses once again on a family and their attempts to marry off a daughter that no one seems to want, because they believe she suffers from radiation sickness and is infertile. The way the author blends in the personal with the general (based on eyewitness accounts and surviving diaries) is exemplary – and heartrending.

harpburmaTakeyama Michio: The Burmese Harp

I’ll end with a slightly less gruelling read, as its intended audience is children or YA. Told once again from the point of view of a Japanese soldier who gradually realises he is fighting a stupid, cruel war, this time in Burma. Ironically, knowing that history has not been kind since to Burma, the author describes the beautiful serenity and spirituality of Burma and its people, the peacefulness and love of music, which contrasts sharply with aggression and obstinacy of the Japanese occupiers. The story is ironic too, since it takes place at the end of the war, when Japan has officially surrendered, but isolated troops of Japanese soldiers, stranded in different Asian locations, refuse to follow suit. The book has been adapted (twice) by film director Ichikawa Kon, although with some noteable differences.