January in Japan: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

Osamu Dazai: Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan’s great decadent romantic, transl. and introduced by Ralph F. McCarthy, Kodansha International, 1991.

Once I reconnected with my old flame, Dazai Osamu, it was difficult to stop at just the new translation of his final novel Ningen Shikkaku. One of my book blogging friends, whom you might know as @Kaggsy59 from Twitter, mentioned that she had a collection of his autobiographical stories in roughly chronological order, with sympathetic introductions to each story by McCarthy. Somehow, I did not manage to get my hands on this book back in the 1990s and it is now out of print and prohibitively expensive. So maybe I shouldn’t recommend it to you. But if you can get hold of it, it is probably the best introduction to Dazai’s work, as there is great variety and much more humour here than in some of his better-known work.

As the translator says, some of the stories are clearly more fictional than others, and there is a tendency to exaggerate for effect. Let’s not forget that most of these were stories for magazines, published during the writer’s lifetime, and that he had to produce work to earn a living. He injects humour into situations, often at his own expense, but also has the ability to turn from comedy to tragedy within the same paragraph, even the same sentence. This style – and the more domestic stories – remind me of Shirley Jackson’s family-inspired stories collected in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Except that Shirley Jackson does not mention directly her fury at her husband’s affairs, or her agoraphobia or her many health problems, while Dazai has no such qualms.

Dazai at around the time of the first double suicide attempt.

In his quite experimental story written in dialogue form ‘Mesu ni tsuite’ (translated here as Female, elsewhere as Of Women), we initially seem to witnessing one of those games that old friends might play late at night, after a bout of drinking. The narrator and his friend vie with each other to describe the ideal woman, in terms of looks, occupation, clothes, behaviour and speech. This may come across as crude masculine banter, but they then go on to create the scenario of a spa break. Yet even in this best of all possible imaginary worlds, things don’t go according to plan and the romantic dinner for two becomes increasingly awkward. The man seems to avoid intimacy by pretending he’s got a writing deadline, but then spends endless minutes copying out the Iroha poem repeatedly (used as a kind of alphabet ordering for the Japanese syllabary). It seems that even in his imagination, the narrator cannot rid himself of his fears and complexes. It all seems quite funny in a very ‘cringe comedy’ sort of way (which makes Dazai so modern, to my mind), but then both the friend and the reader realise, to their horror, that the story takes a sinister turn (apologies for spoiling the ending for you, but then, if you’ve read my previous post about Dazai’s life, you will know that only one ending is possible):

‘I heard a sound like water flowing behind me. It was only a faint sound, but a chill ran down my spine. The woman had quietly turned over in bed.’

‘What happened?’

‘”Let’s die,” I said. She too…’

‘Stop right there. You’re not just making this up.’

He was right. The following afternoon the woman and I attempted suicide. She was neither a geisha nor a painter. She was a girl from a poor background who’d been a maid in my home. She was killed simply because she turned over in bed. I didn’t die. Seven years have passed and I’m still alive.

Dazai does not come out well from most of these stories, as you might expect, but he can also be quite cutting about the people closest to him for comedic effect. For example, in the story ‘Trains’ he feels sorry for a country girl who has been spurned by one of his friends and impulsively decides to say goodbye to her as she leaves from Tokyo Ueno station. He takes his wife along for moral support, believing that she might have more social skills than him. As you might expect, however, everyone just hangs around, looking and sounding very awkward.

Three minutes or so still remained before departure time. I couldn’t stand it… nothing is more confounding than those last three minutes. You’ve said all there is to say and can do nothing but gaze helplessly at each other. And in this case it was even worse, because I hadn’t been able to come up with a single thing to say in the first place. If my wife had been a bit more competent, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but look at her: standing there with her mouth clamped shut and a sullen look on her face.

Yet each story has layers: beneath the comedy there is something much more serious. While they are at the station, they also see ‘an ashen-faced fellow leaning out a window of the third class coach, bidding a faltering farewell’ and we realise that it is a young man being mobilised during the war. In ‘Female’, reference is made to a failed coup in 1936 (the so-called February 26 Incident) to reinstate the power and glory of the Emperor – an attempt that Mishima admired and Dazai completely despised.

Dazai was emphatically against the war, but, given his arrest because of his involvement with the Communist Party, he is careful not to upset the censors and only mentions war in passing in his work of the 1930s. His downbeat, fatalistic stories were increasingly frowned upon by the censors, so he reverted mostly to retellings of Japanese folk tale or older stories during the war.

Yet, for all his appreciation of traditional Japanese literature and history, he stubbornly refused to accept the established narratives or clichĂ©s. In a very funny scene in his story ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’, he and one elderly woman are the only ones in a bus full of tourists who steadfastly refuse to crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the mythical mountain, but look in the opposite direction.

Perhaps Dazai is at his best when he focuses on others rather than on himself. He has a great eye for detail and proves a good observer of people and situations. There is much warmth and humanity in his descriptions, even when he almost churlishly tries to undermine his own kind impulses, as if afraid that he might be accused of sentimentalism. The tenderness and hope of spring and marital love in a story like ‘A Promise Fulfilled’. The way he keeps assuring readers that he hates dogs, yet takes in a stray puppy in the comical tale ‘Canis familiaris’. Believing a rose-seller is an imposter and yet nevertheless buying the roses from her in ‘Thinking of Zenso’. The affection and admiration with which he describes his older brothers, who all had some literary talent (even though he clearly had a troubled relationship with them). In ‘Two Little Words’ he helps an old man fill in the withdrawal slip from his saving passbook and finds out that it is in the name of his daughter who died in the air raids. When sent by journalists for a photo feature with the vagrants in Ueno Park, he is able to relate to them and treat them like real human beings, observing much more within a few minutes of walking there than any of the reporters who accompany him. Perhaps most touchingly, in ‘Seascape with Figures in Gold’, he feels guilty about the way he used to treat one of the family maids, yet years later, when she comes to visit him with her family, she remembers things very differently and he ends up being almost envious of her peaceful, serene life.

In one of the last stories he ever wrote, ‘Cherries’, we are participating in an evening meal with his family and Dazai says something that reminds us of the main character in Ningen Shikkaku:

When I’m at home, I’m forever making jokes. Let’s say it’s a case of needing to wear Dante’s mask of merriment precisely because there are so many things that trigger the anguish in the heart… Whenever I’m with people, no matter how great my mental or physical suffering, I try desperately to create a happy atmosphere. It’s only after parting with company that I stagger away exhausted to think about money and morality and suicide.

I don’t know if I’ve managed to convey the flavour of this author without making you feel he is too self-indulgent. Mishima described him as ‘an invalid who does not wish to recover’ and therefore does not qualify as a true invalid. The thing with Dazai is that you cannot hate or criticise him more than he does himself. You have the feeling that it was not a pose. He handled the fame that came along after the publication of The Setting Sun just as badly as he had handled poverty and obscurity in his youth. He was ever the one to rebel against rules, and the tyranny of ‘should’, decrying what he perceived to be the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Japanese society during and after the war. His is a manifesto of constantly inspecting, never accepting at face value, opposing any facile answers: ‘I’m a libertine – buraiha [the so-called Decadent School in Japanese arts and literature]. I rebel against constraints. I jeer at the opportunists.’ He refused to join any clique and could be quite spiteful about what he perceived as arrogance in others. But for those who were truly poor, downtrodden, outcast or sad, he had endless compassion. He was always able to forgive weaknesses in others (probably because of all the weaknesses he could see in himself).

In the academic study I was reading in parallel with this, The Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu, the scholar Alan Wolfe argues that Dazai does not really fall into the romantic suicidal hero vein. Dazai is ‘simultaneously victim and victimizer’, and his texts resist our interpretation of him. Dazai becomes slippery, impossible to pin down to a single interpretation, teasing readers from beyond the grave. He constantly casts doubt on the veracity and consistency of the narrator – a technique that Mishima also uses in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Dazai would never be content with a final narrative, a theory set in stone, any effort to enclose thought once and for all. Everything is fluid, and the real meaning of things escapes us, or is only briefly glimpsed in the corner of one’s eye.

I can live with that.

January in Japan: Dazai Osamu

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

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

Biographical background

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel or memoir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation Comparison

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

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

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

Donald Keene’s translation

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

Mark Gibeau’s translation

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

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

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

Mark Gibeau

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

Donald Keene

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

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

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

Living in the Pleasure of Anticipation: Reading Plans for Autumn/Winter

One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.

October

There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.

Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.

November

It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die TapetentĂŒr (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s KĂ€sebier erobert den KurfĂŒrstendamm (KĂ€sebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).

Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.

December

Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.

I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.

January

Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)

Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented  here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.

Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!

#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.