Maki Kashimada: Touring the Land of the Dead, transl. Haydn Trowell, Europa Editions

I can never stray too far from Japanese literature, even though it’s no longer January in Japan. This book, which is made up of two separate long short stories or novellas, was published by Europa Editions earlier this month and is translated by Australian academic and translator Haydn Trowell. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC (and to be only a week or two late in my reviewing of it).

The first novella Touring the Land of the Dead won the Akutagawa Prize in 2012 and, back then, Glynne Walley at the University of Oregon commented that it could be translated as ‘A Tour of Hell’ or ‘Running Around in the Afterlife’ or even ‘The Dark Land and Its Rounds’. [The wide range of possibilities gives you an idea of why I gave up ever translating from Japanese.] The second novella Ninety-Nine Kisses was a sort of bonus at the time, to make the entry book-length, and Walley is possibly the only reader other than me who preferred it to the prize-winning one. Most readers were repulsed by the strong hints of incest in the second story, but for this Shirley Jackson fan, it had more of the slightly sinister insider vs. outsider vibe of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Anyway, back to the first novella, with a clever title that sounds appropriate for the spa holiday that our protagonist Natsuko undertakes with her husband, but also refers to that well-known maxim that ‘Hell is other people’ – in this case, Natsuko’s family.

You poor thing, her mother would say. You poor, poor thing, working so hard in place of your husband at that drab job of yours… Even though what was really deserving of pity were those hours spent in that restaurant looking at that tonguesole meuniere, that evening spent together with someone who didn’t understand her at all, in that gorgeous world in which she didn’t belong.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Natsuko’s mother and brother are lazy spongers, with a breathtaking sense of entitlement, who have never been able to recover from their loss of fortune and status. They have no qualms about borrowing money from Natsuko, the only member of the family actually working, while berating or faux-pitying her constantly. Natsuko’s husband, Taichi, was struck with a debilitating illness (something like MS, although it is never named) soon after their wedding, so she has been the one supporting her household on her part-time wages. She takes him on this very brief holiday because the hotel that her family used to consider the height of luxury now offers affordable spa breaks. The place of course triggers all sorts of memories, mainly of how abominably her family treated her, and she ends up considerably more appreciative of her husband, who at first seems naive, but ultimately proves himself to be simply not bitter and therefore quite wise.

Although Natsuko resents her mother and brother from the very start of the story, the novella represents a journey towards Zen wisdom and acceptance. The story ends on an upbeat note as Taichi finally gets an electric wheelchair and becomes more mobile. But Natsuko herself learns to let go of resentments, let go of caring what her family thinks and does, but without becoming numb, like she does earlier in the book, and giving up all hope:

She had already given up on everything. And she never thought too deeply about why such unreasonableness, such unfairness, such unhappiness always befell her. She lived her life trying to think about it all as little as possible. Because it wasn’t the kind of thing you could easily look at, not directly. And if, by chance, she were to glance at it, she knew it would leave an unhealthy, fatal wound…

The style in this story is quite pared down, the language simple and everyday, almost dull. By way of contrast, the second story is more baroque, more ornate, at times lyrical, a bit of a fever-dream from the youngest of four sisters, who, together with their mother, have created a powerful little matriarchy in their house in Shitamachi. Desite their little squabbles, they are a tight-knit unit (the youngest sister is so smitten by the beauty of her older sisters that she expresses rather explicity sexual longings towards them, as mentioned earlier on – but ambiguously enough that it can be brushed off as merely a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the family nest). At least, until a young man called S makes his appearance – an outsider to their area and clearly buying into all of the reputation of Shitamachi.

This is the aspect of the story that I found most interesting, because Tokyo’s Shitamachi was traditionally the poorer, flat area around the Sumida river, where fishermen, tradesmen, craftsmen lived and where the entertainment and red-light district were situated. It was also a melting pot of Edo culture, kabuki artists, sumo wrestlers, with Saikaku Ihara describing the ‘floating world’ in words, and Utamaro in pictures. Later, the area featured strong women writers and activists such as Higuchi Ichiyo and Hiratsuka Raicho. Clearly, S is attracted to the area for its reputation and a nostalgia for the past; he somehow expects the four sisters to live up to his false image of the place. Instead, they are unusual for their area and backgroudn. Their mother has raised them on French nouvelle vague films and frank discussions about their bodies and sex. Two of the sisters might be considered old maids by Japanese standards (around the age of thirty), but they are bold about expressing their desires, at least to each other.

Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine, as mentioned in the story.

The outsider is dangerous – he might upset their precarious balance. The narrator, who reminds me very much of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s novel, with an equally slippery manner that makes you question how much to believe her, seems to be the only one to be fully aware of what this intrustion might mean:

They’re all my sisters. We were all one body to begin with. But then we were born, cut away from each other one by one. That’s why I want him to stop, this S – to stop planting these seeds of love inside them. We don’t need all that… We’re a perfect whole. Like Adam before Eve. Or like a hermaphrodite.

I find it intriguing and almost perplexing that, despite the sexism that women experience in Japan (far more overtly than in the English-speaking world, although clearly that doesn’t mean there is less of it here, as recent events have shown), contemporary Japanese women writers, such as Kawakami Mieko or Misumi Kubo, seem to be at the forefront of candour about their bodies, their sexuality, their darker impulses. As if to catch up with those generations of Japanese male writers holding forth quite explicitly on these topics for well over a century. Or, perhaps, because they cannot always voice those thoughts in public without being judged, they choose to do so via their fiction. Many of them write within the Japanese tradition but also bring in plenty of Western references, thereby building hybrid, occasionally oddly-shaped constructions. Not all of them are successful, but they are always interesting to read.

I have to admit I love this current publishing hunger for Japanese women authors and can only hope that it will last for a long, long time. You can find another review for this on Tony’s site, as he also shares my passion for Japanese literature. I think if Tony and I ever met in real life – preferably somewhere in Japan – we would probably never stop talking!

Cultural Events Summary 20 May 2018

I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…

On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no¬†Philadelphia¬†or¬†Longtime Companion,¬†unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and¬†Nahuel P√©rez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.

The real ACTUP Paris in 1995.

The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.

A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work.¬†¬†There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin‚Äôs sculptures on loan from the Mus√©e Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.

Icarus’ sister.

I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.

The Walking Man.

The links with literature were never far away. Not only was¬†Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal¬†(one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.

Je suis belle, √ī mortels! comme un r√™ve de pierre…

A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.

For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a¬†Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.

Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.

From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s¬†The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey¬†A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…

I also got Ali Smith’s¬†Autumn,¬†the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s¬†A Great Reckoning.¬†I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called¬†Alberta Alone¬†by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.

Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo,¬†the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)