January in Japan: Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Ugetsu Monogatari by Ueda Akinari is a collection of Japanese ghost stories written in the 18th century. The influence of this collection on subsequent Japanese literature (and film) can be compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s in the English-speaking world. And yet these stories are very different from the tales of the supernatural we are familiar with in the Western world. There are no jump scares, no steady build-up of horror, no Gothic twists – in fact, these stories may not frighten you at all. Instead, they blend folk tales, Chinese literary tradition, historical elements and both Buddhist and Confucian philosophy.

Does that sound deathly dull? Possibly. And certainly not easy to read without extensive footnotes, which makes up more than half of this book translated by Leon Zolbrod (published by good old Tuttle, which, together with Kodansha International, was THE best friend of the student of Japanese, at least in my days). This edition also has beautiful pictures (in black and white only, but perhaps that adds to the sense of old-time atmosphere).

Many of the stories feature a traveller who comes across a somewhat eccentric individual, usually at dusk or at night, hears their story, converses with them, only to find out the next day that they were in fact ghostly apparitions. Another type of story is about spirits (especially animal spirits) that co-inhabit a human body. Akinari clearly believes that anything is possible, that in the darkness ‘demons might appear and consort with men, and humans fear not to mingle with the spirits.’ However, when dawn comes, ‘the gods and devils disappear and hide somewhere leaving no trace.’ Virtually all of the stories are set in the past and are critical of the medieval era of feudal lords and constant wars. Some of the ghosts are bloodthirsty rulers, others are victims of their constant fighting. The endless list of names (and having to turn to the endnotes to make sense of who fought with whom) doesn’t make for smooth reading.

As students of Japanese, we were told to examine the elegant use of language in Ugetsu Monogatari. We struggled, of course, because it’s a little like expecting modern readers to understand Shakespeare instantly. The author is clearly well-educated and knows his Chinese classics, but gives them a Japanese twist. He has absorbed the language of the Heian period (think Genji Monogatari) and is clearly also influenced by Nō plays, and the result is a dramatic and dynamic prose, designed to appeal to a wider audience. Yet there is also a wistful, poetic, melancholy strand, full of oblique references to classical poems. All of these nuances are difficult to convey in translation, but the translator has managed to make it feel remarkably easy to understand and not pretentious at all. You need to read longer passages for the cumulative effect, but some of the briefer descriptions of landscape and especially of abandoned buildings may convince you of the beauty of the language:

At the mountain cloister there remained no sign of habitation. The towering gate was smothered with brambles and thorns. The sutra hall stood empty and covered with moss. Spiders had spread their web across the Buddhist statuary, and the altar, where burnt offerings had once been made was overlaid with swallow droppings… Then the darkest part of the night came. Without a lamp it was impossible to distinguish even nearby objects, and the roar of the stream in the valley sounded close at hand.

What I had forgotten since the first time I read these stories is just how misogynistic they are. Women are there to be subservient and faithful, or else if they become angry because of abandonment, they turn into evil spirits. Meanwhile, men behave as abominably as they please and yet seem to escape ‘ogrification’. The second story, The House Among the Thickets, particularly incensed me. It forms the basis for the Japanese film Ugetsu (1953), directed by Mizoguchi. It’s the story of a couple: the man Katsushiro has frittered away the family fortune and is desperate to make some money, so he decides to go to Kyoto to sell their silk in an attempt to set up as a merchant. His wife Miyagi begs him not to go, but cannot dissuade him and ends up praying for his safety instead. He promises to return by autumn.

While he is away, war breaks out in the province, but Miyagi does not seek refuge elsewhere, so sure is she that her husband will keep his promise and return soon. She bolts her doors and manages to avoid intruders lusting after her renowned beauty (echoes of Penelope). But Katsushiro doesn’t return, needless to say.

At first he seems to make a nice profit in the capital, but then he is waylaid by robbers and loses all his money. He hears that war has broken out and blithely assumes that his wife has been killed. So instead of checking, he returns to Kyoto where he sponges off a rich man. He falls ill so postpones his return till spring, which is fair enough, but then ‘before he knew it seven years had gone by as if in a dream’. Oops! How do seven years just slip by without you noticing? So he finally decides to return home and what is the excuse he gives upon being reunited with his far too patient wife?

I heard that our province was nothing but scorched earth and that horses had trampled every foot of ground. You must have passed away to dust and ashes, I thought, or if not that, I imagined, perhaps you had drowned. Eventually I went back to Kyoto where I managed to live for seven years on other people’s good will. But recently I found myself wondering more and more about old times, and I decided that the least I could do was to return and pay my respects. Even in my wildest dreams, you see, I never imagined that you might still be alive.

She gently chides him (in tones reminiscent of Anne’s passionate defence of women in love in Persuasion): ‘I’m very happy now but you should know that a woman could die of yearning, and a man can never know her agony.’

The story is given as an example of how bitter feudal wars affect ordinary everyday people, and the film version certainly blames the husband more for neglect of the family (there is a child involve too in the film version). But it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and makes me be firmly on the side of the uncontrollable female stalker in the story The Lust of the White Serpent. Of course in that story the woman is the dangerous villain and her evil nature has to get exorcised.

That tricky white serpent and her maid throw themselves into a waterfall to escape pursuit.

In The Cauldron of Kibitsu we have another couple: the wife’s justifiably jealous of her philandering husband, yet he manages to trick her into giving him money, which he then uses to set up house somewhere else with a new lover. Although it’s the jealous wife who gets transformed into a fox spirit, at least there is some come-uppance for the real villain of the story.

I suppose the difference between reading these stories at the age of 20 and at my age now is that I can no longer quite skate serenely over the content and simply admire beautiful language. That’s why I keep putting off rereading Mishima, who was a great favourite of mine at the time…

January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery

Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House, transl. Louise Heal Kawai

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Meredith. Go and see what other Japanophiles have been reading and reviewing.

The Pushkin Vertigo series has a predilection for the more classic type of crime fiction stories. They’ve published Margaret Millar, Frederic Dard, Leo Perutz, as well as the famous Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac that gives its name to the whole imprint. So I knew what to expect when I ordered myself Shimada’s locked room mystery, although the author writes in many different sub-genres, often including horror or supernatural elements. Indeed, this book is more comic than scary, although grimmer than you would expect cosy crime fiction to be. It most closely resembles a Golden Age detective story, with all the clues (including drawings) painstakingly laid out for the reader to match their wits against the renowned sleuth – who in this case only enters the story in Act Three.

Kozaburo Hamamoto is a wealthy company director who has built himself a strange house on the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It is called The Crooked House, because all of the floors are uneven and sloping, there are staircases leading to some floors but not others, and the master bedroom is in a leaning glass tower accessible only by a drawbridge. There are plenty of guest rooms, but some of them are filled with all sorts of creepy collectors’ items such as life-size puppets, masks and automatons. Hamamoto has invited several guests, including one or two of his business partners, to spend Christmas 1983 with him and his daughter. There are some tensions between the guests, but nothing too untoward. Nevertheless, after the first snowbound night, one of the guests is found dead in apparently impossible circumstances, in a locked room, while all the other guests seem to have an alibi. The police is called in but they are unable to solve the mystery and, after a couple more deaths, they decide to send for the private investigator Kiyoshi Mitarai. Initially, he does not impress either the guests or the police with his exuberant style, but of course you underestimate the super-sleuth at your own peril.

This has all of the required nods to the classic country house mystery, similar to the recent film Knives Out, and it is about as plausible as the film too, and entertaining. Clues and red herrings are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and avid armchair investigators may be able to solve part of the puzzle (I defy them to figure the whole thing out, though!). However, I did find the repetition and the insistence on carefully going through all the materials and clues a bit tiresome. I was far more interested in the psychology of the guests and their interaction, but there wasn’t quite enough of that to satisfy me.

There are some descriptions of the desolate snowy plain and the ice floes in the sea around the house, but overall this is not as atmospheric as I would have hoped from a Japanese writer.

There are many references to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Poe and many other Western writers, as well as links to Japanese classics which might be less obvious to readers in the English speaking world. There is a lot of flamboyant posturing and presenting of a ‘masked face’ to the world which is reminiscent of Kabuki theatre. None of the guests (or hosts or household staff) are exactly what they appear to be at first glance. And, because this is the modern world of 1983 after all, there is lot less prudish reserve in describing some of the things going on between the guests.

An intriguing (but at times tedious) read, with a rather far-fetched solution. Entertaining enough, especially on a winter’s evening, but the motivations were murky and so, overall, it was not terribly memorable.

January in Japan: Short Stories by Women

I cannot remember where exactly I came across this rather lovely little bilingual collection of short stories by Japanese women writers, translated and edited by Angus Turvill and sponsored by The Japan Society in the UK . Probably the London Book Fair, but it is available for purchase (mostly online). The collection features Kuniko Mukoda (gone far too soon), Natsuko Kuroda, Kaori Ekuni, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Aoko Matsuda. I had only read Mukoda in the original a long time ago and in translation only the last of these authors, Matsuda’s novella entitled The Girl Who Is Getting Married (translated by the same Angus Turvill).

The stories are presented in parallel text format, although of course it is not intended to be an absolute literal translation. Nevertheless, it makes me feel curiously powerful to be able to check the original Japanese on the left against the English on the right, especially when the original includes phonetic transcription of all the kanji characters that might prove a bit of a struggle to this rusty scholar of Japanese! It also includes a fascinating discussion of translation choices at the end, which demonstrates just how tricky translation can be.

The stories all take place in different settings – town, country, seaside, past, present. In all but one of them, the main character is a woman, at different stages of their life, and in scenarios that will sound terribly familiar to women outside Japan too. From the young girl shunned by her classmates in The Ball by Kuroda, to the young worker profoundly tired of ‘friendly working environments’ in Planting by Matsuda, from the mother mourning the loss of her stillborn infant in The Child Over There to a lonely older woman finding some kind of connection with the younger generation in Summer Blanket. What is very Japanese about these stories, if we can make any cultural generalisations, is the subtle, slant way of telling things. None of that ‘drumming home the point’ that we often get in what I like to call the MFA class of contemporary American short stories.

Having said that, my favourite story is probably The Otter, the one that follows the most typical Western-style short story format. (It was written in 1980, shortly before the death of the author in a plane crash). It is the only one where the main protagonist is an elderly man, whose pride and joy is his garden, a rare thing in an urban environment. He likes to sit on the veranda and admire it at dusk. He has been resisting his wife’s suggestion that he should sell off part of the plot of land to a developer to build a block of flats. But then he has a stroke and his wife takes matters into her own hands.

Throughout the story, Takuji compares his wife to an otter – he feels real affection for the energy with which she tackles most things, how lively and captivating she is. How easily she proffers little white lies to the travelling salesmen who come knocking at their door. In Japanese the word for otter is ‘kawauso’ (which is written throughout the story in hiragana rather than any kanji – significantly so, because kawauso also sounds like ‘kawaii + uso’ – which could mean ‘cute lies’). But then he remembers a painting entitled The Otters’ Carnival:

Otters are wanton in their destructiveness: they sometimes kill more fish than they can possibly eat, and lay them out on display. That kind of display is sometimes called an otters’ carnival.

In layer after layer of recollections, almost a list of the things he admires but also finds a little frustrating about his wife, he begins to realise what shaky foundations his life has been built upon.

Stories that felt like a breath of fresh air. I was transported to a Japanese seashore, was wrapped in a light summer blanket, and planted away my fear…

New Year, Final Book Haul

Since I’ll be practically selling my kidneys (and almost certainly my parents’ old age security) in order to buy out the ex’s share of the house, I have to be very, very careful with money for the foreseeable future. So no more book buying for me this year – and this time I mean it!

However, before this frugality kicked in, I had a final splurge of French and Swiss books which I might struggle to find back in the UK, plus some that had been preordered in November or so, but got delayed in the Christmas frenzy post.

The French contingent

I finally bought myself a copy of Montaigne – not one translated into contemporary French but a ‘rejuvenated and refreshed’ edition, based on the 1595 version. I bought an abridged version of The Three Musketeers, in the hope that my younger son would fall for its charm. I got two Goncourt winners (smaller Goncourt prizes – for debut and the one given by high school students, which is often far better than the main one) and wanted to get the 2018 Goncourt winner that Emma rated so highly Les Enfants aupres eux – but they’d sold out and were waiting for the poche edition to appear some time in 2020. Last, but not least, I couldn’t resist this fictionalised biography of Tsvetaeva at a second-hand bookshop. The bookseller said I was the first person there who seemed to have heard of Marina Tsvetaeva, so we had a good long chat about her, how she is my favourite poet, but my Russian friend prefers Akhmatova.

The Swiss contingent

My good friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whose translation of Ramuz so impressed me, was delighted to take me to a bookshop in Lausanne and recommend some more Ramuz and other Swiss writers. I ended up with Fear in the Mountains and with this trilogy by Agota Kristof, a Hungarian writer who taught herself to write in French. This trilogy has inspired other writers, a film (The Notebook) and even a video game, believe it or not!

Books arriving while I was away

Sadly, Michelle’s second novel Unfurled, which I’d wanted her to sign for me, arrived long after I’d left for Geneva. I had also ordered an Olga Tokarczuk which Tony Malone reminded me had been translated into English: Primeval and Other Times. I’ve been collecting quite a few books about the difficulties of writing and the importance of perseverance lately – Dani Shapiro’s one comes highly recommended. Last but not least, following the death of Alasdair Gray, whom I’ve never read, I wanted to sample some of his writing,but was not sure I could commit to a full novel, so chose these stories instead.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Finally, I have selected a few contenders for the January in Japan challenge. Heaven’s Wind is a dual language anthology of 5 women writers (each represented by one short story, all translated by Angus Turvill) and makes me feel like I almost remember enough Japanese to read it in the original. The translation notes at the back, though, make it clear just how little I am able to grasp the nuances nowadays. Another shortish story about insomnia by Yoshida Kyoko, Spring Sleepers, in that rather lovely publishing initiative by the Keshiki UEA Publishing Project. Then I have Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), one of the most beautiful collection of supernatural stories in Japanese literature dating from the 18th century, which has inspired many, many later books and films. A classic of Japanese crime fiction and the author with the highest profile currently in Japanese literature consumed in the West make up the rest of my small selection. Now all I have to do is keep up with the reviewing!

Like a painting, Mont Blanc from the train window.

The holidays were nice, and reminded me once more just how much I miss that particular part of the world. They had the potential to be truly spectacular holidays, but alas, not quite! Sadly, you cannot escape all your problems or the nuisance people in your life, even at times of peace and joy to all humankind, even at a distance of a thousand miles. Stroppy teenagers changing their minds about things at the last minute and bringing plague-like flu symptoms with them meant that there was far less writing, skiing, fondue and chocolate eating, wine drinking, snowshoeing, meeting of friends than I’d planned. I am nevertheless incredibly grateful to my friend Jenny for allowing us to use her flat and partake in her impeccable literary tastes.

Statistics from 2019 and Plans for 2020

According to Goodreads, I read 44,163 pages across 148 books – so went over my target number of 120. There were times during the year, however, when I fell quite a bit behind with my reading, so it didn’t feel like I read so much. The longest book was Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals at 732 pages, the shortest was a novella Christmas at the Chateau, written by Lorraine Wilson. The most popular book that I read was Meg Worlitzer’s The Interestings (which did not quite live up to my expectations) and the least popular was Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, apparently read by only one other person on Goodreads (but well worth the effort of finding and reading).

I was lucky to have a bit of peace and quiet after the 22nd of December, staying alone at a friend’s flat just outside Geneva, so I read a lot for a week or so (my friend also has an excellent selection of books neatly lined up all over her flat). So that helped bring my total of books read in December to a wopping 17, quite a contrast to some previous months. This was a month of ‘free reading’, whatever catches my fancy. So I read 12 women writers, 5 men.

6 crime fiction novels (although two of those were unusual ones): Attica Locke: Heaven, My Home (nuanced and thought-provoking depiction of race relations, as usual); After She Wrote Him by Sulari Gentill (a clever, joyous metafictional romp); Katherine Bolger Hyde’s Death with Dostoevsky (a cosy crime on campus novel with a literary twist); Will Dean’s Red Snow (an immersive, glacial experience of Sweden’s far northern reaches, and a resolute, brilliant detective); The Raising by Laura Kasischke (another campus novel, looking at the dangers of the Greek societies); Sarah Vaughan’s Little Disasters (a drama which sounds far too plausible to any parents who have had to take their children many times to A&E).

3 non-fiction: Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie (a humorous, heartfelt description of Northern towns, although it feels incredibly dated at times – written in 2008, it refers to Boris Johnson as an aimable clownish politician, for example); Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (inspirational but very down to earth encouragement and advice for writers); Circling to the Center by Susan Tiberghien (the perfect book for when you need to take a step back and use writing, art, psychology to understand yourself and find a spiritual path, whatever way it might take).

2 books of short stories by an old favourite writer of mine, Helen Simpson: Getting a Life (about the slippery slope of motherhood) and Cockfosters (the even slippier slope of aging).

3 books about marriages (and their tensions): Madeleine St John’s The Essence of the Thing (written almost entirely in dialogue – sharp, bitter, spot-on regarding tone); Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson; Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, although you could argue Helen Simpson’s books talk about that too.

2 seasonal books: one Christmas themed (although I tend to avoid Christmas themed books or films) but this one was in preparation for my Christmas on the Franco-Swiss border – Christmas at the Chateau by Lorraine Wilson (too brief to make much of an impression); and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 – The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness

My favourite this month is probably the book that fits into none of the above categories: All die Nacht über uns (All the Night Above Us) by Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger. An apparently really simple story about a soldier on night guard at a border crossing in an unspecified part of (probably) Germany. As each hour drags on, he remembers scenes from his own life, his grandmother’s experience as a refugee, and struggles with his orders to ‘shoot with live ammunition’ if anyone tries to cross the border clandestinely. This impressive piece of work deserves a full review, once I get back home.

In addition to the books above, I’ve also found an edition of Montaigne’s Essays that I like (there are many, many editions available), some Alexandre Dumas for my boys and an unexpected fictionalised biography of Marina Tsvetaeva by poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata.

However, these new acquisitions will not be my top priority at the start of 2020. I intend to take part in a TBR clearout, whether it’s 20 or hopefully more, and not buy any new books until I’ve significantly reduced that pile (there may still be a few late 2019 orders arriving in January, though). I also intend to continue with my geographical wanderings every month and January is for Japan, as is by now well-established courtesy of Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. I’m not quite sure which ones I’ll pick yet, but as soon as I get home, I will plan at least 3-4 reads or rereads from my fairly large batch of Japanese books.

I still have piles of Spanish and Canadian books waiting quietly for me, as well as Malaysian and Indonesian, so there will be many more countries to visit in the months ahead. Plus, a proper French read is long overdue, right?


Reading Challenges Update

This is a bit early for a monthly reading update, but I seem to be currently stuck in three books which will take me through right to the end of January and beyond, so it is fair to say that the ten books below are the only ones I read through January.

My only New Year’s resolutions have been my reading challenges. I have signed up for three of them – how have I fared this month? Well, it’s a mixed picture, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my resolutions just yet.

2015global_reading_challengev21) Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise: I’m making it easy on myself this year and opting for the Easy Level – one book from each of the 7 continents (Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America, plus a new continent – Antarctica or a new threshold you are willing to pass – paranormal, historical, space, sea). The reason I have pulled back a little is because I want to choose really brand-new settings/authors, rather than falling back on my usual French/German/Scandinavian/South African staples. So, although I read 3 French books, 1 Japanese book, 1 German book, 1 Irish and 1 Swedish book and 1 ‘vampirish’ novel this month. I am reluctant to put any of them down as my European component. Because none of that would be new to me. Mission not accomplished. Have to do better next month!

2) January in Japan Challenge hosted by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List. Not quite good enough. I only managed to finish one book: Kanae Minato’s Confessions and am still in the midst of reading Natsume Sōseki’s last, unfinished novel Light and Dark. As for my ambition to read the new(ish) translation of Tales of Genji (Royall Tyler version): well, this will have to wait, but will hopefully be my epic undertaking for the year.

tbr-dare-20143) TBR Double Dog Dare  hosted by James at James Reads Books. This is a last-ditch attempt to bring some order into the chaos which is my TBR pile – overflowing on shelves, on the floor and threatening to inundate my laptop and tablet as well. The aim is to not buy any new books until I have made a sizeable dent in my pile of ready and waiting books. With a little cheating. i.e. borrowing from libraries just before the holidays and last minute purchasing of books in 2014, I managed to do quite well with this challenge – victory!

The three library books I borrowed were all in French, so they don’t count, because it’s like work (improving my vocabulary, making the most of my current location etc. etc.) They were:

  • Patrick Modiano: L’Herbe des nuits

Given the blurb on the back, I was expecting more of a crime fiction type mystery, but it’s the usual Modiano fare about the reliability of memory, how well we really know people, trying to recapture the past and whether nostalgia really lives up to its name.

  • Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls

poubelles-girls-jeanne-desaubyA touching Thelma and Louise type story of two women living on the margins of French society and the unlikely friendship which arises between them. A depressingly realistic story of the poor and downtrodden, but also quite funny, with fascinating, well-rounded characters and juicy dialogue.

  • Daniel Pennac: Comme un roman

An essay about the joys of reading and how schools, parents, teachers and book snobs are in danger of killing off the joys of reading for young people. Contains the famous Ten Comandments of Reading (or the Rights of the Reader)

1. Le droit de ne pas lire. The right to not read.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages. The right to skip pages
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre. The right to not finish a book.
4. Le droit de relire. The right to reread.
5. Le droit de lire n’importe quoi. The right to read whatever you please.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible). The right to Bovaryism (textually transmitted disease).
7. Le droit de lire n’importe où. The right to read wherever you please.
8. Le droit de grappiller. The right to dip into books.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix. The right to read out loud.
10. Le droit de se taire. The right to shut up.

The other books have all been from my existing shelves and most of them have been reviewed elsewhere:

  • Tana French: The Likeness – bought second-hand last year . My first, but certainly not my last Tana French book. Although the plot did seem implausible in places, I really enjoyed the engaging writing, poetic at times, and the genuine sadness of the failure of any idealistic community.
  • Lynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart  – ebook sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review (having reviewed a previous book of hers). The vampire story for those who do not like vampire stories (which I don’t).
  • Jonas Karlsson: The Room  – Netgalley ebook sent by publisher way back in November. A perfect modern fable about corporate life and the death of the imagination.
  • Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train – downloaded from Netgalley several months ago. The life of others always seems more attractive when we are making a mess of our own… and when we see them from a distance. A psychological thriller full of unreliable narrators and domestic claustrophobia.
  • girlwhowasntFerdinand von Schirach: The Girl Who Wasn’t There – copy sent by publisher for review on CFL. Not really a crime novel, more of a ‘coming of age’ story, plus a courtroom drama debating issues of justice, art, trial by media and much more – beautifully written.

The final book I read this month was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I bought in the last few weeks of 2014 following the review by Jacqui. I had previously read the reviews by Tony and Bibliobio, but kept putting it off as far too depressing a subject. Then Jacqui gave me the final nudge. A very emotional read, engaging all your senses – abandon all rationality ye who enter this maelstrom! Will review in more depth shortly.   

 

 

January in Japan: ‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato, trans. Stephen Snyder

ConfessionsJapanese literature has more than its fair share of unsettling tales of dark motivation and devious revenge. This latest addition (new to English, at least – it was originally published in 2008 in Japan, where it became a bestseller and was turned into a film) is particularly horrific, since it deals with the teacher/pupil relationship and the psychology of thirteen year olds in middle school. When I was training to become a teacher, my fellow students and I only half-jokingly referred to the class of 13 year olds as ‘the monsters’. They were too old to believe anything that their teacher said, but too immature to have a clear understanding of the impact of their actions. They were also very vulnerable to peer pressure and herd instinct, something William Golding (himself a former teacher, like Kanae Minato) understood only too well and fully explored in ‘The Lord of the Flies’.

This is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the modern age, transposed to Japan and to the supposedly civilised and structured confines of a school.

The story starts with one of the most compelling chapters of 2nd person POV that I’ve read in a long time. Well, not quite 2nd person: it’s a teacher addressing a class on the last day of school, as she announces her retirement and the reasons for it. We find out quite a bit about Moriguchi sensei’s rather sad life: not able to fully pursue her passion for science, she moves into teaching for job security.  When her engagement ends in tragedy (she discovers her fiance has AIDS), she nevertheless goes ahead with her pregnancy and pours all of her love and devotion into her daughter. Life as a single mother is not easy, especially in Japan, and she occasionally has to bring her daughter to school with her because of lack of childcare. One day, when her daughter is on the school grounds, there appears to be a dreadful accident and she is found drowned in the pool. Moriguchi, however, calmly informs the class that she knows it was not an accident and that she believes two of the pupils in her class were to blame. She does not trust the criminal justice system to punish these minors, so she has devised a diabolical revenge plan of her own.

Each chapter that follows gives us an alternative point of view, including that of the two pupils, building layer upon layer of complexity. Although not all of the voices are equally compelling – and some voices are frustratingly missing – the book makes you question all your previous notions about guilt, revenge, innate evil and criminal intent.

This Russian dolls style of narration, stories nesting within stories, shifting points of view which make you wonder if there ever is a single correct interpretation of events, appears quite frequently in Japanese literature (think ‘Rashomon’).  It works well here, showing the profound repercussions of a single event – the tumbling of domino stones – and people’s inability to understand others, while fooling themselves that they do (or expecting them to react in certain ways). Neither adults nor children behave in admirable ways here and you cannot help but feel pity for each one of the protagonists. It has that feeling of ‘inescapable fate’ of Greek tragedy.

Perhaps too dark and crazy for readers who are not used to Japanese literature, its melodrama is toned down by a cool, detached, simple style. On the other hand, fans of crime fiction, horror and psychological thrillers will find it a compelling introduction to contemporary Japanese society.

I read this as part of Tony Malone’s wonderful initiative January in Japan. For more great links, reviews and readalongs, head over there.