January Summary: Japan and Beyond

This has felt like an endless month, although I only went back to work on the 10th of January. It is still too dark, too cold, too Omicron to do anything other than hibernate. And read, as you can tell by the good number of books I’ve devoured. As always, reading Japanese literature marks a good start to my year. It remains a passion of mine, even though I can no longer read anything but basic, short texts in the original. Luckily, there are many talented translators springing up, particularly female ones. I managed to read and review six of them (one is not in the picture below, because I read it in December). It was a pleasure to reread Yosano Akiko in a different translation, great to expand my knowledge of Endō Shūsaku, Murakami Haruki and Tanizaki Junichiro with lesser-known books by them, and great to discover a new to me author Nakagami Kenji, who shows an aspect of Japanese life that is seldom present in literature. I was somewhat less impressed by the style of contemporary writer Hirano Keiichiro, although I felt the themes he addressed were quite interesting. In retrospect, I realise that should have read more women authors – a spread of five men to one woman was not a good choice!

Many of the remaining books of the month provided some light relief or entertainment. They had me turning the pages late into the night, but have not particularly stuck with me. I would include the following in this category:

  • Nicci French: The Lying Room – have loved previous standalone pyschological thrillers by this author duo, but this one felt a bit implausible and dull
  • Janice Hallett: The Appeal – the format of the story (emails and other correspondance) was far more interesting than the substance
  • Samantha Downing: For Your Own Good – for Virtual Crime Club – the story of a manipulative teacher, but I read it a week or so ago and can remember next to nothing
  • Bella Ellis: The Red Monarch – I know there is only so much crime that the Brontë siblings can detect in Haworth and its surroundings, but the London location was less successful to my mind
  • Jill Dawson: The Crime Writer – quite a charming yet unsettling riff on the unsettling writer Patricia Highsmith, slippery like an eel, hard to tell what is real and what is imagination or paranoia

Two of the books were truly noir and therefore quite difficult to read at times. Swiss writer Joseph Incardona’s Derrière les panneaux il y a des hommes is about a serial killer targeting young girls at service stations on the French autoroutes, but also offers a cross-cut of society through the multitude of individuals who congregate in such liminal spaces. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes was an excellent description of the American dream of house ownership turning into a nightmare, with characters trapped in poverty and endless disappointment, although those lengthy expositions via dialogue were a strange stylistic choice (a bit like a Greek chorus).

I tried to get one book to fit in with Annabel’s Nordic FINDS project, and I did get around to reading (but not reviewing) Jacob Sundberg’s We’ll Call You, a collection of short stories about job interviews. A sharp, funny little book, translated from Swedish by Duncan Lewis, full of the absurdities of the corporate world and our own apparently endless capacity for self-deception.

My favourite books of the month were the two I was reading on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so as to start the year right: Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, the first and last volume of her ‘sort of memoir trilogy’. I have marked almost every third sentence in those slim volumes, they all speak to me so much (although it was the second one that I read a couple of years ago which addressed my own situation most closely).

I have also watched some Japanese films in honour of January in Japan month (to add to the constant roll of Japanese anime in our household). I put up with the overly sentimental but beautifully drawn Violet Evergarden movie for the sake of my younger son (although he too agreed that the series was better). We loved the adorable Ponyo (although I think I still prefer Tottoro) and thought A Whisker Away was a bit strange but charming, especially if you like cats.

Of the more grown-up films, I watched two by the same director, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, who is mostly known for his horror films. However, Tokyo Sonata is a smaller-scale domestic drama, with the fine yet understated psychological insight of his predecessor Ozu, while Wife of a Spy was a stylish mystery thriller set in war-time Japan, with echoes of Vertigo or The Third Man.

February will be dedicated to Australian writers, and I will attempt to read more women this time, to redress the balance. Sadly, my choices are limited by the books I can find over here in the UK, which is not much (and most of it second-hand).

January in Japan: The Poet Yosano Akiko

Yosano Akiko: River of Stars (Selected Poems), trans. Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson, Shambhala, 1996.

For my last #JanuaryinJapan or Japanese Literature Challenge 15 contribution, I picked one of my favourite Japanese poets, who wrote both in freestyle ‘Western-type’ verse but also in the traditional Japanese tanka. The last time I wrote about a tanka poet was back in 2012, soon after starting this blog, and it remains one of the perennial favourites of my blog posts. It was about Tawara Machi, who exploded onto the literary scene in the 1980s and modernised the traditional tanka format. However, long before Tawara became the symbol of her generation of women, there was another woman writer who provoked scandal, ire, but also great admiration. That poet is Yosano Akiko and she is a true giant of Japanese literature, who deserves to be better known outside her own country.

She was also quite a contradictory person both in her personal life and in her writing. Born in a very traditional and reasonably well-off Osaka merchant/shopkeeping family in 1878, she demonstrated a precocious talent for poetry and, thanks to a family tradition of scholarship, was allowed to continue her education until she graduated from high school. At the same time, she was barely allowed to go out even in daylight without an escort.

Nevertheless, once she started participating in the literary circles of Osaka and Tokyo, she became involved with Yosano Tekkan, a still-married poet and editor. She soon joined him in Tokyo, they married and had no less than thirteen children, but he continued his affairs with other women, including his former wife. Akiko seems to have been devoted to him, but was also willing to engage in love triangles with her husband’s female admirers, with whom she even wrote poetry. Although eleven of her children survived to adulthood, she repeatedly protested against motherhood being the primary source of identity for a woman.

Above all, she continued her literary endeavours, co-editing the literary journal, publishing 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of prose and essays, translating the epic novel Genji Monogatari and the Manyōshū (earliest collection of Japanese poetry) into modern Japanese, founded the first co-educational cultural college in Japan, and also became renowned for her feminist and pacifist activism. She dared to be openly critical of the Japanese Emperor during the Russo-Japanese War at a time when no one else raised their voice, saying that militarism was a form of ‘barbarian thinking which is the responsibility of us women to eradicate from our midst’… yet appears to have supported the rise of Japanese militarism in the Second World War (maybe it was what she had to write under censorship: she died in 1942).

For me, however, she is above all the poet who completely revitalised the traditional tanka form. By the late 19th century, writing a tanka had become a party trick more than anything else, following rules very closely, cliche-ridden, unimaginative. Akiko blasted through all the fussiness and cobwebs with her highly individual and erotically charged poetry in her debut collection Midaregami (Tangled Hair – or Bedhead in contemporary parlance). There hadn’t been that kind of frankness and sensuality, that uninhibited description of women’s passion for centuries. I think we do find some of it in the Heian period with Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, and it’s not surprising that Yosano Akiko revered and translated these women writers, but she also added Western Romanticism and Modernism to the mix.

きのふをば千とせの前の世とも思ひ御手なほ肩に有りとも思ふ

Was it a thousand years ago or only yesterday we parted?

Even now, on my shoulder I feel your friendly hand.

ゆあみして泉を出でしやははだにふるるはつらき人の世のきぬ

Fresh from my hot bath I dressed slowly before the tall mirror,

a smile for my own body, innocence so long ago.

くろ髪の千すぢの髪のみだれ髪かつおもひみだれおもひみだるる

My shiny black hair fallen into disarray, a thousand tangles

like a thousand tangled thoughts about my love for you.

What was even more scandalous was the way she provokes (and somewhat mocks) the Buddhist priest who has renounced love and fleshly delights.

You’ve never explored this tender flesh or known such stormy blood.

Do you not grow lonely, friend, forever preaching the Way?

Throughout her love poetry, we find this contradiction between absolute confidence in her womanly power and the sadness or despair at never quite achieving the love she seeks. Some of it is no doubt stylised (see Genji Monogatari for similar examples), but some of it feels very personal, reflecting her own life. Compare:

In return for all the sins and crimes of men, the gods created me

with glistening long black hair and pale, inviting skin.

with:

Yesterday you spoke of your love life’s history. Alone and sleepless,

twisting, my jealousy burns through the merciless night.

The gods wish it so: a life ends with a shatter – with my great broadax

I demolish my koto, oh, listen to that sound!

Yosano Akiko

Finding Yosano Akiko’s work in English is not easy, so I suppose I should be grateful that this translation is available (out of print though, quite expensive second-hand), but I have some issues with this book. This has to do both with the selection of the poems (which do not necessarily give quite as comprehensive a view of her poetry, which is really versatile), and with the translation. Japanese poetry (especially tanka and haiku) is so full of allusions, ellipsis, references to classical poetry that the same poem can be translated in wildly different ways, for example:

“Spring doesn’t last,” I said to him…
“You don’t believe in permanence, do you?”
And I took his hands in mine
Leading them
To my young full breasts. (Roger Pulvers)

This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands. (Kenneth Rexroth)

Gently I open
the door to eternal
mystery, the flowers
of my breasts cupped,
offered with both my hands.

The final translation is the one contained in this volume, and it feels quite far removed from the original, as if the translator has already done all the thinking and feeling for the reader. As a translator, however, I am often tempted to do the same. What do you think? Do you like to have a puzzle to figure out when you read a translation, or do you prefer to have the work done for you?

The anime Yosano Akiko. Long may her memory live on!

P.S. For manga/anime fans amongst you, I should point out that Yosano Akiko is a popular character in Bungo Stray Dogs, the doctor of the Armed Detective Agency (an advocate of rather hardcore treatments, but also a feminist and pacifist).

January in Japan: Endo Shusaku – Scandal

Endō Shūsaku: Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, Peter Owen, 1988.

Back in the late 1960s to late 1980s, during the time of the Japanese boom, Endō Shūsaku was one of the most highly regarded and translated Japanese authors, regularly tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. If Kawabata represented aethereal Japanese beauty and cherry blossoms, Mishima the darker yet more ornate world of modernity clashing against Japanese tradition, then Endō represented something more familiar to the Western reader: a practising Christian (a Catholic, moreover).

Often compared to Graham Greene (inaccurately, I believe, although the two authors are said to have admired each other greatly), he is best known for his historical fiction such as Silence (about a Catholic missionary in 17th century Japan) or Samurai (about a Japanese diplomatic mission to Mexico and Spain in the 17th century). This novel Scandal is very much set in present-day Tokyo (at the time the book was written).

It is about a well-known 65-year-old Catholic novelist Suguro (clearly the author is capable of being quite self-critical and poking fun at himself). He has won prizes, has been successful, is content in his marriage with a fellow Japanese Christian, even though it’s all become very routine.

In the seasons when her limbs did not ache they would sometimes have lunch together and then go out for a walk. They always took the same route… They would sit together on a bench in the park, watching the young people play badminton. Even if they said nothing to each other, after more than thirty years of marriage there was a poised tranquillity between them that Suguro could feel almost palpably as she sat beside him… he was a novelist who peered into the depth of his soul and disgorged what he found there. But as a husband he was careful not to expose himself beyond the essential boundaries.

This double standard has led some critics to accuse him of being a ‘phoney’, of being afraid to face sex (and other sins) openly. It all flares up when a woman shows up at an awards ceremony, claiming to know him from his regular nocturnal wanderings around the red-light district. Suguro vehemently denies it, but the rumours of sightings continue and he decides he must have a doppelgänger who pretends to be him, especially when he sees the sly, obscene smile in the portrait that a street artist has painted of him.

Suguro starts investigating, hoping to catch this man posing as him, while a hack journalist Kobari initiates his own investigation, hoping to make his name by uncovering a juicy scandal about the famous author who is not at all as moral as he claims to be. Suguro encounters a voluntary worker at the hospital, Mrs Naruse, who seems to have no qualms confiding her secret darker desires, despite appearing to be extremely caring and loving with the children that she looks after when they undergo surgery. She tells Suguro that she considers that ‘our erotic behaviour expresses our profoundest secrets, the ones we ourselves aren’t aware of’, making the author begin to question his own decent, quiet life, his distinction between ‘healthy and unhealthy sex’ and begin to confront his own dark desires that he would prefer to maintain submerged. He hears about one woman’s masochistic tendencies, which is in fact a death wish – and she does indeed die as a result of the sexual games she engages in. But it takes Suguro longer to admit to his own obsession with an underage girl (which seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of Japanese literature written by middle-aged men, and is very prevalent in Japanese culture more generally, which I personally find icky). However, in this novel, the purpose of this strand of the story might be for Suguro to get his come-uppance, to realise that he cannot blame all his wicked desires and impulses solely on a stranger who resembles him.

There’s magma buried inside every person at the time they’re born… Even a child has fun tearing the wings or legs off a dragonfly. These days even elementary school kids will gang up on a helpless child and beat him up. They do that… because it’s fun… When the magma erupts in the form of sex, it comes out as sadism or masochism.

I wonder how many of the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey would be interested in this quite slow-paced, cerebral analysis of the human soul? The main character wondering if he needs to go ‘to the very end’ so that he can express all the depths of the human soul as an artist. Especially when the characters start having conversations about Jesus:

‘As Jesus, bathed in blood, carried his cross to the execution ground, the crowds reviled him and threw stones at him. Don’t you think they did that because of the pleasure it gave them?… Jesus was too blameless, too unblemished … so much so that they wanted to destroy him… That feeling is shared by all of us…. but no one wants to stare it in the face.’

All this soul-searching is also related to aging, and there are several passages where the writer makes it clear that Suguro is beginning to doubt the value of his life’s work (and possibly his entire life). If he has not been truthful to himself, then how can he have been truthful with his readers? All of these questions that people are planting in his head, all these doubts and confusions that are besetting him, run contrary to his belief that things will become more peaceful and certain in old age.

Old age doesn’t mean being free from perplexity as Confucius claimed; there’s nothing serene or mellow about it. To me, at least, it has loomed up in ugly, nightmarish images. With death staring me in the face, I can no longer prevaricate, and there is nowhere to escape.

Endō plays around with the conceit of the Japanese ‘I-novel’ (what we now call auto-fiction), and you cannot help feeling that at times he is thinking aloud, as he too was in his sixties when he wrote this book and suffering from ill-health. I did not rate it as highly as the other novels I have read by him, but it certainly made me both squirm and think. Like it or hate it, it is undoubtedly a book that will make you uncomfortable, that asks tough questions about core values and whether virtue is a myth, an accident.

The last but one, I think, of my posts linking to Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

#JanuaryinJapan: Nakagami Kenji

Nakagami Kenji: The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, transl. Eve Zimmerman. Stone Bridge Press, 1999.

Like many other countries, Japan has an outcast community of untouchables – the Burakumin. Unlike in other countries, this underclass is not discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnic group, but because of their occupation: traditionally, they engaged in jobs considered undesirable or polluting according to Shintoism or Buddhism. such as animal slaughter, leather-making, prison officers, executioners. They are mentioned as a separate caste during the Heian period, but it’s during the Edo shogunate (from the early 17th century) that they become considered as ‘less than human’. This discrimination officially ended in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system, but the Burakumin continued to live in segregated communities until the 1960s, and are still socially discriminated against when it comes to employment or marriage if their ancestry is discovered.

So it’s not surprising that Nakagami Kenji was the only post-war Japanese author to admit that he was of Burakumin origin, and, throughout his short life, he tried to give a voice to this community on the margins of Japanese society. The Burakumin have a reputation for being poor, dirty, chaotic and criminal – so a handy comparison in Europe might be the Roma communities. Nakagami himself said once in an interview: ‘I write for a public that cannot read me. My mother, my sister, my brothers are illiterate like all the Burakumin.’ But at the same time, he is writing about the Burakumin families of his day to allow the rest of Japanese (and international) society an insight into their daily lives. He also felt that he was writing ‘against the clock’, as these Burakumin neighbourhoods were being pulled down in a well-meant (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at assimilation.

At first glance, these are indeed chaotic, brutal and sad lives that he describes. ‘The Cape’ is the first in a loose family chronicle of a post-war Burakumin family, seen predominantly through the eyes of Akiyuki, who feels like a double outsider: both in Japanese society and in his own family. He is the only son in his family who has a father who never lived with his mother. His family history is complicated by remarriages and adoptions: he has two older half-sisters who have married (and one has moved far away from their home town) and a half-brother who hung himself. He is a labourer in his shady brother-in-law’s construction company and lives with his mother, stepfather and a younger stepbrother. Akiyuki feels that the whole family is based on lies, whether outright lies or lies of omission. is constantly haunted by the image of his real father who had two other children by different mothers, one of which is a ‘coddled girl’ from a ‘proper’ family, while the other is a prostitute. He is terrified of ending up like his ‘lustful father’ and has thus far abstained from any sexual relationships.

It is an atmosphere of Greek tragedy, heightened by poverty, alcohol, obsession with sex and lack of education. There are petty (and not so petty) sibling rivalries and squabbles, family feuds and gossip, violent and drunken scenes, and it all escalates, leading to murder and incest. Yet would it be fair to blame it all on the outcaste status? The neighbourhood is full of other outsiders and misfits: drug addicts, prostitutes, new immigrants. Besides, in many ways, this reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, featuring another dysfunctional but far wealthier and certainly not marginalised family unable to escape their tragic fate.

There are two other stories in this volume, in addition to ‘The Cape’. ‘House on Fire’ is still very much rooted in Akiyuki’s family and universe, although the characters don’t appear with any names. Instead, we have ‘the mother’, ‘that man (father)’, ‘son’ and so on. This was an earlier version of ‘The Cape’, and it centers around the bastard son of an arsonist, who hears that his father has been badly hurt in an accident and remembers his father’s endless appetite for violence and destruction. Here too we have the matriarchal family line and the struggle and hatred between father and son powerfully described – which must have been revolutionary for Japan at the time, where family lineages are still very patriarchal.

The third story ‘Red Hair’ is quite different: far less plot, more reliant on atmosphere. Kozo is a disaffected young man whose unskilled job is about to be made redundant. The only thing he looks forward to in his life is the red-headed woman waiting for him at home. Very graphic sex with her provides a welcome release for all the frustrations going on in his life. Their relationship, however, is so fragile, as we see when they meet with a neighbouring couple, who try to dig into the red-haired woman’s past, which they suspect is unsavoury. Ultimately, as the young lovers look at the rain and decide to go back to bed, they recognise that all they have is that moment of pleasure, and the illusion that they can prolong it at will.

There are few translations of Nakagami available in English (the French seem to like him more), but this particular edition – if you can find it second-hand – has a very informative preface and afterword by the translator. Tony is the only other book blogger who has reviewed Nakagami, as far as I know, but if you have read him, do leave your comments and links below.

I am linking this once again to the wonderful Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Meredith.

January in Japan: Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami Haruki

Murakami Haruki: Sputnik Sweetheart, trans. Philip Gabriel, Vintage, 2002.

Back in the 1990s – early 2000s, I really liked Murakami Haruki (although I would often say that I like the ‘other Murakami’, namely Ryū, just as much). This is because our Japanese professor really loved Norwegian Wood and we read it together in class. In fact, at the time I read the Japanese in parallel with the original translation by Alfred Birnbaum, which was intended for students of the Japanese language. Jay Rubin translated the better-known version available for Western readers and that is the one I have now on my shelves.

Kafka on the Shore (2002) and his non-fiction book about running (2008) were the last books of his that I truly enjoyed and I haven’t bothered much with his more recent novels (although I did fall for the hype and pre-order a limited edition of Killing Commendatore from Waterstones).

Sputnik Sweetheart was one of the earlier books (published in 1999) that I had not read, so I took advantage of January in Japan to see if I could recapture some of my earlier excitement about Murakami. And, on the whole, I did! There were fewer of the typical Murakami tics (or bingo sheet of elements) that crop up time and again in his novels and stories. It was more realistic, but with just a slight tinge of surrealism.

The narrator K is best friends with the idealistic and stubborn would-be novelist Sumire, who used to go to the same college as him. Now he is a schoolteacher and Sumire an aspiring writer. Truth be told, he is in love with Sumire, but she never seems to think of him in that way. Instead, she falls desperately in love with the glamorous businesswoman of Korean origin, Miu, who convinces Sumire to be her assistant.

Sumire shares her dilemma with K (without noticing the parallels to his own situation): should she tell Miu how she feels? Can she bear to be in Miu’s proximity without a physical relationship? Does a love affair like that mean she abandons her principles and aspirations as a writer or would it help her to gather the experience she needs in order to be a more well-rounded writer?

I particularly enjoyed reading the tongue-in-cheek description of Sumire’s writing abilities, which is evident in spite of K’s supposed admiration for her (and he hastens to add that he appreciates the direct power and honesty of her writing):

She had so many things she had to write, so many stories to tell. If she could only find the right outlet, heated thoughts and ideas would gush out like lava, congealing into a steady stream of inventive works the likes of which the world had never seen… A photo of her, smiling coolly, would appear in the arts section of the newspaper, and editors would beat a path to her door. But it never happened that way. Sumire wrote some works that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning and an end. Not that she suffered from writer’s block – far from it. She wrote endlessley, everything that came into her head. The problem was that she wrote too much.

In the end, Sumire accompanies Miu on a business trip to Europe, which they wrap up with a holiday on a Greek island. One night, K receives a phone call from Miu: could he please come to Greece at once? Sumire has disappeared.

This isn’t really a detective novel, although they try to find out what has happened to Sumire with the somewhat lacklustre help of the Greek police. Although K never quite finds out what happened to his friend, he starts to uncover possible reasons why she chose to disappear, when she realised that Miu would never be the lover she would have liked her to be. Although the ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ nickname that Sumire gives to Miu is a private joke (Miu mistakes the word ‘Beatnik’ with ‘Sputnik’), this book is very much about the essential loneliness of the human being, that no one ever fully understands or accepts us, or can travel the whole distance with us.

And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.

Just like Norwegian Wood, this is a coming-of-age novel full of yearning. K recognises what Sumire brought into his life and what is now missing when he loses her.

Like the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had would never ever take place again. We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our life. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it’s gone for ever. What I’d lost was not just Sumire. I’d lost that precious flame.

Call it the love of our lives, our youthful idealism, our illusions, our dreams – we all learn to live with our losses as we grow older, but we cannot always express them as wistfully or as wittily as Murakami does here.

I can now safely say that Sputnik Sweetheart is on my list of Murakami Haruki novels that I love (together with Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). I still have to read South of the Border, West of the Sun, to see where it fits in. I also love this super-quick graphic summary of the book: https://www.deviantart.com/larsony/art/Sputnik-Sweetheart-144045829

#JanuaryInJapan: A Cat, a Man and Two Women

Tanizaki Junichirō: A Cat, a Man and Two Women, trans. Paul McCarthy, Daunt Books, 2017.

Tanizaki Junichirō (I’m sorry, I just can’t cope any more with the Western habit of reversing Japanese author names to suit our own standards – it is surname first in Japanese and in many other languages) was one of the leading Japanese authors of the 20th century and one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1960s (he died in 1965 and in the end it was Kawabata who was the first Japanese to win it). His obsessions with eroticism, fetishism and violence did not endear him hugely to me when I was a student, but I should add that not all of his books are like that.

He was a huge fan of Genji Monogatari and translated it into modern Japanese, so it’s no surprise that the clash between tradition and modernity, between East and West are recurring themes in his (often best) work. The Makioka Sisters has a Chekhovian or Thomas Mann Buddenbrooks feel to it (not just because of its title, which is actually Sasameyuki – or ‘thin/lightly falling snow’ in Japanese); it depicts the decline of a merchant family in Osaka, but also the end of an era. His collection of essays on Japanese art and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is also worth a read. But I can’t say I ever found his work amusing or charming… until now.

The 120 page novella A Cat, a Man and Two Women is one of Tanizaki’s lighter-hearted works and was written perhaps as a bit of a relief from the struggles of working for five years on the translation of Genji. A love triangle – or should that be a square? – it clearly shows that the author understood cats (and perhaps women too) very well. Shozo is a simple, unsophisticated man, somewhat easily manipulated (certainly when it suits him) by his mother or his second wife Fukuko. Meanwhile, his spurned first wife Shinako claims that she wants custody of their tortoiseshell cat Lily. But why does Shinako, who seemed to be jealous of Lily while they were all living in the same house, really want the cat? Is it because she knows that Shozo is so smitten with his pet that he will start visiting her once more?

Each of the humans in the story sets out to use Lily as a pawn, but in the end the cat proves to be the mistress of them all, drawing out both the best and the worst qualities of the people fighting over her. What is most touching about the story is the description of Lily as she ages – these are the passages where it becomes clear that Tanizaki must have been a great cat lover himself.

There were many signs of Lily’s rapid decline: one of them, for example, was her no longer being able to jump up with ease to Shozo’s height and snatch a bite to eat… each year the number of leaps grew fewer, and the height she reached lower. Recently, if she were shown a bit of food when she was hungry, she would first check to see if it was something she liked or not, and then jump; and even so, it had to be held no higher than a foot or so above her head. If it were any higher she would give up the idea of jumping and either climb up Shozo’s body or, when even that seemed too much for her, simply look up at him with those soulful eyes, her nose twitching hungrily… When Shinako got that sad look in her eyes, it didn’t bother Shozo very much; but for some reason, when it was Lily, he was strangely overcome with pity.

It seemed oddly appropriate to be reading this story about love for one’s pet during the week when the Pope expressed dismay that people prefer pets over having children (Shozo does not have any children with either his first or his second wife). Certainly, the closeness between Shozo and his cat is excessive at times – forcing his wife to cook something she hates for the sake of feeding it to the cat instead of eating it himself, or exchanging farts under the bedcovers. Yet I dare any animal lover not to be moved by that final scene, when he holds Lily on his lap and she purrs and allows herself to be stroked, but doesn’t seem to recognise him. Of course, you can also see it as the transience of life and marriage itself…

A slight story, but a beautifully observed and sensitively written study of human (and feline) nature. Tony Malone reviewed this when it was first reissued by Daunt, Karen aka Kaggsy reviewed it for #1936Club, while Annabel reviewed it for last year’s Japan challenge. This post will be linked to Meredith’s record-breaking 15th (fifteenth!) Japanese Literature Challenge.

#JanuaryinJapan: Keiichiro Hirano

Keiichiro Hirano: A Man, trans. Eli K.P. William, Amazon Crossing, 2020.

Rie Takemoto’s husband Daisuke Taniguchi was an incomer to their little town S in the Miyazaki Prefecture of Japan. He moved to the town at the age of thirty-five wanting a complete change of career, and he worked in forestry for four years, three of which he spent married to Rie, before being crushed by a tree.

Upon his death, Rie discovers that her famously reticent husband was actually not who he claimed to be. Shocked at the possibility that her marriage was a complete lie, she contacts the lawyer Akira Kido to try and find out more about the man she married. Kido becomes obsessed with the investigation, as he uncovers layer after layer of mystery and hidden identities. It turns out that Japan’s old-fashioned, paper-based family register system is open to manipulation, and that people buy and sell identities to get rid of a troublesome past.

But this is not simply a mystery novel. Kido himself is a zainichi (of Korean origins), although he grew up in a very Japanese environment and doesn’t even speak Korean. After the 2011 tsunami, he has been forcibly made aware of his heritage and starts to feel that his Japanese wife is perhaps ashamed of it. One of the people he investigates changed his identity to escape his family heritage (his father was a notorious criminal) – and Kido sees parallels to his own situation.

In all honesty, I don’t like when other Zainichi try to claim me, as though we were somehow separate and special… Whether it’s being a lawyer or being Japanese, the same applies. It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.

The novel becomes a meditation on what makes up ‘a man’ or our ‘real self’. But it’s also a poignant description of failing to live up to our youthful aspirations and wondering whether we too might be tempted to turn over a completely new leaf and reinvent ourselves if we could do so without grave consequences.

Such is the intriguing premise of this novel, the first by Hirano that I’ve read. I was aware of the author from the sterling blog run by J.C. Greenway, who actually lives in Japan.

Although I enjoyed the story overall (and in particular the characters of Kido and Misuzu, Daisuke’s former girlfriend), I have to admit that the multiple swaps of identity and the deliberate obfuscations of the ‘identity broker’ in prison got confusing and irritating after a while. I also found the prose rather pedestrian, occasionally clunky, with the more philosophical meditations shoehorned in rather than feeling like an organic, inevitable part of the story. I am not sure if that is the author’s style in Japanese or if it’s the translation. At the same time, I appreciate the book for its realism, its accurate description of the hard-working, less than glamorous everyday of life in contemporary Japan, rather than the surreal flights of fantasy encountered in Murakami, for instance.

Having said that, I am about to embark upon a Murakami book for my next read, so…

Monthly Summary and Reading Plans for Start of 2022

You can see that December included holidays, a mood of hibernation and about 10 days without the children, because I read an inordinate amount of books and saw many films as well. I also managed to do some translating (about 28000 words, which brings me to just over a third of the way through the novel I’m working on). It was all rather cosy, but I hope to get more physically active in the New Year, as well as work on my own writing (no submissions at all this month).

Reading

18 books (although one was a DNF), of which:

  • 8 were for the Russians in the Snow theme of the month. I particularly enjoyed a return to the classics, such as Gogol and Turgenev, but I also enjoyed discovering new authors such as Victor Pelevin and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’ve failed to review the Bulgakov short stories or the memoirs about Marina Tsvetaeva by her daughter. And who would have thought I’d also find a retro-detective crime series set in St Petersburg and written by a Russian?
  • Two books were for the Virtual Crime Fiction Book Club: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I found rather harsh on the emotions, and John Banville’s Snow, which was not as cosy as I expected and just a tad overwritten.
  • There were several other books with a rather grim subject matter: In the Dream House (about an abusive lesbian relationship), Godspeed (about losing your youthful dreams and wasting your life chasing the impossible), mothers and sons and coping with lockdown in The Fell, and A Man (trying to disappear from your old life and forge a new identity). With the exception of the last of these, which felt rather stiff and pedestrian in its prose (not sure if that is the author himself or the translation), they were all very well written, which made the dark subject matter worth reading about
  • I tried to counterbalance this with lighter, escapist reading, such as Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis, The Pact by Sharon Bolton and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden.

Overall, I read 170 books this year, which is perhaps understandable since I had nowhere much to go and a couple of weeks without the children. However, it’s not even in the Top 3 of my years of reading (since I started keeping track of the books on Goodreads in 2013). Top place goes to 2014 (189 books), followed by 2015 (179) and 2016 (175). Unsurprising, perhaps, since those were the three years of marriage breakdown and lots of anxiety about the future, so I was looking for escape in books. This year also had its fair share of escapist reading, but felt much more grounded in good literature, in books that I truly enjoyed or authors I wanted to explore.

Reviewing, Blogging, Writing

Needless to say, with so much reading, I was unable to keep up with the reviewing, especially since I went a little wild with no less than six different categories for Best of the Year summaries: Modern Classics, Rereading, New Releases, Newly Discovered Authors, Deep Dives into Favourite Authors, and Page Turners.

Nevertheless, I managed an astounding 180 blog posts this year, writing nearly 150,000 words in the process. As a friend of mine says: ‘Why do you waste so much time crafting blog posts instead of working on your novel?’ I suppose it’s the instant gratification of receiving likes and comments. That is partly the reason why I submitted various shorter pieces (poetry and flash fiction) – you win a few, you lose a lot, but at least you get feedback a bit more quickly than when you work on a novel in isolation for years and years. In February 2022 I will be coming up to ten years of blogging and maybe it’s time I thought more carefully about what I want to achieve with it and if it’s worth continuing (at this pace).

I submitted about 40-45 times this year, got 24 rejections and 8 acceptances, but I got very discouraged when my novel didn’t get long or shortlisted at any of the various competitions I entered, so stopped working on it for several months. I hope to come back to it in 2022 – and make it a crunch year. Either I complete the novel to my satisfaction and start submitting it to agents, or else I ditch it and get started on something else.

I’m also working on another translation from Romanian and find that it helps my own writing, because I keep trying to figure out sentence structures and how to make them sound more natural in English. Plus I keep wanting to edit other people’s work, as if I could do any better! 😉

Films

I can’t even begin to review all the films I watched this month – no less than 19 (and there might be 1-2 more before New Year). Some of them were rewatches, typical of the Christmas holidays, like My Fair Lady, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, L’Avventura and Desperately Seeking Susan. Others were family films to watch with the boys – a very few Christmassy themed, like Tokyo Godfathers or Klaus, but mostly just films that have become classics, such as Fargo or The Usual Suspects. I also had fun watching Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse or Vivo or Inside Out or Tick Tick… Boom! (I was not a huge fan of the music of Rent, but I liked what Rent set out to show, and the film itself about the constantly thwarted creative artist or whether art serves any purpose nowadays rang a lot of bells, of course!)

The two that surprised me most were:

1) West Side Story, the new version, which I had initially dismissed as an unnecessary remake and probably doomed to failure. However, I really liked the way it stuck to some of the most loved aspects of the original yet also brought in some new elements quite successfully.

2) Winter Nomads – a documentary about shepherds who practice transhumance over the winter months, when the fields lie fallow, in the Valais and Vaud region of Switzerland.

Reading Plans

I will continue my eclectic mix of approximate planning, yet leaving plenty of room for serendipity. I also plan to focus a lot more on what I currently have on my bookshelves, as I prepare to move abroad (and have a thorough clearout of my books) in a couple of years.

January will be dedicated largely to Japanese literature, as usual. I have already started reading in preparation for that (A Man by Keiichiro Hirano) and it will be a mix of old and new, perhaps a reread or two: Tanizaki Junichiro, Endo Shusaku, Nakagami Kenji, Yosano Akiko, Miura Shion, Murakami Haruki and Natsume Soseki.

February I am thinking of going to the southern hemisphere and reading mostly Australian literature (or NZ or Indonesia if I have anything from there). The list of authors is still to be determined, but at first glance I see I have one unread Shirley Hazzard there, plus Elizabeth Harrower, Romy Ash, Miles Franklin and Frank Moorhouse. It’s a part of the world about which I know very little, so it’s bound to be a surprise.

In March I will explore Italian literature – although I am learning Italian and love the country, language and culture very much indeed, I haven’t read all that much Italian literature. I have built up a small collection of modern classics and contemporary literature that I can’t wait to try: Massimo Cuomo, Claudia Durastanti, Andrea Bajani and Alberto Prunetti, as well as better-known ones such as Italo Svevo, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese and Curzio Malaparte.

Finally, I want to read more poetry and weave it throughout everything else I do. Random opening of volumes of poetry, using favourite poets to ‘fortune-tell’ what my day or week might be like, close reading of an unfamiliar poem and discovering new poets: I want it all.

January in Japan: Higuchi Ichiyo, First Professional Woman Writer

Robert Lyons Danly: In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo with Nine of Her Best Short Stories, Norton, 1992.

Higuchi Ichiyo is revered in Japan as the first major woman writer of the modern era, poised between traditional Japan and the death of the samurai era, and the rapidly modernising Japan of the late 19th century, a precursor to the many excellent women writers that Japan produced in the 20th century and the present-day. Although her portrait appears on the 5000 Yen note, and most of her stories have been adapted for film, I had not really read any of her work until Mieko Kawakami mentioned her as a role model and inspiration in her interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Higuchi Ichiyo on the 5000 yen note.

Although Ichiyo died in 1896 of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, she left behind a legacy of nearly four thousand classical poems, twenty-one well-crafted stories and numerous essays, which would make anyone else feel like a slouch in comparison. Some of her stories are regarded as examplary to this day. This book contains nine of those stories, as well as extensive quotes from her very detailed, lively and accomplished diary, which she kept over a long period of time (and which I wish would get translated in its entirety into English). It also contains biographical notes, showing just how surprising and remarkable her achievements were, because she came from an impoverished former samurai family, and became de facto the head of the family at an early age, was largely self-taught and constantly struggled to make a living to support her mother, her sister and herself.

Trained initially in the classical style of poetry, and clearly a huge fan of the writing of the Heian court, this all changes in 1893, when she and her family move to the poorer, red-light districts of Tokyo and try to run a stationery shop (not very successfully). Her stories become less melodramatic and inspired by the past, and instead feature both a rich description of a particular time and place, as well as social critique. She allows the rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, orphans, shopkeepers from their neighbourhood to appear as fully-rounded characters and voice their concerns, their small joys and triumphs, as well as their disappointments and defeats. At the same time, she also depicts the social constraints placed upon them.

In her most famous and accomplished story/novella Takekurabe (translated here as Child’s Play), we encounter a group of youngsters growing up in the Yoshihara red-light district. We are privy to their games and teasing, their quarrels and fights, their mischief and bullying, but also their kindnesses and mutual help. Midori is a free spirited, almost pampered girl, generous at sharing the little luxuries money can buy with her friends – but her money comes from her older sister’s work as a courtesan and she herself is being groomed to follow the same fate. Nobu is the shy, introverted son of the local priest, perpetually embarrassed by the materialistic, wordly nature of his parents. Shota is the wealthiest of the three, the son of the local pawnbroker, but he is a likable boy, constantly embarrassed by his family’s avaricious ways. As the children reach their mid-teens, they realise that the world of opportunities that seems to lie ahead of them… are actually illusions, that their fate was always to follow in their parents’ or sister’s footsteps. The solidarity and hope that they had as children drains away and they are left feeling very lonely indeed.

The last story Wakaremichi (Separate Ways) addresses the same problem, although here it is a friendship between Okyo, a young woman in her twenties who works as a seamstress and the boy who oils umbrellas Kichizo, nick-named the Dwarf, because he looks far smaller than his actual age (sixteen). Okyo is finally forced to become the mistress of a rich older man and Kichizo feels utterly betrayed that she should choose that way of life. Childish innocence gets destroyed by adult pragmatism in all of her stories.

Nigorie (Troubled Waters) is an earlier, slightly more melodramatic piece, but it succeeds in showing the life of courtesans as they grow older and fade in popularity, and the dreams they have had to cast aside. Meanwhile, in Jusanya (The Thirteenth Night), the author addresses the plight of the woman desperate to leave an abusive husband. Oseki returns home to her parents one night to say that she wants a divorce, but that would not only bring poverty and disgrace upon her family, but it would also mean she never gets to see her son again.

Ichiyo’s protagonists have very little wriggle room, very few choices open to them. They simply hustle and try to get through the day, the week, the month, and feed their dependents. This type of subject matter was perhaps not entirely new (there had been stories about the red-light district or ‘floating world’ before, notably Saikaku Ihara from two centuries earlier), but most of the stories were told by men and had a certain quality of titillation and sensationalism. Ichiyo shows real compassion and understanding for her characters. Moreover, it’s not just her subject matter that makes her memorable, but her beautiful style: full of allusions to classical works, elliptical, compact, full of word associations, puns, kakekotoba. These last are so-called pivot words, where you use the phonetic reading of a kanji character to convey multiple meanings concurrently – a much prized rhetorical device, because you can be concise yet introduce multiple layers of meaning. I suspect she might be quite difficult to read in the original, and not just because she was writing 130 years ago.

You can read a review of this book and of Ichiyo’s stories on Tony Malone’s excellent blog. If you get a chance to see the 1955 film of Takekurabe directed by Gosho, it provides a useful counterpoint to those in Japan who were looking back with nostalgia at the Meiji period during the post-war years.

Still from the film Takekurabe.

#JanuaryinJapan: Yuko Tsushima again

Yuko Tsushima: Of Dogs and Walls, trans. Geraldine Harcourt, Penguin Modern 43, 2018.

I’ve spent a very happy January in Japan (virtually), revisiting old favourites and making some new favourites. Above all, I seem to have fallen into a research black hole regarding the remarkable Tsushima family: father and daughter. I have reviewed a book of short stories by Tsushima Yuko and Dazai Osamu’s last novel. I am now delving in some academic research about Dazai and also some of his more autobiographical short stories.

When I heard that there are two further recently translated autobiographical short stories by Yuko Tsushima, I could not resist. These two were translated in 2018 (touchingly, by the much-missed translator to whom we owe most of Tsushima’s work available in English) and published in the tiny chapbook series of numbered Penguin Modern Classics. It contains two stories: Suifu – The Watery Realm and Inu to Hei ni tsuite – Of Dogs and Walls, and they are the most openly and painfully personal stories I have yet read by this author. They are decades apart – the first was published in 1982, when Tsushima was establishing herself as an author, while the second was published in 2014, two years before her death.

In the first story, Tsushima must have hoped that by taking on her father’s legacy head-on, she might be able to put it to rest. Both for herself and for the Japanese reading public, who continued to be obsessed by all things related to Dazai’s life and writings. She was probably also keen to establish her own reputation as a talented author, entirely separate from him.

She certainly achieved that in Japan, leaving behind a legacy of 35 novels and hundreds of short stories, many of them prize-winning. From the mid 1980s she moved away from the stories inspired by her own life as a single mother, and took on a wider subject matter, often writing about ecological matters or Japan as a colonial oppressor or marginalised people such as the Ainu or the plight of interracial children born from American soldier fathers and Japanese mothers after the war. Sadly, these later works have not yet been translated into English, which may give us a rather one-dimensional view of her writing. In fact, when I wrote my previous reviews about her work, I was not fully aware of the richness of her legacy.

‘The Watery Realm’ moves delicately and confidently, like water, between three generations, via a loop of folkloric and personal associations. First, we have the five-year-old boy who is saving up all his pocket money to buy a castle-shaped decoration for the aquarium. His mother the narrator is reminded of the Dragon Palace from the Urashimataroo story, wonders pragmatically if she can afford it when they don’t even have a proper aquarium or goldfish, and remembers her own chaotic childish thoughts when told that her father had drowned himself.

Finally, we have the narrator’s mother, the boy’s grandmother, who was left a young widow with three children and has always felt superstitious about Suijin, the Shinto Water God. Suijin is actually the generic name given to any kind of water spirits (which can manifest as fish, eels, snakes, dragons) to be found in the many, many bodies of water all around Japan. Some of them are benign (after all, they help irrigate the land), but there is always more than a hint of malice or danger about them. The most famous of these are the Kappa (half-human, half-frogs or turtles), who appear in many folk tales and in a novella by Akutagawa.

In Tsushima’s story, the woman’s struggle to cook, clean and raise children in a house with no running water makes her feel as though she is battling against gravity itself as well as the greedy, evil spirit of Suijin. There are moments when she wonders why humans have evolved into land animals at all:

Sometimes I thought what fools we humans are – it’s living on land that causes all these woes; if we need water so badly then we should just return to it… Then, one day, my husband did return to the water.’

The water spirit crows in triumph at the harm she has caused and continues to torture the woman, taunting her that she will never recover from the loss of her husband.

Grieve all you like… wail until your throat is on fire. You can’t escape water… There’s nothing else here. The place is awash. Your husband is water now. You are married to water. You will be deafened by its voice, shattered by its weight.

However, the woman is determined not to allow herself to be defeated by this prediction. As she remembers it, she has not allowed herself to become a burden on others, has done a good job of living independently and providing a good life and home environment for her children, even when their family is struck down by a second tragedy, the early death of the middle child. [Tsushima’s brother did indeed die in his early teens of a sudden fever.] At a family meal, however, when the five-year-old grandson innocently asks her why she is not as scary as his mother said she was, it turns out that what she is describing is not a world that her daughter recognises. The instinct for survival might have come at a price. This is how her daughter remembers things:

A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.

Just like her son’s longing for the Dragon Palace in the fish tank, which doesn’t quite live up to expectations, so the narrator see her mother yearning to cast a beautiful sheen on their past. All the unspoken resentments and fears between mother and daughter quiver in the air between them… but it is too late to address them. I cannot help but wonder how the author’s mother reacted to this story (she was still alive when it was published and may have seen too many parallels to her own life in it).

This story is full of raw emotion and becomes all the more poignant when you know that Tsushima’s son, who did indeed have a passion for aquariums and keeping fish, died a couple of years after this story was published, drowning in his bathtub while his mother was in the other room.

This third family tragedy might have given her a deeper understanding of her mother’s suffering and determination to keep going. In the later story, Of Dogs and Walls, the mother-daughter relationship is calmer, although still unknowable and tense. The story is focused on the sudden loss of the narrator’s brother, who was a couple of years older than her, but whom she babied and protected, because he had a developmental disability. However, the emotions in this story are kept on a tight leash. The grief is described and possibly partly attenuated by listing the dogs her mother kept in the yard, while the walls are perhaps the symbols of the protective scaffolding we try to erect around ourselves. Yet, for a brief moment in the story, a gate was opened in the walls separating their house from that of their neighbours’. Could the author be telling us that these fleeting moments of connection, of comfort, are all that we can expect in life?

Tsushima Yuko in 2011, from INK Literary Monthy in Taiwan.

Tshushima’s surviving child is a playwright, writing under the name Ishihara Nen. When reading this outstanding essay about her mother and her childhood, I was suddenly struck how similar her sentiments are to those of the narrator in The Watery Realm, how she feared her mother and struggled to understand and cope with her anger (directed at other people rather than at her, thank goodness, unlike in the story). Tsushima did not try to gloss over her life and rewrite it in a rosy fictional light. Nor, despite the unflinching honesty of her descriptions of single motherhood, did she become overwhelmed by self-hatred and nihilism like her father. Instead, she learnt to come to terms with her own grief and anger by listening and giving voice to others who had been struck by personal or collective tragedy. I might be reaching here, but it seems to me that she finally triumphed over her family’s painful legacy.

I have dug deep into Tsushima’s life, and yet all this is not at all necessary to read and appreciate her work. When I read Territory of Light two years ago, I knew nothing at all about all this, and yet it spoke to me with a great immediacy. So I will end with Ishihara’s words about just how much of her mother’s work is ‘confessional’.

When I was born into this world, my mother was already a novelist. In her writings, a character who it seemed could only be my mother lived with children who seemed like me and my younger brother, in the same town where we lived. Thanks to that, until I was almost fully grown I thought my mother’s early works were all about our household exactly as it was. Even now, looking at the pieces written when I was little, if you were to ask me how much of it is true I couldn’t possibly tell you. All of it comes across as real, and then again it doesn’t.

Ishihara Nen: People’s Voices, Mother’s Song