Book Reviews: Two Railway ‘Accidents’

By strange serendipity, the last two books I read both start out with a supposed railway accident, i.e. a mangled body on a railway line, but they then set off in diametrically opposed directions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them both.

Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder (1923)

I had read some of Freeman Wills Crofts’ crime stories, but I don’t think I’ve read any of his Inspector French novels reissued by the British Library Crime Classics. So when I found this little-known standalone crime novel in my local library, and discovered that it was partly set in South Africa, I wanted to give it a whirl.

The body of salesman Albert Smith is found mutilated in a railway tunnel near Groote Park in an imaginary South African town of Middeldorp about 1000 miles away from Cape Town. An open-and-shut case of an accident as he was crossing the railway line? But it turns out that he was not the most likeable of people, and what was he doing meeting someone late at night in a potting shed in the botanical gardens? This first part of the novel is a systematic police procedural, where we follow doggedly determined Inspector Vandam’s enquiries, assist in all of his interviews, and pretty much have access to all of his logical reasoning. However, the person who is finally put on trial, Stewart Crawley, a manager in the same company that Smith worked for, is not found guilty in the end, although his engagement to the boss’s daughter comes to an end because of the whole affair.

The second part of the book takes place in Scotland and after a gap of two years, which is somewhat unusual. Stewart Crawley has moved there in an attempt to rebuild his life. It’s not so much that his past comes haunting him, but that he actively seeks it, as he accidentally reunites with his former fiancee. This part of the novel is a bit more action-based, with some ‘against the clock’ races and personal peril, while the criminal is rather easy to spot (as is the way in which he planned the crime).

Probably not the best book by this author (although I haven’t read enough to compare), but it was a fun, quick read, a good palate cleanser perhaps between two rather more challenging reads (Bohumil Hrabal and David Peace), which both involved spending quite a claustrophobic amount of time in someone else’s head.

David Peace: Tokyo Redux (2021)

Bearing the remains of the victim in the so-called Shimoyama Incident.

This one too starts with a mutilated body on a railway line, except the victim is not an average little salesman, but Shimoyama, the Head of the National Railways of Japan, who went missing for a day or two in July 1949 before being found dead. This was a real case, and a notorious one in Japan. It was never resolved and has led to much ink being shed, as well as many political conspiracy theories arising, the equivalent of the JFK assassination in the US, or the Aldo Moro kidnapping in Italy.

This is the last volume in the rather loosely connected Tokyo trilogy by David Peace, and it took him far longer to write than the previous two, because there was so much material to sift through. The two detectives in his previous volumes, Minami from Tokyo Year Zero, and the ‘occult detective’ in Occupied City, make a reappearance in this book as well, and all three books are based on real cases that profoundly marked post-war Japanese society. In Tokyo Redux, the detective is an American Harry Sweeney from the occupying forces, so he has a bit of an outsider perspective – but he fails to resolve the case, and we only get an idea of what might have happened and who was to blame after reading Part Two (which takes place in 1964 as the city prepares for the Olympics, with a Japanese PI as the main character) and Part Three (1988/89, as Emperor Hirohito lies dying, featuring retired American scholar and translator Donald Reichenbach – hard not to associate him with Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, probably an amalgamation of the two).

David Peace’s ambitions are huge, he wants to portray an entire society at a time of tumultuous change, but also ask general questions about political influence and interference. What is the cost or value of an individual life against the needs (or vices) of an entire society? His style is quite idiosyncratic, and has been compared to James Ellroy, although the latter is more telegrammatic, while Peace is more rhythmically hypnotic. It all made sense to me when I heard him read his own work at the Quais du Polar in Lyon. He is writing something that resembles a prose poem, he is like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce on meth with their streams of consciousness technique. He is almost certainly a very Marmite type of author, and, even though I love him overall, even I can get a little fatigued by his style if I read too much of it in one day. At other times, however, I cannot get enough of it and simply allow myself to float away on the sounds. He uses a lot of onomapoeia, just like the Japanese (a culture he has immersed himself in over decades, and that he truly loves and understands, although he is modest about his reading skills). He doesn’t use speech marks, which I usually find pretentious and irritating (as well as confusing).

Here is the disenchanted Harry Sweeney meditating about life and death, questioning his purpose as a policeman in someone else’s country, on the banks of the Sumida River:

A yellow train was pulling out of the station, the yellow train crossing an iron bridge. The bridge across the river, a bridge to the other side. Going east, going north. Out of the city, away from the city. Men disappearing, men vanishing. In the city, from the city. On its streets, in its stations. Their names and their lives. Disappearing, vanishing. Starting afresh, starting again. A new name, a new life. A different name, a different life. Never going home, never coming back. The train disappearing, the train vanishing.

Harry Sweeney looked away from the bridge, stared back down at the river… so still and so black, so soft and so warm. Inviting and welcoming, tempting, so tempting. No more names and no more lives. Memories or visions, insects or specters. So tempting, very tempting. An end to it all, an end to it all. The pattern of the crime precedes the crime.

You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.

When Reading and Reviewing Leads to Reflection on Life Choices

I’ve just finished reading two superb books for #WITMonth, both of which I intend to review: Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance. Both of them discuss linguistic and ethnic identity, the possibility of bridging cultures, how to find a home (or not) in exile – whether voluntary or not. These are topics so close to my heart that I could not remain indifferent and they both got me thinking deeply about my own situation, past and present, and pondering about future decisions – where I might settle next. It doesn’t seem fair to include such personal musing within my reviews of those books (‘we’re not interested in your life story, Marina, just tell us what the bloody book is like, will you?’). In fact, it’s not fair to share all these personal details in a public format online (even if I am not a huge celebrity or have that many blog readers – which probably would be even more of a reason for me to remain quiet). So I will wrestle with the granular decisions and uncertainties mostly in my offline diary, but here are some higher-level thoughts which may be more universal.

Shepherd. Painting by Nicolae Grigorescu.

Illusory Freedom of Choice

I am very fortunate at present to have dual citizenship and therefore settle anywhere within the EU or the UK. However, for the longest time, the Romanian passport was an albatross around my neck. Therefore, I cannot help but think of all the people who have no choice about moving to a different country: they might not be able to get out of their country at all, very few countries might ‘accept’ them (after making the process of entering or settlement as complicated as possible), the information they might have about the relative safety of certain countries might be out of date and so on.

But there are other reasons why this ‘I’m choosing to start a new life in X’ is seldom a clear-cut decision for people.

First of all, countries change over time, as do your requirements. You may be fine in your twenties, living in London or New York, working shit jobs and living in inadequate accommodation, learning the ropes for a future splendid career. But when you have children and it’s time to move to the ‘suburbs’, you might prefer the safety of rule-bound societies like Switzerland or family-friendly policies like the Scandinavian countries. When you start feeling the creak in your knees and a twinge in your back, you may decide you need the warmth of the Mediterranean or Australia. It’s a little bit like moving houses over the course of a lifetime, but just much, much harder to do, because it usually involves lots of paperwork and learning of new languages and ways of doing things.

Secondly, in my experience, the choices are never quite as deliberate as we make them sound with the benefit of hindsight. We often ascribe patterns or purpose where there was mere serendipity, or where small steps and choices led us up a corridor we didn’t even know we wanted, and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face. How could we know at the time that our professional qualifications might be worthless in another country (or require many expensive years of re-qualifying)? Should we have picked our life partners by the worth of their passport – and what if that passport becomes worthless when political circumstances change? What to do if your pension is no longer recognised in other countries and you are never going to be able to achieve the minimum number of years required for somewhere else? What happens when the value of your house or your currency is not enough for you to afford something even halfway decent in another country? Worst of all, once children come along, you have only a limited number of years left for uprooting them, before it can seriously impact their education or their mental wellbeing, before they start formulating their own preferences and tying you down.

Nostalgia for Something Which Never Existed

Many immigrants and expats have a great nostalgia for the country they left behind – or the country that might have been… if poverty, war, nationalism, hateful ideology, corrupt politicians and so on hadn’t driven them away. As we grow older, we start remembering the butterflies fluttering across the meadows, picking cherries and peaches directly from the trees, the warmth of the sun as we lay in a haystack, the low mooing of cattle coming down from the mountains, grandmother’s apricot dumplings… Our senses tingle with all of these rich memories – and we forget that this is because we were children, and life was easier for us as children, even when it was hard. Our memories become selective and bring forth the sensual pleasures, while banishing any less than perfect images. In Mizumura’s novel, the protagonist craves a Taisho or Meiji Japan she has glimpsed in the literature she loves to read, but which hasn’t existed in that country for over a century. The very title of Gansel’s book ‘Translation as Transhumance’ conjures up my ancestors’ almost mythical occupation as shepherds (one of the most famous Romanian ballads Miorița is about three shepherds), which I will proudy proclaim at every opportunity. Yet I only visited my great-uncle’s flock once when I was a small child and thought the mountain hut smelled revolting.

Comfort, Friendship, Heritage?

Pragmatism and sentimentalism are at war within me as I try to decide, over the next two years, where I will go.

Remaining in the UK is probably the easiest option, now that I am so familiar with everything here and have established networks and connections, as well as pension rights and a house. But is it truly the comfortable choice, even if this absurd and corrupt government comes to an end within a few years. The curtain has been lifted on the dirty mechanisms and assumptions that lie below the magic of the stage, and I don’t know if I will ever recapture my entire love for the theatre again.

Perhaps I can forget that I never truly felt ‘at home’ in Romania while I was living there and return to a country that has changed so much since I left it in my early twenties. There are certain thirsty pockets within me that nothing but the Romanian landscape, language and literature (and food) can quench. Perhaps the happiness of my childhood there is less illusory than the nostalgia of my Viennese childhood. Who can afford a flat in Vienna, anyway? Plus, all of my childhood friends were so international that they have moved away from Vienna, even if we all love returning there from time to time.

As we approach old age, perhaps it’s friendships that nourish us most – and, oddly, the vast majority of my close friends seem to be divorced or single now. But when your friends are scattered all over the world, replacing the biological family and supporting each other becomes difficult. Nevertheless, I am fortunate once again in having two of my oldest friends both living in Berlin. Two friends that I can see myself growing old with, sharing stories, joys and burdens. A city I have often visited with delight, but which would be an entirely new adventure for me.

Berlin by night. From Strong Cities Network.

When you have no real sense of belonging, you have endless choices, or so it may seem. I remind myself that I am fortunate to have choices, but just how endless are they really? Will my choices be determined by my fragile parents, my children ready to fly the nest, my financial and legal position? And would I trade it all for a real sense of belonging?

If you want to read much more sophisticated musings on sense of belonging, then I really recommend the two books below, which I hope to review by next week.

An I-Novel: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/an-i-novel/9780231192132

Translation as Transhumance: https://www.lesfugitives.com/books/mireille-gansel-translation-as-transhumance

Friday Fun: Shady Spots in Gardens

It’s so lovely to see how many of my blog readers enjoy my Friday Fun posts – and even make suggestions for future topics. Like a DJ, I am always open to requests – and the excuse to go off and do some ‘research’. A couple of weeks ago, CA Lovegrove, who blogs at Calmgrove, asked about cloisters and gardens with shady walkways. So here are some inspirational gardens that I hope fit the bill…

Aberglasney in Wales has a walled garden rather than a cloister, but you can walk below the arches, I believe. From Aberglasney.org
Cloister in Sorrento hosts weddings, in case you’re looking for a romantic backdrop, from fondazionesorrento.com
The Japanese version is more of a narrow corridor or gallery that can open up, a bit like my grandmother’s porch, but going all the way round even the smalleest garden. From Pinterest.
Cloister of Saint Salvi in Albi, France, from Office de Tourisme Albi.
A dreamy, shady walkway at Petworth House, from Country Life.
The Spanish/Moorish design is so beautiful, although this particular one is in the US, from Garden Design.
I’ll end with another Japanese beauty – in honour of the Olympic Games. This one is in Kyoto. From Japanesekoigardens.com

#6Degrees of Separation July 2021

Hurray, it’s time for another monthly Six Degrees of Separation journey! Hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, you start at the same place as other imaginative readers around the world, add six books that link in various ways with each other, and see where you end up.

This month’s starting point is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, a book for grammar and punctuation fiends. As a former English teacher, you can imagine that this is a subject dear to my heart and I can be quite severe about it. But at the same time I don’t want to discourage young people from writing, which is why my first link is Kate Clanchy, who is also a teacher, one of the most inspiring kind. Her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me is so compassionate and humane, all about approaching children with love, patience and poetry, and demonstrates that education can indeed change lives.

You’re going to laugh at my next link (and I’ve probably used it before) but I loved school as a child and dreamt of going to a boarding school like the Chalet School. (Since I grew up in Vienna, the setting didn’t seem at all far-fetched to me.) The first book in the series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer that I came across at the school library was The Princess of the Chalet School, which had a double resonance for me, since Princess Elisaveta was from a small Balkan state (as well as the Austrian school setting), so I completely identified with her. (Never mind the ‘royal’ part!)

I really do not like royalty or monarchies as a form of government in general: an antiquated concept that has no place in the modern world. But I will stick to it for my next link, because it is about the Meiji Emperor of Japan, who was the ruler at the time of the opening of Japan to foreign powers and the extremely rapid modernisation that followed. Donald Keene is an eminent scholar of Japanese history and literature, and his biography Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912 is probably the only exhaustive study on this topic that we have in the English language.

Keene was so devoted to Japan that he moved there after the tsunami in 2011 and became a Japanese citizen. He was also a prolific translator of Japanese literature, both classical and modern pieces. One of my favourites is The Narrow Road to the Deep North/Oku (Oku no Hosomichi), the travel journal of haiku poet Bashō from 1689.

These kind of poetic travel journals are like catnip to me – both for the places they describe and the insights they give you into the mind of a talented and observant creator. Rebecca West‘s travel journal Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is far less interior meditation and far more a description of a particular time and place (Yugoslavia in 1937, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two), but it is very interesting for all that – although MUCH longer than Bashō’s.

The final link is via ovine creatures – from lambs to sheep. Famously, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was the basis for the film Blade Runner (a loose adaptation which has rather overshadowed the book). There really is an electric sheep in the book, but what the main protagonist aspires to is a living animal as a pet for his wife to help with her depression.

We have once more travelled all around the world this month: from Britain to the Austrian Alps, from Japan to Yugoslavia, and finally to a dystopian San Francisco of the future (not so futuristic nowadays, since the adjusted date was 2021, I believe). Where will your six links take you?

#6Degrees of Separation June 2021

This is possibly my favourite monthly link-up, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A book is chosen as a starting point and all you have to do is link it to six other books to form a chain. You can make it harder on yourself by giving yourself a theme, or try to turn the chain into a circle, or you can just roam wildly, like I do!

This month we start with a book that I haven’t read, nor do I know much about it (always a tricky starting point). The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld won the Stella Prize and has been described as ‘a complex and unsettling story set in the east of Scotland, near the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and moves between three time frames and three women’ by an Amazon reviewer.

I love to eat fish, so I instantly thought of ‘seabass’ when I saw that title. Another book with a species of fish in the title is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, a rather whimsical love story and gently satirical novel, poking fun at politics, civil servants and international relations. It was a huge hit, translated into many languages and adapted for screen. Although the author followed it up with six more novels, that were supposedly well received, I have never heard of the others, so to me he feels like a one-hit wonder.

Another author whose debut novel was hugely successful and adapted for film – but who was a true one-hit wonder (i.e. hasn’t written anything since) is Arthur Golden with his Memoirs of a Geisha. I personally found the book rather shallow – full of description and details, very much designed to titillate a Western audience, but the characters were paper-thin.

There are some similar elements of soap opera, but considerably more subtlety in the portrayal of geishas in Higuchi Ichiyo‘s work, particularly in Takekurabe, a story of adolescents growing up in the Red Light District and realising that it is not that easy to escape what life has in store for them.

Take in Japanese usually means bamboo and one of the oldest Japanese stories, almost a folk tale, is Taketori Monogatari – The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The bamboo cutter and his wife find Kaguya-hime, a princess from the Moon, as a tiny baby inside a bamboo stalk. This story has been made into an anime (under the name of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) by Studio Ghibli.

For my next choice, I go with a book that has also been adapted into a Studio Ghibli anime, namely Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. There are quite a few significant differences between the book and the film (beautifully described in this blog), the most annoying one being that Wales simply disappears. Maybe Miyazaki felt that Japanese move-goers wouldn’t know where Wales was?

For my last link I choose a novel with the word ‘castle’ in the title. Although I hesitated a little about whether I should put down Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, that one feels a little too wholesome, so in the end I could not resist going with one of my favourite authors Shirley Jackson and her wonderfully creepy We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Once more we have travelled the world – from Scotland to Yemen, Japan to the magical kingdom of Ingary (and Wales), and finally a far too small town in Vermont. Where will your Six Degrees take you?

How to Befriend a Language: Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds

Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021.

As soon as I heard about this book, I was pretty sure I was going to love it – and it has certainly not disappointed me! It is a book about the encounter with a foreign language and culture, so it feels like an anthropological study (which, as you know, I love). Like any modern and honest anthropological study, it also reveals things about the ‘participant observer’. And, above all, it is about Japan, which was the country that delighted, puzzled, intrigued and infuriated me at roughly the same age that Polly Barton went there to teach English and started learning Japanese. But I am finding it really hard to review, without simply piling on one quote after another, exclaiming ‘That’s exactly how I felt too!’ and urging you to read it.

I’d already read several of Polly Barton’s translations of Japanese women writers and attended a Borderless Book Club in which she talked about the translation of Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, so I knew she was both thoughtful and fearless as a reader and translator. This certainly carries through to this book, with very candid (but purposeful) descriptions of her personal life at the time. What I did not know was that she originally studied philosophy and had a passion for Wittgenstein, but, looking back now, Wittgenstein is exactly what I had in mind even before I started reading this. In my own student days, I used to proudly cite Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, claiming that the world around me does not exist if I cannot find the words to describe it.

What a monumental ego I must have had then! In some ways, Barton’s book is all about reducing that ego down to size. It certainly describes all the emotions and fears that I went through, although I was seldom that honest with even myself, let alone with others.

The concept behind the book is simple yet extremely effective: it’s a love story. How Polly Barton fell in love with the Japanese language (initially through falling in love with a Japanese man), told via fifty Japanese onomatopoeia and mimetics which describe various moments or states of mind during this journey. Like any love story, the journey is not straightforward and there are moments of confusion, misery and near-hatred (as well as enchantment, pride and euphoria). It is very personal ‘felt experience’, as the author tells us from the very start, unscientific and ‘unashamedly subjective’. Yet to this reader, who had a very similar experience with Japan and its language, it feels like she touches upon true universals of language-learning:

‘…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’

Onomatopoeia are much more widely used in Japan than anywhere else, both verbally and in writing, and are not considered childish. I have selected a few of the ‘sounds’ which spoke to me most, and how the author interprets them (I should add that her ‘translations’ of the onomatoepia are quite loose, and more linked to what she wants to narrate or describe, rather than the generally accepted meaning, so I’m adding the dictionary meaning next to it).

Nobi nobi = the sound of space (to feel relaxed, to be at ease)

The initial stages of being immersed in a foreign culture are all about that sense of ‘freedom from the known’. Although Barton recognises that it can be problematic to see the country you are moving to as ‘a blank canvas for your personal growth’, she also admits that she felt a real sense of liberation from judgement, from the constructs and obligations that we have absorbed together with our mothertongue. A chance to reinvent oneself, to start afresh.

Mecha kucha = the sound of a truly mixed tool-bag (disorderly, chaotic, higgledy-piggledy)

This refers to the mixed, often hostile reaction of Anglophones to the way that Japanese have imported (and misused) English words into their language. Although in theory Barton understood that you couldn’t just assume that other languages have the same associations with the words as you do, it was a difficult journey to acceptance and she often felt like a fraud, some kind of linguistic tyrant, waving the flag of multiculturalism, while the inner brat was fuming:

It transpired that it required a considerable largeness of spirit to accept the way that these imported words were wielded with little consideration for their original usage and belonged to an entirely different web of associations to those they had in English… Nobody understood you , or had any interest in understanding you.

Koro koro = the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor (small round object rolling or tumbling)

This was one of the most relatable sections. Polly Barton starts by saying she no longer believes that there is only one correct translation of anything, that it’s all about the context and our own familiarity with it. There is no simple direct equivalent for every word from French, for example, into English. This raises the question of those who are bilingual or trilingual – if each language perceives reality differently, are we actually slightly different people when we speak different languages? Are we being too chameleonic, are we losing our authenticity if we do that, or as the author puts it, are we ‘spineless and unfaithful’? I know that I speak with a higher pitch and act more cute in Japanese, gesticulate more and use a deeper voice when I speak Romanian, am both naughtier (with swear words) and more thoughtful in German, sound more grown-up in French. Unlike Polly Barton, I never consciously examined these differences or worried about them, but it certainly drew an ‘aha’ of recognition from me.

The author, photo credit: Michael Troy Judd, from Japan Times

Mote mote = the sound of being a small-town movie star (sexy, popular, well-liked)

The author notes that almost every Western person going to Japan (who is visually identifiable as non-Japanese), especially in a rural setting, is gawped at and admired, although ultimately they keep you at arm’s length. You have to learn not to let it go to your head.

As Japan holds you up, tells you how adorable, glamorous, exotic, unprecedented you are, it is also telling you even as it reaches towards you.. that you are unreachable. It needs you to be unreachable. It needs you to be on the outside. It requires your alienation in order to better admire you…

This is even more so the case in China (where people ask to take selfies with you on the street, especially if you are blonde or have blue or green eyes). However, the Japan I encountered as a Romanian was quite different: there was a decided sniff of superiority, of making you aware that you were far inferior (and I can imagine that is the case for black people too). Well-disguised under multiple layers of politeness, but still perceptible. For me, it seems that the Japanese want to keep themselves unreachable, safely on the inside.

There is a certain ambivalence to how the Japanese feel about the Anglophone (especially American) foreigners, which goes right back to the 19th century (the threatening Black Ships of Commodore Perry) and of course the post-war American occupation, and later in the book Polly speaks almost enviously of the white male Anglophone privilege of the anime lovers turned Japan experts. Perhaps the only people who can feel truly at home in Japan are those who remain blissfully unaware of this ambivalence, who are so secure in their self-confidence and self-belief that another culture cannot shake them or make them feel rejected.

Uda uda = the sound of the wild bore (going on and on, talking nonsense, idling away time)

This was another very funny and self-deprecating section, describing how the author felt when she returned to the UK and started finding the division between Japan and the rest of her life harder to maintain, eventually losing ‘the ability to converse about anything that didn’t relate to Japan’. I’m sure that all of us who have lived abroad for a long time have experienced this when ‘returning home’ and have been disappointed that those who stayed home are not really interested in our tales of adventure in foreign lands.

I knew that people around me didn’t have any particular interest in what for them was just one far-away country of many… I could hear in my head how ridiculous my voice sounded as it began every sentence: “In Japan”… I felt that somewhere along the way I’d lost my right to have an opinion because I was now so badly informed about things back home… I wasn’t the bridge between cultures of which everyone blithely spoke; I was someone bobbing helplessly on the sea… there are still times when I worry that my conversation is like a radio stuck on a single channel: that not only am I a one-trick pony of a person, but my trick is an obscure one which confounds rather than delights.

I’ll stop here, for fear that I will just copy out the entire book. I think you can tell how much I loved it! There is so much food for thought here, not just for anyone who has ever lived abroad, or tried to learn a foreign language. It is such a rich, nuanced look at creating and recreating your personal identity, trying to fit in and learning to live with difference. It is funny, clever, creative and an utter delight!

As an extra bonus, I’d like to include a link to a magazine Monkey featuring two stories by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton.

#WITMonth: The Pine Islands

Marion Poschmann: The Pine Islands, transl. Jen Calleja

On paper, this book seemed to have all the right ingredients to be much loved by me. A man – washed-up part-time researcher on beards Gilbert Silvester – has a midlife crisis, suspects his wife is cheating on him and decides to go to Japan to find himself. He embarks upon a road trip (a train trip) with a suicidal Japanese sidekick, following in the footsteps of haiku master Basho Matsuo and his travelogue Narrow Road to the Deep North. In actual fact, I thought this was a mongrel that was neither one clear thing nor another, and had no vivacity or charm of its own to make up for that.

It started off reasonably promisingly with the well-trodden but still potentially gripping ‘confused in Tokyo’ stance:

How had he ended up in this city without the slightest effort? What did he want to do here? … He was, he suddenly put it to himself, very far from everything that had ever been familiar to him. He had taken himself off into the unknown, into this most unfamiliar of environments, and the eerie feeling he was experiencing stemmed from the fact that this environment didn’t seem eerie in the slightest, simply functional, somewhat pretentious and somewhat sterile.

This confusion does not last long and does not stop Gilbert from becoming what the Germans call a Besserwisser (who knows everything better than you), an expert in Japanese culture, who presumes to lecture his travel companion, the improbably named Yosa Tamagotchi. Never mind the fact that Yosa is a native of Japan but barely speaks any English and therefore does not have much of a chance to explain himself.

Although Gilbert claims to be watching over Yosa to prevent him committing suicide, he actually takes him on a whistlestop tour of popular suicide spots and is equally obsessed with reaching Matsushima Bay, that scenic spot full of pine-tree clad islands, which seems to be catnip to suicidal Japanese. He even loses Yosa along the way, because he is too absorbed and smug about the haikus he produces at each stop in the journey, in imitation of Basho. Of course, he now counts himself among those who have imbibed all the subtlety of Japanese culture.

The traveller to Matsushima were lunatics, moon-stuck, eccentric. They composed their own sacred legends, everything was worthless to them apart from poetry, and for them poetry stood for the spirit’s path to nothingness. They were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty, the fleeting beauty of blossom, the ambiguous beauty of moonlight, the hazy beauty of the secluded landscape.

The Pine Islands at Matsushima.

I tried to be generous and think of this book as a philosophical and metaphorical journey. Could the young, diffident Japanese man with the barely there beard be his Doppelgänger? A loser in Japanese society, Yosa is the perfect foil to Gilbert, who is pretty much a loser in his own society (and certainly when compared to his professionally far more successful, no-nonsense wife). By finding someone weaker than himself, someone he can hector and lecture to his heart’s content, Gilbert manages to recover from his midlife crisis. I’m not sure his wife was too impressed with the letters he sent her, though.

There are some lyrical passages and poetic descriptions, but do we really need a longish paragraph listing all of the different types of pine trees? What irked me above all was that the insight into Japanese society feels superficial, like the main protagonist has swallowed the guidebook and then regurgitated it. But that might be the author, who appears to pick on the most obvious Orientalist othering type of observations, while claiming a deeper understanding. If this was intended to be a parody of Eat Pray Love with a middle-aged male protagonist (which would have been a promising premise), then it’s just not funny enough.

I don’t think reading it in German would have made much of a difference – the translator seems to have done her best. So a bit of a disappointment and somewhat surprising that it made it onto the shortlist of the International Booker Prize.

Last Book Splurge, 2018

It’s not as bad as it looks, because some of these books are from the library (the thickest ones). I am clearly hoping for a quiet Christmas holiday period, with lots of reading. But I have to admit that I’ve also been tempted to spend more than usual on books this month, because in January my self-imposed book ban kicks in.

Christmas presents for the boys:

The full set – maybe something for the future.

They love manga and graphic novels, but I’m trying to get them to broaden their tastes, so I bought The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and one volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s monumnetal History of Showa Japan (the Second World War). That’s because my older son is quite keen on history. Keeping the Japanese theme going (given my own background and the fact that we are planning a trip to Japan in 2021), a beautifully illustrated volume entitled How to Live Japanese by Yutaka Yazawa. Another passion that unites us all is the love for our cat, Zoe, and the little book Test Your Cat should provide hours of entertainment. Two further books – the first ones I bought for them before I became a little too indulgent – are Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe for the future engineer, and Inventing Ourselves. The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah=Jayne Blakemore for the argumentative future lawyer. Last but not least – although not strictly speaking a book – I also bought some sheet music for my older son, who’s recently started playing the keyboard: The Very Best of John Williams (a compromise between the classical music I like and the stuff that would be too complicated for him to play).

Christmas presents for myself:

I’ve renewed my subscription for another year with the Asymptote Book Club, as I get so much out of it, even when I sometimes struggle to keep up with the reading (it shouldn’t be the case, it’s only one book a month, right?). So the Christmas delivery is finally a book from Africa (come on, publishers, do translate more from that continent!). The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga is going to be an emotional read, I can foresee, based on the author’s mother’s story of trying to save children during the genocide in Rwanda.

On my last day at work I also finally made a trip to the nearby Persephone Bookshop, that so many of you have praised to the skies (or warned me about, depending on your level of concern for my financial health). I came away with 4 books that I wrapped up and gave to myself as Christmas presents. No one ever gives me books as a present because: a) I allegedly have too many already; b) I’ve read everything already; c) they don’t know what I like. To which my answers are: a) I can always squeeze in a few more and regularly give away to charity; b) no; c) pretty much omnivorous.

So my Persephone choices were:

Noel Streatfield: Saplings – simply because I grew up with Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up and White Boots and loved all the brave and talented young girls in her books. I know this is one for adults, but it’s about children suffering as a result of evacuation during the war.

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Whipple, the last novel she wrote, an author warmly recommended by the likes of Ali Hope , Jacqui and Simon Thomas. Plus, it’s about adultery and the breakdown of a marriage, a subject I feel rather an expert in!

Elisabeth De Waal: The Exiles Return – Edmund De Waal’s mother was born in Vienna and grew up there until they had to flee in the 1930s. She never got a chance to return, but in this novel her protagonists return from exile. Can you ever fit back into a place that pushed you out?

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – written in the 1920s but still surprisingly relevant today, about the frustration of stay at home mothers, and the challenges (and satisfaction) of role reversals among parents.

Little Bits Inspired by Twitter:

Uwe Johnson: Jahrestage (Anniversaries)

Readers whose opinions I respect were just going on and on about the recently translated 4 volume masterpiece and I’m such a herd animal that I had to check it out for myself. I found a second-hand Suhrkamp box-set edition dating from 1988 on a German bookshop website and ordered it. It may not be pretty, but it was affordable and should keep me busy for the next several years!

Fernando Sdrigotti: Shitstorm

I’ve been following Argentinian writer and editor of online literary journal Minor Literatures for a while now on Twitter. This novelette is about a wealthy nobody who goes viral when he slays a protected lion on the plains of Africa (remind you of any recent story?). Described as a sharp and perceptive chronicle dissecting the murky waters of viral news.

Katya Apekina: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

I think this one might have been mentioned on one of those ‘under the radar’ books of 2018. It sounds like a pretty hard-hitting story: two young girls who are sent to live with their estranged father after their mother’s suicide attempt. Besides, I’m always fascinated by people who write in languages other than their mothertongue (same applies for Sdrigotti, above).

Penelope Skinner: Linda

I saw this performed in November and discovered that there is a script published by Faber and Faber.

Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus

I’ve read Hazzard’s satire about the United Nations bureaucracy in People in Glass Houses and her look at Anglo expat life in Italy in The Bay of Noon. She has a great eye for human foibles, but above all such stylish and precise sentences! She was mentioned in The Paris Review’s annual round-up of favourite reads and I realised that I’d quite like to read her book about two Australian sisters coming to live in England.

Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt (Soutine’s Last Journey)

When I wrote about seeing a Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld roughly a year ago, one of my blogger friends Shigekuni (aka Marcel Imhoff) drew my attention to this novel about the last few weeks of Soutine’s life, as he goes back to occupied Paris in 1943 for a potentially life-saving operation. On the way, in a morphine-induced haze, he remembers his childhood and life in exile.

From the Library:

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Would you be shocked to hear that I’ve never read any of C.J. Sansom’s historical fiction? I read Dominion, his alternate take on post-war Britain as a satellite state of Nazi Germany (and was not that fond of it). However, so many people whose opinion I respect have raved about his most recent novel Tombland and just generally about the Shardlake series, that I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and for the Pulitzer Prize in the US. But mostly because it’s about a foreigner attending college in the US and trying to adapt to another culture. I cannot resist those ‘intercultural dialogues and misunderstandings’ themes. In the meantime, 180 pages in I realised that most of it was so dull that it didn’t make up for the few flashes of insight. So I abandoned it.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Simmering resentments and darkness, atmospheric, and the story of friendships knitted in the late 1960s – a good companion piece, perhaps to Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind. I’ll read the two of them together.

I hardly dare to add up the total number of unread books lurking on my shelves, chests of drawers, bedside tables, in artistic piles on the floor etc. Suffice it to say that I think I might have a book to see me through every single day of 2019! So let’s get cracking!

Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Far East

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I wish I could say I had a large selection of Chinese, Korean and other literature, but who am I kidding? My main contact with the ‘Orient’ has been via Japan. I’ve tried to stay away from my obvious favourite fiction, however, like Dazai Osamu or Genji Monogatari or Mishima Yukio. None of those are obscure enough…

Charles A. Moore (ed.): The Japanese Mind

I was rather smitten with this when I first started studying Japanese, but in the meantime I’ve recognised it for what it is: another brick in the wall of the myth of Japanese uniqueness. This – in a simplistic nutshell – is the propensity for both Western and Japanese historians, anthropologists, literary critics, philosophers and social scientists to claim that Japanese culture is so different from anything else that it is impossible for anyone outside Japan to truly understand it (or make any valid critical study of it). The words ‘enigmatic’ and ‘paradoxical’ appear so many times throughout this book. While I agree that Japan can seem quite alien to those who have grown up in the Western canon, there are so many Korean and Chinese influences, Buddhist influences and similarities of Shintoism to other pagan religions. Besides, can it not be said of any culture that it is quite unique (especially in the way it mixes and matches and borrows from others)?

This is not the cover page of the edition I have, because that one is white and does not come out well against the background.

Fujiwara Teika (ed.): Hyakunin Isshu – transl. and annotated by Iulia Waniek

A Hundred Poets with One Poem Each (the literal translation of the title) is a Japanese anthology of poetry from the early 13th century. Many of the poems, however, are much older, going back to the 7th century, and the reason why we still have them today is thanks to Fujiwara’s tireless enthusiasm in collecting them. It remains to this day one of the most popular poetry  books in Japan – there is even a New Year’s card game based on intimate knowledge of the poems. The edition I own has each poem in Japanese plus translation, and a bit of commentary/history alongside each one. The poems were translated into Romanian by my former sensei at university, a talented Japanologist and now a good friend. For those of you who are not fluent in Romanian – really, how can you NOT be? – you can read the poems in English, with lovely illustrations and explanations on this site.

Theatre performance

Ruxandra Marginean Kohno: The Creative Tradition of Nō Theatre

I can’t resist boasting about another of my talented friends – a former classmate at university, who went on to complete her Ph.D. on the Nō Theatre in Japan, at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Proving, once and for all, that Japanese culture can be understood and interpreted in a fascinating way by a Western scholar. The author goes beyond the ‘obvious suspect’ which is Zeami (one of the greatest actors and creators of Nō), looking especially at ways in which this type of theatre has been adapted and modernised following the massive cultural changes of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan opened up to the Western world. Ruxandra has a special affinity with theatre, since both of her parents are actors, and she effortlessly weaves in references to Eric Hobsbawm, Umberto Eco, Foucault and Gadamer. This is a revised, bilingual version of her Ph.D. thesis (Japanese/Romanian), published in Romania in 2009.

 

 

Sarah Moss: Signs for Lost Children

Actually, I wanted to read the latest book by Sarah Moss The Tidal Zone, but my local library did not have it. Then I thought her non-fiction book about living in Iceland might be of interest, or her book about the clash between motherhood and an academic career Night Waking. But guess what? They didn’t have those either, so I picked up Signs for Lost Children instead, looked at the blurb and thought: pioneering women in medicine? Meiji Japan? hmmm, intriguing topics…

That’s what is so amazing about Sarah Moss: every single one of her books is very different and yet each one sounds fascinating in its own right. There are far too few writers nowadays who can surprise without disappointing you from book to book.

signsforlostchildrenSigns for Lost Children is a gendered history of discovery. Tom and Ally, the newly married couple at the start of the book, discover new worlds, both outside and within the relatively narrow confines of Victorian society. They also go on intense personal journeys, are forever changed and may not find their way back to one another. Just a few weeks after getting married, Tom sets off to a rapidly modernising Japan to build lighthouses, while Ally stays behind in Cornwall to work in a women’s asylum.

At first the scrupulously alternating chapters between his voice and her voice, Japan and England, felt somewhat belaboured, especially since there was a bit of time lag between them (the time it takes for a letter to travel between the two countries by ship, perhaps). Later on, I began to appreciate the parallel structure: it was like watching a tree grow into two separate trunks, yawning apart.

The chapters on Japan were, of course, a delight for anyone who has ever visited Japan, but had a lot to say about British Empire as well (or present-day expats in exotic locations). The observations about Western blindness to Japanese nuance and traditions are spot-on, and the firm insistence that the Japanese should adapt themselves to Western standards, for example, that their chefs should cook English meals (which they slaughter mercilessly) is very funny.

Mrs Senhouse apologises again for the dinner. It is so hard to explain to Japanese servants what is required.

Tom sets down his fork. The food indeed requires apology. ‘Perhaps a Japanese cook would be more competent in preparing Japanese food?’

She wrinkles her nose. ‘It is the slimy things one cannot abide. Rice, of course, and clear soup, but I cannot expect Mr Senhouse to do a day’s work on such pauper food.

He thinks of the jinrikisha men, and the men who carried stones up the rocks for the lighthouses, and the men on the mountain farms.

Senhouse is also giving up on what is probably tinned ham cooked in salty brown sauce with some inexplicably gluey vegetable admixture. ‘The Japanese constitution is a mystery.’

Tom himself starts out dreading the tea ceremony and ends up appreciating it, even bringing it back with him to England. Of course, this is Meiji Japan we are talking about, the period when Japan opened up to the rest of the world after several centuries of isolation. They caught up with Western technology remarkably quickly, to the point where they started producing fake traditional goods for the Western visitors to take home as souvenirs.

Meanwhile, Ally begins to suspect that the women who are locked up in the Truro asylum are driven mad by their family life, and find more respite in the hospital itself, despite the harsh conditions there and the unsympathetic nurses.

… if all the women in here who speak of indecent things, who recount endlessly obscene acts and unnatural couplings, are speaking from unhappy experience, then their madness may be perfectly reasonable. May be the inevitable response of a healthy mind to things that should not happen. And if that is the case, then the primary problem is not so much with the minds of some women as with the acts of some men. Older men, almost invariably. Men with power.

Ally herself is susceptible to the anxieties which haunt these women. Growing up with a kindly but absent father focused too much on his own artistic career, a mother who shows more concern and sympathy for the general ills of the world than her own daughter and a sister who committed suicide, she experienced her own nervous breakdown early on. Nevertheless, she pushed herself to find her way as a female doctor in a world which is not quite ready for them yet, where even the most kindly friends and relatives do not understand her need to be working with mad people.

Author photo from Granta Books website.
Author photo from Granta Books website.

But will Tom understand her when he returns from Japan? Long-distance relationships are never easy, but in that particular time and place it must have been harder still. The author steers clear of both the saccharine and the bitter in describing the reunion. Will they each, separately or jointly, find that ‘place of healing and hope for the future as well as a distaste for the past’, which Ally is trying to create for her ‘lunatic’ women? The proto-feminist storyline blends seamlessly with the cross-cultural dimension: ultimately, it’s all about keeping an open mind, being curious and forgiving about others.

An elegant novel, with understated prose which nevertheless burns lyrically intense at times. I will certainly be reading more of Sarah Moss … if ever I can find her. (And isn’t that a beautiful cover?)