#20Books of Summer: An Entertaining Start

 Kōtarō Isaka: Bullet Train, transl. Sam Malissa

Former assassin Kimura embarks upon the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka (one of the longest direct lines in Japan, over 670 km) with a personal mission of revenge: he wants to shoot schoolboy Satoshi, who bullied his son and made him fall off the rooftop of a building, putting him into a coma in hospital. But the train is full of other paid gangsters, who all seem to be after a suitcase full of money and trying to avoid getting punished by the man mobster boss who hired them. Nanao is the unluckiest criminal in the world, and all too aware of it. Meanwhile, Tangerine and Lemon operate as a pair, look like twins, but are in fact very different, with Tangerine reading serious Russian novels, while Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. When things go wrong, they all have to readjust their plans and end up stalking each other.

The plot is utterly ludicrous and the black comedy is over the top, and you can’t help feeling that the book has been written with an eye firmly on a film adaptation (which, sure enough, the filming for an American action thriller based on the book has just wrapped, starring Brad Pitt and creating a few more feminine roles, which the book sadly lacks). At first, I struggled with the translation, which felt too ‘American’, but then I realised that the Japanese original is probably quite Americanised too, heavily influenced by American film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. Not forgetting, of course, the Thomas the Tank Engine animated series. For those familiar with Japanese popular culture, however, there are also references to the yakuza and to Naoki Urasawa’s manga (later turned into an anime series) Monster, with the angelic-looking teenage master criminal.

With its fast pace and constant switching of points of view, plus a few unexpected twists, this is sheer entertainment, if you don’t examine the far-fetched plot too closely. Perfect for a train ride!

John Boyne: The Echo Chamber

The Cleverleys are privileged and self-obsessed media addicts: George is an Alan Partridge kind of TV chat show host, who has interviewed everyone who is anyone, consider himself a ‘national treasure’ and is angling for a peerage. His wife Beverley writes soppy, predictable bodice-rippers – or rather, she provides the ‘ideas’ and gets ghostwriters to actually write them. Their three children are all still living at home. Nelson (named after Mandela) suffers from social anxiety and only feels slightly more comfortable if he is wearing a uniform. The daughter Elizabeth is an internet troll but dreams of becoming a media influencer. The youngest, Achilles, is still a schoolboy and uses his good looks to seduce and then blackmail older men.

Through this thoroughly unlikable family, there is a lot of satirising of our obsession with media, but Boyne also takes swipes at ‘wokeness’ and ‘anti-wokeness’, implicit and explicit racism, gender identities, fake news and fake outrage, engaging in charity purely as a way to increase your public profile, media pile-ons and cancel culture… and the Ukrainian outlaw and folk hero Ustym Karmaliuk, believe it or not (who is the name of a tortoise consigned into Beverley’s care).

It is all quite hilarious, although the humour is more farce than subtle. It made me snort with laughter a few times, but about halfway in, it starts to feel like a joke that has gone on for too long. Or perhaps the author is trying to hit too many targets at once with his satire, so it ends up looking and sounding like a long Twitter rant or op-ed. Many of the jokes rely on repetition to be funny, and this also gets monotonous (and predictable) after a while. Still, it’s a quick, fun beach read, a great antidote to checking your social media accounts.

In addition to the two above, which were on my planned list of most recent Netgalley reads, I also read an additional (non-list) book with the same sort of dark humour.

Benoit Philippon: Mamie Luger

This French book features an unpredictable 104-year-old woman who is arrested by the police for trying to shoot her neighbour with a Luger dating from the Second World War. In actual fact, she was creating a diversion, to enable a young couple to escape by stealing the neighbour’s car. However, the frail old lady is by no means a saint, as the police inspector discovers while interviewing her. In fact, she turns out to be a serial killer, with a number of corpses buried in her cellar. Of course, she had perfectly good reasons for murdering each of those men, and is not at all filled with remorse. A rollicking feminist yarn, although at times it descends into stereotypical characters or predictable and repetitive situations.

None of the books above are memorable, but they certainly put me in the holiday mood and proved a welcome distraction at a time when work is very, very demanding.

Journey Under the Midnight Sun for #TranslationThurs

Keigo Higashino has emerged as a Japanese crime writer to whom Western audiences seem able to relate. That could be both a good and a bad thing. It means there are enough twists and moments of suspense to meet Western expectations of crime fiction, with perhaps less of the ‘coldness’ that readers often remark in Japanese fiction (which I think often has something to do with the translation and lack of context). On the other hand, it could mean that the writer is making too many concessions to appeal to someone outside their culture.

This is certainly not the case here. After the comparatively short (300 or so pages) psychological thrillers such as The Devotion of Suspect X, Malice or Salvation of a Saint, all of which seem to take place over a matter of a few days/weeks and be tightly focused on a small cast of characters, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is a sprawling epic 530 page door-stopper with a massive cast of characters over a 20+ year time frame. No concessions are made at all to the non-Japanese reader – despite the best efforts of the translator, some of the events and cultural subtleties might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with Japan to follow.

The middle-aged owner of a pawnshop in 1970s Osaka is found murdered on an abandoned building site. Detective Sasagaki discovers some promising leads, but it all ultimately leads to nothing and 20 years later he is still unable to find the perpetrator or make any arrests. In the meantime, the son of the murder victim and the daughter of the main suspect (whose guilt was never proved) grow up, move away and we see how other people wander in and out of their lives, and how that murder still has repercussions many years later.

Not quite the site, but similar in atmosphere, Abandoned Sumitomo Osaka Cement Factory, from Abandoned Kansai.

It took me a while to get into the story, and not because of the similar-sounding Japanese names (a common complaint amongst reviewers, which is a bit like saying that all Asian people look the same – in Kanji they would all be quite different and have very varied meanings). It took three days to cover the first three chapters because I couldn’t spot any connections, it somehow didn’t click – but then, when it did, when I started to suspect what was going on (a bit of it but not everything) it took me just a night to finish the rest. As you become immersed in the world Higashino creates, as you start to sympathise with the secondary characters and hope that they won’t come to harm (the author has no compulsion about preserving any of his narrators, so you never know who is going to have what fate, which adds to the sense of suspense), you just can’t stop reading. A fresco of Japanese life from 1973 to about 1992, the book can be read on many levels: enough twists and turns to satisfy a crime fiction addict, but also plenty of social commentary, psychological insight, and subtle, sly asides. It’s a crime novel that breaks all the rules – we begin to know the perpetrators quite early on, we read to see what they can get away with, yet there is always more to uncover. There is depth of pain and sadness here which is conveyed with a light touch, not at all belaboured. Yes, it’s long, but I found it quite riveting and all the details add to the carefully crafted puzzle and characterization.

I really enjoyed this – and would love to hear what someone who is not a Japan aficionado makes of it. Oh, and why the title? It comes from this quote:

We all know how sun rises and sets at a certain time each day. In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it’s not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole life. When people talk about being afraid, what they’re afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade, that’s why they are frightened.