#WITMonth – Japanese short stories

This is one of my favourite times of year in terms of reading challenges, namely the wonderful Women in Translation Month created and championed by the ebullient force of nature which is Meytal Radzinski (aka as Biblibio on Twitter). I’m not always good at matching August to translated women writers, but I do try to read a good proportion of them throughout the year.

This month, courtesy of the slim volumes of short stories/novellas published by Strangers Press, a University of East Anglia publishing venture, I have discovered three new Japanese women authors.

Misumi Kubo: Mikumari (transl. Polly Barton)

A bit of a scandalous subject this: the story of a high school student (under age), who meets a married cosplayer Anzu, more than ten years his senior at a comic convention in Tokyo and embarks upon an intense affair, which at once thrills and disgusts him. During the summer, the boy is working as a lifeguard at the pool and gets to spend time with his classmate and more appropriate crush, Nana. As he tries to distance himself from Anzu, he realizes that desires are never straightforward and not always as pleasant as we like to think they are.

There is a matter-of-fact description of sex in all its wet, glistening, slippery glory and repulsiveness which I have only ever found in Japanese authors. None of the sentimental rosy-cheeked intoxication with our own words which you might find in Romance languages, nor the timid self-consciousness so prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature. The subject matter is deliberately designed to shock, and yet the narrator is no stranger to women’s bodies and all the bodily fluids: his mother is a midwife who works from home and he often helps out with the births. By the end of this brief story, he begins to realize something about himself and about the continuity of life, although it might take a while until he comes to term with the unbreakable mix of purity and dirt which lies in all of us. The sentence which really stuck out in my mind was:

…it seemed unbelievable that water so clear could be connected with the filthy river flowing near our house.

This has all the shock factor, darkness and yet underlying tenderness of Natsuo Kirino.

Nao-Cola Yamazaki: Friendship for Grown-Ups (transl. Polly Barton)

There are three loosely linked stories in this volume, connected more through the names of the characters than through any storyline. There is an odd, timeless tale of human development called ‘A Genealogy’. A (still) young woman named Kandagawa tries to recapture a moment in her past with her former lover on the site of their former apartment in ‘The Untouchable Apartment’. A relatively new author Terumi Yano dithers between her art and love, when she attracts the attention of a young music scholar at an author event. There is a wonderful sense of confusion and yearning about each of these stories, that hesitation about which path to take, that mourning about ‘what ifs’, that need to justify one’s decisions a posteriori, which will sound very familiar to women in their thirties. A delicate, melancholy description of the life of Japanese women reminiscent of Fumiko Enchi.

Aoko Matsuda: The Girl Who Is Getting Married (transl. Angus Turvill)

This was perhaps my favourite of the three: a very strange story which feels like an Escher woodcut. Just when you think you’ve grasped it, the point of view is all changed, turned upside down and you question everything you know.

An unnamed narrator visits her friend, the girl who is getting married. As she climbs up the stairs to the fifth floor, where the girl who is getting married lives, she recalls fragments of their life together and their friendship. But each account differs: they met when they were children, they met at secondary school or at work, on the train or at a cookery school. As the story shifts like quicksand under our feet, we understand more and more about the deepest needs and constraints of the narrator and we begin to question just whose eyes we are looking through. There is an almost obsessive repetition of the expression ‘the girl who is getting married’ (there are no names at all in this story) – and in the original Japanese it is even more emphatic: ‘moo sugu kekkon suru onna’ – the woman who is getting married imminently/very soon. Why does that sound so threatening? Whose fears are being projected here? The very plain, unadorned, clear prose belies the surrealism of the scene, where any interpretation is possible (and most likely wrong). There is a hint of Haruki Murakami’s short stories here.

Japanese Women Writers: Fumiko Enchi ‘The Waiting Years’

The-Waiting-YearsFumiko Enchi was a very interesting and iconoclastic woman writer in 1950s-1970s Japan. Her background was quite conventional for the time and place. She was the daughter of a distinguished scholar and was mostly home-schooled. She had some early success as a playwright, married a journalist, had children. Her health, however, had always been frail and it deteriorated during the Second World War, round about the time she lost all of her property in air raids. There are speculations that her domestic life was not entirely happy (certainly in her novels there are a lot of oppressed, unhappy or revengeful women). Perhaps all of this put together enabled Enchi to abandon all caution and become one of the most verbal and realistic writers about the plight of women in a patriarchal society.

This is a book I read in August but left too late to review for ‘Women in Translation’ month. However, in my opinion, ‘Women in Translation’ works equally well all year round! ‘The Waiting Years’ could also have been included in my post about bad marriages, as it’s the very grim and sad story of a Japanese wife at the turn of the 20th century. Tomo Shirakawa is the wife of an ambitious government official who has been tasked to find:

‘… a maid  to take back with me. Aged somewhere between fifteen and, say, seventeen or eighteen. From a respectable family, if possible… but she must be good-looking.’

In other words, a concubine. Tomo is still in love with her womanising husband, but she feels she has no choice but to accept his request to have a live-in mistress. She was born in a low-ranking samurai family, was married off early and had no proper education or social accomplishments, but ‘all the love and wisdom of which she was capable were devoted to the daily lives of her husband and the rest of the Shirakawa family.’ So she finds Suga, brings her home, has to endure her husband’s infatuation with her. Then, a few years later, her husband demands a second concubine and eventually even starts an affair with his daughter-in-law. Under this domestic tyrant, the women in the house have to find a way to accommodate each other, to hide their feelings, not to let the simmering resentments explode. None of them feel they have a choice and the wife’s story is not the only sad one. In fact, over time, Tomo – who has maintained an amazing self-control and stiff upper lip throughout-  begins to feel that the other women are to be pitied rather than envied or resented.

Written over a period of eight years, this novel covers 30-40 years of marriage during one of the most dramatic periods of modernisation and Westernisation in Japanese history. Yet those dramatic external changes do not seem to impact family life as much as one might hope. The author uses a telescopic effect in her narrative: leaping over years, even a decade, between chapter, but then stopping to examine the minutiae of daily life, the barely perceptible gestures and nuanced conversations, where more is left unsaid rather than said.

Unafraid to explore the need for sensuality in the older woman, or sexual manipulation as a weapon of the downtrodden, Enchi is a brave author who continues to feel very modern. This book was a reread – but I’d previously read it when I was 19 and unmarried, so it is with very different eyes that I return to it now. The translator is John Bester – who also translated Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji, one of my favourite Japanese books about the WW2 –   and my copy is a Kodansha International edition from 1980 (bought second-hand). Two other books by Enchi have been translated into English: the bizarre tale of female manipulation and revenge ‘Masks’ and an alternative version of an eleventh century historical romance ‘A Tale of False Fortunes’.

Audition by Murakami Ryū

MurakamiRyuMurakami Ryū (who is sometimes unkindly called ‘the lesser-known Murakami writer from Japan’) was actually the first Murakami to achieve fame with his 1976 novel of disaffected youth ‘Amost Transparent Blue’. [By comparison, Murakami Haruki’s achieved national recognition with ‘Norwegian Wood’ – not his debut – in 1987.] He has continued with this exploration of the excessive materialism of Japanese society and its increasing indebtedness to Western (mainly American) culture in virtually all of his subsequent novels. His very pessimistic view of contemporary society leads all of his characters to feel like outsiders, alienated, baffled and often resorting to extreme sexual or violent behaviour.

After reading some of his previous novels, I considered Murakami Ryū to be the merciless sociologist and realist of his time and his country, while the other Murakami (whom I also like) chronicles more personal, nearly surrealist journeys. Yet this novel, ‘Audition’, feels much lighter and more personal. It also feels very much like a novel of two parts: the satire of celebrity culture and wannabe film stars in the first half, and then the story of falling in love, obsession and horror in the second half. Sometimes the two parts just don’t seem to mesh, although the author does drop heavy hints throughout that the story is not going to end well.

Aoyama is a moderately successful documentary film-maker, a widower approaching middle age, who lives in moderate contentment with his teenage son Shige. One day his son suggests he should remarry, and his streetwise, rather bullying friend Yoshikawa suggests they should organise an audition for wannabe actresses to star in a film they never intend to produce. Simply so that they can find the most beautiful and suitable wife for Aoyama. There was a lot I liked in this part of the book: some social commentary on the cult of celebrity, sharp satire about casting couches and a rather touching father/son relationship after the death of a loved one. But none of it was explored any further in the rush to get to the ‘exciting’ part.

MurakamicoverInitially reluctant to go along with this dubious venture, Aoyama finds himself hopelessly attracted to the letter of one of the applicants, the winsome Asami, who had to give up her dreams of becoming a ballerina due to an injury. The book then shifts gears and we are in the more familiar territory of shock and horror. Against the advice of his family and friends, Aoyama plunges into a love affair with the gorgeous young woman… who is, of course, not quite as sweet and wholesome as she seems. This second part of the book was great in its build-up but then reached the finale a bit too quickly for my taste. Or perhaps I prefer my horror to be implied rather than explicitly shown.

I have heard that the film version resolves some of these quibbles, and that Murakami himself (who is also a film-maker) thought the film version was almost an improvement on the book. Personally, I thought that Asami had no depth as a character. The childhood abuse motivation was almost sidelined and in many ways she was a typical product of male fantasy: the demure angel of the house who turns into a devil in bed. The manga-type cover of the edition I read only strengthened this perception.

In conclusion, I’d say for those who read Murakami Ryū for the shock factor (and he is a master at piling on the sex and gore) it will feel like there is not quite enough of it until the very end. Meanwhile, for those like me who prefer the rather downbeat social commentator, this book feels too lightweight.

I am linking this to Tony’s wonderful reading initiative January in Japan. For more (or better) Japanese reads, see what Tony and his other friends recommend.

 

January in Japan: Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

January in JapanInspired by Bellezza’s Japanese literature challenge and Tony’s January month of J-Lit wonders, I have pledged to read more Japanese literature throughout 2014.  I kicked off with Natsuo Kirino, who impressed me so much with her novel of low-wage drudgery and desperation ‘Out’.

However, although the lives of the four women working at a bento factory seemed grim and cheerless, that novel was saved by a certain degree of empathy that we could feel for the protagonists. ‘Grotesque’ is more challenging in that respect, because the characters are uniformly unlikable.

This has been advertised as a crime novel, but crime fiction lovers will barely recognise it as such. It follows none of the conventions of the genre, although it certainly shows a bleak outlook on life as a Japanese woman, so perhaps it could be called a noir of sorts. The novel is structured in eight parts and features four narrators, all equally unreliable. The comparison with Kurosawa’s Rashomon is perhaps inevitable, and, just like in the film, there are no clear answers as to whose account of events is to be trusted or whether the truth will ever be fully known.

The story revolves around the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo less than a year apart. There is not much focus, however, on finding out who killed them. The murderer, a Chinese labourer called Zhang, has already been arrested and is about to go on trial. He has confessed to killing Yuriko but denies killing Kazue. There is a bit of a mystery about what happened to Kazue, but the main focus of the story is why these two women, who had attended an elite secondary school in Tokyo and seemed destined for promising futures, would end up as the lowliest of prostitutes on the streets of Shibuya.

grotesque (1)The unnamed main narrator also attended the same school as the murdered women. In fact, she is a classmate of classmate of Kazue and the older sister of the glamorous Yuriko. Yuriko and her sister are ‘halfs’, i.e. the product of a mixed marriage. Their father is a Swiss importer of cheap sweets, their mother a Japanese who felt compelled to pander to her husband’s desire for a Polish sauerkraut specialty called bigos, although she hated making it. Yuriko was blessed with almost eerily good looks, but her sister is average at best. Sibling rivalry is a factor in this disturbing psychological study of envy and bitterness, but it is about much more than that. The snobbishness and bullying at the girls’ school and the excessive competitiveness of the Japanese educational system are described with an immediacy which made my stomach turn. The scene with the hand-embroidered Ralph Lauren logo on the socks will stick in my mind for a long time.

While the book offers no explanation for the women’s descent into prostitution, there are numerous chilling descriptions of discrimination against women both in the workplace, as well as the callousness of relationships between men and women (not only the predilection of Japanese men, as the author shows us by introducing a number of domineering and ruthless foreign male characters). The women in the novel have resorted to manipulating their bodies, men and each other in an effort to regain control over their lives, in an effort to become or at least feel important and real. 

Natsuo-KirinoThe results are perhaps too painful and grotesque for this reader to sympathise with: I could feel only horrified pity, rather like watching a Greek tragedy or a traffic accident unfold. Yet the author has a deliberately unemphatic style of cold, factual description. Even the graphic scenes of violence or sex do not display colourful fireworks, but instead hint at the profound bitterness of human emotion.  This makes the story perhaps even more devastating, and I can see why her ‘flat’ style has been described as feminist noir. It is difficult to make judgements about her style, however, based on translations, especially when much of her novel has been edited and cut for the purposes of Western consumption (and to allow it to be marketed as crime fiction). For a detailed discussion of the problems of translation, I found this thesis by a student at the University of Oslo truly enlightening.

So, all in all, a bleak novel, with very little hope or humour to redeem it, but a fascinating insight into the darkness beneath the picture-book prettiness of Japan. I would recommend reading it when you have a very strong stomach and/or nerves.

This Is Called: Planning Ahead

TokyoLightsOr maybe it should be called Trying to Bring Some Order to the Madness. With all of these inspiring end of year book lists, I just keep adding and adding to my TBR pile. More frighteningly, I keep adding to my purchases for both the physical and the virtual bookshelves, which will make next year’s challenge of reading them all soooo much harder.

Still, I am trying to combine the 3 main challenges I have set myself: I am buying or have already bought lots of German and Japanese books. So here are some of the delights currently waiting patiently for me or flying on wings of Christmas joy towards me:

Japanese Fiction

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X

Ryu Murakami: Audition

Natsuo Kirino: Grotesque

Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore

Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief

Fumiko Enchi: The Waiting Years

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel

TokyoLights4I miss those days when I would be able to read Japanese novels in the original. [Although always with a Kanji dictionary to hand. I remember our colleagues studying English, French, Italian or Spanish at university would laugh at us for having to use a dictionary to read even the shortest novel.] I now have to rely on translations and there are very few available, even of the classics. I miss my collection of Kawabata, Mishima, Dazai Osamu etc.  They are all safely boxed up in an attic in the Thames Valley. Maybe rereading them could be my challenge for 2016 or whenever we move back to the UK?

German Challenge

Stefan Zweig: Meisternovellen

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten

Irena Brezna: Die undankbare Fremde

Edda Ziegler: Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben

Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time

TokyoLights3I also have a few crime novels in the mix. I’ll be rereading Jakob Arjouni and hope to read his last novel ‘Brother Kemal’, published posthumously this year.  I also want to explore the writer Sebastian Fitzek, who writes breathtaking psychological thrillers, and is beginning to make a name for himself beyond the German-speaking world.

I would love to ask for more suggestions, but am afraid that I might succumb to temptation… The Calvinist spirit of self-denial does not enter my soul when it comes to books (or desserts).

Instead, I will ask if you have read any of the Japanese or German writers on my list and what you think of them. And, if you haven’t, maybe you want to join me in the challenge and we can discuss them together?

TokyoLights2Just to put you in the mood for Japan and its literature, I have included some pictures of the Christmas/New Year lights in Tokyo.