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…

There Are Bored Foreign Teenagers Too!

I recently came across this feature in The Guardian about bored teenagers in literature as selected by John Patrick McHugh – and really liked many of the titles listed, some of which deserve to be better known. However, we come up against this problem over and over again in the Anglo-Saxon world: very little awareness of literature that is not written in English.

Much as I love the ‘Write Around the World’ literary travels with Richard E. Grant currently showing on BBC4, and much as I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia Highsmith to have only two foreign writers out of seven in both the episode on Italy and the one on the South of France feels rather… provincial. My blogger friend Emma in France is always puzzled why there is such reluctance to read books in translation in the Anglocentric world and has a Translation Tragedy category on her blog. (This applies also to English books that haven’t been translated into French, but more often books in other languages that haven’t been translated into English).

Anyway, back to stroppy teenagers (a subject which has somewhat incensed me this week, I have to admit). There are so many superb books about teenagers in world literature – and a few of those have made it into the English-speaking world too. So here is my correction to that Guardian list. Quite a few of these titles also fit into the #WITMonth project, if you are looking for inspiration.

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse, transl. Heather Lloyd, Penguin Modern Classics

The quintessential story of a bored wealthy teenager who cannot resist manipulating all the people around her, especially the women who seem to be gravitating around her father. Written when the author was still in her teens herself, this short book scandalised French society at the time (1950s) and led to a life of success and excess for Sagan. (This would also have fit in perfectly with the Write Around Episode set in France and has had a Hollywood adaptation).

Jean Seberg giving the evil eye to David Niven and Deborah Kerr in the 1958 film directed by Otto Preminger.

Trifonia Melibenia Obono: La Bastarda, transl. Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press at CUNY

The teenage protagonist here is anything but privileged: Okomo is an orphan, raised by her grandmother in Equatorial Guinea. She longs to find her father and in doing so gets involved with the illicit gay subculture in her country, which she finds far more welcoming than her own mainstream culture. It is also the first novel from that country to be translated into English.

Faiza Guene: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, transl. Sarah Adams, Harvest Original/Harcourt.

Again, a marked contrast to the genteel, wealthy French teen described by Sagan: this is the France of the banlieue, those ghetto-like suburbs of Paris. The heroine Doria is determined to prove that not all that comes out of these estates is crime and rap although all the odds seem stacked against her: her father has abandoned the family, her mother has to do cleaning jobs to make ends meet, the boy she loves doesn’t seem to notice her, and she has just about had enough of school…

Janne Teller: Nothing, transl. Martin Aitken, Strident Publishing.

Denmark may often be touted as the happiest country in the world, but for Pierre Anthon, the teenager at the heart of this book, it is most certainly not the case. One day, he has an existential crisis ‘he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant anything anyway’ and climbs up a tree. Nothing that his classmates say or do can convince him to come down again. Philosophy is clearly important to Scandinavian teenagers (remember ‘Sophie’s World’ by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder), and this is a very interesting attempt to counteract teen nihilism.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis, Jonathan Cape (no named translator!)

At the start of this autobiographical graphic novel, the authors is a child, but in the subsequent volumes she grows up and describes both her daily life in Iran in a time of Islamic revolution and war with Iraq, as well as her difficulties in adapting to life in exile.

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, transl. Jamie McKendrick, Penguin Modern Classics

A will-they, won’t-they teenage love story set in 1930s Italy, when the anti-semitic laws introduced by Mussolini means that the young narrator of the story is kicked out of the local tennis club in Ferrara and is invited to play tennis in the private garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis. Elegy for a lost world, with the author telling us early on in the book that the glamorous family he so admired were deported and killed in concentration camps during the war.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick, transl. as ‘Why We Took the Car’ by Tim Mohr, Scholastic

Mike and Tschick are two German teenage boys – or rather, Tschick is the nickname of a Russian immigrant boy, whose surname is too complicated for anyone to even attempt to pronounce. They feel like outsiders, never get invited to any of the cool parties and during the summer holidays, they take an ancient Lada for a spin and end up making a road trip out of it.

Tschick has also been adapted for film as ‘Goodbye, Berlin’ directed by Fatih Akin.

Makoto Shinkai: Your Name, Yen Press.

This YA novel was released around the same time as the animated film directed by Shinkai, describing two teenagers, a boy and a girl, bored of their daily routines in the city and the countryside respectively, who end up switching bodies periodically. They communicate through notes and text messages on their phones, but when the boy makes an attempt to visit the girl in the countryside, he discovers that her village has been obliterated by a falling comet.

Tsugumi Oba & Takeshi Obata: Death Note, Shonen Jump.

I cannot avoid mentioning Death Note when I talk about Japanese teenagers: this is a very different kettle of fish than the romantic and sweet Your Name. It is a manga that became an hugely successful anime series and a (somewhat less superlative) film. It’s the story of cocky teenager Light Yagami who finds a mysterious, dark notebook, which confers the ability upon the owner to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. And so Light becomes a vigilante, initially planning to create a more just world by killing all criminals, until the power goes to his head…

Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, transl. Christopher Moncrieff & Christopher Bartholomew, Istros Books.

Mircea Eliade became a revered (although controversial) professor of world religions, but this is a fairly autobiographical novel that he wrote as a teen and never published in his lifetime. Although it takes place in Bucharest a hundred years ago, it is a universal story of the monumental egoism but also lack of confidence, search for identity and everyday failure of teenagers everywhere. Although there are shades of the insufferable Holden Caulfield here, this book doesn’t try too hard to be clever. The strength of the book lies in precisely those passages where the narrator unwittingly reveals all of his adolescent naiveté and doubts which are both funny and touching.

I could have made a much longer list, but the original had ten, so these ten will do for starters. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent French novella that we published at Corylus Books Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy, transl. Graham Roberts, in which we spend some rather tense time with disaffected teenagers in a run-down school and a French literature class. A guest author is visiting, the ineffectual teacher is ogling at her much to the amusement of his pupils, and then the school enters lockdown because of a potential terrorist attack…

Very good timing to talk about teenagers in literature: wishing you success to all the UK students getting their GCSE results today!

#WITMonth: No Heaven This… Mieko Kawakami

My tour of depressing and untouristy locations continues with middle-school Japan in Mieko Kawakami’s merciless yet somehow endearing Heaven, which is also my 14th book in the #20BooksofSummer reading (I might still hit the target!).

Mieko Kawakami: Heaven, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd.

After the full immersion in the female perspective in Breasts and Eggs, this shorter and earlier novel by Kawakami takes us into the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. The unnamed narrator is horrifically bullied at his school, probably because of his lazy eye, but does not dare to let any of the adults in his life know. The teachers don’t seem to want to have their eyes opened for fear of the school’s reputation suffering, while the boy believes his parents would blame him or think less of him for acquiescing to the bullying. (Incidentally, bullying is indeed a major problem in Japanese schools, and has led to many suicides or self-harming incidents. The love of conformity in Japanese society means that anyone who is a little different becomes a possible target.)

Be warned: some of the bullying scenes are extremely brutal, verging on the unbearable, although they are never voyeuristic or gratuitous. What makes it even more shocking is the almost throwaway descriptions of these scenes, which have become part of the daily routine. The ringleader Ninomiya is the good-looking golden boy who breezes through his schoolwork as well as athletics. His teachers cannot keep up with him, so no one ever believes he could be so vicious. Besides, he and his gang are careful to cover their tracks: they punch and kick without leaving visible marks, or enjoy the power of forcing humiliating rituals upon the narrator.

When we are told about the somewhat enigmatic new boy, Momose, who joined the class after elementary school and who is almost equally as beautiful and gifted as Ninomiya but much more nonchalant about things, we readers are tempted to hope and believe that he will become an ally. But this is not an American high school story of converting the wicked or finding redemption. Momose proves to be even more chilling. He does not enjoy the bullying or get a kick out of it, but he refuses to feel any concern or guilt about it. When the narrator tries to confront him, saying that he doesn’t have the right to hurt him or any other human being, this is what Momose says (I am collating several relevant passages into one quote, because this is a scene that continues over quite a few pages):

Well, first of, when you said that we’re the same, you were way off. See for yourself. I’m not cross-eyed, and I’m not you. You are cross-eyed, and you’re not me.

Second, that thing you just said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else… Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to do.

There’s no reason it has to be you. It could have been anyone. But you happened to be there, and we happened to all be in a certain mood, so things went the way they did.

I don’t care if things are so bad that you can’t sleep. That’s got nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Your problems have never crossed my mind… Don’t try and tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings.

Given these kind of reactions, it’s not surprising that the narrator at first doesn’t quite dare to believe in the timid hand of friendship being extended to him by Kojima, a girl in the class who is also being bullied for being dirty and smelly (her nickname is ‘Hazmat’). They write each other messages and meet in person outside school, bonding over their common suffering, but never really discussing it in detail. Instead, they try to bring a little bit of joy in their lives – and even manage a day trip to a museum during the summer holidays, where Kojima describes her favourite bit of escapism, a painting she calls ‘Heaven’. The description of this burgeoning friendship is delicately done, with a lot of sympathy for youthful awkwardness, but this is no saccharine love story.

When school starts again, things go back to the unbearable and dysfunctional normal. Just as you start to fume as a reader about their passivity, you realise that Kojima deliberately chooses to appear poverty-stricken and dirty, because it creates a bond with her father, whom her mother abandoned to marry a rich man. While the narrator is often ashamed that he allows the bullying to continue, Kojima turns the negative into a positive. She has created an entire ideology about their suffering, a martyrdom mentality that is oddly reminiscent of early Christianity:

That’s not why we let them do this… It’s not because we’re weak. We’re not just following orders or whatever… We know exactly what’s going on. We see it and we let it happen. I don’t think that’s weakness at all. It’s more like strength.

Kawakami is so good at capturing the voices of her youthful protagonists, making them urgent and compelling, that at first you completely buy into this desperate attempt to explain and justify what is happening to them. Yet, towards the end of the book, things take an ominous turn. The narrator discovers that his eye problem could be corrected with a relatively simple and cheap surgical procedure, but when he tells Kojima, she is profoundly disappointed in him for ‘abandoning’ their principles and what she perceives to be their just cause:

Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere… The weak always go through this… Because the strong never go away. That’s why you want to pretend to be like them, isn’t it? You want to join them.

A very different cover for the hardback – which of the two do you prefer?

This is a nuanced and at times unexpected exploration of bullying, of moral strength and weakness. There is the secondary issue about missing or self-absorbed parents. The narrator’s father is largely absent (and a bit of a selfish patriarch when he is around). Although his stepmother is the only one who seems to listen to him, his relationship with her is stilted, as if he resents her own passivity in front of his father. He wonders what his own mother (who died when he was very young, and from whom he has inherited the strabism) would have been like. Meanwhile, Kojima cannot forgive her mother for the way she disdains her former husband, Kojima’s father. It is easy to see that, although the subject of the book is bullying in school, it could easily be extrapolated to the adult world.

One striking feature of the story is how it changes stylistically. In the beginning, the language is very plain and declarative: simple sentences, describing routine actions in a detached, matter-of-fact style. The author keeps reverting back to this style when she describes the more extreme behaviours of the classmates or the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, as if to make those scenes more bearable through the restrained choice of words. When the friendship blossoms between the young people and they start writing longer notes to each other, the style grows more descriptive, at times lyrical, at times painfully graphic, coltish just like the adolescents themselves. Finally, towards the end of the book, the language becomes much more impassioned, with the narrator engaging in a constant interior monologue (or imaginary dialogue with those around him), and his surroundings (the weather, the park) are coloured by his emotions.

There are glimmers of hope and beauty in this stifling world, and the book ends on a determined upbeat note.

Everything was beautiful. At the end of the street, a street I had walked down more times than I could count, I saw the other side for the first time, glowing white, I understood it. Through my tears, I saw the world come into focus. The world had depth now.. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, fighting to see it all…

But is the narrator’s determination justified, or is he doomed to be disappointed once more? The book ends on an ambiguous, and absolutely perfect final sentence.

This is a less ambitious and therefore much more coherent and well-structured story than Breasts and Eggs, but what is clear from reading two of her books so far (and hoping that there will be more of them to come in translation) is that Kawakami is an author to watch, who can move effortlessly between registers and styles, and develop convincing characters of all ages and genders.

Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.