January in Japan: ‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato, trans. Stephen Snyder

ConfessionsJapanese literature has more than its fair share of unsettling tales of dark motivation and devious revenge. This latest addition (new to English, at least – it was originally published in 2008 in Japan, where it became a bestseller and was turned into a film) is particularly horrific, since it deals with the teacher/pupil relationship and the psychology of thirteen year olds in middle school. When I was training to become a teacher, my fellow students and I only half-jokingly referred to the class of 13 year olds as ‘the monsters’. They were too old to believe anything that their teacher said, but too immature to have a clear understanding of the impact of their actions. They were also very vulnerable to peer pressure and herd instinct, something William Golding (himself a former teacher, like Kanae Minato) understood only too well and fully explored in ‘The Lord of the Flies’.

This is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the modern age, transposed to Japan and to the supposedly civilised and structured confines of a school.

The story starts with one of the most compelling chapters of 2nd person POV that I’ve read in a long time. Well, not quite 2nd person: it’s a teacher addressing a class on the last day of school, as she announces her retirement and the reasons for it. We find out quite a bit about Moriguchi sensei’s rather sad life: not able to fully pursue her passion for science, she moves into teaching for job security.  When her engagement ends in tragedy (she discovers her fiance has AIDS), she nevertheless goes ahead with her pregnancy and pours all of her love and devotion into her daughter. Life as a single mother is not easy, especially in Japan, and she occasionally has to bring her daughter to school with her because of lack of childcare. One day, when her daughter is on the school grounds, there appears to be a dreadful accident and she is found drowned in the pool. Moriguchi, however, calmly informs the class that she knows it was not an accident and that she believes two of the pupils in her class were to blame. She does not trust the criminal justice system to punish these minors, so she has devised a diabolical revenge plan of her own.

Each chapter that follows gives us an alternative point of view, including that of the two pupils, building layer upon layer of complexity. Although not all of the voices are equally compelling – and some voices are frustratingly missing – the book makes you question all your previous notions about guilt, revenge, innate evil and criminal intent.

This Russian dolls style of narration, stories nesting within stories, shifting points of view which make you wonder if there ever is a single correct interpretation of events, appears quite frequently in Japanese literature (think ‘Rashomon’).  It works well here, showing the profound repercussions of a single event – the tumbling of domino stones – and people’s inability to understand others, while fooling themselves that they do (or expecting them to react in certain ways). Neither adults nor children behave in admirable ways here and you cannot help but feel pity for each one of the protagonists. It has that feeling of ‘inescapable fate’ of Greek tragedy.

Perhaps too dark and crazy for readers who are not used to Japanese literature, its melodrama is toned down by a cool, detached, simple style. On the other hand, fans of crime fiction, horror and psychological thrillers will find it a compelling introduction to contemporary Japanese society.

I read this as part of Tony Malone’s wonderful initiative January in Japan. For more great links, reviews and readalongs, head over there.

 

 

My Percentage of Foreign Books

A recent flurry of Twitter exchanges made me realise that I’m a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to literature in translation. I’ve read 64 translated books (or in the original French or German) this year, which sounds like a lot. Until you realise that my grand total of all books read is 175, which makes it a proportion of 37%. If I manage to finish all the books I have planned for December as well, I will have read 65 foreign books out of a total of 182, which reduces the percentage even further to 36%. And even that’s from a rather narrow pool: mostly European countries (OK, make that predominantly French and German-speaking writers).

That may not seem too bad, but I am humbled by comparisons to some of my favourite book bloggers. Stu Jallen has read 126 translations out of 130, Tony Malone has 112 out of 120 titles in translation, Jacqui 67 out of 97. I have even less an excuse than most to NOT read foreign books, since I am based in a non-English speaking country. I have access to French and Swiss writers galore, plus so many translations into French from writers who are not easily available in English. I am not even a native English speaker… originally. Although my parents assure me that my Romanian has gone to pot since I moved abroad twenty years ago.

Percentages

So you know I joined the TBR Double Dare Challenge for the first 3 months of 2015 – or possibly longer, until I make some inroads into my toppling piles of books? I thought I’d take a quick sneak peek to see how the translated/foreign percentage fares over the next few months.

On my bookshelves I’ve got about 28 foreign books, plus 4 graphic novels (BD), and 23 in English (by which I mean, of course, also American or Australian or other writers who write in English). On my tablet it is the other way round – almost frighteningly so! 90 in English, 22 in translation. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that the numbers don’t quite match up with my previously stated totals, but that’s give or take a few piles or files that are temporarily misplaced. The result is the same: 50 out of 113 are foreign, which makes it 44%. Slightly better, I suppose.

I’ll have to be careful what I borrow from the library from now on… I’ve got Modiano and Daniel Pennac waiting in the wings (i.e. on my night-table). And, who knows, maybe I’ll get an aid parcel of books by Romanian writers from my parents and friends at some point? (That surely doesn’t count against the TBR double dare, if it’s someone else’s initiative?)

 

 

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’.

May Reading/ Halfway Through the Year

farfromtreeThis is a post to wrap up not only my reading for May, but also a half year’s worth of reading. I am happy to report that I’m just over halfway through my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books for 2014, so this might be a good point to take stock of which books have really astounded or delighted me thus far.

First, the May summary. It’s been a month of very diverse reading and 6 out of 15 have been foreign books.

3 Non-Fiction:

The brilliant ‘Far from the Tree‘ by Andrew Solomon, the puzzling ‘The Fly Trap‘ by Fredrik Sjoberg and the riotous memoir of the 70s and feminism by Michele Roberts ‘Paper Houses’. I have really found a kindred spirit in Michele Roberts and hugely admire her courage and sacrifices in order to focus so single-mindedly on her writing.

1 Poetry Collection:

Father Dirt‘ by Mihaela Moscaliuc – Hard-hitting and heart-breaking

5 Crime Fiction or Thriller:

ColdStealSpy thriller by Stella Rimington ‘The Geneva Trap‘, the short story anthology ‘In a Word, Murder’, ‘Cold Steal‘ by Quentin Bates, the domestic psychological drama of ‘All the Things You Are’ by Declan Hughes and the unputdownable ‘Cry Baby’ by David Jackson.

6 Other Genres:

Frothy satire of writing courses ‘Writing Is Easy‘ by Gert Loveday

Long-winded and ominous, but not as illuminating as a real Greek tragedy ‘The Secret History‘ by Donna Tartt

Satire that seems even more apt and sinister in the wake of the European elections ‘Er ist wieder da’ (Look Who’s Back) by Timur Vermes

Painful depiction of the breakdown of a toxic marriage ‘Une affaire conjugale‘ by Eliette Abecassis

A family saga of post-war Japan – a reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights for the modern world ‘A True Novel‘ by Minae Mizumura

A graphic novel with a rather similar theme of family secrets and growing up in post-war Japan ‘A Distant Neighbourhood’ by Jiro Taniguchi

CryBabyMy favourites this month? ‘Cry Baby’ in crime fiction, because I found it impossible to stop myself from reading it all the way to the end. A rarer quality than one might suppose, even in thrillers. This links to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted at Mysteries in Paradise.

And, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the stately pace and melancholy of ‘A True Novel’. [I am not including the non-fiction or poetry here, but they deserve a special mention, for they were all outstanding.]

Now for the half-year round-up. I’ve read 79 books this year (yeah, it’s been a slow couple of months at work, so I’ve had more time for reading). If I’ve added up all the numbers correctly, here is the balance of the year so far (some books fit in more than one category, so the totals won’t make sense).

Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.
Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.

8 books in French, 3 in German and 19 translations – so 38% of my reading has been foreign. Surprising result, I expected it to be much more! Curious to see if this changes by the end of the year. I’m very pleased I managed to stick to my plan of reading at least one book per month in French, though (since I am living in France and need to improve my French).

43 books have been of the crime fiction and thriller persuasion, so about 54% of my reading. This is less than last year, although I have continued reviewing crime for Crime Fiction Lover website. I have also read 5 poetry books, so about one a month, which is essential (and the absolute minimum) for a working poet. I have also read 9 non-fiction books (11%) – one of the highest proportions in a long while. So it would be fair to say that my reading has broadened this year, quite deliberately.

InvestigationAnd which books have truly captured my imagination thus far? I have liked, even loved quite a few of them. I was struck by the almost visceral power of ‘Mother Mother’ by Koren Zailckas and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’, fell under the spell of William McIlvanney’s prose and Mahmoud Darwish’s or Brenda Shaughnessy’s poetry. But the five books that really stayed with me are:

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation – neither crime nor prison saga, but a tale of the triumph of beauty over despair

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir la-haut – moving portrayal of the harshness of post-war society

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel – perhaps because this book encapsulates my love affair with Japan

Mihaela Moscaliuc’s debut poetry collection: Father Dirt – because it’s part of me and gives me power to explore more in my own poems

Andrew Solomon: Far from the Tree – a book that had me thinking and talking about it for days and weeks afterwards, which forever changed certain of my ideas