Category Archives: Japan
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.
We start our journey in Asia …
- India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
- Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
- China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.
Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America …
- Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.
And now we’re en route to Africa …
- South Africa: I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
- Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.
And finally we land in Europe …
- Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
- Hungary: Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
- France: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’, had its dark side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
- Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’ Food and Italy are inseparable which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
|How are your reading travels going?
If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.
Enigmatic, frustrating, lyrical is how I can best describe Snow Country, a novel considered a classic of Japanese literature and one that was an influential factor in the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature for the author Yasunari Kawabata.
Snow Country is a short, rather bleak tale of a love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy intellectual from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha. They meet in a remote hot spring town which men visit individually or in groups and pay for female companionship. Shimamura, who considers himself an expert on Western ballet though he has never actually seen a performance, leaves his wife and children behind in the city to travel to the mountainside town in the depths of winter. He is looking for a reunion with Komako whom he met the previous year but when you see them together you know deep down this is a love affair that cannot possibly result in happiness.
Shimamura is a strangely detached character. It doesn’t seem to concern him that he has left family behind while he takes a holiday and forms a relationship with someone much younger than himself. Though he is clearly enamoured with the girl he is also rather distant from her. He watches her constantly, noting her change of colouring whenever she comes to him drunk on the sake she is required to drink at parties and noting what she wears, how she sits etc. He acts more like a distant observer than an ardent lover. What does he really feel for Komako? We seldom get inside his head to find out the truth. The closest we get is in a passage towards the end of the novel:
He had stayed so long that one might wonder whether he had forgotten his wife and children. He stayed not because he could not leave Komako nor because he did not want to. He had simply fallen into the habit of waiting for those frequent visits. And the more continuous the assault became, the more he began to wonder what was lacking in him, what kept him from living as completely…All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls. And he knew he could not go on pampering himself forever.
If he is frustrating, she is even more so.
Beautiful and innocent Komako is constrained by the conventions surrounding the role of a geisha but with a passionate nature that refuses to be subsumed. It breaks out in behaviour that changes direction every few minutes. She cannot be apart from him for long, climbing through his window, hiding in the closet to avoid the hotel staff to be with him. Yet when she is with him she constantly talks about the need for her to go home. She’s had relationships before yet is curiously not touched by them – one lover who wanted to marry her dies during Shimamura’s visit but Komako cannot bring herself to visit his grave. Another, much older man, wants to marry her but she’s unsure how she feels about this. In short she’s the kind of woman who would drive you crazy with her vacillations yet drive you crazy with desire.
She seems a strange match for Shimamura. When they do spend time together there is little conversation of any depth since she lacks the intellectual rigour that sustains him. She talks extensively about novels and magazines but he notes that she “was quite indiscriminate and had little understanding of literature. … Her manner was as though she were talking of a distant foreign language. There was sometime said in it. something rather suggested a beggar who has lost all desire.” And yet Komako is not without intelligence and fierce determination, she has taught herself to play the samisen (a three-stringed, Japanese musical instrument) and memorising the tune.
Kawabata is an impressionistic writer, a master at conveying imagery and mood. He makes Shimamura his window on the world, noting the effect of snow on the trees and mountainside and how a woman’s face is reflected in the train window. Despite the detail, the world described feels more mythical than real, symbolised by the train journey Shimamura takes to reach the town and the tunnel he must pass through in order to reach the mountain town. The novel consequently takes on a dream like quality:
In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world.
An odd novel then, not one which easily lends itself to description but nevertheless quite mesmeric to read.
The Book: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata was published in 1956.
The Author: Kawabata started writing short stories and contributing them to magazines while he was still in university. He began to to achieve recognition with a number of short stories shortly after he graduated. It was Snow Country, his third novel, that cemented his reputation as the writer of spare, lyrical and subtle prose. Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, the first Japanese person to receive the honour. He died in 1972 apparently by his own hand but the reason for this action is unclear since he left no note.
My edition: Published by Penguin as part of their modern classics series. It has just 121 pages. Translation is by Edward G Seidensticker.
Why I read this: I was hoping to read more for the Japanese literature week but never got around to doing more than just buying a few books by authors I had not read previously. This was one of them. I read it now as part of my participation in the Chutes and Ladders ‘challenge’ being run by The Readers Room – click this link for more details.
I’m always on the look out for writers outside the tradition of the western literary canon. So this article from Signature e-magazine was a welcome change from the usual fare of promotions – there is still a long way to go before literature in translation becomes part of our stable diet unfortunately.
The columnist Kate Schatz has found 10 women writers she thinks deserve more attention because they “have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature.” These are women she believes whose work show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.
The 10 come from Iran, Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan Italy and Great Britain. I’m not convinced that Elena Ferrante needs any more exposure and Helen Oyeyemi surely doesn’t need an introduction? But there are certainly names on this list that are unfamiliar to me even if you all know them well.
Shahrnush Parsipur from Iran appeals, not because her novels weave use fantasy (not one of my favourite genres) but because she has been imprisoned for her writing. Reading her books is one form of protest I can make against her treatment.
The other writer who is calling to me is Doris Pilkington Garimara, an indigenous writer from Australia whose 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds a remarkable story about a real-life episode in the country’s history – a government-sanctioned removal of mixed-race children from their families. This isn’t something from ancient history but occurred in the 20th century remarkably. I’ve been promising Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums that I would read more authors from their parts of the world. So this could be my chance (not promising it will happen any time soon though).
I also have a few names on my own list of authors I want to explore. This includes Dalene Matthee from South Africa whose novel Fiela’s Child which deals with ethnic acceptance I enjoyed last year. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from India who won the Booker prize in 1975 with Heat and Dust which I didn’t rate very highly but I wonder if that was really her best novel? And then of course there are my latest finds (Ok, I know I am late to this party) of Yoko Ogawa whose novella The Housekeeper and the Professor and Amelie Nothomb, who wrote Fear and Trembling gave me some of the most interesting reading this year.
I could go on….and on…. and on with names but don’t want to overwhelm you but just take a look at some of the recommendations from the bloggers in several countries that have done guest posts about literature from their country.More than enough for you to get your teeth into.
A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
I’m not a great fan of ‘must read’ book lists. They either make you feel smug that you’ve read most of the titles or inadequate when you discover you’ve not even heard of most of those authors. Those few words “must read” get my back up also for another reason: they make me feel like I’m being given a medication prescription for some nasty cough medicine instead of having a door opened to what could be a wonderful experience.
But there are some lists which make me sit up and pay attention. Often they are lists where the selection is made by authors themselves rather than publishers or critics. Or they are lists that introduce me to writers from parts of the world outside my own. I use these lists to find titles I can consider for my world of literature project.
Two articles published recently have ticked both of these boxes.
In the first, David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and more recently Bone Clocks) who is a fan of Japanese literature recommended 5 books by Japanese authors. I was expecting Haruki Murakami to feature in the list but in fact Mitchell has chosen a few lesser known authors. “They are books I would like people in the West to know more, because they are some of the high points of Japanese literature,” he said. “Even the most famous aren’t widely known outside Japan, and … three aren’t even really well known there.”
I’ve not heard of any of these authors but I’ve added two of the recommendations to my wish list (the titles by Tanizaki and Ariyoshi).
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, is a domestic family saga with dark undertones. Set in Osaka on the eve of World War 2, it portrays the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family.
Silence by Shusaku Endo. Mitchell says this is a big historical novel about an era after Christianity is outlawed, with complex and flawed characters
The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi. Another historical novel, this time featuring a Japanese doctor who was the pioneer in the use of anaesthetic in the 1810s and the first doctor in the world to perform successfuly surgery for breast cancer. (the English translation of this novel is currently out of stock but being reprinted)
The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe. Mitchell says Abe is ‘a bit bonkers’ which perhaps accounts for the odd nature of this novel. It’s about an entomologist who falls into a sandpit when he is out looking for insects one day. Somehow he becomes the slave of inhabitants of a nearby village who won’t let him out of the sandpit. He has to keep digging away at the wall of the sand dune in order to keep it from encroaching upon the village.
The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Mitchell describes Ogawa as an experimental writer whose experiments don’t always work. This novel is one that does. It’s about a mathematics professor who wakes one morning to find his memory has been wiped clean. His housekeeper and her son help him cope with his defect.
Central American literature
I know absolutely nothing about literature from this part of the world but thanks to Words without Borders I’ve been introduced to some upcoming writers from one of those countries. The October issue of Words without Borders e-magazine features short stories by 7 Guatemalan writers. This is an opportunity to read work by authors whose material is not widely available outside their home country or translated into English.