Strangers is an odd little book and isn’t my usual fare because it involves ghosts. Fortunately there was more to it than the spectral element.
Hideo Harada is a middle-aged television scriptwriter who has recently been divorced. The separation was costly and he can’t afford to buy a decent apartment so he sets up home in his office in a high-rise apartment block overlooking Tokyo’s busy Route 8. At night when all the office workers leave, silence descends on the building. He thinks he is the only person in the place but one evening looking up at his building from the outside, he sees one other lit window. A few days later Kei, an attractive woman fifteen years his junior shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne in hand.
On the night of his birthday, hit by a wave of nostalgia, he visits the entertainment district of Asakusa where he grew up. His parents died many years ago, killed in a road accident when he was 12 and they were in their mid thirties. In the old and now run-down streets he goes to the theatre where he sees a mediocre comedian. In the audience he is astonished to see a man who looks exactly like his long-dead sushi chef father. Invited for drinks at the man’s home, Harada is even more astounded to find that the wife looks exactly like his dead mother. They’re the same age as his parents were when they died.
How can that be possible he wonders? There is only one possible explanation he concludes – they are an hallucination caused by his solitude and grief. He thought he’d buried his grief for his parents but seeing them makes him realise that “Somewhere deep inside of me I had been yearning desperately for the warm embrace of parental love.
It’s that yearning that compels him to make return visits. Every time he does so, he feels bathed in the warmth of their welcome and their easy acceptance of him. Over the course of a few visits he relaxes enough to begin calling them Mom and Dad, finding a deep pleasure in their company and the opportunity to re-live happy childhood experiences as well as make up for lost time.
Kei isn’t convinced his trips to Asakusa are good for his health. She sees Heido changing day-by-day, becoming hollow-eyed, aged and emaciated. She’s even more worried because Heido himself cannot see these changes – when he looks at himself in the mirror he looks as healthy as ever. Can Kei save him from the ghosts of his past? Or is his desire to make up for the lost years of his relationship with his parents too strong to resist?
related in a pared-down prose style that matches well with Harada’s spartan life. He’s doesn’t seem to have any friends, he has lost touch with his only son and has no interest other than working on the script for a new series. Understandable therefore that he feels the pull towards this other surreal world.
It’s an engaging story that has a satisfying twist at the end. The supernatural elements don’t stand up to much scrutiny but I was more taken by the way Yamada deals with the psychological aspects. He deftly portrays the conflict Hideo experiences for example.
He is elated when he meets his ‘parents’ and is eager to be well regarded in their eyes. He desperately wants them to be proud of the man he has become so he takes them treats of cookies and fresh melon and orders in special delicacies for their meals together to show he can afford to do so. But he is also afraid that his girlfriend might be right: his dead parents are sucking the life out of him.
No matter how free of malice and mischief my parents’ intentions might be, there could be no denying that they had long since passed into the world of the dead. The return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living and I wholeheartedly shared Kei’s conviction that contact with such beings was something to be avoided. Yet when it concerned my own mother and father, I could not bring myself to think of them as an evil to be fought.
Unfortunately Yamada hasn’t been well served by the translation. Some of the dialogue between Harada and his parents struck me as incongruous. Would a man who lived in the 1940s really use the greeting “Yo” for example or tell his son “Put ‘er there” when he wants to shake hands? His interactions with his son – it’s all “Whadja expect?” and “Okey-dokey” – struck too many false notes for me. I know the intent was to show how relaxed the man is with his son but Japanese idioms would have worked far bettr than these American English expressions. If you can ignore that then the book works fairly well as a story of uncanny events that is laden with atmosphere and a psychological portrait of a man who is emotionally starved.
About the Book: Strangers by Taichi Yamada was first published in Japanese as Ijin-tachi to no Natsu in 1987. It won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, an award made each year to new work of fiction considered to exemplify the art of storytelling,. The novel was translated into English in 2003. My 2006 edition, translated by Wayne P Lammers, is from Faber.
About the Author: Taichi Yamada is the pen name of Taichi Ishizaka, a film and television drama scriptwriter. Strangers was his first novel. He has since written two more that are available in English: In Search of a Distant Voice, and I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While.
Why I read this book: I can’t remember why I bought this book or even when. It’s a second hand copy but from where I have no idea. I read it as part of Japan lit challenge hosted on the Dolce Bellezza blog.
Goodbye Tsugumi is the story of one summer in the lives of two girls who are related by blood if not by temperament.
Tsugumi Yamamoto is a mercurial character. An invalid from a young age she has grown up in a small seaside inn as a spoiled and occasionally mean spirited girl around whom everyone tiptoes, afraid to spark her ill-humour. According to her cousin Maria, Tsugumi “was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky.”
Maria Shirakawa (the narrator) is a more thoughtful girl, a model of patience and affability who has learned to deal with the uncertain relationship of her parents – her father is a businessman living in Tokyo, her mother is his mistress who lives and works in the inn. She is aghast at some of Tsugumi’s pranks and hurt to be the victim of her acid tongue but she is still drawn to the girl.
It wasn’t narcissism. And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic. Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there. She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch [a dog] liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too. We all continued to be enchanted by her.
Part of Tsugumi’s attraction is that she has a vivid imagination which makes her fun to play with. She creates wild and inventive games for her and Maria, including their favourite “The Haunted Mailbox” in which they pretend to receive letters from the dead in an old rusted box behind their school.
When her father gets his divorce, Maria and her mother move to Tokyo and Maria embarks on a new path in her life as a university student. But a call from Tsugumi offers her a chance to return to the inn for one last summer before the place is sold. It’s a chance to recapture idyllic summers of the past and to deepen the bond with her difficult cousin. She acknowledges that Tsugumi is “really an unpleasant young woman” but that summer she sees for the first time the inner strength of her friend and has to face the real possibility that she could lose her.
In essence this is a coming of age novel in which Maria comes to appreciate that time does not stand still, that her childhood is in the past and loss is a part of growing up.
Summer was coming. Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again. All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had. And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress. We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together. We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.
This is a beautifully atmospheric novel rather than one which has a strong plot. We get a strong sense of sadness at the loss of the idyll of one’s youth (the goodbye of the title is not the end of a relationship but the end of childhood innocence) but there is also a feeling of hope as Maria comes to appreciate the potential of her own life in the future.
Yoshimoto’s description of nature and the beaches and the mountains at the resort have a poetic quality which also drew me in.
The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the river continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.
I also enjoyed her gentle, yet thoughtful style. Here is just one example:
Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.
I’ve seen some comments from other reviewers that Goodbye Tsugumi isn’t as strong a novel as her debut work Kitchen. Since I’ve not read that or anything else by Yoshimoto in fact I can’t judge how accurate that assessment is. Goodbye Tsugumi may not be as rich in philosophy or big ideas as some of the other Japanese authors I’ve read but I still enjoyed it.
About this book: Published in Japanese in 1989, translated into English in 2002 by Michael Emmerich.
About the author: Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of the Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto whose debut novel Kitchen was widely applauded on publication in 1988. Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Apparently she adopted the name Banana because of her love of banana flowers, but also because she considers it “cute” and “purposefully androgynous.”. She has written 12 novels many of which deal with themes of love and friendship, the power of home and family, and the effect of loss on the human spirit.
Why I read this book: I have a feeling I came across the name of Banana Yoshimoto when I was reading about the Japan in January project run by Tony at tonysreadinglist. It’s been stuck on my shelves for a few years now but I dusted it down ready for Japan lit challenge. It also counts as one of my 20booksofsummer reading list.
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.
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.
Yukio Mishima’s 1960 novel After the Banquet was a new venture for me into the unknown territory of Japanese literature. With the exception of Kazuo Ishiguro, I’ve read very little by authors from this part of the world but an unexpected trip to Japan late in 2013 gave me the impetus to fill that gap in my experience. I could easily have gone for some thing by Haruki Murakami but I didn’t want to have to carry anything huge around with me and anyway I wasn’t in the mood for surrealism. I went in search of something rather more in line with my preference for realism and that could be considered one of the classics of Japanese literature.
Mishima, considered one of Japan’s most important 20th century writers, fitted the need perfectly. Although it’s not the work considered his greatest achievement – the four-volume epic The Sea of Fertility – it’s still considered one of his best. The New Yorker called the “the most profound thing Mishima has done so far in an already distinguished career” when it became available in English in 1963.
After the Banquet is a portrait of a marriage between two people whose needs and desires are so diametrically opposed, that it’s hard to see how it could be successful.
Kazu, the 50-year-old owner of a fashionable Tokyo restaurant, is a passionate single woman who once had many admirers but has long buried her hopes of future love and instead given herself over to becoming a successful businesswoman.
When she meets the former cabinet minister Noguchi, it is his quiet and intelligent nature that first impress her. Within a short time however she discovers long-held dreams and desires have been awakened; the dream of achieving respect through a relationship with a distinguished man of aristocratic lineage and the desire to belong to someone who will mourn her when she dies. The marriage gives her strength and the feeling she can achieve anything.
Her chance comes when Noguchi is approached by a section of his old political party who want him to run in the upcoming election for the Governor of Tokyo. Noguchi had really wanted to spend the remainder of his days quietly but had not bargained for the persuasive and fearless powers of his wife. Kazu throws herself completely into the campaign on his behalf, giving public speeches on his behalf, rallying the troops, planning and scheming how she can get him more votes.
She came to think that the election was her Heaven-appointed task. It was a game in which one used one’s energies agains a virtual vacuum for an adversary, a constant wager directed against something whose existence could not be verified. She felt that however excited she because, she could never be excited enough, that however dispassionate she acted, she could never be dispassionate enough ….Kazu was exempt from one worry, that she might be going too far.
Her patient and quiet husband just about tolerates her speechmaking but when she secretly plots with party workers to print and distribute 500,000 calendars bearing her husband’s picture, Noguchi’s patience is eroded. The dignity of this man with noble ideals cannot tolerate a wife who exposes him in such an uncivilised manner.
You’ve smeared mud on your husband’s face. Just the kind of thing I would expect of you. You’ve done a wonderful job of besmirching my career…. Does it make you happy that your husband’s become a public laughing stock.
The quiet man, the man of high principles, turns violent in the face of his wife’s ambition and betrayal.
Through her ill-judged action, both Kazu and Noguchi are compelled to delve into their inner natures and to understand themselves more deeply but they achieve only limited success in reaching a deeper understanding of the other partner’s point of view. Noguchi sees his wife’s act as akin to adultery and anathema to to his view of a world governed by fixed laws of morality. What he fails to comprehend is that the depth of her passion and the essence of her vitality make it impossible she will ever comply with his demand that she obey his principles and join with him in a life of secluded retirement. Kazu knows that such a life would represent the very emptiness she abhors. For she has come to understand that
…. she could never again bear any form of emptiness. Full, if tragic circumstances were preferable to a void. Kazu far preferred the north wind tearing her body to a vacuum.
The stress of dismay and disappointment over ideals that seem now beyond attainment, at the loss of everything they held dear, eat into the relationship, forming a gulf that cannot be repaired.
The slow passage from first hope of mature love and success to the shattering of ideals and the collapse of a marriage makes reading After the Banquet an emotional experience. Mishima gives a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of the points of view of each party, showing how the spheres within which they operate cannot come together to form a new whole. Kazu is intended as the main point of interest; she is the one through whom most of the events are focalised. I loved the portrait of this woman who has to choose whether to settle for a life as a married woman with the respectability endowed on that position in Japanese culture, or to follow where her passion wants her to go.
Along the way we get some fascinating perspectives of different aspects of Japanese rituals such as the prescribed order in which dishes at a banquet should be served and some tantalising descriptions of kimonos and a silk cloak inscribed with characters from an ancient poem. It’s a thoughtful novel of domestic conflict that comes wrapped with a strong sense of a place and of a way of life. One of my best reads so far on my travels in world literature.
I think I’ve mentioned before that when I take a trip abroad, I like to read a book set in the country I am visiting or at least written by an author from that part of the world.
When I bought Yukio Mishima‘s After the Banquet, last month I had no idea I would shortly be on my way to Japan. I had bought it while meandering through the shelves of Blackwell’s in Oxford, purely on the basis that I had read little by Japanese authors beyond Kazuo Ishiguro. But it proved the perfect companion for my unexpected trip; not only was it a well-written thoughtful novel about a relationship between two people who want different things in life, but it introduced me to facets of life in the city I was visiting. Tokyo has changed considerably of course in the fifty or so years since the book’s setting but many of the cultural references are still valid. So as I read the minute details about clothing and food that Mishima provides, I was able to ask some work colleagues for explanations and to see some of the items of clothing on sale in local shops. It seems After the Banquet is atypical of Mishima’s work but on the basis of this one book, I will be back for more.
If Mishima’s novel was an unexpected delight so also were two other books I’ve read in December: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by the Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid and John Steinbeck‘s 1945 novel Cannery Row. I loved the direct style of the narrator in Hamid’s book and the somewhat mysterious nature of his meeting with an American visitor at a cafe in Lahore.
Steinbeck was someone I did not expect to enjoy but this story about a motley collection of individuals who live on a street lined with sardine canneries in Monteray, California, was something remarkable. I read it after listening to the author Bill Patterson talk on a book podcast about this being his favourite novel and one he re-reads almost yearly. I had expected it to be somewhat doom and gloom post depression stuff so was completely unprepared for its warmth and humour. I can see why Patterson loves it so much.
So what’s next in the final few weeks of the year?
I’ll be reading Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory for the Classics Club spin a long and also dipping into Alice Munro’s Dear Life collection of short stories which is January’s book club selection.
What will you all be reading in the next few weeks?