Today the Japanese Literature Challenge 9 draws to a close. Thank you Dolce Bellezza for hosting!
I planned to read eight books this year but only read seven. I did start and abandon an eigth – Mari Asakasa’s Vibrator. It was only short but I found the narrator’s world to be too disaffected and alienated for my liking. However, I can see why it won prizes in Japan.
My favourite reads this year were:
Audition by Ryu Murakami – absolutely fantastic! Hilarious and oh-so-wrong at the same time! Read it!
Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura – Very dark but also surprising.
Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami – Oh so very odd. Highly memorable.
To see the whole list click here.
I really enjoy this challenge and this year I got sidetracked from my reading list by stumbling over a few titles I hadn’t heard of before. Next year I hope to follow my original plan and work through the back catalogues of authors I have previously discovered in this challenge – Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa and Keigo Higashino.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake. A tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.
This was a pleasant* story but it didn’t really do it for me. Not only did I find it a bit slow, I felt I had read something vaguely similar before, namely Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor which was originally published four years earlier than this novel and I felt it to be the superior of the two. The general story of a friendship between an older man and not quite so young anymore woman seems to be particular to Japanese literature so I don’t think Kawakami necessarily borrowed the idea. I just didn’t want to take the journey a second time this year.
This novel also presents a also a perfect case study for not judging a book by its cover. The cover implies a somewhat quirky and offbeat tale yet it is rather conventional with characters older than you would presume (not that I have a problem with their ages!). I personally don’t think the title fits the story, yet the other English title, The Briefcase, doesn’t seem a perfect suggestion either.
I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and am glad I finally got around to it. Despite being well written it has left me a little underwhelmed but I can see why it would be both a good winner for the International Mann Booker Prize and a good** taster for Japanese fiction.
*I was almost going to call it a nice story yet it wasn’t quite that bland.
**Now I am using good a lot.
Gush by Yo Hemmi
In this collection of three deeply bizarre yet comedic novellas, Hemmi delicately contemplates the interconnectedness of life. Gush recounts the narrator’s relationship with a beautiful young woman who suffers from a mysterious condition that causes her body to fill with water. In Night Caravan, the narrator embarks on a midnight journey in the company of two Vietnamese prostitutes and their pimp. Piano Wire tells the story of how one family’s struggle with cleanliness and order is radically changed when a mysterious teacher shows up on their doorstep.
As there are three separate stories in this collection, I thought I should mention each in turn:
Gush: I dislike magic realism so wondered how I would feel about a story based around a woman filling up with water. Would it be too abstract? Luckily no! An interesting story that doesn’t seem fantastical at all. I particularly liked the narrator’s strong voice. At the beginning he sounded like someone from a Victorian Sensational novel (you won’t believe me but let me tell you about the most curious thing I discovered on a regular day…) which I loved. Just the right amount of mystery! I also really liked his breaks in the story as well as the updates about his sales month in the office. How mundane!
Night Caravan: This is a short but wonderful character study that feels like Graham Greene meets Haruki Murakami. Well done sir!
Piano Wire: A great story by itself but I would have liked to see it set along a river somehow so to have a stronger link with the other two stories in the collection. I also think there was scope in this story for a more sinister tone; could the sound of the piano wire be more frequent and menacing? Is there something else about the kind stranger we should question? Regardless, it’s a slightly offbeat and enjoyable story.
Overall: Glad I stumbled across this collection!
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart for her son’s birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake even though he died in an accident when he was six years old. From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative. Each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos and chilling in its cruelty.
First Impressions: I liked the writing style. The first story was good and I guessed the stories would get even better… I was right!
Highlights: I was amazed at how subtly all the stories carried on from each other and were linked. This did not feel forced or contrived as I had originally feared it would. A lot of the characters and plots appear over a few stories so it is hard to say which stories or characters I liked best but the narratives around Old Mrs J, Lab Coats and Tomatoes and the Full Moon were most memorable. Ogawa has the power to shock in these stories when you least suspect it and I did gasp out loud a few times when reading.
If I was an editor: Oh, some of the characters definitely deserve their own novel!
Overall: I think I picked up all the links to different characters and stories… At least I hope I did!
Revenge: 5 Stars
Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
A young writer arrives at a prison to interview a convict. The suspect, a world-renowned photographer named Kiharazaka, has a deeply unsettling portfolio–lurking beneath the surface of each photograph is an acutely obsessive fascination with his subject. He stands accused of murdering two women–both burned alive–and will likely face the death penalty. But something isn’t quite right. As the young writer probes further, his doubts about this man as a killer intensify, and he struggles to maintain his sense of reason and justice. Is Kiharazaka truly guilty, or will he die to protect someone else?
First Impressions: I liked the depressive tone of the narrator. It was clear early on that the gruesome crimes were to take a back seat to an individual’s personal struggle.
Highlights: How unusual to have a crime novel where the crime itself is secondary to the plot. Instead, it details an artist’s futile quest to capture the full essence of a person in a photograph and then in memento dolls. The story is based on Akutagawa’s short story Hell Screen and it doesn’t shy away from references to the original tale. I would have liked an edition that also includes the original story or an abridged version of it but that is just me. I have since sought out a copy of Hell Screen to satisfy my interest. I also liked the narrator’s dissatisfaction and intolerance of his own life; it borders on self-destruction. Finally, although the crime is secondary to the story, it is described in detail near the end. In true Japanese fashion, not an easy one to guess at all!
If I was an editor: I found some of the contributions to conversations a bit inane and unnecessary, such as ‘…Hmmm,’ and ‘…Well, now’. These comments had no effect at advancing the plot. Furthermore, sometimes I found the conversations difficult to follow after a while and became confused with who was talking. The different archival material also became confusing towards the end as it took a little bit to work out who belonged to the story. I don’t think this is a problem with the translation but it all may have been easier to follow in the original Japanese.
Overall: A pastiche of character introspections.
Last Winter We Parted: 4 Stars
After finishing Book 6 in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series I’ve been at a loss as to what to read next. The series has consumed me for the past couple of months.
I need some short reads that leap off the page so I’ve decided to work my way through a pile of Japanese novels that have been sitting on my shelf for a while.
(Ozeki isn’t really short…)
I’m far from disappointed with this decision. I’m having an enjoyable time reading these stories as I love the unexpected and surprising things that Japanese authors throw at their (Western) readers. Much to my amusement I’ve been exclaiming out loud when reading.
I anticipate a big contribution this month to my Japanese Literature Challenge!
Audition by Ryu Murakami
Documentary-maker Aoyama hasn’t dated anyone in the seven years since the death of his beloved wife. When his best friend comes up with a plan to hold fake film auditions to help choose a new bride, he decides to go along with the idea. Of the thousands who apply, Aoyama only has eyes for Yamasaki Asami, a delicate ballerina with a turbulent past. There is more to her than Aoyama can see and by the time he discovers the terrifying truth it may be too late.
First impressions: As with many modern Japanese authors I read, I really enjoyed Murakami’s writing style and the way the characters and story is introduced. It could also be due to a great translator!
Highlights: Your apprehension is there right from the first page. You know something terrible is going to happen and it keeps niggling at you. Why is Aoyama so naive? The foreshadowing of doom is so ridiculously obvious it is hilarious. I think this is a feature of contemporary Japanese fiction and I love it.
If I was an editor: I would say there is a little too much gore for me at the end but I still had a smirk on my face when reading it.
Overall: The ‘other’ Murakami wins my vote! More please!
Audition: 5 stars