‘The Sound of Waves’ by Yukio Mishima (Review)

IMG_5390One of the things I like about my January in Japan reading (extended into February…) is the opportunity to get to books which have been languishing on the shelves for a while, and today’s choice has been kicking around for far too long.  Over the first few years of the blog, I read several works by Yukio Mishima (including all four parts of The Sea of Fertility series), which makes it surprising that I never quite found the time to get around to the last one of his I bought.  On that note, then, it’s time to head off to Japan’s Pacific coast for a short island holiday, and a meeting with a couple of star-crossed lovers – I wonder if it’ll end well…

The Sound of Waves (translated by Meredith Weatherby, published by Vintage Books) takes us to the small island of Uta-jima, just off the Japanese mainland.  The hero of the tale is Shinji who, after the death of his fisherman father, has become the breadwinner for his family (his mother and younger brother, Hiroshi).  One day, while walking along the beach, he sees an unfamiliar face, a rarity on the small island:

The boy could not remember ever having seen this girl before.  There should not have been a single face on Uta-jima that he could not recognize.  At first glance he took her for an outsider.  But still, the girl’s dress was not that of outsiders.  Only in the way she stood apart, gazing at the sea, did she differ from the vivacious island girls.
p.8 (Vintage Classics, 2000)

While it’s not love at first sight, there’s certainly mutual attraction, and Shinji tries to find out more about her.

It turns out that the girl’s name is Hatsue, and she’s the daughter of the wealthy Terukichi Miyata; having been adopted out, she has recently been brought back to the island after the untimely death of Miyata’s only son.  Shinji naturally falls for the beautiful young woman, but with the father wanting a well-off son-in-law to marry Hatsue and be adopted into the family, it’s unlikely that the young fisherman will be able to impress him.  Still, that’s not going to put off a determined suitor, and soon the whole island is aware of the burgeoning romance…

If you’ve read a lot of Mishima’s work, The Sound of Waves may come as a surprise.  It’s a gentle-paced, soothing romance, a book I’d best describe as very unMishima-like – in fact, one Twitter comment (I will protect the user’s anonymity…) even called this his dullest book.  Which seems a little unfair to me.  It’s true that there’s no real drama, and a distinct lack of blood, but if you scratch the surface, there’s a lot to like about the book.

The main focus is, of course, on the romance, and we follow the young lovers along their path to happiness, witnessing their coincidental meetings, and the significance of the dropped envelope full of Shinji’s wages.  Eventually, the innocent flirtation leads to an unexpected encounter on a dark and stormy night, and a heated moment of temptation.  However, this is no steamy story; both products of a deeply traditional island culture, the pair are determined to go about things the right way lest they anger the gods.

There are complications, naturally (it wouldn’t be much of a novel, otherwise), and one of these is the obvious gulf in status between them, one shown in many different ways:

Shinji looked back.  The girl was standing there, laughing.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m dark too, but you – you’re practically black.”
“You’ve really been burnt by the sun, you have.” (p.31)

Whether it’s Shinji’s family background, appearance or lack of money, Hatsue’s father has no interest in allowing his daughter to follow her heart, instead opting for rich kid Yasuo Kawamoto.  Matters aren’t helped when Chiyoko, another returning local whose feelings for Shinji cripple her with jealousy, spreads rumours which cause trouble for the young lovers.  Throughout, there’s a sense that a closed community like Uta-jima needs order – and that people shouldn’t get above their station.

If that was all there was to The Sound of Waves, then I’d agree that it wouldn’t make for much, but there is far more than this to enjoy.  For one thing, a major part of the appeal is the setting and the writer’s description of the island and the connection the locals have with it:

The boy felt a consummate accord between himself and this opulence of nature that surrounded him.  He inhaled deeply, and it was as though a part of the unseen something that constitutes nature had permeated the core of his being.  He heard the sound of the waves striking the shore, and it was as though the surging of his young blood was keeping time with the movement of the sea’s great tides.  It was doubtless because nature itself satisfied his need that Shinji felt no particular lack of music in his everyday life. (pp.44/5)

As the novel progresses, the annual cycle of the island is almost as prominent as the plot.  There are the women divers with their different tasks, the seasonal fishing, the driving rain and salt air.  On Uta-jima, the people are still controlled by the passing of time, not to mention the whims of the weather gods…

Mishima also creates a sense of a tipping point.  The novel is set a few years after the end of World War Two, and while it’s often easy to forget this, relaxing in a timeless idyll, we’re eventually dragged back into the present by mentions of electricity, or the trams and movies Hiroshi sees on his trip to Kyoto.  Surprisingly, Mishima is actually fairly positive about progress, in his emphasis on modernity firmly behind Shinji’s battles against old money and traditional attitudes, with the sympathy of the reader also with the young man.

Of course, despite this optimism for the future, with Mishima there’s always a sense of looking longingly over your shoulder at the past.  The islanders are often described as being uninterested in what’s happening on the mainland, and many of the negative qualities displayed in the book are shown to have come from elsewhere (e.g. Chiyoko’s jealousy, Yasuo’s laziness – and his leather jacket!).  Despite the advances in some areas, Uta-jima is painted to be an unspoiled idyll, with a population of noble and understanding people – which can be a little unrealistic at times ;)

I’d agree that The Sound of Waves is not one of Mishima’s best books, but it’s still one I enjoyed, a nice look at traditional island culture in Japan.  Yes, it’s not really much more than Romeo and Juliet on a small island, but there’s nothing wrong with that.  If you’re fed up of complex, depressing reads and are looking for something a little lighter, this might make a nice change :)

‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang (Review)

IMG_5393At the beginning of 2015, Han Kang was a fairly unknown Korean writer, with her first translation into English about to be published. Moving forward a year, The Vegetarian is a huge success, appearing on many end-of-year lists, and with an American release imminent, the exposure is unlikely to go away soon (see, for example, this recent interview in The Guardian). In fact, her star is likely to rise further with the release of her follow-up novel in the UK.  Just as well-written, and fascinating, as her first work in English, this one is slightly less whimsical and allegorical than its predecessor.  Sadly, it is also far more disturbing, a book which looks at human nature and what happens when it is put to the test.

Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books) takes us to the Korean city of Gwangju in May 1980 where, after a bloody government crackdown on a mass demonstration, the army has temporarily left the city. As civilian militias led by students and schoolboys draw up futile plans to defend their city from more carnage, people roam the streets looking for the missing and the dead. Dong-ho, a middle-school student, is searching for his friend Jeong-dae, having been unable to retrieve his friend’s body after he was gunned down in broad daylight. Despite his tender years, he ends up helping to organise the dead, taking down details and attaching numbers to the unidentified victims of the military’s cruelty.

With the day drawing to a close, and the army’s return imminent, all those who care for him (high-school girl Eun-sook, university student Seon-ju, militia organiser Jin-su and Dong-ho’s poor mother) urge the young boy to go home before it is too late. Sadly, none of them succeed in making him leave, a decision which will see him cut down before his life has really begun. But that is merely one part of the story. As the novel progresses, we are told other sides of the tale, with Dong-ho’s (and Gwangju’s) fate elaborated upon by those who survived the horror – and some who didn’t…

The Gwangju Uprising (or Massacre, depending on your viewpoint) is an incredible story, and one I had never even heard of a year or so ago, a fact I find hard to believe now. The incident is still controversial today, a modern, developed state at war with one of its own cities, ready to wipe it out rather than give in to what the government saw as leftist sedition. In basing her novel here, Han, a native of Gwangju who moved to Seoul as a child, uses the incident as the background to an astonishing, and confronting, introduction to the best and worst human nature has to offer. A tale in seven parts, it examines how people react in stressful times, and the effects these events have on their future.

In her comments on the book, Han is firm in her belief that the novel, while using Gwangju as a base, is just as much about the way people in general behave, hence the choice of the title Human Acts for the translation. There are several examples of focusing on the human in us: Jeong-dae’s memories of his sister; the childhood games he played with Dong-ho; the heroism of students and workers in the city; and the way the pro-democracy movement lifted individuals above themselves:

Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again. (p.122)

In these heady moments, there is a feeling that the whole can truly be greater than the sum of its parts, a crowd of people working together to achieve great things.

Sadly, though, this is just as true for the darker side of life, and Human Acts shows us all too well how people’s behaviour can also sicken and horrify. As people in Gwangju try to help the wounded, they are cut down by snipers. Children surrendering to government troops are gunned down in cold blood. Women and children are beaten mercilessly by soldiers, whose orders originate from the very highest levels of power:

You never forgot the face of the plain-clothes policeman who had stamped on you. You never forgot that the government actively trained and supported the strike-breakers, that at the peak of this pyramid of violence stood President Park Chung-hee himself, an army general who has seized power through a military coup. (p.165)

The casual beatings of women, using the excuse of their being red sympathisers to justify the behaviour, is unheard of in Korean culture. The women on the receiving end are almost more shocked by the assault on their status as young women as by the beatings themselves.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Human Acts, though, is the aftermath of the intervention. After the initial scene setting up the return of the military to the city, and the poignant second section in which the callous treatment of the victim’s corpses is described by the soul of one of the dead, Han slowly moves us forward in time, inching year by year into the future, one which, for many of the characters, holds little hope of closure. We meet Eun-sook five years on, recovering from seven brutal slaps to the face for withholding information she doesn’t have. Another five years sees a prisoner telling the story of his torture in prison and his relationship with the unfortunate Jin-su. Fast forward to 2002, and Seon-ju has her turn at remembering the past, now isolated (mainly by choice) and documenting the slow deaths of others let down by Korean society. Finally, we arrive in 2010, where Dong-ho’s mother is still haunted by the past, never forgetting, never forgiving.

These people, just as much as those who fell in the streets in may 1980, are victims of the Gwangju massacre, shattered and broken, their lives destroyed. Emotionally they are withdrawn, their failed relationships the result of being unable to bear intimacy after the soldiers’ attacks on their bodies. Dreams of improving their lives by study are just that – with the universities controlled by the regime, many have no choice but to stay away. Some attempt to bury themselves in work, but these are jobs with no future. Blacklisted by the government, they are stuck in dead-end jobs, hounded from one place to the next. Their lives are connected by their shared experiences and trauma, yet their pain leaves them unable to touch each other, a situation foreshadowed, ironically enough, in the chapter with the souls. Each senses the other souls around them, unable to connect…

As was the case with The Vegetarian, Deborah Smith has done an excellent job of sustaining the writer’s slightly withdrawn approach to an emotional subject, showing again that having a sympathetic translator with a skill for writing in English is more important than finding one who knows the source culture intimately. Smith also contributes a short introduction detailing the background and importance of the events of May 1980 as well as commenting on some of the translation issues. On rereading the book, I was able to pay closer attention to the translator’s treatment of the part featuring Dong-ho’s mother, in which the thick Gwangju dialect is rendered in a light, cheery Northern English accent (as I read it to myself, memories of my years living in Leeds helped me find her voice…). The obvious sympathy Smith has with Han and her story has helped in the development of the English version.

Another small translation issue involves the title, and Smith again discusses this in a short essay available at Asymptote.  The original Korean title was Sonyeon-i Onda, which could be literally translated as ‘the young boy is coming’, a clumsy and unfortunate expression in English. After rejecting several variations on this, the team working on the translation eventually settled on Human Acts, a title which brings out the importance of the human nature of the novel. However, the original title is also important. Over the course of the survivors’ accounts, Dong-ho gradually comes into focus, approaching us through the grief of the others. In the performance of a play that Eun-sook helped to publish, she hears the following lines:

 After you died I could not hold a funeral,
And so my life became a funeral

Immediately she thinks of Dong-ho, and this appears to be the motto of all those who feel guilt at the boy’s death.

Han is not the only writer, or even the first, to tackle the theme of Gwangju. Ch’oe Yun’s novella There a Petal Silently Falls takes a similar polyphonic approach, examining the fate of an unnamed girl from several viewpoints. Hwang Sok-yong’s lengthy novel The Old Garden focuses instead on a later period, with descriptions of prison life and the long-term effects on survivors. However, Han ties all these themes together, the seven parts of the novel working as a whole to tell the story of the massacre. They also slowly, piece by piece, complete the picture of Dong-ho (which, appropriately, is represented by the school photo the writer sees in the final section), while gradually constructing a fuller picture of the wider societal impacts.

For Han, Human Acts is a rather personal work, and in the final part of the story, in which a writer returns to Gwangju, the line between fiction and real life is, at best, slightly blurred. In the best traditions of Korean (and Japanese) fiction, the writer expresses her own feelings through a literary alter-ego, one only slightly removed from the real thing. This return to Gwangju, taking place in 2013, is perhaps prompted by the recent rise to power of the new Korean President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the dictator who initiated the series of crack-downs culminating in the Gwangju uprising.

On the writer’s return, Gwangju is a very different city; many of the buildings are gone, the bullet holes have mostly disappeared, crime scenes have been painted over. However, the memories, the memories remain:

There were soldiers who were especially cruel.
When I first started poring over the documents, what had proved most incomprehensible was that this bloodshed had been committed again and again, and with no attempt to bring the perpetrators before the authorities. Acts of violence committed in broad daylight, without hesitation and without regret. Commanding officers who would have encouraged, no even demanded such displays of brutality.

These wounds are still fresh in the minds and hearts of the people of Gwanju, and Park’s election is tantamount to ripping the plasters off those wounds, callously poking cruel fingers between the stitches. Seen in that light, then, Han’s book is less an attempt to understand the past than a work of documentation. Whatever happens, however successful Korea becomes, the voice of the survivors of Gwangju will always be heard – we will not forget…

‘August, October’ by Andrés Barba / ‘The Same City’ by Luisgé Martín (Review)

IMG_5387Hispabooks, a Madrid-based press specialising in translations of literary fiction from the four official languages of Spain, has been around for a few years now and has introduced several interesting Spanish writers to Anglophone readers.  However, as important as breadth is, depth is also necessary, which is why I was pleased to see two writers whose work I enjoyed, Andrés Barba and Luisgé Martín featured for a second time in the Hispabooks catalogue.  Having received review copies of both, I thought it would be nice to look at them together, even if they’re (longish) novellas with very different settings and themes – let’s see which one I liked better :)

Luisgé Martín’s The Same City (translated by Tomasz Dukanovich) has the writer recounting the story of Brandon Moy, an American poet he used to know.  A man of the world, the American has lived in several countries, done a lot of crazy things and slept with dozens of women along the way – which makes it difficult for the writer to believe Moy when he adds one more detail to the story.  Apparently, the catalyst for all this was the attacks on the World Trade Center – when Moy (in truth a lawyer) realised that everyone thought he was at work in one of the buildings, he decided to take the opportunity to run away in search of an elusive freedom he thought had gone forever.

With his last doubts decided by the failure of the call to his wife to go through, Moy leaves NewIMG_5388 York to start a new life, deciding to pursue all the interests he was forced to give up once his wife, family and work came along.  Starting from the bottom, he manages to create a different life for himself from scratch, living in a way he could previously only have dreamed of.  However, a sense of doubt lingers, eventually clouding over his happiness, a feeling which is crystallised in a poem by Constantine Cavafy which he is introduced to by one of new lovers:

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
p.79 (Hispabooks, 2015)

Sadly, in his pursuit of lost ambitions, the realisation comes too late; the truth is that he was probably happy where he was.

The Same City is an interesting slant on the mid-life crisis (indeed this idea crops up on the first page), one where the reader vicariously experiences the thrill of leaving everything behind.  The writer telling the story is, like the reader, half in awe of Moy and half shocked by his ability to shake off the dust of his old life, but Martín’s account of the American’s experiences, including how he begins to lie, cheat, steal and sleep around, pulls no punches.  Gradually, we see that no matter how free Moy feels, in truth, the grass is rarely greener elsewhere, no matter how jaded you’ve become.  Wherever you run to in search of new experiences, you’ll end up in the same city you left.

There’s a lot to like about The Same City, but I’d have to say that I preferred his last book in English, Woman in Darkness, much more.  The main issue I had with it was that it dragged a little in places, and while the repetitive nature of Moy’s actions may have been intended to emphasise how he repeatedly becomes trapped by his life, it also had me wanting to skip ahead at times.  I think this is because The Same City is a short story which has been extended beyond its limits; I suspect that the same tale could have been told, and just as well, in thirty to forty pages.  It’s certainly interesting, but you do wonder if it needs to be as long as it is.

IMG_5389However, that’s certainly not the case for the second of today’s books, Andrés Barba’s August, October (translated by Lisa Dillman).  Rain Over Madrid featured four extended stories, and this second work in English pushes the range a little further, with a two-part novella running to almost 150 pages.  The story looks at a fourteen-year-old Spanish boy on the annual family holiday to the coastal town where his aunt lives.  Where previous years were full of fun and sun, puberty has wrought changes upon Tomás, and this August is to be very different from those of the past.

August, October is a book I enjoyed greatly, recognisably by the writer of Rain Over Madrid, but with a slightly harder, grittier feel.  Tomás has entered a difficult period in his life, and everything seems old and faded, leaving him empty and unable to enjoy himself as he used to.  Even the annual visit to the fair has lost its appeal:

The first fair, though, the one from the early days, seemed to have been switched off, and it was no longer a luminous highway but a thinly lit stream, slightly asphyxiating – the charcoal-grilled seafood had a burned smell, and its thick smoke was off-putting…
p.53 (Hispabooks, 2015)

When you add to this teenage angst the discovery that his aunt is terminally ill, it’s no wonder that he is about to go off the rails.

The twist in the tale comes when he falls in with a group of local youths, boys he’d never normally hang around with, and comes into the orbit of their female equivalents, more sexually aware and forthright than the girls Tomás is accustomed to.  Mix in some drink, drugs and sexual frustration, and the scene is set for a dramatic end to his holiday, a rather disturbing encounter which leaves him guilt-ridden and desperate.  Haunted by the memory of what happened even back in the comfort of his own home, it’s inevitable that he’ll return to the coast to try to make things right.

Portraying Tomás in a sympathetic manner is no easy task, but Barba manages it, thanks in part in this version to Dillman, whose translation reads beautifully, capturing the swing between the melancholy lows and the tension-filled highs of the teenager’s experiences.  In places, August, October even reminded me a little of Camus’ The Stranger; quite apart from the nihilistic air pervading many parts of the novel, there’s a tense first encounter with the local youths on the beach, a slow walk under a burning sun.  Throw in the rather abrupt ending to the first part of the story, and you could almost be in North Africa…

However, unlike Camus, Barba is here to redeem his ‘hero’, not bury him, and the second part of August, October moves towards a happier climax.  Tomás’ quest for absolution turns into a voyage of discovery as he learns a little more about himself and questions what he wants from life.  The themes, and the narrative arc, make this a Bildungsroman, even verging on YA at times, but there’s a lot more to the story than this.  Where The Same City unfortunately outstayed its welcome a little, August, October ends at just the right spot, allowing the reader to imagine its hero at a crossroads.  Whichever path he takes, though, we sense that he’ll be moving in the right direction.

Man Booker International Prize 2016 – Predictions

MBIP 2016The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is dead – long live the Man Booker International Prize!  Well, that’s what the organisers of the new prize would have us think, anyway.  Those of us who followed the old prize might not be quite so gung-ho about the change, but it’s almost time to see how the brave new world of British literary translation prizes unfolds.  The schedule for the 2016 edition is as follows:

10 March 2016 – Longlist Announcement
14 April 2016 – Shortlist Announcement
16 May 2016 – Winner Announcement

While it may be the start of a new era, Boyd Tonkin is still on board as one of the judges, and a selection of the usual blogging suspects will also be back to shadow the prize and keep the ‘real’ judges honest (more about that in the weeks to come).  But just what will we be reading?  Well, today I’ll share a few thoughts on what might be on the list next month (all links to my reviews, where applicable), and as you’ll quickly notice, I’ve come up with a rather long list of possibles.  It seems to have been a pretty good year in the world of fiction in translation…
(Note: post amended 8/2/16 – I now realise that not all Scribe Australia titles appear through Scribe UK…)

'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang (Review)Where literary prizes are concerned, any talk of certainties is tantamount to tempting fate, yet there are some books I’d be surprised not to see on the list.  Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) has received huge amounts of praise since its release, and the amount of publicity given to Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation (tr. John Cullen) and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (tr. Roland Glasser) makes me think they’ll be included.  Another probable contender is Seiobo There Below (tr. Ottilie Mulzet) as László Krasznahorkai’s novel has already tasted success in the shape of the Best Translated Book Award for its US edition.

IMG_5236Seiobo… isn’t the only book which crossed the pond last year, and several others have a good chance of making the cut.  In the Night of Time (tr. Edith Grossman), Antonio Muñoz Molina’s expansive novel set during the Spanish Civil War, has impressed those who have chosen to tackle it, and while Mathias Énard‘s Street of Thieves (tr. Charlotte Mandell) didn’t quite live up to the sublime Zone, it’s still an excellent read.  Then there’s Alejandro Zambra’s short-story collection My Documents (tr. Megan McDowell), a book which had me hunting down all of the Chilean writer’s work translated so far :)

Last year I reviewed several books for Scribe Publications, an Australian press with a UK IMG_5234presence, and I can see a few with a chance of being longlisted (although not all of them were published by Scribe in the UK!).  Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari (tr. Sora Kim-Russell, published by Periscope Books) would add some much-needed geographical variety to the list, as would Brazilian writer Tatiana Salem Levy’s The House in Smyrna (tr. Alison Entrekin).  A more likely candidate, though, might be Tommy Wieringa, and his most recent novel, These are the Names (tr. Sam Garrett), is an outside chance.  And let’s not forget former IFFP winner Gerbrand Bakker, whose novel June (tr. David Colmer, released by Harvill Secker in the UK), while not one of my favourites last year, may well catch the eye of the judges.

IMG_5168That’s already a solid set of contenders, but there are a lot more books with a chance of being chosen for the longlist.  Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels took out our Shadow IFFP in 2014, and The Heart of Man (tr. Philip Roughton), the last book in his trilogy, must be in contention this year.  Elena Ferrante hasn’t had any luck in the UK so far, but the last book in her series of Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child (tr. Ann Goldstein), might see that situation change.  Of course, that other serial offender, Karl Ove Knausgaard, has another eligible book, Dancing in the Dark (tr. Don Bartlett) – it isn’t one I’d pick, but you never know…

Then, there are some real heavyweight names who can’t be ignored.  On the back of Patrick IMG_5384Modiano’s Nobel Prize win, any one of the new releases might make the grade (your guess is as good as mine when it comes to which one…), as could fellow laureate Kenzaburō Ōe‘s Death by Water (tr. Deborah Boliver Boehm) or Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind (tr. Ekin Oklap).  Two writers who haven’t won the Nobel Prize despite being highly fancied are Haruki Murakami and Umberto Eco, and Wind/Pinball, the new translation (by Ted Goossen) of Murakami’s early novellas, and Numero Zero (tr. Richard Dixon) are also possible longlisters.

IMG_5347Wait – that’s not all…  You see, for the 2016 prize there’s an extended eligibility period, from the 1st of January, 2015, to the 30th of April, 2016 (from 2017, the eligibility period will run from May to April).  This means that several recent releases will be eligible, assuming they were submitted.  The best example of this is Human Acts (tr. Deborah Smith), with Han Kang’s latest book in English possibly vying for a spot on the longlist with her previous novel.  It also means that the longlist may contain books which haven’t even been published yet, such as Judith Hermann’s Where Love Begins (tr. Margaret Bettauer Dembo) or Javier Marías’ latest novel Thus Bad Begins (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)…

That’s an impressive pool of books to work from, yet I realise that I haven’t even considered works from small presses like Peirene Press, And Other Stories, Pushkin Press or Istros Books.  Surely one or two of those will have something in contention.  Which all means that there’s only one thing I can predict with any certainty – whatever twelve I decide to pick, the real list will undoubtedly be very, very different ;)

‘Tokyo Decadence’ by Ryu Murakami (Review)

IMG_5386Over the past few years, especially during my January in Japan events, I’ve read and reviewed several books by small publisher Kurodahan Press, who have even been kind enough to offer prizes on occasion.  They’ve published books by the likes of Osamu Dazai and Teru Miyamoto, but in March they have a book coming out from perhaps their biggest-name author yet, one who will be familiar to many of you out there with an interest in J-Lit.  While it might be a stretch to suggest it’s going to be a best-seller, I do think that it’s a book with a wider appeal than most – let me tell you more :)

Ryū Murakami has had several novels translated into English (e.g. Almost Transparent Blue, Coin Locker Babies and From the Fatherland, With Love), but he’s also written several collections of short stories, of which only a few scattered examples have been sighted in magazines and online journals.  Thankfully, Ralph McCarthy, who translated (along with several other Murakami books) most of them,  pitched an idea of a kind of greatest hits collection to Kurodahan, and that’s how Tokyo Decadence – 15 Stories by Ryū Murakami came about.  The book contains (obviously) fifteen examples of Murakami’s short fiction, taken from five different books spanning nearly twenty years of his writing career, a selection showcasing all aspects of the writer’s inimitable style.

The first story, ‘Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This’, eases us gently into the collection, a fun introduction to some of the darker tales to come:

Whenever I sit at a bar drinking like this, I’m reminded what a sacred profession bartending is.  The bartender, with the mirrored shelves of many-colored bottles behind him, moves methodically about in his stained-glass vestibule, like a priest performing a rite.  Pouring the libations into various glasses, he listens with a reverent, sympathetic smile as the congregants recite their woes.
‘Whenever I sit at a Bar Drinking Like This’, p.3 (Kurodahan Press, 2016)

Of course, despite this heavenly vision, in Murakami’s world there are far more sinners than saints, and this clever story of a man desperate for a favour drags us a little down this path.  Needing some help to get out of a sticky situation, he trades promises and favours until luck smiles on him, as it usually does.

This story comes from a collection entitled Run, Takahashi!, where all the stories are linked by this refrain, aimed at Hiroshima Carp baseball player Yoshihiko Takahashi.  In the first story, Takahashi appears in person, but the other stories here have a less personal connection with the player.  Two see their protagonists (the first a famous author, the second a cross-dressing single dad) head off to the stadium while ‘Each Time I Read Your Confession’ has the baseball action on television in the background – where Takahashi’s attempts at stealing bases provide the backdrop to some rather gruesome action…

While the first four stories are noticeable for their light touch, the second featured collection, Topaz, is far darker.  Tokyo Decadence contains three pieces from this book, all featuring call girls.  ‘Topaz’ is a melancholy tale detailing a prostitute’s sad life, taking us through a day in the life of a woman going nowhere, while ‘Lullaby’ has the main character looking for an old flame and closure after years of regret.

‘Penlight’ starts off in a far lighter tone, as a woman with an inner voice (called Kiyomi!) blunders chaotically from one sexual encounter to another.  A coincidental meeting with a nice man who wants to help seems to offer a change from the woman’s depressing life, so why does Kiyomi suddenly fear him so much?  Never fear, gentle reader – all will be revealed, in an ending with a very R. Murakami twist ;)

The next collection, Ryū‘s Cinematheque, is slightly different in tone, with a first-person protagonist reminiscent of the hero of Murakami’s coming-of-age novel Sixty-Nine.  A young man arrives in Tokyo from the Japanese Deep South, and ‘The Last Picture Show’ sees the start of his corruption as he helps a Yakuza neighbour with some rather dubious drug deals.  ‘The Wild Angels’ then showcases his descent into debauchery, with scenes of orgies, drugs and randy GIs which could have come straight from Almost Transparent Blue.  In ‘La Dolce Vita’, we see our young friend come out of the other side of this storm as he returns to a more ‘normal life’ at university (a story à la Haruki rather than Ryū!).

Swans takes us in a different direction again as, the title story aside (which features a random lesbian encounter at a Dutch-themed amusement park…), the common thread to the stories is a woman called Mieko.  The three remaining stories are all narrated by men who become involved with the rather unhappy woman.  The best of these is, perhaps, the first, ‘Historia de un Amor’, in which a young waiter connects with her over a shared passion for Cuban dance and music, and a rejection of conventional Japanese society:

This society is steeped in the notion that we have everything we need.  I know, because I was steeped in it too until I met Jun’ichi.  The sad part is that people don’t like it when you begin to realize that something important is missing.  You can end up being ostracized, or even persecuted, like witches in the Middle Ages.
‘Historia de un Amor’, p.192

The meeting represents a chance of happiness for the unfortunate Mieko – the question is whether she’ll find the strength to take it.

The selection is rounded off by ‘At the Airport’, from the collection of the same name, where a woman (yet another prostitute) is waiting at the airport for her main client to take her on a trip to Hokkaido.  As people come and go, she stands reflecting on her life, lamenting the obstacles in the way of her dreams:

I’m a high-school graduate, thirty-three years old, divorced, raising a four-year-old child, and I work in the sex trade.  These facts define who I am and limit my freedom and possibilities.
‘At the Airport’, p.262

The man she’s waiting for takes a different view, though, and if things go well, it might just be possible to follow her dreams anyway.  This is a bitter-sweet tale, and a nice way to end the book.

While publishing a best-of collection is an interesting idea, it would have been nice to see the rest of the stories, in particular, the thematically-linked pieces of Run, Takahashi! and Swans.  Perhaps, though, it’s better this way as some of the stories (particularly those from Topaz) did seem a little similar, which may have got a little old very quickly.  This approach also allows us to see Murakami at different stages of career, showing us his development as a writer and the change in focus over the years.

In short, Tokyo Decadence is an entertaining set of stories, well worth seeking out for all J-Lit lovers (and a must for any Ryū fans out there), and if that sounds like your kind of thing, you should check out Kurodahan’s site for more.  They have a good range of books over a number of genres (e.g. Speculative Fiction and Thrillers), so there’s a good chance you’ll find something that appeals :)

‘Your Face Tomorrow 3 – Poison, Shadow and Farewell’ by Javier Marías (Review)

IMG_5385As regular readers will know, a major part of my reading over the past couple of months has been devoted to Javier Marías and his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy.  The first part was a slow, measured build up, with the intriguing (and occasionally violent) middle section ramping up the tension.  So, with the third part bringing the 1400-page epic to a close, does Marías manage to finish off the story in style?  What do you think? ;)

Warning – if you don’t want to find out about what happened in the first two books, stop reading now :)

Poison, Shadow and Farewell (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, published by Chatto & Windus) begins with our Spanish friend Jacques Deza being driven to the house of his boss, the enigmatic Bertram Tupra.  The two arrive in darkness, proceeding to continue their conversation over drinks… and then, abruptly, we are taken back to Jacques’ flat (to the point at which we left it at the end of Part 1!).  Taking up Deza’s interrupted conversation with Pérez Nuix, we learn of the story behind her request, and a whole lot more besides.

By the time we return to Tupra’s house, where the two men settle down to watch a rather disturbing DVD, the direction of the rest of the book is gradually becoming clearer, and Jacques’ eventual return to Spain feels like a culmination of the events depicted so far.  After pages of musings on the theory of violence, and then a rather unexpected practical demonstration, the time has come for the apprentice to put what he has learned into practice – if he can bring himself to do it.  For the question that pervades the book comes into focus during this visit to Madrid, with Deza having to decide whether, if we are provoked enough, the end always justifies the means…

Poison, Shadow and Farewell is an excellent way to end the series, a dismount with a double-tuck and triple-pike effortlessly nailed.  At around 550 pages, it’s far longer than the first two parts, but gripping from start to finish, providing ample pay-off for all the hard work the reader and writer have put in.  Marías (with the help of Tupra) slowly undermines our beliefs, making us question our certainty as to the way the world works, guiding us towards the eventual showdown.

The overriding theme of the book is violence, and after the scene in the nightclub toilets, Deza’s horror is scarcely contained.  He condemns Tupra’s actions, spluttering that you can’t just go around beating people up, but his boss has a surprise in store.  After showing Deza the DVD, one full of the horrendous depths of human nature, Tupra turns the Spaniard’s disgust back on to him:

“You’ve had plenty of time to think about it, so answer the question I asked you in the car.  Now that you’ve seen things you’d never seen before and, I hope, never will again.  Tell me now, why, according to you, one can’t go around beating people up and killing them?  You’ve seen how much of it goes on, everywhere, and sometimes with an utter lack of concern.  So explain to me why one can’t.”
p.166 (Chatto & Windus, 2009)

As hard as Deza tries, a convincing answer remains elusive.  Perhaps the truth is that there is nothing to stop us maiming and killing at will after all…

This revelation marks a turning point in Deza’s life, and it’s time for him to decide whether this new life is, as he claims, just a ‘parenthesis’ or his true calling.  This will be decided  on his return to Madrid when many of the earlier ideas are finally drawn together (his dreams, his memories of Luisa, even his neighbour) in the form of a potential danger to his estranged wife:

That was something I had learned from Tupra, at least in theory: Luisa was clearly in danger, and now I understood that sometimes one has no option but to do what has to be done and at once, without waiting or hesitating or delaying… (p.276)

The scene is set, the players in place – now is the time to act, swiftly and mercilessly, no lingering, no delay.

There are few works I’ve read which are as skilfully constructed as Your Face Tomorrow, a book with scarcely a word in the wrong place.  Every passing mention, every little idea is woven into the fabric of the novel, all serving a greater purpose, with minor details recurring, gently jogging our memory.  As suspected, even the drop of blood mentioned in the first part has a much deeper significance than we could have imagined (on many levels), not least because, as you might have suspected by now, yes, there will be blood – and lots of it.

Blood is not something most readers will be comfortable with, and Marías discusses this in the comparisons of war and peace.  As Deza learns, it’s almost impossible to understand what is acceptable in one situation from the standpoint of the other.  The teachers here are the two old men of the novel, and while Jacques’ father draws on the Spanish Civil War, retired spy Peter Wheeler finally lets Deza in on some of the secrets he’s been keeping regarding his actions during World War Two:

“Don’t forget, Jacobo, the Second World War felt like a battle for survival.  And it was, it really was.  And in wars like that the limits on what one can acceptably do are constantly broadening out, almost without one realising it.  Times of peace judge times of war very harshly, and I’m not sure how far it’s possible to make such a judgement…” (p.480)

Again, we are confronted with the dilemma of the ends justifying the means, one we are only too familiar with in our modern era.  Not sure about that?  Ever heard of waterboarding, rendition?

As you will have gathered from my series of posts, I loved reading this book, a magnificent novel which builds on the writer’s previous work and extends it.  There are more Shakespearean echoes, naturally, with several themes repeated from Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and a plethora of  playful nods back to All Souls.  What’s even better, though, is what happens when Deza returns to Madrid, as we unexpectedly stumble across several links to another of his earlier novels, A Heart So White (be still my beating heart!).  I was tempted to race out to the library immediately and get a copy so that I could refresh my memory as to what Ranz and Custardoy got up to first time around.

This is a book, a whole trilogy in fact, that I feel sad to be returning to the library, and I definitely want my own set one day (in preparation for the inevitable reread).  The copy I borrowed has a sticker on the spine, a picture of a pistol, because it’s a ‘spy novel’, you see, but in truth it’s something much more than that, an examination of the nature of violence, the horrors of war and of knowing our limits and those of others.  I highly recommend you make time in your schedule to lose yourself in it – if not today, then perhaps tomorrow…

January 2016 Wrap-Up

The start of a new year is always an exciting time, a blank slate and an opportunity to change January 2015 Wrap-Upyour approach.  One example of this in January was (sadly) my minimalist approach to January in Japan, eschewing a big blogging event in favour of a weekly post (which will probably continue into February).  Even with my recent decision to actively limit the number of posts I wrote, though, there were still a good number of books read and reviews posted this month.  Let’s check them out :)

Total Books Read: 16
Year-to-Date: 16

New: 12
Rereads: 4

From the Shelves: 4
Review Copies: 9
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 1 (0 review copies)

Novels: 6
Novellas: 3
Short Stories: 3
Non-Fiction: 4

Non-English Language: 15 (6 Japanese, 5 Spanish, French, Italian, Afrikaans, Korean)
In Original Language: 1 (Spanish)

Books Reviewed in January were:
1) The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong
2) Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
3) Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream by Javier Marías
4) Reading the Tale of Genji by Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane (eds.)
5) Meet at the Ark at Eight! by Ulrich Hub
6) The Swan Whisperer by Marlene Van Niekerk
7) Translator’s Blues by Franco Nasi
8) Ground Zero, Nagasaki by Yūichi Seirai
9) Cómo viajar sin ver (How to Travel Without Seeing) by Andrés Neuman
10) Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe

Tony’s Turkey for January is: Nothing

An excellent start to the new year, with a collection of entertaining, high-standard books :)

Tony’s Recommendation for January is:
Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water

It is January in Japan, of course, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see a Japanese book chosen, and I enjoyed all four of my J-Lit selections this month.  Marías was desperately unlucky to be overlooked (again…); perhaps he’ll have better luck next month when the final part of the trilogy is to be reviewed on the blog.  However, Ōe’s novel about a man thwarted in his ambition to write a late-career classic is, ironically, a late-career classic and a worthy recipient of my monthly award :)

February looks like being more of the same.  I’ll be continuing to cover some Japanese books in my Thursday posts, with an assorted selection of other stuff in between.  Let’s see what catches my eye next month :)

‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburō Ōe (Review)

IMG_5384In the course of my J-Lit travels over the first seven years of the blog, I read and reviewed three books by Kenzaburō Ōe, one of the biggest names in modern Japanese literature.  While that might sound a respectable total (and is probably three more than many readers have managed), let’s put that number into perspective.  Fellow Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata appeared six times, with eight of Yukio Mishima’s books covered.  Eleven reviews of works by Natsume Sōseki, one of the pioneers of modern J-Lit, have been posted so far (with more to come), and as for Haruki Murakami… well, let’s just say that he’s a frequent flier ;)

In short, Ōe has been shamefully neglected, and today’s post shows just how much of an oversight that has been.  Making predictions is always risky, but on the basis of my latest read, I’d like to think that there’ll be far more reviews of his books here before 2016 draws to a close…

Death by Water (translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm, review copy courtesy of Atlantic Books and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) marks a return to the world of Kogito Choko, a recurring character in Ōe’s fiction, and a thinly-veiled alter-ego.  Choko’s output has slowed down somewhat as he moves into his later years, but two unexpected events combine to galvanise his desire to write.  The first is when he (literally) bumps into a young woman, Unaiko, an actress and playwright, while walking near his Tokyo home.  The second is a call from his younger sister, Asa, in which she decides the time has come for Kogito to receive a part of his inheritance, a red leather trunk.  The importance of the trunk lies in what it contains, important documents which might help the writer begin a project he’s been planning for decades – a book about his father’s death:

So why didn’t I go ahead and start to draft the book?  Because I realized clearly that I didn’t possess the literary finesse to pull it off.  But even while I was floundering around, not at all certain that I would be able to survive as a young novelist, I remained essentially optimistic.  Someday, I vowed, I will write the drowning novel.
p.7 (Atlantic Books, 2015)

With the appearance of the trunk, the time has finally come to begin work on the novel, and Choko sets off for Shikoku to visit the family home once more.

However, it’s fair to say that things don’t go as planned.  The trunk doesn’t have the documents he needs, something his sister and late mother suspected all along.  Disappointed, he returns to Tokyo where things suddenly fall apart.  Kogito has a major argument with Akari, his mentally-disabled son, and before he can make things right, he is struck down by illness.  Recovering slowly at home, the writer senses that he may be gradually approaching the end, not just of his career, but also of his life.  Does he have time to resolve his unfinished affairs?

The over-arching theme of Death by Water is of a writer desperate to create a late-career classic, so it is only fitting in this meta-fictional world that this is exactly what Ōe has achieved with his novel.  The slow, innocuous start belies the complexity of what is to unfold, a story spanning a whole life (and others before).  Ōe focuses on his country’s dark history, intertwining his own family background with that of Japan, before turning towards an examination of gender issues and the way women and war are inextricably linked on both a local and national level.

Large parts of Death by Water take place at Choko’s family home on Shikoku.  For anyone who has read his early novel The Silent Cry, Ōe’s description of the house, located in the middle of the woods, will be very familiar.  There are also echoes of the earlier book in The Caveman Group, a self-sufficient theatre troupe planning an adaptation of the writer’s final book when it’s completed.  In the vaguely militaristic way the group organises its activities, we see the heirs of the bored youths looking for a project in The Silent Cry, but also of the frustrated locals during the war wondering what they can do to halt their country’s decline.

Choko has been obsessed by his father’s story his whole life, haunted by a dream of seeing him float away in a small boat at night, and the absence of his father’s papers in the red trunk is a severe blow to his hopes of completing his novel.  However, slowly other viewpoints of the fateful night do appear;  he finally gets to hear his mother’s side of the story (second-hand from Asa) as well as the testimony of Daio, one of Choko senior’s followers:

The truth is, Kogito, by the time your father reached the stage of talking about dispatching a kamikaze bomber to target the center of Tokyo, where the palace is, I think he had already resolved to end his own life, one way or another.  I didn’t have the courage to tell you this before, but I never thought Choko Sensei was the type of man who would live a long, uneventful life and die a peaceful death in his own bed.  To be honest, I don’t believe his drowning was an accident at all. (p.309)

These accounts have the effect of stripping the mystique surrounding the deceased, disillusioning the writer.  Just what kind of man was his father, really?  Has Choko been chasing a ghost all along?

This personal disappointment is eventually put to one side, though, as the story takes on a wider, more political slant.  One strand to the plot is of the menace of the right, with Choko senior’s crazed war-time plot to kill the Emperor merging into more contemporary concerns.  As Unaiko continues work on her recreation of a local feminist uprising, it becomes clear that the hard-line nationalists are still influential, willing to get their hands dirty to defend their values.

As the story progresses, this right-wing slant increasingly clashes with the feminist aspect of the novel.  Death by Water has a range of strong female characters, most of whom are far more vividly drawn than the main male protagonists.  There’s Kogito’s forceful younger sister, his wife and even his late mother.  Then, of course, there’s Unaiko, a woman who represents the focus of the female resistance to the mainly male right-wing tendencies.  Her battle to stage the play, a recreation of a real-life event in which local women rose up against oppressors, leads to an inevitable clash with those who want the past to stay hidden:

Of course Unaiko is absolutely determined to stand her ground and deal directly with the neonationalists’ catcalls and objections and so on, during the performance and afterward as well.  To that end, she added a couple of lines to the battle-cry recitative and tweaked the last line a bit.  So now it will be: Men commit rape – that’s nothing new / But countries can be rapists, too. / Women warriors, here we go / Off to vanquish every foe! (p.349)

Many of these ideas can be linked back to an early anecdote, when Unaiko falls ill on a visit to Yasukuni Shrine during her teens.  It’s only hundreds of pages later that we understand, and are horrified by, the significance of the illness – and the location…

While these gender and culture struggles dominate the second half of the book, though, Death by Water is still very much a reworking and reimagining of Ōe’s own life: as a writer (several of Ōe’s own books are attributed to Choko); as father to a musically-gifted, mentally-impaired son; and as the brother-in-law of a film-maker who committed suicide.  Choko is a writer preparing for death and starting to wonder what his legacy is, how he is seen.  Throughout the book, I found myself grasping to pull together allusions, constantly wishing I’d read all of his books, as Ōe borrows freely from his entire oeuvre.  In fact, this is Choko’s fifth outing (with a sixth recently appearing in Japanese), and while Anglophone readers can try his first outing (The Changeling), as yet the remaining books have not been translated – which is rather annoying.

Death by Water starts slowly, but by the end, I was racing through, enthralled by the way the writer manages to cover so many disparate themes over the course of 420 pages – and come up with a truly stunning climax.  This is a book which has you desperate to go back and read the writer’s back catalogue, and it’s hard to come up with higher praise than that.  Yes, I’ve definitely neglected Ōe a little over the years, but if Death by Water proves anything it’s that it’s never too late to make up for lost time…

‘Cómo viajar sin ver’ (‘How to Travel without Seeing’) by Andrés Neuman (Review)

viajarLast week, I described how the first of my blogging resolutions for 2016, that of reading one Anglophone book a month, was broken in the first month of the year.  However, I managed to get another of my resolutions off to a better start, namely reading one book each month in a foreign language.  As regular readers will no doubt be aware, that usually means trying something in French or German, but I do occasionally push myself and read something in Spanish too, which is a far more challenging undertaking – and one I put myself through for one writer in particular ;)

That writer is, of course, Andrés Neuman, and today we’re looking at his work of non-fiction, Cómo viajar sin ver (How to Travel without Seeing).  After winning the Premio Alfaguara for Traveller of the Century, Neuman was invited on a promotional tour of Latin America, and Cómo viajar sin ver is a collection of reflections from his whirlwind trip.

While initially disappointed at how short his stay in each place was, Neuman decided to turn this to his advantage in his writing:

La idea consistía en tomar notas literalmente al vuelo.  Si viajaba volando, así debía escribir.  Si iba a pasarme meses en aeropuertos, hoteles, lugares de paso, lo verdaderamente estético sería aceptar ese punto de partida y tratar de buscarle su propia literatura.  No forzar la ecritura sino adpatarla a ese tiempo, a los tiempos.  Así la forma del viaje y la forma del diario serían idénticas.
(Alfaguara, 2012)

The idea consisted of taking notes on the fly, literally.  If I was making a flying visit, it should be described as such.  If I were to spend months in airports and hotels, in transit, the truly aesthetic response would be to accept this departure point and attempt to find a fitting form of literature.  Not to force the writing, but to adapt it to this tempo, to these movements.  In that way, the shape of the journey and of the diary would be identical. *** (my feeble translation…)

Rather than describing the usual tourist destinations, he decides to ‘travel without seeing’, his book a collection of observations that say more about the traveller than about the places he visits.

Starting in Buenos Aires (Neuman’s home town), we then zig-zag across South America, up to Central America and even to Miami at one point.  As we pass through the countries and cities, the writer points out the similarities and differences in his inimitable manner.  Slowly, however, the light tone shows hints of darkness underneath; as it turns out, it’s not all laughter and sunshine in Latin-America.

Ever since first stumbling across Traveller of the Century, Neuman has been one of my favourite writers, and I’m always keen to try more of his work.  Having read all three of the books translated into English thus far, however, I had no choice but to dust off my rusty Spanish, charge up my Kindle (with a free Spanish dictionary loaded) and dive in.  It wasn’t always easy, but I was helped by the structure, with the book consisting of a series of short passages (very similar to those in the writer’s blog, Microrréplicas).  As always, whether I got every nuance is questionable; on the whole, though, I’m sure I got the vibe of the book :)

One thing I certainly picked up on, especially early on, is the humour.  Many of the jokes are at Neuman’s own expense, especially when it comes to his split identity:

Aeropuerto de Barajas, Terminal 4. “Hola, señor, hola”, me aborda la muchacha del traje inenarrable y los folletos en la mano, “¿es usted español o extranjero?”.  No lo sé, le contesto con distraída sinceridad.  Ella se aleja ofendida.

Barajas Airport, Terminal 4.  “Hello, excuse me, sir”, I was addressed by a woman in an indescribable outfit holding a bunch of leaflets, “Are you a Spaniard or a foreigner?”.  I don’t know, I relied with distracted sincerity.  She marched off, offended. ***

An innocent mistake, and an understandable one considering his upbringing.  This won’t be the last time, he’ll find himself a little lost and confused either…

One of the main focuses of the book is language and literature, and at times Cómo viajar sin ver seems to be as much about the author’s reading as his travels, with Neuman sampling the best each of the countries has to offer.  There are quotations aplenty, prose and poetry, a good gender balance and a mix between famous names (Bolaño, for example) and several more obscure writers.  In Paraguay, he even discusses a recent translation – or adaptation – of Don Quixote into the indigenous Guaraní language.  If you want to widen your knowledge of Latin-American literature, you could certainly do worse than take Uncle Andrés’ advice.

Of course, what helps Neuman in his literary travels is the language all of these countries share.  It’s amazing when you think about it, a whole raft of neighbouring countries speaking Spanish, a chain of states divided by a common tongue.  This is another topic the writer frequently comments on, giving examples of differences in the varieties and dialects of Spanish across the Atlantic. Bi-dialectal himself, his language changes as he flies back and forth, the ‘z’ sound emerging and disappearing, ‘buenos días’ replaced by ‘buen díííía’ the moment he sets foot on Argentine soil.

It’s not all observations on language, though.  The writer also examines the societies he visits for differences and similarities, concluding that globalisation is gradually taking its toll on the region.  As he moves from country to country, it sometimes appears as if he’s standing still:

Hoy el mayor de todos los contagios es el de los temas de conversación.  En Santiago se habla, oh sorpresa, de crisis financiera y gripe A.  ¿El avión habrá volado?  Me pregunto si moverse es lo mismo que viajar.

Today, the greatest of all contagions is that of topics of conversation.  In Santiago, people are discussing, quelle surprise, the financial crisis and swine flu.  Did the plane ever take off?  I ask myself if going somewhere is the same as travelling. ***

This is one of the lesser consequences of globalisation.  Later in his trip, Neuman learns of far more serious effects, such as the devastation wrought on the people (and the environment) by multinational companies with little regard for human rights or the law of the land they have imposed upon.

There is an even darker side to the story, though, and Neuman gradually dwells less on linguistic oddities and football anecdotes, and more on serious issues.  There are frequent mentions of the struggles of indigenous people, for example in Paraguay and Mexico.  We also hear in passing of the Colombian drug wars (and the very dangerous FARC).  Yet everyday life can be just as dangerous, as the writer discovers in Guatemala:

He olvidado mi paraguas en la habitación y me dispongo a buscarlo, pero él me detiene con una sonrisa indulgente.  “No hace falta el paraguas” me dice, “no lo vas a usar”.  “En Guatemala”, agrega, “no se camina”.  Asiento y suspiro.  Estos nubarrones inundan medio continente.

I’ve left my umbrella in my room, and I set off to look for it, but he stops me with an indulgent smile.  “There’s no need for an umbrella” he says, “you won’t use it.”  “In Guatemala,” he continues, “nobody walks.”  I sit down and sigh.  These clouds cast a shadow over half the continent. ***

In a country wracked with social violence, a simple walk outside turns out to be slightly more challenging than one might have thought…

Cómo viajar sin ver is a cleverly constructed book, a work where despite everything appearing random, the truth is that it is anything but.  Subtly layered and building in intensity, Neuman’s ‘diary’ mentions topics in brief, only for them to continually reappear.  Football is one (of course!), as is the flu epidemic following him around the continent, but a major recurring theme is the news at the start of his journey of a coup in Honduras.  This is a story that won’t go away, and one that will eventually halt Neuman’s progress in his tour of the Americas.

Some serious stuff, then, but the mood is strategically lightened when required.  There’s the odd beer or two, many an hour spent lost in bookshops and several jokes at the writer’s expense.  A good example of this is when Neuman is torn between wanting clean underwear and the possibility of angering trigger-happy US airport officials.  You see, the shop assistant forgot to remove the tag from the underwear he bought, and fearing a scene at the airport, our friend decides that discretion is the better part of valour, dumping $20 worth of grey cotton in the bin and continuing to smell.

Sadly, Cómo viajar sin ver is unlikely to make its way into English any time soon, the combination of obscure (for us) literary references and the fact that there’s very little description of the places he visits probably giving any potential publisher pause for thought.  While I hope that I’m wrong, it might be best to check out the original if your Spanish is up to it – it’s a great book to dip into, one for all vicarious travellers.  What’s more, despite Neuman’s claim in his title, you sense that he did see a fair bit while travelling, meaning that the reader also gets a good look at Latin-America.  ‘Cómo viajar sin ver’?  Not quite.  In fact, for the grateful reader, it’s more a case of ‘cómo ver sin viajar’ – gracias, Señor Neuman ;)

‘Ground Zero, Nagasaki’ by Yūichi Seirai (Review)

IMG_5381Last year, when January in Japan was running properly, one of the kind contributors to our Golden Kin-Yōbi competition series was Columbia University Press, providing a couple of copies of a collection of short stories which they had recently released.  While I was also lucky enough to be sent a personal copy, I never actually managed to get around to reading it last year.  Still, better late than never – good books never go out of date.  And today’s choice, I can assure you, is a very good book, one which looks at Japan from a slightly different angle…

Yūichi Seirai’s Ground Zero, Nagasaki (translated by Paul Warham) is a collection of six stories set in the  southern Japanese city, the site of the world’s second war-time atomic explosion.  Nagasaki has a further distinction, though, in that it was once the only gateway to the outside world in feudal-era Japan, and through this gateway came Christianity.  Once the inevitable crackdown on the foreign faith came, many people died for their beliefs, and there are still many Christians in the city today whose ancestors managed to practice their faith in secret – and survive.

The lengthy background given above is important as all of the stories contained in Ground Zero, Nagasaki have these twin themes of the bomb and the cross prominently displayed.  The writer is a Catholic himself, and this emphasis on faith is clear from the very first story, ‘Nails‘, the shortest piece in the collection.  It gradually reveals the extent of a family tragedy, with a religious elderly couple still struggling to come to terms with their son’s actions (and his loss of faith):

“Tell me, Daddy: Do you believe in God?”
My body stiffened, and I sat bolt upright.  What kind of thing was that to say?  I began to shout.
“Of course I do!  This family has always believed.  Our ancestors gave their lives for the faith!”
With his long fingernails, he wiped away a spot of yellow cream from the corner of his mouth and licked it as he spoke.
“And you call me deluded?”
‘Nails’, p,12 (Columbia University Press, 2015)

As the old couple search their son’s old hut for clues to his descent into madness, they stumble across old documents which might prove useful – before coming up against a sturdy, locked door…

The other five stories are much longer pieces, most running to at least thirty pages, and this allows Seirai to introduce his ideas at a measured pace.  A good example of this is ‘Stone’, in which a mentally-disabled man spends the day in an expensive hotel waiting to see an old friend, a politician he has known since the pair’s school days.  Unfortunately, he’s picked a bad day for the visit – the politician is in the process of announcing his resignation after the discovery of his affair with an aide.  There’s an interesting juxtaposition of this breach of marital vows with the first man’s attraction to a reporter – and his desperation to touch her.

More explicitly sexual is ‘Honey’, in which a bored housewife with an older husband attempts to seduce a young worker, inviting him up to her house with one thing on her mind.  After having set the trap, though, she begins to have second thoughts.  For one thing, she lives with her in-laws, decent people and devout Christians (far more so than the woman herself).  There’s also the small matter of the timing.  Even someone as frustrated and desperate as she is comes to realise that the day she has chosen for her tryst, the anniversary of the blasts, is ever-so-slightly inappropriate…

Inevitably the date of the 9th of August plays a role in many of the stories, with particular importance in ‘Shells’.  This story has a slightly different style, with more than a hint of Haruki Murakami, especially at the start.  We meet a man separated from his wife after the death of his daughter, still traumatised by the loss of his child, every night imagining a tide sweeping over the city:

But the flood I’m thinking of has nothing to do with tsunamis; it’s more like a quietly rising tide.  The waves move inland, sea bleeding into sea, silently flooding the roads, engulfing the cars – and most people keep right on sleeping and don’t notice a thing.  All in absolute darkness, like a lunar eclipse.
‘Shells’, p.139

Gradually, he learns of a connection between his daughter and an old woman from the neighbourhood, finding out more about the reasons for his nocturnal visions.  Just as events begin to fall into place, however, the tale ends with a surprising revelation.

The remaining two stories both involve older people with one eye on the past.  In ‘Insects’, a 75-year-old woman receives a postcard from an old ‘friend’, the woman who stole the man she loved decades earlier.  Again, we return to the twin themes of the collection, with memories of how the protagonist was crippled in the blast, and her illicit later tryst with her dream man, a moment snatched literally in the shadow of their faith.  With her life coming to an end, the woman decides that it’s time to tell the truth, a belated confession in the darkness of the night.

The final story, ‘Birds’, is perhaps the most successful.  Starting with an old couple in a creaky house (and several strange noises coming from the roof), we are pulled in several directions with different timelines.  There are the memories of the man’s escape from Nagasaki as a young boy; the conflict with his adopted family in later years; the mystery of his origins; and a story about the spirit of his mother, one which will come back to haunt him the next day.  This is a story of generations and families, but also a subtle warning to a society on the verge of forgetting the horrors of the past.

I mentioned Murakami above, and another connection here is the way this collection is thematically-linked, written to work through the trauma of a disaster.  Even if Ground Zero, Nagasaki appeared rather longer after the fact, I couldn’t help but compare it to after the quake, another book written to address an open wound (this time regarding the Kobe earthquake).  This personal element certainly enhances the quality of the book, and the writing is invariably calm and measured, with a translation which reads excellently.  The Christian element stands out if (like me) you’re not really religious, especially in the first couple of stories, but it’s a vital part of the book and is carefully woven into the stories.

Many readers will be drawn to Ground Zero, Nagasaki either because of the allusions to the atomic bomb or the Christian background to the book.  However, there’s a lot more to it than that, and even if those ideas put you off slightly, I’d recommend you give Seirai’s collection a chance.  On the basis of this book, I’d like to think that there’ll be more of his work in English soon – let’s hope it doesn’t take too long :)