Tag Archives: Japan

The Gate by Natsume Söseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

There is something very compelling about Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, the sort of quiet, contemplative novel I find myself increasingly drawn to these days. At first sight, it may seem a relatively uneventful tale of an ordinary Japanese couple trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, everything is happening here; we just have to tune in to the author’s style in order to see it.

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First published in Japan in 1910, The Gate revolves around the lives of Sösuke, a lowly clerk in the Japanese civil service, and his wife of six years, Oyone. As the novel opens, Sösuke is relaxing on the veranda of his home in Tokyo; it is Sunday, his one day of rest. Before long Sösuke sets out for a walk on his own, and in the process of this excursion, we learn a little more about his situation, in particular his mindset and outlook on life. It soon becomes clear that the monotonous routine of life as a commuter has left Sösuke mentally paralysed and physically drained. As he strolls around the city, it is as if he has never really noticed his surroundings before. In time, the gaiety and sense of ease he notices in those around him only serve to highlight the dreariness of his existence, and as the afternoon draws to close he is reminded of the inevitable stresses of the week ahead.

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that had accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work – the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large, all but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “Nonaka-san, over here, please…” (pp. 14-15)

From the opening pages of the novel, there is a sense of detachment about Sösuke, as if he is merely existing in the world rather than participating in it. As the story unfolds, we start to hear a little more about his backstory and the reasons behind his current demeanour. Although Sösuke and Oyone are still very young (late twenties, I think), they seem stuck in a form of stasis that one usually associates with middle age. Once a quick-witted and lively young man, Sösuke now seems to have accepted his lot in life. In time we learn that some years earlier Sösuke was forced to abandon his studies at university following a scandal that had emerged at the time, a sequence of events that ultimately resulted in strained relations with his family. There is a darkness in Sösuke and Oyone’s shared past, something shameful that seems to have haunted their lives ever since.

Moreover, the novel raises the idea that fate may be punishing this couple for their previous misdemeanours by failing to grant them a child, or at least one that survives for more than a few days. (Three pregnancies have ended in tragedy, a source of much sadness particularly for Oyone as she feels the burden of guilt very deeply.) As a consequence of all this, Sösuke and Oyone have cut themselves off from the wider society, avoiding all unnecessary contact with others wherever possible.

In their effort to avoid the stress that comes with living in a complex society, they eventually cut themselves off from access to diverse experiences that such a society affords, and in so doing came to forfeit, in effect, the prerogatives regularly enjoyed by civilized people. […] That they nonetheless lived out each and every day with the same stoical spirit was not because they had from the outset lost all interest in the wider world. Rather, it was because the wider world, after having isolated the two of them from all else, persisted in turning a cold shoulder. Blocked from extending themselves outward, they began developing more deeply within themselves. What their life together had lost in breadth it gained in depth. (pp. 132-133)

Much of the tension in The Gate centres on a problem relating to the support and education of Sösuke’s younger brother, the rather selfish and impatient Koroku. When Sösuke’s father died some years earlier, he left a house along with significant debts. Not having the mental resources to deal with the situation at the time, Sösuke handed the estate over to his uncle to sort out on the understanding that part of the legacy was to go towards funding Koroku’s school fees. Now the uncle has also died leaving the issue of what, if any, funds are due to Sösuke completely unresolved. What’s more, Sösuke’s aunt claims that she is no longer in a position to be able to continue with the payments for Koroku’s education as the money previously provided by Sösuke has run out – the implication being that Sösuke should step in and assume responsibility for Koroku’s school fees. Needless to say, this is an expense that he and Oyone simply cannot afford. As Sösuke wrestles with this problem, we sense his unwillingness to tackle the issue head on. Rather, he gravitates towards a position of inaction, preferring instead to put off any possible discussion with his aunt for fear of sparking a conflict.

All the same, once every day or so, the figure of Koroku hovered indistinctly at the back of his mind and triggered the reaction, for the moment at least, that he must give serious consideration to his brother’s future. The next moment, however, he invariably stifled the thought on the grounds that there really was no cause for haste. Thus Sösuke passed the days, unable to dispel the nagging sense of indecision lodged in his breast. (pp. 47-48)

Sösuke’s reluctance to resolve this matter proves to be a constant source of frustration to Koroku, a feeling that only continues to burrow away as the weeks and months slip by. In particular, Koroku finds it annoying to see his brother lazing around doing nothing on a Sunday afternoon when instead he could be off visiting his aunt with the aim of resolving the question of funding once and for all. This element of the story also enables Söseki to draw the comparison between the old Japan (as represented by the quiet, traditional and unassuming Sösuke) and the new, emerging economy (typified by Sösuke’s cousin, the bright, dynamic and enterprising Yasunosuke).

The cruelty of fate is a running theme here. At one point, a chance conversation between Sösuke and his kindly landlord threatens to cleave open old wounds from the past, a development which prompts Sösuke to seek spiritual enlightenment in an attempt to ease his anxiety.

For all its quietness and sense of understatement, The Gate is a very powerful novel. There is a feeling of tension and pain running through the narrative, of things unsaid or pushed to one side. Nevertheless, despite all their troubles, Sösuke and Oyone love one another very deeply; they share a warm intimacy, taking comfort and strength from one another in their simple surroundings. While they hold out little hope for a brighter future, at least they have each other.

As was their habit the couple drew near the lamplight. In the whole wide world this spot where they sat together felt like the only source of brightness. In the light that shone from the lamp Sösuke was conscious only of Oyone, Oyone only of Sösuke. They forgot the dark world of human affairs, which lay beyond the lamp’s power to illuminate. It was through spending each evening this way that as time passed they had found their own life together. (pg. 58)

In spite of its beautifully melancholy tone, the novel ends with the arrival of spring and signs of better days ahead for this couple. Nevertheless, Sösuke knows that everything in life in cyclical, and before long it will be winter again – what goes around comes around.

Seamus at Vapour Trails has written a great review of this one, which you can read hereEmma has been reading Söseki’s I Am a Cat – I’ll add a link once her billet is availableUpdate: You can read Emma’s fascinating review here – do take a look.

The Gate is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (tr. Michael Emmerich)

Yasushi Inoue’s career as a novelist began in 1949 when at the age of forty-two he published the novella The Hunting Gun. This was closely followed by another novella, Bullfight, which I reviewed back in November 2014. Inoue went on to write 50 novels and more than 150 novellas/short stories, making him one of the leading figures in the world of Japanese literature. Sadly for those us in the English-speaking world, only a handful of Inoue’s works appear to be have been translated. All credit then to Pushkin Press for publishing English translations of three of his books in the past few years (the third is a collection of three short stories, Life of a Counterfeiter).

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The opening chapter of The Hunting Gun is narrated by a writer, a man who relates the story of a prose poem he has composed for inclusion in a magazine titled ‘The Hunter’s Friend’. The narrator, no fan of blood sports himself, was originally approached by the magazine’s editor, an old classmate from high school, with the suggestion of contributing a piece. Following the publication of his poem (titled ‘The Hunting Gun’), the narrator receives a letter from Misugi Jösuke, a man who believes he is the central figure depicted in the work. Misugi suspects that the poet may have seen him when he visited the hunting grounds on Mount Amagi in early November. When the narrator casts his mind back to that time, he recalls seeing a figure in that very spot, a tall, middle-aged man who seemed to radiate an aura of solitude.

He had just stepped off the path onto a road that led through a dense wood up into the mountains, and as I watched him go, treading cautiously, one slow step at a time, taking care that his rubber boots did not slip on the surface of the road, which was fairly steep, something in his figure had suggested the profound loneliness I had described in “The Hunting Gun”.  (pgs. 16-17)

Misugi goes on to explain that he would like the narrator to understand the ‘desolate, dried-up riverbed’ he glimpsed within him that November morning. He has in his possession three letters – which he will forward to the narrator under separate cover – each one addressed to him personally, each one composed by a different woman in his life. Together these three letters tell quite a story, and their contents form the remainder of Inoue’s novella.

The first of the three letters is from Misugi’s niece, Shōku. From the opening page, we learn that her mother died fairly recently, and she is writing to her uncle to thank him for his help with the funeral arrangements. That said, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Shōku is now aware of the secrets her mother, Saiko, had been keeping until her death, secrets that concern Misugi, information she could not bring herself to discuss with her uncle face-to-face. Consequently, her letter is infused with a deep sadness, a sense of melancholy and numbness as the words flow across the page.

Ever since I read Mother’s diary, I’ve started noticing that maybe two or three times a day, or sometimes even five or six, the whole natural world, everything around me, is suddenly awash with a sad colour, as if the sun is setting. All I have to do is remember you and Mother and my world is completely transformed. (pg. 23)

Next we have Midori’s letter. Midori is Misugi’s wife, albeit in name alone. Unbeknownst to her husband, Midori has known about Misugi and Saiko’s secret for thirteen years, having observed them from a distance at various points in time, a fact she now makes clear in her letter. Midori’s letter exposes the depth of her pain. The tone is cool and detached, and her distaste for her husband is plain to see.

You live, I think it is fair to say, a life entirely free of loneliness. You are not one to yearn for companionship the moment you are on your own. You may sometimes look bored, but never lonesome. And you have a tendency to see things in an oddly clear-cut fashion, and to be absolutely convinced of the superiority of your own views. You may say this is merely a sign of confidence, but watching you one is possessed somehow by an urge to seize you and give you a shake. In a word, I suppose one might describe you as a man utterly intolerable to women, completely devoid of an endearingly human side, who in no way makes it worth the trouble of doing you the favour of falling for you. (pg 48)

Finally, we have Saiko’s letter written shortly before her death, a letter she leaves for Misugi to open once she has gone. This is a poignant missive of love, the act of loving another and being loved in return. It is punctuated with beautiful images, the landscape and mountains, the leaves on the trees.

It was a sort of trick of the season, perhaps, that moment in November, and of the time of day, shortly before dusk. An effect of the particular atmosphere that day in late autumn, after an afternoon of intermittent drizzle—an array of colours so rich it was as if the whole mountain were dreaming them, colours so beautiful they made us afraid at the thought that we were going to climb up there, up the side of the mountain. Thirteen years have passed since then, yet the touching beauty of those leaves, on all the different trees, rises up before me as if I were there at this moment. (pg.79)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, each letter reveals further details about Misugi’s story, his relationship with Saiko and the events leading up to her death. It’s a technique that works very well here as each new revelation casts a little more light on the situation, thereby enabling us to see things from a range of different perspectives. As the story draws to a close, we return briefly to the narrator for his reflections on Misugi, the figure who, when he glimpsed him that day in late autumn, seemed to capture something of the solitude of the human condition.

The Hunting Gun is a very affecting little story of illicit love, deceit, secrets, loneliness and loss. As young Shōku observes in her letter to Misugi, love isn’t always the shimmering, sparkling emotion she had previously believed it to be; there are other kinds of love, too, such as the love that stretches out secretly ‘like an underground channel deep under the earth’ .

Distinctly Japanese in its themes and style, this is a book that would suit lovers of quiet, introspective fiction. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Yasunari Kawabata, whose novella Beauty and Sadness I’ve reviewed here.

A couple of other bloggers have reviewed Inoue’s novella – here are links to reviews by Tony Malone and Tony Messenger.

The Hunting Gun is published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata (review)

A few years ago I read Kawabata’s Snow Country, a delicate and restrained story of a relationship between a Japanese man and a geisha living in the snowy mountains. It’s a beautiful novella, and with Tony’s January in Japan event well underway, the time was right for me to try another by this author.

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First published in 1975, Beauty and Sadness opens with a journey: a trip by train and a journey into the past. Oki, an author in his mid-fifties, is travelling by train from to Kyoto to hear the New Year’s Eve bells. For some time he has been tempted by the prospect of being in Kyoto to hear the ‘living sound’ of the old temple bells, an event he usually listens to on the radio. But Oki has another reason for journeying to Kyoto: he longs to reconnect with his former lover, Otoko, a woman he has not seen for more than twenty years, a woman he still loves.

What were memories? What was the past that he remembered so clearly? When Otoko moved to Kyoto with her mother, Oki was sure they had parted. Yet had they, really? He could not escape the pain of having spoiled her life, possibly of having robbed her of every chance for happiness. But what had she thought of him as she spent all those lonely years? The Otoko of his memories was the most passionate woman he had ever known. And did not the vividness even now of those memories mean that she was not separated from him? (pg. 11)

At the age of fifteen Otoko fell in love with Oki, who was married with a young son at the time of the affair. Otoko fell pregnant, but her baby was born prematurely only to die shortly after the birth. As a result, Otoko experienced a breakdown attempting to take her own life in the process. Once the girl had recovered, her mother moved the family to Kyoto in an effort to put some distance between the two former lovers. These events were very painful for Otoko and to this day she remains haunted by the loss of Oki and their baby.

Oki, on the other hand, turned their story into a novel, A Girl of Sixteen, causing tension and pain to his own family as a result. The novel, which featured an idealised vision of Otoko, remains Oki’s most successful work. Praised by critics and loved by readers, the book could be considered a double-edged sword. While the novel’s proceeds helped fund an education for Oki’s children, the story itself has left its mark on his wife.

Returning to the present, Otoko (now aged thirty-nine) is a successful artist living in Kyoto with her young protégé, fellow artist and lover, Keiko. During Oki’s visit to Kyoto, he meets with Otoko and Keiko. When we are first introduced to Keiko, there are hints of darkness in her personality: Oki considers her to be ‘disturbingly beautiful’, a description which reappears during the story. Alongside this, Otoko’s portrayal of Keiko’s artistic style reinforces an unsettling sense of imbalance:

‘She does abstract paintings in a style all her own. They’re so passionate they often seem a little mad. But I’m quite taken with them; I envy her. You can see her tremble as she paints.’ (pg. 13)

Despite her relationship with Keiko, Otoko still harbours deep feelings for Oki. Aware of Otoko’s history with Oki, Keiko sets out to gain revenge on Oki and his family for the pain and hurt he has caused Otoko. Consequently, Keiko attempts to insert herself between the two former lovers, and when Otoko realises what is happening this only serves to rekindle her old love for Oki:

Their love was like a dreamlike flower that not even Keiko could stain. (pg. 85)

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Keiko’s destructive actions will have ramifications for all. She sets out to seduce Oki; his son, Taichiro, is drawn into her web. Even Otoko may succumb.

The Keiko who seemed to be under her control had turned into some strange creature attacking her. Keiko had said she would take revenge on Oki for her sake, but to Otoko it seemed Keiko was taking revenge on her. (pg. 76)

Beauty and Sadness is another subtle and poignant novella from Kawabata. On the surface, the author appears to use the lightest of brushstrokes in his writing, but the emotions in this story run deep. The intense pain of loss is echoed by the melancholy sound of the temple bells. Rarely has a book’s title captured the tone of its story so perfectly.

The writing is exquisite. One of the things I love about this novella is the way Kawabata draws on Otoko’s and Keiko’s art as means of illustrating their feelings. At one point in the story, Otoko expresses a desire to paint a tea plantation – this harks back to her memories of the period following her separation from Oki, a time when she travelled by rail between Tokyo and Kyoto. As she looked at tea fields from the train window, the sadness of parting from Oki suddenly weighed heavily on her:

She could not say why these rather inconspicuous green slopes had so touched her heart, when along the railway line there were mountains, lakes, the sea –at time even clouds dyed in sentimental colours. But perhaps their melancholy green, and the melancholy evening shadows of the ridges across them, had brought on the pain. (pg. 36)

As I touched on earlier, Keiko’s art also captures a sense of her personality. Here’s a description of Plum Tree, one of two paintings she leaves with Oki’s family as an ominous gift for Otoko’s former lover. It features a single plum blossom with both red and white petals, each of the red petals painted in ‘an odd combination of dark and light shades of red’:

The shape of this large plum blossom was not especially distorted, but it gave no impression of being a static decorative design. A strange apparition seemed to be swaying back and forth. It looked as if it were really swaying. Perhaps that was because of the background, which at first Oki had taken for thick, overlapping sheets of ice and then on closer inspection had seen as a range of snowy mountains. […] The background might be an image of Keiko’s own feeling. Even if you took it as cascading snowy mountains it was not a cold snow-white. The cold of the snow and its warm color made a kind of music. The snow was not a uniform white, many colors seemed to be harmonised in it. It had the same tonality as the variations of red and white in the blossom’s petals. Whether you thought of the picture as cold or warm, the plum blossom throbbed with the youthful emotions of the painter. (pg. 29)

That’s a long quote, but I hope it gives a flavour of Kawabata’s style and the way he uses imagery and colour within the story. By so doing, he leaves some scope for the reader to draw their own interpretation from the picture.

This powerful story touches on the dark side of desire, repressed passions and the complex nature of our relationship with love. As the narrative builds, there is a sense of foreboding; the ending is devastating and poignant leaving the reader to imagine the reverberations to come. Like Snow Country, this is a nuanced novella, one I’d like to reread.

I’ll finish with a final passage I liked; Kawabata captures the landscape and light so beautifully and once again his prose has the feel of a painting. As the colours mingle, the images emerge as if painted in a watercolour:

The glow spread high in the western sky. The richness of the purple made him wonder if there might be a thin bank of clouds. A purple sunset was most unusual. There were subtle graduations of color from dark to light, as if blended by trailing a wide brush across wet rice paper. The softness of the purple implied the coming of spring. At one place the haze was pink. That seems to be where the sun was setting. (pg. 16)

Beauty and Sadness (tr. by Howard S. Hibbert) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20 in my #TBR20.

Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue

I first read Bullfight in January, and a recent reread confirms that it’s very likely to make my end-of-year list. A superb little novella, Bullfight is the second work by Japanese journalist, literary editor and author Yasushi Inoue, first published in 1949 and now available as a new edition from Pushkin Press. It really is a thing of beauty, small and perfectly formed in many ways.

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The novella is set in Osaka between the final months of 1946 and January 1947, a city in the early stages of economic recovery following the Second World War. As the story opens we meet our main character Tsugami, editor-in-chief of the Osaka New Evening Post, a novel breed of newspaper focused on culture and entertainment, and targeted towards ‘urban intellectuals and salarymen.’ On the surface, Tsugami appears rational and efficient. Under his stewardship, the paper has achieved a certain level of success, its fresh approach proving popular amongst readers looking for something different to the ‘oafish’ papers of the wartime era. Beneath this exterior, however, lurks a somewhat impulsive side to the editor’s character, an aspect visible only to his lover, Sakiko, the woman with whom he has been living on and off for three years:

“No one else knows you have this side to you,” she would say when she was feeling happy. “This sneak, sloppy unsavoury side…” (pg. 24, Pushkin Press)

Against this backdrop, Tsugami receives an intriguing business proposition; he is approached by Tashiro, who announces himself as ‘President of Umewaka Entertainment’ even though he is in truth ‘as sly a showman as any you were likely to find.’ Nevertheless, Tashiro’s proposal is a tempting one; he wishes to organise a three-day bull sumo tournament to bring the sport into the city spotlight, and he offers Tsugami an exclusive sponsorship deal: an equal share in the profits from ticket sales should his newspaper agree to co-fund and promote the event.

All at once, in the most natural manner, Tashiro had caused the scene to rise up before Tsugami like a frame from a movie: the vast modern bleachers at Hanshin Stadium or Köroen Stadium; the contest between two living creatures playing itself out within a bamboo enclosure at the center; the riveted spectators; the loudspeakers; the bundles of bills; the rocking, cheering waves of people…It was a slow-moving, cold but distinctly palpable picture, executed in lead. After that, Tsugami hardly paid any attention to what Tashiro was saying. Betting, he was thinking, yes, this could work. Everyone would put money on the bulls […] In these postwar days, perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives. Set up some random event for people to bet on, and everything would take care of itself: they would come and place their bets. (pgs. 18-19)

It’s not long before Tsugami is seduced by the prospect of such a spectacle and the profits of course: the newspaper could stand to net one million yen if the tournament were to prove a sell-out. The paper’s president loves the idea of the project, so the deal goes ahead. Not that Tsugami has any semblance of a plan at this stage; there’ll be plenty of time for that later:

Tsugami had no clear plan in mind, but if all else failed they could raise the cash by selling tickets in advance. Right now his thoughts were focused less on the financial details than on the parade of bulls that Tashiro had suggested. Twenty or so bulls. It would make an eye-catching article, nice photos. At the very least it was sure to get everyone talking. (pg 31)

As preparations for the tournament get underway, Tsugami is swamped by an infinitesimal number of tasks that need to be accomplished in order for the event to take place. He must gain agreement to use the baseball stadium as a venue. There’s a bullfighting ring to construct, safety permits to secure, advertisements and teaser articles to draft…the list is endless. And while all this is going on, Tashiro is getting up to a bit of business on the side, transporting black-market goods alongside the bulls as they travel from their home in the provinces, an activity that doesn’t go unnoticed by one of the paper’s reporters. It’s appears as though ‘country showman’ Tashiro has decided he can get with anything in order to oil the wheels of the deal. Here’s the reporter as he recounts the tale to Tsugami:

“He brought that stuff up with us – says it’s all feed for the bulls. A bunch of us are pretty sure he has something else going on, though. He’s quite the huckster.” 

[…]

“Feed for the bulls, my ass. And who knows what else in in there? Still, he’s a crucial partner is this project, so I thought for the paper’s sake I’d better just pretend I hadn’t seen anything. And then in Takamatsu – it was quite hilarious, let me tell you” (pg. 72)

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tsugami is gambling the future of the newspaper on the success of the bullfight. Expenses continue to mount, greatly exceeding expectations; the paper’s sparse resources are stretched to their limits; Tsugami continues to focus on the details and risks losing sight of the bigger picture. He refuses to make compromises, relying instead on a conviction that everything will come together on the day, and there are few (if any) contingencies in place for unforeseen events. To reveal any more of the plot would only spoil the story, but it’s a beautifully crafted one.

Alongside the main narrative, Inoue uses Tsugami’s on-off relationship with his lover, Sakiko – who appears to consider their relationship hopeless – to tease out the nuances in the editor’s character. Eyes seem to communicate a great deal in the novel; take this passage, for example, in which Sakiko perceives Tsugami’s hidden desire to play fast-and-loose with the bullfight (and possibly their relationship, too) despite his outwardly serious nature:

But there were times when those emotionless, wicked eyes of his would push themselves toward drunkenness, Sakiko knew that very well. How she loved Tsugami for those eyes: their frenzied, lawless, mournful light. But then she realized that she would never be able to strip them of their sobriety, and her love began, from time to time, to turn itself into a hatred that glistened with sadness.

The fact that Tsugami had let himself be tugged along so easily by the bait Tashiro offered him, by the thought of the bullfight, may perhaps have owed less to his reporter’s instincts than to those sober eyes of his, and the rebellious urge he felt to make them drunk, finally, for once, on something. Sakiko had been right to speak of the hidden “unsavoury side” of his personality. (pgs. 26-27)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I loved Bullfight. Inoue’s prose is wonderful – deceptively clear and lucid on the surface, but with sufficient depth and subtlety to make this a very satisfying and meaningful novella. On one level, the narrative can be read as one man’s gamble and decision to risk everything in the belief he will succeed; on another, the story could be interpreted as a reflection of the situation in Japan as the country tries to rebuild its economy and society following the war:

The landscape had a cold, frozen look that made him feel as though he were regarding a landscape painted on a ceramic dish. Close to the peak of Mount Rokkö there were a few white streaks of lingering snow. […] It seemed to him that something pure had managed to hold on there, something that had otherwise vanished from this defeated nation, little traces gathering, huddling together, talking quietly among themselves about who knew what. (pg. 104)

Inoue went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories making him one of Japan’s leading writers, and Pushkin Press published another two of his novellas earlier this year: The Hunting Gun and Life of a Counterfeiter.

Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have also reviewed Bullfight, tr. by Michael Emmerich. Source: personal copy.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. by Stephen Snyder)

This review was originally published as a guest post on The Writes of Women blog (25th March 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish it here – I’ve held it till August to tie in with Biblibio’s Women in Translation month.

When the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist was announced in early March I was thrilled to see Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge among the contenders. Ogawa was one of two female writers from Japan to make the shortlist this year. The other was Hiromi Kawakami for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo which both Naomi and I have already reviewed for January in Japan, an annual focus on Japanese literature hosted by blogger (and fellow IFFP shadow-judge) Tony Malone – my review of Strange Weather; Naomi’s review.

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Revenge is a stunning yet unsettling collection of eleven interlinked short stories; while each individual tale works as a short story in its own right, they are elegantly connected by a set of recurring images and signifiers threaded through the stories. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective has changed. It’s all very cleverly constructed, and part of the satisfaction in reading Revenge comes from spotting the connections between characters, scenes and narrative fragments throughout the collection.

To give you an example, the collection opens with Afternoon at the Bakery’ in which a woman visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. At first the bakery appears to be empty, but then the woman notices the patissier standing in the kitchen sobbing gently while talking to someone on the telephone. This story ends before we learn more about the patissier, but she reappears in the next tale (‘Fruit Juice’) where we discover the source of her sadness.  And strawberry shortcakes crop up again in a later story (Welcome to the Museum of Torture’) when another girl buys cakes (from the same bakery, as it happens) for a dinner with her boyfriend.

The stories in Revenge explore some pretty dark themes, and in this respect there’s a clear connection to Ogawa’s earlier collection The Diving Pool, which Naomi and I both read earlier this year (see here for Naomi’s review). In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way. Many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness:

She was an inconspicuous girl, perhaps the quietest in our grade. She almost never spoke in class, and when asked to stand up and translate a passage from English, or to solve a math problem on the board, she did it as discreetly as possible, without fuss. She had no friends to speak of, belonged to no clubs, and she ate her lunch in a corner by herself. (pg 15, Harvill Secker)

Ogawa often describes characters in a way that suggests a certain fragile quality to their persona. They seem delicate, yet easily shattered or damaged:

The woman fell silent again and sat as still as a doll. In fact, everything about her was doll-like: her tiny figure, her porcelain skin, her bobbed hair. Her wrists and fingers and ankles were so delicate they seemed as though they would break if you touched them. (pg 132)

Desertion or rejection is another theme. In some stories, Ogawa uses a forgotten building (like the abandoned Post Office we visit in ‘Fruit Juice’) to illustrate this feature; in others the characters themselves are the rejected ones:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique. (pg 124)

This all leads to some very disturbing behaviour indeed. Some of the stories explore the dark, sinister side of desire and how rejection or jealousy can precipitate acts of revenge.  There are some chilling scenes in this book, and one or two of them appear almost out of nowhere which makes them all the more disquieting…

And there are some very macabre images, too. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Torture and in another story, Old Mrs. J (one of my favourites from the collection), Mrs. J unearths from her garden a carrot in the shape of a hand:

It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and long finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist. (pg 31)

Ogawa uses some of these images to explore the theme of decay and death. We see dilapidated buildings that have faded over the years; tomatoes squashed and splattered on a road following an accident involving a lorry; a strawberry shortcake is left to rot and harden, growing mould in the process:

‘It was like breathing in death’ (pg. 6)

And I wonder if some of the motifs running through these stories are coded references to bodily secretions. After all, as a character in Lab Coats’ remarks ‘It’s amazing all the stuff that can ooze out of a body’ (pg. 56)

Revenge is an excellent collection of short stories, each one adding new layers and connections to the overall narrative. On the surface Ogawa’s prose is clean and precise, beautifully captured by Stephen Snyder’s crystalline translation. And yet there’s an unsettling chill rippling through her work, an undercurrent of darkness if you like, which I find strangely alluring. Some of her stories have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, almost ethereal in their tone. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche and how chilling acts of darkness can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. In this respect, her work reminds me a little of some of David Lynch’s films, especially Blue Velvet which opens with its lead character making a gruesome discovery in a field. And others, including one of the judges for this year’s IFFP, have likened Revenge to some of Angela Carter’s stories. High praise indeed.

Several other bloggers have reviewed Revenge including fellow IFFP-shadow participants: Stu at Winstonsdad’s, Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List, David Hebblethwaite, Dolce Bellezza and Tony Messenger.

Revenge is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: personal copy.

Nagasaki by Éric Faye, tr. by Emily Boyce

Shimura Kobo, an unmarried man in his mid-fifties, lives alone in a quiet suburb of Nagasaki. He’s a loner who prefers his own company to socialising with colleagues after work. He values order and routine in his life, too, leaving for work at the same time each morning and eating dinner ‘at a reasonable hour: never later than 6.30pm’. Perhaps he would live a more spontaneous, more fulfilling life if he were married? But sadly this is not the case.

 Nagasaki

Shimura’s life seems to be slipping quietly by without incident. But then he begins to notice small changes within his home. A few items of food seem to have disappeared from his fridge: some fish he’s sure he bought; the occasional pot of yogurt here and there. At first, Shimura doubts himself and puts it all down to tiredness and a lapse in memory. But he’s a precise man, one who analyses meteorological charts for a living, and he sets about gathering evidence by keeping a log. It’s not long before he discovers that someone appears to be helping themselves to his fruit juice. As he has no partner and his family seldom visit, he’s baffled and rather unsettled by these little disturbances to his retreat.  It’s all somewhat disquieting for him:

I remained mystified and no closer to an explanation. I was rattled. The inside of my fridge was, in a sense, the ever-changing source of my future: the molecules that would provide me with energy in the coming days were contained within it in the form of aubergines, mango juice and whatever else. Tomorrow’s microbes, toxins and proteins awaited me in that cold antechamber, and the thought of a stranger’s hand taking from it at random and putting my future self in jeopardy shook me to the core. Worse: it repulsed me. It was nothing short of a kind of violation. (Gallic Books)

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery, Shimura decides to install a webcam in his kitchen, an action that exposes the emptiness of his life:

From inside the glass cabinet where I had installed it, the camera unveiled a chilling picture of my solitude which made me shiver if I dwelt on it.

As Shimura sits in his office with one eye on his kitchen via the webcam, he questions himself. Was that object in a slightly different position earlier? Or is he imaging things as his mind plays tricks on him?

Hadn’t the bottle of water been slightly closer to the sink earlier on? A matter of fifteen or twenty centimetres, it seemed to me. No sooner had I convinced myself of this than I changed my mind again. You’re making things up, trying to rationalise your unconscious thoughts. For that matter, are you really sure those yogurts disappeared after all? You should report it, you know, go to the police: I’ve had three pots of yogurt stolen in the last few months. Come on now, calm down. Lately, you’ve been all on edge.

Nagasaki is a spare, yet skilfully-crafted and haunting novella. The mystery of the missing food is solved at a fairly early stage, at which point the narrative shifts to show us two different perspectives. Firstly, we get a glimpse of how events affect Shimura as the experience prompts him to reflect on his situation, his loneliness and the disappointments in his life. The ‘barren aridity’ of his existence has ‘suddenly been revealed for all to see’ and he knows he will never be quite the same person again. Secondly, we learn more about the underlying story behind the puzzle of the unsettling occurrences in our protagonist’s home. These two narrative strands are thought-provoking and leave the reader with much to ponder, both about the characters’ lives and broader questions about the society in which we live.

While Faye’s novella can be easily read in one sitting, I started it late one evening and only had time to get to the halfway point before needing to take a break for dinner. The rather disquieting nature of events in the first half had me studying the fridge for signs of disturbance or missing items and double-checking the door and window locks! And it’s all the more unsettling (and distressing) to know that this excellent novella is based on a true story reported in Japan in 2008 (as noted in the introduction).

My thanks to fellow bloggers Claire McAlpine, Stu at Winstonsdad’s and Tony Malone, all of whom recommended this book – if you’d like to read their reviews of Nagasaki, just click on the links.

Nagasaki is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: personal copy.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. by Allison Markin Powell

Sensei, I whispered. Sensei, I can’t find my way home.

But Sensei wasn’t here. I wondered where he was, on a night like this. It made me realise that I had never telephoned Sensei. We always met by chance, then we’d happen to go for a walk together. Or I would show up at his house, and we’d end up drinking together. Sometimes a month would go by without seeing or speaking to each other. In the past, if I didn’t hear from a boyfriend or if we didn’t have a date for a month, I’d be seized with worry. I’d wonder if, during that time he’s completely vanished from my life, or become a stranger to me.

Sensei and I didn’t see each other very often. It stands to reason since we weren’t a couple. Yet even when we were apart, Sensei never seemed far away. Sensei would always be Sensei. On a night like this, I knew he was out there somewhere. (pg. 59, Portobello Books)

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Strange Weather in Tokyo is the story of Tsukiko, a woman in her late thirties, who re-encounters one of her old high-school teachers (‘Sensei’, a man thirty years or so her senior) in a sake bar. They meet by chance one evening and over the course of the following months a connection develops as they seek solace in food, beer and sake. Their relationship feels quite unstructured; they rarely make arrangements to reconnect and weeks can pass before their visits to the sake bar coincide. They are both essentially quite solitary individuals, but there’s a sense that they gain some comfort from these encounters.

The story is told through the eyes of Tsukiko and there is an almost dreamlike, slightly surreal quality to the narrative as it unfolds over the course of the novel. We follow the couple as their relationship evolves and deepens; it starts with shared moments in the sake bar and develops to include trips to a local market, a mountain hike to collect mushrooms and a cherry blossom party. There are some wonderfully-observed details in these passages; nature features as a theme and we see the changing of the seasons as the months pass. Another passage features a description of Sensei’s house with its collection of railway teapots and this adds to the slightly offbeat tone of the novel.  In a poignant scene Tsukiko attempts to peel an apple whole, in one long curly piece (she had impressed a former boyfriend some years ago by managing to keep an apple skin intact). This time, however, the apple skin breaks part way round and Tsukiko bursts into tears as the broken peel comes to signify her loss. Tsukiko had been very much in love with this former boyfriend, but she seemed unable to express her feelings or demonstrate she cared for him.

I loved the delicate, nuanced quality of the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei. There are times when they seem to communicate predominantly through feelings, using few words, soundlessly conveying deeper emotions and intimacy through thoughts and gestures. The unstated, yet deep nature of their relationship contrasts somewhat with Tsukiko’s brief flirtation with an old classmate from school (Kojima) whom she bumps into at the cherry blossom event. There’s a sense that Tsukiko is only content and able to settle in some way when she is with Sensei.

Everything felt so far away. Sensei, Kojima, the moon – they were all so distant from me. I stared out of the window, watching the streetscape as it rushed by. The taxi hurtled through the night-time city. Sensei! I forced out a cry. My voice was immediately drowned out by the sound of the car’s engine. I could see many cherry trees in bloom as we sped through the streets. The trees, some young and some many years old, were heavy with blossom in the night air. Sensei, I called out again, but of course no one could hear me. The taxi carried me along, speeding through the city night. (pg. 92)

I found this to be a beautifully-written and moving novel, expertly and sensitively translated by Allison Markin Powell. I think it will stay with me for some time; the ending in particular brings real emotional weight to the story of Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship. I read this book last year and revisited it in January for Tony Malone’s focus on Japanese literature (January in Japan) and can recommend it to anyone interested in a quietly powerful book about loneliness, connections and the uncertain nature of relationships.

This review was originally published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s January in Japan blog (27th January 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Strange Weather in Tokyo has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (which I’ve been shadowing along with a group of book bloggers). Other members of the IFFP shadow group (Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger) have also reviewed this book (published in other markets under the title of The Briefcase). And here’s another review from Naomi at The Writes of Women. Just click on the links to read their thoughts.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is published in the UK by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy.