TagYoko Ogawa

Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

"In these pages, the Professor had walked beyond beaten paths, looking for truth in a place no one knows"

Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

HPIt occurred to me when I was compiling my review list in preparation for Women in Translation Month that I’d read all bar one of Yoko Ogawa’s books which were available to me in English translation – so now seemed as good a time as any to complete the set. It’s a paradoxical feeling: on the one hand, I’ve now read everything of Ogawa’s that I can, so I must have some kind of handle on her work; on the other, it’s only four volumes out of a much larger bibliography, so how can I be sure?

This is particularly relevant in the case of The Housekeeper and the Professor, because it’s a little different from Ogawa’s other books that I’ve read – the intense focus on a distinctive relationship is still there, but it’s noticeably less dark. There’s still a sting to it, but the overriding tone is wistful. I believe from what I’ve heard that it’s not typical of Ogawa’s work as a whole, but I say that with a degree of uncertainty.

Anyway, our narrator is a housekeeper who goes to work in 1992 for a retired professor of mathematics (neither character is named). After being injured in a car accident, the Professor remembers nothing from before 1975, and his short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes – so, each time the Housekeeper arrives, it is their first meeting as far as he’s concerned. But the pair bond (albeit one-sidedly) over maths: it is the Professor’s world, literally and figuratively; and the Housekeeper becomes able to understand more because the Professor will happily explain concepts to her repeatedly (though for him, of course, it’s always the first time he’s done so).

Underpinning the novel is the idea of mathematics as a hidden, eternal map of the universe; Stephen Snyder’s translation really captures the joy of this view of maths. For example, here the Housekeeper imagines the universe as a vast, intricate pattern of lace:

The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth. (p. 124)

So the Professor’s worldview comes to influence the Housekeeper’s: she is inspired to do her own investigations into prime numbers, and even refers to her son solely by the Professor’s nickname for him, Root (derived from the flat top of the boy’s head, which reminds the Professor of the square root symbol).

It’s a sign of how far the Professor’s outlook comes to suffuse Ogawa’s novel that the little numerical questions he asks the Housekeeper as a greeting – ‘What’s your shoe size?’, for example – seem jarring when he blurts them out in another context (namely, in the barber’s chair). At that sort of moment, we see the Professor’s outbursts as the rest of the world sees them: the ravings of a confused old man; but when he’s with the Housekeeper, we understand that they are a part of his mental framework.

Stability is a key theme running through The Housekeeper and the Professor: mathematics as an eternal truth against the vagaries of life; maths again as the Professor’s store of knowledge against his fleeting memory; this particular job, these circumstances, as something the Housekeeper wishes to remain in. The melancholy truth, of course, is that the characters’ situation cannot last forever; but hope remains, because the numbers will go on.

Elsewhere
My other blog posts on Yoko Ogawa.
An essay on Ogawa’s work in the LA Review of Books, by Robert Anthony Siegel.

#IFFP2014: Ogawa, Knausgaard, Mingarelli

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (1998)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2013)

RevengeI’ve read two of Yoko Ogawa’s books previously (see my thoughts on Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool); each time, I have been struck by how she anatomises the dark psyches of her characters. Revenge is a little different: a collection of eleven linked stories, it unsettles more through the overall effect of the tales as a composite.

Revenge begins with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, whose narrator goes to buy two strawberry shortcakes; a conversation with someone from the neighbouring shop reveals that the narrator is doing this in memory of her six-year-old son, whom she found dead in a refrigerator. This is how Ogawa’s stories work: mundane details are shown to have dark, sometimes even absurd, underpinnings.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ ends with its narrator discovering a young woman crying in the bakery’s kitchen.  This young woman reappears in the second tale’s, ‘Fruit Juice’, when she invites that story’s narrator, a boy from her school, to go with her as moral support to a meal with the father she is about to meet for the first time. Strawberry cake is served is served at this meal; by story’s end, we not only know why the young woman is crying as she sits in her kitchen, we also anticipate with dismay what her reaction to the current customer’s order is likely to be.

As Ogawa’s collection continues, more links emerge between the stories: at first, isolated details reappear; then characters seem to recur (the identities of some remain sketchy, so you can’t be entirely sure whether or not character X mentioned in one story is also character Y from another); one story in Revenge may appear to be fictional in the reality of another; images and events are repeated or echoed in strange new contexts. The relative straightforwardness of Ogawa’s prose (and Stephen Snyder’s effectively matter-of-fact translation) only heightens the sense of being caught up in a world where it’s uncertain which is worse: the thought that all the details of reality won’t cohere, or the thought that they might. Revenge is one of those story collections that works, and is best appreciated, as a complete whole; it’s also one that stays in the mind long after reading.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2013)

Knausgaard 2Where Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle focused on its author’s adolescence and reaction to his father’s death, Volume 2 chronicles the period when Knausgaard left his first wife and moved to Sweden, where he fell in love with Linda, and examines his life as a husband and father. Reading A Man in Love has been a strange experience because, while the general palette of the first book remains – the dense treatment of everyday minutiae, punctuated by reflections on life and art – some quality that made A Death in the Family feel transcendent to me is missing.

Knausgaard takes up his key concerns from the first volume: that he feels preoccupied by the business of everyday life when what he really wants (needs) to do is write; and that he is more deeply moved by contemplating art and the natural world than by those closest to him. In this volume, he also talks more about how fatherhood affects his sense of masculinity; feeling constrained by Swedish society; and how the heady rush of falling in love with Linda didn’t last.

Don Barlett’s translation is as fine as ever, but A Man in Love doesn’t touch me as deeply as its predecessor did. When I read A Death in the Family, I could feel the clash of Knausgaard’s emotions rising off the page; with this book, that clash is still on the page, but it stays there. To me, A Death in the Family felt like something that Knausgaard needed to write in order to work through that part of his life; A Man in Love is good enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t have that same sense of urgency.

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter (2012)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013)

Meal in WinterHubert Mingarelli is a prolific author in his native France, but A Meal in Winter is the first of his books to appear in English. It’s a novella narrated by one of three German guards who are sent out to retrieve an escaped Jewish prisoner. On their way back to the prison camp, the guards and their captive stop off in an abandoned house, and start to prepare a meal of soup. When a Pole walking past the house also seeks shelter, his raw anti-Semitism leads the guards to question what they’re about to do.

With A Meal in Winter being so short, the stage is set for a tight, intense piece of fiction. In some ways, this is exactly what we get: Mingarelli strips out most of the historical detail, thereby closing the distance between reader and book. The characters’ world is not ‘World War Two’ understood as a period of history; their world is this journey, this landscape, this house, and we are there with them.

It doesn’t seem quite right, though, to say that we come to empathise with the guards as the novella progresses. It’s more that we see the contours of their worldview, and how that is challenged by their experiences; empathy at a further remove, perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that the full intensity of this situation doesn’t quite come through the sparseness of Mingarelli’s prose (or Sam Taylor’s translation). For me, A Meal in Winter is almost there… but only almost.

***

What of these books’ chances on the IFFP shortlist? Even though the Knausgaard disappointed me, I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist (though I don’t expect it to be my preferred winner). I would be happy to see Ogawa’s book on the shortlist, and suspect it has a good chance. The Mingarelli, I don’t know: it didn’t really work well enough for me to want to see it shortlisted, but it has been better received in the reviews I’ve seen, so it may just be a book that didn’t click with me.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Reading round-up: late January

The ThiefFuminori Nakamura, The Thief (2009)
Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, 2012

Nishimura is a pickpocket, and so spends his days blending in even as he stands apart. He was once part of a group brought together by a man named Kizaki to rob a set of documents from a speculator’s house – or, rather, to be the expendable distraction, as the speculator was killed soon after. Now Kizaki is back, and has a new proposition for Nishimura. In this lean and spare novel, Fuminori Nakamura is concerned to explore what it means to live a life like Nishimura’s. The title of The Thief may not just refer to its protagonist; it could also be seen as applying to Kizaki, who has stolen Nishimura’s control over his own life. The layers of theft and manipulation go all the way down.

Dr Benjamin Daniels, Further Confessions of a GP (2014)

This is a follow-up to the first book in The Friday Project’s ‘Confessions’ series, whose (usually pseudonymous) authors pull back the curtain on their various professions with a collection of anecdotes. I’ve enjoyed all of these books that I’ve read; but I find there’s something particularly special about Daniels’ titles. He’s a good raconteur, that’s for sure; but he also controls tone superbly. He goes from telling  amusing stories, to expressing heartfelt opinions on particular aspects of healthcare, to poignant reflections on the patients he knows he can’t save. Both his books are well worth reading.

Yoko Ogawa, The Diving Pool (1990-1)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, 2008

A collection of three novellas by the author of Hotel Iris; as in that novel, Ogawa explores some dark psychological territory in a way that belies the spare tone of her prose. The title story’s narrator is infatuated with her foster-brother, and prone to a blank cruelty which is unlikely to lead anywhere good. In ‘Pregnancy Diary’, a girl chronicles the ups and downs of her sister’s pregnancy, which she seems to regard with equal parts fascination and contempt. ‘Dormitory’ is more dreamlike (or nightmarish), as a woman returns to her old college dormitory, finding it a very strange place indeed. (For more on The Diving Pool, see Tony Malone’s readalong at January in Japan.)

Skinning Tree

Srikumar Sen, The Skinning Tree (2012)

As Japanese forces encroach on India during the Second World War, young Sabby is sent from his family in Calcutta to a boarding school in the northern hills. Sen’s novel is a portrait of Sabby’s illusions being comprehensively shattered, and the consequences that follow. Not only is school discipline harsh; the bright world which Sabby imagined himself to inhabit is taken from him. He has become Anglo-Indian without ever knowing what England means. And where the school’s regime fosters violence, so the boys follow – to a tragic end that Sabby can barely bring himself to recall.

Lee Ki-ho, At Least We Can Apologize (2009)
Translated from the Korean by Christopher J. Dykas, 2013

Jin-man and Si-bong met in a psychiatric institution, where they were routinely beaten by the caretakers for… well, they didn’t know; so they started coming up with their own wrongs to confess. When the institution is raided and shut down by the authorities, the two stick together because Jin-man has nowhere else to go. They set up in business, offering apologies on behalf of other people; and, if there’s nothing to apologise for, Si-bong and Jin-man will find something – or create it. The pair go to ever greater lengths as Lee’s novel progresses; and the book never quite turns in the way you might expect, up to the very end. (This book is part of the Library of Korean Literature series from Dalkey Archive Press.)

January in Japan: Yoko Ogawa and Natsuo Kirino

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996/2010)
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Seventeen-year-old Mari is working at her mother’s hotel when a middle-aged man and a prostitute are thrown out for rowing and disturbing the other guests. Mari is drawn to the man, and starts to see him regularly; he tells her that he’s a Russian translator – the heroine of the novel he’s working on is even named Marie. The two enter into an intimate, masochistic relationship – which, naturally enough, can’t last forever.

Hotel Iris is a quiet book, and all the more powerful and disturbing for it. So thoroughly does Ogawa create the viewpoint of Mari as she’s drawn into the translator’s orbit, it’s a real jolt to be reminded that this man’s intentions are questionable at the very least. But what makes the novel particularly challenging to consider is that Ogawa is clear on the affair’s positive consequences for Mari, as well as the negative ones: it gives her an escape from being put-upon by her mother, however dangerous it might turn out to be. Hotel Iris is an uncomfortable read, in the best possible way.

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (2008/12)
Translated by Rebecca Copeland

The latest title in the Canongate Myths series is inspired by the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi – which isn’t a story I know, so inevitably I’m going to miss out on something here. But the intriguing thing for me is that The Goddess Chronicle is written by Natsuo Kirino, and at first glance seems quite different from a gritty urban novel like Out. But look closer, and similarities emerge: both books focus on female characters who try to escape a system designed to hold and define them.

Our narrator is Namima, whom we first meet as a servant of the goddess Izanami in the Realm of the Dead; Kirino’s novel is the story of how she got there. Namima is born on a tiny island, granddaughter of its spiritual leader, the Oracle. It’s a hereditary position, though Namima’s older sister Kamikuu is destined to become the next Oracle – and it’s not until Kamikuu takes over that Namima learns her preordained role as the Oracle’s sister: to watch over the island’s graveyard for the rest of her life, with no human contact. Namima tries to escape the island with the boy she loves – but tragedy strikes, and she finds herself in Izanami’s realm.

A number of stories overlap in The Goddess Chronicle. There’s Namima’s childhood on the island, which has a measured clarity tempered with a touch of strangeness. There is Namima’s sojourn in the world of the living as a wasp, a fine ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale. And there is the story of Izanami and her brother/lover/enemy Izanagi, which now has Namima as a witness. Their story provides a point of comparison and contrast with Namima’s own. All is wrapped up in clean prose that gives this engaging novel a mythic feel of its very own.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Click here for the index of my posts.

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