Category: Japanese

Women in Translation Month: Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

In Denmark, a linguist named Knut is watching a TV show about people from in countries that no longer exist. One woman catches his attention in particular, with her unusual name (Hiruko), appearance (she looks a bit like Björk on that album cover), and language (she speaks a pan-Scandinavian tongue of her own devising).

Knut sets out to meet Hiruko and find out more about her. Hiruko’s country has vanished beneath the sea, and with it any knowledge of the word ‘Japan’ – as just one example, Knut thinks that sushi is Finnish. What Hiruko wants most of all is to find someone else who speaks her native tongue. Knut resolves to help her, and they set off on a journey across Europe.

Along the way, Hiruko and Knut gain several fellow-travellers, including Akash, a trans Marathi-speaking student, and Tenzo, who turns out to be a Greenlander rather than Japanese. Everyone is between worlds in some way. Different characters narrate across Tawada’s novel, so that no one is truly at the centre. What we then have is an exuberant exploration of how language can help to make and remake identity, and how we might find different ways to belong.

Published by Granta Books.

Women in Translation Month: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

After Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, Sayaka Murata has become one of my must-read authors, so I was looking forward to this story collection. I’m used to her work starting off innocuously, before something strange stops me in my tracks. So it proved with the opening story here, ‘A First-Rate Material’. It begins with an apparently ordinary scene of afternoon tea, before one character says to the narrator: “Hey, Nana, that sweater…Is it human hair?”

Yes, that’s a Sayaka Murata story, and no mistake.

In this story, human remains are commonly reused: hair for clothes, bone for rings, fingernails to decorate a chandelier. Nana is fine with this, but her fiancé Naoki sees it as sacreligious. To Nana, reusing people’s remains is a way of honouring our humanity, but she resolves to respect Naoki’s beliefs. That’s until she goes to visit his family, and the couple both find their preconceptions tested.

What I particularly like is the way that the element of strangeness becomes a larger-than-life means to explore fundamental questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. The combination of otherworldliness and a focus on deep questions plays out across the collection in different ways. Some tales are snapshots of the strange, such as ‘Poochie’, in which a middle-aged man, without irony, takes the place of a pet dog (his standard bark is “Finishitbytwo!”). Then there’s ‘Lover on the Breeze’, which sees a bedroom curtain develop a crush on a visiting boy. There’s real emotional heft to these stories, because Murata (in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s ever-superb translations) keeps them grounded.

Other stories map out a process of change in more detail. In ‘Eating the City’, urban-dwelling Rina is reluctant to eat vegetables, because she feels they’re of poor quality in the city. But she thinks back to her rural childhood and her father’s love for wild foods, and that changes her mind. She starts to explore the wild plants available to eat in the city, and in turn this gives Rina a feeling of being closer to her environment. This story really got under my skin, as Rina talks about spreading her enthusiasm in terms of “marinating” another person and changing them from the inside out.

The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is one that seems to bring the different aspects of Murata’s approach together. In this piece, a decline in population has changed certain attitudes: sex is now “insemination”, a social good done for reproduction rather than pleasure. When someone dies, it is customary to hold a life ceremony at which the deceased’s remains are eaten – and at which people then look for an insemination partner, to keep the cycle of life going.

Maho, the protagonist of this story, is old enough to remember when it was forbidden to eat human meat, and she’s never been able to accept the new custom. But when a close work colleague dies suddenly, the experience of his life ceremony challenges Maho to change her mind – and the reader’s preconceptions are challenged in turn.

Time and again, the stories in Life Ceremony – just like the ending of Convenience Store Woman – put the reader into the main character’s position. What seems strange from the outside gains emotional force from the inside as we come to understand the characters more deeply. To read Life Ceremony is to see things differently.

Published by Granta Books.

Red Circle Minis 6 and 7: Japanese fiction in English

Let’s start the year by catching up with Red Circle Minis, the series of short Japanese books which are published straight into in English translation. My previous reviews of this series are here and here.

One Love Chigusa by Soji Shimada
Translated by David Warren

One Love Chigusa is the longest Red Circle Mini to date, written by Soji Shimada (whose locked-room mystery Murder in the Crooked House I enjoyed previously) and translated by David Warren, a former British Ambassador to Japan. 

Beijing, 2091: 25-year-old Xie Hoyu is severely injured in a road accident. Technology is advanced enough to repair his body and memories, but he’s as much machine as flesh, if not more. Xie finds he’s lost interest in life, and his perception has also changed: in particular, women all seem to have the snarling red faces of demons. 

One day, Xie notices a beautiful woman whose face appears human. He feels that she gives him reason to live, and becomes obsessed with her. He learns that her name is Chigusa, and asks to go out with her – but something isn’t quite right. 

One Love Chigusa paints in broad narrative strokes, and Xie’s obsessive behaviour is difficult to take to. But the story asks questions about the nature of humanity that I found compelling in the end. 

Monkey Man by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley

In this story, a hacker group called Arlecchino works to expose The Complex, the vast organisation responsible for many of the world’s ills. One of Arlecchino’s operatives is Monkey Man, a masked figure with preternatural agility. He’s among the number of young people who are developing remarkable abilities. Our protagonist, Yuri, is another: she has healing powers. She’s also about to discover that Arlecchino are closer to home than she imagines. 

Takuji Ichikawa writes in his afterword that Monkey Man is a companion piece to The Refugees’ Daughter, his previous entry in the Red Circle Minis series. Both are about young people saving the world, and they’re deliberately broad-brush, heightened and idealistic. 

So I think it’s important to accept Monkey Man for what it is in order to enjoy it properly – and it’s a fun romp that wears its heart on its sleeve. Part of Monkey Man‘s message is that the world could do with a bit more idealism. It makes the case persuasively. 

Red Circle Minis 4 and 5: Japanese fiction in English

My post today is about a couple of titles in the Red Circle Minis series: short Japanese books that have been translated and published in English first. I wrote about the first three Red Circle Minis here, and now it’s on to the next two…

The Refugees’ Daughter by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Emily Balistrieri

A few years ago, young Aimi thought the world’s problems only happened elsewhere. But now catastrophe has caught up, and she and her family are refugees. They are due to travel through the gate, a mysterious structure leading to who-knows-where – but they do know that soldiers can’t follow them, so it’s worth the risk. ⁣

A lot of this story’s atmosphere comes from its fantastical elements: the strange, narrowing white tunnels of the gate, or the voice of Aimi’s friend Yusune, who’s broadcasting to her having already passed through. But there’s also an intriguing question at the heart of ‘The Refugees’ Daughter’, which is who might hold the key to moving forward in a time of collapse. Ichikawa looks for an alternative to military might, and his answer is quite inspiring. ⁣

The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Meredith McKinney

Kanji Hanawa wrote one of the previous stories in this series: ‘Backlight’, a sharp look at how society may treat people who fall through its cracks. ‘The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro’ is something rather different, a historical tale about a rather ordinary nobleman. ⁣

Asunaro will inherit his father’s title one day (his nickname means ‘Someday-soon’), but there’s nothing remarkable about him. Perhaps his most notable trait is an eye for the ladies at court. Not that he’s much good with them: one failed attempt at wooing haunts him throughout his life. ⁣

This is an unusual story, in that it avoids the sort of colourful historical figure you might expect to see. Yet it’s engaging nonetheless, as it brings a certain gravity to the life of an apparently mundane individual. ⁣

My favourite books read in 2020

2020: what a year, eh? Anyway, this is a place for talking about books, and I had a good reading year. As usual, I have picked out my favourite dozen and listed them in loose order of enjoyment (though of course I’d recommend them all). What I particularly like is that this selection encompasses many of the different strands of my reading from the year: the Goldsmiths Prize, International Booker, Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month… They’re all represented in here somewhere.

12. The Blessed Girl (2017) by Angela Makholwa

One of the funniest books I read all year, this is the story of a young black South African woman with the trappings of a successful life and no shortage of suitors to support her. But keeping her lifestyle going is not as easy as it looks, and there’s a poignant undercurrent to the novel that really changes things.

11. Arkady (2018) by Patrick Langley

The tale of two brothers surviving on the margins of an austerity-ravaged Britain in a near future. What really makes this novel work for me is its abstract quality: the broader contours of society are unknown to the brothers, just as they are unknown to it. This makes their relationship leap off the page even more.

10. New Passengers (2017) by Tine Høeg
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

Here’s another novel whose bare summary may not sound much: two characters meet on a train and embark on an affair. But the verse-style prose transforms it, breaking the novel into small pieces just as the protagonist tries to compartmentalise her life, and merging them together just as the parts of the woman’s life refuse to stay separate.

9. Lolly Willowes (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to society’s expectations of women, but is in danger of being consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly. She breaks free of it all in spectacular fashion: by moving to the country to practise witchcraft. This is an exuberant character study that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

8. Bina (2019) by Anakana Schofield

A restless novel narrated by a restless character: seventy-something Bina, who’s here to warn us – though the full extent of what she has to warn us about about only emerges gradually. This book had affected me deeply by the end, and I still can’t explain exactly how it does what it does.

7. Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) by Gabriel Josipovici

Here is another book whose effect on me emerged spontaneously and without warning while reading. Infinity is the account of an Italian composer who comes across as pompous and larger-than-life at first… But later his vulnerability becomes apparent, and we start to feel his intense engagement with existence.

6. Snow, Dog, Foot (2015) by Claudio Morandini
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

It was a strong year for Peirene Press, and this was my favourite: a novel of reality unspooling for an old man in his Alpine cottage, with only his (occasionally talking) dog for company. This is a powerful study of isolation, with the sort of perceptual ambiguity that I love. 

5. Earthlings (2018) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

After loving Convenience Store Woman a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to this. But that earlier book could not prepare me for Earthlings. Murata’s protagonist may wish for a spaceship to carry her away, but these seemingly childish games have serious and disturbing consequences. 

4. Mordew (2020) by Alex Pheby

A rich and indulgent fantasy from Galley Beggar Press. Reading this took me right back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense that here was a fantasy novel that could go anywhere it wanted. Pheby takes classic fantasy elements, such as a poor boy discovering his destiny, but Mordew is very much its own thing. 

3. The Nacullians (2020) by Craig Jordan-Baker 

Like Mordew, this novel feels unconstrained by any preconceived notion of what it ‘should’ be like, though this time the novel a family saga. The Nacullians are a family who don’t fit into the traditional family saga, so Jordan-Baker takes his novel apart and rebuilds it around them. The result is exhilarating. 

2. The Birds (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

The Ice Palace was high on my list of favourites a couple of years ago, and now it’s joined by The Birds. Vesaas’ novels are so delicately observed. There’s a sequence in the middle of this tale of siblings that will go down as one of the best I’ve read. 

1. The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2019)

I’ve enjoyed Yoko Ogawa’s work before, but The Memory Police was extra special. The tale of an island where concepts routinely fade from the collective memory, it starts off looking like an allegory of life under authoritarianism and ends up enacting a very personal form of loss. There was no book I read all year that stayed with me as much as this. 

***

That’s my round-up of 2020. What have you enjoyed reading this year?

My previous yearly selections of favourite books are all here: 2019, 2018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. I’ll be back on the blog in the New Year, and you can also find me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (2018)
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

Sometimes you read a second book by an author and you think you have an idea of what’s coming. In Earthlings, we meet Natsuki, who as a child believes that she has magical powers, and that her plush toy Piyyut is a visitor from another world. Natsuki’s cousin Yuu says he is an alien himself, and that a spaceship is coming to take him home. Natsuki wishes she could go with him. But events conspire to tear the cousins apart, and Natsuki and Yuu make a pact that they will survive, whatever it takes. 

These are not just games: there are horrific events in Natsuki’s childhood (graphically written, so be warned), and a real sense that she acts this way as a means of protection or displacement from reality. So I thought that, like Convenience Store Woman, here was another study of a character with an unusual view of the world, another challenge laid down to the reader to meet such a character on their own terms. 

Well, Earthlings is all of that. But it’s also so much else. 

As an adult, Natsuki pretends to fit in. She views society as a ‘Factory’ for producing babies. She’s able to opt out of that, but still has a deep-seated conviction that she does not belong here. When Natsuki finally has cause to reunite with Yuu, it seems that he has put away what he now sees as childish fantasies – but these are clearly still realities for Natsuki. 

And then… Well, I’m not telling. Not since New Model Army have I read a book whose ending felt so audacious to imagine. I won’t forget the experience of reading Earthlings, not for a long time. 

Published by Granta Books.

#WITMonth: Stockenström, Kawakami, Quintana

Here’s another trio of reviews from my Instagram for Women in Translation Month.

Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (1981)
Translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

This short novel introduces us to a young woman living in the hollow of a baobab tree. She finds her own paths to gather food alongside the nearby animals, and measures the days with a string of beads.

LIfe hasn’t always been like this. The woman was a slave, one who has been treated brutally at times. At other times, though, she became a favourite of her owners, which might have made life a little easier, but also left her an outsider in more ways than one.

The woman joined her final owner on an expedition to find an inland city. It didn’t go well, which is how she ended up by herself in the baobab tree. Stockenström’s novel is the story of how the woman becomes isolated, but also finds a certain autonomy in finally being able to shape her own existence for herself.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop (2005)
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (2017)

For this year’s Women in Translation Month, Meytal organised an international book swap. This is the book I got – not a totally random choice, as it was one of a list of options I asked for. I’d been meaning to read Hiromi Kawakami again.

Some of Kawakami’s books are quite strange (such as Record of a Night Too Brief, or my personal favourite, Manazuru), while others (like Strange Weather in Tokyo) are lighter. The Nakano Thrift Shop is one of the lighter ones.

Haruo Nakano is the eccentric fiftysomething owner of a thrift shop. He has two young employees: Hitomi, our narrator, and delivery boy Takeo. There’s also Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist who brings a level head to the shop.

Each chapter is almost like a self-contained story, so we see snapshots in the lives of Kawakami’s characters, and the halting relationship between Hitomi and Takeo. The Nakano Thrift Shop is fun to read, and quite touching.

Published by Granta Books.

Pilar Quintana, The Bitch (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

Damaris lives with her husband in a shack on the Colombian coast. They both look after the property of a rich family, but since that family left some years ago, they are no longer paid. The couple have no children, and Damaris’ uncle reminds her that she is at the age “when women dry up”. When the opportunity arises to adopt a puppy, Damaris sees a way to fill a gap in her life.

But the dog has a tendency to disappear into the jungle, which tests Damaris’ patience. The Bitch is a short novel that rattles along with tension. It explores Damaris’ character and relationships with others through her changing attitude to her dog. You never quite know where the story will turn, which keeps it compelling to the end.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, World Editions.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

Continue reading

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.

Red Circle Minis: part 1

Red Circle is a publisher specialising in translations of Japanese fiction. A while ago, they offered me a set of their Red Circle Minis to review. These are a series of individually bound short Japanese tales, which have been specially commissioned and published in English translation first. I’ve been working my way through the stories; here are my thoughts on the first three.

Stand-in Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi
Translated by Raj Mahtani

The first chapter of this story sets the scene as follows: when Yutori has an affair and child with another man, she and her husband Hayato divorce. Hayato is granted the right to a “stand-in companion” – an android replica of Yutori, complete with her memories. ⁣

The second chapter tells a similar story, but here it’s Hayato who has the affair and child, and Yutori who receives a stand-in companion. The the rest of the story is wonderfully ambiguous as to who is who – or who is what. Since stand-in companions don’t know they’re androids, maybe this Hayato and Yutori are both artificial. ⁣

Shiraishi uses this set-up to explore the emotions that come out of a disrupted relationship. Both Yutori and Hayato are out for rev\nenge in some way against their ex-partner, but taking it in such an artificial situation underlines how hollow it may ultimately be. This is a thought-provoking piece of work.

Backlight by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Richard Nathan

This story was inspired by an actual incident that took place in Japan in 2016. A boy is abandoned on a mountain road by his parents to teach him a lesson. When they change their minds ten minutes later, he had disappeared. Hanawa writes about the search for the boy, but his focus is on the small group of psychologists brought in to help.

While others are out doing the hard graft of looking for the missing boy, we’ll often be with the psychologists in their comfortable accommodation, where they discuss their theories of abandonment. Their talk gets quite abstract, and far removed from the reality of the boy’s predicament. Backlight becomes quite a cutting reflection of how society may treat those who fall through its cracks.

Tokyo Performance by Roger Pulvers

Roger Pulvers is an Australian writer who has a long association with Japan, and writes in both English and Japanese. Tokyo Performance is the tale of Norimasa Inomata, a popular TV chef in the 1970s. We meet him as he’s filming his live weekly show, but this week there’s something more personal to go along with the cookery. Inomata starts ranting about his personal life, and we discover that he is estranged from his wife and children. The chef’s commentary grows more and more heated, until he dares his wife to ring him live on air… ⁣

You just know that Inomata is on a path to self-destruction but, with Pulvers’ words, this is one performance from which it’s hard to turn away.

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