Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest work, The Buried Giant, is an odd book. It has a fantasy setting, but it’s more literary and slow than any other novel in the genre I’ve read. It has an interesting plot, but it takes a while to puzzle out what’s really going on.

The basic premise is that a fog of forgetfulness has fallen over the land of England–not England as it is now, but rather the England of Arthurian legend. Axl and Beatrice are an old couple living on the outskirts of a town. They are treated poorly by the residents, but no one seems to remember what could have brought this on. They decide to leave in order to go see their son, who they vaguely remember and think is nearby. Along the way, they encounter ogres, knights, and Saxons (who despise the Britons), and gain some companions.

All of this is told in Ishiguro’s typical artful prose, which is neither too purple not too minimal.

But while it does feature some excellent meditations on death and love, the plot itself is a bit lacking. The main story turns out not to revolve around the old couple but rather some of their new friends, and by spending more time with Axl and Beatrice, the plot ends up a lot slower and more underdeveloped than necessary. There’s definitely a good story with them, but it would have been more fit for a short piece or novella than the better part of a novel.

If you haven’t already, definitely read The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, his two masterpieces. If you like them, move on to this. Even if you are a big fan of fantasy and want to get acquainted with Ishiguro through this one, I would say hold off and check out his others. This is neither an amazing Ishiguro or fantasy book (although it certainly is worth a read).

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Book Review: Facing the Bridge by Yoko Tawada

In recent years Haruki Murakami has become THE Japanese writer. Everyone knows him, everyone reads him. His fiction, with its loneliness and surrealism, has found an audience all across the world. Which is why I am annoyed Yoko Tawada has not caught on. She can be uneven. She can be too out there. She can be too vague, too obscure, too unsatisfactory in her endings, but when she is on point, she does what Murakami does, but even better. Her novellas and novels, often depicting outsiders lost in foreign landscapes with few if any landlines, are also riddled with loneliness, and while Murakami dips into odd scenarios, Tawada is like Kobo Abe turned up to 11.

This is one of her better books available in English. It consists of three novellas. The first tells in parallel stories about a European slave stolen away from Africa who finds himself sponsored to study and become a professor, and a Japanese student living abroad in Germany. The second stars a German resident (formerly from Japan) who spontaneously decides to go on a trip to Vietnam and feels her sense of identity slip away. As for the third, before I go into it I should explain what I’ve heard about Tawada.

I saw her give a performance in Boston and while there I talked to a professor who explained that Tawada thinks of herself as a literary DJ, taking old stories and remixing them. Some of her stories that follow this format can be enjoyed without knowledge of the other work, but for some, it is vital. The third story here, about a translator on an island off the coast of Africa trying to do some work, is a retelling of the story of St. George and the Dragon and falls somewhere in between. It can be a pleasant read with no knowledge of St. George, but if you’re familiar with the original, it adds a whole new dimension to the Tawada.

Some biographical material might also help: Tawada was originally from Japan before moving to Germany after university, where she has lived ever since. She writes in the languages of both countries, sometimes flipping back and forth during a draft, and language is an important theme that runs through all of her works.

Her endings don’t always work, but these stories taken as a whole are haunting. They read almost like fables that spiral out of control.

Any fan of authors like Borges or Kobo Abe (or Haruki Murakami) will find a great new author here. After reading a few of her books, I think either this or her collection THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG are the best places to start with her. If you choose the other collection, be warned: the title story is…quite lacking, but the other two novellas more than make up for it.

Book Review: Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe

This is an incredibly Japanese book. At times it makes statements few outside of Japan can relate to, like saying the atomic bombs and their aftermath were worse than the Holocaust (it’s not a pain Olympics, guys). It also dedicates about 1/3 of its size to Japanese conferences on the A-bomb back in the 60s and the factions behind it splitting up, something I don’t think many people nowadays have an interest in. A lot of the other sections feature Oe throwing around vague terms like “dignity” and “courage” liberally; to his credit he does try to define them and the reader does get a sense of what he means by these terms, but the explanations are never truly satisfactory (though Oe himself also admits this).

Still, the sheer power and intensity of these essays outshine those problems. After some talk about the conferences, the rest focuses on the victims and doctors of Hiroshima who struggle to go on living everyday existences, and provides glimpses at those who fail to look past the horror of their condition and those who succeed. It’s very moving, and those who know Oe’s biography know the effect meeting with these people had on him, a feeling Oe manages to condense down on to the paper and transfer to readers.

I wonder how much is lost in translation. At one point, Oe, while highlighting how odd the Japanese word for “dignity” is, writes, “That boy is full of dignity,” noting how odd it sounds in his language and how it sounds translated from a western one. And, reading this book in a western one, it really doesn’t sound too out there. Oe is known for messing with syntax and producing sentences that appear as though they’ve been translated from some European tongue. While translators have been able to reproduce his knotty style with great success in novels like A PERSONAL MATTER or THE SILENT CRY, here the translators attempted no such feats and in the introduction admit that whenever something sounded weird and western in the original they opted for a simple version of the sentence. Too bad, I wonder how this book read in Japanese.

I’m a bit disappointed so few of his essays are available in English. Oe’s role as a spokesman for the new generation in 60s Japan was apparently more for his essays than his fiction. All we have are three small books: this one, a collection of magazine pieces about life with his son, and a short collection of lectures, including the one he gave at the Nobel ceremony. While the beginning of this one is bound in time to the 60s and as a result a bit dated, the middle and end transcend time and are a must read for any one who can get their hands on the collection.

If I remember correctly, Oe once said this was his most important book, and it’s not hard to see why. A must-read for anyone, but power through the first third if you’re not digging it.

Book Review: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

A baby with a deformed head is born to a Japanese couple. The father, Bird, who dreams of an unencumbered life in Africa, keeps the baby’s problem a secret from his wife and conspires with a doctor to give his son weak milk to kill him. The thought of his disabled offspring drive Bird to binging on alcohol and shacking up with an old girlfriend with problems of her own. So begins Kenzaburo Oe’s A PERSONAL MATTER. Oe himself has a with brain issues, born a few months before this work appeared, and while Oe’s coming to terms with his son is probably much more mundane than the events here, it certainly adds a new dimension to the book.

Oe’s typical awkward yet poetic prose is on full display here. Disillusioned with Japanese traditions after the Second World War, he spurned his country’s conventional prose, like the understated work of Yasunari Kawabata, in favor of long sentences padded with odd and unexpected adjectives. Just look at A PERSONAL MATTER’s opening line:

Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a sigh.

This is not a book meant just for those interested in Japanese literature; it was the inaugural pick at Jonathan Franzen’s book club. As such a focused image of despair, it transcends cultural boundaries, and for such depressing subject matter it is quite the page-turner. For those on the fence, it is also a small commitment, clocking in at 165 pages in my edition.

The most common criticism is the ending, with even some mesmerized by the rest of the book being disappointed upon reaching the last pages. The first time I read it, it was the only negative I could think of. As such, the rest of this review will deal with spoilers, so keep reading at your own risk.

Since Oe accepted his son’s disability in real life, it is not too surprising that Bird does the same here. After the innutritious milk fails to off the baby, Bird and his old girlfriend take him to a sketchy abortion clinic and stop at a bar for a celebratory beer before traveling to Africa when Bird has a change of heart and returns to his family life. Many have claimed that all the bad decisions and existential angst preceding this renders the ending unconvincing and out of place.

The first time I read A PERSONAL MATTER, I went through the book cover to cover one evening, utterly entranced until the ending, which made me rethink my rating from a 5/5 to a 4/5. I had even known the conclusion before I began reading and it still seemed tacked on, ranking up there with GREAT EXPECTATIONS for awful endings.

And then, a few years later, traveling through Japan, with my family, I reread it, taking my time and finishing it after a few days. I was blown away. Tons of literary references that went over my head before now made sense and deepened my appreciation for the author. His language went from odd but beautiful to measured artistic rebellion (I had not known about his reasons for incorporating bizarre metaphors and sentence structures previously). And, most importantly, the ending made sense. When Bird shows up to his job teaching at a cram school incredibly hungover and vomits in front of his class, one student threatens to report him to the headmaster, most likely resulting in a termination. Other pupils offer to cover for him but Bird refuses, insisting he must take responsibility although he cannot articulate why he feels this way. This and a few other side plots and references that I missed when I barreled the book in a few hours foreshadow the ending.

Even with this, the ending still is not a 100% fitting finale, but at least it does not seem like a passage ripped from a different novel and made enough sense in context for me to restore that missing point in my rating. Given the relatively quick composition, it’s a wonder that it is only the ending that does not perfectly fit. A PERSONAL MATTER is not a flawless novel, but it comes very close. Just be sure to take your time with it; it is deceptively dense.

Book Review: Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe is probably my favorite writer. Each one of his works is filled with dense, emotionally charged poeticism, and even if a book of his is not particularly gripping, by the end I am always wowed. This book is no exception.

Although some changes have been made, most of the book is rooted in reality: the reader follows the narration of a famous Japanese writer called K, who has written the same books as Oe and who has a disabled son, also like Oe. O ROUSE UP consists of K interweaving the present as his son approaches adulthood with memories, the poetry of William Blake (which serves as an important metaphor), and his own work. The result is an episodic novel (it has been described as a short story collection by its author, although all the parts do cohere) with less narrative drive than some are used to but a powerful book nonetheless.

As an Oe fan, this book is almost everything I want from one of his books. His overt philosophizing, his strange language, his description of human relationships, his mythmaking, his ability to weave all of that into a good story are all present here. But though I don’t have many complaints with this book, I would not recommend anyone start Oe here.

Why? This is a work for those who have already been introduced to him and Japanese culture. When he compares Blake to his own books, I don’t think many who aren’t already familiar with Oe to get much out of it. When he talks about a band of young political youths who united under the famous writer M, you’re supposed to be able to tell that he is referring to Mishima and an offshoot of a militia he formed. Similarly, Oe often talks about his disabled son in his literature and if this is the first time the reader is hearing about their relationship, no doubt they will miss a lot.

If you’re already acquainted with a few of his books, this will probably be a worthwhile book. If you’re looking to get into Oe, there are much better places to start. NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS and A PERSONAL MATTER rank among some of his most accessible, with the former, his first novel, about kids abandoned in a village durig the second world war trying to forge a life for themselves, and the latter detailing a father whose son has just been born with a brain defect and the decisions he makes. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as reviews of those two will be posted soon.

A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.

Book Review: Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

This seems to be a very divisive book. Some people like it, a lot more hate it. I had read a bit about the book and the characters before I dove in, so perhaps because I knew what to expect I liked it more. SNAKES AND EARRINGS won the Akutagawa prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Japan, when the author was 20, and became a best seller. It reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis or Ryu Murakami (who headed the prize committee that gave her the prize) in that the content of the book is meant to shock and confuse readers, but it is not pointless.

The plot concerns Liu, a “Barbie-girl,” who becomes infatuated with a man with a forked tongue named Ama, and decides to get a tattoo and have her own tongue forked as a result. Passions fly, murders are committed, and an odd love triangle forms between Liu, Ama, and the tattoo artist, one more grounded in possession and masochism than any form of love.

Liu needs violence to thrive. Without it, she becomes bored and depressed, a shell of what she once was. As a result, she is incredibly self-destructive, seeking out new forms of violence and never putting up any form of resistance. She does not care how much she knows about a person, only if they are violent or not. We barely learn anything about the characters as a result, only hearing about Liu’s parents in a short paragraph on page 118 of this 120 page novella. Some people might not like this, and in a longer work having less than engaging characters would get on my nerves, but here, because of its short length, it works. Many have complained about the ending and how the characters don’t act like real people, but I really didn’t mind; it fits in with the rest of the story, in my opinion. Besides, the book proves early on that its character do not act like people in the real world, expecting them to act like that at the end is negligent on the readers part.

(I actually found the ending to be the high mark of the book. After pages of sex and violence, in the last forty pages a sense of mystery, of tension forms, and it becomes impossible to put it down. And in the last few pages…I can see why the conclusion does not work for everyone, but I was blown away.)

Another common complaint is the translation. Although it is probably a stylistic choice of the author to have the characters act in ways far removed from reality, the dialogue makes them seem like paper thin dullards, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I’m giving the author the benefit of the doubt, because most times I felt that if the dialogue was worded slightly differently, it would make complete sense. The prose is god awful, too. It’s stilted, boring, and never adequately describes anything. Given the author’s young age there are probably some hiccups with the original writing, but I find it hard to believe a work so terribly written won one of the most prestigious Japanese literary prizes and became a best seller, so I’m assuming much of the fault lies with the translation.

I’m forgiving the writing due to the ending, which takes up 1/3 of the text. It’s a great book, and a shame the translation is so awful. Hopefully another one will be made some day. As it is, anyone with an interest in Japan, Bret Easton Ellis, or Ryu Murakami will find something worthwhile here.

A Young Haruki Murakami

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

He definitely has an easily identifiable style. The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 30 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking, a player hit a double and at that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it. At that time he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept on it. The result was the novella HEAR THE WIND SING, which he submitted to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kick starting his career (a bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE).

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But this leaves out quite a bit of backstory and makes Murakami into some lucky guy born with incredible talent, instead of a disciplined hardworker.

Anyone who has picked up a Murakami novel knows he is well versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many young American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s SANSHIRO, in his 20s he made his way through THE TALE OF GENJI and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki. (I cannot find anything on Murakami reading Kenzaburo Oe, but given how often the older novelists works are reference in Murakami’s, he probably read a lot of Oe.)

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but arguably the most important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting. In fact, running his Japanese wiki page through Google translate, it seems being a screenwriter was his first ambition, producing numerous scripts and scenarios, none of which have ever been produced. I’ve seen posts online about how these scripts, still stuck in his drawer, number in the twenties, but at this time I cannot confirm that number. Either way, he did a lot of screenwriting before trying his hand at prose.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to an ambitious, well read, prolific writer who began creating work years before any of it saw the light of day. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember even the best often spend lots of time slaving away in anonymity, and if their biography suggests that they didn’t, it is much more likely that that section is just missing. And for those still discouraged, perhaps try switching formats. After all, a rejected screenwriter found success as a novelist: who’s to say it couldn’t happen again.

Book Review: Mishima A Vision of the Void by Marguerite Yourcenar

On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima, one of the most acclaimed Japanese writers of all time, was part of a group that stormed a military facility and held a prominent officer hostage. Mishima then appeared on a balcony and gave a speech urging soldiers to return to the view that the emperor was a god, but the military men only mocked the author. He returned inside and then committed seppuku—ritual suicide—with his male lover.

Theories on why Mishima did this abound: some say he was delusional and his attempt at a coup d’etat was serious; others have made the argument that this was only to give the suicide obsessed Mishima the context for a death he had dreamed about. This odd incident served as inspiration for Marguerite Yourcenar, a fan of Mishima’s writing, and the result is this essay.

This is an odd book. Yourcenar knows no Japanese and thus relies on translations, which she herself admits and seems to recognize the folly of it, but then goes ahead and writes this essay anyway. It is primarily concerned woth the relations between Mishima’s written work and his life, specifically his suicide, which she treats as a work in itself. It’s a mixed bag.

When discussing Mishima’s books written before the Sea of Fertility (ex. CONFESSIONS OF A MASK; SOUND OF WAVES; TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION), she doesn’t go into too much detail, but her analysis does a lot to illuminate the western influences on Mishima and how these manifest themselves in his novels and plays. Perhaps it is the brevity of this section that lends it its strength, because the next section, devoted to the tetralogy, suffers from the plot summaries.

Finishing up, she goes into his politics and his seppuku, and here the essay as a whole ultimately felt like it does not cohere as much as Yourcenar hoped it would. She sums up the Japanese author who created art out of his own life, a man whose suicide was as poetic as his books, but her analysis of his fiction makes this conclusion appear more as if she came up with the ending and then worked backwards. Cherry picking abounds, and Yourcenar is hastily dismissive of some of Mishima’s works for unsatisfactory reasons.

The biggest problem with this work, though, is that in order to get something out of it, you need to be a fan of Mishima, but if you are such a fan of his that you sought out this volume, it doesn’t offer too much new. Any biography of him offers most of the same information, but in a much more informative and context-laden way. Yourcenar’s writing is stellar but not enough to save this. If there’s nothing else of Mishima’s to read, you might as well go for it, but don’t expect big things.

 

Book Review: Shame in the Blood by Tetsuo Miura

Winner of the Akutagawa award, the most prestigious Japanese literary prize, this book might confuse English readers. Although billed as a novel, the book is actually a collection of 6 short stories, 5 of which are interconnected. Set in post-war Japan, these stories describe a husband and wife struggling to make ends meet as they face poverty, death, and the husband’s past—his shame in the blood. He grew up as the youngest of 6 kids, enduring his siblings’ suicides and disappearances. At the start of the book, he only has one sister left, a handicapped girl who is virtually blind.

I thought these stories were well written and well done. Each one focused on a different aspect of the couple’s lives, and I liked the backtracking done in the later stories (though some might find it jarring). After doing some research, it seems the book itself did not win the Akutagawa Prize, but rather the first two stories which apparently were bundled originally as a single novella (makes sense, since the Akutagawa Prize isn’t for novels, it’s for novellas, and the second story, though capable of standing alone, carries on the story of the first one about the main character falling in love and attempting to have a child). Ultimately, however, this short story cycle seemed unfinished, ending chronologically on a cliffhanger.

The final story concerns a different family. It was over-written and baggy, never seeming to be able to decide what its real focus is. Overall, though, it’s still a decent story, and although the characters are different the themes provide a coda of sorts to the preceding pieces.

The main problem here isn’t with the writing or the translation. I think the originally novella alone was too short to justify publishing it, and even with the inclusion of the additional stories from the cycle it still wasn’t substantial enough (not to mention feeling unfinished; I have a suspicion that the author didn’t write the stories with the intention to form a single work, since they all stand on their own and there’s no real resolution), necessitating the final story.

To repeat, despite what the marketing says, it’s not a novel. Approach the book with this in mind and it’s an engrossing read. Plus, the author had family problems similar to those detailed in the first 5 stories, which makes these stories all the more interesting.