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The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa – Let’s play a game with book covers

October 25, 2020 19 comments

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa (2008) French title: Le restaurant de l’amour retrouvé. Translated from the Japanese by Myriam Dartois-Ako.

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa is a celebration of food and its healing powers. Rinko works as a cook in the city and when she comes home, she is shocked to discover that her boyfriend has cleaned up their apartment and left. The flat is totally empty and with no home and no boyfriend, Rinko decides to go back to her native village, a place she left behind ten years ago, when she was barely fifteen.

The shock is such that Rinko is speechless. Literally. She can’t speak anymore and has to communicate through notes. Her village is in the country and Rinko has a complicated relationship with her mother, Ruriko. Rinko is an illegitimate child and she doesn’t know who her father is. Her mother runs the local bar, financed by Neocon, a rich man who paid for the bar and covers Ruriko with presents. Rinko dislikes her mother and Neocon.

Ruriko accepts to lend money to Rinko, so that she can launch her own restaurant in the village. She calls it The Snail. It becomes a very special place, where Rinko only serves one table at a time, creating a special menu for the guests. Soon, her restaurant has the reputation to foster love and bring a happy-ever-after to the guests. Her success is immediate.

Said that way, it sounds cheesy but it’s not, at least for the first part of the book, the one I enjoyed the most. I immersed myself in Rinko’s world, made of an indifferent mother, a strange pet pig named Hermes after the luxury brand and that she has to look after, a gentle janitor, Kuma, who helps her clean and install the restaurant. I liked Rinko’s resilience and the feeling that it was a tale out-of-time and out-of-space.

I liked the pages about selecting the right produce and preparing food. I enjoyed reading about Rinko’s soul-searching venture through her restaurant. Cooking for her guests is a gift, a way for her to spread her love to others. Rinko nurses her broken heart in the kitchen, bringing happiness to her guests. Cooking is an act of love, her way to connect to others and belong to the world.

As long as I was reading about the restaurant, I was fine and invested in the story. I started to get bored when Ruriko’s story came into the mix. I won’t tell much because it’d spoil the story for other readers but I thought it was too much. Improbable family secrets are revealed and Rinko’s world is once again turned upside down.

I rarely do that, because I don’t think books should come with warning stickers, but the last part is not for vegan and vegetarian readers, and that’s all I’ll say.

For another opinion, here’s Vishy’s review. And Bookmaniac’s.

As always, I looked for the English language cover of the book. As usual, I found it lacking and went looking for covers in other languages. Let’s play a game. You’ve seen the French cover and here are six other covers from other languages, including the original Japanese.

I’ve read the book and I can tell you that the Asian covers are the best to represent the atmosphere of Rinko’s tale. Naïve drawing showing her in her village in the mountains, connecting to nature and the locals.

The French cover is OK, it’s faithful to the text, it shows the delicate beauty of the book. It’s different from the other Western covers, with its blue tone.

The Western covers are all the same deep red tones, not a color I associate with Japan but more with China. The Italian one is good as it represents Rinko cooking and it’s a major aspect of the book. The Spanish one is cheesy with the rice heart and the worst one is the American one. I truly wonder where it comes from and who had the idea of such an odd picture considering the book.

And what about you? Which covers would lead you to pick up The Restaurant of Love Regained from a display table in a bookstore?

Strangers by Yamada – Japanese Literature Challenge

March 1, 2020 22 comments

Strangers by Yamada (1987) French title: Présences d’un été. Translated by Annick Laurent

I read Strangers by Yamada in January for Japanese Literature Challenge. I’m lucky that Meredith extended the reading time up to March. My late billet is still in. Phew!

Strangers is set in Tokyo, during a summer in the 1980s. Harada, a rather famous TV scriptwriter, is forty-seven, recently divorced and has moved into an apartment in an office complex. The building empties at night and he thinks he’s the only one actually living in this tower. He’s estranged from his grownup son, his parents are dead and he doesn’t have many friends. In other words, he’s lonely.

Two things happen during that summer. First, he meets Kei, an accountant who lives in the building too. He thought he was alone there after working hours but he’s not, he has a neighbor. They soon get acquainted and start an affair.

Then, feeling a bit off-kilter after his divorce, struggling a little to adapt to his newfound singlehood, Harada decides to go back to Asakusa, the Tokyo neighborhood he grew up in. He wants to see his childhood house again. When he arrives there, he meets with the new tenants, who look a lot like his long dead parents and welcome him into their home.

How will Harada’s relationship with Kei evolve? Who are the people who live in his childhood home? Harada is a middle-aged man who has to reassess his life after his divorce. His career is successful but not totally fulfilling. His marriage fell apart and he has no contact with his son. He feels adrift and tries to go back to his roots and to find comfort in Kei. I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgic tone and the blanket of melancholy that settles on Harada’s shoulders. He wants to go back to a happy place and looks for it in his childhood memories. But how destructive is it?

Telling more would spoil the novel for potential readers, so I won’t go further in its description. I’ll just say that the ending was a surprise and that it’s not the kind of books I usually read but I liked it anyway. Yamada describes Tokyo with fondness and the city becomes an important part of this atmospheric story. Harada’s visits to Asakusa, the descriptions of the area, its shops and restaurants give a good vision of the neighborhood, a foot in the past, and a foot in the present. And the story progresses towards a strange ending.

Highly recommended.

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki – Lovely

February 10, 2019 25 comments

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki (1999-2004) Original French title: Le poids des secrets.

Aki Shimazaki was born in 1961 in Japan. She emigrated to Canada in 1981, first living in Vancouver and Toronto before moving to Montreal in 1991. In 1995, she started to learn French and in 1999, she published her first novella. In French, her third language. I’m in awe.

The Weight of Secrets is her debut series and the original title is Le poids des secrets. It is a five-petal flower book. Each novella is a petal and the reader is like a little bee, going from one petal to the other, seeing part of the flower from a character’s point of view at different periods in time. After visiting the five petals, the reader has a global view of the history of two families who seem to live parallel lives but actually have open and hidden interconnections. It is the shared destinies of a woman, Yukiko and Yukio, born in Tokyo in the early 1930s and both living in Nagasaki in 1945 and survivors of the atomic bombing.

Each volume has a Japanese title, a name of flower or of an animal symbolic of this specific view on the story.

The first book is Tsubaki, (camélias/camellias), a flower symbolic of happy times for Yukio and Yukiko.

The second book is Hamaguri, a shellfish with a shell in two halves. It is a children’s game to have a bag of shells and try to find the exact other half to one shell. It is a symbol of a key person missing in the characters’ lives.

The third book is Tsubame (hirondelle/swallow). It is the nickname of a Catholic priest who plays a capital part in the story. He’s a swallow as he’s always dressed in a black-and-white cloth. In French we say that one swallow doesn’t bring back Spring but this man does, he brings life and hope after hard times.

The fourth book is Wasurenagusa (myosotis/forget-me-not). It belongs to Yukio’s father who was in Manchuria during WWII and separated from his family.

The fifth book is Hotaru (lucioles/fireflies), a way to symbolize dangerous attractions.

I’m aware that you still have no clue about the story. The truth is, I don’t want to give details about the characters. All you need to know is that it’s set in Japan, that it involves characters crushed by historical events like the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the subsequent massacre of Korean immigrants or the 1945 atomic bombing in Nagasaki. It is about racism against the Korean community and about the Japanese definition of what is proper or not. It tells the impact of customs on individual lives when they cannot meet society’s expectations. It’s the story of two beings who had a special bond, one they didn’t get to explore because their parents kept too many secrets and how they missed out. It’s the stories of two adults who healed each other and had a good life together, despite their own secrets and failures.

We go back and forth in time, we change of narrators and we unravel each character’s reasons to keep something or some part of themselves hidden. We only see people who do as best they can given the circumstances they are in. From one book to the other, we get a clearer picture of the characters’ lives and how some of the secrets get revealed to the next generation and how some die with the person. Each character has something they don’t know about their origins.

It’s written in a simple and lovely language and I wanted to know more after each volume. My favorite volumes were Tsubame and Wasurenagusa. I absolutely loved this series and I highly recommend it. If you pick it up, do not read the blurbs of the books, there are way too many spoilers in them and you want to keep the magic intact.

I don’t know if it’s a Japanese or a Canadian book. I’ve seen it in the Japanese section of my bookstore. I certainly thought it was Japanese until I wondered who was the translator, discovered there was none and started to research Aki Shimazaki. It’s difficult to qualify it. Its language is French but certainly not the French from Québec. Shimazaki’s native language probably left some marks in her way to think and write in French. It’s a Japanese book for its setting, its characters, its themes and its background culture. So, I don’t know, I’ll let you make your own mind about it but I feel privileged. I got to read a Japanese book in my native language.

Now the sad news and the ranting part. Sadly, it’s a Translation Tragedy. It’s published in Québec, it was a great success in the francophone world and it’s easy to read. And yet, it’s not available in English. Is there not an anglophone Canadian publisher to translate it into English? Like for Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy, I really don’t understand how it’s possible that such books are not available in the country’s two official languages.

Good thing for readers who speak French, it’s a perfect way to practice reading in French. The books are short, the style is simple (short sentences, no very complicated words) and the story gripping.

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

Coffee and arsenic

January 29, 2015 23 comments

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino (2008) French title: Un café maison.

I don’t remember where I’ve discovered Keigo Higashino although I’m sure it’s through a book blog. Anyway. This is my contribution to Tony’s January in Japan and guess what, there’s an article about Higashino just here.

Higashino_caféSalvation of a Saint is a crime fiction novel set in Tokyo. It opens on a repudiation scene between Ayane and her husband Yoshitaka. They’ve been married for a year and since Avaye isn’t pregnant yet, Yoshitaka is leaving her. He had told her beforehand that he would leave her if a baby wasn’t on its way during the first year of their marriage. I guess it’s a new way to envision the proverbial biological clock. Now he’s found someone else, and that someone else is already pregnant. The chapter ends with Ayane thinking “I love you very deeply. What you just told me broke my heart. Now I want you to die too.”

This happens just before they expect guests for diner. Classy guy, this Yoshitaka. They invited the Mashibas and Hiromi Wakayama, Ayane’s employee. This diner is a subtle form of torture for Ayane since the Mashibas recently had a baby.

The morning after diner, Ayane leaves Tokyo for a few days to visit her family in Sapporo. This trip wasn’t scheduled but it’s understandable given the circumstances. Yoshitaka stays behind, sees his mistress and she’ll be the one to find him dead in his apartment. He was poisoned by arsenic-laced coffee.

The police arrive on the scene and the inspector Kusanagi is in charge of the investigation. He’s drawn to Ayane and in the eye of his young colleague Kaoru Utsumi, he’s too quick to write her off from the list of suspects. She thinks he’s blinded by his attraction to Ayane. To keep the investigation on track, she seeks the help of a scientist, Yukawa. He has already helped the police before and he’s friend with Kusagani. Kaoru wants to figure out how the arsenic arrived in Yoshitaka’s coffee and if Ayane could have poisoned her husband at distance.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot. Salvation of a Saint is well-crafted. I wanted to know if and how Ayane had killed her husband. The police dig into Yoshitaka’s life and past relationships attempting to get to know the victim. The picture is not pretty. He looks down on women. They’re either a means to sexual fun or a living oven for baking his future babies. It’s hard to feel sorry for the guy’s death, especially when you’re a woman. In this book, Higashino doesn’t give a good image of the Japanese society when it comes to women. Here they are wombs or obedient wives. Kaoru has a hard time working with Kusanagi who tends to dismiss her suggestions and analysis. It’s hard to be female in this police department.

The plot has several twists and turns and the relationships between the characters are muddy sometimes. Yoshitaka is certainly not a saint but Ayane seemed quite creepy to me as well. Her reactions to events are off. She never reacts the way the reader expects and she appears to be cold. She’s not really likeable either. I also rejoiced in Yukawa’s participation to the investigation. It brought fresh air and a bit of craziness in the novel. The dynamics in the investigation team was interesting to follow just as it was fun to read about his scientific experiments to find out if and how Ayane could have scheduled the poisoning.

Salvation of a Saint is a classic crime fiction novel with strong plot and intriguing characters. I liked it a lot and had a great time reading it. The English title must reflect the original since I’ve seen the same one in other languages. I can understand why the French title is different: Le salut d’un saint isn’t a good title from a marketing point of view. It’s confusing since salut means hello and salvation. And I suspect that such a title with religious connotation would be a put off for French readers except if it’s on a book by a pulp fiction writer or by San Antonio.

Great reading time.

You’ll be on probation your entire life

March 9, 2014 17 comments

On Parole by Akira Yoshimura 1988. French title: Liberté conditionnelle. Translated from the Japanese by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle.

I intended to read On Parole for Tony’s January in Japan  but I didn’t finish it on time and February flew by and the billet is still to write. Oh, well, c’est la vie!

On Parole is my second book by Akira Yoshimura. I’ve already read La Jeune Fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le Sourire de pierre which left me perplexed but certain to have met with a great writer, which On Parole confirms.

Yoshimura_On_ParoleShiro Kikutani has been in prison for fifteen years when he’s released on parole. The novel starts with Kukutani’s departure from prison. Kikutani has been released because of his good conduct but also thanks to Akiyama who is willing to hire him when he goes out. So, it is all set for Kikutani: he will work at Akiyama’s chicken farm. During the first months, Kikytani is under the responsibility of Kiyoura, who runs a free home for ex-convicts. Kiyoura takes Kikutani under his wing to help him readapt to life outside of prison. They go shopping, they take the bus and the train and later he assists him with his search for an apartment. After Kikutani has left the ex-convict home for his own apartment, he’s transferred from Kiyoura’s care to Takebayashi’s. Takebayashi is doing pro bono work as an ex-convict counsellor and Kikutani must visit him regularly at home. In French on parole is liberté conditionnelle or conditional freedom. We also use liberté surveillée for probation. Literally, it means freedom under surveillance. I think it reflects well Kikutani’s position in life. His freedom is conditional: he must respect the rules of probation.

We are in Kikutani’s mind and we discover what brought him to prison in the first place. He walked into his wife sleeping with someone else and he killed her on the spot, wounded her lover and killed the lover’s mother by setting the house on fire. We follow Kikutani through his journey back to normal life. Except his life isn’t normal. He’s on parole for life as he has been sentenced to life imprisonment. He has to visit Takebayashi, can’t leave Tokyo without his consent and must report regularly to the authorities. Kiyoura explains to him that since the longest sentence possible is twenty years of imprisonment, if he behaves properly for ten years, he can ask for grace and be totally free again. Although Kikutani is grateful to be out of prison, he also resents that his freedom is not full.

In the beginning, his everyday life is a struggle. Yoshimura describes well how even the smallest tasks are a challenge. For example, Kiyoura recommends that he chooses a low cost hairdresser because they work quicker and are less likely to engage him into small talk. And small talk and banal questions put Kikutani in a spot. Work at the chicken farm is tough but Kikutani holds on and get used to his new schedule and new environment. His body has to readapt to softer conditions: there is no central heating in prison and he’s used to marching instead of walking. Life has changed outside and he’s a bit frightened by crowds everywhere.

Kikutani is lonely. His brother avoids him, his parents are dead and he has lost his former friends. He can’t go back to his home town. He used to be a teacher there and the scandal was too big for him to move back there. He stays alone with his thoughts and doesn’t share anything too personal with Takebayashi either. We realise that he’s been released but he hasn’t atoned for his actions and he still doesn’t regret killing his wife. He’s sorry for the lover’s mother but not for his reaction upon finding his wife in her lover’s arms.

Les longs mois qu’il avait passés en prison à lutter contre l’horrible souvenir et ruminer l’idée que son acte était inévitable avaient exacerbé ses sentiments. Le juge qui avait prononcé la sentence devait compter sur son incarcération pour qu’il regrette son geste, mais il ne regrettait rien, bien au contraire. Cependant, le temps avait adouci ses souvenirs en les estompant, de sorte qu’il ne s’énervait pratiquement plus jamais. C’était le seul soulagement qu’il lui était donné de ressentir, et il ne voulait pas remuer tout cela maintenant. The long months he has spent in prison, fighting against horrible memories and brooding over the idea that his deed had been inevitable had sharpened his feelings. The judge who had sentenced him probably expected that his being in prison would make him regret his bad actions, but he didn’t regret anything, quite the opposite. However, time had soothed his memories by blurring them and now he hardly ever got angry anymore. It was the only relief he could experience and he didn’t want to stir all this now.My translation from the French.Please don’t judge Yoshimura’s style upon this.  

From society’s point of view, it’s a bit chilling. The system has him under surveillance but he never gets real counselling. He’s on the loose and he’s not reformed. Although I acknowledged his struggle, I never really empathised with him. There’s something cold in this man and I felt apprehensive, wondering what kind of drama he was heading to. Through Kikutani’s individual story, I also had the feeling that Yoshimura was criticising a system which seems to coach ex-convicts very well but doesn’t in the end because it doesn’t take their mental state of mind into consideration. They take practicalities into account and the fact that they are estranged from society but they assume that calm and hardworking means well-balanced.

Yoshimura’s style is precise, not much adorned and leaves us with a good vision of Kikutani’s routine and state-of-mind. The construction of the novel is excellent, from one chapter to the other, we discover Kikutani’s past, his thoughts and the net of surveillance set by the Japanese State. We also see the tempest of emotions brewing under his calm composure and I was looking forward to know the ending. On Parole shows that the border between Noir and literary fiction is a thin one, at least for me. We have the same ingredients as in a Noir novel: a murder, a man in a struggling position, fighting against his past and trying to start anew. His wife proved to be his femme fatale. There’s also a feeling of doom.

On Parole is a multi-facetted book and I can only recommend it.

My Father’s Journal by Jirô Taniguchi

January 25, 2013 27 comments

Le journal de mon père by Jirô Taniguchi. 1995 Not available in English, I think.

TaniguchiAfter reading Max’s entry about a graphic novel, Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke, I remembered that the Japanese graphic novel Le Journal de mon père had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I decided to read it for January in Japan and let’s say it right away, this is the Japanese book I enjoyed the most, apart from South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Yochan lives in Tokyo when his sister calls to tell him that their father is dead. She’s still living in their home town Tottori. Yochan hasn’t been back for 15 years and, pushed by his wife, he decides to attend the wake which takes place the night before the funeral. The whole family is there and he gets reacquainted with them. It’s the opportunity for him to remember his childhood.

The family’s life was changed after the great fire which destroyed half of Tottori in 1952. Two-third of the city had been touched by the fire, which made more than 21000 casualties. Yochan’s father was a hairdresser and he lost his shop during the catastrophe. His wife’s parents lend him money to start again but he doesn’t like accepting a loan from them as they suspected that he married their daughter for her money. As a consequence, he starts working like a maniac to pay them back as soon as possible and this attitude will cost him his marriage. His wife meets someone else, follows her lover and leaves her children behind. For Yochan, this is the moment when he disconnected himself from his family. He resented his father for not keeping his wife, for separating him from his mom and he grew up with the idea of leaving his hometown. That’s what he did. He left to study in Tôkyô and only came back once.

Taniguchi2Taniguchi relates how Yochan slowly starts to understand his father and realizes that he never knew him, that he probably misjudged him and that he was beloved in his community. He also recreates the life in a Japanese town in the 1950s: the small shops and factories, the American soldiers and their food, the family businesses.

I really had a great time reading this graphic novel. It’s 270 pages long. The pictures are all black and white and beautiful. Each chapter starts with a one page image and then the story is told in a succession of images with dialogues or descriptions like a voice over. The characters don’t look Japanese, especially since they have Western eyes, like in mangas. The graphic form was a good medium to access Japanese culture. Things that are common and probably not described or explained in a novel are “given to see” in a manga. I looked at the clothes, the houses, the funeral, the city streets with interest. (Call me naïve if you want, but that’s what I did) I found the clothes interesting: some characters wear traditional Japanese clothes when others like Yochan and his wife wear Western clothes. His sister is more traditional: pictures of her marriage, she’s in traditional Japanese wedding gown. Picture of Yochan’s wedding, his bride is in a Western dress.

Taniguchi conveys a lot of emotions in his drawings and the accompanying narration. He shows us Yochan’s childhood memories, his feelings as an adult who hears things about his father that he never imagined.

Taniguchi1This story is partly autobiographical. Taniguchi comes from Tottori and has also spent many years away from his hometowns, his family and friends before coming back after a childhood friend had contacted him. For me, this is totally incredible. The idea of living in the same country as my family, only distant by one hour by plane and not visiting for more than a decade is unimaginable. I would never never do that and my parents would never accept it. They would play the guilt card until I give in and come to visit, or send a plane ticket or I’d see them coming to me, unannounced to see how I am or where I live. Different culture, I suppose.

It’s difficult to review a graphic novel, I hope I encouraged you to discover Taniguchi. As odd coincidences tend to multiply, there is an article about France and mangas in this week’s Courrier International. (A weekly paper that publishes articles from foreign newspapers in a French translation) Originally published in The Asahi Shimbum, this article explains how mangas are widespread in France and how it became fashionable in the 1980s thanks to cartoons on TV. I don’t know how it was in other countries but we watched A LOT of Japanese cartoons in France when I was little. It’s true you have shelves of mangas in bookstores. I’ve never tried any, simply because I didn’t know where to start but the article mentions several of them and I’m tempted to try. Unfortunately, I’m on a book buying ban. Sigh. This is so frustrating.

Murakamish

January 21, 2013 55 comments

N*P by Banana Yoshimoto. 1990

I bought this book after reading a review about The Lake by Yoshimoto book at Tony’s blog. N*P‘s blurb seemed appealing and I was trying to explore Japanese literature, so I thought, “Why not?”

Ce que je savais de Tarao Sakase, cet auteur assez quelconque installé aux Etats-Unis, c’est qu’il avait, au cours d’une vie tout aussi quelconque, écrit un grand nombre de nouvelles.Qu’il s’était suicidé à l’âge de quarante-huit ans.Qu’il avait eu deux enfants avec une femme sont il s’était ensuite séparé.

Que ses nouvelles, réunies en un recueil, avaient connu un bref succès aux Etats-Unis.

Le titre de ce livre ? N*P

L’ouvrage se composait de quatre-vingt-dix-sept nouvelles.

What I knew about Tarao Takase, this average writer settled in the USA, it’s that he had, during his average life, written a lot of short-stories.That he committed suicide at 48.That he had two children with a woman whom he later divorced.

That his short-stories, gathered in a collection, had had a brief success in the USA.

The title of this collection? N*P

The book included ninety-seven short-stories.

(My akuyaku. It’s Japanese lit, I have the right to use it)

Kazami is our narrator in this novel. When she was in high-school, she was in a relationship with Shôji, an older man and the translator of Sakase’s ninety-eighth short-story. Shôji never completed the translation as he committed suicide. Kazami was at a party with Shôji when she first saw Otohiko and Saki, Sakase’s children. She didn’t speak to them, though.

Five years later, Kazami stumbles upon Otohiko in a Tôkyô street and they start a conversation. He remembers her and one thing leading to another, she befriends with him and his sister as well. Later she will meet Sui, Otohiko’s lover and also step-sister. They have the same father and discovered it after they started their relationship. The plot gravitates around these three young people, Otohiko, Sui and Saki and their unbreakable linked created by their father and his 98th short-story. It’s hard to describe this novel without giving too much away.

Yoshimoto_NPKazami is like a means to make the story move forward and also a convenient narrator. She’s involved too, in a way, through her love story with Shôji. The story is original but the abundance of weird coincidences is a bit too much for a contemporary novel. I enjoyed the description of Tôkyô in the summer, the way the atmosphere, the light, the weather penetrate the characters and influence their actions and their moods. They seem to be attuned to the outside world. Like in a Murakami novel, there’s a bridge between Japan and the Western world: Takase used to live in the USA, Otohiko, Saki and Sui are just back from Boston, Kazami is a translator from English to Japanese, just like her mother and her former lover. The story is also a bit marked by Fate like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps it is only this fortuitous incest that reminded me of Oedipus. (Although here, it’s between siblings)

I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and I struggle to remember it. Not good. Yoshimoto’s style is erratic. Sometimes she’s really good and sometimes, it’s a bit laboured. I don’t have quotes, which isn’t a good sign for me. I liked it but not more.

So far I have a limited experience with Japanese literature and to be honest, I’m still waiting for the book that will make me swoon and want to run to the closest book store to buy it to all my friends. OK, I loved South Of the Border, West Of the Sun by Haruki Murakami but it’s so westernised that it doesn’t count. I enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, couldn’t finish The Wind-up Bird Chronicles and didn’t like Norwegian Wood. I remember nothing of the Kawataba I’ve read and I was horrified by the Fumio Niwa. I thought that Yoshimura was good but I missed too much of it because I don’t know enough about Japanese culture. And as there are no introductions of any kind in French books, I don’t make any progress in that field. So it’s becoming quite frustrating. Truly I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and the quality of the style. They’re all gifted writers but still, nothing got me past the clinical appraisal of the style. My emotions weren’t involved. So now, after this mild encounter with Banana Yoshimoto, I’m thinking about reading the books I have on the shelf (I Am a Cat by Soseki, On Parole by Yoshimura and Strangers by Yamada.) and then giving up on Japanese literature.

This one is my first contribution to Tony’s January in Japan.

January in Japan and a Victorian Lit coincidence

January 2, 2013 23 comments

January in JapanWe’re in January now and January in Japan has started. This event is organized by Tony, from Tony’s Reading List and he created a dedicated blog for the event. Check it out here. So it’s all about reading Japanese literature this month and I’m in. And a few days ago, I started reading Is That a Fish in You Ear? by David Bellos. It’s an essay about translation. In a chapter where he tries to define what translation is, Bellos lists the different words that are available to the Japanese speaker to say translation:

Here, for example, are the main words that you have to talk about them in Japanese: If the translation we are discussing is complete, we might call it a zen’yaku or a kan’yaku A first translation is a shoyaku. A retranslation is a kaiyaku, and the new translation is a shin’yaku that replaces the old translation, or ky yaku. A translation of a translation is a j yaku. A standard translation that seems unlikely to be replaced is a teiyaku; equally unlikely to be replaced is a mei-yaku, or “celebrated translation.” When a celebrated translator speaks of her own work, she may disparage it as setsuyaku, “clumsy translation,” i.e., “my own translation,” which is not to be confused with a genuinely bad translation, disparaged as a dayaku or an akuyaku. A co-translation is a ky yaku or g yaku; a draft translation, or shitayaku, may be polished through a process of “supervising translation” or kan’yaku, without it becoming a ky yaku or g yaku. Translations are given different names depending on the approach they take to the original: they can be chokuyaku (literally, “direct translation”), chikugoyaku (“word-for-word translation”), iyaku (“sense translation”), taiyaku (“translation presented with the original text on facing pages”), or, in the case of translations of works by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and other popular American writers, chyaku (“translations that are even better than the originals,” an invention and registered trademark of the Academy Press)

 Amazing isn’t it? When I read it, I thought about Tony who mostly reads in translation, loves Japanese and Victorian literatures. The coincidence of me reading a non-fiction book, in January and stumbling upon a quote about the word translation in Japanese is so incredible that in matter of coincidences, Thomas Hardy seems like an amateur. Life surpasses fiction, that’s for sure.

And then I wondered about translating Japanese into English or into French. How do they do it? The way of thinking, of expressing thoughts, of putting reality into words is so different from ours that it must be awfully difficult to give back the substance and the music of the original. It’s probably impossible.

I’m also thinking about using the word akuyaku at the end of the quotes I translate from the French when I don’t have a professional translation available. If I continue like this, I’m going to have my own blogging language full of billets, copinautes and enthusiastic akuyakus. But what do you say for a genuinely bad translation of a translation? I do that when I read a Japanese book in French and then write a billet in English about it. A j akuyaku? Seems like Japanese lacks one more word to say translation! Let’s start this with my upcoming review of N*P by Banana Yoshimoto.

PS: More about Is That a Fish in You Ear? pretty soon; I want to play a game with you.

Two short stories by Akira Yoshimura

September 3, 2012 29 comments

Shojo Kakei (1959) and Ishi no Bisho (1962). French titles: La jeune fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le sourire des pierres.

I just read two short stories by Akira Yoshimura; they are published together as both have death as a theme but I’ll review them separately.

Shojo Kakei is a stunning story. The French title means The Young Girl Tortured on a Shelf. Mieko is 16 and she just died. Her soul hovers over her corpse and relates her impressions. She’s going to be our narrator.

A partir du moment où ma respiration s’est arrêtée, j’ai soudain été enveloppée d’air pur, comme si la brume épaisse qui flottait alentour venait de se dissiper pour un temps.Je me sentais aussi fraîche que si l’on venait de me baigner dans une eau limpide et pure. From the moment I stopped breathing, I felt suddenly enveloped in pure air, as if the thick fog surrounding me had just vanished.I felt as fresh as if I had just bathed in clear and pure water.(My translation)

She sees two men coming to her parents’ poor lodgings and giving her mother an envelope full of money. Her mother has sold her corpse to the local hospital where it will be used by students or for scientific experiment. Mieko describes what happens to her corpse, the journey to the hospital and how they dispose of her body. Meanwhile Mieko unfolds her life and lets us know who she was and how she was led to that untimely death.

Honestly, it was painful to read. I needed to block out the gory images Yoshimura conjured up in my mind when Mieko relates how hospital employees cut her body or treat it with chemical products. It would have been unbearable otherwise. That meant opening my mind to harmless descriptions of the streets and the settings and shutting it in a moment when it became too gory. I wonder if a Western writer could have written such a story. It’s so chilling and it shows a totally different approach to death than in Western countries (which I knew, but still)

Yoshimura writes beautifully. In the first pages, Mieko describes death as an access to extra sensitivity. She hears, feels, smells, sees better, grasping details in her surroundings that were imperceptible to her when she was alive. It’s an interesting way of imagining death.

In the second story, Ishi no Bisho, death is also a major theme. The French title means The smile of stones. Eichi lives in Tôkyô near a cemetery. When he was a child, he befriended with Sone and they used to play among the tombstones. Then Sone vanished and they never met again until Eichi stumbles upon him at the university. Sone asks Eichi to travel with him to the Island of Sado where he has a job for the two of them. Sone steals statues in historical cemeteries and sells them to antique dealers.

Death is everywhere in this story. It’s a link between Eichi and Sone as they were together when they discovered the corpse of a woman who had hung herself in the cemetery when they were children. Sone makes a living out of death, selling these statues. Sone is also fascinated by death in an unhealthy manner: he tends to persuade his girl-friends to commit suicide with him. Death is also present in Eichi’s unnamed sister. She was married but her in-laws sent her back home after they discovered she was infertile. Eichi’s sister sews clothes for an orphanage, spending her time and energy to help children whose parents are dead. On a more symbolical level, her womb is dead too, she’ll never bear a child. It’s the death of her dreams as a mother and it kills any chance to remarry.

After reading these two short stories, I have to admit that I struggle with Japanese literature mostly because I don’t know much about the customs of this country. I should read a non-fiction book, but that’s not my forte. I’m a bit angry at the publisher, actually. I enjoy books published by Actes Sud, they always select excellent writers. I just wish they added more to the book than just the text and scarce notes from the translator. I longed to read a foreword or footnotes with explanation about the vision of death in the Japanese society. It would have helped. I’m now thinking about trying Japanese literature in English provided that the English editions are more educational. Otherwise, I have the feeling I’ll never improve my level of reading in Japanese literature.

Teen without spirit

June 25, 2012 22 comments

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. 1987 French title: La ballade de l’impossible. 

That’s it, I’ve finished Norwegian Wood and I’m ready to write my thoughts about it.

When the books opens, Watanabe is on a plane, approaching Germany. Hearing Norwegian Wood by the Beatles triggers some memories of his youth. The memories flow out painfully.

Watanabe is 18, he’s moving in a student house in Tôkyô for his first year of university. When he was in high school, his best friend Kizuki committed suicide. Watanabe, Kizuki and his long-time girl-friend Naoko were often together, the three of them spending their free time together.

Naoko is also in Tôkyô now and she and Watanabe spend time wandering across the town in companionable silence. When Naoko turns 19, they celebrate together and one thing leading to the other, they have sex. Naoko leaves town and when Watanabe hears from her again, she’s in a nursing home. Naoko is unbalanced, her fragile mind hesitates on the verge of reason, on the verge of craziness, it depends of the day. Murakami describes Watanabe’s life in his student house and his later encounter with a fellow student Midori. She has her share of misery too: her mother is dead and now her father is dying too. She befriends with Watanabe; she craves for attention and Watanabe is hopelessly in love with Naoko. We also meet Reiko, Naoko’s room mate in the nursing house and Nagasawa, Watanabe’s friend at the university.

That’s basically all what happens, which is not a problem per se. I like contemplative books too. This one opens with melancholy and remains on a minor tone all along but I didn’t like it. Melancholy can be beautiful, here I found it flat and grey. This book is grey. Watanabe is numb, boneless. He winds himself up every morning – except on Sundays, he says – does what he has to do, studies, works in a music store, cleans his room, irons his clothes, eats, goes out with a friend, has flings. He’s on automatic pilot.

I know the main issues in this novel are depression, suicide, mental sickness and the difficulty to become an adult. Murakami succeeded in making me indifferent to his characters, in enveloping me in a cloud of grey thoughts, like Watanabe who tries to recover from Kizuki’s death. I felt as distant from him as he is from his life. I felt no compassion and that’s probably what bothers me. I could say it’s a coming of age novel but I’d rather say it’s a bildungsroman. It’s more appropriate as the whole story starts in Germany, as Watanabe studies German and reads The Magic Mountain. All the characters don’t “fit in”. They don’t feel “normal” and some manage better than others to cope with it.

I have difficulties with wimps, be it in real life or in literature. I wanted to shake Watanabe. In the three last Murakami I’ve tried or read (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, South of the Border, West of the Sun and this one), the men are pathetic. They don’t live their life, they put up with it. Even before Kizuki’s death, I imagined Watanabe as a follower, going where his friend went, playing gooseberry with Kizuki and Naoko, never thinking of refusing this awkward situation. He doesn’t have his own goals, his own wishes, his own hobbies.

On the back cover of my French edition, they compare Murakami to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t see why. Fitzgerald’s prose is like champagne, sparkling, light and heady. Murakami’s style is dull in comparison. 440 pages of book and I have no quote to share, which tells everything. And, as I wrote in my previous post, I have the feeling that Murakami writes some Murakami, which is not fair for this book as it’s among his first ones. It’s the others which are repetitions of this one and not the contrary. How can I say it? There’s a feeling of déjà vu, of literary tricks already used — like the stories in the story — , of an atmosphere I’ve already met. It was novelty when I read his other books, it’s not any more. So yes, I’m disappointed, I expected better from someone who receives so much praise. Definitely not reading the long IQ84.

Bellezza organizes a Japanese Literature challenge, this is my first contribution to her event.

A Japanese Tatie Danielle

January 7, 2011 11 comments

The Hateful Age, by Fumio Niwa. (Japanese title: Iyagarase No Nenrei). Translated in French by L’âge des méchancetés.

Ce qu’elle peut faire de mieux dans son état actuel, c’est mourir vite et rien d’autre. Comment se fait-il qu’elle vive aussi longtemps ? What she can do best in her current state is to die soon and nothing else. How comes that she lives that long?

Funio Niwa (1905-2005) is a Japanese writer. He was already famous in his country in the 1930s but few of his books have been translated in English or in French. I discovered The Hateful Age thanks to the paperback collection Folio 2€. I enjoy this collection as it is an opportunity to discover writers I don’t know through short texts. (about 100 pages) 

The Hateful Age, published in 1947, is a shattering book on old age.

Tokyo, 1947. Umejo is 86 years old and her only daughter died some twenty years ago. Her family left is her three grand-daughters, Senko (43), Sachiko (36) and Ruriko (20). Sachiko’s house in Tokyo has been destroyed during the war and she and her family are sent to live in the country. They rent a two-rooms lodging in a peasant’s house. The village is poor, there is no electricity and they are five persons in their family. Her living conditions do not allow her to take care of Umejo.

Therefore, after living with Sachiko and her husband Minobe, Umejo has been staying at Senko’s house for three months. Senko is married to Itami and has no children. Umejo is a burden for them. She pinches objects in the house, is awake at night and enquires ‘Who’s there?’ any time someone goes to the toilets in the night. Itami cannot stand it anymore and threatens Senko to sleep in his office for the next couple of weeks if Umejo goes on living with them. His words are violent, horrible but he manages to convince Senko that sending her grand-mother away at Sachiko’s is the right thing to do. Here is Senko informing Umejo of their decision:

Vraiment grand-mère, vous êtes un cancer. A cause de vous seule, nous ne pouvons pas vivre en bonnes relations entre sœurs. Vous-même, d’ailleurs, vous n’auriez pas pensé que vous serviriez seulement à empoisonner nos relations en vous laissant aller à vivre trop longtemps.   Really, granny, you are a cancer. Because of you alone, we sisters cannot have a good relationship. By the way, even you wouldn’t have thought that your only role would be to poison our relationship by letting yourself live that long.

What are these words? “letting yourself live that long”? Does it mean that her family expected her to act responsibly towards us and commit suicide? Later in the book, Niwa explains that when a husband dies, his wife’s name is written in advance on the grave and covered with red painting until she dies too. Umejo has been a widow for such a long time that the painting has disappeared. The grand-daughters seem to think Umejo purposely stays alive to annoy them.

So Senko sends Umejo at Sachiko’s house. Send is the right verb, as Umejo is treated like a parcel. The narration of the journey is terrible. Ruriko is designated to bring the old woman to the country house. The village is remote; there is one and a half league from the train station to the village. As Umejo cannot walk, she is attached with ropes on Ruriko’s back, who carries her. The walk between the station and the village is a nightmare. It is so cruel that it is almost unbearable to read.

Although they have little room and little money, Sachiko and Minobe welcome Umejo. She keeps on pinching, yells after the children, wakes them three times per night because she needs to go to the toilets and gets lost in the dark. She starts tearing her clothes, which is a huge problem as fabric is rationed in these post-war years. The reader slowly discovers how ungrateful the grand-daughters are, though Sachiko and Minobe behave better than Senko but also discovers how difficult it can be to live with Umejo. The description of old age is appalling but true-to-life. People are not equal in ageing. Some get sick, lose their mind, some remain spry and witty. Niwa decided to show us the dark side of old age.

This text is purposely brutal to be thought-provoking. How shall the community take care of elderly citizens? Fumio Niwa examines a growing problem for the post WWII Japanese society. Indeed, I’ve read that at that time, Japan has to face a growing population of octogenarians. The custom is that children take care of the old parents. As they live longer and longer, they cause increasing problems in families. Niwa gives an awful example of cohabitation between Umejo and her family to challenge the traditional model coming from Confucianism. He demolishes the cliché of the affectionate grand-mother, cement of the family, kindly bestowing her wisdom on her beloved family. I have to admit I had that cliché in mind too, especially for Japan and China. Niwa thinks families should live separately and promotes the foundation of retirement houses like in America. I’m not familiar with Japanese culture, but this seems quite revolutionary.

I also perceived between the lines that the Japanese society is at a turning point in 1947. The country is occupied by the Americans, who bring Western customs with them. Food and clothes are rationed, consequence of WWII, just as they were in France at that time. The social model is compared to the American one. The way of life is still traditional but is going to change. Niwa’s text tells more about Japanese culture than the Murakami’s books I’ve read. 

A word on the style. Niwa’s prose isn’t really impressive, I wonder if the translation is responsible for that. It’s not easy to translate from Japanese to a Western language as kanjis (Japanese ideograms) convey images as well as ideas. This short-story – or novella? The concept of novella doesn’t exist in French, I never know how to recognise a novella – is emotionally difficult to read but it raises an issue we have to face in our Western societies as well, as people grow older and older.

Ironically, Fumio Niwa developed Alzheimer disease in 1985 and died in 2005. I wonder where he was living during his long illness and who took care of him. As there always seem to be an inner logic in life, I usually prudently avoid criticizing old people, as I don’t know what kind of old lady I shall be.  

PS: The title of that post is a reference to the excellent French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez. In this film, an old aunt terrorises her nephew and his family when she comes to live with them. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to watch it, it’s very good.

She moves him in mysterious ways

December 8, 2010 33 comments

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

I don’t know where to start, I’m still knocked out by Murakami. Third book in six months about an unforgettable past love coming back in present time and upsetting a comfortable and happy routine. Journey Into the Past. The Art of Losing. South of the Border, West of the Sun. All three breathtaking. All three moving and questioning.

Hajime and Shimamoto-San were close friends when they were children. 12 years old, adolescence is timidly arriving, transforming this deep friendship into a love than cannot yet be mouthed. Desire is about to bloom. Then Shimamoto-San leaves the town. They stop seeing each other. Shimamoto-San moves out, Hajime moves on.

Hajime has a high school romance with Izumi which ends up in Izumi being hurt and Hajime moving to Tokyo. After university, he finds a boring job in a publishing house, spends 10 years there, bored and single. He meets Yukiko during a vacation and it is love at first sight. He is 30 now, it’s time to settle, they happily move in a new home. Two daughters arrive. Yukiko’s father helps Hajime to start his own business. He opens two jazz clubs in Tokyo. He loves his wife. He loves his daughters. He loves his job. He is successful. Life seems perfect.

But Shimamoto-San hides somewhere in his head, despite this happiness, this perfect life. She’s behind a door which stands ajar, as it cannot be shut, the relationship abruptly frozen by absence. One February night, the mysterious Shimamoto-San comes to the Robin’s Nest, one of Hajime’s bars. She is a sort of Japanese Santa Ana coming from the south of the border, a wind that opens wide the half-open door.

What will this throw on their lives? Can they find their love intact? What consequences will this have on Yukiko’s life? What’s the mystery surrounding Shimamoto-San?

Hajime is the narrator of this story, everything is seen through his eyes. It is a first person narrative. The language is perfect in precision and in its reserved tone. Feelings are dissected with clarity, lucidity. There’s a quiet sadness in the fatality of this story.

 Yukiko looks like Naomi in The Art of Losing. She doesn’t deserve to be hurt. She’s facing something bigger than her. Though she’s pretty and loveable, she’s not enough. The relationships in the three novels I mentioned in my introduction have a common point: they stopped unexpectedly and couldn’t come to term. They linger in memories, tainted by ifs. If Shimamoto-San hadn’t moved away? If WWI hadn’t prevented Ludwig to come back to Germany in due time? If Lydia had left Martin when it was still simple to do it? They left a sweet-sour taste of unfinished and left behind an emptiness.

Like after A Journey into the Past, I’m terribly frustrated not to be able to share quotes and show how wonderful Murakami’s prose is. My copy is in French, translated by Corinne Atlan, the usual translator for Murakami. The story takes place in Japan but it could be anywhere else. Without the Japanese names of places and characters, the reader would forget it’s Japan. Hajime listens to jazz and Western classical music. No specific food is eaten. There are no descriptions of houses, furniture or traditional buildings. They go to cafés, drink whisky. At a moment, Hajime says it is Christmas. Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? If they do, it is as sad as pumpkins all over France at the end of October. Murakami published South of the Border, West of the Sun in 1992 and he didn’t live in Japan at that time. Did that exile influence his writing?

There would be much to say on this book but I don’t want to ruin someone’s pleasure by giving away spoilers. However, if anyone has already read it and remembers it well, I’d be glad to discuss it further in the comments. I don’t like to be left alone with such a powerful book.

The Wind-Up Bird never sang to me.

August 7, 2010 10 comments

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, by Haruki Murakami.

 Opening a new book is like opening the door to a new country. Sometimes you fall into that country right from the first page and sometimes you need to walk down a several-pages hall to reach the country. And sometimes you think Daedalus designed the hall and you never reach the promised land. That’s what happened to me with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

The main protagonist of the book is Toru Okada. He’s thirty years old, married six years to Kumiko and unemployed after he quit his job as an assistant in a law firm. He is at home and plays the househusband (I know the word doesn’t exist, what are Anglophone feminists doing?)

He is bored. His life changes as he answers an enigmatic phone call from an unknown woman who seems to know him well. Several new persons enter his life, each of them quite weird. His first-person narrative is interrupted by these people telling their story. A Sheerazade sort of effect. 

 I guess the purpose of the novel was to develop Taru Okada’s character and bring him somewhere. He’s questioning his life but as he’s as swift as a mollusc, I didn’t like him. I don’t have to like the hero to like a book, however, the hero must at least have some consistency. Taru Okada seems so empty! Maybe that’s where Murakami wanted to go. Maybe he needed an empty character to be the recipient of other people’s stories. 

I will never know. 

Unfortunately, I never entered into this book. I thought it well written but so insipid that I stopped reading it at page 275, after the beginning of the second part. I had 600 pages left to read and that was too much. I was taking it reluctantly, I had to read a few pages back to remember where I was before going on and I couldn’t remember the name of the hero. All bad signs that yell “stop reading”.  

I’m disappointed, as I liked Kafka on the Shore. Maybe I’ll try another Murakami another time and I’ll try to find bloggers’ reviews before choosing it. 

Now, I’m reading The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler and after a three-paragraphs threshold, he swallowed in his world. Promising.

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