Showing posts with label japanese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label japanese. Show all posts

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura | Review

It feels redundant to review a book that has been praised to the skies by so many readers and critics far more eloquent than myself. I'm coming to the party so late that I can hardly imagine which readers are left unaware of this "Wuthering Heights remake" (I'll explain the quotations in a moment), and of its lingering impact. Doesn't everyone already know that A True Novel (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) is a masterpiece of modern Japanese literature? Doesn't everyone already know that it is worth looking past the novel's length and reading it? Doesn't everyone already know, far better than I do, that this is a true novel, a truly good novel?

On the surface, I knew each of these claims when I began to read A True Novel. Like so many other titles on my shelf (particularly the longer ones...), A True Novel had spent a long time languishing before I bothered to actually read it. Sure, some of that had to do with the length, but the real reason I was put off every time was that allusion to Wuthering Heights. Because goodness, I hated Wuthering Heights. It's one of those novels that somehow even got worse in my memory as time went by (rather than simply fading away). A True Novel's blurbs all insist on reminding me that this is a Japanese reworking of that classic tale, and didn't you know that this is a reworking of Wuthering Heights, and oh! You should read this because it's an adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

So I started reading, hesistantly, and found myself baffled. The first part of the novel does not remotely resemble Wuthering Heights; in fact, it's more like autofiction, with Minae Mizumura detailing a cross-cultural youth in the US and a later literary career. It was an odd, slightly off-kilter opening to a book that promised something entirely different. I kept waiting to see what Mizumura must be hinting at, the references I must be missing... but it soon became clear that this was simply a very long, elaborate introduction. Indeed, A True Novel turns out to have multiple layers to its story - a story being told, then retold, then retold, then conveyed to the reader. Yet the submersion feels gradual, possibly because this introduction ends up taking so long. And is then followed by another introduction. And then another that leads to the actual story. And not long after, I realized I had finally gotten to the point at which that Wuthering Heights parallel came from.

Here's why A True Novel works so well: By the time I finally realized how this narrative echoed Wuthering Heights, I didn't care. Sure, the cast characters had shifted several times before the resolution focused on the "main" narrative. (Several hundred pages, in fact.) And yes, once the story itself began, it was easy to recognize how Mizumura had planted the "Wuthering Heights" seeds earlier. It just didn't matter anymore, because I was hooked. Each introduction had felt like one, but once the pieces fell into place, I recognized how this novel was progressing and I didn't want it to stop. I fell in, breathlessly, and was swept up.

A True Novel certainly has several callbacks to Wuthering Heights, but to market it as the "Japanese Wuthering Heights" is to undersell the novel by an almost catastrophic degree (and not simply because I don't love the original). A True Novel contains within its pages a unique take on the story-within-a-story model, one that manages to make each layer even more worthwhile by being just meta enough to make the withdrawal its own almost-story, challenging how stories are told and the concept of narration itself (in parts). Remarkable still is the fact that A True Novel does all of this without ever straying into the dull gray zone of having technical innovation at the cost of narrative and writing. The writing threw me off a bit, at first, with a sort of straight-forward roundedness that I couldn't quite place as being either modern or old-fashioned; it's somehow both simultaneously. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it a lot.

Bottom line: A True Novel does a lot of wonderful things within its (many) pages. It's not only an expansive modern history of Japan, but also a personal drama/tragedy and even a meta narrative about storytelling. It's written in a convincing style and ultimately kept me absolutely hooked. It's intelligent and clever (yes, those are different things!), emotionally engaging (even in the most Wuthering Heights-like plot moments that had me on occasion wanting to slap the characters, but with much less vitriol against the novel itself than Brontë's text), and well-written.

If like me, you've been put off by the length or the Wuthering Heights comparisons, do me a favor: Pick up the book and just start reading. Just start. I think, like in my case, you'll find yourself finishing the book before long...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

WITMonth Day 17 | The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto | Review

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Michael Emmerich) joins the too-long list of books with woefully inaccurate book jacket descriptions. The blurb on the inside flap makes The Lake sound like a book full of distant, unloving characters and a pervasive mystery. It's makes it sound like a dark thriller lurking behind a facade of a "quirky" love story.

It's not. And it is much better for it.

The Lake is actually a genuinely sweet story, framed by the "mystery" and oddness Nakajima, its male lead. Told from the perspective of the somewhat lonely - but otherwise kindhearted - Chihiro, the book tracks the two's slow and somewhat tentative love story. I use the word tentative to contrast "hesitant" (as used in the book jacket description) in large part because it's not that there are any indicators that either Nakajima or Chihiro are actually hesitant about entering a relationship, rather that their relationship progresses somewhat awkwardly and non-traditionally.

As a love story, there's something oddly endearing about it. Chihiro is constantly asking herself when exactly she fell in love (whether she fell in love), but her actions and behavior display how strongly she feels even when she can't quite figure it out herself. It's harder to understand Nakajima, and not just because he isn't the narrator. Nakajima is, as Chihiro notes, odd. He doesn't share everything and Chihiro knows that there are parts of him he's hiding.

But I loved the moments in which both are just normal young adults fumbling in love. The discussion the two have about their careers (Chihiro is a painter, Nakajima a biology/medical student) was almost laugh-out-loud refreshing for me, in how naturally the conversation flowed (and felt eerily familiar; the question of whether people are capable of understanding what scientists do is a conversation I've had many times...). The book also carefully examines Chihiro's relationship with her parents, a piece of her history that is complicated and difficult at times, but doesn't weigh down her story.

There were other little things that I liked a lot, too. Unlike The Briefcase, where I felt that the characters were all so cold and distant, Chihiro and Nakajima both felt living and breathing. More than that, I loved the small characterization of Chihiro as someone who cares for children. While it may seem like a minor detail, it was the sort of tiny character piece that made her seem more human and... warm. I was able to care about her. And even though Nakajima is a distant character by definition, I found that I cared about him as well, from the small moments where he reveals insecurities (despite how difficult it is for him), to more simple scenes like when he and Chihiro discuss food.

The book flows pretty well, though the writing at first felt a bit jerky and out of place. On the one hand, the bulk of the story can be condensed into a pretty short piece, but parts of it felt like long, quiet meditations. The book overall is quite short and quite a quick read, balancing these two effects out for the most part. Though I felt that the beginning and the focus on Chihiro's family didn't always fit in with the later pieces (and that the ending came on just a bit abruptly and info-dump-y), the writing is clear and simple and never quite stops. It feels like the book could have gone on for another hundred pages (or another thousand) just as easily. And though I would have wanted about five more pages of denouement and a slower final reveal, it feels like the story ultimately ended at pretty much the right place. The right feel.

The Lake isn't a loud book. It doesn't try to shout any message, and it sometimes fumbles its own plot just a little bit. It's not the most lyrical writing you'll find and it's not the most staccato storytelling and it isn't filled with the most sharply "quirky" or unique characters you'll ever meet. But I liked it. I liked it a lot. It's sweet and warm in just the right way, emotionally engaging without being overwhelming. This might not be the book for everyone, but if you're looking for a fairly quiet love story with questions of self and the nature of love itself, The Lake is a pretty good choice.

Friday, August 5, 2016

WITMonth Day 5 | Strange Weather in Tokyo / The Briefcase - Hiromi Kawakami | Review

It honestly felt like I was one of the last people to read Strange Weather in Tokyo (The Briefcase in the US edition, translation by Allison Markin Powell). The book had been extremely popular a few years ago, with almost everyone in the literature-in-translation crowd reading and loving it. Somehow, it escaped my interest for a long time and then... well, then I read it.

It's an odd novel, made odder by the fact that I liked it without really liking it much. It was simple: simply written, simply translated, simply engaging. I read it quickly and didn't dwell on it too much, one a sign that I enjoyed what I was reading, the other a sign that I didn't really like it all that much. The book lingers in my mind warmly enough, but it's a fairly empty space: since it's basically a collection of scenes and smaller pieces of a story, it's easy to remember bits while entirely forgetting others.

I struggle to define this as a book I liked largely because its central theme is supposed to be a love story, and it left me cold. Both characters - narrator Tsukiko (who is large
ly apathetic about most things, and very upfront about it) and former teacher Sensei are... well, they're distant. It's a significant part of their characterization, in fact. There's a carefully crafted separation between both Sensei and Tsukiko, and Tsukiko and the reader. Their relationship feels like it's locked up at the end of each chapter, each mini-story, each distraction.

So the story progresses slowly on the one hand (with small locked boxes at the end of each chapter), but also swiftly as the boxes accumulate. The book jumps lightly from season to season, tracking Tsukiko's growing infatuation and her almost self-destructive attempt to transform it into a fixed relationship. In this regard, I commend the book for playing so nicely with distance and emotional dissonance, but it's just not my thing.

Other reviewers found the book sweet, tender, sensitive. All words found on the back cover of my edition. None of these are words I would ever use in this example. There's a bittersweetness in the book's ending, yes, but it's wrapped in deliberate coldness and apathy. Hiromi Kawakami explicitly looks at a couple brought together by their love of getting drunk alone-together, brought together by unsympathetic and odd experiences, brought together by a significant age-gap and culture-gap. The end result - for me, at least - was equally uncomfortable. Not tender or warm. Distinctly cold. Emotional separation.

But again. There were aspects I couldn't help but love. I thought the slow build was marvelous and I loved the way the chapters fit together to make a whole. The flow was successful. The distance was effective. Tsukiko was the right kind of dry and interesting. I enjoyed reading the book and I enjoyed thinking about it. The problem is that I'm a reader with a clear preference for an emotional response, leaving me somewhat unsatisfied. I can certainly understand how the book became a bestseller and why other readers have liked it (even if I remain baffled by the descriptors they have used...), but for me: cold is cold.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

WITMonth Day 23 - Women Poets of Japan - A poem

Making my way through this fascinating collection (translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi), and decided to share one of my favorites from it while I focus on recovering.

I Forget - Yoshihara Sachiko

when i awake
i wonder
if the color
i thought i saw
in my dream
was real
or imaginary


was it red?
i turn back
towards the word red
but the color is gone

what i thought was being alive
is only various colors
reflected and
scattered
in my mind

sun setting
turned the windowpane orange
shower spray
was a diamond color
so i thought

now only the memory
of color remains
the window
and the shower spray
have vanished

Monday, August 3, 2015

WITMonth Day 3 - Spotlight on Japan

It would be practically absurd to imply that a country that not only boasts the first recognized female novelist - and first novelist at all - lacks women writers on the whole. Indeed, cursory research shows that there are plenty of women writers working out of Japanese, and in a wide variety of genres. That not all are translated or recognized for their works... well, that's what we're here to work on. There's no denying however that Japan's situation is significantly better than most countries around the world (at least in terms of recognition of its women in translation to English), and disturbingly better than many of its East Asian neighbors (to be discussed further later in the month).

And yet all this positivity translates into:
  • 4 books translated by women writers in translation out of 14 translations from Japanese in 2014
  • 5 out of 17 translations in 2013
Hmm. Let's focus on the good, shall we? Let's pull up a short list:
  • Murasaki Shikibu
  • Sei Shōnagon
  • Fumiko Enchi
  • Lady Ise
  • Akazome Emon
  • Yoko Ogawa
  • Sawako Ariyoshi
  • Hiromi Kawakami
  • Banana Yoshimoto
  • Minae Mizumura
  • ...and many many many others...
Some more helpful resources:
Conclusion: There are a lot of Japanese women writers translated into English. But you know what? There are also a lot of Japanese women writers who are not translated into English. It could be so much better. And for now... let's get reading!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January in Japan: The River Ki | Review

There's no doubt about it - The River Ki (by Sawako Ariyoshi, translated by Mildred Tahara) is a book largely marred by an old-fashioned, clumsy and entirely outdated translation. Which is a shame, because the book is largely fascinating in every other regard.

I'll be honest in saying that I chose to read The River Ki for January in Japan largely because it was one of the only Japanese books I could find on my shelves (in fact, it was the only one I had in print, any other books would have had to be borrowed or borrowed digitally from the library and for some odd reason that appealed to me a little less...). My reason for owning The River Ki is somehow even sketchier - I bought the book during my summer book-buying extravaganza for very cheap at a book warehouse, and almost exclusively because it was one of the only "women in translation" appropriate titles I could find (and from a series entirely devoted to Japanese women writers!).

All this setup to say that within the first page, realizing how utterly dead the writing was going to sound, I could have - should have - abandoned the book by recognizing it as a dud.

Which of course it wasn't. Because despite the at-times-painful writing/translation, The River Ki is a deeply emotionally resonant book. And you all know me: I'm a big fan of emotional resonance. If a book manages to get me caring for its characters, or feeling something for them (it doesn't have to be positive), I'll most likely stick around. And boy did The River Ki get me to care.

The story begins with Hana, a largely passive young woman who leaves her home at the age of twenty to marry Keisaku, a well regarded young man who Hana largely inspires to greatness. Keisaku's political career becomes a curious side-plot in the novel, as Hana subtly guides him and motivates him. This is as strong a characterization as you'll find - Hana is quietly old-fashioned and submissive, but she also uses her talents wisely, if quietly. She recognizes immediately Keisaku's political potential, similarly recognizing the problems that Keisaku's younger brother will have (particularly in his antagonistic love of Hana). When she gives birth to her first son, and afterwards her first daughter (Fumio, who will star in the second section), she also recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of her children - that Seiichirō will not be as ambitious as his father might wish (and ill-suited to politics), and that Fumio has all the headstrong qualities that Seiichirō lacks.

Hana's section was interesting to me in large part because of how it framed the story - she defers to tradition (whether in terms of her grandmother's superstitions and old-fashioned beliefs, or in terms of her position as the "good wife" and "good daughter-in-law") and remains steadfastly in the old era. The River Ki begins just before the new century (the 20th, of course...), and tracks the stories of these "modern" women through just after the war (the novel was ultimately published in 1959; the story ends about a decade earlier). There's the constant question of modernity and where women fit in. Hana is supposedly the image of the submissive, old-fashioned wife, yet her grandmother had ignored tradition in sending the girl to be well-educated (for the time).

Fumio is obviously more overtly progressive, even feminist. She fights to be allowed to study (and not simply study the "female arts", rejecting almost every traditional form of study offhand), and later insists on marrying a man with whom she lives a "modern" life. At first. Because one of the things The River Ki shows quite strongly is that there is room for both tradition and modernity - Fumio gives birth to her children in hospitals, but after losing one child also joins Hana in setting out traditional breast charms. Later, Fumio's daughter Hanako is shown to be fascinated by Hana's stories of the old city and the old traditions. The symmetry of generations, of things moving forward but also always being interested in the past, is one I've always appreciated in good epic novels. The River Ki has the added advantage of being significantly shorter than most.

But now it's time to point to what dragged this novel down so significantly: the writing and translation.

I know: it would be much easier and much more courteous to pretend that the translation was clear and brilliant and serviceable. But... it's not. Translator Mildred Tahara gives The River Ki such a stilted feeling that it's really quite hard to appreciate at times. Things that should be in footnotes are integrated into the story (I'm sorry, but an explanation about a Japanese play on words will never belong in the body of the text! This is what footnotes were invented for), things that may require translation are never bothered with, and places where some historical or cultural context may have helped are altogether passed over. It's a bizarre mix of assuming the reader knows nothing (hence the constantly in-text explanations of things that most definitely belong elsewhere) and assuming the reader knows everything (there were references here I know for certain other readers would have appreciated having some background on).

And then there's the writing itself. Or rather, the framing itself. Sawako's storytelling is less focused on the "pretty writing" aspect, more on telling the story of modern womanhood. And I loved that story, I found it truly fascinating. But there's a clumsiness to the passage of time, and an awkwardness to how the characters are built. I cared about Hana and Fumio (Hanako a little less so, largely because we spent significantly less time with her), but there's something coolly distant about their characters nonetheless. It's rather interesting that I got so emotionally invested, actually (I place the blame firmly at the feet of Toyono, Hana's fierce and protective grandmother who I sort of fell in love with from the first page).

Is it worth reading The River Ki? I... don't know. I sort of wish a more modern translation existed, because I found the content very interesting in terms of showing the culture clash between modern feminism and traditionalism, while rejecting neither. It's content worth reading and thinking about and discussing, but it's also not exactly the most comfortable or enjoyable reading experience (in the literal sense). I guess I'd say that readers who are more capable of looking past an old-fashioned translation should take a whack at it, but those who think a poor translation can break a book should pass it over (no point in even trying). I'm glad to have read The River Ki, but I find it difficult to recommend, especially when there are so many other better books out there (and for a Japanese book about women's experience, I'd opt for The Budding Tree, which only gives a traditional perspective, yes, but a more cleanly defined one and it's significantly more artfully crafted).

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Budding Tree | Review

I wanted to write about The Budding Tree the moment I finished reading it, but I got sidetracked by other books. Now, just over a month after finishing it, I feel that I have done the book a clear disservice. Aiko Kitahara's lovely collection of short stories (tr. Ian MacDonald) is a perfect example for why I feel there needs to be more literature in translation. Not only is The Budding Tree brilliant in its portrayals of women attempting to carve out an independent existence for themselves, but it's also a beautifully written book overall, and a fascinating historical fiction account.

The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is not remotely about romance, even as it is about love. This collection of loosely linked stories focuses on six women striving to live their lives in a society that maybe isn't quite ready for their independence yet. Opening with a story about identity and honor, we catch glimpses of the struggles young women had just in living their lives. We see a teacher, a restaurant owner, an artist, a designer, a performer, and a scribe, each one with her own complications (often tangentially linked to one of the previous stories). These are women with men in their lives - often in a romantic context - but the stories are about them, about their struggles, their desires and their hopes.

Ultimately, each of these stories is about women's freedom. In one story, a woman's ex-husband attempts to convince her to return to work in his failing restaurant, which she managed when they were still married. The attempts are marked with threats, both directly from the ex-husband as well as from the loan sharks currently keeping the other restaurant afloat. The story is set against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile economic situation in Edo, with rampant starvation and inflation. It's ultimately both powerful in its portrayal of economic hardship, as well as in its characterization of a woman doing all she can to remain independent in both her work and her personal life.

I should emphasize that no aspect of The Budding Tree tries to portray either men or women as caricatures. The men are not merely bullies in their attempts to dominate women. Nor are they objects of affection, occupying the entirety of the women's lives. Meanwhile, the women are neither portrayed as frivolous for their love, nor are they forced to completely forgo it. These are not "strong female characters" in the traditional sense of the word, but each of them is clearly a well-written woman with her own story to tell.

The writing in The Budding Tree is perfect - a good balance of quietly lyrical, with a clean, crisp tone overall. It's a lovely read - neither too sparse nor overwhelming with sticky prose. Coupled with a very even, calm pacing and a series of stories that are interesting, enjoyable and powerful, The Budding Tree is ultimately a very good book. Nothing here is bombastic, nothing is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, but all together the result is of a woefully underrated book that deserves to be better known.