Thursday, 10 January 2019

Stand - in Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi

Perhaps if you've recently finished Yoko Tawada's The Last Children of Tokyo and wanted to continue with a book that follows along some similar lines of enquiry that that novel traces, Stand-in Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi recently published by Red Circle might be of interest. Part of their recent Minis series this short story was translated by Raj Mahtani who sadly passed away last year. Taking place over 43 pages or so the two main characters are Hayato and Yutori the narrative skips between present and past episodes and as the story begins to unfold comes the realization that the reader maybe dealing with a multiple of Hayato and Yutori, old and new, original and copy?. The initial dilemma the pair are facing is their inability to conceive, they turn to IVF and as the narrative curates their slip into dysfunction and separation, the reader is slowly immersed into a world of android stand-in's, when this occurs questions arise of how far is the story set in the future?, Shiraishi's story leaps us into a future where when relationships break down we can turn to a technology of convincingly accurate replacements as an alternative. The story dips into the ethics behind this new android/human world and also the logistics needed with memory transplantation into the replacement android being written into divorce settlements, the story posits a scenario that obviously may arise in the not too distant future. Stand-in Companion is a really compelling and cleverly constructed story that echoes the writings of Yoko Tawada and Tomoyuki Hoshino, a great introduction into the Red Circle Minis series, very much worth tracking down a copy.

Stand-in Companion at Red Circle


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

books for the reading diary - 2019

a brief glance at some titles bookmarked for 2019, more forthcoming -

January -

Murder in the Crooked House - Soji Shimada trans. Reid Sterling - Pushkin Press
The Beauty of Everyday Things - Soetsu Yanagi trans. Michael Brase - Penguin Books
The Little House - Kyoko Nakajima, trans - Ginny Tapley Takemori - Darf Publishers
Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa's Deluge - Kimura Yusuke trans. Doug Slaymaker - CUP

March -

Prefecture D - Hideo Yokoyama trans. Jonathan Lloyd Davies - Quercus

April -

Star - Yukio Mishima trans. Sam Bett - Penguin Classics
The Forest of Steel and Wool - Natsu Miyashita - trans. Philip Gabriel - Doubleday
The Frolic of the Beasts - Yukio Mishima - trans. Andrew Clare - Penguin Classics

June -

The Ten Loves of Nishino - Hiromi Kawakami trans. Alison Markin Powell - Europa Editions

July -

Inhabitation - Teru Miyamoto trans. Roger K. Thomas - Counterpoint Press

August -

The Memory Police - Yoko Ogawa Harvill/Secker

Monday, 24 September 2018

The Cat in the Coffin by Mariko Koike

Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm, The Cat in the Coffin originally appeared in Japan back in 1990, Vertical Inc published the translation in 2009 along with an interesting Chip Kidd cover. It's a little surprising, traversing the internet, not to have stumbled upon reading lists of Japanese cat related fictions as the list now in translation must number quite a few, maybe that's something for another day, or maybe they are out there. The Cat in the Coffin is related as a narrative within a narrative, the main character, an aspiring artist, Masayo, takes a job as housekeeper to a successful artist - Goro Kawakubo. In exchange for housekeeping duties, she receives a weekly lesson from Goro as well as financial payments. Additionally Masayo acts as tutor to Goro's daughter Momoko, who after her mother Yuriko's death has become withdrawn, her only confidant and companion being her white cat, Lala.

As the novel progresses Masayo contemplates her relationship to Goro, his flamboyant reputation as a bit of a womaniser precedes him and the presence of a nearby American base seems to hang over the household, a relaxation of formalities and perhaps a certain degree of bohemianism is in the air. As well as these observations Masayo observes the world inhabited by Momoko and Lala and their excursions out to the barley fields that also surround the household, the special places they frequent amongst them an old out of use well. Through arty parties and sojurns the presence of Chinatsu enters the house which causes ripples amongst the already slightly estranged relationships, the centre of attention shifts to Lala, the object of a jealous affection and in some ways a miniature power struggle. With the suspicion that the cat is an embodiment of Yuriko things take a turn for the worse, or perhaps it could be said that things take a turn down the pathological path.

Whilst reading The Cat in the Coffin it could feel perhaps that the plotline leans toward feeling slightly formulaic, although there are some surprising twists when the rug of character identities is pulled beneath your feet, there remains enough curvatures to it to keep you hooked until the last pages, and throughout the prose retains it's darkly gothic tones. After reading that Koike's novel A Cappella translated by Juliet W. Carpenter, was recently adapted to film, (trailer), I'd like to turn that one next.  

The Cat in the Coffin at Vertical Inc         

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Darkness in Summer by Takeshi Kaiko

It seems incredible that five years have slipped by since reading the two stories Panic/Runaway by Kaiko Takeshi and now finishing Darkness in Summer provides a great prompt to move onto tracking out a copy of Five Thousand Runaways and also the book that he is largely well known for Into a Black Sun: Vietnam 1964-65, which as is Darkness in Summer translated by Cecilia Segawa Seigle. Looking at my old hardback copy from Peter Owen the adage of 'never judge a book by it's cover' comes to mind, and also the contemplation that some books can suffer from issues over presentation, maybe this one has. The jacket of the novel bears a portrait of a woman with hair done up in geisha style which is superimposed over the portrait of Sakutaro Hagiwara by Onochi Koshiro, which feels slightly out of place and perhaps misplaces the contextualisation of the novel which first appeared in 1972 as Natsu no yami. For most readers perhaps it's instrumental that there is some form of correlation between a book cover and it's contents, themes, settings and characters, and that the two go hand in hand to form an aide to visualizing the novel that it's meant to represent, that said this is an old edition, the book now is only available as POD and the cover seems leaning toward the functionary.

Darkness in Summer published four years after Into a Black Sun feels that it maybe a continuation of that novel, the main drama of Darkness in Summer is that the main character, a journalist, is continuing a relationship with a Japanese woman after a separation of some years, set predominately in Berlin, and then there's another relocation. The narrative style evades detail, it's not late in the novel before Saigon is mentioned by name, episodes from the past drift in and out of the present, the opium taking, the violence, there are abstract summaries on the nature of existence and being juxtaposed with scenes of graphic sex. Having a broader panoramic to either Panic or Runaway, the novel though primarily revolves around the two main characters, with few additional characters, Professor Steinkopf, the visits to Professor Chao's restaurant, there's a close proximity to these two characters who are caught at a crossroads in their lives, with their sometime nicknames of Little Bird and Little Turd. After completing her dissertation and his life after reporting of the Vietnam war their future remains precariously balanced with uncertainty, the relationship fraught with equal fragility. An aspect of her character that brought to mind a more recent character of Natsuki Ikezawa's in mariko/mariquito is of her resolve of not wanting to return to Japan, he too displays traits of this.

It'll be interesting to read Into a Black Sun after Darkness in Summer to identify overlapping scenes, in places it feels that the narrator is visualizing previous episodes with the distant perspective of this novel, and obviously there are autobiographical links to Kaiko himself, the questioning of war, in places the subtle note of comparison between East and West . The control Kaiko has over his prose remains brilliantly conveyed in Cecilia Segawa Seigle's translation capturing the uncertainties of the novel's characters and their angst ridden sensuality, the fishing trip, the vistas of the ebbing and rising effect of the narrator's observations of the novel's progressions only to be brought down in a crescendo of self recrimination and doubt nearing it's culmination. There are a few reoccurring motifs to the novel, one of these is the central character's use of the German word abendrot - afterglow and it feels apt to the novel as the character's are caught in the afterglow of the past perhaps they are fated to return to it.     



Monday, 27 August 2018

Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima

It's interesting to note that Penguin have some more Japan related titles forthcoming, there's the U.K edition of Kawabata's Dandelions, The Beauty of Everyday Things by Soetsu Yanagi and also there's the U.K edition of Star the newly translated novella by Yukio Mishima to look forward to. Continuing with their Penguin Modern series it was good to sit down at last with the two stories that make up Penguin Modern: 43 - Of Dogs and Walls which is translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Each story is a brief 20-30 pages, both of which are newly translated here into English, interestingly the narrative structures feel quite different to each story, maybe this displays in same way the 32 year gap between them. The first is The Watery Realm which first appeared in 1982, the narrative performs a loop of associations across the story as it opens with a child saving for an aquarium accessory, a sunken castle for his fish tank, through a number of associating links - the Dragon Palace in the fable of Urashimataro, a coal mining accident, father's death, a fear of underground water, the term jusui, the memory of her mother's umbrella, and the Shinto water deity Suijin, the narrative explores themes of cross generational memory, the transience between that of being a daughter and then of being a mother, it feels like that somewhere in her subconscious the narrator is sieving for correlations, the story leaves on an unpleasant episode from the past that causes recalculations for the main protagonist. The Watery Realm is an engaging short story that combines explorations of family history woven with historical myth and elements of nature, as with Territory of Light.  

The second story is the title story - Of Dogs and Walls from 2014, which feels more syncopated in nature perhaps by the sequencing of it's events. Similarly though it explores the nature of memory and the passing of time, and again features a father's premature death, which perhaps bears an autobiographical element. Through it's house move and memories of walled gardens and partitions, which feel to be symbolically loaded, the story opens with a shape seen on a wall which by turns symbolizes the fictional character the 'Walker through walls', it feels that Tsushima might be pointing that there is a way through memory, albeit fictional, to pass through certain barriers. Along with the names of the dogs and cats of the story, Perry, Jack, Kuro, Louis, we have the name of the older brother of the central character, Toru-chan, who has a developmental disability. After the move to the new house, the daughter becomes fascinated by a small doorway in the wall between her own and neighbour's houses, equally fascinating is the young master of the house and his mother who mysteriously appear through it after certain events and continue to occupy her dreams and thoughts as the daughter grows older. As the story is brief it's hard to describe it without disclosing the central event away, the second half of the story is ethereal in perspective, continuing on sharing what is seen in the neighbourhood in the here after, a visit to Toru-chan's school, a place that now seems to be surrounded by inescapable walls, juxtaposing unfolding perspectives with unmoving ones, it's hard not to be touched by.

Of Dogs and Walls at Penguin Modern


Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

Recently published from Portobello Books in the U.K and New Directions in the U.S, (under the title The Emissary), The Last Children of Tokyo is translated by Margaret Mitsutani and first appeared in Japan in 2014 as Kentoshi. Although quite short, the prose feels quite dense, and as other readers have noted it's quite a paced read, mainly related in third person, the dialogue is sparse. Reading a few reviews of The Last Children of Tokyo the description of it as being dystopian crops up repeatedly, in a number of places it resembles Orwell's 1984, as the narrative unfolds relating the relationship between Yoshiro, a novelist over a hundred years old, and his great-grand son Mumei, Tawada weaves in a number of contemporary concerns and advances them into a projected future. Japan has become more isolationist, environmental abuse is prominent, Mumei is a member of an atrophied generation caught in this great flux, weakened, the elder generation displays more youthfulness than the youth. The age difference between the two characters becomes further apparent when the lives of the intermediate family members are related and of how Yoshiro has come to be Mumei's guardian, definitions are needed to be extended and added upon to cope with this expansion of time.

Maybe in comparison to Tawada's other novels it feels that the prose to The Last Children of Tokyo is a little less experimental, although some familiar themes appear, Tawada's at times humorous observations of literal translations between the languages crops up, and this is set against the concept of a sort of 'official speak' and the obsolete and dysfunction of words and phrases, and through these concerns there's obviously the projected broadening crisis of an ageing population, the novel in places carries an unnerving accurateness with it's projections, this shift in societal behaviour is depicted in a number of places, another example is that gender change is an accepted norm, sometimes occurring a number of times for each person. Through these big themes Yoshiro looks after Mumei and the characters progress, with a slight distraction in the form of neighbour Suiren, both in wheelchairs the novel ends in an enigmatic note. But before that Mumei's schooling leads him to meet Mr Yonatani, a teacher whose background has also been meddled by malign forces, who is searching for an emissary to leave Japan in a bid to find salvation with the outside through clandestine means, and towards the end of the novel the exterior world begins to resemble something in the form of a myth. Mumei's departure from the story appears riddled with uncertainty. The Last Children of Tokyo although short in pages is a penetrating observation tower into both present and future, full of acute ideas and predictions.

The Last Children of Tokyo at Portobello Books  


Friday, 29 June 2018

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke

A first reading of Lianke in a translation by Carlos Rojas, unfortunately it looks like other editions of the novella are accompanied with the short story Marrow although with the Vintage edition we only have the novella sized The Years, Months, Days, perhaps I saw that Marrow had been published previously as a Penguin China Special. Along with the novella translator Carlos Rojas gives an insightful preface into Lianke's oeuvre and the cases of censorship against his works and of the self censorship Lianke has performed in order to get his works published. The Day the Sun Died, a novel set in the Balou mountains due in English at the end of July, failed to be published by a mainland publisher at all.

As Carlos Rojas mentions in his introduction the narrative of The Years, Months, Days sometimes floats from the main protagonist, the Elder, sometimes finding balance between subject/object, it feels Rojas has managed to convey this in the translation, more direct dialogue has been italicised, mostly these moments of conversation are between the Elder and the other main character of the novella, the blind Dog. The narrative has a folklore element, mainly based in first person the ending it could be said drifts into resonation being one relayed via oral tradition. Essentially the novella relays the efforts of the Elder as he tends to a single ear of corn amidst a devastating drought with the hope of propagation. Throughout his arduous task of finding food and water the Elder faces a number of trials - a swarm of rats, a pack of wolves, all the while staving off hunger and thirst and of finding the stalk nutrients.

Although slim the book makes for resonating reading and with every turn of the page we struggle with it's protagonist's trials. The village abandoned, the responsibility of the continuation of the crop has fallen to him and the blind dog. There are some interesting and original touches to the story which sees the Elder weighing out sunlight, the stronger it is, the weightier it becomes. Through this extremity that Lianke puts his character through the temptation is there to read more into the significance of the drought, it's not too impossible to contemplate that the Elder's drought as perhaps containing alternative representations.

The Years, Months, Days at Vintage.            

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

Edited by Jay Rubin The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is also introduced by Murakami Haruki, who offers a synopsis of the writers and stories featured, it's interesting to note Murakami's admission of his allergies towards the tradition of the Watakushi shosetsu/I-novel and also of his general disinterest of the mainstay of Japanese literature, although obviously there are some exceptions. In his Editorial Note Rubin discusses the difficulties of compiling anthologies in that it's a near on impossible task to include everything, no doubt when thinking of stories/authors to include something of a domino effect of associations must arise and you'd end up with a volume running into many thousands of pages. Perhaps looking through the authors here it's something of a shame to see that Dazai remains left out, although him aside the rest of the big names of his era are represented here, Mishima, Kawabata, Soseki, Tanizaki, whose novella The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga translated by Paul Warham opens the anthology, Rubin notes that this was to be a first appearance of the story into English although the story previously appeared in Red Roofs and Other Stories, trans by Chambers and McCarthy, as noted in the Further Reading chapter, another author whose omission might cause surprise is Abe Kobo, another Ichiyo Higuchi. Another aspect of compiling anthologies is the conundrum of the layout of the stories and here Rubin has gone for a thematic approach as well as usefully listing the stories in chronological order in his Editorial Note. It's also interesting that Rubin has said that this will be the last of this kind of enterprise that he will be involved with so it feels that the stories are ones that carry a resonance for him, as well as their being a number of stories having their debut in English translation, the anthology also recollects a number of stories that have been presented previously in varying anthologies and offers them up again for reconsideration, as well as including the stories from Penguin's new Modern 50's older translations of his resurface; Peaches by Abe Akira and American Hijiki by Nosaka Akiyuki, and obviously two from Murakami Haruki, among more.

Among the stories that have seen publication previously then but perhaps have slipped from prominence is Enchi Fumiko's fascinating A Bond for Two Lifetimes - Gleanings translated by Phyllis Birnbaum originally published in Rabbits, Crabs, Etc: Stories by Japanese Women, centering on a one time student of Professor Nunokawa who has been asked by the professor to assist him with the transcribing of Akinari's Tale of Moonlight and Rain and Tales of Spring Rain into modern Japanese. As with a number of other stories in the anthology, Ogawa Yoko's The Tale of the House of Physics being another, Enchi's story uses the story within a story premise, or book within a story to great affect, the tale of the buried monk Josuke who comes back to life begins to find parallels with that of the narrator's husband who had died in the war, the narrator also confronts male dominance recollecting the professor's advances towards her and also of the male figure who appears at the end of the story adds to associations and conclusions for the narrator. Another noteworthy story that comes under the chapter themed Men and Women is Ohba Minako's The Smile of a Mountain Witch translated by Noriko Mizuta an allegorical story that uses the myth of the yamauba to explore male/female relations as well as that of mother/daughter. Also included in this chapter is the first time in English translation of Banana Yoshimoto's Bee Honey, translated by Michael Emmerich. Another story appearing for the first time is Nakagami Kenji's Remaining Flowers translated by Eve Zimmerman, which bears some of the physicality and dark eroticism his stories are known for, which follows logger Jukichi as he falls in love with a beautiful blind woman, the story opens with the finding of a man's body whilst builders demolish a house for redevelopment, the story unfolds and follows dark paths to conclude with allusions to it's opening.

Another of the themed chapters is Nature and Memory which as well as including stories by Motoyuki Shibata, Murakami Haruki, Abe Akira and Ogawa Yoko, Jay Rubin has included his translation of Doppo Kunikida's Unforgettable People a story from 1898 which is the oldest of the anthology, a nuanced story that arises from a conversation between writer and painter Otsu and Akiyama on a night at an inn examines the subtleties of memory and acknowledgement of human presences. The chapter headed Modern Life and Other Nonsense offers up an interesting selection of writers that span the decades, featuring the stories - Closet LLB by Uno Koji, brief ones from Hoshi Shin'ichi and Betsuyaku Minoru, also Mr English by Genji Keita and Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko, an interestingly engaging story of a brief connection between two women of a neighbourhood, whilst through their encounters with each other adopt alternative identities. Through the briefer chapter ominously entitled Dread is the chapter Disasters, Natural and Man-Made which itself is then broken down with subcategories - containing stories concerning the earthquakes of Kobe, Kanto and Tohoku and more under the headings of Post-War Japan and also The Atomic Bombings, 1945 which includes the piece Hiroshima, City of Doom translated by Richard H. Minear, visualizing the protagonists at the riverside on the first night of the bombing brings to mind John Hersey's book Hiroshima. As with this story and Saeki Kazumi's Weather-Watching Hill, translated by David Boyd the reader receives the impression of being deposited at scenes of destruction so immense that perhaps literature can only partially convey although their ability to move remains total.

As with all anthologies it is that they can be approached on many levels, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is a solid mixture of stories covering multiple themes and events, they also come to us from various perspectives of varying time periods. As well as containing some firsts into translation, the book offers a variety of the familiar and the not so but it remains a great and essential addition for both seasoned and first time readers.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories at Penguin 



Friday, 8 June 2018

Territory of Light - Corpuscles of Light

Corpuscles of Light brings us full circle with the chapters of Territory of Light by Tsushima Yuko translated by Geraldine Harcourt and I can only thank Penguin Books again for the monthly chapters that they've sent me, it's been a first for me to read a book over the space of a year or so. It's interesting perhaps to contemplate that in times gone by that this is the way that many novels would initially appear before the reading public, being serialized before the completed novel would be finished, it would be interesting to envisage reader's reactions nowadays to how perhaps if the latest best seller were to appear in monthly chapters until it's final edition.

Corpuscles of Light has the feel of things moving on for the narrator, the initial opening of the chapter sees the narrator contemplate the empty office space below her apartment and the potential of perspectives shifting, as well as looking forward a trip to the city provokes an episode from the past with a previous lover of the narrator, which ends on an unfulfilled note. There's a feeling of transience to this final chapter, of actuality beginning to recede to memory, after securing another flat, (which interestingly the narrator notes has the feeling of being over cast in terms of it receiving light), the narrator returns and takes in the apartment where she and the novel have occupied and begins to consign it and it's light to memory. Another important event is of her beginning a new family register - koseki, this one though with her as named head of the family, the reader imagines the raised eyebrows.

If perhaps you're new to Yuko Tsushima Territory of Light is a fantastic opening novel as an introduction to her writing and the themes that she concentrated her writing to; single motherhood and of the reverberations of how it is perceived within Japanese society, it's imbued with a poeticism that is both provoking and conveys the plight of her characters with a realism that invites fresh reassessment of their predicaments. It's reassuring to see that another of her novels Child of Fortune is forthcoming in a reissue from Penguin Classics, as well as the two stories in Of Dogs and Walls all of which are translated by Geraldine Harcourt.

Territory of Light at Penguin Classics

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Monastery by Kurahashi Yumiko

The Monastery is an earlier story from Kurahashi which first appeared in 1961, a year after she had made her debut as a writer, it's available to read in a translation by Carolyn Haynes in the Kodansha collection The Showa Anthology. In the introduction to the story this earlier work is described as demonstrating her somewhat indecisive experimentation which in a way is a fitting description to her continuing writing, it feels that there is a fine line to the direction she wanted to commit or designate her characters to in her narratives, leaving the reader uncertain to the unfolding path is something that can be felt in her sentencing structure and speculative fictions. In this early work there appears certain motifs that perhaps are hallmarks of her interests - the wandering from accepted narrative norms, it feels that she has a preoccupation with historical settings even though this might not be confined to any particular epoch, the current story feels like it could possibly exist in a contemporary setting but at the same time there are no immediate pointers, it could be arriving from the fringes of a medieval period, there's a number of references; ancient swords, gigaku masks, also there's a sense of time being traversed, an aspect perhaps redolent in some of Nakagami Kenji, The Monastery has at times the feeling of being related as if in the style of a somewhat personalised chronicle.

Essentially the story is one of a love triangle, the narrator addresses the narrative to her betrothed, no particular name of this character is given aside from the betrothed being named as 'you', is this we the reader?, Kurahashi liked to blur points of reference and demarcations perhaps. Set as you might imagine in a monastery the narrator is the daughter of the abbot and her betrothed is set to succeed him after his passing, the relationship with the betrothed has the feel of being the more formal and 'business' one, although not mentioned perhaps it has been arranged?. These things we begin to understand after the arrival of 'K', a scholar of art who comes with letters of introduction from a university, K initially stays at Temple H. The buildings are described as a vast complex, K and the narrator explore the area in a frolic that is headily and sensuously described, to the narrator it feels that she is rediscovering the place in his company anew, there is a deep spiritual connection between the two - the contact of our hands no more than the inevitable closing of a circuit. The relationship grows, in some scenarios it's uncertain who is committing the initiating, the betrothed arrives, K departs, the narrator contemplates a three way relationship, there's an infatuation between K and the narrator that grows in intensity as the story progresses.

The descriptive prose of the story as well as the growing in it's intensity has the feel of one arriving out of the archaic and it feels that the events are unfolding from a distant time location, perhaps this is emphasised also due to the remoteness of it's setting, maybe again this is a frequent aspect of Kurahashi's writing, here a monastery and in The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q the setting is a reformatory, the locations are ones that are set away so to speak and Kurahashi seemed to also extend this sense of displacement in order to additionally free up the sense of time period of their setting. Added to this there are thematic lines occurring in the background, debate of suicide, there's an underlying voyeuristic element as the dueling relationships and characters are measured against each other. The story has a number of moments to ponder further as with the mention of the gigaku masks, a mask used in a somewhat lewd play of the Asuka Period concerning a love rivalry, which to a degree mirrors events or motives of this story. K returns and makes a forced fumbled advance on the narrator, a novice monk arrives who is passed an ancient sword by the betrothed, along with the description there is loaded implied meanings to also pass on to K. At the end of the story, which is a bloody one, there's a renewed sense that things have unfolded in a grandiose epoch, pallbearers, shadows cast, although the narrator observes the ceremony was little more than a purging of the violent death of a sinful outsider - there remains the sense that we've witnessed the tragedy of a forsaken love, arcadia momentarily turning bloody.