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.


Sunday, 20 May 2018

Apollo's Head by Kurahashi Yumiko

An author I've been meaning to return to is Kurahashi Yumiko, although the short story collection The Woman With the Flying Head and Other Stories, translated by Atsuko Sakaki has remained out of reach for the time being I thought I'd look out for the short stories that I have or am able to read online. So perhaps I'll have a mini season of reading her short stories, the first one stumbled upon is available over at Words Without Borders, Apollo's Head,  translated by Ian MacDonald, perhaps subconsciously whilst reading there's the hope that an affordable and accessible collection may appear in the near future. Apolon no Kubi first appeared in 1985.

There's an aspect of the imagery used in Apollo's Head that defies immediate interpretation, the reader has to accept the story as is, associations are made and contemplations of Apollo's significance or representations in ancient history are contemplated, but it feels that the story is a picturesque fantasy that presents a phantasmagoric and in places an erotically charged scenario to consider. The narrator is a student who whilst walking on campus discovers through a blue glowing hue, the head of a beautiful young man or boy at the base of a tree, at first beguiled by his beauty and then succumbing to fear and the realization that he is the victim of a murder she flees home. The head though seems to show some signs of consciousness, the eyes blink, the pupils move, this assessment of it's consciousness arises again later, but to the narrator there remains similarities to the head of Apollo, hewn in either Pentelic or Parian marble, the head's beauty gives rise to erotic speculations in the narrator leading to envisioning culpability for the decapitation, which provokes briefly the question of reliability of the narrator, amongst this the decision to retrieve the head.

The head is brought home, nurtured in a fruit bowel of water and puzzled over, somewhat placidly, by the narrator's fiance, Toru, who remains on the whole unimpressed, until near the end of the story where his forbearance gives out. The story is laced with the erotic, earlier the narrator kisses the head, later she and Toru make love in front of it, the head remains indifferent to these encounters. There is the disarming element in Kurahashi's ability to maintain and align the everyday against the unfolding of these macabre and erotic events. The head eventually begins to transform, taking on the resemblance of a pomegranate, a watermelon, a cactus, a comparison to a portrait by Arcimboldo is suggested, eventually a harvest of heads is cultivated. Apollo's Head appears to defy direct interpretation, the reader is presented with an unnerving blend of eroticism and hinted metaphors.

Apollo's Head at Words Without Borders      

image from Wikimedia

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Heaven's Wind/Amatsukaze - a dual language anthology

Recently published by Japan Society, Heaven's Wind/Amatsukaze is a dual language anthology presenting stories from five women writers all of whom have been awarded prestigious prizes and awards. The book is edited and translated by Angus Turvill who at the end of the collection gives an insightful commentary on his approaches to translating the stories, which also casts a broader look at some of the main points of concern for those translating from Japanese into English, some of these include sentence structure, obtaining flow and fluidity and also of the wider context of sentence and word choices. The commentary is made up of a 'spot the difference' where over 10 points Turvill examines, amongst other concerns; nouns, tenses, cultural references, points of perspective in subject/objects, which provokes the reader in perhaps rethinking of how translations appear when presented.

The stories themselves cover half a century in terms of their first appearance, the earliest one is from Natsuko Kuroda - Ball from 1963, which relates a neighbourhood ball game, with misfit Tamie the main protagonist, a subtle piece on ostracisation. In terms of dynamics perhaps the stand out story for me is from Mitsuyo Kakuta - The Child Over There which was the title story from a collection that was awarded the Izumi Kyoka Prize back in 2012, it's an interesting blend of what seems like a local superstition and at times the fantastical supernatural, at the same time the story explores the narrator's feelings of grief after loosing a child to still birth and her pursuit of locating the baby's spirit/soul to a seaside cave. A story that reminded me to some extent of a scenario of a Mishima story, although perhaps not quite as an extreme conclusion is Summer Blanket by Kaori Ekuni which was initially published in an award winning collection from 2002 - Michiko is an older woman who lives alone by the sea with her dog Marius, aspects of her history are slowly revealed, past relationships and of her parents. Added to this are visits from a young couple, Mayuki and Omori, harboured jealousies are touched upon, youth over financial independence, there's a feeling of something Salinger-esque perhaps as the story ends with Michiko and Omori huddled under the blanket. Also in the collection are the stories The Otter by Kuniko Mukoda and Planting by Aoko Matsuda.

Heaven's Wind is an absorbing and valuable collection in a number of ways and levels, as an excellent introduction to the featured authors, whose works it provokes to explore further and additionally along with Angus Turvill's insightful commentary on the translations, the book offers a fascinating perspective on some of the aspects going on 'behind the scenes' in the translation process, and of course the stories are presented in dual languages for readers of each or both. Many thanks to Japan Society for providing a reading copy.           

Heaven's Wind at Japan Society

Monday, 30 April 2018

Territory of Light - Flames

Flames is February's chapter of Territory of Light, the novel originally appeared in Japan in monthly installments and the book is now published in full in a translation by Geraldine Harcourt and reviews are beginning to appear for the complete novel, so I've tentatively tried to keep my eyes from reading them. Repeated thanks again go to Penguin for mailing out these monthly chapters, although perhaps a month or so out of sync its been interesting to pursue the narrator through her year and following her progress as she separates from her husband and finding herself bringing up and caring for her daughter whilst holding down her job, throughout the narratives in her writing the voices of Tsushima's characters feel imbued with a certain isolation, estranged from societal norms and buffeted by it's prejudices.

At the start of Flames the narrator observes the number of funerals in the area, and in spite of the cold she has the notion that in same way she herself is responsible or that she is linked to them, it's a strange link to contemplate and perhaps goes some way again, that arises throughout the course of the book of expressing the character's fragile feelings of hyper sensitivity. These deaths seem to come close to her with the death of her former boss, Kobayashi, amidst these observations the narrator falls prey to a heavy cold, and her daughter's angry fits surface again. Another episode of this fragility is when her daughter stays overnight at her friends, the narrator awakes in the middle of the night fearfully dreaming that she had lost her in town. Throughout the book reality and dream weave themselves through the narrative, and descriptions of mother and daughter caring for each other with their respective fevers and flu, we enter into a dream of the narrator's of a scene from school, although the students are grown up, inadvertently she exposes herself whilst changing and is chastised by the others, which seems to heighten again the sense the narrator has of being outcast, the dream ends with a rather listless erotic tone.

As with many of the other chapters, their names feel enigmatic at the initial outset and it's not until the end of Flames that things become apparent with the explosion of a nearby chemical factory, with this there feels for the narrator a certain sense of closure to the deaths at it's start, and again reading the book as a whole there's a sense of premonitions and signs cropping up throughout various moments in the book, scenes are pointedly imbued with portent. Without wanting to give everything away her husband, Fujino, makes contact and it'll be interesting to read the conclusion in the last chapter.

Territory of Light at Penguin


Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Territory of Light - The Earth's Surface

Publication day for Territory of Light is not too far away and it seems strange to contemplate how time has passed since starting out with the first chapter of this novel, which is translated by Geraldine Harcourt, again massive thanks go to Penguin for sharing the chapters with me, it's been very interesting to read the novel in these monthly installments and it'll be of further interest to sit down with the novel and read through as a single entirety. After a little break of not reading February's chapter - Flames arrived and before starting out on January's - The Earth's Surface I caught the opening lines of Flames describing picking her daughter up from daycare, it's strange again how just a glimpse of a line can transport you back into the character's world and dilemmas, and the picture of her world begins to take shape again, of the apartment a few floors up, the breeze in the curtains, the light escaping in, the balance of job, the separation, the daycare, the repetition perhaps of these things.

The Earth's Surface starts with the narrator alone on a random, perhaps impulsive train trip, another woman slumped against her and of sleeping on trains provokes memories of her parents and of her father's death, not knowing him, as he passed away just after she was born, dreamscapes are described of seeing him or of his presence although of never seeing his face. The narrative comes back around again to familiar things and characters, Sugiyama ceasing to call around for his Sunday visits is a source of consternation, also of her daughter developing fits and tantrums, a fact she doesn't want Fujino to discover fearing perhaps that it'll be used against her as an example of her bad parenting. This slight estrangement from her daughter begins to deepen when her daughter stays overnight with a friend and she slips into their family life with alarming ease, she learns that her daughter is calling the father of the family daddy, and one Sunday she refuses to come home at the appointed time, causing the narrator embarrassment as she has to ask if it's ok for her daughter to stay longer. 

The narrative loops back to it's opening with her taking the train trip, and she phones Sugiyama with the suggestion for him to move in with them to simultaneously solve the problem of him still living with his parents but he rather bluntly rejects the idea, perhaps wary of what he maybe getting himself into. Arriving at a seaside town she phones her daughter at her friends and describes the harbour, the glimmering of the water, a pink ship, and suggests they'll visit it together one day, envisioning her daughter on the other end of the line holding the receiver with her hands, the image freeze frames and overlaps with her vision of the sea in a resonant and poignant finish.     

Territory of Light at Penguin Classics

General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke

General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke is the third story of Three Japanese Short Stories all of which are translated by Jay Rubin, also it's the book's shortest, coming in at six pages, nonetheless with referencing the Nihon shoki toward the end of the story it bears a strange twist of satire of the fervour of patriotic propaganda and with referencing the Nihon shoki Akutagawa was obviously setting his target high in wanting to garner the reader's attention. One of Akutagawa's historical pieces, the brief narrative is set just before  the Seven Year (Imjin) War or invasion of Korea 1592 - 1598 in the reign of King Seonjo and features the historical figures of Konishi Yukinaga and Kato Kiyomasa, which at it's opening sees the pair incognito scouting out Ryonggang where they come across a sleeping village boy, the encounter has a portentous twist that nearly ends with the killing of the boy, the consequences of him being spared becomes apparent in due course.

The narrative then jumps forward thirty years, to the period of the invasion and the boy has grown into being Kim Eung-seo who together with Kye Wol-Hyang, (forced into being Yukinaga's mistress), hatch a plan to murder Yukinaga, and a fantastically supernatural fight scene unfolds involving decapitation, flying swords that loose their power by being spat upon and the decapitated body of Yukinaga reaching for his sword. After this there are parallels with the scene of Kim Eung-seo being earlier spared when he realizes that Kye is pregnant with Yukinaga's child, fearing the implications of this and not sparing the mercy he received in his earlier life he duly despatches her and the unborn baby. General Kim is a strange and macabre, although interesting reel of historical satire, of it's omittances and also of it's exaggerations.

Akutagawa & Others at Penguin Modern     


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Closet LLB by Kōji Uno

The next story of Three Japanese Stories translated by Jay Rubin is Closet LLB by Kōji Uno, 1891-1961, Three Japanese Stories is a sampler of the larger Penguin Book of Short Stories which is forthcoming from Penguin. Looking at this book I'm beginning to wonder at how the fuller book will be organised - if it'll be compiled chronologically or thematically. Closet LLB concerns the character Otsukotsu Sansaku who when the story opens has seen five years pass since obtaining his Bachelor of Law degree, he remains living in the same digs although the ownership of the building has changed many times within this time. The story relates the history of Sansaku's education, initially a prodigy whose initial inspiration stemmed from the writer/children's author Iwaya Sazanami, Sansaku had the desire to become a novelist, which we're reminded hasn't changed at the time of the narrative. There is some mystery over his degree as he initially passed his Law exams and acquired the letters LLB but his main passion is literature, although the story also develops into being one of passions thwarted after Sansaku's father's passing, family debt, Sansaku becomes dependant on a cousin of his father's, Oike and is pressurized by the family into studying Law. This is counter balanced with the fact that he has had some success as a writer of Fairy Tales and various short pieces and on the horizon glimmers the perennial hope of scoring success with a novel for adults.

So, perhaps there are a number of autobiographical connections reflected in the story to contemplate, the family debt, of the move to living with Grandparents, the struggling writer, but here it seems Sansaku's aspirations fizzle out, he continues to live the life of a student of literature whilst the world of literature and the arts appear to pass him by or so it seems, Sansaku has a certain bohemian lifestyle, spending time walking the city, his bed time two in the morning. It's been noted that Uno's writing falls into two camps, of being rather fragmented and experimental with that of later evolving into more conventional storytelling, Closet LLB feels more of the latter, although it does show signs of delving into interiorities and also of the Russian writers he read. The latter part of the story sees Sansaku delve further into his retreatist realm as rather than take out and daily make his futon from it's cupboard Sansaku decides to save the effort and begins to sleep in the closet, and due to this positioning and the level of his room he can observe the to and fro of passersby. The story ends on a meditative note on the nature of intellectual superiority and of it's worth and it's application to the happiness of life or perhaps the lack of it. As mentioned before it's interesting to contemplate the autobiographical elements of Closet LLB and of the themes it raises, the story has been translated previously as The Law Student in the Garret in the highly recommended anthology Three-Dimensional Reading edited by Angela Yiu, for my post.

Three Japanese Stories at Penguin Moderns


Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu

Forthcoming in June The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami Haruki and amongst their new series of Penguin Modern's, each a £1, we have a sampler in Three Japanese Short Stories of what is to come. The book contains, Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu, Closet LLB by Uno Koji and General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke all of which are translated by Jay Rubin. So I thought I'd read each of the stories here in anticipation of the full book's arrival in June, post on each of the stories featured, then pass Three Japanese Short Stories on as a giveaway once finished, so if you are interested in getting a copy leave a comment and I'll pick a name at random at the end and post out to you.

Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu is the first story here, and although brief offers a lot to contemplate, it displays a number of preoccupations that are familiar with Kafu's writing, the narrator has recently returned from being abroad, characters and places from America and Paris are mentioned, perhaps this could be seen as a continuum of his American Stories translated by Mitsuko Iriye. There's the impression that the narrator is from a well to do family, toward the end of the story in order to escape the confines of the family home the narrator walks the neighbourhood and relates the views of the detritus of daily life in what he sees as the down at heels area. Briefly he contrasts the neighbourhood from the one of his memory, this theme it could be said is a major one of the story, contrasting the culture of the one experienced from abroad with that of the one he finds on his return, one that it is hinted at displays phony patriotism and advancement, this too is subtly contrasted with the living conditions of those within the immediate neighbourhood.

The title of the story has an openness to it's interpretation, as the family home or the narrator's father's estate is situated behind the prison at Ichigaya, and rather than being the return of the prodigal son the situation has the air of being problematic, for the meanwhile he can stay in a spare room, this undeclared state of affairs brokers a sense of imprisonment for the narrator and there's the sense he identifies with the prisoners seen outside performing communal tasks, there's the sense that with this return come's an impasse in his next direction. Rather enigmatically there is the option that the store is epistolary in nature as it's addressed to 'My dearest Excellency' and it ends on the plea of a visit as the narrator is lonely. As well as this the end of the story returns again to this sense of imprisonment with the relating of a piece of prison verse from Verlaine's Sagesse which speaks of a wound of love remaining open, which gives the impression of a portal opened, a transition, the narrator lodged between continents and memories of each, with disdain pointed at home, the scene of  the salesman selling fish guts from the neighbourhood the narrator observes - 'the thought that this faded, cold fish meat is the only source of nourishment for the blood of most of my countrymen fills me with an inexpressible sorrow.'

The story feels a mixture of real experience and projecture on behalf of Kafu and there are things commonly associated with his writing, the narrator appears to be a troubled aesthete, characters from the theatre are mentioned, a scene here of animal cruelty observed stands out, another demarcation of the cultural differences between East and West. Behind the Prison is a fascinating and engaging opening story to these three, the next being Uno Koji's Closet LLB, as mentioned at the start I'll read the stories and then offer Three Japanese Stories as a giveaway, if interested please leave a comment.

Three Japanese Stories - Akutagawa and Others at Penguin Books      

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Territory of Light - The Body

The chapters of Territory of Light continues with December's being entitled The Body, which bears an ominous connotation, although as the narrator navigates around the festive period and New Years steps are being put into motion of the separation between her and her husband Fujino. The narrator has instigated official proceedings at mediation although at this first meeting Fujino fails to turn up, according to the clerks it's common for husbands to put in a no show and she finds herself leaving the meeting on her own. Eventually meeting up with Fujino in a coffee shop initial disagreements and mistrust arise again and things deteriorate again into stalemate, the relationship with Sugiyama evidently more than merely platonic, accusations abound.

Amidst the logistics of arrangements over the festive period, the relationship with her mother is put briefly under the microscope and also of her reaction to her daughter's separation. After this the narrator and her daughter visit a Chinese restaurant and at a shared table her daughter's mood swings into a temper and they leave. Throughout the book the broader sociological implications of the separation are explored and at the same time the struggles of being a single mother are portrayed, in The Body, her daughter has a toilet accident in the street that has to be dealt with, and the chapter ends rather enigmatically with a drunken man staggering into their path and collapsing, after being asked by her daughter to make him better, the pair find themselves massaging his back until he revives and staggers on. The incident feels that it's going to resurface in future chapters perhaps, while the narrator returns to another mediation session, will Fujino put in an appearance?.

Territory of Light at Penguin Classics