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       

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Murakami Ryu

Originally published in 1994, Popular Hits of the Showa Era was published in a translation by Ralph McCarthy by Pushkin Press in 2013. The novel displays many of the hallmarks of Murakami's writing, there are scenes of wrenching violence and explorations of psyches that usually remain in the shadows. The novel opens introducing a group of maladjusted young men whom have little in connection apart from perhaps a shared disconnection with society, the men party and a reoccurring motif appears in the form of a beautiful woman who appears in a window opposite theirs who through various points in the story is usually spied on in a state of undress. The action of the novel comes into motion when one of the group, Sugioka, murders a woman in what seems to be a random and impulsive act of violence, the victim was Yanagimoto Midori, a woman who was a generation or so older than Sugioka.

This murder introduces us to the two groups which become the rival gangs of the novel, which at various points are referred to as the Midori Society and the Nobue/Ishihara gang. We are introduced to their idiosyncrasies and peer into the generational gap or crack between the two. The Midori Society, who all share the same name with the initial victim are made up ostentatiously of Oba-sans, karaoke buddies, women of a certain age, the group includes a divorcee and others appear to be facing various stages of mid life crisis, but display fantastic abilities and organisational skill when it comes to avenging the murder. The Nobue/Ishihara group is made up of essentially a group of young men who appear to be slightly off kilter, maybe best described as misfits. The novel essentially follows the groups as they progress in taking revenge for the initial murder, taking a member out of each group one at a time, or towards the end of the book that number increases, as does the extremities of the violence and methods used in efforts to exterminate the members of the opposing group.

In places the novel displays a dark humour and there's an equally dark satire going on with these observations of the generational gap taken to maximum extremes of violence, Murakami is uncanny at bringing these hidden pathological psychologies on to centre stage and putting his foot on the accelerator, depicting perhaps the unspoken vengeful impulses of society. With the novel's title in mind the characters of the book reference a number of songs throughout, it could quite easily come with an accompanying cd and perhaps before setting out on a reading of this novel it might help to put on a few tracks by Frank Nagai or Sachiko Nishida to serve as a contextual backdrop.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era at Pushkin Press


Sunday, 7 January 2018

readings in 2017

So as 2018 staggers into the headlights it's an apt time to note back on what else read in 2017, probably two books that stuck in the mind most were the Barbara Comyns and the Roland Buti, but also Ralf Rothmann and Shirley Jackson bowled me over.

Thanks for reading, all the best to you.

Umberto Eco - Numero Zero
Antoine Leiris - You Will Not Have My Hate
Pierre Reverdy - Haunted House
Primo Levi - The Wrench
Elizabeth Strout - My Name is Lucy Barton
Mohsin Hamid - Exit West
Ivan Klima - My First Loves
Ali Smith - Autumn
Leonora Carrington - Down Below
Barbara Comyns - Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Cormac McCarthy - Outer Dark
Ralf Rothmann - To Die In Spring
Ernst Haffner - Blood Brothers
Andres Barba - Such Small Hands
Edouard Louis - The End of Eddy
Shirley Jackson - We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Guy Goffette - Forever Nude
V H Leslie - Bodies of Water
Ryu Murakami - Piercing
Sjon - Moonstone
Han Kang - The White Book
David Foenkinos - Charlotte
Roland Buti - Year of the Drought

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Territory of Light - Red Lights

Red Lights is November's chapter of Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt and is published in April by Penguin Classics. Much like the previous chapters Red Lights feels a very self contained narrative, each of the chapters have the feeling of being a short story within themselves, although there remains small pointers to the larger story unfolding, that of the narrator in the process of separating from and divorcing her husband. Red Lights sees the appearance of another new character, Sugiyama, who for a time was privately tutored by her husband, Fujino, Sugiyama is one amongst a select few who the narrator had given a change of address card to, the relationship on the whole feels platonically innocent although they fall asleep listening to each other's heartbeats, Sugiyama also displays having a rapport with the narrator's daughter.

A repeating aspect arising in Red Lights is of the narrator's struggle balancing work/childcare and home life, often finding herself either late for work or taking her daughter to daycare, her daughter becomes to be a topic of concern when the carers thwart an attempt by her to severe a younger attendee's ear off with a pair of scissors, has her daughter's behaviour disintegrated since their separation? is it a symptom of it?, the narrator wonders. Similar also to previous chapters there is an element of dreamscapes featuring in the narrative, Red Lights opens with another, of the narrator finding herself in search of a missing person, and of being in a vehicle, the details remain vague, it's clarity out of reach, feeling both provocative and premonitory.

Throughout the chapters there has sometimes appeared small connections that exist between them, characters appearing briefly and the reader's never too certain which of these might turn out to be a permanent fixture and what the outcome of their influence might be, Kawachi from the previous chapter appears again toward the end of Red Lights, the narrator sees him with his child and wife which causes an episode of self scrutiny in her.

What is an interesting riddle to most of these chapters is their titles, with Red Lights the reader is tempted to think that the reveal or point of explanation was going to come at the beginning amidst the dreamscape, Red Lights feels like it might emerge there, although Tsushima leaves it to the final page to unlock the mystery of it's title again in a moving poetical, perhaps metaphorically way when enroute to work the narrator's train experiences hitting a female suicide and there is the stain of red berries fallen from a tree, which again is a moving allegory. The narrator becomes embroiled contemplating the suicide's motives and feelings, this desire to understand feels similar to that of her desire of searching for the missing person amongst her dream at the opening of the story, in a mirrored culmination, and the reader finishes the story in awe again at Tsushima's prose.

Territory of Light at Penguin Classics


Thursday, 28 December 2017

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

It seems that this year my reading has predominately been made up of a ricocheting between the chapters of Territory of Light and of the novellas being put out by Pushkin Press, this is no bad thing although next year will see me catch up with a few books from the past that I feel I need to catch up with, keeping up with new titles I've neglected on a number of translations from yesteryear. In the last of the novellas of 2017 Ms Ice Sandwich by the Akutagawa Prize winning Mieko Kawakami is translated by Louise Heal Kawai, although only 92 pages the book has a compelling and absorbing narrative, and although some titles are appearing now due forthcoming in 2018 the name Kazushige Abe is a little hard to erase from the wish list. Being so brief it's difficult to give a synopsis of the book in it's entirety without giving all away, so I'll try not to. Essentially the book is about unrequited love and in parts it's a coming of age tale. To begin with the narrative, related by a youngish high school boy?, tells of his fascination with a lady who works at a sandwich stall, another main character of the book is Tutti a female school mate who the narrator has a slightly fragmented relationship with, there's the feeling that she is more interested in him than he is with she, it's slightly difficult to ascertain due to degrees of disinterest the narrator has for anything other than Ms ice sandwich, although on an evening when he visits Tutti to watch a DVD of the movie Heat he becomes more fascinated by Tutti and her father watching the film than the movie itself.

The narrative on the whole has the sense of a slightly dysfunctional kawaii-ness about it, although this bursts in the scene when he breaks down in front of his grandmother who is weak and near death herself at this point and raw emotion prevails over pretense, the novella is endearing in a number of scenes where realizations dawn on the narrator about the absoluteness of loosing occur. Kawakami's prose bears an inventive originality to it, especially the Al Pacino moments - Tutti thinks that Al Pacino means goodbye in a foreign language, and in a number of scenes when they part Tutii and the narrator exchange Al Pacino's, as well as this there's the novel and entertaining way in which Tutti and fellow class mate Doo-wop acquire their names. Aside from his fascination/obsession with Ms ice sandwich there's things going on with the relationship he has with his mother and grandmother, and as well as convincingly portraying adolescent naivety we are given the portrait of a world seen before a number of realizations have occurred. Throughout the narrative the progress is broken with a number of digressions, one being the elusive forgotten story of the dogs with eyes which in a way syncs with a dream sequence incorporating Ms Ice Sandwich, and another the enigma of the source of her facial irregularities..Very much enjoyed this novella and translation and hope for more.

Ms Ice Sandwich at Pushkin Press


Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Territory of Light - The Dunes

The chapter for October in Territory of Light is rather enigmatically entitled The Dunes, the book in full is appearing in April 2018 published by Penguin Classics, in a translation by Geraldine Harcourt. An aspect of the narrative that has appeared so far is one laced with a certain sense of solitude as we follow our narrator who has recently separated from her husband and finds herself facing the machinations of divorce. Another aspect that is never too distant from the narrative is of her surmounting the logistics of both parenting and of being employed, these two are a common thread throughout the chapters. The Dunes continues on with the scenario that arose in the previous chapter of her daughter throwing things onto an adjacent roof of an apartment below theirs on the fourth floor, the elderly occupants complain and a blue mesh is put up around the narrator's windows, along with this the elderly couple raise the suspicion that she herself is also guilty of throwing the items as well, which in subtly contributes to a sense of victimisation that the narrator consciously/unconsciously senses is tied to her predicament.

Perhaps The Dunes departs slightly with the sense that the character is enclosed in solitude with the appearance of Kawachi, a married man who is linked to the parent/teacher group of the daycare centre her daughter attends, this arises after a drunken night at her colleagues apartment and culminates the following morning with his early disappearance and her daughter's lateness for daycare and of her phoning in sick at work, as with the previous chapters there's a sense of seismic shifts occurring in the narrator as we observe her endeavouring to make new spaces within herself to accommodate these new perspectives, which begins to be developed further in November's chapter which is entitled Red Lights.

The Dunes displays again Tsushima's character caught between the lucidness of harsh realities and the more abstracted moments as the dials change, which is one of the central questioning perspectives of her writing, a direction change in circumstance and the pivot points of society begin to have moved by degrees. The Dunes ends in a dreamscape of children's voices heard across a sanded landscape, of distress or portentous?, we'll have to see.

Territory of Light at Penguin Classics