In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

Continue reading “In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow”

Life might have been totally different

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami

It’s my own fault. I was really excited about this book. I built it up in my head. I believed the “magnum opus” hype. I was bound to be let down.

1Q84

I really like Murakami. He’s not my favourite writer but I have loved some of his books and really liked several more, so the prospect of a three-volume masterpiece by him sounded wonderful. Unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of his works so far. In fact, at times it had me angry enough to want to throw the book across the room and I nearly gave up on it multiple times. But I soldiered on because this is after all Murakami and there is an intriguing storyline that is not wrapped up until the last page. And I had to know.

So that’s it’s great strength: the story. It’s a very Murakami story, an idea that starts gradually, slowly forming, giving you room to guess what’s going on. It’s weird in a surreal sort of way but it has an internal logic that allows you to see the directions it might go in.

Because it takes most of book 1 (300+ pages) for the basic concept to become clear, I don’t want to say too much about what happens. The chapters alternate between the stories of Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is part-time teacher, part-time writer, who allows himself to be persuaded by an editor friend to rewrite someone else’s entry in a creative writing competition, a story called Air Chrysalis. The situation goes from a bit unethical to downright dangerous when it turns out that there is a lot more to Air Chrysalis than meets the eye.

Aomame is a fitness instructor and also an assassin. But not the ruthless kind who will kill anyone for the right price. She has just one client and kills one particular breed of very bad men. So what links her to Tengo? Well, that would be saying too much, but from the start it is clear that they have a lot in common. They are both about 30 years old, living in Tokyo, with no strong emotional ties to anyone. They have almost clinical attitudes to their sex lives. They are particular about cleanliness and eating well. And because they would clearly get on well, it was wonderful slowly learning about how they were linked, seeing their stories draw together. But.

For one thing, I think 1Q84 is far longer than it needs to be. Murakami has a reputation as a sparse writer but here there is lots of repetition, lots of restating facts – a lot of bulk could have been shed. After the initial teasing out of a detail or plot point it then gets overstated and too obvious. This was to the detriment of the more surreal, magical elements because it made them seem at times clumsy and over-thought.

But I also had issues with some of the major themes in the book. First up: sex. I have no problem with sex scenes, but here I frequently got the feeling that typical male fantasies were being depicted for no good reason. Aomame is straight and at one point turns down an offer of sex with a woman, yet Murakami has her linger on the memory of a teenage lesbian dalliance with a close friend more than once. For no reason that I could fathom, when she remembers two good female friends from her past she thinks about their breasts. And not in a jealous way but in a sexual way. It’s very strange.

Then there’s the parents thing. There are no good parent–child relationships in this book. Tengo is horribly self-centred in his attitude to his father. Both Tengo and Aomame chose to move out from their parents at the earliest possible opportunity, but neither describes anything particularly terrible to explain why. Aomame’s parents were religious, Tengo’s father a distant workaholic, and perhaps with some further details those would have indeed been in some way abusive situations, but for all the very many words, I was never able to see what had been so wrong with either childhood.

Which brings us to the last problem: religion. Oh my word does Murakami have an axe to grind here. I should point out that I am an atheist, I am no fan of organised religion and recognise that it has been the source of a lot of bad stuff. But it has its positive side too and in most cases is probably best described as benign. 1Q84 gives no stock to such nuances. ALL RELIGION BAD could sum its attitude up. Basically, you have a cult that somehow grew out of a non-religious hippy commune and became a child-raping place of evil. And all other religious sects, churches or organisations mentioned are spoken of as if they are just as bad. As if they all brainwash, make children miserable, expect unreasonable things of their followers. Some of the statements I read made me slam the book shut and shout out angrily. At one point there was so much of this nonsense I didn’t know how I could possibly read on, but thankfully the narrative moved past it. (Although this is also a problem because I felt it was very ambiguous whether the nasty child-rape situation had been resolved or not.)

It started well and it ended well. The anger I felt in book 2 never resurfaced, although the boredom with some of the “waiting” sections did. I kept on reading because I wanted to know more, but I could not honestly say I enjoyed the read. This was translated by Murakami regulars Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel so the style should have been familiar but it genuinely felt poorly edited in places and there were no moments when the writing stood out as beautiful or moving. Tengo and Aomame were typical Murakami characters in that they felt real but at a distance, slightly cold fish, so I could never be in their shoes truly living the story.

It saddens me that I cannot recommend this book and am even a little bit put off reading Murakami at all for a while. But I know other people have loved it so remember this is just my opinion. Others are available.

First published in Japanese in 2009 and 2010 by Shinchosa Publishing.
This translation published 2011 by Harvill Secker.

See also: discussions on Tony’s Reading List and In Spring it is the Dawn

Strangely weird or weirdly strange

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin

This is another of those books that I kept in my work drawer for months on end to read in the occasional lunch break, meaning that by the time I came to the end of it I’d forgotten the first half. Thankfully it’s short stories, so that’s not a huge problem, but it is a drawback in writing this review.

This wasn’t my favourite Murakami to date. Though it’s not unusual for a Murakami story to be more of a character sketch with no clear storyline, several of these stories felt a bit…nothing. There were also some beautiful, wonderfully weird stories, to be clear.

The impression I got from the introduction was that this is a compilation of Murakami’s earliest published writing and certainly there is no overarching theme or even the same translator throughout. There is, however, a certain pattern to his work. He takes an ordinary Japanese person and explores an event or relationship of significance to their life. Occasionally a story tries to tell a whole lifetime but that felt too stretched. A number of times he introduces the story third-hand, as if this is about a friend of a friend, like that adds some kind of authenticity. I found this a little weak, detracting from the power that opening lines can have; should have. In one story he tries to explain himself:

“I think things took place pretty much as set out…though I might have forgotten some of the details, I distinctly recall the general tone. When you listen to somebody’s story and then try to reproduce it in writing, the tone’s the main thing. Get the tone right and you have a true story on your hands. Maybe some of the facts aren’t quite correct, but that doesn’t matter…Turn this around, and you could say there are stories that are factually accurate yet aren’t true at all.”

Which might make for an interesting essay but as an interjection in the middle of a story, for me it just drags me out of the story’s world, interrupts the imaginative process of reading.

But as I said, there were some good stories here and lots of good writing. Two stories centre around how a person’s name is their identity, which was interesting. In “Nausea 1979” a man gets a phonecall every evening where an anonymous voice just says his name then hangs up. This has such a profound effect on him, physically and emotionally, that he begins to wonder if he has a psychiatric illness, but the university hospital turns him away. The police also aren’t interested: “there are two kinds of crime the police won’t bother with: crank calls and stolen bicycles” (which certainly rings true to me). Throughout the story the main character is unnamed but the narrator is addressed as Mr Murakami.

In the second story about names, “The Shinagawa monkey”, a woman keeps forgetting her own name. She has no other memory trouble but the name thing becomes such a problem that even having a bracelet made with her name on it doesn’t resolve the problem and she turns to a councillor with unusual methods. This woman is named and we learn a lot about her life and her past as she struggles to understand what is happening.

The other theme that comes up time and again – throughout Murakami’s work, not just here – is music, specifically jazz. He often meditates on the pleasure of finding that rare vinyl recording of a certain combination of musicians, or the reasons why this performance of a certain song is better than that one. If a Murakami character is into music it is invariably jazz, as if there is no other kind.

This is not a wide study of Japanese society. The characters are middle class with good jobs (or savings to live off if they lose their job) or are students at university. When they marry, the women often stop working to keep house for their husbands. And I was a little disappointed that the one time there was a gay character, this was made a big fuss of.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if my reading had been less disjointed. Or perhaps my reading would have been less disjointed if I’d been enjoying it more.

Most of these stories had been previously published in periodicals, including Harpers and McSweeney’s.
This collection first published 2006 by Harvill Secker.

Hello Japan! January mini-challenge: Something New

Hello Japan! mini-challenge

On Tanabata’s book blog, In Spring it is the Dawn, she challenges her readers every month to do something Japanese. Each mini-challenge has guidelines and January’s was “try something Japanese that you haven’t tried before”, which I did. And it was most certainly an experience.

For my birthday earlier this month I booked a karaoke booth at a local Japanese restaurant. I love Japanese food, I love karaoke, as do several of my friends – what could possibly go wrong? The only real question was why I had never done this before.

There were some setbacks. A few karaoke-friendly friends couldn’t make it so I ended up with a group heavy on the “I’ll come but I probably won’t sing” side. On arrival, as we squeezed ourselves into a tiny room that could only possibly have seated the advertised occupancy of 20 if they were all model-thin, was boiling hot and had the music volume so loud we couldn’t hear each other across the table, I began to worry this wouldn’t be all it was cracked up to be. The hostess didn’t explain the computer properly and we appeared to have a songlist composed solely of Madonna, Britney, Mariah and Japanese acts we’d never heard of.

Thankfully, while I knocked back my first flask of warm sake and caught up with my friends over the as-always immensely tasty food there, some of my more computer-savvy friends worked out not only how to adjust the volume to an acceptable level but also that there was a huge long list of songs to choose from hidden in a sub-sub-menu. And we were off!

And it was a brilliant night. Sure the computer crashed a few times, wiping our carefully crafted playlist. We suspected that the karaoke tracks and videos were largely cheap knock-offs, with hilariously wrong lyrics and videos either from some tourist agency or a sort-of Japanese Pop Idol show. But everyone had a good time, everyone sang (sometimes all at once with harmonies and everything) and I laughed so much I cried.

I loved that we had to take our shoes off and that we sat at a table at floor level, something I’d only seen in films before. I loved that the most resistant of my friends let inhibitions go and belted out tunes wholeheartedly. If they had let us we could have carried on all through the night and they would have made a fortune out of our sake and Asahi consumption, but sadly they closed at 10.30pm.

It was a great way to spend an evening with friends and I shall definitely accept any opportunity to try it again.

(By the way, this is my 100th post! Very exciting. I was hoping to post about my newly redecorated library on this auspicious occasion but progress has slowed on that front, mostly because I’ve been too exhausted to help Tim out with the legwork. We will finish it…one day.)

Bizarre like wasabi chocolate

The Character of Rain
by Amélie Nothomb
translated by Timothy Bent

I discovered Amélie Nothomb five or six years ago and I love her quirky style. Her books are novels and yet in most of them she casts herself as the main character and uses her own life for the bare bones of the story. She has a surreal sense of humour and, assuming any of it’s true, an interesting life to draw upon.

This book covers Nothomb’s first three years, which were spent in Japan where her father was the Belgian consul. The very fact that her main character is so young and yet narrates in the first person suggests that the story must be mostly fiction, and that’s before taking the heavy Kafka references into account.

The early part of the book covers the first two years in immensely strange fashion and could not possibly be considered to be a serious straight of-this-world story, but rather an odd analogy for the development of the ego – as I said, Kafkaesque. This is also borne out in the French title of the book: Métaphysiques des tubes – the Tube being her metaphor for a baby (things go in one end and come out the other, with not a lot else going on). I’m not sure if us Brits are considered less au fait with philosophy and the nature of things or if the UK publisher just found that title too plain weird.

The bulk of the book deals with the third year in the child’s life, giving the book an ending point that has particular significance in Japan. Traditionally the Japanese believe that children are gods until the age of three, at which point they fall from grace and join the rest of mankind. Nothomb briefly recounts this belief partway through the novel but it is clearly the basis for the entire story.

The child is introduced to us as God. As it becomes self-aware, it narrates as though the world revolves around it – “naming” people and objects, for example, through its first words. If these were truly the thoughts and actions of a two-year-old child it would be an extremely precocious toddler, and maybe Nothomb was, but more likely the far-too-adult speech is used to convey the point – the child gradually becoming aware of more of the world and, even at this early age, losing some of its security. There is also a lot of secrecy, of “me versus the world” which, as far as I remember, is a pretty accurate way of describing childhood.

There is an extent to which this book is also about Nothomb’s love for Japan. Her family left Japan when she was five and she returned there for a few years as an adult. The land of her birth clearly holds a special place in her heart and this is eloquently conveyed in the intense, passionate voice of the child.

The English title, by the way, has a neat little etymology of its own. “Rain” is one of the meanings of the kanji character for the child’s name (it would be interesting to know if the word actually is said “amelie” – anyone know?) so the title could just mean that this is about the development of a character called Rain. However, the child is also a water-lover and holds a particular fondness for heavy summer rain, imbuing it with various significances.

For a short book, this isn’t a light read but it is enjoyable and stays just this side of too plain weird for my taste.

First published in France in 2000 by Editions Albin Michel.
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Faber and Faber.

A thing of beauty

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

I bought this book the day it came out. I never do that, but I have loved all of Mitchell’s previous books so I went to Waterstones and walked home with it, lovingly stroking the exquisitely designed cover. I started reading it that night. And yet here we are months later and I’ve only just finished. So what happened?

Well, first of all, this is a beautiful book. Physically beautiful, I mean. So I didn’t want to carry it around with me and risk damaging it. The hardback is clothbound, illustrated with a picture of Japan, highlighted in blue glitter. The endpapers continue the theme, with Japanese-style artwork in blue and white.

And it’s definitely well written. Mitchell weaves a spellbinding story, with a huge cast and what I think – though I’m not certain about this – is some serious attention to historical detail. When you get caught up in a big, complex plot it’s easy to not notice the writing but Mitchell’s writing is as excellent as ever. But it did take me a while to get into.

This isn’t a book to read for 5 minutes here and there, with another book in your handbag and a third one at work, which is what I tried doing. The opening section is set at sea and between the 18th century seafaring vernacular and large cast I struggled a bit. I even put it down for a few weeks at one point. Once the action moved to the book’s main location – Dejima – I settled in and found myself hooked.

The setting is fascinating, historically and geographically – the Japanese port of Dejima, near Nagasaki, in 1799. At that time it was the location of isolationist Japan’s only link to the west – a trade post of the Dutch East Indies Company. Dejima is almost an island, separated from mainland Japan by a well guarded gate that Dutch visitors may only pass through with special permission, which is rarely granted. Dejima is occupied year-round by a handful of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, charged with keeping the Dutch warehouses and their goods safe between trading seasons.

The book’s hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a clerk who has reluctantly agreed to come to Japan to earn enough money and raise his social standing enough to marry the woman he loves, Anna. He has a five-year contract with the Dutch East Indies Company and must spend those five years in Dejima, stranded between trading seasons with the limited European staff and their liaison with Japan – the official translators.

Much of the detail of this book – and the humour – derives from the cultural and linguistic divisions between the characters. Mitchell does a fantastic job of the scenes where two or three languages are being spoken, none of them English, and you know who is speaking which language and who understands which parts of the conversation. It’s masterful, I think.

There’s a lot of mistrust and resentment between the different races depicted but there’s also sharing of knowledge. One of my favourite characters, Dr Marinus, is a Dutchman who has settled on Dejima and trains Japanese apprentices in the art and science of “Dutch medicine”. The Dutch tradeship brings him new European textbooks every year, which he studies and shares through the translators. He attends meetings of Japanese scholars where the men debate scientific progress, philosophy and politics, including the wisdom of Japan remaining isolationist. I loved these scenes and would have liked more of them.

This large book encompasses many things – there’s humorous stories of daily life, the personal and public ups and downs of Jacob de Zoet, philosophical discussion, great adventures and mysterious evildoers (particularly in the middle section in which Jacob hardly appears), and also romance. Jacob is certainly in love with his Anna but there is also a young Japanese midwife who catches his eye, making him question his allegiances.

I’m glad I persevered with this book because it became something quite extraordinary. It is as exotic, remarkable and rich in detail as its beautiful cover suggests.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out these reviews by Leeswammes and Farm Lane Books.

Published 2010 by Sceptre.
ISBN 978-0-3409-2156-2