Revenge 2

To celebrate the paperback release of Yoko Ogawa’s beautiful and edgy collection of intertwined stories, Revenge, Vintage Books has kindly offered four of Ogawa’s books to one lucky reader of chasing bawa.

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I loved both The Housekeeper and the Professor and Revenge which were so different from each other and yet left an indelible impression and have my mitts on The Diving Pool and Hotel Iris which I’ve heard are a little darker and subversive. Perfect reading for summer and #ReadWomen2014, no?

So if you have yet to try Ogawa’s work, make sure you leave a comment and I will pick a winner on July 3rd. The giveaway is open to UK readers only. Good luck! If you can also let me know your favourite Japanese book, film, manga or J-drama, that would make me a happy bunny too.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is published in paperback on 3 July (Vintage, £7.99). To coincide with the paperback release of Revenge, Vintage will be reissuing The Diving Pool, The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris in paperback.

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1Q84

Soon her mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People. Each one carefully scanned the room before emerging.

Finally.

There is something about Haruki Murakami’s work that keeps drawing people back. I’m not exactly sure what it is. For me, it’s a warm cocoon, comfort, familiarity even though the themes addressed in his novels are often disturbing, ugly, stark. Even the otherness in his stories becomes a part of normality. And 1Q84 is no different. Yes, there are themes that are off-putting. One of my Japanese friends hesitated over giving a copy to her father to read.

From the title, I was expecting a riff on George Orwell’s 1984. But it’s actually much closer to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And there are abundant references to both in Murakami’s novel.

In 1Q84, Aomame and Tengo are our two protagonists, separated by 20 years since their last encounter, an innocent holding of hands which transformed both of their lives. Living separate lives, nevertheless, they retain strong feelings for each other. Aomame is a fitness trainer by profession who lets off steam once a month by having one night stands with balding middle-aged men. She also works for the mysterious Dowager and her gay bodyguard Tamaru as an occasional assassin of men prone to domestic violence. Tengo is a cram school teacher in mathematics who writes fiction in his spare time and has sex with his married girlfriend once a week. Both are solitary but content with their lives. Until Tengo is given the task of ghostwriting Air Chrysalis, a debut novel by a 17 year old high school girl named Fuka-Eri, which wins a prestigious award and sells millions.

There is something a little strange about Fuka-Eri whose father was once the leader of a socialist, revolutionary and later religious cult/commune named Sakigake. Her tale is at once strange and magical. And when Aomame starts to notice uncanny changes in her timeline, she increasingly begins to suspect that she has somehow slid into another timeline, one she calls 1Q84 instead of 1984. And it is then that she notices there are two moons hanging in the night sky. When Aomame is given the task of eliminating the leader of a cult who is rumoured to have a history of assaulting pre-pubescent girls, her destiny begins to veer towards that of Tengo and Fuka-Eri. Will Aomame and Tengo meet? And will they be able to evade the darkness that will inevitably hound them?

Like his other fantastical fiction, it is hard to summarise Murakami’s novel without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Murakami is adept at entwining the fantastical into the daily lives of his protagonists without too much fuss. It’s easy, gives you a little start at first, but their acceptance facilitates your acceptance. His clever manipulation of the different literary strands in his story is masterful. You know they will collide at some point, but Murakami does it subtly, inserting a name here, an incident there. Its inevitability is almost a recognition.

‘According to Checkhov,’ Tamaru said, rising from his chair, ‘once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.’

One of the things I like about Murakami’s style is his light touch. And yet the themes he addresses are often dark, sad and traumatic. He highlights the reality that most people go about their daily business often carrying unresolved emotional burdens. There is no one who is clean. That is reality. And yet, they go on with their lives and fantastical things happen.

Having seen widely differing reactions to 1Q84 which were negative for the most part, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. I took a luxurious stroll through Murakami’s world and didn’t even notice the change in translators from Books 2 to 3. Both Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel did a superb job and there wasn’t even a slight whisper of discord. What was harsh and shocking in the first half of the novel slowly mellows into something warm and precious as you grow to know Aomame and Tengo.

1Q84 has fast become one of my favourite novels by Murakami making me want to re-read Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle just so I can remember just why I fell in love with his writing.

Evil and the Mask

I created you to be a cancer on the world.

Fumihiro Kuki is the youngest son of the powerful Kuki family whose business sprawls and controls most of Japan. His father has revived the eccentric family tradition of breeding a son in old age to become a cancer, one with which to destroy everything that people hold dear. As part of his training, he has planned Fumihiro’s life in such a way that when he turns 14, he will experience hell. And this will be the catalyst which will turn Fumihiro into a harbinger of doom. But Fumihiro is smart and aware and tries to stay one step ahead of his hateful father. And there is Kaori, a young girl who is adopted from an orphanage to keep Fumihiro company. Both starved of love, they only have each other. And so begins Evil and the Mask, a dark, twisted tale by Fuminori Nakamura.

It’s one of those novel where the less you know, the more you will be surprised. Like Nakamura’s previous novel, The Thief, the translation is spot on and smooth, and you can’t help but fall into the story. I was expecting something a little more doomsday-ish like in the Japanese ultra-violent films so popular in the West. But Evil and the Mask is subtler, deeper and is more about the potential effect of evil on the human psyche. The fact that Fumihiro tries to fight against his destiny even going so far as to have plastic surgery, that he sacrifices his own happiness for another’s, that he has found some sort of purpose to his life because of the realisation that it isn’t about himself anymore is something to ponder upon. Like The Thief, Nakamura digs deep into our fears and makes us confront what it means to be human and what it takes to resist evil when it won’t let you go.

Although I’m a huge fan of Nakamura’s style and enjoyed reading Evil and the Mask, my only sticking point is that the novel feels slightly passive when you compare it to The Thief. There is a lot of reflection but not much action – it’s as though Fumihiro is the perpetual outsider, looking into what his life should have been like. It’s a wonderful novel on regret and what-ifs but it may fall a little short if you are looking for something more exciting.

I would like to thank Soho Press for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Strange Weather in Tokyo

I’m torn in my feelings for Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally titled Sensei no Kaban which translates to My Teacher’s Bag/Briefcase (The Briefcase in the US), Kawakami’s tale is of 38 year old Tsukiko who leads a rather solitary life in Tokyo, living alone, working in a nameless, nondescript job, whose one pleasure is to unwind after another day at work with a cup of sake and something seasonal to eat at a local izakaya. It’s probably an existence that is familiar to a large portion of the single working population in Japan and elsewhere. It’s boring and familiar and comforting but you feel your life slowly ebbing away, lost forever. It is at one of these drinking joints that she meets one of her high school teachers whose name she can never remember. And so begins an unlikely friendship with Sensei (Teacher), meeting once in a while to have a drink and a bite to eat. It’s never planned and they pay separately. But slowly, a chance meeting with an old schoolmate at the annual teachers’ ohanami (cherry blossom viewing picnic) forces Tsukiko to confront her feelings and she begins to realise the growing importance of Sensei in her life.

I loved the slow and leisurely way in which Kawakami peels back the evolving friendship between Tsukiko and Sensei. Their formal manner towards each other even though they often get very drunk together. The slow revelation of each other’s histories. The still moment when you just want to sit next to someone. And yet, there is always this nagging sensation of discomfort that wouldn’t vanish. Although I understood and sympathised with their friendship, I found it difficult to accept anything more. Is it their 30 year age gap? Did I put myself in Tsukiko’s shoes and wonder whether I could fall for a man so much older than myself? I don’t know. Although a common theme in Japanese literature and popular culture during the mid-Showa era, I couldn’t love this book completely because of this central issue which is so relevant to the book and which, I think, mirrored Tsukiko’s misgivings at the beginning. But the two seem so in tune with one another, as though there isn’t another person in the world who gets them, who understands their silences, their reticence, their solitude, that in some ways it seems inevitable.

It’s a deceptively quiet book with some wild emotions churning just below the surface. I was taken with Kawakami’s description of the nondescript existence of so many single people in Tokyo. It resonates, on the one hand, with the yearning for a simple life but also for something more to fill the gap. Although I found it troubling, there is something about Strange Weather in Tokyo that stubbornly remains in my thoughts long after I finished the last page.

I would like to thank Portobello Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami fans all over the world are waiting with bated breath for the translation of his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage which should hopefully be published sometime next year. I still have 1Q84 to get through so I’m happy to wait although I was tempted to try and read it in Japanese. But many of my Japanese friends have and so I present to you my lovely friend and fellow reader Eriko who will give you a glimpse of what Murakami has in store for us.

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色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Since the new book by Haruki Murakami came out, I’ve been on trains and passed by bookstores bursting with ads for this book. This has made me feel a bit uneasy, as reading a book, especially Murakami’s, is a very personal experience for me and often I forget that it is written by a famous author and not just for me.

36 year old Tsukuru Tazaki works as a railway station planner in Shinjuku,Tokyo. He has always felt that there might be something abnormal about himself hidden beneath his very ordinary, dull persona – a feeling that he is different from others.

His new girlfriend, Sara, is a few years older than him and a smart professional working for a travel agency. They have just started seeing each other and Tsukuru is obviously very attracted to her although things are still quite polite between them – his attraction is still on a level of dreamy yearning from a slight distance, being unsure whether she will really become his.

One night, Tsukuru ends up talking about an incident that occurred 16 years ago which changed his life. While at university in Tokyo, he was suddenly expelled from his group of high school friends back in his hometown of Nagoya for no obvious reason. Until that point, their group of two girls and three guys including Tsukuru had maintained a spotless harmony and exclusive closeness which Sara now sees as unnatural and constructed. Because he was tormented, Tsukuru never tried to find out why this happened and just let it sink.

Sara gently suggests that Tsukuru should face his past split with his high school friends and find out the reason behind it. She says that there is a certain aloofness about him that prevents her from developing a serious relationship with him. Thinking upon it, Tusukuru begins to understand that he may have commitment issues stemming from his past.

With Sara’s help, Tsukuru reconnects one by one with his old friends, Mr. Blue, Mr. Red, Ms. White and Ms. Black, to find out the truth and finally finds redemption by sharing their emotional wounds from their past.

In this novel, you find lots of real people with ordinary jobs and lives in which things are seemingly pretty sane. They all seem to be out in the world and properly connected with society, compared to say the protagonist in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle who has just quit his job at a law firm and stays at home alone when he starts to receive weird phone calls from a strange woman, or the 15-year-old runaway boy in Kafka on the Shore who travels to Shikoku and settles in a local library as a total stranger. Yet with Tsukuru, we are led through metaphysical and symbolic dreams or perhaps dream-like reality, catching glimpses of people’s inner longings and agony urged by very strong sensations of both life and death.

This time, it is Liszt’s melody Le Mal du Pays that is played and mentioned repeatedly in the story and outlines the vague melancholy Tsukuru carries within himself.

Like the other novels by Murakami, I find it difficult to summarize what went through me while reading this story as every line contains details that grasp your imagination or trigger an inner dialogue between you and the narrative.

Overall, it was an easy read, concentrating on human emotions such as friendship and love, with a twist of mystery. The story left me with a rather warm feeling as well as hope, not yet promised, for a happier future for Tsukuru as he seems to find himself a renewed person after the pilgrimage.

In a closed memorial lecture and interview for late psychologist, Hayao Kawai, held at Kyoto University in May, Murakami reportedly referred to his work as follows:

Stories lie at the very bottom of human souls. Because they are at the deepest spot of people’s heart, they can connect people at their roots. The role of a novelist is to provide a model for the stories people have. If the readers sympathize with the novel and react to it, something like a network of souls will be constructed. This is what I feel like doing – constructing a network of souls via my novels.

I am certain that Murakami was successful in touching my mind and heart at a deep level with his new novel again this time and made me react to it in many parts. Probably even more so because it had to do more purely with human relationships as well as life and death. Particles of Tsukuru’s story still remain quietly resonant within me.

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Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Murakami’s new novel, Eriko.

Eriko is of mixed Japanese and German origin and lives in Tokyo.

Intrigued by the thought-provoking title of Murakami’s new work, she got a copy as soon as it was published. She also reread her favorite dialogue between Murakami and the late Jungian psychologist, Hayao Kawai, Haruki Murakami goes and meets Hayao Kawai, which helps her gain new perspectives in experiencing Murakami’s work. Murakami says that Kawai was the only person who truly understood what he was trying to do in his work.

Murakami Kawai

Jap Lit 7

has started already. Go and check out Bellezza‘s wonderful review site with lots of reading suggestions.

This year I’m going to keep it simple. I’m aiming to finish Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 which I rushed out to buy when it first came out in hardback way back in 2010 and from which I quickly got distracted when carrying the behemoth tome around on my commute got painful. Should have really waited until the paperbacks were out but hey, you know me, no self control when it comes to new books.

I also purchased a copy of Jacob Ritari’s Taroko Gorge when I visited New York’s Strand Bookstore in spring and although Ritari is American, it’s all about Japanese high school kids on a school trip to Taiwan. Bellezza’s reading it too so I’m going to jump on the wagon.

I’m also tempted to try Ryu Murakami’s From the Fatherland, With Love about Japan in a dystopian present under attack from North Korea. Sounds fascinating, no?

And I might throw in another Shusaku Endo, possibly Scandal, a Yasunari Kawabata and a Yukio Mishima if I can stay focused. Fingers crossed, eh?

What about you? Will you be joining us during the next 6 months in reading some Japanese literature books?

Revenge

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is a collection of interconnected short stories that are about modern Japan but heavily dosed with the twisted and macabre. I have only read one of her previous books, the wonderful The Housekeeper and the Professor which was a rather lovely and warm depiction of family in a slowly fracturing world, but I was aware that her other books were of a much darker and disturbing quality and was reluctant to read them. But I was drawn by the wonderful reception of her new book and the beautiful cover.

Subtitled Eleven Dark Tales, the collection starts with a grieving mother who waits at a bakery to buy a strawberry short cake for her son’s birthday every year even though she lost him six years ago. As she waits for the shop assistant, she is drawn to what looks like the distraught pâtisserie chef speaking on the phone in the kitchen beyond. Not much happens but Ogawa sets the tone of her collection, one that combines an unsettling chill together with a sense of incompleteness. You wonder where she is taking you.

Although not as disturbing as I expected, I did find a number of stories got under my skin and left me feeling uneasy, especially Old Mrs. J (strange), Sewing for the Heart (grotesque) and Tomatoes and the Full Moon (spooky). My favourites were Welcome to the Museum of Torture and the two stories that followed closely which were more poignant and with a hint of fairytale and involves a Museum of Torture, a Bengal Tiger and a man with an interesting past which includes a dose of hoarding (the modern scourge). An intriguing combination.

Initially, I was a little disappointed at the brevity of the stories: the characterisation seemed brash and stifled, the emotions were dealt with in an offhand way. I was unsure about this collection and how it was going to proceed. But slowly, Ogawa begins to tie little sections together, mentioning a character here or an event from a previous story there until it comes full circle. She does this so seamlessly that it takes you a while to realise where you had encountered this snippet of information without taking you away from the story you are currently reading. And when the connections start making sense, you find yourself immersing into this dark, macabre ordinariness in which she so excels. Pretty impressive stuff.

I do recommend that you follow the order of the stories set in the contents as they follow a very loose but definite order and will ultimately make more sense towards the end. You’ll finish with a sense of wonder and a need to re-read the collection.

I would like to thank Harvill Secker for kindly sending me a copy of Revenge to review.