So, the mega best-selling 1Q84 is being published as I write this and what better way to celebrate all things Murakami than by going back to read his first novel. More a novella at only 128 pages in the small Japanese paperback published by Kodansha International, Hear the Wind Sing is an easy reading book and holds many of the themes which Murakami returns time and again in his more famous novels, in particular Norwegian Wood.

The un-named narrator is on a Summer break from university and has returned to his home town from Tokyo where he hangs out in J’s Bar and befriends another student called Rat. The novel is essentially a slow summer’s tale, something which reminded me of my own summer holidays as a student where time slows down and it’s hot and lazy and Murakami captures this period that is lost once you become a working adult. We find out about what the narrator likes to read, how he is coming to grips with the world he lives in, his past three loves whose memories are slowing evaporating and his friendships with Rat, who is at a cross-roads in his life and waxes lyrical while drinking at J’s Bar, and a four-fingered girl who works at a record shop and who is recovering from some kind of trauma.

Many have said this isn’t Murakami’s best (it is his debut, after all) and that Murakami is reluctant to have it published outside Japan (the Kodansha International edition is primarily for Japanese students learning English), yet I liked this book. There is something about an author’s hype where you feel that you ought to like their writing even though you don’t. I get a fleeting sense of trepidation every time I start a book by Murakami, but I am always overwhelmed by a feeling of familiarity and how much I am enjoying the experience of reading the book as I turn the pages.

It’s a skeletal version of the themes important to Murakami, as though he is putting out feelers, not yet ready to fully discuss what it is to be alive and to belong. The themes of alienation, dissociation, making your own way into the world and leaving your home behind are all there. But it’s not as harsh and stark as in his later books. There aren’t any fantastical elements here, but I’m a fan of his more realistic novels and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Pinball 1973.

Alfred Birnbaum’s translation was easy to read and pretty good and there was nothing that particularly jarred.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5 and the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011.

Along with Miyuki Miyabe and Natsuo Kirino, Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s foremost writers of mysteries and I’ve been meaning to try some of his books which he publishes at a prolific rate. Of course, that would mean slogging through the Japanese which, let me tell you, is no mean feat for someone whose knowledge of kanji is akin to a primary school student. I really need to study more. So when I spotted Teresa’s review of The Devotion of Suspect X, I knew I had to get my hands on this one. I’m a huge fan of Galileo, the Japanese tv series based on Higashino’s short stories featuring the genius physicist Manabu Yukawa (called Detective Galileo by his police friend) so was thrilled to see he featured in this new English tranlsation. It was only after the first few pages that I realised I had actually seen the film version of The Devotion of Suspect X a few years ago on a flight to Japan. But the thing about Higashino’s stories is that his plots are pretty intricate, following the rules of logic and science, that I knew I’d probably forgotten howdunnit.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, we meet Yasuko Hanaoka who lives with her daughter, Misato, in a small flat and works at a local bento shop providing takeaway lunches for hungry workers. When her ex-husband, Togashi, comes looking for her and causing trouble, she finds herself in a nightmare situation with a now dead ex-husband and her quiet and unremarkable life with her daughter in ruins. When her solitary neighbour, Ishigami, offers to help her dispose of the body, she is unable to refuse. For Ishigami isn’t just a high school, he’s also a mathematical genius.

This isn’t a mystery in the conventional sense where we happen upon a dead body and the detectives look for clues to unravel the killer. We already know who died and who killed him and who disposed of the body. What I found interesting was the way Higashino goes through the detectives search while simultaneously showing us how Yasuko and Ishigami deal with staying a step ahead. The only unknown quantity is Manabu Yukawa, assistant prof at Tokyo’s Imperial University and Ishigami’s classmate from 20 years ago who happens to be a friend of the investigating detective, Kusanagi. Yukawa himself is a slightly eccentric experimental physicist who is happy to have found his friend again with whom he can talk shop. But this is where things go wrong for Ishigami as Yukawa is also a scientific genius who can see things in ways that an ordinary person perhaps can’t.

Apart from Ishigami’s modus operandi and his strategies to solving the problem of Yasuko’s predicament, perhaps the thing I found most interesting about the novel were the characters. On one hand you have the usual suspects: Yasuko, a strong yet fragile woman who has managed to claw her way out of working in a hostess bar and an abusive husband to live a quiet life with her daughter; Ishigami, a loner who is secretly in love with his beautiful neighbour; Kusanagi, the usual detective. But then there is Yukawa who, although I admit, is also stereotyped as a physicist with free will, provides the human face to the eternal dilemmas faced by people and the consequences of their actions. Crime novels are often described as the perfect vehicle to examine the human condition and it’s all there in Higashino’s novel. Although set in contemporary Tokyo, there is a distinct old world feel to Higashino’s novel, reminiscent of the mysteries of Akimitsu Takagi such as The Tattoo Murder Mystery (which I recommend strongly!) with the detective and professor sleuthing combo, something which I find comforting yet still riveting. Now I’m itching to read his short story collections for more intricate problem solving.

The translation by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander didn’t cause me any issues once I got passed the use of math instead of maths. Teresa pointed out the stilted nature of the dialogue and I’m not sure whether that’s the way Higashino writes or because of the translation. In some ways I’ve come to expect translations of Japanese fiction to sound a certain way.

I admit I have a weakness for a bit of maths and physics in my fiction (as separate from sf, which I also like), and if it’s in a mystery, even better. I also misleadingly thought that Yukawa was somehow related to Hideki Yukawa, Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in Physics. I know, I like to see connections where none exist.

On an aside, the tv series Galileo introduced a female detective to go sleuthing with the dashing Yukawa instead of his friend Detective Kusanagi, although he does make cameo appearances. Hmm. At least it works.

I’d like to thank the lovely people at Little, Brown who kindly sent me a copy of to review. The Devotion of Suspect X will be published in August 2011 so put it in your diaries!

I read this as part of In Spring It Is The Dawn’s Hello Japan! May mini-challenge: Mystery and Mayhem. I know I’m a little late but I just wanted to share!

And it’s also my first offering for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5!

This is what I’ve been waiting for! Dolce Bellezza is once again hosting the tremendously popular Japanese Literature Challenge 5. It runs from 1st June 2011 until 31st January 2012 and all you need to do is read at least one book of Japanese literature. Easy, right? And so much fun. I will, of course, be attempting to read more. Plus there is the added excitement of a new novel by Banana Yoshimoto, The Lake, which is out soon and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 out in October. SO EXCITING.

I’ve got the following already lined up:

Scandal by Shusaku Endo
Silence by Shusaku Endo
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
A Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

Let’s see how many I can get through this year. And you never know what other titles I may dig up.

So, will you join us?

I was so looking forward to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4 last year and had stashed away some books just for it so when it started, I think I got a little over-excited and couldn’t read as many books as I had planned. So let’s see what I did actually read:

The Samurai by Shusaku Endo
The Volcano by Shusaku Endo
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Not too bad, especially since I loved 3 and although confused by Ishiguro’s novel felt it was still brilliant. I must say that Shusaku Endo is fast becoming a favourite of mine and I’ll definitely be reading more of his work, especially Silence which seems to have garnered some avid fans amongst book bloggers.

And I’ve only just realised that I’ve been harping on about the Japanese Literary Challenge instead of the Japanese Literature Challenge. Oops. Blame it on my overenthusiasm! Sorry Bellezza. Needless to say I’ll be waiting for the JLC5 with bated breath.

Have you read any exciting Japanese books lately and will you be joining the challenge again later this year?

I don’t know how I came across Marie Mutsuki Mockett. It may have been while I was surfing the web for something half-Japanese. I read her creative non-fiction essay and liked what she wrote. And of course I was interested in her story. I think I’m perpetually searching for experiences that may be akin to mine. But what I’m always reminded about is that although there are always certain experiences us mixed folk share, there are also huge historical, cultural and familial differences that are naturally inherent in all families. So it makes for interesting reading.

Picking Bones From Ash is Mockett’s first novel and it is an impressive one. I keep going on about how impressive the prose is for a first time novelist but if you’ve read as many books as I have (and I’m sure a fair number of you have and probably more!) you get this certain tingling feeling when you come across writing that is almost perfect. And Mockett’s style certainly is. It surprised me that this was her first book. I didn’t really know what to expect, maybe something similar to Ishiguro’s early novels. I really wanted to fit in one last novel for the Japanese Literary Challenge 4 and I’m really glad I got to finish this because it’s a beautiful book and I want to share it with you all.

Picking Bones From Ash is about Satomi and her daughter Rumi and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Mockett writes about Satomi and her mother Akiko in the 1960s as Japan is adjusting to post-war changes. Akiko, beautiful, husbandless and with a daughter to support, runs a small bar that serves food that caters mainly for the men in a small town. She is determined that her daughter will nurture her musical talent and makes sure that she competes and wins piano contests. Satomi duly enters Tokyo’s most prestigious music college all the while battling with her mother who somehow manages to manipulate events to fit her dreams. Mockett deftly shows the complex and difficult relationship between a strong mother determined that her daughter be successful and a talented daughter who craves acknowledgement and love. Things aren’t smooth, however, as Akiko re-marries to secure their future and Satomi must adjust to life with her two step-sisters. Another complication arises when Satomi falls in love with Masayoshi, once again complicating her mother’s plans. And when she goes abroad to Paris to study, her life changes completely when she meets Timothy Snowden. Then Mockett surprises us by cutting to Satomi’s daughter Rumi, living and running an antiques business in the States with her father, François. As Snowden once again intrudes into their lives, Rumi goes to Japan to meet Masayoshi, who is now the head of a Buddhist Temple, and find out what happened to her mother, Satomi.

I really liked the way Mockett stops and starts the story, chopping up Satomi and Rumi’s history so that you are never quite sure how the tale will evolve. There were many surprising revelations and I especially loved the bit about what happens to Satomi. The characters are all certainly unconventional and although I didn’t like the male characters much (I felt both Snowden and François to be rather unreliable and creepy), they contrasted well with the strong female characters.

Although Mockett is half-Japanese, you can see that she writes not as a Japanese (or how Ishiguro attempted to write A Pale View of Hills) yet her sensibility is that of a Japanese, especially her attention to detail and her gentle approach to explaining Japanese mythology and culture. For a debut novelist, who often tries to cram everything into their first novel, this is a restrained, yet fully-fledged and complete novel. Mockett’s prose is self-assured and it’s hard to believe that this is her first real attempt.

I didn’t want to rush this novel. The pacing was just right, and when I cam to the end, I felt a clutch of regret that my journey was over. I liked the way Mockett arranged the novel, the way I couldn’t see how the story was going to unfurl. It’s an atypical novel by a writer trying to find her roots (and you know how much I loved reading diasporic and mixed authors’ work).

And Mockett’s way with words is simply beautiful – her descriptions are so visual and lovely. Here are two examples:

Outside, the cherry blossoms dissolved like sugar in the heavy rain of spring.

Picture two equally matched sumo wrestlers leaning against each other in a ring deep below the earth’s surface, and you have an idea of the forces that have shaped Japan.

And I love the way she described the manga character Rose as ‘drawn with a characteristic halo of long blond hair and large, big, star-spangled eyes’. So apt.

So I strongly urge you to give Mockett’s Picking Bones From Ash a try while I eagerly await her next novel.

You all know how much I love Kazuo Ishiguro, right? Especially The Remains of the Day which is a sublime novel of repressed emotions and mistaken notions of duty. So I was really looking forward to reading A Pale View of Hills for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4. It’s a well written story which addresses some interesting themes, but can someone tell me what it’s all about??? Because I finished it completely confused with a big question mark hanging over my head.

The cover says it’s ‘a story of betrayal and survival amidst the wasteland of Nagasaki‘. There is a supernatural and almost gothic flavour to Ishiguro’s tale, yet I finished the book with a feeling of ambiguity, almost like when I finished Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. If you’ve read it, you’ll probably understand what I mean. I’m not really sure what happened there.

The story is essentially that of Etsuko, a Japanese widow living in the UK who has just lost her eldest daughter Keiko to suicide. Niki, Keiko’s half-British sister, is visiting from London. As the two bicker and pass the days together, avoiding Keiko’s old room, Etsuko is reminded of post-war Nagasaki when, pregnant with Keiko, she befriends the enigmatic Sachiko and her daughter Mariko who lived in a cottage across from her new flat.

The tale is a collage of Etsuko’s life in Britain after her daughter’s suicide, her earlier home life in Japan, with her first husband Jiro and her father-in-law who is visiting, and her strange, fragile friendship with Sachiko. Ishiguro brilliantly conveys the tension and the strict patriarchal family life where the husband is the king of his domain. And Sachiko is sufficiently selfish with an agenda of her own to better her life abroad. And you feel sorry for Mariko, unsure about Sachiko’s love for her, and traumatised by the war. I liked Ishiguro’s treatment of contemporary British life shown through Niki, yet there seems to be a real absence of companionship and familial love in this novel.

In some ways I was reminded of the translations of Tanizaki and Endo which I have been reading the last few years. It’s as if Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki but brought up in the UK since he was a child and writes in English, is trying to write a novel as though it is written by a Japanese writer and translated into English. It has that same sparseness and abruptness that we have all become familiar with. It’s very different from the rich and beautiful prose of The Remains of the Day and I was rather surprised by it. In some ways Ishiguro has created THE Japanese novel but the sharp contrast of the chapters based on Etsuko’s later life in England (which I rather liked) plus the gothic/supernatural element in the story lifts it from what is expected.

The ending which meshed Etsuko’s earlier memories with her present circumstances reveals the unreliability of the main character. Who is the story really about? Did Sachiko really exist? I’m no longer sure. Ishiguro leaves a lot to your imagination (for instance we never find out how Etsuko came to leave Japan) and makes you want to re-read the book again just to check whether you have missed anything. Come to think of it, it’s quite a spectacular book, if not something I expected.

I’m currently half way through Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash which I’m finding enchanting and quite different to what I expected as well. Can you see I’m trying to squeeze in one final book for this challenge which ends on January 31st?

The Volcano by Shusaku Endo

12 November, 2010

What a mount of heartache it is. A volcano resembles human life. in youth it gives reign to the passions, and burns with fire. it spurts out lava. but when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turns as quiet as a grave.

So intones Professor Koriyama to Jinpei Suda, Section Chief of the the Weather Bureau, in Shusaku Endo’s novella, The Volcano. Like The Samurai, The Volcano is a meditation on man’s humanity, faith and the ties that bind him to others.

It’s Jinpei Suda’s retirement day from his job at the Weather Bureau. As he is forced to confront that the most important part of his life is over, he is also trying to realise his dream of publishing his research on Mount Akadaké, the volcano which has been at the centre of his working life and the city of Shirahama in which he lives. Known by his colleagues as the Demon of Akadaké because of his love of climbing the dormant volcano, Suda is reluctant to give up his ties with the volcano. In order to finance his publication, he finds himself providing professional assurance to City Councilman Aiba, a business man intent on building a hotel on Mount Akadaké to generate tourism and profit. As it tallies with his belief that Mount Akadaké is no longer active, this seems a perfect deal for Suda. However, at a meeting with the businessman, Suda suddenly has a stroke and is hospitalised. As his physical health crumbles, he slowly sees the cracks in his family life, his career and finally the realisation that his many years of volcanic research may not be entirely correct.

Running parallel to Suda’s story is that of Father Sato who runs the Catholic church in Shirahama and his errant predecessor, Durand, who was excommuniated 8 years earlier for being involved in a scandal. Father Sato is busy with his pastoral care and his pet project in building a retreat on Mount Akadaké. Durand, whose health is broken, is living pitifully at the hospital in the room next to Suda. Out of duty, Father Sato visits him two or three times a year, always leaving behind some money or food, but his distaste is obvious and Durand is no fool. As tremors are felt from Mount Akadaké, Durand feels that what has been brewing in the Church’s quest to evangelise a nation that thinks completely differently from Europeans with regard to the notion of sin will erupt just as sin cannot be erased from humanity.

Here, Endo is masterful in showing the disintegration of belief and the petty pride and fight for control that plague the Church in Japan. I don’t think it denigrates the Church in any way (as Endo himself was a practicing Catholic) but it shows the Church and its priests in a more human way. Belief comes with doubt and Endo deals with and questions it in a deep and probing manner. Endo also questions the notion of sin and how it is perceived by the Japanese whose idea of it differs greatly from Europeans. But it is not just the Christians who face difficulty when it comes to assessing their lives. What permeates Endo’s novel is the notion that human life is never what it seems and that what we perceive is our due may not be what we get.

As you can probably tell, I loved The Volcano. The translation by R.A. Schuchert was smooth, although there were some words that seemed old-fashioned and could have just been left in Japanese, but these are minor quibbles in what was a wonderful translation. There is a depth to Endo’s writing which didn’t come across as too serious or boring and I will definitely be reading more of his novels. Endo is fast becoming one of my favourite Japanese authors.

I read this for Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literary Challenge 4.