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‘When I Was A Wolf’ by Terayama Shūji ****

As winter is settling down for good and Christmas is fast approaching, what better way to spend those chilly days than cosy up with a hot beverage and a good book of fairy tale-inspired stories. 61II3YJTd9L

My fascination with fairy tales and folk stories is nothing new, so as soon as I found out about When I Was A Wolf, a book of classic Western fairy tale retellings by Terayama Shūji, a Japanese author, I was incredibly excited to get my hands on it. Fairy tale retellings have been quite popular for a long time now, but since they are usually retold by a Western perspective, I thought it would be very intriguing to gain some insight on what a Japanese author would make of those Western tales most of us grew up with and are so fond of.

Terayama Shūji doesn’t merely retell the classic fairy tales that have been chosen for this collection, but instead he twists and turns them into an entirely different entity. Attempting to give them an adult twist, much like Angela Carter had also done, Terayama creates stories that are definitely not suitable for children, mostly due to the numerous sexual references and inuendos. One such example is Pinocchio’s nose, which is being turned into a phallus that grows more and more whenever he tells a lie. This collection is excellently translated by Elizabeth L. Armstrong, who also wrote a very useful and highly informative preface to the book, giving some much needed insight into the author’s style and literary achievements.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first one contains some essays and thought pieces where Terayama explains his interpretation of fairy tales like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Pinocchio’, as well as of literary masterpieces like Ibsen’s ‘Doll House’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Don Quixote’ and so on. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed his literary voice and the way he expressed his opinion, even if it was one that I wouldn’t always agree with. Terayama is a very talented critic and most of his opinions on the literary pieces he commented on were spot on and gave me a lot to ponder. What shines through the entire book, though, is undoubtedly his wit and sense of humour. Every sentence, every remark he makes is witty and purposeful and I believe this is what made me truly enjoy this book in the end.

The second part contains the actual retellings of fairy tales by Andersen, Aesop’s Fables and Perrault’s Mother Goose, which Terayama turns into adult-themed stories. Although it was this part of the book I was most looking forward to reading, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed in the result. Yes, the author’s wit and caustic humour encompass his writing and that makes it enjoyable, but I was probably expecting something different. In most cases, instead of a full-fledged story, we get a conglomeration of opinion pieces, “readers’ letters” and a partial rewriting of the fairy tale in question. I soon came to realise, though, that this is just Terayama’s writing style and my disappointment is mostly due to my creating unrealistic expectations, as I was expecting a rather conventionally retold story, if I can call it that.

Elizabeth L. Armstrong, the translator, perfectly describes the experience of reading Terayama’s essays and stories in her preface: “His work is often like a piece of performance art you simply cannot tear your eyes away from, so you bear witness to it, awash with feelings of revulsion, morbid attraction, revelation and compassion” (p. vii). This first encounter with Terayama’s work might not have been what I expected, but it definitely piqued my interest and made me want to seek more of his work, especially since he’s an author I had never heard of before.

Have you read this book? Do you enjoy fairy tale retellings and if yes, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Duke in His Domain’ by Truman Capote ****

The thirty-fifth book in the Penguins Modern series is Truman Capote’s The Duke in His Domain, a piece of journalism which covers an extended meeting with Marlon Brando in Japan.  This ‘peerless piece of journalism’ presents, promises its blurb, a ‘mesmerising profile of an insecure, vulnerable young Marlon Brando, brooding in a Kyoto hotel during a break from filming’. 9780241339145 The interview was conducted in 1956, when Brando was filming ‘Sayonara’, and the extended article was published in The New Yorker the following year.

Amongst Capote’s many gifts is the ease with which he wonderfully depicts settings, such as one of the more traditionally Japanese decorated rooms of a Westernised hotel which Brando is staying in: ‘His quarters consisted of two rooms, a bath and a glassed-in sun porch.  Without the overlying and underlying clutter of Brando’s personal belongings, the rooms would have been textbook illustrations of the Japanese penchant for ostentatious barrenness…  In these rooms, the divergent concepts of Japanese and Western decoration – the one seeking to impress by a lack of display, an absence of possession-exhibiting, the other intent on precisely the reverse – could both be observed, for Brando seemed unwilling to make use of the apartment’s storage space, concealed behind sliding paper doors.’  The way in which Capote writes about Kyoto too, is stunning: ‘Below the windows, the hotel garden, with its ultra-simple and soigné arrangements of rock and tree, floated in the mists that crawl off Kyoto’s waterways – for it is a watery city, crisscrossed with shallow rivers and cascading canals, dotted with pools as still as coiled snakes and mirthful little waterfalls that sound like Japanese girls fighting.’

Capote also had a marvellous ability to capture so much in just a single sentence, as he does here: ‘My guide tapped at Brando’s door, shrieked “Marron!” and fled away along the corridor, her kimono sleeves fluttering like the wings of a parakeet.’  His descriptions of his guide, as well as the woman who looks after Brando, are rather enchanting; he describes them variously as ‘doll-delicate’, with ‘tiny, pigeon-toed skating steps’ in their kimonos, and having a ‘plump peony-and-pansy kimonoed figure.’

Brando’s elusive qualities are discussed in swathes in The Duke in His Domain.  Whilst defined as a ‘slouchingly dignified, amiable-seeming young man who was always ready to cooperate with, and even encourage, his co-workers’, he would rarely accept invitations to spend time with anyone, ‘preferring, during the tedious lulls between scenes, to sit alone reading philosophy or scribbling in a schoolboy notebook.’  Capote captures Brando and his curiosities in such a playful, precise manner: ‘Resuming his position on the floor, he lolled his head against a pillow, dropped his eyelids, then shut them.  It was as though he’d dozed off into a disturbing dream; his eyelids twitched, and when he spoke, his voice – an unemotional voice, in a way cultivated and genteel, yet surprisingly adolescent, a voice with a probing, asking, boyish quality – seemed to come from sleepy distance.’  He also gives a real insight into Brando’s thought processes, and the manner in which he conducts himself: ‘The voice went on, as though speaking to hear itself, an effect Brando’s speech often has, for like many persons who are intensely self-absorbed, he is something of a monologuist – a fact that he recognizes and for which he offers his own explanation.  “People around me never say anything,” he says.  “They just seem to want to hear what I have to say.  That’s why I do all the talking.”‘

I knew very little about Brando before reading The Duke in His Domain, and was looking forward to learning about him.  Capote is one of my absolute favourite authors, and his journalism is the only part of the work which I’ve not yet got to from his oeuvre.  As well as outlining his observance of Brando, and the in-depth conversations which they have, Capote has also included testimony from several of Brando’s friends here, which helps to build a full picture, and explores the effects which others have had on him.  The Duke in His Domain is a great piece of extended journalism, and one which I would highly recommend.

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Penguin Moderns: Hans Fallada and Saul Bellow

9780241339244Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada *** (#34)
I have really enjoyed what I have read of Fallada’s work thus far, and was therefore looking forward to Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?, a short story collection included in the Penguin Moderns series.  These are ‘darkly funny, streetwise tales of low-lifes, grifters and ordinary people trying to make ends meet in pre-war Germany.’  All of the stories collected here – ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’, ‘War Monument or Urinal?’, and ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ – have been taken from Tales of the Underworld, which first appeared in English in 2014.  All have been translated by Michael Hofmann.

I found Fallada’s prose style interesting; he uses a rather conversational narrative voice, which I did not feel always worked.  I must admit that I found this collection a little disappointing.  The title story is a little odd, and seemed to end quite abruptly.  Given the beauty of Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone, I was expecting something rather different from these short stories.  Whilst they have a considerable amount to say, there is little cohesion between them.  The second story is clever, and makes many comments about German politics, and I did enjoy the third, about a couple who are adamant to have the happiest Christmas they can, despite the husband not expecting payment of his yearly bonus.  Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? isn’t a bad collection by any means, but if I had come to Fallada’s work with no preconceptions and read this, I can’t say I’d rush to get to the rest of his oeuvre.

 

Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow *** (#36) 9780241338995
The thirty-sixth book on the Penguin Moderns list is a short story entitled ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ by Saul Bellow, which was first published in 1956.  In it, ‘a stubborn, hard-drinking elderly woman living in a desert town finds herself faced with an impossible choice, in this caustically funny, precisely observed tale from an American prose master.’  I do not recall reading anything of Bellow’s before, and as I am always keen to discover new to me short story authors, I was looking forward to reading this.

The opening of the story really sets the scene, and the period in which the story is set: ‘The neighbors – there were in all six white people who lived at Sego Desert Lake – told one another that old Hattie could no longer make it alone.  The desert life, even with a forced-air furnace in the house and butane gas brought from town in a truck, was still too difficult for her.’  Hattie has settled here after being left a yellow house by her friend India, described throughout as a real ‘lady’.  I did enjoy Bellow’s portrayal of Hattie, and found this one of the strengths of the novel.  He describes her, for instance, in the following way: ‘You couldn’t help being fond of Hattie.  She was big and cheerful, puffy, comic, boastful, with a big round back and stiff, rather long legs.’

After having ‘a few Martinis’ one evening, Hattie loses control of her car, and it veers onto the railway tracks.  ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ is ultimately a character study of Hattie, which charts her gradual decline.  She begins to plan for her death, and debates who to leave the yellow house to in her will.  The premise of the story is interesting, and it is well executed.  Whilst it kept my interest throughout, I was not quite blown away by it, however.  This taster of Bellow’s work has unfortunately not made me want to pick up any of his other books in the next few months, as I had hoped it would.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’  It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH.  It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.  It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’.  The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’.  Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.  The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.  The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.  It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’.  A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair…  All we could see of his face were his eyes…  They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.  Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’.  This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’.  This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back’.  The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.  They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured.  Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.  It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.  In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.  A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.  Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.