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‘Somehow, Crystal’ by Tanaka Yasuo

Thanks to wonderful events such as the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 organised by Meredith at Dolce Belezza, as well as #JanuaryinJapan originated by Tony at Tony’s Reading List, January is almost synonymous with Japanese literary escapades and, of course, I couldn’t be happier.

Although not the first book I read, I wanted to kickstart my reviews for those events with the much controversial Somehow, Crystal, written by Tanaka Yasuo and translated by Christopher Smith, a novel that some consider as a modern classic, while others dispute even its categorisation as a novel.

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English translation of the novel, published in 2019 by Kurodahan Press.

Somehow, Crystal was originally published in Japanese in 1980, winning the Bungei Prize that same year. However, due to the novel’s rather peculiar structure and the way its story and content differed from most typical novels of the time, many were baffled by this outcome. Alongside the main narrative, the author has inserted a large amount of notes (exactly 442, which, for a 127-page novel is quite an excessive number), which give the text a rather characteristic feel. In the English version, the story can be found on the left page, while the right page contains all the notes.

The story of Somehow, Crystal is quite simple at first glance, as it follows a young university student who also works as a model and cohabitates with her older musician boyfriend. Obsessed with (foreign) brands, listening to (foreign) songs and living a life seemingly without caring too much about the how’s and the why’s appears to be what the ‘crystal’ lifestyle the characters of this book, as well as the young people at the time, seem to have adopted. The novel is full of descriptions of places and specific shops, an exorbitant amount of songs and singers/bands, and of course branded goods, so much so that the reader momentarily gets lost amid all this flood of names and information.

And although this was one of the arguments the critics of this novel held against it, I believe the author simply meant to provide a chaotic portrayal of the inner and outer turmoil the Japanese society of the ’80s was facing. Young people who care only about superficial things and don’t seem to have any goals or pursuits in their lives might be perceived by the older generations as lazy or indifferent, but isn’t that a form of rebellion in itself? A way to show their displeasure with how things currently are and a way for them to discover what resonates with their generation instead of blindly following what the previous generations did?

The brands and the music aren’t the only foreign products that have taken over young people’s lives, as a lot of the words they use in their everyday speech also come from English or other European languages. Of course, the impact of this is much greater in the original Japanese text, which shows a language so distorted that the only way for someone to understand it is by reading the supplementary notes.

Apart from a critique on society and its norms, Tanaka also criticises literature itself and its conventions that have come to define it so far. He achieves this through the peculiar structure of his novel which is inundated by notes that either explain a certain word or expression used in the text, or simply provide an extra comment or insight, often quite cynical and poignant. As Takahashi Gen’ichiro points out in the Introduction, those notes are equally important as the story and they can even be read as a parallel story in themselves.

Somehow, Crystal is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not a book that is read for its gripping story or its poetic use of language. Rather, it’s a book that helps readers understand that society, literature and the world around us isn’t as much of a set piece as we might think, and that’s perfectly fine.

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

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‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco ****

I purchased The Name of the Rose, my first taste of Umberto Eco’s work, quite some time before I read it.  Whilst the plot appealed to me, and I had heard nothing but good things about the novel, I kept putting it off in favour of shorter books which would be easier to finish.  However, I picked it up over a relatively free weekend, where I was able to dedicate some time to it.

First published in Italian in 1980, The Name of the Rose is set in the Middle Ages – in 1327, to be precise.  The Vintage edition which I read was translated by William Weaver.  Of the novel, the Financial Times comments: ‘The late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas that will hurl it into one more recognisably like ours… evoked with a force and wit that are breathtaking.’
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At the beginning of the novel, Franciscan monk Brother William of Baskerville ‘arrives at a wealthy Italian abbey on theological business.’  His ‘delicate mission’, which we are not at first party to, becomes ‘overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths’.  Brother William chooses to turn detective, exploring the ‘eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of the night.’  Lucky for Brother William, he has Sherlockian powers of deduction, and is able to make sense of the most obscure occurrences.  The whole is narrated by his scribe and ‘disciple’, Adso of Melk.  The novel, says its blurb, is ‘not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.’

The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator in 1968.  They have just been handed a book which claims to reproduce a fourteenth-century manuscript in its entirety.  This narrator goes on to say: ‘In a state of intellectual excitement, I read with fascination the terrible story of Adso of Melk, and I allowed myself to be so absorbed by it that, almost in a single burst of energy, I completed a translation, using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gilbert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen.’

Even Adso is not told of Brother William’s mission: ‘… [It] remained unknown to me while we were on our journey, or, rather, he never spoke to me about it.  It was only by overhearing bits of his conversations with the abbots of the monasteries where we stopped along the way that I formed some idea of the nature of this assignment.  But I did not understand it fully until we reached our destination.’  He finds Brother William rather an imposing figure: ‘… [He] was larger in stature than a normal man and so thin that he seemed still taller.  His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout…’.

The context and social conditions in The Name of the Rose are rich and wonderfully executed.  I found the novel transporting from its beginning.  Eco has included much about libraries, scribes, and manuscripts, elements of the Middle Ages which fascinate me.  Several reviews which I have seen have commented upon the complicated language and long, meandering sentences used by the author.  I personally did not find this a problem, and got into the style very quickly; I felt as though it added another layer of texture to the novel, making it feel more old-fashioned, and therefore perhaps more authentic.  Eco’s prose, and the way it has been rendered in this translation, is engaging.

Eco’s descriptions, of which there are many, also capture a lot: ‘It was noon and the light came in bursts through the choir windows, and even more through those of the façade, creating white cascades that, like mystic streams of divine substance, intersected at various points of the church, engulfing the altar itself.’  The use of colour and touch woven throughout help to build a believable, and atmospheric, sense of place.  Eco’s dialogue also has such strength to it, and never did it feel predictable.  I particularly liked the way in which William spoke.  He tells Adso, for instance: ‘The story is becoming more complicated, dear Adso…  We pursue a manuscript, we become interested in the diatribes of some overcurious monks and in the actions of other, over-lustful ones, and now, more and more insistently, an entirely different trail emerges.’

The Name of the Rose definitely feels like a good, and popular, choice to begin with with regard to Eco’s works.  I really enjoyed the structure of the novel; it is told over the course of seven days.  So many layers have been built on top of one another; its foundations are strong, and the separate strands of plot all interesting in their own way.  The novel takes many twists and turns, and is such a compelling read.  Eco takes one down so many avenues of intrigue, meeting strange and complex characters along the way.  My only criticism of the novel is that some of the chapters, particularly toward the middle of the novel, felt superfluous, and added very little to the story aside from religious context.  Some events are a little dramatic in places, but it was all drawn together well, and on the whole, I really enjoyed it.

I have read comparatively little set during the Middle Ages, despite the fact that the period fascinates me.  Reading The Name of the Rose has certainly made me want to seek out more novels set between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, and to try another of Eco’s books too.

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‘The Year of Less’ by Cait Flanders ***

My main goal for 2020, the first year of a brand new decade, is to stop shopping.  Or, rather, not to stop shopping entirely, but to stop buying things I don’t need (which basically amounts to the same thing).  I spent the first half of 2019 not buying any clothes at all, and those which I did purchase during the second half of the year were largely secondhand.  I feel as though I’m making inroads into being far more sustainable in my day-to-day life, and having seen many articles online, and YouTube videos, about year-long shopping bans, I felt like challenging myself.  I therefore turned to the advice of those who have already achieved this feat, and ended up borrowing Cait Flanders’ rather cheesily titled The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store from my local library.

In her late twenties, Canadian blogger Cait Flanders ‘found herself stuck in the 41cofeppafl._sx321_bo1204203200_consumerism cycle that grips so many of us: earn more, buy more, want more, rinse, repeat…  When she realized that nothing she was doing or buying was making her happy – only keeping her from meeting her goals – she decided to set herself a challenge: she would not shop for an entire year.’  When embarking on this project, the newest of many ‘experiments’ which she has set herself, Flanders notes the large financial incentive: ‘… I had no idea that during the next 12 months I would end up living on 51 percent of my income, saving 31 percent, and traveling with the rest.’

Much of Flanders’ project was initially documented on her blog.  The Year of Less is comprised of ‘the stories and lessons’ which she did not share online, for whatever reason.  She elaborates the reasoning for conducting such an ‘experiment’ in her introduction, writing: ‘I was never satisfied.  I always wanted more.  But since more of anything wasn’t filling me up, maybe it was time to challenge myself to go after less.’

Throughout The Year of Less, Flanders is honest about her past struggles with alcohol and her weight, and the way in which she becomes obsessed with things – like shopping and eating – in order to cope with various traumas and difficulties.  Although the move towards a no-buy year was, overall, a positive experience for her, she does write about the few friends who stopped inviting her to things: ‘They seemed confused by the whole experiment, and assumed that because I couldn’t shop, I also couldn’t go out for dinner.  Those assumptions hurt, because they made me feel like I was being ostracized for trying to better myself.’

There are clear differences between Flanders’ challenge, and the rules which I have set for my own.  I plan to borrow all of the books which I read from my local library, occasionally paying for requests to come in from other branches; at 75p per time, this is far less than buying even a secondhand book, and I am lucky that my local branch has a lot of really good stock.  Like Flanders, I am going to try only to buy consumables – things like groceries and toiletries – as and when I need them.  If something breaks and needs to be replaced, I will be allowed to purchase a replacement, and if I need any more furniture for my flat, the same rule applies.  However, unless I absolutely need something, I will not be buying it.

I am not going to be doing what Flanders chose to do, and get rid of 70% of my wardrobe.  For me, this is just not necessary.  I had a purge of my clothes last year, getting rid of the old things which I’d been hanging onto for years, and taking the clothes which just didn’t fit properly to the charity shop.  I am very happy with my current wardrobe, and am looking forward to being able to wear everything from it over the next year.

Rather than saving money, or getting out of debt – two major motivations for a challenge of this kind – I am merely hoping that this challenge will help me to better appreciate, and to use, what I already have.  I will hopefully finally get through, or at least make a visible dent in, the boxes of toiletries and makeup stashed beneath my bed, and watch all of the DVDs which I have been meaning to get to for years.

I am not going to be imposing a television ban upon myself, as Flanders did, and rather than go from July to July, as her challenge did, I am going to embark on it for the entirety of 2020.   Flanders also implemented an ‘Approved Shopping List’, filled with several items which she knew needed to be replaced in the next twelve months.  I have had this challenge in mind for rather a long time, and have therefore been able to replace a few things which were really worn out, or just were not useful, last year.  The only purchase which I can see myself needing to make in the next year is a full-length mirror; my boyfriend and I have been without one since we moved in July, and it’s something that we would both use daily.

I must admit that before I began to read The Year of Less, I imagined that it might be a bit gimicky.  I never turn to books which could be categorised under the umbrella of ‘self-help’, which I suppose, in a way, this memoir could.  I reached for this book in order to try and find some tips and inspiration for my own challenge.  I was interested in the ‘inspiring insight and practical guidance’ which the book’s blurb boasted.  However, the book is not as focused on the no-buy year as is title and description suggests.

Whilst The Year of Less is easy to read, with an accessible, almost chatty, prose style, it did feel at times as though I was just reading a series of articles, each of which had a loose connection to the one which came before.  There is not as much emotion in the book as I expected; even when Flanders is writing about really difficult subjects, like breakups and her parents’ divorce, her tone is curiously detached.  She does also steer towards being rather preachy on a couple of occasions, and I found myself cringing once or twice.  Some of the longer chapters are also rather saccharine.

Perhaps because I have slightly different expectations for my own challenge, and because I was expecting something different to what the book provided, I was rather disappointed by The Year of Less.  I expected to take more away from the book than I have, and frankly, I have found more workable advice in far shorter online articles.  The Year of Less is fine on the whole, but it felt more like a generalised memoir of Flanders’ life and struggles than a focus on her shopping ban.

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‘Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education’ by Sybille Bedford ***

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education is the first book by Sybille Bedford which I have picked up.  It straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, presenting as it does an exaggerated version of Bedford’s own childhood and young adulthood.  Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1989.

9780907871798Bedford was born in Germany, and educated in Italy, England, and France.  Jigsaw subsequently takes place in each of these countries.  The novel-cum-memoir has been split into five sections, which largely follow the author’s geographical journey.  It begins with a series of her earliest memories.  Whilst in the Danish seaside town of Skagen as a toddler, the narrator recollects: ‘What I wanted was to get into the water.  But between the sand and the water there lay a thick band of small fish, dead, wet, glistening fish.  The whole of me shrivelled with disgust.  Nanny, who wore boots and stockings, picked me up and lifted me over the fish.  I was in the water – coolness, lightness, dissolving, bliss: this is the sea, I am the sea, here is where I belong.  For ever.’

We move from Denmark to a southern corner of Germany, where the three-year-old narrator is living with her parents in 1914.  The uncertainty of war forces the family to stay with relatives in Berlin the following year, in a ‘large, dark house, over-upholstered and over-heated; the inhabitants never stopped eating.  Some were exceedingly kind, some were critical of our presence.’  The context, both historical and social, has been woven in well, and it proved to be the element which I was most interested in within Jigsaw; the inflation of German currency, convoluted train journeys during wartime, moving around a lot due to money troubles, and being sent away to school particularly fascinated me.  I also enjoyed reading about the differences which the narrator discusses between places which she had lived in.  I took in, with interest, the allusions Bedford made of not feeling as though she had a homeland, as she moved around so much as a child.  However, the emphasis upon this element was spoken about far too briefly for my personal taste.

The narrator is open about her relationships with her parents.  She realises that her father loved her in retrospect, ‘but – this is the unhappy part – he could not show his affection, only his anxieties, his fretting, his prohibitions…  And I with some curious callousness, with the arrogance of a lively, ignorant, if intelligent child, felt impatience with him and contempt.  He also created fear; perhaps because he was not reachable by any give and take of talk, perhaps because of the aura of solitariness about him.  Today we might call it alienation.’  Her interactions with her mother too are far from what she would have liked: ‘I was interested – and influenced – by my mother’s general opinions, but dreaded being alone with her.  She could be ironical and often impatient; she did not suffer little fools gladly.  That I was her own made not a scrap of difference…  Compassionate in her principles, she was high-handed even harsh in her daily dealings.  Between her and my father there had come much open ill feeling…  So in my early years (our rapport came later) I was afraid of my mother, more afraid of her, and in a different way, than I was of my father.’  Her parents go on to divorce when she is quite young, and she has to deal with the consequences.

There is a warmth, even a chattiness, to the narrative voice in Jigsaw.  Whilst compelling in its way, it never became something that I did not want to put down.  Not knowing what was true and what was fabricated, or exaggerated, was something that niggled at me.  Some of the scenes in Jigsaw seemed far too strange to be real, but there was no way of being sure.  Another thing which I really did not enjoy about the book was the continuous name-dropping which Bedford embarks upon rather early on.  I do not feel as though these people, most of whom were mentioned only as asides and not part of the current scenes or plot, added a great deal to proceedings.  This, like other parts of the book, felt rather superficial.

Jigsaw is not a badly written piece, but I cannot say that I enjoyed Bedford’s prose.  The phrasing and descriptions which she employed were largely fine, but there was no vividness or vivacity to the things which she described.  There was less description in Jigsaw than I was expecting, as it is far more focused upon people than place; the latter often quickly becomes a dull background, and is barely discussed.  Some elements were sped through; others were talked about at length, and therefore felt repetitive.

With a slightly different approach taken by the author, or a clear delineation between what is real or imagined, I feel as though I could have really admired this book.  As it was, I found it a little off and jarring; I would have personally preferred to read a straight biography, and not some strange, unknown mixture of biography and novel.  Jigsaw simply failed to stand out for me.  On the face of it, it sounded like a fascinating concept, but its execution left something to be desired for me as a reader.

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