‘Speculative Japan 2: “The Man Who Watched The Sea” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy’ ****

Fantasy fiction is one of my very favourite genres to read since I grew up with it, and I’ve been trying to find some Japanese fantasy for the longest time. However, my search had been mostly fruitless until I stumbled upon a fellow blogger’s review of the “Speculative Japan” series of fantasy and science fiction short stories. Needless to say I was more than happy to finally acquire a volume for myself.

This second volume consists of 13 short stories by a different author each. Even though all of the stories fall under the category of fantasy or sci-fi, they are so diverse and they handle their themes in such a different yet interesting manner.

In the Introduction of the book, Darrell Schweitzer accurately observes that most people expect samurais, geishas, kimonos and “a ritual suicide or three” whenever they think of inherently Japanese elements and while I do agree with this remark, I also felt like those stories couldn’t be more Japanese, even though most of those elements which first come to one’s mind were absent.

Whilst fantasy and science fiction do not seem to be very popular in Japanese fiction (at least when translated into English), they dominate the anime/manga and video game world, which I believe makes such an interesting contradiction. For instance, Kitakuni Koji’s “Midst the Mist”, a story revolving around a specific breed of aliens that lived inside human bodies as parasites, strongly reminded me of the anime/manga series “Parasyte”.

Most of the stories contained in this collection were focused mostly on sci-fi rather than fantasy, but it was still great to read them as they offered a very fresh perspective and approach on the themes they chose to follow compared to the sci-fi stories that I have read so far, which are mainly American. Moreover, some of the stories such as Tani Koshu’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk”, a space story about ghost ships, and Ogawa Issui’s “Old Vohl’s Planet”, a story about the evolution of (alien) species, contained quite a few scientific terms and it was evident that the authors had conducted a very thorough research before writing anything down. I can only imagine how challenging the translation of these stories might have been!

Of course, in short story collections it is very rare for all the stories to equally be of one’s liking, and therefore there were some stories I didn’t enjoy as much as the others. “Freud” by Enjoe Toh was one of them, which I found rather uninteresting. On the other hand, some of my favourites were “The Whale That Sang On The Milky Nework” by Ohara Mariko, “Emanon: A Reminiscence” by Kajio Shinji and “The Man Who Watched The Sea” by Kobayashi Yasumi, which was also featured in the title of the collection.

The translations were also all very good and they had a very natural flow. Even though I read Japanese literature often, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors featured in this collection, so I was very happy to discover some new authors whose work I would very much like to follow. It would have been nice, though, if some information about the authors were also included in the collection.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading these short stories and I definitely discovered some gems in there. It was very well put together and I will definitely seek out the rest of the series’ volumes in the future.


Saturday Poem: ‘The Head-Spider’ by Les Murray

Where I lived once, a roller coaster’s range
of timber hills peaked just by our backyard cliff
and cats undulated scream-driven round its seismograph—
and climbed up to us with an indrawn gasp of girls.
Smiles and yelling could be exchanged as they crested
then they’d pitch over, straining back in a shriek
that volleyed as the cars were snatched from sight
in the abyss, and were soon back. Weekdays they rested,
and I rested all days. There was a spider in my head
I’d long stay unaware of. If you’re raped you mostly know
but I’d been cursed, and refused to notice or believe it.
Aloof in a Push squat, I thought I was moral, or dead.
Misrule was strict there, and the Pill of the day only ever
went into one mouth, not mine, and foamed a Santa-beard.
I was resented for chastity, and slept on an overcoat.
Once Carol from upstairs came to me in bra and kindness
and the spider secreted by girls’ derision-rites to spare
women from me had to numb me to a crazed politeness.
Squeals rode the edge of the thrill building. Cartoonist Mercier
drew springs under Sydney. Push lovers were untrue on principle.
It’s all architecture over there now. A new roller coaster
flies its ups and downs in wealth’s face like an affront.
I’ve written a new body that only needs a reader’s touch.
If love is cursed in us, then when God exists, we don’t.

One From the Archive: ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson **

I was so looking forward to reading Home – which won the Orange Prize in 2009 -after liking Gilead and so enjoying Housekeeping.  The novel is set in the Iowa town of Gilead – unsurprisingly, the same setting as Robinson’s novel of the same name – and funnily enough, I had the same problems with Home as I did with the aforementioned.  Everything felt a little flat to me, characters included.  The scenes which Robinson described were very mundane on the whole, and the prose was devoid of the beauty which is so ever-present within Housekeeping.  The notion of religion throughout entirely saturates what little plot there is. 

Home tells the story of a woman named Glory, who has returned to her hometown to look after her dying father, Reverend Boughton.  The two are soon joined by Glory’s troubled brother Jack, which essentially seems to render the novel a modern retelling of the ‘prodigal son’ tale.  The mundanity of everyday life is heavily entrenched within the novel.  All that Glory seems to do for much of the book is to cook, visit various shops to buy various items which hold no excitement or relevance to the story, and to garden.  I became a little frustrated with this, as very few of the scenes which she appeared within – and there were many – actually contributed in any way to the storyline.  It felt as though Robinson had many pages to fill but not enough to say.  There were also some rather stereotypical elements used within the novel which irked me somewhat.

Reverend Broughton’s gradual memory loss was rendered both well and sympathetically.  For me, it was certainly the strongest aspect of the novel.  I sadly found the dialogue between the characters utterly bland, and it provided a curious sense of detachment.  I do not feel as though it allowed me to get to know any of the characters, any more than the spare, undecorated prose did.

I wanted to stop reading Home as soon as I felt that it had become a little too preachy in its tone, but I thought I would give Robinson the benefit of the doubt.  A quote upon the novel’s back page, which states that the last fifty pages are powerful and moving also contributed to my decision to read it all the way through, in order to see how it improved – or, even, if it would.  I did not find it ‘magnificently moving’, sadly.  Even if it were not for the over-preaching style of the prose, I do not believe that I would have enjoyed this novel.  There were no characters within it whom I could identify with, and the plot is so small in its entirety that it feels incredibly drawn out in a novel of this size.

I remember, upon reading Gilead and awarding it three stars, that I was certainly in the minority with my lower rating.  Most of the reviews which I read around the same time expressed the readers’ adoration for the novel, and I believe that those people – of which there are many – will absolutely love Home too.  Sadly, it just wasn’t for me.  I shall be leaving books set within Gilead well alone in future – a shame, because I do believe that it is the town in which Robinson’s forthcoming novel Lila is set.  I can only hope that she writes something akin to Housekeeping in future, for then I shall certainly certify myself a fan of hers once more.

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Literary Hub

Somehow, I had never, on my trawling of the Internet for literary tidbits, come across Literary Hub, or LitHub as it is known to the Y2K generation.  Since discovering it, I have spent a wonderful few moments clicking on links, and have been rewarded with a plethora of book recommendations, bookish facts, and wonderfully insightful reviews.  I thought that I would collect together a few of my favourite pieces on their website for your enjoyment.

  1. How the New York Review of Books chooses its Reissues: The Story of Stoner (here)
  2. Celebrating National Poetry Month: Ten Must-Read Poetry Collections (here)
  3. Confessions of a Reluctant Memoirist (here)
  4. How the Literary Class System is Impoverishing Literature: On the Systemic Economic Barriers to Becoming a Writer (here)
  5. Kate Atkinson on ‘Adlestrop’ (here)
  6. Five Writers on the Poems that Make Them Cry (here)
  7. Men Explain Lolita to Me (here)

One From the Archive: ‘The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter’ by Mikail Eldin ***

The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter is the winner of the English Pen Award, and has been translated from its original Russian by Anna Gunin.  It is a memoir which tells of author Mikail Eldin’s experiences in the conflicts in Chechnya during the 1990s.  Throughout, he has aimed to trace ‘the unfolding of the conflict’, and the blurb states that in consequence, he ‘presents a unique portrait of the lives of the Chechen resistance’.

‘The Sky Wept Fire’ by Mikail Eldin (Portobello Books)

The preface sets out Eldin’s reasons for writing such a memoir, and it begins as follows: ‘It is only possible to write beautifully about war if you have never witnessed it from within…  And so much happened that perhaps would have been better forgotten, but it was my duty to remember…  I have tried to be as neutral as possible in my account of these events, yet at the same time I remain deeply partisan… about everything I saw’.  He goes on to say that he has penned his memories for all of those who died within the conflict, as a memorial of sorts to the masses, and to the country he once so adored.

The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter has been split into three sections – ‘Ragnarok’, ‘From the Wheel of Time into the Circle of Pain’ and ‘Autumn Shot Dead’.  Maps of Chechnya and its geographical location within Russia have been included.  Eldin has chosen to go through the entire conflict in a chronological manner, weaving his own memories with factual details included at every juncture – the casualties, Russian propaganda, the skewed news which is presented on the television, musings about how futile yet fascinating warfare is, coming to terms with widespread deaths, the history of the Russian Army’s leadership, the attitudes of the soldiers involved, sheltering in cellars with other civilians, getting used to living in a war-torn city, and odd sights such as the selling of arms in local markets around the capital by both sides.

Eldin began his career as an arts journalist, but after the Second Chechen War, he had become ‘a battle-hardened reporter and mountain partisan who had endured torture and imprisonment’.  Since Chechnya came into being as a sovereign state in its own right, Eldin states that, ‘Russia began hatching schemes to meddle with and destroy Chechen autonomy’.  The main part of The Sky Wept Fire begins when he describes the blasts which he ran towards, citing his position as a journalist for a ‘neutral’ publication as his reason for interviewing both sides of the conflict: ‘Everything began with two huge blasts rocking the centre of Grozny, capital of Chechnya, a country enjoying its fourth year of independence.  It was 26 November 1994’.  Throughout, Eldin paints an interesting portrait of the conflict and those who were involved in it, from Chechen civilians to Army commanders.  The way in which he writes is harrowing at times, particularly with regard to the descriptions of those who were killed.

Despite the interest which The Sky Wept Fire clearly holds, the prose style is a little confusing at times, switching as it does from first to second person from one chapter to the next.  This gives the entirety an oddly inconsistent feel.  The prose is a little repetitive at times – for example, Sheikh Kunta-Haji Kishiev is called a ‘great saint’ twice on the same page.  Sadly, the translation feels a little clunky at times, making the book seem a little too old-fashioned in places.

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