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‘Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories’ by Ryu Murakami ***

There are some books which I do appreciate but do not really love and would definitely not return to again. I appreciate them because, even though some (or all) of their content was unsuitable to my tastes or thoroughly disturbing for me, I do recognize the author’s literary prowess and/or messages they were aiming to convey. Murakami Ryu’s Tokyo Decadence belongs to this precise category and thus, it is unbelievably difficult for me to find the correct words to talk about this book. But I shall attempt to do so anyway.

jp0049First of all, Tokyo Decadence is a short story collection. The stories selected for this anthology all come from different short story collections and usually the stories from each collection share a common theme or characters. For example, the first stories are derived from Run, Takahashi! (published in 1986) and they somehow involve a certain baseball player called Takahashi, while some other stories come from Swans (published in 1997) and they each revolve around a song by the Cuban singer Javier Olmo. I do enjoy individual short stories, but recurring characters and themes immediately win me over.

In all of the stories contained in this collection, Murakami Ryu portrayed the ‘decadence’, the deterioration of his characters’ lives, their struggle to live through horrible situations and circumstances. Even though most of the themes tackled and described are disturbing and sad, most of the stories do have something positive in them or even a generous dose of humour (especially the first four). Some characters have dreams which they strive to materialize and ambitions they struggle to make true. I truly liked seeing such a mixture of strong and weak characters because this made them all the more realistic.

Some stories (especially those coming from the Topaz collection) were rather painful for me to read, since they dealt with themes and contained specific scenes which made me squeamish and filled me with a desire to drop this book and never pick it up again. Instead of doing that, though, I merely skimmed through those parts and got on with the rest of the stories, which were much lighter (some of them) and with completely different thematology.

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Ryu Murakami

Glimpsing through the lives of call girls, penniless young people striving to make their dreams come true, transvestites, drug dealers, office ladies and psychopathic murderers, Murakami makes a very loud and lasting point about Japanese society and its darker side which may be usually ignored but it undeniably exists.

For me, this book was terrifying. Terrifying because it threw a side of society which exists and thrives everywhere but is deftly hidden most of the times right to my face and also because the realisation of how real the characters and events described in these stories were, made me cease my reading and look around me warily more than once.

Despite the unpleasant and disturbing scenes contained in some stories, Murakami’s writing is simple and matter-of-fact yet so very powerful. Those shocking scenes manage to alarm the reader and make him aware of the decay surrounding both the characters and the city they reside in. Murakami certainly managed to gain my attention but I’m not sure whether I’m ready to attempt reading one of his books again soon.

This is the second book that was sent to me by Kurodahan Press upon my request, but this does not affect my opinion of it in any case.

 

6

Stefan Zweig: 2 Novellas of Unrequited Love

stefan_zweig_1900_croppedAmongst all the new authors I endeavoured to read since last year, Stefan Zweig quickly came to be one of my most endeared ones. After a quick research, I found out that while he was widely popular in a great number of Western countries in the Interwar years, his popularity started declining soon after. Nowadays, readers have started to rediscover Zweig, with many revisited or brand new translations of his work surfacing as a result.

I have merely read two of Zweig’s novellas as of yet, compared to the wealth of various literary genres he ventured into, but I have chosen to make a post about them as I find them absolutely beautiful pieces of literature.

My very first encounter with Zweig’s writing was through his novella Confusion (original title: Verwirrung der Gefühle), which was first published in 1926. The 2012 English translation published by NYRB Classics’ blurb is as follows: 12143104

Stefan Zweig was particularly drawn to the novella, and ‘Confusion,’ a rigorous and yet transporting dramatization of the conflict between the heart and the mind, is among his supreme achievements in the form.
A young man who is rapidly going to the dogs in Berlin is packed off by his father to a university in a sleepy provincial town. There a brilliant lecture awakens in him a wild passion for learning—as well as a peculiarly intense fascination with the graying professor who gave the talk. The student grows close to the professor, be­coming a regular visitor to the apartment he shares with his much younger wife. He takes it upon himself to urge his teacher to finish the great work of scholarship that he has been laboring at for years and even offers to help him in any way he can. The professor welcomes the young man’s attentions, at least on some days. On others, he rages without apparent reason or turns away from his disciple with cold scorn. The young man is baffled, wounded. He cannot understand.
But the wife understands. She understands perfectly. And one way or another she will help him to understand too.

This was a novella filled with emotions. Exceptionally well-written, it tackles a topic which used to be very sensitive at the time it was written (and still is), yet Zweig handles it with the utmost care and with admirable sensibility and understanding. I also loved how scholarship was included in the story, since, as an aspiring academic myself, it is a topic that never ceases to fascinate me. Having read Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro a few months before Zweig’s Confusion, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities in the relationships between the student-protagonists and their professors (although the main element which makes Confusion what it is was completely absent from Kokoro, the main point of which was radically different, but still).

The second novella of his I read was Journey into the Past (original title: Widerstand der Wirklichkeit), first published in 1976, approximately 35 years after his death. According to the blurb of the 2010 English translation published by NYRB Classics:

7938057A deep study of the uneasy heart by one of the masters of the psychological novel, ‘Journey into the Past’, published here for the first time in America, is a novella that was found among Zweig’s papers after his death. Investigating the strange ways in which love, in spite of everything – time, war, betrayal – can last, Zweig tells the story of Ludwig, an ambitious young man from a modest background who falls in love with the wife of his rich employer. His love is returned, and the couple vow to live together, but then Ludwig is dispatched on business to Mexico, and while he is there the First World War breaks out. With travel and even communication across the Atlantic shut down, Ludwig makes a new life in the New World. Years later, however, he returns to Germany to find his beloved a widow and their mutual attraction as strong as ever. But is it possible for love to survive precisely as the impossible?

Yet another deeply heartfelt story, which comes to enhance and further prove Zweig’s aptitude in delving into the human soul and baring it for the entire world to see, without being afraid of judgement or taboos.

If you have yet to discover Zweig’s writing, do treat yourself with one of his books. He is a writer who deserves to be as widely read as possible.

4

‘Blue Bamboo: Tales by Dazai Osamu’ *****

Dazai Osamu is an author quite well-known amongst fans of Japanese literature. Born in 1909, he contributed greatly to the Japanese literary tradition with works such as No Longer Human (1948), The Setting Sun (1947) and a plethora of other novels and short stories, before taking his own life in 1948. He is mostly known for the darker and depressing themes he tackles in his work, which were mostly drawn by the horrendous events of World War II.

jp0040lBeing acquainted with the bleak and dreary side of Dazai’s writing, I was quite surprised when I started reading Blue Bamboo, a collection of seven tales inspired by Asian tradition and mythology. As Ralph McCarthy, the translator, informs us in the Introduction, all of the tales contained in this collection, apart from one, belong to Dazai’s “middle period”, one which is often neglected by both readers and scholars.

The first story, “On Love and Beauty”, caught my interest initially because of its structure. It begins by introducing us to the members of a family that consists of five brothers and sisters. Despite being completely different in their characters and interests, they have the tradition of making stories together. One of them comes up with the beginning and each one of the rest of them subsequently adds their own parts until the story is concluded. Dazai revisits this very interesting family in the last story of this collection, “Lanterns of Romance”, where we get the opportunity to become more acquainted with this curious family, as they embark on the journey of retelling a version of Brother Grimm’s “Rapunzel”.

“The Crysanthemum Spirit” and the title story, “Blue Bamboo”, are both stories based on old Chinese tales, but Dazai manages to add some elements of his own and make them quite distinctive. “Blue Bamboo” in particular, according to McCarthy’s notes, was even originally written in Chinese as Dazai meant for the Chinese people who were already familiar with the traditional tale to read and enjoy his own take on it.

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Dazai Osamu

Another retelling of a Japanese story this time was “The Mermaid and the Samurai”, which I did enjoy but it definitely was my least favourite. “Romanesque” is Dazai’s earliest story, written in 1934, and it is preceeded in the book by “Alt Heidelberg”, the only story which is not based on any myth or legend but which instead is a biographical account of the days Dazai spent whilst writing “Romanesque”.

Without meaning to sound biased, I absolutely adored this collection of short stories. I was already quite fond of Dazai’s writing from what I had read before, but seeing a literary face of his radically different from the significantly darker one presented in most of his later work, made me appreciate his literary aptitude and realize that apart from a deft storyteller and analyst of the human psyche, he is also a truly versatile author who is inspired by the tales of the past and doesn’t merely stick to writing a specific type of books.

Furthermore, I truly enjoyed the fairytale atmosphere and the humorous tone most of the stories contained. Myths and fairytales fascinate me no matter where they originate from and discovering old and new retellings of them is more than enough to make me excited. Regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Dazai’s work, I would highly suggest picking up this collection, as it is a real treasure.

I received a review copy from the publisher upon my request, but that does not affect my opinion of this book in the slightest.

6

‘We Have Always Lived in The Castle’ by Shirley Jackson ****

We Have Always Lived in The Castle is a book I’ve been seeing around in bookish blogs and BookTube videos quite frequently and it had piqued my interest from the very beginning. Only recently, though, did I get the chance to acquire a copy of my own and finally read it. 26852229

The gothic and ominous atmosphere permeats the book and I have to admit that I felt perplexed whilst trying to figure out what is going on in the story and what kind of events led our characters to their current situation.

Mary Catherine Blackwood, or simply Merricat as her sister calls her, is the narrator of the story. She is the youngest daughter of the family and she is currently living with her sister, Constance, and uncle Julian, since the rest of their family have died due to food poisoning for which Constance was held accountable but was soon acquitted of the murder charges.

Even though Merricat merely wants to live a peaceful life with the remaining of her family, things do not seem to be all that favourable. The rest of the village is still scared of the Blackwood daughters and they avoid them as much as they can, they accuse them or they even make fun of them by concocting rhymes such as:

“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

As a result, Merricat appears to nurture feelings of hatred towards everyone outside her family and she does everything she can to protect this little sanctuary of hers. However, Cousin Charles makes an appearance to the Blackwood household and this peace and quiet seems to be about to vanish.

It is difficult to talk about this book without mentioning any spoilers, even more so since it’s a rather slim book of approximately 146 pages. The truth is that apart from a couple of truly important events, not much happens in the present of the story. There are some references to the murder of the family that happened in the past and some hints here and there about what might have truly happened, but since the narrator is Merricat and she doesn’t seem to be very stable all the time, it is hard to distinguish the truth. I would have liked some more closure, to be honest, and that is the reason why I didn’t give this book the 5 stars it would definitely deserve.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb and vivid and poetic and she manages to keep the reader’s interest piqued until the very last page. Merricat’s character is certainly the most interesting in the entire book and the most complex one as well. Even though it is a gruesome and sad story, I would recommend it not only to fans of gothic fiction but also to those who enjoy well-written prose and well thought out characters.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?