4

‘The Cat and the City’ by Nick Bradley

Nick Bradley’s debut novel is a collection of intertwined stories that take place in Tokyo, this fascinating, terrifying, overpopulated and lonely city. Although the stories initially seem separate from one another, the reader will quickly recognise the recurring characters and realise that they are all connected in one way or another. And, of course, there is a calico cat that makes an appearance in every single one of these stories, leaving its mark in the lives of all these struggling characters. 41zU1ZzTcRL.SX316.SY316

Japanese literature is known for its frequent fascination with cats, and Bradley, having himself lived and worked in Japan, attempted to weave a story of this complicated city where anything and everything seems possible. Instead of an ode to Tokyo and Japan in general, Bradley often seems to view certain events and practices with a critical eye, which is quite refreshing, since most foreigners who write about Japan tend to over-romanticise the country and everything they have experienced whilst there.

I also enjoyed Bradley’s prose and writing style a lot. While I started this book with a certain level of caution and apprehension, I was quickly drawn into the author’s words and found myself reading one story after another, curious to discover which character we are going to follow next and what kind of role the calico cat will play in the story. I also loved how Bradley’s writing seemed to change and shift according to the needs of the story, while some stories surpassed the boundaries of conventional prose as they were enriched with pages of a manga comic one of the characters was writing, the case notes of a detective, etc.

Although my experience reading The Cat and the City is mostly positive, there were a couple of things that I had an issue with. Firstly, there were a number of words that were purposely left in Japanese throughout the text (but especially in the first few stories), although there was no need to. I understand that since the stories are set in Japan and most of the characters are Japanese it seems more natural for them to use certain Japanese words, but when there is an English equivalent (which was often used right after the Japanese word anyway), it seems rather redundant to me to use the Japanese word. Also, although I gather that most of the book’s readers might have an interest in Japan, not all of them will be acquainted with the Japanese language, so it might be quite bothersome and interrupting for them to encounter random Japanese words.

Secondly, even though Bradley created very solid characters and stories that covered a wide spectrum of personalities and interests, I still felt like I was reading Japanese characters written by a non-Japanese person. Of course, I understand that the author is not Japanese and this is to be expected, but I simply couldn’t shake off the feeling that quite often his characters would behave or speak in a way that felt a bit unnatural for a Japanese person.

Still, The Cat and the City is a very entertaining, unique and well-written book that is definitely worth reading, especially if you have an interest in Japan and its culture. As a debut work, it is quite promising and Bradley is definitely a writer I will be looking forward to read more of in the future.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

2

Two Novellas by Yūko Tsushima

I recently read two novellas from a new-to-me author, both of which I picked up on a whim from my local library.  Both books, Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, were written originally in Japanese by Yūko Tsushima, and translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt.  Both translations are exquisitely rendered; the prose has a wonderful flow to it in both cases.

 

Territory of Light ****

9780241312629Territory of Light, which was first published in a serialised form in a magazine between 1978 and 1979, has been variously described as ‘spiky, atmospheric and intimate’ (Spectator), and ‘disturbing and dream-like’ (Financial Times).  The novella, which begins in springtime, takes as its focus a young woman, who has been abandoned by her husband, and who has to start a new life in a Tokyo apartment with her young daughter.  Territory of Light charts the protagonist’s life over the course of a calendar year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old alone.

From the first, I very much admired what Tsushima had set out to express.  The new apartment of her unnamed narrator is ‘filled with light, streaming through the windows, so bright you have to squint’, but regardless, she ‘finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness; becoming unstable, untethered.’  This instability of self threads through the novella, and we learn quite quickly just how much the narrator has to deal with.

She is scared by her newfound independence, but is also set on carving a life away from her husband.  She comments: ‘I didn’t want him ever to set foot in my new life.  I was afraid of any renewed contact, so afraid it left me surprised at myself.  The frightening thing was how accustomed I had become to his being there.’  The narrator is also scared of the effects single parenthood has on her as time goes on.  She says: ‘I wish I could forget I even had a child.  I’d been coping on my own now for less than six months, though maybe that was just long enough to have grown used to the new life, which could be why the insidious tiredness was starting to knock the wind out of me.’  She turns to sleep to try and cope alone, leaving her small daughter to fend for herself.

At just 122 pages, so much human feeling fills the pages of Territory of Light.  Its protagonist is at a point of crisis in her life, and her situation and responses are wholly believable.  The structure of the novella, which is essentially made up of twelve loosely connected stories, works wonderfully.  Whilst there is not a great deal of plot to drive the book along, in consequence it perhaps becomes more realistic.  The narrator is concerned with the minutiae of her everyday, as well as the bigger picture.  She muddles through the most ordinary things, all of which are beset with problems, and speaks openly to the reader about her many anxieties.  I so enjoyed the writing style and narrative voice of Territory of Light, and it feels like a great place to start reading Tsushima’s work from.

 

Child of Fortune ****

Child of Fortune was first published in Japan in 1978, and appeared in a revised version of Geraldine 9780241335031Harcourt’s English translation in 2018.  As with Territory of Light, this novella focuses upon a female protagonist named Kōko, a young woman who has been ‘defying her family’s wishes’ for some time.  She has, against what was viewed as acceptable in Tokyo society at the time, brought up her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, alone in her apartment.  After embarking on a ‘casual affair’, she finds herself pregnant once more, and is forced to juggle her present and future selves.

The book’s blurb says that Child of Fortune combines ‘the beauty and unease of a dream’, and presents ‘an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s innermost fears and desires’.  Angela Carter described it as ‘a terrific novel’, and the Japan Times declares that it is ‘as relevant today as when it was published… at once powerfully uplifting and achingly sad.’

At the outset of the story, Kayako has moved in with Kōko’s sister and her family.  The young girl ‘now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights.  She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning.’  This concerns Kōko to an extent, and she clearly misses seeing her daughter every day, but her attention is soon filled with the idea of a new child in her life, one who will be fully dependent upon her.  On Kōko’s behalf, the narrator reflects: ‘Maybe, she was reaching an age when it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died.  Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point in worrying about what people thought.  She would soon be thirty-seven.  The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko.’

Kōko’s present is interspersed throughout with her childhood memories, and her vivid, strange dreams.  I must admit that in comparison to Tsushima’s first person narrated novella Territory of Light, I did not find the third person perspective overly effective.  The story too, whilst readable, was nowhere near as absorbing.  However, I still had so much interest in its protagonist, and felt invested in her and her story.  Child of Fortune is more detached, but upon reflection, this makes the two novellas – which I read within days of each other – feel different, despite similarities in protagonist and plot.

Although well written and translated, the conversational patterns in Child of Fortune did not always flow naturally.  The novella, however, deals with some interesting and important themes around womanhood, motherhood, and societal perceptions, and held my interest from start to finish.  I will be seeking out Tsushima’s back catalogue of work as soon as I possibly can.

4

‘The Sheltering Rain’ by Hanmura Ryo

The recipient of the Naoki Prize in Japan in 1975, Hanmura Ryo’s The Sheltering Rain (Amayadori, 雨やどり) is a novel that is set in Shinjuku, the entertainment district of Tokyo in the 1960s/70s. Translated by Jim Hubbert, the novel was published by Kurodahan Press in 2019 and consists of eight chapters, each one of which narrates a different event in the lives of its characters. The chapters can also be considered and read as independent short stories (in fact, they were published separately in magazines between 1973 and 1974 before coming together to form this volume).

51324300._SY475_Through its interconnected stories, the novel transports us to the night world of Shinjuku in the late ’60s, where we are introduced to the bartenders, bar owners and hostesses that make up the nightlife of the area. Initially, we become acquainted with the “main character”, Senda, who at the beginning is a bartender at The Pot Still and in later stories he manages to open his own bar, Lui. Alongside Senda we encounter an array of characters, from Yoshie and Kyoko, the two female co-owners of another bar, to hostesses, gangsters and past loves and acquaintances that form part of Shinjuku’s history through their stories. Although their world is often engulfed in deceit and quite unhappy endings, the characters of this novel have managed to form a kind of community between them, where instead of rivalry they show unexpected kindness and help each other out when needed. This has got to be the most surprising and pleasant part of the book for me, as I never expected to feel a sense of ‘family’ and ‘homeliness’ in a story about people who live after dark.

One of the main themes Hanmura brings up in this novel is definitely that of nostalgia and of dealing with a world that is eminently changing. The 1960s and 1970s, also called “postwar boom years” according to the book’s introduction, due to the rapidly growing economy of the country, were certainly a liminal period for many Japanese, who had to grow accustomed to a new normal as their country was developing more and more. Yet, as is evident in the words and reactions of some characters in The Sheltering Rain, these changes were not always easy to swallow, and a nostalgia for the past and the way things were before still seems to linger.

Another issue that this novel tackles and which can be related to all the changes the Japanese society and its people were undergoing at the time is that of age, or, more appropriately, ageing. Many of the characters that populate Hanmura’s story are around or nearing their middle age, and although they are all active and striving to do their best with what they have, they (and the reader) are often reminded that “with each new dawn, everyone was getting older. To forget, they gathered after sunset to drink alcohol. And what was wrong with that?” (p.29) I found this particularly interesting, since I think this kind of brings us to a full circle, as the reason most of the bars and clubs that the characters of the story are working at were created was in order to help the hard working salarymen of Japan to relax and have some fun after work. Senda, Takako and the rest of the characters may not be salarymen and women themselves, but they do manage to find solace and momentary peace from their troubles when gathering to enjoy a drink together, thus fulfilling the purpose of their jobs in more than one way.

The Sheltering Rain may at times deal with difficult issues and present a way of life that is far from ideal, but it reads very pleasantly and is also a great form of escapism (which I’m sure many of us are in dire need of at the moment). Hanmura has crafted a world filled with society’s drop-outs and people who have fallen in between the cracks, yet people who are more ordinary than most and in which we can all find fragments of our selves. Despite everything life throws at them, they have all found a home in this underground business, they have developed strong bonds and connections with one another, they have found, to somehow echo the title of this collection, their shelter in the rain.

I’d tried to live the “smart” way. I was scornful of of screwups and hated to cut people slack, that had been a basic principle of mine. But now I saw my whole life for what it was – a chain of accidents and mistimed decisions.

– p. 176-7

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

 

2

‘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.

12

Akylina’s Most Memorable Books of 2019

Here we are in the very last day of 2019, yet another year that flew by in the blink of an eye. I did manage to read more this year (68 books) compared to 2018 (52 books), and although I read some really great books, I can’t really say I have many new favourites. This is why, instead of a Best of 2019 list, I come to you with my most memorable reads of the year. Although not all of these books were 5-star reads for me, they are all books I still remember vividly and fondly today.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the books that made my 2019 a little brighter:

Masks by Enchi Fumiko 25304404

Perhaps one of the most memorable books of 2019 was the very first book I read, Masks by Enchi Fumiko, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. A tale of deception, revenge and punishment like nothing you have read before, Masks is an excellent showcase of the narrative capabilities of Japanese female writers of the 1950s, who are significantly less talked about compared to the men writing in the same period.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When any form of media is suddenly widely popular and talked about, I’m always very skeptical about it, as I don’t always tend to agree with those popular opinions. Eleanor Oliphant, however, proved to be the bright exception to my own rule. I started reading it having absolutely no expectations, just wanting a light read for my daily commute, and I ended up becoming so attached to Eleanor and her story that I devoured it before realising it.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 29777060._SY475_

One of the most revered classics of Russian literature, Bulgakov’s masterpiece had been on my TBR list for a very long time. Numbering more than 500 pages, The Master and Margarita is a satirical and at times comical and, of course, controversial novel that takes place in Soviet Moscow. It was written during Stalin’s reign, but was published much, much later due to the severe censorship of the time (which, of course, is mentioned and criticised in the novel as well). Employing magical realism and a series of absurd events, Bulgakov weaves a tale that will remain in reader’s minds and hearts for a long time.

39980637._SY475_Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist by John Nathan

Natsume Soseki was undoubtedly one of Japan’s biggest literary figures and John Nathan has done a really impressive job compiling his life and accomplishments in this tome. Soseki’s life story is truly fascinating to read, even though his character was not as praise-worthy as his literary production and contribution was. Nonetheless, no one can deny his massive role in shaping modern Japanese literature and the author of this book has done a wonderful job letting us in on some of his genius.

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin 30039170._SY475_

I find Shirley Jackson one of the most intriguing modern authors and I always crave her writing, although I haven’t really read that much yet. A Rather Haunted Life recounts every detail of the author’s life (and I do mean every detail), from her childhood and college years to her married life and unfortunate death. I developed a massive dislike towards her husband, Stanley, since cheating is a behaviour I cannot tolerate, but overall it was very enjoyable reading (or rather listening, as I had this as an audiobook) about Shirley’s life and literary adventures.

 

43706056._SY475_The Five Wonders of Danube by Zoran Živković

Živković is one of the biggest literary figures of Serbia, so I was very excited to finally get to read some of his work. The Five Wonders of Danube is a whimsical and quite original homage to art of every kind and the artistic creation. The book consists of five parts, each one describing a separate incident/”wonder” that takes places in a different bridge of the Danube River, and all connecting somehow at the end. It was translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić and it was an excellent introduction to this great author’s work. I plan on posting a full review of it in January, so stay tuned if you want to hear more details about it.

Ο Κίτρινος Φάκελος [The Yellow Folder] by M. Karagatsis 6938031

Karagatsis is one of my favourite Greek authors and I’ll always lament the absence of his works in English translation. The Yellow Folder (my translation, as there’s no official one) is an excellent character study with drops of mystery and the consequences of attempting to control people’s lives and play with them just to see what happens. Chilling, unforgettable and utterly enjoyable, this novel is a treasure trove of literary allusions, musings on life and rich character study of the kind only Karagatsis can deliver.

18114976Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyabe Miyuki

Apart from Miyabe’s evocative writing, Apparitions is perhaps one of the best translations I’ve ever read from Japanese, as it truly read like a work originally written in English, without any phrase or passage of awkward phrasing, all thanks to the magic pen of Daniel Huddleston. Apparitions contains several short stories, all set in the Edo (former name of Tokyo) period of feudal Japan. Miyabe’s Old Edo is rife with vengeful spirits and malevolent ghosts, creating a thoroughly creepy and chilling atmosphere, but one which the reader truly cannot get enough of.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri Print

I don’t think I can call Tokyo Ueno Station a favourite book, mostly because it’s theme and plot are so harrowing and heartbreaking that just thinking about it even months after having read it just makes my heart ache. However, I do believe it’s an extremely important read, simply because sometimes we get too caught up in our lives and problems and don’t become aware of the people who might be suffering right next to us. On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, after having lost his family, our protagonist finds himself homeless at Ueno Park near the station and he starts remembering bits and pieces of his life. His son was born at the same day as the Emperor’s son, and yet his fate ended up being entirely different. Tokyo Ueno Station is nothing short of a punch in the gut, as it exposes the ugliest side of life and the inevitability that chases around people who are not privileged. It was translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles.

These are some of the most memorable books I read in 2019. For 2020, I’m hoping to read a little more broadly, read some new to me authors and read literature from countries I haven’t yet read.

Have you read any of these books? What were your most memorable reads of 2019? What are your 2020 reading goals?

Happy New Year to everyone, and I hope 2020 brings you health, joy and lots of bookish delights! 🙂

4

‘The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows’ by Edogawa Rampo

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) is a much revered and even more referenced era for all lovers of detective and mystery fiction. Although the writers whose seminal works we identify with the Golden Age are predominantly Anglophone or European (Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon etc), this flourishing of detective fiction took place even outside these continents, reaching as far as East Asia.

Edogawa Rampo was one of the most influential writers in early 20th century Japan, as his works helped establish the detective and mystery genre in modern Japanese literature. With a pseudonym that is basically inspired by the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe, Rampo developed what is frequently referenced as the “Japanese gothic mystery”, managing to introduce the Western elements of mystery fiction to the Japanese audience, while adding an inherently Japanese flavour.196151

Published in 2006 by Kurodahan Press and translated by Ian Hughes, the tome I am writing about today features two of Rampo’s novellas, “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows”, as well as a very enlightening introduction by Mark Schreiber that helps even those readers who are unfamiliar become acquainted with this era of Japanese mystery fiction.

“The Black Lizard” is the longest of the two novellas (174 pages), and it uses many familiar tropes of the genre. The Black Lizard of the title is none other than our female criminal (it is revealed in the very first chapter, so this is hardly a spoiler), a femme fatale who stirs a lot of trouble for our seemingly clueless male detective. While the story starts off with the talk of abduction of a young heiress, characters disguising themselves oh so successfully and fooling everyone around them, as well as many other familiar plot devices and tropes, it’s not long before it takes a rather gruesome turn. I will not go into more details here, but I’m sure readers who are expecting an Agatha Christie type of story will be wildly surprised by the grim and macabre turn of events.

As a novella, “The Black Lizard” comprises 29 short chapters (most are less than 10 pages), while there are some pages interspersed with drawings of certain scenes and characters. Rampo’s writing style in this novella might seem a bit peculiar and outdated to most readers, since he tends to address the reader quite often and provide explanations as to what has taken place in the story. This reminded me a little of the mystery novels I used to read as a child (Enid Blyton etc.), although Rampo’s content is far from appropriate for children.

The second novella, “Beast in the Shadows” was my personal favourite out of the two. Consisting of merely 12 chapters and 102 pages, our protagonist turns into a detective as he tries to solve the mystery of a stalker that harasses his recently widowed love interest. Rampo isn’t afraid to delve deep into the psychology of his characters and bring even their darkest side into light, and that is what makes “Beast in the Shadows” so engrossing, in my opinion.

As an avid fan of mystery/detective/crime fiction, I was delighted that I finally got the chance to read more of Japan’s leading writer of this genre. It’s always very fascinating to me to see how certain genres, themes or tropes that are familiar to us in a certain way are employed and even subverted by other cultures. Even if you end up not finding yourself mesmerised by Rampo’s writing style, I believe both “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows” are very worth your time, even if just to become acquainted with the origins if I may say of the Japanese mystery genre.

Have you read these novellas or any other work by Edogawa Rampo? Who is your favourite Golden Age of Detective Fiction writer? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

Many, many thanks to Kurodahan Press for providing me with a copy of this book.

3

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Characterised as a science-fiction novel reminiscent of Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty Four, but with a dreamlike Kafka-esque quality of the fantastic, Yoko Ogawa’s newest English-translated novel, The Memory Police, embodies the sheer horror of loss and the inevitability of preventing it. The novel was originally published in Japan in 1994 and has been beautifully translated into English by Stephen Snyder. 38058832._SY475_

The novel is set in a fictional and unnamed island (one can’t help but presume it uncannily brings Japan itself to mind), where different things such as hats, ribbons, birds, fruit and later on even certain body parts start disappearing from people’s memories. Having no recollection of those things whatsoever, the people are then required to destroy all remnants of the thing that has disappeared from their memories, something that the Memory Police of title is there to supervise.

However, some people are unable to forget and they try to preserve not only their memories of what has disappeared for everyone else, but also some mementos of the things themselves. The Memory Police, as a ruthless invigilator, stricly punishes whoever does not destroy every trace of the things that have disappeared, and they often take the people that cannot forget away, never to be seen again.

Our protagonist is a young writer whose parents have both passed away and she is left with an old family friend and her typing teacher, with whom she also maintains an intimate relationship. When her teacher is forced to go into hiding lest he be taken by the Memory Police, our protaginst does everything she can to protect him and keep him as close to her as possible. How can a person stay the same, though, when their memories and experiences associated with certain things are in danger of fading away from one day to another?

“People… seem capable of forgetting almost anything.”

-The Memory Police, location 96

As usual, Ogawa’s prose is stark and clear and creates an eerie atmosphere befitting of her novel’s theme. Although there is a very vivid plot throughout the novel, it does feel at times like the story does not move forward at all, but it instead focuses on the feelings and musings of the characters. The totalitarian-like regime that is described is terrifying, presenting a society on the verge of collapse and almost famished. Although the disappearances are never really explained, leaving this fantastic element aloft, they do seem to rather represent a disappearance of culture, of the self, of one’s identity.

Ogawa’s apocalyptic magical realism is exactly my cup of tea, and so I devoured this book is just a few days. I loved the tranquil and stark writing style, I loved the world and character building, (I disaggreed with some relationships between characters, but that’s a personal issue) but at some points, the story felt a little lacking. Like it had become absorbed in its own created universe a little too much, or like it was itself a fragment of a memory unable to be forgotten.

The taste the ending leaves is bittersweet, just like the theme it explores. Memories are fickle yet precious, they are proof that some things and experiences have truly existed, they are what makes us, us. Without our memories, can we still remain the same people, or are we bound to disappear and dissolve into nothingness like our very own memories?

The Memory Police is a wonderful and terrifying book that certainly provides its readers with plenty of food for thought. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of the fantastic and literary fiction alike, as I’m sure both groups will find something to relish in between its pages.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

0

‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto ****

I have read several of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  I was therefore very much looking forward to beginning her debut, Kitchen, which collects together two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’.  First published in Japan in 1987, where it won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country and remained on the bestseller list for more than a year, Kitchen was seamlessly translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993. 9780571342723

Its blurb intrigued me immediately, stating as it does that this collection ‘juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan.’  The Los Angeles Times Book Review calls Yoshimoto’s debut ‘artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh’, and The New Yorker deems Yoshimoto ‘a sure and lyrical author who is unembarrassed by adolescent funk’.

Kitchen begins with a short preface written by the author.  She says at its outset, ‘For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system.  This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.’

The narrator of ‘Kitchen’ is a young woman named Mikage Sakurai, recently left alone after the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her.  She reflects: ‘My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false.  The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me.  It was total science fiction.  The blackness of the cosmos.’ At first, the kitchen becomes the only place in which Mikage is able to find solace after she is set adrift: ‘Now only the kitchen and I are left.  It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.’

After some time, Mikage is taken in by the quite unusual Tanabe family, who care for her like a daughter.  This has a positive effect on her: ‘Little by little, light and air came into my heart.  I was thrilled.’  I admired the way in which Yoshimoto has shaped Mikage’s believable character arc, and very much liked her protagonist’s quiet determination.  ‘As I grow older,’ Mikage muses, ‘much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again.  Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet.  I will not be defeated.  I won’t let my spirit be destroyed.’  To me, Mikage felt wholly realistic; she is a little reserved, perhaps, but her emotions continue at the right pitch given her circumstances and the shifting situations in which she finds herself.  Her unfolding relationship with Yuichi Tanabe was both complex and fascinating.

I find Yoshimoto’s prose unusual and vivid, and my experience with these stories proved no different.  Much of her writing is searching and lovely.  In ‘Kitchen’, for example, she writes: ‘As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place.  If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely.  Still, it just might be the life for me.  When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene.  In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing.’

As with the other Yoshimoto books which I have read thus far, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ are told in short bursts.  Both of these stories are very character-focused, and Tokyo appears almost as a character in each one.  However, there are only a few cultural markers – most of which involve food – at play in both stories, and the setting feels almost anonymous in consequence.  Of course, Yoshimoto builds quite lovely descriptions of the physical setting, but in these stories much of the focus has been placed upon light and darkness, and the emptiness which one can feel when in the midst of a metropolis.

Yoshimoto considers the impact which everyday occurrences can have on us, and the comfort which comes from being in a familiar place, even if much of which was once familiar about it has now gone.   Her musings upon the concept of time are particularly interesting, and fitting, in both of these stories.  Some very important topics are discussed here, often in profound and memorable ways.  In both stories, where the young female protagonists have lost someone of great importance to them, the loneliness which Yoshimoto crafts is moving and heartfelt.  Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Kitchen’, and its sensuous descriptions about food and cookery, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale, and one which I do not feel I will ever forget.  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with bereavement and loss; both are quiet; both have an almost astounding amount of layers to them.  This collection, whilst short, provides so much to think about.

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‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata **

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) is a novella which so many people have been talking about of late.  Translated from its original Japanese by Ginny Tabley Takamori, and published in English in 2018, it has fast become an international bestseller, and is receiving praise from every direction. I felt, therefore, that it would be a great choice for my online book club, and we discussed it during February.

The blurb of Convenience Store Woman claims that Murata ‘brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan…  she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind.’  The novella, and Murata’s prose style, have variously been compared to the work of Banana Yoshimoto and Han Kang, and the film Amelie, all of which I very much enjoy.

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Convenience Store Woman uses the first person perspective of Keiko Furukama, a woman in her mid-thirties, who has spent her entire adult life working in a convenience store outside Hiromachi Station in Tokyo.  Her parents were thrilled when she originally took the job whilst pursuing her studies, as they viewed her as odd, a misfit.  After several troubling incidents in her childhood, Keiko recognised how her natural behaviour was affecting her parents: ‘[They] were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever.  I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home.  I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.’  Therefore, to feel as though their daughter was fitting in within a regimented environment was comforting to them.  Little do they know that Keiko has actually based her entire manner whilst working upon the store manual, ‘which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say’, and by observing the habits of her colleagues.  By doing this, Keiko essentially enables herself to ‘play the part of a normal person’.

Whilst Keiko is content, and feels comfortable in her job, she is aware that she is not living up to societal expectations, and that her family is worrying about her.  There is such a focus in the wider society on the importance of marriage – even if it is not to the right person, it seems – and women are referred to as old maids, spinsters, and ‘grubby’ for not conforming.  This all seemed very Jane Austen-esque to me; it is a very old-fashioned attitude.  Keiko says: ‘I knew it was considered weird for someone of my age to not have either a proper job or be married because my sister had explained it to me.’  Although she has no understanding as to why societal constructs want every woman of her age to conform to marriage and motherhood, she is still aware that others perceive her to be somehow deviant, or abnormal, for trying to maintain her own independence in a way which makes sense to her.  I found this part of her character desperately sad; she recognises that unless she puts on an act, she would not fit in anywhere: ‘You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange – maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to “cure” me.’  It is never explicitly stated what might be wrong with Keiko, and I would not like to speculate, particularly considering that this is such a short book.

The first half of the novella sets out Keiko’s job, and the way in which she tries to fit in with her colleagues, in the same manner as she tried to imitate her peers when she was young; for instance, shopping at the same boutique as a stylish coworker of around the same age as herself, and copying what others do, despite the way in which she largely does not understand the reasoning for this.  In her job, Keiko tells us, ‘speed is of the essence, and I barely use my head as the rules ingrained in me issue instructions directly to my body.’  She takes a great deal of pride in her efficiency and knowledge: ‘I automatically read the customer’s minutest moments and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response.  My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire.’  She is proud, too, that she has found somewhere she belongs, and something to do which others rely on.  At the outset of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko reflects: ‘It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move.  I am one of those cogs, going round and round.  I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.’  She sees herself as an important, and irreplaceable part of the store: ‘When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m so much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.’

The second half of the novella is concentrated far more upon colleague Shiraha’s place within Keiko’s life, and the ways in which they interact with one another.  From their meeting onwards, I did begin to find Convenience Store Woman rather unsettling in places; for instance, when Keiko invites Shiraha to stay at her apartment, and a strange conversation ensues.  Some of the things which he says to her – especially considering that they had only recently met, and he knew little about Keiko – made me feel uncomfortable, and even outraged.  He tells her: ‘”Your womb is probably too old to be of any use, and you don’t even have the looks to serve as a means to satisfy carnal desire.”‘  If anyone spoke to me in this way, I would not hesitate to tell them in no uncertain terms to leave my house and never contact me again.  Keiko, however, just listens quite passively, and does not seem to see a problem with Shiraha addressing her in this manner.

I certainly found Keiko to be an interesting character, but I cannot say that I warmed to her at all.  I felt sympathetic towards her to an extent, but I do not believe that creating empathy for her protagonist was Murata’s driving intention.  It seems a real shame that the second half of the novella took focus away from herself, and projected it onto her moody, feckless, and unlikeable colleague, Shiraha.  He is a character whom, whilst disrespectful and rude to customers and colleagues, conforms to societal constructs by divulging that the only reason he applied for the job was to find a wife.

I found the translation of Convenience Store Woman rather awkward at times, particularly with regard to the uncomfortable phrasing which Tapley Takamori decided to include.  For instance, Keiko refers to people who do not fit in as ‘foreign objects’, and Shiraha rather bizarrely declares: ‘… they all seem to think nothing of raping me just because I’m in the minority.’  It may well be that this prose is deliberately awkward in order to mimic Keiko’s own ineptitude, but I did find it a little too much at times.  In the past, I have found quite a lot of Japanese fiction rather awkward in its translation, but Convenience Store Woman is the most consistently awkward which I can remember reading.

Whilst I did enjoy the first half of the novella, I found this book largely an uneven and problematic one.  None of the characters around Keiko felt quite realistic, and their bad traits – particularly in the case of Shiraha – were too much; he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Other characters felt like merely stereotypes and cliches, and seemed to feature in the story merely to provide a contrast to Keiko.  I also found the dynamics between them quite odd.  I suppose that I am firmly lodged within the minority, but I did not find Convenience Store Woman anywhere near as compelling as I expected to.

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‘Speculative Japan 4: “Pearls for Mia” and Other Tales’ ****

There’s nothing better and more satisfying than finding a way to combine one’s passions. This is exactly what the Speculative Japan series does for me, as it successfully combines my love for fantasy and my fascination with Japan and its unique literature. 37550505

It’s been almost 3 years since I first read and reviewed the second volume in the series, which also happened to be my introduction to the fascinating world of Japanese fiction of the fantastic. In a similar fashion to the previous volumes, this fourth instalment includes 15 short stories, all by different authors and containing fantasy or sci-fi themes.

I really enjoyed reading this volume, as I think it was quite diverse in its content. There were some really long stories (“Dancing Babylon” by Makino Osamu) and some very short ones (“Nightfall” by Suzuki Miekichi or “Communion” by Takahashi Takako); there were stories by women as well as by men (and I’m always enthralled when I encounter fantasy stories by Japanese women); and, of course, there was the right balance between fantasy/fantastic and sci-fi stories, something which I think is an improvement compared to the previous volume where sci-fi seemed to prevail.

As with every collection, it is rather difficult for all of the stories to appeal to the reader to the same degree, and even though there were a couple of stories that were not really akin to my usual reading style, I did enjoy most of the stories contained in this volume. Two of my favourite stories were “The Fish in Chryse” by Azuma Hiroki and “The Sparrow Valley” by Hanmura Ryo.

But what I really love about the Speculative Japan series is the fact that I can encounter authors I haven’t read or even heard of before, and that expands my reading horizons immensely. The Japanese literary fantastic is a genre I’m very passionate and enthusiastic about, but since I’m still relatively new to it and I don’t have immediate access to all the untranslated works all the way here in Greece, it’s always very difficult for me to come across new and exciting authors. Speculative Japan does the job for me in this case, and so far, it has never failed me. I also love how the titles of the stories and the names of the authors are also given in Japanese, for those of us who want to research the originals, too.

If I had to mention something I find lacking in this volume, that would be more information on the translators of each piece. Especially when I read a story by an author I haven’t read before, I really enjoy reading about the author him/herself, as well as about their translators, as I tend to find their bios fascinating. That is just me, though, but it’s a little something I would like to see included in translated story collections more often.

Lastly, I would like to mention that the publishing house of Speculative Japan 4 is organising a short story translation contest (I believe) every year, and the winner’s translation is included in the upcoming Speculative Japan volume(s). I think that’s an amazing initiative, as well as a great incentive for new and aspiring translators of Japanese to English to become recognised. One day I might enter as well! 😉

While I’m eagerly anticipating the next volume of Speculative Japan to be released, I will go hunt down the ones I’m missing.

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