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Japanese Literature Challenge 12 Wrap-Up

March has come to an end and along with it so has Japanese Literature Challenge 12, organised by the lovely Meredith at Dolce Belezza and running from January to March.

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With my current job and living situation it’s kind of hard for me to find as much time to read as I used to, so when coming up with my TBR I knew I had to set up realistic goals, otherwise I would just fail miserably and end up putting more unnecessary stress to myself.

I had included four books in my TBR:

I managed to finish and review three out of the four (I have linked my reviews of those titles above). As for And Then by Soseki Natsume, I started reading it but I didn’t have time to finish it before the month (and the challenge) ended, so I decided not to rush it. I will probably post my review of it sometime in April or May.

Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture by Christine L. Marran, an academic book, was also in my list, as a little extra. Although I didn’t finish it, I did manage to read a couple of chapters and oh boy did it remind me how much I actually miss academia…

Lastly, I had set out to read three stories in Japanese from 20の短編小説 [20 no tanpen shosetsu], an anthology of 20 short stories by various contemporary Japanese authors. I ended up reading two stories, 「マダガスカルバナナフランベを20本」by Natsuo Kirino and 「いま二十歳の貴女たちへ」by Shiraishi Kazufumi. I was very disappointed in the Kirino story, even though I have thoroughly enjoyed her mystery/crime novels I’ve read. Shiraishi’s story was actually an essay on various thoughts about life during one’s 20s and what’s considered right and wrong – quite enjoyable to read and I also liked his writing style.

So, overall, even though I didn’t end up finishing all the books in my TBR, I did read some of everything so I deem this challenge a success! Next year’s challenge will probably take place in January and last for only one month, but I’m eagerly anticipating it anyway.

Did you take part in Japanese Literature Challenge 12? Which books did you read? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂

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‘A Midsummer’s Equation’ by Keigo Higashino

As I have said in previous posts, Higashino Keigo is one of my favourite contemporary Japanese authors and I will faithfully devour any book of his that falls into my hands. Most of his books combine mystery and crime plots with social issues, and I like how his prose is easy to read and yet really thought provoking. A Midsummer’s Equation is the sixth book in the Detective Galileo series, but only the third one translated into English (the other two being The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of Saint, both of which I’ve read and enjoyed).

23847971This novel is set in Hari Cove, a beautiful but rather neglected and now forgotten seaside resort area of Japan, where a conference regarding the town’s underwater mining operations is taking place. Our favourite physicist, Manabu Yukawa, otherwise known as Detective Galileo, has been invited to speak at this conference, which has apparently divided the town into two sides, as some people want to protect and preserve the natural beauty of their town, while the others support that going forward with the mining operation will open up new possibilities for this neglected by tourists town.

On the train to Hari Cove, Yukawa meets a little boy, Kyohei, who has been sent to spend the summer holidays at his uncle and aunt’s hotel, once bustling with tourists and visitors. However, during the very first night there, a body is discovered, that of a former policeman, who also happened to be a guest at Kyohei’s family’s hotel. As investigations around this death begin, many secrets and interreleated events start being uncovered, making this case much more complicated than it initially seems.

Like with Higashino’s other books that I’ve read, I really like how easy and fast to read his writing is, as it sucks the reader right inside the story and keeps them at the edge of their seat for what is still to come. In a way, this novel is very unlike the typical Japanese mystery/crime novels, in the sense that the culprit isn’t given from the outset, but instead we don’t get to know what truly happened until the very last pages.

Although I really enjoyed this intricate mystery and how many characters and events from their past became connected, I have to admit I got a little tired of the scientific talks (being a physicist, Yukawa loves giving those). I understand they were important to piecing together parts of the mystery, but since I can’t say I’m very interested in science itself, those passages were sort of a bore for me.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed how Higashino poses so many environmental questions and whether profit or preserving one’s natural treasures is truly the winner in the end.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, though it wasn’t one of my favourites by this author. I am really looking forward to reading more of his books in the future (and even in Japanese, as they say his prose isn’t particularly difficult – I can’t even imagine the scientific vocabulary that will be included though!).

I read this book as part of Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

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‘Three Japanese Short Stories’ by Akutagawa & Others (Penguin Modern #5)

My second read (actually third in order read but second I review) for Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12 was the fifth installment in the Penguin Modern series.

Despite its short length, this slim volume is packed with three short stories which are very different from one another, each one representative of a different aspect of Japanese literature at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, all translated by Jay Rubin.  38727862

The first story, ‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu, is a lyrical monologue written in the form of a letter the protagonist writes to his Excellency. The story is filled with beautiful descriptions of nature, as well as musings on the traditional culture of Japan and its being ‘tainted’ by the Western beliefs. Although he’s one of the most famous classic Japanese writers, I had never read any of Kafu’s works before and I fell madly in love with his prose and use of language (or, at least, its English translation that I read).

The second story, ‘Closet LLB’ by Uno Koji, recounts the tale of a man who loved literature and the arts but ended up studying law, only to discover that this profession is no more lucrative than his literary passion would have been, as he ends up living in a closet. The story is written in the very typical satyrical style of Uno, in the form of a fairy tale or fable, but with very realistic and not at all ideal situations. Although merely 18 pages long, this story manages to raise issues that still plague all of us today, such as being stuck in a job that doesn’t satisfy the individual and what a happy life constitutes of.

The third and final story is ‘General Kim’ by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, one of my favourite Japanese authors. This is the shortest of the three stories included in this volume, and yet I feel its message and impact is equally powerful as in the other two. It recounts the story of General Kim, a Korean soldier, and how he ends up saving his country from the ‘evil Japanese’. The story is told as a fable, as a piece taken from a mythology book, filled with fantastic elements such as decapitated bodies that still move, flying swords and all this nice stuff. At the very end, Akutagawa, with obvious irony, gives us his critique of such stories, claiming that history is filled with tales of triumph for the winners, however silly and laughable they might actually be.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. These stories might not be the best starting point for getting acquainted with these authors, but I think they were diverse enough to appeal to people of different tastes.

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‘Masks’ by Enchi Fumiko ****

The first book for my Japanese Literature Challenge 12, which I read back in January, is Masks by Enchi Fumiko, one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. Originally written in 1958 and translated to English in 1983 by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Masks is a hauntingly fascinating novel which masterfully combines an intricate plot with Japanese cultural elements.25304404

The book is separated into three parts, each one named after a different theatre Noh mask. As it is explained in the novel itself, each Noh mask portrays a specific emotion and symbolises something different, so the naming of each chapter after the specific mask was everything but arbitrary, too.

The story begins by introducing us to Ibuki, a literature professor, and Mikame, a doctor, who stumble upon one another in a coffee shop in Kyoto. As they catch up, they talk about Yasuko, a recently widowed woman in which both men seem to be interested. Yasuko lives with her mother-in-law, Mieko, who used to be a famous poet and who also appears to control Yasuko’s life in a more complicated way than the two men initially imagine.

Although I want to go into much more detail regarding the plot of this novel, I’m afraid anything more will definitely lead to spoilers. The way the lives of those four characters get tangled up is truly marvelous and the plot thickens more and more as the story progresses, yet without the reader really realising so until the last couple of pages.

Apart from occasional mentions to the Noh theatre, the story is imbued with references to The Tale of Genji, one of the most famous pieces of classic Japanese literature, as the story of the Lady Rokujo (one of the characters in this epic) is not only mentioned by the characters, but certain allusions to the incidents that take place in Masks can also be drawn. Enchi’s influence by the grand epic is apparent if one considers the fact that she had translated it into modern Japanese – a rather daunting and time-consuming task given The Tale‘s length.

Enchi’s writing and the beliefs she has instilled in her characters might be considered conservative or outdated for the modern reader, but I have to admit I found this novel rather refreshing to read – perhaps because I had only read novels by Japanese men written during that period or perhaps Enchi’s writing actually resonated with me more deeply than I initially thought it would.

Masks is a tale of deception, revenge and punishment. It is a tale that will whisk the readers away, thoroughly transporting them to its era (even if they aren’t really familiar with all the cultural references), tangling them up into an invisible thread that will start desolving only after they have reached the very last page.

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Japanese Literature Challenge 12 TBR

Created by the wonderful Dolce Bellezza, Japanese Literature Challenge has become one of the reading challenges I eagerly anticipate every year and one I can guarantee I can participate, since Japanese literature is always included in my yearly reading.

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This year’s Japanese Literature Challenge runs from January until March. You can view the announcement post here where you can find more details about the challenge, as well as the giveaways that will be running for the participants.

The books I plan to read for the challenge are:

  • Masks by Enchi Fumiko
  • A Midsummer’s Equation by Higashino Keigo
  • And Then by Soseki Natsume
  • Three Japanese Short Stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Nagai Kafu and Uno Koji (Penguin Modern Classics #5)

I also plan to read Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture by Christine L. Marran, an academic non-fiction book, throughout the duration of the challenge.

Since in 2019 I want to stop being afraid of reading in Japanese and have decided to start reading a short story every one or two months, I decided to add that to the challenge, as a little extra for myself. The book I will be reading the short stories from is 20の短編小説 [20 no tanpen shosetsu], an anthology of 20 short stories by various contemporary Japanese authors that centre around the theme of “20” in one way or another.

Are you participating in this challenge? If yes, what do you plan to read? Don’t forget to use the hashtag #JLC12 on Twitter and Instagram if you do participate!