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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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‘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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‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro ****

The 2017 laureate for the Nobel prize in literature is none other than the British author of Japanese descent, Kazuo Ishiguro. Despite my fascination with Japanese literature (I know he’s technically not considered part of the Japanese literary world but still..) I have to admit that I had only read his short story collection, Nocturnes, about 4 to 5 years ago. As soon as Dolce Bellezza proposed a read-along of two of his novels, I knew I had to participate. The Remains of the Day is the only novel of his that I own in English (my mum being a fan of Ishiguro’s writing, we own everything of his that’s been translated into Greek) so I opted for that.

28921For a long time now, I have been very intimidated by this novel. Although very highly praised by some, others have described it as slow, boring and overly wordy. I had made an attempt to read it a few years ago but I never got past page 2; that’s probably because what I needed at that moment was a fast-paced story that didn’t require much chewing over. This novel, however, is everything but that, since it makes you ponder about the issues raised in it for days after reaching the last page.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Stevens, a butler, who works in Darlington Hall, which, after WWII, came to the possession of an American gentleman. Stevens’s new employer advises him to go for a short trip around England since he hasn’t had vacation for a very long time, and, despite his initial hesitation, Stevens warms up to the idea and that’s how the story begins.

Each chapter is narrated from a different town from Stevens’s journey, but more than describing his actual trip and experiences, the butler goes through a trip down memory lane and ends up relating to the reader his story and life with his previous employer and the circumstances surrounding his current position. Prominent figure in his ruminations on the past is his father as well as Miss Kenton who also used to work at Darlington Hall before she got married.

Nostalgia seeps through the narrative in every sentence. Stevens’s language is as formal and rigid as any proper English gentleman’s should be (or used to be) in an effort to hide and cast away his true feelings, but this apathy and indifference while narrating very crucial events in his life is exactly what gives away the extent to which he cared and how deeply he felt about them. This happens to be one of the characteristics of Japanese literature as well, and although Ishiguro is considered part of the British literary production, it appears to me like this part of his heritage permeates his writing, willingly or not. What appears as an inherently British narrative has, in reality, such an affinity to the Japanese culture and way of thinking.

Some of the questions posed and issues raised throughout the novel are those of dignity and which are the qualities that make a butler ‘great’, questions which are ardently connected with Stevens’s past and the choices he had to make as a person and as a butler as well. Ultimately, The Remains of the Day is a novel about the past and how it continually haunts us, shaping our future in ways we could never imagine. It is a novel about regret, regret for the choices that weren’t made and regret for the words left unsaid. It is a novel about duty and loyalty and the lengths an individual can go in order to fulfil them.

Have you read this novel or are you intimidated by it like I used to be?

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Reading the World: ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

I had read two of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s books before making my foray into Hotel Iris: The Housekeeper and the Professor (review), and Revenge (review). The Times Literary Supplement writes that in this particular novel, ‘Image by perfect image, we are led down into a mysterious and gripping universe, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying’.  The Independent goes on to say: ‘This is a brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected… but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender’.  Hotel Iris was first published in Japan in 1996, and in its English translation in 2010.

Hotel Iris, the third of Ogawa’s books to be translated into English, centres upon Mari, a seventeen-year-old who works on the front desk in a ‘crumbling, seaside hotel on the coast of Japan’.  One night, a middle-aged man and a prostitute are ‘ejected from his room’.  Mari finds herself infatuated with the man’s voice.  Just so you, dear reader, are warned, what follows is rather harrowing.  After several clandestine meetings, Mari is drawn to his home, where he ‘initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure’.9780099548997

Mari is as perceptive a narrator as Ogawa is a writer; of the prostitute, she observes: ‘Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks.  Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone.  Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches.  She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels’.  When her male companion first appears, the following is described rather lyrically: ‘The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel.  It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger.  Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn’.

The novel is told from Mari’s perspective, and we learn an awful lot about her.  At first, she comes across as a little naive, but she is soon cast under the translator’s spell, and allows him to do whatever he wants to her: ‘Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became – like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl’.  Like the Professor in Ogawa’s aforementioned novel, we are never given the man’s first name; rather, he is identified only by his profession, and known therefore as ‘the translator’.  The passages which include him tend to be rather sinister at times: ‘The translator’s hand was soft.  So soft it seemed my hand would sink completely into his.  This hand had done so many things to me – stroked my hair, made my tea, stripped me, bound me – and with each new act it had been reborn as something different’.  He is a peculiar and rather complex character, who made me feel uncomfortable throughout.  Ogawa has included an interesting contradiction when writing about him; whilst he revels in violent acts with her, his correspondence to Mari expresses a real tenderness.

As in her other books, some of Ogawa’s prose in Hotel Iris is deceptively simple.  The novel feels markedly different from The Housekeeper and the Professor, which has a wonderful, quiet beauty.  There is violence in Hotel Iris, and I found a couple of the scenes incredibly disturbing, something which I was not expecting.  Perhaps it just asserts what a diverse and skilled writer Ogawa is that she can write two very different novels in so confident a manner.  Hotel Iris is, I would say, far closer in its themes and occurrences to Ogawa’s short story collection, Revenge.

Hotel Iris is a continually interesting and unsettling novella, which becomes rather disturbing in places.  I tend to shy away from such novels, and whilst I did enjoy this overall, and have rated it highly, I cannot help but be glad that my usual reading fare is unlike this.  I found the reading process rather exhausting, despite the fact that I easily read it over a single afternoon.  Well plotted and multilayered, with a cleverly rendered ending, Hotel Iris is well worth seeking out, but it’s not something which I would recommend for the faint of heart!

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One From the Archive: ‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder.  Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’. 9780099553939

All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next.  Strings of plot meander their way through the whole.  Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.

Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday.  When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead’.  Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example.  Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective.  Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.

Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care.  Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’.  She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits.  The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.

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Reading the World: ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ by Haruki Murakami ***

Haruki Murakami is an author whom I consciously wanted to read during 2017.  Prior to picking up South of the Border, West of the Sun from the library, I had read and enjoyed Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, and been a little baffled by The Library Book.  This rather short novel has been translated from its original Japanese by Philip Gabriel, and was first published in Japan in 1992, and in its first English translation in 1998.

9780099448570Our protagonist is Hajime, an only child who grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in postwar Japan.  As a child, he was relatively lonely; indeed, his ‘sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child’.  When Hajime’s family choose to move several miles away, however, the pair soon lose touch.  When we first meet him, Hajime is in his thirties, and is married with two daughters; his profession is the owner of a jazz bar.  It takes him rather by surprise when Shimamoto, ‘beautiful, intense, [and] enveloped in mystery’, and whose first name we never learn, reappears one night.

The pair, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin an affair, which has a strong effect upon Hajime: ‘As I drove away, I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane.  Once she got out of the car and was gone, my world was suddenly hollow and meaningless’.  We are taken right into the mind of Hajime, and are able to see the turmoil and sense of impending doom which he feels: ‘What would become of me tomorrow I did not know.  Buying my daughter a horse – the idea took on an unexpected urgency.  I had to buy it for her before things disappeared.  Before the world fell to pieces’.  Despite these insights, I did not really feel as though I knew Hajime very well once I had closed the final page.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is well translated, and just after I began to feel that the prose was too simplistic, there would be a sudden flash of beauty such as this: ‘Her hand, which up till then had lain on the back of the sofa, she now placed on her knee.  I stared vacantly at her fingers tracing the plaid pattern of her skirt.  There was something curious about it, as if invisible threat emanating from her fingertips was spinning together an entirely new concept of time’.

Whilst not my favourite Murakami, this novel is rather absorbing, and Hajime’s narrative feels highly realistic.  There are small puzzles lain in place along the way, and several unanswered questions come to light.  This adds a certain depth to the plot, whilst also making the novel more engaging.  It is undoubtedly the most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of analysis could be done, I feel, on the protagonists.  There is a lack of emotion at points, but I find that this aspect is often missing with Japanese fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun is multi-layered and well tied together.  Despite this, the plot was quite predictable, and the whole, I felt, tended toward underwhelming overall.

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