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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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Reading the World: ‘Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier’ by Tatiana de Rosnay ****

‘As a bilingual bestselling novelist with a mixed Franco-British bloodline and a host of eminent forebears, Tatiana de Rosnay is the perfect candidate to write a biography of Daphne du Maurier. As a thirteen-year-old, de Rosnay read and reread Rebecca, becoming a lifelong devotee of Du Maurie’s fiction. Now de Rosnay pays homage to the writer who influenced her so deeply, following Du Maurier from a shy seven-year-old to a rebellious sixteen-year-old, a twenty- something newlywed, and finally, a cantankerous old woman. With a rhythm and intimacy to its prose characteristic of all de Rosnay’s works, Manderley Forever is a vividly compelling portrait and celebration of an intriguing, hugely popular and (in her time) critically underrated writer.’

9781250099136I love du Maurier, and she is easily one of my favourite authors.  I have also really enjoyed de Rosnay’s work to date, and when I found out about the French publication of Manderley Forever, I willed it to be translated into English as soon as was possible.

I love the way in which Manderley Forever is written.  I found the first section particularly incredibly spellbinding.  There was almost a magical quality to its prose, as well as the story it relayed.  Whilst the rest of the book was undoubtedly fascinating, I do feel as though it unfortunately lost a little of its sparkle.  Perhaps this is because I knew relatively little about Daphne as a child, but was well versed in her life and writing from adolescence onward.  The childhood section was refreshing, I suppose, in that it held some surprises for me.

There is an undoubted admiration on de Rosnay’s behalf, and the whole has been written and researched lovingly.  I really liked the way in which de Rosnay drew a parallel story alongside du Maurier’s biography, by going on a personal ‘pilgrimage’ to all of the places in which du Maurier lived and visited.  De Rosnay is thorough, and presents her subject in such detail.

The section which included du Maurier’s obituaries was a really nice touch, particularly with regard to the legacy which she left behind.  It also drew a very fitting conclusion to the biography.  The translation, too, was flawless.  One can certainly tell that de Rosnay is first and foremost a novelist.  I can only hope that she writes more such fantastic portraits as this in future.

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Reading the World: ‘The Empress and the Cake’ by Linda Stift ****

I am at that stage in my reading life where I purchase Peirene books without even reading their blurbs, almost certain as I am that I will enjoy them, and find them striking and thought-provoking.  I have only been disappointed with one of their titles to date, and they firmly remain one of my favourite publishing houses.  When I spotted a deal on the Kindle store for Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake then, I jumped at the chance of buying it, and read it the very next day.  Given its title too, it seems fitting that I am scheduling this post on my birthday!

The Empress and the Cake has been translated from its original German by Jamie Bulloch, and is set in Vienna.  Its Austrian author has won many awards for her writing.  The novella is part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series.  Of it, Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes: ‘On the surface this is a clever thriller-cum-horror story of three women and their descent into addiction, crime and madness.  And at times it’s very funny.  But don’t be fooled.  The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us.’ 9781908670304

The Empress and the Cake is split into two distinct parts, and opens with our narrator standing in a cake shop, where she sees a woman acting rather strangely: ‘She had no intention, so it appeared, of buying anything; she simply seemed to enjoy gazing at the layers of light and dark chocolate, the white cream toppings and the colourful sugar decorations’.  This woman, who later introduces herself as Frau Hohenembs, asks the narrator to share a splendidly named Gugelhupf with her.  Without explanation, the narrator then follows Frau Hohenembs to her apartment, under the pretence of eating cake and drinking coffee: ‘And I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with half a Gugelhupf after stuffing myself with cake at this woman’s place.  Even contemplating what might happen with my share was giving me a headache.’

A distinct contrast to Frau Hohenembs is her housekeeper, Ida: Frau Hohenembs ‘definitely fell into the category of thin, if not emaciated.  [Overweight] Ida rapidly ate four pieces of cake, one after the other…’.  We find, rather soon, that our narrator suffered with bulimia when she was younger, and the gluttony of eating of the cake – something which she would ordinarily avoid – brings on a relapse: ‘The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced.  It was the first time in fifteen years.  I had always known that there was no safety net.  But I hadn’t suspected that it would arrive so unspectacularly, that it would not be preceded by a disaster such as heartbreak or dismissal or a death.’

The present-day story is interspersed with extracts from a fairytale-like text, which allows the reader to muse somewhat upon whose story it is, and who is doing the telling of it.  These sections render the whole peculiar, yet beguiling; there is almost a compulsion to keep reading.  Stift has cleverly, in such a restricted space as a novella, presented an almost impossible plot to correctly guess at.  The Empress and the Cake is rather unsettling, particularly toward the end, but if you like quirky and unusual books, it is one which is well worth picking up.

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Reading the World: ‘For a Flower Album’ by Colette ****

I adore Colette, and when I spotted this unknown-to-me tome on the Open Library, I borrowed it immediately.  It is a relatively short tome, translated from its original French by Roger Senhouse, and first published in the United Kingdom in 1959.  Here, Colette presents love letters to flowers – and a couple of interesting essay-length pieces written from the perspective of them – from the rose to the narcissi, and from the orchid to the hellebore.

s-l300Each prose piece is typically around three pages long, and several of the entries are accompanied by beautiful watercolours painted by Manet.  For any fans of her fiction, and any lovers of the outdoor world, For a Flower Album is a real treat.  It also makes a lovely seasonal read for the summer months; I can well imagine sitting in a beautiful park or meadow, surrounded by flowers, and dipping in and out of its pages.

What Colette says is, unsurprisingly, intelligent and thoughtful.  Her musings are also rather original for the most part, particularly when we consider those pieces from the imagined perspectives of several flowers.  ‘The Gardenia’s Perspective’ is the strongest of these, and is really rather lovely.  Such inclusions remind one just how strong Colette’s fiction is, and that she is first and foremost a prose writer.  She, of course, discusses the aesthetics of her chosen flowers, and sometimes alludes to their perfect growing conditions too.  Sometimes we are privy to such details as to when one can expect the flowers to emerge, and her favourite varieties.  Memories of Colette’s past have also been included throughout, in which she talks about her love of nature as a child, and the places which she has been in order to see the best floral specimens.

For a Flower Album is sensual in its descriptions, and many themes are touched upon, from art to gastronomy.  It is, as well as a manual in how to love, admire, and sometimes care for flowers, a celebration of France and its nature.  There is not a great deal of consistency to the piece, but it is the perfect choice to accompany a heavier book with.

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Reading the World: ‘The Longest Night’ by Otto de Kat **

I was lucky enough to travel to beautiful Amsterdam in February, and whilst Otto de Kat’s The Longest Night is set largely in its sister city, Rotterdam, I felt that it would be a good choice to read before I set off.  Published in the Netherlands in 2015, it has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson.  I had heard of de Kat before selecting this tome, but hadn’t read any of his work before.

The Longest Night begins in an intriguing manner, which makes one want to read on: ‘Emma knew exactly what day it was, and what time, and what was going to happen.  Her questions were a smoke screen, she wanted the nurse to think she was already quite far gone’.  Our protagonist is Emma Verweij, is now ninety-six, and is suffering from memory problems.  Whilst she is unable to remember anything which has happened to her recently, her past memories are vivid to her, and thus, a structure unfolds in which we travel back with her – first to Berlin, and then to the Netherlands – through a series of fragmented chapters.  Interestingly, whilst she feels alive only when searching the recesses of her mind for past memories, Emma is aware that she is reaching the end of her mortality.  In this sense, the retrospective positioning of the omniscient narrator works well; we really get an idea of how muddled her mind is as the novel goes on: ‘Her life had shattered into fragments, crystal clear, light and dark, an endless flow.  Time turned upside down, and inside out.’ 9780857056085

Essentially, then, we can see The Longest Night as a reflection of Emma’s life, and how she lived it.  De Kat has handled the sense of historical significance very well indeed; the past comes to life through a series of descriptions of place and weather.  During the Second World War, Emma’s husband, Carl, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is arrested, and she has no option but to flee to safety.  She ends up in the Netherlands.  This is de Kat’s starting point; Emma then goes forward in regard to her memories, and those whom she conjures up from the annals of her past existence are vivid.  There is, however, little chronological pattern between the memories.  This technique serves to make Emma’s story more believable; we as readers are encountering the past as she remembers it.

Watkinson’s translation has been deftly worked; the prose is fluid and as vivid as I imagine the original is.  De Kat’s approach is relatively simple, but it has been well executed.  Despite all of the positives, what really let the book down as far as I am concerned is the dialogue.  Only the minority of conversational patterns appeared as though they could realistically be uttered; for the most part, sentences were awkward and almost robotic.  I’m loath to believe that this is a translation issue.  Regardless, it did put me off rather, and I found myself enjoying the story less as it went on.  In terms of the plot too, there are definite lulls as one reaches the Netherlands alongside Emma.

There are some profound, and almost quite moving, musings upon life and death within The Longest Night, but the loss of momentum really made the whole suffer.  When I began, I was fully expecting to give the book a four-star rating.  As I neared the quarter point, however, my mind changed; I became far less interested in both story and characters, and I found myself even disliking some of the chapters.  There was an odd and rather jarring repetition to it at times too.  I have opted for a three star review, as the beginning was so engaging; there sadly just wasn’t much of the consistency which I was expecting of it, and I will thus be less keen to pick up another of de Kat’s novels in future.

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Reading the World: ‘The Accusation’ by Bandi ****

When I began my Reading the World Project, I didn’t suppose for a second that I would be able to include anything from North Korea.  Lo and behold, The Accusation was then published, presenting seven stories set during the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and smuggled out of the country by a very brave individual.  The stories, which were written from 1989 onwards, have been wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, and published under the pseudonym of ‘Bandi’.  This edition has been published with a rather fascinating afterword, which details how the manuscript left North Korea.

9781781258712The stories within Bandi’s collection ‘give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships’.  From the outset, I found it utterly fascinating.  I have learnt as much about North Korea as I can in the past, but anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with the country will know how difficult this is.  Evidently, too, one must take into account that the portrait presented of North Korea to the West – in an official capacity, at least – is incredibly skewed.  These tales, all of which are based upon real occurrences within North Korea, and encompass people from all walks of life, are therefore all the more important.

The Accusation is filled with curious little details about many aspects of life for ordinary citizens within North Korea.  In ‘Record of a Defection’, for instance, the male narrator utters the following when he finds out that his wife does not want children: ‘The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn’t want to think about, the one thing I could never get away from – my “standing”.  And the reason mine was so low?  Because my father was a murderer – albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings’.  Through details such as this, Bandi effectively, and often shockingly, demonstrates how quick, and not particularly important decisions on the face of it, can haunt a family for generations.

The Accusation provides a powerful insight into modern history.  The themes within are varied, ranging as they do from war, forced migration, hopelessness, and familial tragedies linked to the regime, to the terror of the Party, spying, and clandestine writing.  Many similarities can be drawn between the regime portrayed here and that within Russia, such as the aspects of collectivisation and rationing.  So many elements feel as though they have been taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984, most intensely so with regard to the constant surveillance which every government-owned flat and factory is under.

Here, Bandi has presented an incredibly important book, which speaks out against a hidden and terrifying society.  There is such depth to every single one of these stories; such cruelty, such violence, and such pain.  The use of different viewpoints serves to show just how far-reaching the regime is.  Tense and terrifying, The Accusation should be a must read for everyone.

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Reading the World: ‘The Life of Rebecca Jones’ by Angharad Price ****

I spotted Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones when browsing the library.  It is an entry upon my 2017 reading list, and when easing it out from the shelves where it was sandwiched between two rather enormous tomes, I was surprised to see how slim it was.  Its ‘powerful meditation on one family’s passage through the 20th century’, and the modern world which serves to threaten their traditional rural life in Wales, sounded absolutely lovely.  I adore quiet novels which take me to a different time and place, and The Life of Rebecca Jones certainly ticks all of those boxes.

The Life of Rebecca Jones has been translated from its original Welsh by Lloyd Jones.  In its native Wales, the book was heralded a ‘modern classic’ upon its publication, and it has been highly regarded in literary avenues since it was transcribed into English.  Jan Morris describes it as ‘the most fascinating and wonderful book’, and Kate Saunders in The Times writes: ‘The ending will make you want to turn right back to the beginning.’ 9780857387127

From the outset, there is a definite brooding power to the narrative, and an ever-present thoughtfulness embedded into every single sentence: ‘This was a reversal of creation.  The perfection of an absence. / Tranquility can belong to one place, yet it ranges the world.  It is tied to every passing hour, yet everlasting.  It encompasses the exceptional and the commonplace.  It connects interior with exterior.’

An ageing Rebecca narrates the whole; her voice is measured and incredibly human: ‘I too have sought peace throughout my life.  I’ve encountered it, many times on a more lasting silence; and I will find it before I die.  My eyesight dwindles and my hearing fails.  What else should I expect, at my age?  But neither blindness nor deafness can perfect the quietness which is about to fall on this valley.’  There is a ruminative quality to her voice, and the use of retrospective positioning only adds to this effect.

Rebecca has lived within Cwm Maesglasau for all of her life; she adores it, but the sadness which she feels at the changes within her community and landscape are prevalent.  Of her home, she writes: ‘Cwm Maesglasau is my world.  Its boundaries are my boundaries.  To leave it will be unbearably painful.’  The landscape is as important a character within the novel as Rebecca herself; this is obvious from the very beginning.  Price shows just how deeply person and place are connected, and the affects and effects of the two.  She describes the scenes which Rebecca and her ancestors saw so vividly, bringing them to life for the reader: ‘There is a crimson tunnel of foxgloves and a sparkling dome of elderflower: the same intricate design, Evan notes, of the lace on his wife’s bodice.  Sunshine streaming through the canopy spangles her hair with stars’.

Despite The Life of Rebecca Jones identifying as a work of fiction, photographs have been used throughout, giving it the quality of autofiction.  Its words and their accompanying images are filled with traditions.  It adds to the reading experience that some of the original Welsh vocabulary has been included, sometimes alongside their English translations, and otherwise understandable within their context.

Rebecca Jones is the name of the narrator, as well as of her mother and grandmother.  In this manner, Price effectively tells three stories, which are similar but have discernible differences in their way.  The novel is an incredibly contemplative one; it almost makes one yearn for times gone by.  The structure which Price makes use of is one of fragmented memories; the only links between them are often that they have been lived by the narrator, or by members of her immediate family.  The reading experience which has been created is a sensual one; in interruptions to Rebecca’s voice, a stream has been personified, and its journey shown with beautiful, lyrical prose.  The Life of Rebecca Jones is quietly beautiful; it demonstrates a life filled with sadnesses, but one which is still cherished nonetheless.

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