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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! ūüėČ

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.

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Penguin Moderns: Andy Warhol and Primo Levi

Fame by Andy Warhol ** (#47) 9780241339800
Andy Warhol’s¬†Fame¬†is the forty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list. ¬†I read a little book by Warhol about cats several months ago, and didn’t much like it. ¬†Whilst Fame¬†is very different in what it set out to do, I was not much looking forward to reading it. ¬†In this book, ‘the legendary pop artist Andy Warhol’s hilarious, gossipy vignettes and aphorisms on the topics of love, fame and beauty’ can be found. ¬†The pieces collected here were selected by the editors of¬†The Philosophy of Andy Warhol¬†(1975).

Fame¬†consists of three sections – ‘Love (Senility)’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Fame’. ¬†Each section is made up of fragments of various pieces which Warhol wrote. ¬†From the beginning, I must admit that I did not enjoy his prose style; I found it a little too matter-of-fact and bitty. ¬†The prose also felt rather repetitive, more so due to the distinct subject groupings used here. ¬†Some of the fragments have very little to say, and there is barely any flesh on many of his utterances; rather, there is only a kind of skeleton structure to the book. ¬†It feels as though scores of random ideas and sentences have been jotted down in a notebook, and were not revised in any way before being published.

I found¬†Fame¬†rather jarring to read. ¬†Much of the content verged on odd, and the entirety was very dated. ¬†There is no sense that it has transferred well to the twenty-first century. ¬†I found this collection shallow and superficial, and Warhol sometimes crosses lines. ¬†For instance, Warhol writes: ‘Sometimes people having nervous breakdown problems can look very beautiful because they have that fragile something to the way they move or walk. ¬†They put out a mood that makes them more beautiful.’ ¬†Fame¬†was not particularly interesting in any way to me, and it is one of a handful of Penguin Moderns which I have finished solely because it is short.

 

9780241339411The Survivor by Primo Levi **** (#48)
I have read some of Levi’s non-fiction in the past, but had no idea that he had written any poetry until I picked up¬†The Survivor, the forty-eighth book on the Penguin Moderns list. ¬†The blurb notes: ‘From the writer who bore witness to the twentieth century’s darkest days, these verses of beauty and horror include the poem that inspired the title of his memoir, If This is a Man.’ ¬†All of the poetry collected in¬†The Survivor¬†has been taken from¬†Collected Poems, which was first published in 1988, one year after Levi’s death, and have been translated from their original Italian by Jonathan Galassi.

I imagined, quite rightly, that the poetry collected here would be rather hard-hitting. ¬†The majority of these poems are haunted by Levi’s experiences of the Holocaust, and his imprisonment in Auschwitz. ¬†Throughout, Levi’s words and imagery are evocative and heartfelt, and there is a questioning and searching element to each of his poems. ¬†The collection is poignant and incredibly dark. ¬†Much of the imagery here is chilling; in ‘Shema’, for instance, he writes:

‘Consider if this is a woman,
With no hair and no name
With no more strength to remember
With empty eyes and a womb as cold
As a frog in winter.’

There is an overarching sense throughout the collection, however, of looking forward rather than back, and of not losing hope. ¬†I found Levi’s spirit remarkable; even in his darkest days, he is able to picture his future. ¬†In ‘After R.M. Rilke’, he says:

‘We’ll spend the hours at our books,
Or writing letters to far away,
Long letters from our solitude;
And we’ll pace up and down the avenues,
Restless, while the leaves fall.’

The Survivor is an incredibly memorable collection, and one which I will certainly revisit in future.

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Penguin Moderns: Carson McCullers and Jorge Luis Borges

The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers ***** (#45) 9780241339503
The forty-fifth publication on the Penguin Moderns list is one which I was particularly looking forward to –¬†The Haunted Boy¬†by Carson McCullers. ¬†Whilst a huge fan of her fiction, and of the Southern Gothic genre in which she wrote, I have only read a handful of her short stories to date. ¬†The blurb states that ‘these moving stories portray love, sorrow and our search for happiness and understanding.’ ¬†All of the tales here – ‘The Haunted Boy’, ‘The Sojourner’, and ‘A Domestic Dilemma’ – were published between 1950 and 1955.

As with her longer works, McCullers’ writing is fantastic – multilayered, perceptive, and admirable. ¬†She captures moods particularly so well in the first story, ‘The Haunted Boy’: ‘It was then, in the unanswering silence as they stood in the empty, wax-floored hall, that Hugh felt there was something wrong’. ¬†McCullers also marvellously explores her characters and their psyches. ¬†From the same story, she writes of young protagonist Hugh: ‘Confession, the first deep-rooted words, opened the festered secrecy of the boy’s heart, and he continued more rapidly, urgent and finding unforeseen relief.’

McCullers also fantastically captures the essence of memory; from ‘The Sojourner’, for instance: ‘The twilight border between sleep and waking was a Roman one this morning, splashing fountains and arched, narrow streets, the golden lavish city of blossoms and age-soft stone. ¬†Sometimes in this semi-consciousness he sojourned again in Paris, or war German rubble, or Swiss ski-ing and a snow hotel. ¬†Sometimes, also, in a fallow Georgia field at hunting dawn. ¬†Rome it was this morning in the fearless region of dreams.’

McCullers writes of some very dark topics in this selection of her work, and contrasts this darkness with a series of glorious descriptions. ¬†Her character portraits are always sharp and varied. ¬†All three stories here are rich, thoughtful, and searching, and I enjoyed every single word of them. ¬†I am very excited to read the rest of McCullers’ short work at some point very soon.

 

9780241339053The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges ** (#46)
I do not think I had ever read any of Argentinian author Borges’ work before picking up the forty-sixth Penguin Modern,¬†The Garden of Forking Paths. ¬†I was not entirely sure, from other reviews which I have seen of various pieces of Borges’ work, whether this would be for me. ¬†Collected here are several ‘fantastical tales of mazes, puzzles, lost labyrinths and bookish mysteries, from the unique imagination of a literary magician’, and all were first published during the 1940s. ¬†They have been variously translated by Donald A. Yates, Andrew Hurley, and James E. Irby.

The stories in this collection are the title story, alongside ‘The Book of Sand’, ‘The Circular Ruins’, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, and ‘Death and the Compass’. ¬†All are very short, and ‘On Exactitude in Science’ covers just a single page. ¬†There are some interesting ideas at play throughout, and I found the collection strange and unusual. ¬†I could never quite guess where the stories were going to end up.

Whilst I found¬†The Garden of Forking Paths¬†interesting enough to read, and enjoyed some of the quite beguiling descriptions in its pages, it has not sparked an interest within me to pick up any more of Borges’ work. ¬†I can see why other readers would really enjoy this collection, but it was not really my style. ¬†The tales were a little obscure for my particular taste at times, and I found that they sometimes ended a little abruptly.

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Penguin Moderns: Yuko Tsushima and Javier Marias

9780241339787Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima *** (#43)
I must admit that I find Japanese fiction a little hit or miss. ¬†A lot of the stories which I have read have been a little too obscure for my taste, and even sometimes when I have enjoyed a particular plot, I find the writing, or the translation of it, rather too simplistic. ¬†Regardless, I came to the forty-third Penguin Modern with an open mind. ¬†These are described as ‘luminous, tender stories from one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, showing how childhood memories, dreams and fleeting encounters shape our lives.’

This collection is made up of two short stories, ‘The Watery Realm’, and ‘Of Dogs and Walls’. ¬†The first was published in 1982, and the second in 2014, and this is the first time in which both tales have been translated into English, by Geraldine Harcourt. ¬†‘The Watery Realm’ begins in rather an intriguing manner: ‘It was in the middle of the summer he turned five, as I recall, that my son discovered the Western-style castle in the window of the goldfish shop in our neighbourhood.’ ¬†I found this tale engaging throughout, and the narrator and her son both felt like realistic creations. ¬†I didn’t enjoy ‘Of Dogs and Walls’ anywhere near as much, unfortunately. ¬†Whilst on the whole both stories were interesting and kept me guessing, and neither was overly obscure, I do not feel inspired to read the rest of Tsushima’s work.

 

Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias **** (#44) 9780241339480
Javier Marias’¬†Madame du Deffand and the Idiots¬†sounded like such an interesting concept. ¬†This volume presents ‘five sparkling, irreverent brief portraits of famous literary figures (including libertines, eccentrics and rogues) from Spain’s greatest living writer’. ¬†All of these sketches are taken from¬†Written Lives, which was published in Spain in 2009, and all have been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

The essays here are written variously about Madame du Deffand, Vladimir Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Bronte. ¬†I was particularly interested to read the final three, all writers whom I adore. ¬†This is the first time which I have read Marias’ work, and I found it rather amusing and intriguing. ¬†The first essay, for instance, begins: ‘Madame du Deffand’s life was clearly far too long for someone who considered that her greatest misfortune was to have been for at all.’ ¬†On discussing the unusual names used in Djuna Barnes’ family, ‘which, in many cases, do not even give a clue as to the gender of the person bearing them’¬†he writes: ‘Perhaps it is understandable that, on reaching adulthood, some members of the Barnes family adopted banal nicknames like Bud or Charlie.’ ¬†All of these pieces are rather short, and quite fascinating – and sometimes enlightening – to read. ¬†Marias seems to really capture his subjects throughout, and shines a spotlight on a handful of quite unusual people. ¬†Madame du¬†Deffand and the Idiots¬†has certainly piqued my interest to read more of Marias’ work, and soon.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Dialogue of Two Snails’ by Federico Garcia Lorca ***

9780241340400I was looking forward to trying a selection of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry, having never read any of his work before. ¬†The 42nd Penguin Modern,¬†The Dialogue of Two Snails, is described as ‘a dazzling selection of the beautiful, brutal and darkly brilliant work of Spain’s greatest twentieth-century poet.’

The collection, which has been translated by Tyler Fisher, contains work which appears in English for the first time, and presents a ‘representative sampling of [his] poetry, dialogues, and short prose.’ ¬†The poems collected here also appear with the dates in which they were written, which I think is a useful touch.

Other reviewers have commented that the placing of poems here feels disjointed, and that the quality of the translation renders the poems stilted. ¬†I have no reference points with which to compare Garcia Lorca’s work, and so I did not let this affect my reading of¬†The Dialogue of Two Snails.

As I find with many collections, there were poems here which I didn’t much like, and others which I thought were great. ¬†Some of Garcia Lorca’s ideas are a little bizarre and offbeat, but I am definitely intrigued enough to read more of his work, and to see how the translations compare. ¬†Some of what he captures here is lovely, and so vivid, and I enjoyed the diversity of the collection. ¬†As ever, I will finish this poetry review by collecting together a few fragments which I particularly enjoyed.

From ‘The Encounters of an Adventurous Snail’:
There is a childlike sweetness
in the still morning.
The trees stretch
their arms to the earth.

From ‘Knell’:
The wind and dust
Make silver prows.

‘Seashell’:
They’ve brought me a seashell.

It’s depths sing an atlas
of seascapes downriver.
My hear
brims with billows
and minnows
of shadows and silver.

They’ve brought me a seashell.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli‚Äôs A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‚Äėa miniature masterpiece‚Äô in its blurb, and tells ‚Äėthe story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.‚Äô¬† It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet‚Äôs excellent novel HHhH.¬† It is Mingarelli‚Äôs first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.¬† It begins in the following way: ‚ÄėThey had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads‚Äô.¬† The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‚ÄėA Meal in Winter‚Äô by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‚Äėbefore the first shootings‚Äô.¬† Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.¬† The narrator‚Äôs fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.¬† The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.¬† It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‚Äėchimney which was barely raised above the ground‚Äô.¬† A man emerges from the depths: ‚ÄėWe didn‚Äôt see anything in his eyes either ‚Äď no fear, no despair‚Ķ¬† All we could see of his face were his eyes‚Ķ¬† They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.¬† Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life‚Äô.¬† This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‚Äėthe Jew‚Äô.¬† This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‚ÄėWe were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.¬† These days, we had to bring them back‚Äô.¬† The narrator goes on to say, ‚ÄėWe‚Äôd only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten‚Äô.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.¬† They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal ‚Äď a soup which is savoured.¬† Mingarelli‚Äôs setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.¬† It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.¬† In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.¬† A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.¬† Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.

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‘Our Life in the Forest’ by Marie Darrieussecq ***

I have only read one of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s novels to date, All the Way, but I found it rather too offbeat and strange for my personal taste, and was not overly enamoured with it.¬† Her newest offering to have been translated into English by Penny Hueston, however, sounded most interesting.¬† Whilst still not a fan by any means of science fiction, I have been reading a few dystopian tomes of late, and thought I would give Our Life in the Forest a go.

Its blurb states that the novel will challenge ‘our ideas about the future, about organ-trafficking, about identity, clones, and the place of the individual in a surveillance state.’¬† Le Monde promises that ‘the reader will be captivated’; The Observer calls Darrieussecq’s talent ‘dazzling’; and Liberation writes: ‘… reducing this book to a dystopian tale is doing it a disservice…¬† A journal from beyond the grave, as time runs out…¬† And a profound novel about loneliness.’

Set in the near future, ‘a woman is writing in the depths of a forest.¬† She’s cold.¬† Her body is falling apart, as is the world around her.¬† She’s lost the use of one eye; she’s down to one kidney, one lung.¬† Before, in the city, she was a psychotherapist, treating patients 9781925603781who had suffered trauma…¬† Every two weeks, she travelled out to the Rest Centre, to visit her “half”, Marie, her spitting image, who lay in an induced coma, her body parts available whenever the woman needed them.’¬† This woman, our narrator, has fled to the forest along with many other people, ‘as a form of resistance against the terror in the city.’¬† Their halves live in the forest with them, and have to be taught how to function as humanly as is possible.¬† Only the privileged have halves, too; those who cannot afford the full body clones which can be used for organ replacement and the like, have jars, which are filled with just a few organs.¬† Those who cannot afford the jars have no help or assurance at all.

Whilst introducing her plight, the narrator admonishes herself: ‘Time to get a grip.¬† I have to tell this story.¬† I have to try to understand it by laying things out in some sort of order.¬† By rounding up the bits and pieces.¬† Because it’s not going well.¬† It’s not okay, right now, all that.¬† Not okay at all.’¬† She then goes on to describe her physical body, and the ways in which it has begun to fail her.¬† From the outset, she has an awareness of her own mortality: ‘I’m not in good shape.¬† I won’t have time to reread this.¬† Or to write a plan.¬† I’ll just write it as it comes.’¬† She is, she tells her audience, ‘writing in order to understand, and to bear witness – in a notebook, obviously, with a graphite pencil (you can still find them).’

Interestingly, the halves which belong to the characters are the only beings here which are given names.  None of the living protagonists, or those whom the narrator briefly comes into contact with, are really identifiable from the mass.  Using this technique, Darrieussecq ensures that her novel is at once anonymous and intimate.  It feels almost as though the crisis which she has created has befallen everyone, without exception.  Indeed, the narrator assumes that we know parts of her story, and have an understanding of the changed world which she lives in, already.

The world building in Our Life in the Forest is effective in many ways, but there are certainly a few elements which could have done with more explanation.  To me, a relative newcomer to the dystopian genre, I found some elements to be far more interesting than others.  Our Life in the Forest has been quite intricately crafted, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into the plausibility of scenes and settings.  However, there is an emotionless quality to it, which in turn creates a kind of detachment.  I found my reading experience to be interesting enough, but to me, the novel was not wholly satisfying.

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