Keizo Hino: 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams)

isle

The latest addition to my website is Keizo Hino‘s 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams). Keizo Hino has been compared to J G Ballard and, while they are different in many ways, they do share an interest in the urban landscape, particularly urban decay and high rises. This novel tells of Shozo Sakai, a widower in his fifties who works for a company that builds high rise buildings in Tokyo. He spends much of his free time exploring Tokyo and, by chance, comes across the reclaimed land in Tokyo, created by the rubbish produced in Tokyo. He starts to get a mild obsession about this area of land, with only a few warehouses, so near a major world city. He meets a woman motorcyclist and becomes mildly (though only mildly) obsessed with her. When he helps her later after she falls off her motorcycle, she takes him on an exploration of a part of the city that very few people know exists, even though it is right under their noses, but it is an area that is both fascinating and dangerous. Hino tells an excellent tale of his city and how it is both familiar and mysterious at the same time, even to someone who knows it well.

Kyūsaku Yumeno: ドグラマグラ (Dogra Magra)

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The latest addition to my website is Kyūsaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ (Dogra Magra). This is another Japanese epic – seven hundred pages in the Japanese original – which is both an incredibly complicated detective story as well as a searing indictment of contemporary (i.e. Japan in the 1930s) psychiatry where the doctors may well be more deranged than the inmates. Our narrator, initially unnamed, but who may (or may not) be Ichiro Kure, is a total amnesiac in the University of Kyushu psychiatric ward. He does not even remember his name but the doctor tells him that he has committed one or more terrible crimes but that he may (or may not) have been under the control of someone who had found out how to control the human psyche. We follow his narration but we also follow the often deranged notes of the doctors, both the current one and his colleague who may (or may not) have killed himself recently. Frequently, we not only have no idea about what is going on but neither we nor the characters know the real identity of the other characters. Nor is it clear who is the murderer, who the victim and who the detective. Ghosts of the deceased, a mysterious pained scroll of a dead woman, an apparently harmless old labourer, and the usual who is related to whom conundrum all add to our confusion. It is a superb and complex work, partially One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Чапаев и Пустота (UK: The Clay Machine-Gun; US: Buddha’s Little Finger) (both of which it preceded by many years) but so much more. Sadly, it is not available in English.

Fumiko Hayashi: 浮雲 (Floating Clouds)

Clouds

The latest addition to my website is Fumiko Hayashi‘s 浮雲 (Floating Clouds). Before saying anything else about it, I should point out that this Fumiko Hayashi is nothing to with the politician of the same name and the book is nothing to do with the 19th century novel of the same name by Futabatei Shimei (see Tony’s Reading List for a review of the latter.) This one is a grim novel about failed love in the latter part of World War II and, in particular, in the period after the War. Yukiko Koda is a young woman who has been sexually abused by a relative (though is a not unwilling participant in the abuse) and decides to leave to work as a typist in Vietnam. There she meets a married man, Tomioka, and they have an affair. He has promised to leave his wife and marry her when they return to Tokyo but, when they do return, he is less enthusiastic. Indeed, they continue an off-again/on-again relationship over the course of the book, while both have other relationships. Tomioka is determined to break the relationship off but cannot bring himself to do so. Neither of the two is happy. Indeed, both seem to be thoroughly miserable throughout much of the book, not helped by the difficult situation in post-war Japan. Tomioka, in particular, cannot decide what he wants. He has relationships with four women during the book, getting two of them pregnant, yet is not a womaniser but just cannot control himself when a woman shows an interest in him. It is a sad and miserable tale and, according to Hayashi, meant to show the emptiness of women’s hearts at the time. The book has been reissued by the Columbia University Press. However, I read the original English translation, published in Japan in 1957. The book contains line drawings by a Japanese artist, Sho Tanaka, and, as you can see in the drawing above, the characters look very Western. The picture above is meant to show Yukiko, Tomioka, Kano and Makita, their boss, all Japanese, and yet they do not look at all Japanese to me. Maybe, Tanaka had not read the book!

Mori Ōgai: 雁 (The Wild Geese)

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The latest addition to my website is Mori Ōgai‘s 雁 (The Wild Geese). This is a gentle novel of love. Okada is a medical student at Tokyo University, a good-looking, very fit young man, who enjoys his evening walk, visiting second-hand bookshops. On returning from his walk, he has been accustomed to seeing an attractive woman, returning from the bath-house to her house. He is clearly attracted to her. Okada and the unnamed narrator live in a student boarding-house, where there are servants to run errands for the students. One of them, Suezo, has taken to lending the students money and has done very well at it. He is married with children but is getting tired of his wife, so when he hears a young woman playing the samisen and then sees what an attractive woman she is, he is taken to her. The woman, Otama, lives alone with her father, who has financial difficulties. It is agreed that Suezo will provide a house for Otama, who will be his mistress, and a separate one for her father, which he does. However, when Otama, realises that Suezo is a money-lender and despised in the neighbourhood, she starts to have her doubts. We gradually realise that Otama is the young woman Okada has been seeing. But will they actually speak to one another? Ōgai tells his story very well, both in describing the growing attraction of Okada and Otama to one another as well as keeping us guessing what will happen. It is very Japanese in style but that is part of its attraction for us.

Republic of Consciousness Prize for Best Novel published by a Small Press

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I am well aware that, while I have quite a few reviews of books published by independent presses, I do not have many published by UK-based independent presses, publishing books originally written in English. Author Neil Griffiths, author of books such as Betrayal in Naples and Saving Caravaggio, is setting up The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Best Novel published by a Small Press. He outlines his reasons here. He points out that he has only recently discovered a few small presses – Fitzcarraldo Editions, Galley Beggar Press and And Other Stories are specifically mentioned. I have books published by all of them on my website. He specifically mentions Zone (Zone) by Matthias Enard, which was first published in English in the US by Open Letter, with Fitzcarraldo publishing it in the UK. As well as Zone, he mentions A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which did not really work for me and Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which I had not heard of, but which looks interesting. If you scroll down on this page, you can read his A broadside against mainstream publishing, which is worth reading and with which I can only agree. I wish him luck with this prize and shall follow it with interest.

Tōson Shimazaki: 夜明け前 (Before the Dawn)

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The latest addition to my website is Tōson Shimazaki‘s 夜明け前 (Before the Dawn). This a massive (750+ page) novel about the events before and after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the shogunate, which had essentially ruled Japan for 250 years, returned power to the Emperor, with the result that Japan moved from being a semi-feudal state to a more modern one. Shimazaki gives us considerable detail of the many events during this period, the second half of the nineteenth century, showing that the Meiji Restoration did not just happen overnight but was, in many respect, a gradual process. We follow the story of the Aoyama family, based on Shimazaki’s own family, who manage the post house on a key road between Kyoto (home of the Emperor) and Edo (modern-day Tokyo), home of the shogunate, a position with considerable responsibility. In particular, we follow the story of Hanzo, who is a boy at the start of the story and whose funeral ends the novel. He is very keen on restoration of the Emperor and belongs to a group whose aim that is. He faces many problems, in both his professional and personal life but also witnesses the many changes, some good and some not so good. Shimazaki gives us a very detailed account of the history of Japan of the period as well as the life of the ordinary people. This novel has been recognised as one of the the finest works covering that period and is well worth reading for its account of late nineteenth century Japan.

This is what there is (not): literature in Mexico in 2016

This article by critic Geney Beltrán Félix (in Spanish), entitled Esto es lo que (no) hay: la literatura en el México del 2016 [This is what there is (not): literature in Mexico in 2016] is highly critical of the current state of literature in Mexico. He starts off by saying what is good: a long and worthwhile literally tradition, lots of authors, both young and old, published, lots of novelists and poets but also playwrights, essayists, short story writers and chroniclers, writers who are traditionalists and those who are experimental, and writers not just in Mexico City but all over the country and also abroad. The literary support mechanism is also good: grants, fairs, subsidies from the government and universities for publication, and all sorts of literary prizes. There are also authors getting recognition abroad, though primarily in other Spanish-speaking countries.

So what is he not happy about? The qualities of reviews is very poor, he maintains (and not only in Mexico). Indeed, they have often been replaced in the Mexican press by advance notices of books, which are merely puff pieces. He goes on to say that the Latin American publishing industry has ceased to be an industry, Latin American or about publishing. The Mexican publishing industry is essentially controlled from Spain so decisions about what is good Mexican literature are made in Barcelona and Madrid and not in Mexico City. He calls it cultural colonialism. This means that a young novelist has to bear in mind the needs of that market – what Beltrán Félix sneeringly calls the airport reader and the European translator. This means, he says, that there are no novels that raise ethical questions, that have any intellectual depth or aesthetic responsibility. He condemns not only the publishers and the distribution channels (which make sure independents have little chance of breaking through) but the younger generation of writers who, unlike their predecessors, no longer seem to review books.

it is clear that, as he says, literature should not be just for mild entertainment but be a weapon in social change. He quotes Gabriel Zaid, who claims Mexican culture is organised to not read. Indeed, he calls on the government not to sponsor so many writers but to assist readers to learn how to read and to provide them with the tools for doing so. Todo esto –crítica, discrepancia, diálogo con la realidad, transformación de la comunidad nacional a través de los libros–, todo esto es lo que no hay. [All of this – criticism, discrepancy [by which he means variety], dialogue with reality, transformation of the national community through books – all of this is what there is not].

It is a fairly bleak view and one that I am obviously not competent to judge as far as Mexico is concerned. What we have seen, however, in the UK and in the US, with the rise of publisher conglomerates, is the rise of independents who have managed to distribute their books, using ebooks, social media, book fairs, blogs and so on. Many of my favourite blogs as well as my own have reviewed lots of independents. Yes, we have the Amazonisation of distribution, the death of independent book shops and the death of literary print media but I am not so sure that the situation is anywhere near as gloomy as it seems to be in Mexico. Indeed, as far I am concerned, one of the main problems with Mexican literature is how little makes it into English and, to a lesser extent, how much gets distributed outside Mexico, even in the Spanish-speaking world, except, of course, for those books published by the main Spanish publishers Beltrán Félix complains about. An interesting point of view but perhaps a bit too gloomy.

Shūsaku Endō: 侍 (The Samurai)

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The latest addition to my website is Shūsaku Endō‘s 侍 (The Samurai). This novel is based on a true story and tells the story of a Japanese expedition in the early sixteenth century to Nueva España (modern-day Mexico) and then to Europe. The Japanese are trying to establish a direct trade connection between Japan and Nueva España while the Spanish, led by the Franciscan monk, Velasco, want to be allowed to proselytise Christianity in Japan. For reasons which are not clear either historically or in this novel, a group of low-ranking samurais are sent as the Japanese envoys on the expedition and they have a throughly miserable time as they depend on the scheming and often dishonest Velasco to interpret for them and to show them the culture, they hate the travel and have a series of calamities, they do not understand or like the Spanish-speaking world, they have no idea why they are on the expedition or what exactly is expected of them and are thoroughly homesick. Velasco does not fare much better, as he is caught up in the politics. You can read this novel as a well-written historical adventure as the Japanese did and as I have done or as a Christian work, as has been more the case in West. In both cases, it has been a successful novel.

Chiya Fujino: ルート225 [Route 225]

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The latest addition to my website is Chiya Fujino‘s ルート225 [Route 225]. This tells the story of a teenage girl, Eriko Tanaka, and her brother, Daigo. One day, Daigo is late back from school and their mother is worried, as he had been previously arrested for stealing a bicycle. She sends Eriko to look for him and, to her surprise, she finds him in a children’s playground. They set off for home but the route home seems to have changed. When the main road they have to cross turns out to be a river, they get very worried. They get even more worried when they bump into a girl Daigo’s age, with whom Daigo was at school. Daigo drags Eriko away and tells her that the girl died a some while ago of pneumonia. They do eventually get home but their parents are not there and do not reappear the next day. However, when Daigo phones them from his school, the mother replies and urges him to come home. There are other minor changes, in addition to the dead girl (who seems to be very alive and attending the same school as Eriko). They try and recreate what they did and try to find a reason for the changes but nothing seems to work. Fujino tells a very good story which, though quasi-sci-fi, is certainly not real sci-fi, with time warps and black holes and the like. Indeed, the brother-sister relationship seems as much part of the story as the changes in reality. Sadly, neither this book nor any other of Fujino’s books has been translated into English.

Chiyo Uno: 色ざんげ (Confessions of Love)

confessions

The latest addition to my website is Chiyo Uno‘s 色ざんげ (Confessions of Love). This 1930s novel was written by a free-spirited writer who was also an expert in fashion. She claims that the story was actually told to her verbatim by her lover, the artist Seiji Tōgō. The story is about the very tempestuous and complicated love life of Tōgō, involving his wife, soon to be his ex-wife, his new wife, the very spoilt daughter of a rich Mitsubishi executive, a young woman who really loves another man though she marries Tōgō and, finally, the woman he might love most but whose family definitely do not love him. Train journeys through Japan, a car crashing off a cliff, a suicide pact, an actual suicide and a regular changing of partners and lovers are all part of this frenetic novel. While most of the characters seem thoroughly miserable except when they are actually having sex (not as much as you might expect), it is still an interesting read, not least to learn of the dubious morality of Japan of the period.