Month: February 2016

Yoshikichi Furui: 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody)


The latest addition to my website is Yoshikichi Furui‘s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody). This is a superb story about an elderly man (he is, in fact, only fifty-seven) and his confrontation with ageing and death. The unnamed narrator, his young friend, Yamagoe, and his two fifty-seven year old friends, Sugaike and Fujisato, confront death on a regular basis. All of them have lost family members to death, often a premature death, and Furui fills the book with a catalogue of major disasters in Japan, which have some relevance to the characters. In the case of Yamagoe, it seems all of his family members were born at the same time as a disaster. The others remember these various disasters and, in the case of recent ones, we and they learn about them during the course of the book. They also recount various gruesome tales of death and disaster. Yet, the characters generally seem to take death and brushes with death in their stride, accepting that death is a normal part of life. It is not all death and disaster. As they get older, they have memories, sometimes, of course, of death, but also of their earlier lives and, in the case of the narrator, sometimes false memories. Other features of ageing – voices sounding distant, the fluidity of time and a general acceptance of life, as they have accomplished all that they set out to accomplish – are also brought in. Overall it is a first-class novel and can only make us regret that more of Furui’s work is not available in English.

Fumiko Enchi: 女坂 (The Waiting Years)


The latest addition to my website is Fumiko Enchi‘s 女坂 (The Waiting Years). This a feminist novel about the mistreatment of women in the family of a well-to-do official at the end of the nineteenth/beginning of the twentieth century. Tomo is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa and they have two children. However, he has now decided to take a concubine, something not unusual in Japan at that time. However, he asks his wife to find one for him, under the guise of hiring a maid. A fifteen year old girl is hired – she thinks she is going to be just a maid but her parents need the money – and she becomes his concubine. Two years later another ‘maid” is hired for the same purposes. Tomo is horrified and disgusted but carries on running both the household and the estates of the family, and even caring for the two maid/concubines. Her son, when he grows up, turns out to be something of an imbecile and treats women as badly as his father and even two of his sons will continue the family tradition. Enchi spares nothing in her condemnation of this behaviour and her sympathy for the women who are victims of post-samurai mores. As I stated in my review, while we might condemn this behaviour, similar behaviour is not unknown in the West today, albeit in a very different societal structure.

Japanese literature

Murakami likes Kafka

Murakami likes Kafka

For the past two years, at around this time of year, I have focussed on reading books from only one country. Two years ago, it was Iceland. Last year it was Russia. I could easily have done Russia again but, as the title says, I will be focussing on Japan for the next few weeks. I suppose, for many Westerners, Japan has an attraction because of its exoticism. They wore different clothes (but now they wear Western clothes). They ate different food (but now we all eat sushi). The language remains different and difficult. However, though their literature has been heavily influenced by Western literature, it still has a certain special Japanese flavour. Murakami, for example, may well be influenced by US hard-boiled detective novels and Kafka, but it is still peculiarly Japanese.


My first real introduction to Japanese literature was not modern novels but the great classics and I read many of them, from The Tale of the Genji to the The Tale of the Heike, from Basho to the Ugetsu Monogatari. And that leads me nicely on to Japanese cinema. Apart, naturally, from US and UK films, I have seen more films by Japanese directors than any other nationality and I suspect that I have seen more films directed by the great Kenji Mizoguchi than by any other director (with Hitchcock in second place.) Mizoguchi’s best-known film, at least in the West, is his superb adaptation of Ugetsu Monogatari though I prefer Utamaro and His Five Women and Princess Yang Kwei-Fei. However, all of his films, including his early silent ones, are well worth watching. Japan has produced a host of first-class film directors, such as Ozu, Kurosawa, Oshima, Ichikawa, Kobayashi (whose film Samurai Rebellion is one of my favourite films), Shinoda, Imamura, Teshigahara, Yoshimura and many others.


Two Japanese writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature: Kawabata and Oe. Tanizaki should have won it and Murakami is often tipped to win it, though not everyone agrees. However, the number of first-class Japanese novelists who have been translated into English and other Western European languages is huge (and the number I have not read is embarrassing). I have read Yukio Mishima and found his work less than interesting so you will not find him on my website but there are still plenty more to read. Even after I have finished this reading event, there will still be dozens of Japanese writers still to be read. Here is the first one, a fierce feminist novel.

Thomas Rosenboom: Publieke werken [Public Works]


The latest addition to my website is Thomas Rosenboom‘s Publieke werken [Public Works]. Thomas Rosenboom won the prestigious Dutch Libris Prize for this work but, sadly, it has yet to be translated into English. It is a historical novel set in late nineteenth century Netherlands and involves some poor Jewish peat diggers, a rural pharmacist and his cousin, a violin maker, living in Amsterdam, who is both affected by and very much interested in the building boom going on in Amsterdam. When he learns that a large hotel is to be built where his house is, he tries to hold out for a large payment for the house. With the money he expects to get, he plans to invest in an emigration project for the poor peat builders. With a complicated plot, which leads to things going wrong for several of the main characters, Rosenboom tells a first-class, fast-paced story as well as giving us a vivid picture of the Netherlands of the period.

Oleg Kashin: Роисся вперде (Fardwor Russia!)


The latest addition to my website is Oleg Kashin‘s Роисся вперде (Fardwor Russia!). Kashin is a Russian journalist who has been very critical of the Russian government and has been beaten up more than once for his pains. This book is a satire, but not too vicious, on the Russian system, with corruption and violence to the fore. Karpov is developing a growth serum. His grandfather had tried and failed to do so in the Soviet era but Karpov is more successful. However, a variety of vested interests are opposed to him while the local agricultural research institute, which does not do any agricultural research, wants to use him to get a large grant. When he finally gets it to work, it is tested on both humans and animals, generally with disastrous consequences. With many of the parties prepared to use corruption and violence to get their way, things get very much out of hand, with even the Olympic building organisation (which does not do any Olympic building) getting involved. It is a very funny book and one which exposes a high level of corruption in the Russian system.

Victor Pelevin: Поколение «П» (UK: Babylon; US: Homo zapiens)


The latest addition to my website is Victor Pelevin‘s Поколение «П» (UK: Babylon; US: Homo zapiens), another gloriously funny and wicked satire from Pelevin. This one is nominally about the advertising industry but goes well beyond that. Our hero is Babylen Tatarsky (his first name comes from a combination of Baby Yar and Lenin and has nothing to do with Babylon except, of course, when it does.) He has not adapted to the fall of the Soviet Union, almost pretending it did not happen. While working in a sales kiosk, he is rescued by a former fellow student and taken off to work in advertising, which is the future, as those people borrowing sums of money to start a business need advertising to promote their business and the US companies will need someone to help them to sell to the Russian market. Inevitably, the campaigns, particularly, those devised by Babylen are way over the top. Babylen does so well that he is continually getting promoted, However, drugs, black PR, fake Members of Parliament and oligarchs, the history of Babylon and did I mention drugs? all intervene to take this novel even more over the top. it is great fun, very witty, very inventive and probably not going to be the favourite reading of Putin.

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