Hiromi Kawakami: 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo)

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The latest addition to my website is Hiromi Kawakami‘s 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo)/ This is the quirky tale of the relationship between a thirty-seven year old woman, Tsukiko, and her high school Japanese teacher, some thirty years her senior, whom she addresses as Sensei, the honorific term used by the Japanese for their teachers. They meet by chance in a bar, where both go to eat and drink. She had forgotten his name, not least because she never liked Japanese class, hence her use of Sensei. They continue to meet by chance, when they bump into one another, usually at the same bar. They both enjoy their food and drink. The relationship develops slightly when they go to a nearby market together but does not seem to be developing into anything even vaguely romantic. They have a row – over the Giants baseball team, which he adores and she hates – and ignore one another for a long time but then resume cordial relations. They go to the high school cherry blossom festival and she leaves with a former high school boyfriend, now divorced, and he leaves with the art teacher. Again there is a break in the relationship but, as he says, there is a karmic connection between the two and things later resume. Kawakami tells a very charming tale of a relatively unusual relationship, with its ups and downs and what works and what does not, without getting in any way sentimental or trite.

Fumio Niwa: 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree)

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The latest addition to my website is Fumio Niwa‘s 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree). This is a long novel, set in a Buddhist temple, with a detailed description of the temple and its rituals (Niwa descended from a long line of priests and trained as a priest before abandoning the profession to become a writer). However, despite the spiritual background, it is primarily concerned with human failings. Soshu has been adopted into the Getsudo family when the current priest dies, leaving a young and still very attractive widow and an eight-year old daughter. The intention is that Soshu will marry Renko, the daughter, when she is of age. However, her mother, Mineyo, starts an affair with Soshu and, even after Renko is of age and the couple are married, the couple continue the affair. A son is born to Soshu and Renko, but the affair continues. Eventually, Renko realises what is going on and, like Niwa’s mother, leaves to marry a Kabuki actor. Meanwhile, Soshu falls for Tomoko, a widowed parishioner, who is trapped in an unpleasant relationship with the main benefactor of the temple, and ceases his relationship with Mineyo. The parishioners, unaware of the affair with Mineyo and Soshu’s feelings for Tomoko, feel that Soshu should remarry. Soshu, despite his failings, is a good man and realises his situation cannot continue as it is. Niwa gives us an excellent portrayal of the conflict between the spiritual life and human emotions and how there is no easy resolution between the two.

Saiichi Maruya: 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow)

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The latest addition to my website is Saiichi Maruya‘s 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow). This is an excellent novel about a somewhat taboo subject in Japan: draft desertion. Shokichi Hamada is currently the assistant chief clerk in the registry office of a university. However, during the war, he decided not to serve and travelled around Japan (with a beard) working first as a radio and clock repairer and then as a sand artist. During his travels, he met Akiko, and they stayed together for the duration fo the war but, after the war, her mother made an arranged marriage for her and Hamada returned to Tokyo. While he has not deliberately hidden his war-time exploits, he has certainly tried not to mention them. When there is a possibility of promotion, the word gets out and starts to cause problems, even though quite a few people support him. We follow both his war-time travels and his current life and, in particular, how he deals with the issue of his draft resistance affecting his life. Maruya tells his story very well, as Hamada struggles with how to react to the rumours and whispering.

Yōko Ogawa: 博士の愛した数式 (The Housekeeper and the Professor)

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The latest addition to my website is Yōko Ogawa‘s 博士の愛した数式 (The Housekeeper and the Professor). This is a delightful novel about a single mother, uneducated housekeeper, who goes to work for a professor of mathematics, who lost his memory in a car crash, so that he can only remember events before 1975 (seventeen years previously) and in the last eighty minutes. He sees every number or set of numbers as having some mathematical significance and proceeds to explain to her, for example, the significance of her shoe size and phone number. While she is initially baffled, she gradually comes to share his fascination. This is enhanced when her ten year old son, at the behest of the professor, comes to the cottage after school and not only takes to the professor, as a sort of father figure, but also shares the fascination with mathematics. The two also share an interest in baseball, supporting the local team. The relationship between the three is the key to the novel and Ogawa tells the story superbly, as well as teaching us some obscure mathematical facts.

Naoya Shiga: 暗夜行路 (A Dark Night’s Passing)

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The latest addition to my website is Naoya Shiga‘s 暗夜行路 (A Dark Night’s Passing). This novel, written in the I-novel style, is a semi-autobiographical/confessional novel about Kensaku Tokito, a would-be novelist, who struggles to settle down, to find his place and to come to terms with his life and the world round him. His mother died when he was six and he still misses her. At that time he went to live with his grandfather and his grandfather’s mistress Oei and, as an adult, he still lives with Oei, well after his grandfather’s death. In the early part of the novel, he spends his time drinking and visiting geisha houses and brothels, living off an inheritance. He then goes off to live at a resort, away from Tokyo, and tries to write but he is lonely. He still misses his mother and also Oei, to whom he proposes. Though his proposal is rejected, he still lives with her for a while, before moving to Kyoto. There he finally he meets a woman whom he loves and who accepts his proposal but the marriage does not work out and his attempt to find peace through Buddhism is also not too successful. Shiga gives us an excellent novel of a young man who cannot fit in and find his place, like many a twentieth century literary hero, and it has now become a classic of twentieth century Japanese literature.

Fumiko Enchi: 女面 (Masks)

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The latest addition to my website is Fumiko Enchi‘s 女面 (Masks). This is a beautifully written book about masks (both real and figurative ones) as well as about various other topics but, in particular, love and betrayal and death. Mieko Toganō is a widow and a poet. She lives with her daughter-in-law, Yasuko, whose husband, Mieko’s son, Akio, died in an avalanche on Mount Fuji. Mieko subtly controls those around her, particularly Yusako. When two men, Ibuki, a married men and former colleague of Akio and adviser to Yasuko on Japanese literature, and Mikamé, a single man and doctor, both fall in love with Yasuko, it is Mieko who manoeuvres and controls the two men for her own nefarious ends. Both are unaware of this control and neither is a match for her. Mieko, though married to a very rich man, from a distinguished Japanese family, has her own past, which she has more or less concealed. With spirit possession and classical Japanese literature, particularly The Tale of the Genji (which Enchi translated into modern Japanese) added to the mix, we are given a very rich, complex and beautifully written novel in relatively few pages.

Shūsaku Endō: 沈黙 (Silence)

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The latest addition to my website is Shūsaku Endō‘s 沈黙 (Silence). This novel is set in the early seventeenth century, when Japan had forcibly clamped down on Christianity. The religion was forbidden and all practitioners, be they Japanese worshippers or European priests, had to apostatise or face brutal torture and death. The story tells of a Portuguese priest, Sebastião Rodrigues, who comes to Japan at that time, firstly to continue the work of assisting the Christian community but also because he has heard his former tutor has apostatised and he does not believe it. He has, not surprisingly, a very hard time of it in Japan and is aided by a quasi-Judas figure, a Japanese man called Kichijirō, who is very conflicted. He is an inveterate coward and apostatised more than once but, at the same time, wants to be a good Christian and help the priests. Rodrigues is also conflicted and cannot fully understand why God has chosen to remain silent when he and the Japanese Christians are being put through such terrible times. Endo raises some interesting questions, such as whether Christianity could take root in Japan and why those Japanese that did convert chose to do so. Above all, he tells an excellent story of two men struggling with their consciences in a very difficult world.

Masahiko Shimada: 雁 (夢使い (Dream Messenger)

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The latest addition to my website is Masahiko Shimada‘s 雁 (夢使い (Dream Messenger). This one could have been a good book but did not work for me, not least because the characters were flat, the story dragged on and it all seemed unconvincing. The story tells of Miko Amino, a super-rich widow, who wants to find her only son, taken from her by his father and who has since disappeared. She hires a former beauty queen and current securities analyst to track him down, with the help of her slave, a former successful young adult novelist. We learn that the son, Masao, had been rented out by an a New York-based agency that rented out children to childless families and had since gone on, as an adult, to be a gofer/gigolo/rent-a-friend, a phenomenon apparently not unknown in Japan. Masao had moved from New York and was living in Tokyo, doing more or less the same thing, aided by his guardian angel/alter ego, Mikanaito, who could enter other people’s dream, hence the title. Certainly, it was an interesting idea but it just did not work for me.

Keizo Hino: 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams)

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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.