November 2020 Wrap-Up: From Hell Screen to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Hell Screen [1918/48] by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa – ★★★★★

This is a short story by “the father of the Japanese short story” who is probably best known for such short stories as Rashomon [1915] and In a Grove [1922]. Said to be the reworking of the Uji Shūi Monogatari, Japanese tales written in the thirteenth century, Hell Screen tells the story of Yoshihide, an eccentric painter and allegedly a despicable human being, who resides at the court of one powerful Lord Horikawa. When the Lord requests Yoshihide to paint the picture of Hell, the artist takes this request too close to heart. Moreover, slowly, Yoshihide’s beautiful daughter becomes the centre of the newest rumour and intrigue. Akutagawa’s story may be short, but it also evokes the most powerful imagery. The author was a master of story-telling, and in this story we are presented with vivid descriptions that he also coupled with the peculiarly Japanese literary minimalism. The outcome is one disturbing, unforgettable story of obsession and damnation. I read Hell Screen thanks to the amazing post by Juan Gómez-Pintado titled “10 Extraordinary Tales of Terror“.

The Scapegoat [1957] by Daphne du Maurier ★★★★1/2

Daphne du Maurier’s criminally under-read novel that is The Scapegoat is suspenseful, atmospheric and characterised to perfection. It concerns doppelgangers, family secrets and the price one has to pay to receive forgiveness. Despite its seemingly too unbelievable a premise, it still remains an absolute “must-read” for anyone who previously enjoyed Du Maurier’s Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel.

The Wonderful World of Sazae-San [1946 – 1974] by Machiko Hasegawa – ★★★★1/2

Many things are probably dated in this family manga that was first released just after the WWII (possibly also to ease the tension, apprehension and trauma), but it is still a lovely Japanese comic strip that opens up the world of that “quiet and reflective” Japan that does not really exist anymore. Filled with punchy one-liners and situational humour, it also has a parade of memorable, eccentric characters that often get into some tricky situations with either their family members, neighbours or co-workers. All the misunderstandings greatly amuse the readers. Japan has a very strict culture of etiquette and rules governing personal interaction, so it is very interesting to see that the Japanese can also laugh at themselves and others when everyone makes big social “faux pas”. The titular character Sazae-san is an unconventional mother and wife whose eccentricities shock and amuse those around her.

Hasegawa also undoubtedly wanted to make a statement in her manga in support of women and their position in a traditional Japanese family, meaning that her main character is a “liberated” woman who speaks her mind and displays freedom in her actions probably few women at that time would dare to display. The result is a fun manga for all the family with very lovable characters that now also presents an immense historical interest.

By Night in Chile [2000/2003] by Roberto Bolaño – ★★★★1/2

Life is a succession of misunderstandings, leading us on to the final truth, the only truth” ; “an individual is no match for history” [Bolaño/Andrews, 2003: 3, 128].

November is also a month to celebrate novellas, and therefore this book by Roberto Bolaño, which also counts towards my Latin America Reading Challenge, is a perfect one for this month. It is also funny how I started the year with Bolaño (Amulet [1999/2006]), and am now finishing it also with this author from Chile. In By Night in Chile, we follow a stream-of-consciousness narrative of a priest who thinks he is dying and is reliving some of the most important moments in his life. Thus, we follow him from the time he was a naïve priest in Chile to the time he became a disillusioned literary critic touring Europe in search of inspirations: “in this country of estate agents…literature is an oddity and nobody values knowing how to read” [Bolaño/Andrews, 2000/03: 4]. Through various opulent soirees at estates, the main character meets such real-life characters as Poet Pablo Neruda and General Pinochet, who all figure in a quick succession in this narrative which sometimes verges on sheer delirium. However, it also has those sparks of brilliance and insight which shed a fascinating light on the state of poetry and literature in Latin America, on the literary criticism in general, on the political history of Chile and on the very condition of a man who faces insurmountable human and societal struggles.

Philosophical and poetic, By Night in Chile displays Bolaños talent at its finest since this was the author who was capable of capturing the impossible: a moment in time. His stories within stories in By Night in Chile are both fantastical and true, historical and forever enshrined in the present moment. By Night in Chile is a story, an essay, a poem and a human cry – all at the same time.

Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods [2020] by Danna Staaf – ★★★★

I found Danna Staaf’s book on cephalopods immersive and engaging. This is a book that traces the very first organisms on planet Earth, talking about first worms and jelly-fish, before introducing a variety of strange sea creatures, from the so-called “modern relics” – nautiluses – , to the most unusual of octopuses.

Pillars of Salt [1996] by Fadia Faqir ★★★1/2

This is a story of two women living in Jordan in the 1950s. They meet at a British-run hospital for mentally-ill and share their stories. Maha and Um Saad both suffered greatly in their respective families in the past (there are stories of violence and repression), but never quite gave up their hope for a better life. This book could have been clearer on many fronts, from structure and storytelling to points of view, but its message of the plight of women in some Muslim communities is still very strong, making the book important and eye-opening.

Night’s Lies (Lies of the Night) [1988/90] by Gesualdo Bufalino ★★★1/2

Death is an experience of which even the most incapable of us are capable” [Bufalino/Creagh, 1988/90: 115]. This historical fiction book is the winner of the prestigious Italian Strega Prize. The premise of Night’s Lies is intriguing and takes place during the course of a single night. It is the eighteenth century, and five men from different walks of life are held as political prisoners in a fortress prison, awaiting execution. The authorities make a deal with them: either they will reveal their head conspirator or all will be hanged. Will one of them betray their leader so all can be saved? This novel is beautifully-written, and also benefits from that deliciously-claustrophobic feel which also makes the narrative psychologically-interesting since we have an enclosed space with a number of characters feeding half-truths to each other and to themselves. The ending or the resolution is one big let-down in this seemingly flawless book. I also wished the novel were much longer so the narrative had more depth to it and so it could connect fully all of its allegories and plot points and knots.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet [2010] by David Mitchell ★★1/2

My most disappointing read of November was this novel by David Mitchell which is set in Japan in 1799. The book is ambitious with a strong beginning, but also has an increasingly dull story, some poor characterisation and “pretentious” writing.

This month I also talked about the symbolic art of Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. How was your November? What books or other things have you discovered or enjoyed?


10 thoughts on “November 2020 Wrap-Up: From Hell Screen to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. Very strong selection of stories. Will probably check out a few of the stories on this list. I’ve read a lot of the classic manga, but am happily surprised to see that there are still some that I’ve missed out on, may give the world of Sazae-san a look at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the selection of books you chose. I haven’t read any of them, well apart from the Bolano but I never reviewed it so maybe it never happened or I imagined the novel independant of the author writing it, which sounds a bit like a Borges short story.

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