This book review is my second contribution to theJapanese Literature Challenge 14 hosted by Meredith atDolce Bellezza. Winner of the prestigious Yomiuri Prize, Fires on the Plain details the experience of a Japanese soldier in the Philippines during the last months of the World War II (the Leyte island landing). This sometimes gruesome and traumatic, but vividly introspective and unputdowanable novel full of conviction is filled with psychological and philosophical insights. Drawing from his own experience of the WWII, Shōhei Ōoka wrote about the degradation, futility and meaninglessness of war through the experience of one injured and stranded soldier who gets suspended between complete despair, increasing apathy and little choice, but to commit war crimes, on the one hand, and glimpses of hope and religious visions, on the other. Plagued by contradictions and irrational thoughts, Private Tamura finds himself psychologically distancing from war horrors around him, as Ōoka makes a powerful statement on one situation where such concepts as morality or rationality no longer seem to have any meaning. Fires on the Plain is probably one of the most important anti-war novels ever written.
This is a story that I read in Russian. This novella by Chekhov is set in the Caucasus, near the Black Sea, and tells of Laevsky, a lazy, egoistic, good-for-nothing government official who spends his days playing cards, swimming, drinking, arguing with his mistress and getting deeper into debt. Laevsky is increasingly tired of and frustrated by his mistress, Nadezhda Fedorovna, the wife of another man, and decides “to get rid” of her by going away. However, he starts to understand that he is both out of money and out of friends. On his path then appears Von Koren, a scientist and a man of principles, who does not think twice about challenging Laevsky to a duel.
Chekhov had this incredible talent of conjuring up deep and unforgettable character studies/insights in a very few words and paragraphs, and The Duel is a classic tale of disillusionment, crushed ideals, deceiving appearances and humanity caught in an endless cycle of other people’s opinions and judgement. Everyone “has their own truth” in the story, especially Laevsky, who finds himself at the biggest crossroad in his life, facing the possibility of the weight of harsh reality crushing him. The largest sorrow in life may consist in the actual realisation of the truth of one’s existence and past actions, as well as in the process of brutal self-confrontation. With humour and wit, Chekhov takes a penetrating look at the human nature in The Duel, trying to answer the question whether even self-acknowledged scoundrels like Laevsky could hope for forgiveness and redemption; whether even these people are deserving of hope; and whether even they could also find their place among the virtuous and the good, mending their ways.
Meredith atDolce Bellezza is hostingThe Japanese Literature Challenge 14, which takes place from January to March 2021, and this post on five Japanese short stories is my contribution to the challenge (see all the other exciting entries here and for my entries to the previous Japanese Literature Challenge 13 see my reviews hereand here).
I. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment  by Ryunosuke Akutagawa –★★★★
This memorable story with confident prose by the “father” of Japanese short stories Akutagawa (Hell Screen ) is told through a letter and diary entries written by one young man to Viscount and Viscountess Honda. The story’s unreliable narration that deludes the truth and makes motives questionable introduces us to one hidden obsession as we plunge deep into the psyche of one disturbed man. If Akutagawa’s short story The Spider’s Thread  relied on Dostoyevsky’s story of a woman and an onion from The Brothers Karamazov , here we also see certain close similarities with other works. The story starts close to The Sorrows of Young Werther  by Goethe (unrequited, forbidden and passionate love/drastic action), but finishes very similarly to Doctor Glas  by Hjalmar Söderberg (doctor/mental torment/similar action taken to secure the future of a beloved woman). I read this story in Murder in The Age of Enlightenment (Essential Stories) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa [translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Pushkin Press 2020].
In this novel by Thomas Hardy, Grace Melbury is torn between her feelings for simple farmer Giles Winterborne and her emotions towards sophisticated doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Evoking the beauty of rural life and nature, Hardy paints in his story a powerful image of imperfect characters who find themselves in circumstances beyond their immediate control. Themes of unbridgeable class divide, marriage confines and the negative effects of growing industrialisation all feature in this great novel by Hardy.
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death [1985/1998] by Yoel Hoffmann – ★★★★★
“I cleansed the mirror/of my heart – now it reflects/the moon“ [Renseki, 1789];
“A tune of non-being/filling the void:/spring sun/snow whiteness/bright clouds/clear wind” [Daido Ichi’i, 1370].
Japan has always stood unique in the world in its attitudes towards death, including death taboos and rituals, and there was a centuries’ old tradition in Japan to write “death/final farewell poems” (jisei). This well-researched book compiles these poems written by both traditional haikuwriters and zen monks, and some of the poems in the book have been translated to English for the first time. If poems by zen monks are full of (hidden) meaning and profound philosophy, poems by traditional haiku poets are more evocative. The book is a “must-read” for anyone interested in Japanese haiku (a type of short form poetry) or Zen Buddhism (because the introduction by the author also elucidates on many complex Zen Buddhism concepts, quoting direct sources and providing numerous examples).
I got my idea for this post from youtuberA Little Bit of Monikawho made a post recommending different Studio Ghibli films to her followers based on their zodiac (star) signs. Given the twelve star signs that exist (and their characteristics), I will also try to recommend 12 Japanese fiction books to each of the twelve star signs.
ARIES (March 21 – April 19)
Aries will always be up for an adventure and an exciting action. Therefore, Eiji Yoshikawa’sMusashi  may be a perfect read for them because the book is all about an adventure revolving around an unlikely warrior Musashi. Being confident, courageous, energetic, as well as a natural leader, Aries could identify with the book and its characters.
TAURUS (April 20 – May 20)
Taurus is stable, reliable and devoted. They can be very family-oriented, as well as appreciative of beauty and tradition. Therefore, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters  could be a good read for them since they will enjoy all the practical, day-to-day intricacies and familial values/duties than the book tries to present. The Makioka Sisters takes place in Japan from the years 1936 to 1941 and focuses on one’s family’s attempts to marry off Yukiko, already a thirty year old woman who remains woefully unmarried. Given Taurus’s patience and determination, I trust them to finish the 576-page book, finding it significant.
This is going to be a very honest review of Haruki Murakami’s twelfth novel. 1Q84 is presented as a whimsical romance epic with elements of magical realism, and, in its proportion, has been linked to such extremely ambitious works as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. In 1Q84, the year is 1984 and the location is Tokyo, Japan. Aomame, a thirty year old woman, becomes entangled in one strange affair involving a manuscript titled Air Chrysalis, a charity that seeks to help battered women seek revenge, and a menacing and unrelenting religious cult called Sakigake. In parallel to her story, we read the story of Tengo, a thirty year old man and Aomame’s alleged lost “love” whom she has not seen in twenty years. Tengo inexplicably gets implicated in the same affair of “another world” when he agrees to re-write Air Chrysalis. His fateful encounter with beautiful Fuka-Eri, original author of Air Chrysalis, soon makes him question his reality, as well as makes him reconsider his relationship with his estranged father. Soon, we read about the world where the so-called Little People have the upper hand and where there are two moons in the sky. Pursued by dangerous forces, will Tengo and Aomame ever meet again? The only problem with all that is that my summary sounds like it could be something far more exciting than what this book eventually delivers. In reality, the 1318-page mammoth that is 1Q84 delivers neither on its “wondrous, parallel-world” concept nor on its “star-crossed lovers” front. In all frankness, it is a tedious book which drags its feet for chapters and chapters and chapters, wasting its reader’s time. It is filled with complete meaninglessness from almost the very first chapter until the last, and from its dialogues to its character’s (almost completely sexual) activities. More than that, unfortunately, 1Q84 is also quite gaudy, ill-judged, melodramatic and pretentious. I will set out my issues with this book under the” story”, “characters”, and “author’s writing” headings, before talking about the good aspects.
Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies  by William Golding, but, undoubtedly, the author had other inspirations too. In his first book, the Japanese Nobel Laureate tells of a group of boys from a reform school that get stranded high up in forested mountains and forced to confront hostile villagers, the possibility of a plague, starvation and inhumane conditions. As the boys take matters into their own hands, their boyish desire to play and youthful confidence/hopefulness clash violently with the necessities posed by the war and traumas experienced by the most desperate. The boys finally realise that they have to choose between truth, principle, loyalty and compassion, on the one hand, and their own lives, on the other.
I am continuing my contribution to the 13th Japanese Literature Reading Challenge with this book by Seishi Yokomizo. The Honjin Murders is considered to be the classic Japanese murder mystery, first serialised in 1946 and published in 1973. It is a debut work of the author and the winner of the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award. This story centres on the well-to-do Ichiyanagi family living in the village of Okamura who prepare for the wedding of their eldest son– Kenzo to a young woman of humbler origins – Katsuko. The whole village is shaken when both Kenzo and Katsuko are found slashed to death in their room in the early morning hours after their wedding. One strange clue follows another and soon it becomes clear that the murderer could not have possibly escaped the premises after the commission of the murder. The local police feels stuck with this case, and it is at this point that one young and unassuming amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi takes his turn to try to solve this highly unusual “locked-room” mystery. Offering a curious insight into traditional Japan, The Honjin Murders is a compact, tightly-woven crime mystery, which, while paying a direct tribute to other crime masterworks, provides its own similar brain-teaser.Continue reading “Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo”→
Since I am participating in the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza, I am now reviewing this book by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. In The Silent Cry, we are presented with the early 1960s and Mitsu, a disillusioned husband to an alcoholic wife and a father to a child who is now in an institution. Mitsu sees his life changing when his estranged brother Takashi arrives from America and together they travel to their native village in Shikoku, one of the main islands in Japan. There, they find that there is a shift in local power and one rich Korean magnate is proposing to buy what remains of Mitsu and Takashi’s land inheritance – their storehouse. Reluctantly, Mitsu finds himself drawn into a complicated political situation of the village, while also realising that Takashi starts to wield the unprecedented power over the village inhabitants. The Silent Cry is a slow-paced descent into one kind of a nightmare where the violent history of the village is about to be re-enacted and other grim discoveries made as the relationship between the two brothers takes an unexpected turn. Full of uneasiness and foreboding, The Silent Cy is a subtly powerful work that masterfully evokes the unsaid, the forbidden and the terrifying, getting us close to the real Truth and to the final Hope. It really becomes one of those books you do not have to enjoy, but to simply experience and live through.Continue reading “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe”→
I have not posted a book tag this year, so I thought I would participate in one. The Wanderlust Book Tag was created by Alexandra from Reading by Starlight, and everyone is free to participate.
I. Secrets and lies: a book set in a sleepy small town
Still Life by Louise Penny is a detective story and a debut set in a small town called Three Pines in Canada. Another detective thriller-debut which is set in sleepy small town is The Dry by Jane Harper. That one is set in a small fictional town called Kiewarra, Australia.
II. Salt and sand: a book with a beach-side community
Jaws  by Peter Benchley is a book that popped into my head first, but I think I will settle for a coastal community in Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura. This is a story about a poor fishing village in Japan that desperately wants and tries to attract shipwrecks to its coast so that villagers can survive. Continue reading “The Wanderlust Book Tag”→
I am happy to inform my followers that I have completed my Year of the Asian Reading Challenge for 2019. My initial, very modest, goal was to read 12 books by Asian authors in 2019, and I managed to read 15 (coupled with time pressure and my other reading challenges). I know that there is still one month left before this challenge officially expires, but since I do not plan on reading Asian authors in December, I thought I would make an official concluding announcement. My mascot for this challenge was an Indian cobra (corresponding to the level of between 11 and 20 books), and, in 2019, I read authors from the following six countries: South Korea, Pakistan,Japan, China, India and Afghanistan. The books that impressed be the most during this challenge came from the Japanese writers Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes/The Face of Another), Durian Sukegawa (Sweet Bean Paste), Akira Yoshimura (Shipwrecks) and Yoko Ogawa (The Memory Police), as well as from the Chinese-born author Eileen Chang (Half a Lifelong Romance). Below are all the books with the corresponding links to reviews. Continue reading “The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – Completed!”→
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time…when somebody says your name for the last time” (Banksy, re-quoting Ernest Hemingway). Yōko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor [2003/08]) wrote The Memory Police in 1994, and it was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder in 2019. In this beautiful dystopian book, our young female character works as a writer on one curious island – there, things sometimes simply disappear from time to time, and with those “disappearances” come another interesting element – people soon forget these things completely, how they looked and what they felt like. For them, these things simply cease to exist. The enforcement of the memory erosion is the task for the special Memory Police, that ruthlessly detects and investigates any traces of disappearing objects, as well as hunts people that are still able to remember them. When one man, R, a book editor, is in danger of being caught for remembering disappeared things, our lead character vows to do everything in her power to save him from a terrible fate. The Memory Police may share some themes related to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451and Orwell’s 1984, but, in its spirit at least, it is a different book– it is filled with quiet, reflective moments and has its own special, eerie atmosphere. The premise may start with one absurd situation, but it soon transforms into something very heart-felt, as its characters try to make sense of one weird world that is slowly becoming devoid of one essential meaning. At the heart of Ogawa’s novel is the importance of memory and its preservation, which remains at the core of our history and our state of being conscious, free-willed and emotionally-complex beings. Continue reading “Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa”→
In this deceptively simple tale, Kobo Abe paints a quietly disturbing picture of one man who finds himself in an unusual situation when he ventures to look for insects in sand dunes. The man, Niki Jumpei, misses his last bus home upon finishing his one day trip to the dunes, and some local villagers do him a favour and put him up for one night at one woman’s eccentric dwelling at the bottom of a sand pit (the only exit is by a long rope to reach the surface). Jumpei is an entomologist and a school-teacher, a man of science and reason, but nothing could prepare for him for what he is about to experience in his new strange dwelling (which has more complex arrangements that he has ever imagined). But, he will only be there for one night; right? or will he be? The man soon discovers that his innocent trip to the outskirts of one village is about to take a very absurd and horrific turn. The plot may be straightforward, but the merit of this novel still lies in the subtleties and (horrific) realisations – in the consequences which are revealed slowly to the reader (as well as to the character), enhancing the suspense and the final impact. The reader will suspend disbelief when the main character meets a woman and a community he never imagined existed, which prompts him to meditate on the meaning of life, relationships and the human nature. The Woman in the Dunes is Kobo Abe’s existentialist masterpiece.
Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells a story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has a number of rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon O–Fune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or a curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative in nature as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one eerie desire. However, despite based almost entirely on observations, the novel is no less fascinating and is subtly powerful. It is a great read for anyone who likes unusual stories which uncover different ways of looking at life. Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura”→
“The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth” [Sukegawa/Watts, 2013: 33].
This book, translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts (see also the movie trailer here), tells a story of Sentaro, a middle aged man who spends his time unenthusiastically selling dorayaki, a kind of pancake filled with sweet bean paste, to customers at the Doraharu shop, while consuming alcoholic drinks in his spare time. When an elderly woman Tokue approaches his shop and asks to work there, Sentaro first thinks it is a joke. However, Sentaro also tastes the bean paste cooked by Tokue and he is amazed by the flavours she can produce. What follows is a touching human story filled with the passion for food and the importance of appreciating small pleasures in life. Sweet Bean Paste is also so much more than a book about Japanese culinary delights and culture. It is a quietly beautiful book with the message of coming to terms with history, accepting people and recognising their talents no matter how small they may appear. Each person can contribute something to this world if others are willing to listen, learn and accept.
This book, translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong, “was seen as a milestone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement” [1987/2015: 228]. That movement was a revival of the traditional “logical reasoning” detective fiction in Japan that was prevalent in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s. The new movement was characterised by robot-like personages; game-like setting; and lacking literary context or significance, being purely about solving a whodunit mystery using logical reasoning. Heavily influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None , The Decagon HouseMurders is about seven Japanese students who decide to stay on an isolated island not far from the main land in a mysterious Decagon House. Some months previously there occurred on the island the mysterious deaths of the owner of the property, his wife and their two servants. The students on the island are then start to be killed off in a fashion reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s famous novel. The book premise is exciting, but the book also reads like a videogame script with little character insight, context or emotion (which is intentional, but may not be for everyone), and the final solution is, arguably, too unbelievable and underwhelming.
Yoko Tawada sets her book in near-future Japan where the elderly regain their powers and live beyond one hundred years old, while the young become weak and sickly. Everyone is concerned in the story because, due to some catastrophe, “the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined” [Tawada, 2014: 14]. The central characters are an old man called Yoshiro and an orphaned boy named Mumei. While Yoshiro is the very definition of health and vigour at his age of one hundred plus, his great-grandson Mumei is feverish, vitamin-deficient, and in the course to face a slow death. This short dystopian novella, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is both beautiful and unsettling, and is a fascinating read, even though most of the time it reads like an essay on some highly imaginative dystopian future, rather than like a story with a linear plot. Continue reading “Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada”→