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Posts Tagged ‘Japanese literature’

I read Hiromi Kawakami’sThe Nakano Thrift Shop‘ last year and I loved it so much that since then I have wanted to read another book by her. I got Kawakami’s ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘ recently and finished reading it today.

Tsukiko is a woman in her thirties. She is single, she works hard, she doesn’t have many friends and she enjoys lots of me-time. One day when she goes to Satoru’s bar for a drink, she bumps into her old high school teacher. It is a bar that she visits often and Tsukiko and her teacher bump into each other frequently and before long a beautiful friendship develops between them. This friendship becomes something more as time passes. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story.

Strange Weather in Tokyo‘ is vintage Kawakami. Kawakami doesn’t spend time on long descriptions and internal monologues but gets into the story in the first page, in the first sentence. There is no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. All the things that Kawakami fans expect and look forward to, are there in this book – showcasing of Japanese culture in the everyday world (I learnt about furoshiki and kotatsu through my previous book of hers) and gorgeous descriptions of Japanese food. I always look forward to Kawakami’s food descriptions – I learnt about edamame, grilled aubergine (probably Nasu Dengaku), yudofu, salted yakitori, Soka Senbei (rice crackers), Asakusa Nori (seaweed), konnyaku, different kinds of mushrooms, the difference between Sawanoi saké and Tochigi saké and other things through this book. There are also literary nods to Sei Shonagon, Basho, Seihaku Irako and The Tale of the Heike, which I loved. Towards the end of the book, there is an extra chapter called ‘Parade’ which was probably added later on to the original book, which describes a day in the life of the two main characters. They just sit and have a long conversation and it is very beautiful. There is a beautiful afterword by Hiromi Kawakami after that, in which she says that “the world that exists behind a story is never fully known, not even to the author.”

The only thing I found strange in ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’. was the title. I find it disappointing that British publishers frequently change the title of a translated book and put a city’s name in the title. For example, they took Hans Fallada’s  ‘Every Man Dies Alone‘, which is a beautiful, poignant title, and changed it to ‘Alone in Berlin‘, which doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes they go crazy and do that even to American books in English which are published in British editions. For example, they took the beautiful title of Matthew Crawford’s book ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft : An Inquiry into the Value of Work‘ and changed it to the unwieldy ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands : Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good‘. It is one of the worst changes of title I have ever seen. In Kawakami’s book, the story happens in Tokyo, but there is no strange weather there, just typical Tokyo weather. There is a passage in the middle of the book, which goes like this – “Thunder rumbled in the distance. After a little while, there was a flash among the clouds. It must have been lightning. A few seconds later, thunder could be heard again. “This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said…”” I don’t know whether this is an accurate translation or whether it was inserted here by the translator to justify the title of the book.

I loved ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘. The story is beautiful and charming – it is one of the most beautiful younger woman–older man love stories I have read. I can’t wait to read my next Hiromi Kawakami book.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Being with Kojima always brought to mind the word ‘grown-up’. What I mean is, when Kojima was in primary school, he was a child, of course. A suntanned kid with thin little shins. In secondary school, Kojima had seemed like a sprouting boy, on the verge of casting off his boyhood skin and becoming a young man. By the time he got to college, he must have been a fully-fledged young man, the epitome of youth. I can just imagine. Now, having reached his thirties, Kojima was a grown-up. No doubt about it.
      His behaviour was commensurate with his age. The passage of time has been evenly distributed for Kojima, and both his body and mind had developed proportionately.
      I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up when I was in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.”

“The calligraphy was utter gibberish to me, but I found myself enjoying the time as I listened to Sensei’s murmured bursts of ‘Such a nice hand’ or ‘A bit prosaic’ ‘Now that’s what’s called a vigorous style.’ The same way as when you’re sitting at a pavement café, furtively passing judgement on people as you watch them go by, it was amusing to attach my own impressions to these calligraphed works from the Heian or Kamakura eras : ‘That’s nice’ or ‘This one’s not bad’ or ‘It reminds me of a guy I used to go out with’.”

“With Sensei, his benevolent nature seemed to originate from his sense of fair-mindedness. It wasn’t about being kind to me; rather, it was born from a teacherly attitude of being willing to listen to my opinion without prejudice. I found this considerably more wonderful than him just being nice to me. That was quite a discovery for me, the fact that arbitrary kindness makes me uncomfortable, but that being treated fairly feels good.”

Have you read ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘? What do you think about it?

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Ten Nights Dreaming (and The Cat’s Grave‘ is my first Natsume Sōseki book and I was so excited to read it. This book has ten stories, each of which is around three to four pages long. Each of the stories is a dream recounted by the narrator, and so there are ten dreams. Most of these dreams have a fantasy element to them. There is also a eleventh story ‘The Cat’s Grave‘ which is a standalone story and different from the other ten. It is about a cat and it is sad and heartbreaking.

I liked all the dream stories. But my favourites were the first, third and the sixth. The first is a beautiful, poignant love story with a beautiful ending. The third one is about a father and his blind child whom he is carrying on his back and walking into a forest. That blind child – he is extraordinary, he is cool. You will know why when you read the story. The sixth story is about a famous sculptor. It has this legendary conversation :

Narrator : “Amazing that he can just throw the chisel around like that and still get the eyebrows and noses to come out the way he wants.”

Young man : “Oh, it isn’t the chisel that makes those eyebrows and noses. Those exact eyebrows and noses are buried in the wood, and he just uses the hammer and chisel to dig them out. It is just like digging a rock out of the ground – there’s no way to get it wrong.”

I have read this thought in so many places. It was so nice to read the original version in Natsume Sōseki’s story.

I loved ‘Ten Nights Dreaming‘. It is beautiful, dreamy, fascinating. And look at that cover? Isn’t that exquisitely beautiful? Like a classic Japanese painting? I can’t stop looking at it! The book has a beautiful foreword by Michael Emmerich, which is such a pleasure to read.

I can’t wait to read more Natsume Sōseki stories. I should do a Natsume Sōseki month later this year and read all his works together.

Have you read ‘Ten Nights Dreaming‘? What do you think about it?

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘ is a collection of travel essays by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, who invented the Haiku poetic form. This book has five essays recounting travels that Basho did at different times. All the essays have prose interspersed with poems. Sometimes the poems describe the poet’s impression of a particular scene, sometimes they delve on past events and fascinating personalities, sometimes they take the story forward.

In her introduction to the anthology of classic Japanese travel writing, ‘Travels with a Writing Brush‘, translator Meredith McKinney says this –

“The greatest pleasure a literary traveller could experience was the pleasure of arriving in person at a place hallowed in poetry. The brief scene in the early Ise Tales in which the man (traditionally identified as the poet Ariwara no Narihira) sends a poem to his beloved from distant Mount Utsu echoes down the centuries in the journals of travellers along the Tōkaidō, who continued to search out the place identified with this scene…it was not the characteristics of the place itself so much as the presence of its name in literature (and sometimes in history) that lent it special power. The term for such place names, and by extension for the places that bore those names, was utamakura (poem-pillow), and their central role in travel literature was one of its defining features. Utamakura places were in a sense sites of literary worship in a manner similar to holy places on a pilgrimage route, places where the traveller would pause in awe, perhaps recite the poem or poems associated with the site, and compose a poem in turn, often incorporating some allusive reference to that earlier poetry, almost as a pilgrim will offer up a prayer…A traveller who was moved by an utamakura site, or by seeing far overhead a flight of wild geese in an autumn evening, was moved the more deeply by partaking in an experience shared with so many others, and thereby drawn into the force field of a greater tradition that imbued his or her own insignificant and contingent experience with far richer meaning.”

This passage describes Basho’s travels and his essays in this book perfectly, far better than I ever can.

While we read the essays we can feel Basho’s style evolving across time, till it all comes together perfectly in the title essay which is also the longest essay in the book, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘, which is a perfect blend of prose and poetry. It starts with these famous lines – “Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by” – and from there onwards proceeds to reach sublime heights. Basho’s prose is beautiful and poetic, and he delves into deep ideas while also displaying a fine sense of humour, occasionally mocking himself gently, which makes us smile.

The book has an insightful introduction by the translator Nobuyuki Yuasa, in which he gives a short history of the Haiku poetic form and Basho’s contribution to it. At one point, Yuasa quotes Basho’s most famous haiku poem –

“Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.”

And then he proceeds to give a two page commentary on it which is brilliant.

Yuasa also gives a brief introduction to Basho’s life and work, and looks at the essays in this book in detail, on the travel experiences which shaped these essays and how Basho’s prose style evolves across time.

I loved ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. I can’t wait to read more of the Master’s poetry now.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is from the essay ‘A Visit to Sarashina Village‘.

“Above my head, mountains rose over mountains, and on my left a huge precipice dropped a thousand feet into a boiling river, leaving not a tiny square of flat land in between, so that, perched on the high saddle, I felt stricken with terror every time my horse gave a jerk. We passed through many a dangerous place…the road always winding and climbing, so that we often felt as if we were groping our way in the clouds. I abandoned my horse and staggered on my own legs, for I was dizzy with the height and unable to maintain my mental balance from fear. The servant, on the other hand, mounted the horse, and seemed to give not even the slightest thought to the danger. He often nodded in a doze and seemed about to fall headlong over the precipice. Every time I saw him drop his head, I was terrified out of my wits. Upon second thoughts, however, it occurred to me that every one of us was like this servant, wading through the ever-changing reefs of this world in stormy weather, totally blind to the hidden dangers, and that the Buddha surveying us from on high, would surely feel the same misgivings about our fortune as I did about the servant.”

Have you read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Sei Shōnagon’sThe Pillow Book‘ ever since I discovered it. I picked it up recently and read it slowly and finished reading it yesterday.

Sei Shōnagon lived around a thousand years back in the Japan of the Heian era. She served the Japanese empress of that time. One day someone got the empress a big bundle of paper as a gift and the empress gave it to Shōnagon, and Shōnagon decided to write on it, recounting anecdotes and sharing experiences and her thoughts on different topics. The book is like a diary and shows a detailed description of court life of those times. In addition to anecdotes and experiences and stories, the book has lists. Lots of lists. There are different kinds of lists in the book. Some are simple, like lists of mountains, rivers, gardens, forests. They are deceptively simple though. Because they all have poetic associations to classical Japanese and Chinese poetry or famous stories. The second kind of list is descriptive. In those lists, Shōnagon shares things that bring joy, that are beautiful, that are annoying. These lists are charming and make us smile and we can relate to them even after a thousand years from the time they were written. Some of the lists describe beautiful experiences and images and scenes. These lists are beautiful, and they bring a lot of joy and delight if we read them slowly and linger on. This third kind of list was my favourite. I will share some excerpts here from this kind of list.

“A beautifully arranged brazier with fire burning, its rim swept clean of ash, the firelight revealing the painting on its inner surface, is a most delightful sight.”

“Delightful too to hear the soft sound of fire tongs being gently pushed into the ash of the brazier, and sense from this the presence of someone who isn’t yet asleep.”

“It’s also very elegant the way, when the gentlewomen are gathered seated here and there in the room talking, you hear the silk rustle of people as they leave or enter and, though it’s only a soft sound, you can guess who each one would be.”

“Late that night, I woke and was deeply moved at the sight of the moonlight shining in through a window and casting its white light over the bedclothes of the sleeping forms around me. This is precisely the sort of moment when people compose poems.”

“The setting sun. Just after it’s set, it’s very moving to see how a reddish light lingers along the rim of the mountains, with pale yellow clouds trailing in the sky above.”

“Endearingly lovely things – A sparrow coming fluttering down to the nest when her babies are cheeping for her.”

There are pages and pages of these beautiful, soft, delicate images and they give us a lot of pleasure. I loved reading them and dreaming about them.

You can find more of these charming images in my previous post here.

Sei Shōnagon lived at around the same time as Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote ‘The Tale of Genji‘. There seems to be some kind of rivalry between the admirers of Shōnagon and Shikibu since the old times. I am not sure why. They served rival empresses and maybe that was one reason. Shikibu appears to have criticized Shōnagon in her own diary – unfairly, in my opinion. Having attempted to read ‘The Tale of Genji‘ earlier, and now having read ‘The Pillow Book‘, I can now say that I am firmly on Team Shōnagon 😊

When I read Sei Shōnagon’s book, I remembered one of my favourite lines by one of my favourite writers Yoshida Kenko – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” It was wonderful to meet Sei Shōnagon who lived a thousand years back, and hear her voice through this delightful book. When I read the last line – “That seems to have been the moment when this book first became known – or so it is written” – I felt sad that our conversation was over.

Have you read ‘The Pillow Book‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Haiku poems years back and have been reading them off and on. One of the great things about haiku is its short length, its brevity. No long meanderings, it is over before we know it. This feature of the haiku has also made it challenging for readers like me. Because there is so much packed in those short three lines, most of the meaning and beauty is lost if one is not aware of what the poet is referring to, whether it is Japanese culture or history or geography. Also, typically the last line or the last word in the haiku summarizes the whole poem or elevates it to a new plane by adding a whole new dimension to the meaning. If we can’t recognize what that last line or word says, we can’t experience the beauty and the profound insight of the haiku. For something which is so short and looks deceptively simple, the haiku turns out to have a lot of hidden depth. And the reason for all this complexity lies in its short length, its brevity. So in a sense this short length is a double-edged sword. It is like packing too many things in a small suitcase which makes it difficult to close. In the haiku’s case, the suitcase is beautifully and elegantly closed by the poet, but it resists the reader’s attempt to open it and it refuses to reveal its secrets. I have always wondered since whether there were longer forms of Japanese poetry. I love the beauty of Japanese literature and the Japanese style of literary aesthetics and I wanted to experience the beauty and joy of Japanese poetry in a more accessible way. Then I discovered that there was a longer poetic form called Tanka. I hoped to explore Tanka poetry some day and see whether I’ll have better luck here.

Why all this rambling about Japanese poetic forms? I’ll come to it now.

I discovered ‘The Ink Dark Moon : Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu‘ recently. It featured two women poets from the Heian era (around 1000 years back) and I wanted to read it. When I got it yesterday and started reading the introduction, I discovered that the poems featured were written in the tanka style. I was so excited! I was finally going to read some tanka poetry!

The Heian era saw an explosion of literary creativity in Japan. It was the time when many women poets and writers burst out on the literary scene. Some people say that it was the era which saw the greatest concentration of women poets and writers in ancient or medieval times, anywhere in the world. It was the time the world’s first novel ‘The Tale of Genji’ was written by the great Murasaki Shikibu. It was also the time when the two great poets Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu wrote their poems.

This book has around 160 poems. Around one-fourth of them are by Ono no Komachi. The rest are by Izumi Shikibu. Most of the poems are about love, longing, desire, loss. Some of them are about other topics.

The poems in the book are written in tanka style. How does it differ from the haiku? I am sure there are poetic and technical differences between the two forms, like the number of syllables in the poem and the poetic form and meter used. But these don’t really matter to us much. The thing which is easily visible to lay-readers like me is this. While the haiku has three lines, the tanka has five. This isn’t much, as I was expecting a sonnet-style fourteen lines. But those two extra lines, though they don’t seem to be much, change the poem in a fundamental way. They add a lot of breathing space, in which the poem can stretch itself, relax, and reveal its glorious beauty to us. And it happens in page after page, poem after poem. The poems are beautiful, sad, poignant, heartbreaking, insightful, philosophical. The words are soft, the images are delicate. I read them and I laughed and I cried. Mostly cried, because of what the poem said. I think tanka is my Japanese poetic form, my precious. I love it.

I loved the poems of both Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. At one point, I thought that I could differentiate between their styles, and then I couldn’t. It didn’t matter. They are both wonderful poets. The book has an informative introduction to the life and work of the two poets. It also has an essay at the end, ‘On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation‘, by one of the translators, Jane Hirshfield. Hirshfield’s essay reveals a deep scholarship, a passion for Japanese poetry, a delicate poetic sensibility, a lightness of touch. It is one of the most beautiful essays on poetry and translation that I have ever read. I fell in love with Jane Hirshfield after I read that. I discovered that she was a poet herself (who else but a poet can write so beautifully?) and I went and ordered two of her books. I can’t wait to read them. I already know that she is going to become one of my favourite writers and poets.

This is early days yet, but I think I can safely say that this is one of my favourite books of the year and one of my favourite poetry collections ever. It is a beautiful book to read on a winter evening, sitting in front of the fire, with your beloved sitting next to you, with both of you taking turns to read the poems aloud to each other and taking pleasure in listening to each other’s voice, while experiencing the beauty of the poems. And if your beloved is not around and is away, you can read a poem, close your eyes, let the poem wash over you and dream of your beloved.

I’m sharing some of my favourite poems from the book so that you can experience their beauty yourself.

Poems by Ono no Komachi

Poems by Izumi Shikibu

Have you read ‘The Ink Dark Moon‘? What do you think about it? Did you like the poems above? Which of the above poems is your favourite?

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I started reading Sei Shōnagon’s classic ‘The Pillow Book‘. Wanted to share some of my favourite excerpts from the little I read. They are so charming that I couldn’t resist 😊

Sei Shōnagon includes descriptive lists in her book.

Under ‘Infuriating Things’, she includes these –

• A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.

• You’ve just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail, and starts flying around your face. It’s horrible how you can feel the soft wind of its tiny wings.

• Someone who butts in when you’re talking and smugly provides the ending herself.

• I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.

• And I hate people who don’t close a door that they’ve opened to go in or out.

This made me laugh 😁

Under ‘Things that make your heart beat fast’, she includes this –

• To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.

In ‘Things that make me feel nostalgic’, she includes these –

• Coming across a torn scrap of lavender- or grape-coloured fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book.

• On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.

I found the last one very beautiful.

Loving these lists!

Did you like them?

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I discovered ‘Showa : A History of Japan‘ by Shigeru Mizuki last year. I have coveted it since then 😊 Finally last week I took the plunge and ordered it and got the final volume a few days back.

Mizuki’s book is a 4-volume nonfiction manga comic. It describes the history of the Showa era in Japan starting from 1926 when Emperor Hirohito was crowned and it continues till 1989 which was the end of the Showa era. So it gives a significant account of 20th century history through a Japanese point of view. Each volume has an introduction, a different one, and the artwork is exquisite.

In the best manga tradition, I have put the volumes in the picture in the classic manga order. You have to start with the book on the top right and then proceed to the top left and go counterclockwise to the bottom left and then bottom right, to view the covers in sequence 😊

I started reading the first part ‘Showa 1926 – 1939 : A History of Japan‘ as soon as I got it a few days back. This first part of the 4-part book covers the history of Japan from the beginning of the Showa era in 1926 till the beginning of the Second World War.

The book has two strands of stories which are woven together. The first is the history of Japan as the title indicates. The second is the author’s own memoir. So we get to see the Japan of that era through both the big and the everyday – the major political and social happenings and things which are considered news, and the everyday happenings of the author’s own life. Shigeru Mizuki does an interesting thing to differentiate between these two story strands – the artwork is very different. For the historical events and happenings he uses a realistic style of art, while for the memoir part he uses a comic style of art. It is fascinating. We hear the story through the author’s voice, but sometimes (or many times) a new narrator comes on the scene and takes the story forward or handles the transition between history and memoir. This new narrator is a yokai character (a supernatural being from Japanese folklore) called Nezumi Otoko (translated in English as Rat-man). Nezumi is a fascinating narrator and I loved this aspect of the book – a supernatural being narrating history.

I know only the broad outlines of Japanese history in the 20th century and I learnt a lot from this book. One of the interesting things that I learnt was how hard it was for democracy to put down roots in Japan. The book describes how the military felt that the civilian government wasn’t decisive enough and how military officers repeatedly tried orchestrating coups to overthrow the civilian government (once even assassinating the Prime Minister).

I loved Shigeru Mizuki’s style of storytelling – dispassionate, sometimes critical but always sticking to the facts, and following the golden rule ‘Show, don’t tell’.

I loved the first part of ‘Showa‘. I can’t wait to start the second part.

I’m sharing the pictures of some of the pages to give you a feel of the artwork. The first picture is the comic style artwork for the memoir. The second and third pictures are the realistic style artwork for historical events. The fourth picture has Nezumi Otoko narrating the story.

Have you read ‘Showa‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Shion Miura’sThe Great Passage‘ ever since I discovered it last year.

The Great Passage‘ is about the making of a Japanese dictionary. The main characters work for a publisher which brings out dictionaries. The editorial department decides to bring out a new, big dictionary of the Japanese language. They recruit a person called Majime from the sales department, who is unsuited for his current job but who is a word-nerd. The rest of the book is about how the dictionary project proceeds through different phases and what challenges the main characters face. There are also a couple of romantic stories which form part of the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Great Passage‘. This book is a beautiful love letter to words and the art of making dictionaries. I learnt a lot about dictionary projects and the art and science of lexicography through the book. It is amazing how long it takes to compile a dictionary from scratch. In this story it takes 15 years. One of my favourite parts of the book was about the paper which is used in dictionaries and how the paper company designs the right kind of paper for this particular dictionary. It is very fascinating. The book inspired me to dip into a dictionary I have and order a couple of more dictionaries 😁

One of the things I love about contemporary Japanese literature is this. Sometimes Japanese authors take a field of study or a thing or an activity or a profession and write a beautiful love letter to it and shine a light on its glorious beauty. Yoko Ogawa’sThe Housekeeper and the Professor is about the beauty of mathematics and baseball, Ito Ogawa’sThe Restaurant of Love Regained is about the pleasures of food, Natsu Miyashita’sThe Forest of Wool and Steel is about the beauty of piano tuning. Shion Miura’sThe Great Passage‘ follows in this beautiful tradition and sings an ode to the beauty of words and dictionaries.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago—a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart . . . Words gave things form so they could rise out of the dark sea.”

Have you read ‘The Great Passage‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Fumiko Enchi’sThe Waiting Years‘ ever since I discovered it last year. I finally got around to reading it today.

Tomo is the wife of a powerful government official. One day her husband tells her that he wants a concubine and asks Tomo to find the right woman who will play that role and who will fit into the household, as Tomo knows her husband and her household best. It is a difficult and painful thing for Tomo, but she does what her husband asks. What happens after that and the twists and turns her life takes forms the rest of the story.

Fumiko Enchi’s portrayal of Japan of that time is very fascinating. I initially thought that the period portrayed in the book was the post Second World War years. Then while reading it, based on information that is revealed, I thought it was the time leading up to the Second World War. After reading the book, I discovered that the story is set in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. It is fascinating that the story could fit into any of the periods that I’ve mentioned.

One of the things I loved about the book is that it is not judgemental. It depicts that particular period in Japanese society in intricate detail with delicate nuances. If we look at the story through our current 21st century lens, we might say that one character is good and another is bad and rage against some of them. But that is not what Fumiko Enchi does. Her nuanced portrayal is fascinating. Anton Chekhov once said –

“The artist must not judge his characters or their words; he must only be an impartial witness.”

Fumiko Enchi’s book is a beautiful example of what happens when an artist does that.

Tomo is one of the great characters in Japanese literature. The way she handles her husband’s request, and the way she manages her relationship with the new concubine, how it starts with pain and some jealousy and how later she becomes like a big sister and a mother is beautifully portrayed. Tomo made me think a lot of the central mother character in Kyung-Sook Shin’s famous contemporary novel ‘Please Look After Mom‘. I am wondering whether Kyung-Sook Shin got inspired by Fumiko Enchi’s book when she wrote her own Korean version if it.

Towards the end of the book, Fumiko Enchi reserves the best for the last and writes these lines.

“The small houses she saw before her each time she halted were an undistinguished collection of secondhand shops, grocers, general stores and the like, yet the orange light from their electric lamps had an infinite brightness, and the odors of cooking appealed to the senses with an ineffable richness and warmth that shook Tomo’s heart to the core. Happiness – a small-scale, endearing, harmonious happiness – surely dwelt here beneath the low-powered lamps in the tiny rooms of these houses. A small-scale happiness and a modest harmony : let a man cry out, let him rage, let him howl with grief with all the power of which he was capable, what more than these could he ever hope to gain in this life?

Tomo felt a sudden, futile despair at herself as she stood there in the road alone in the snow, loath to go on, with her gray shawl drawn up close about her neck and an open umbrella held in the hand that was frozen like ice. Everything that she had suffered for, worked for, and won within the restricted sphere of a life whose key she had for decades past entrusted to her wayward husband Yukitomo lay within the confines of that unfeeling, hard, and unassailable fortress summed up by the one word ‘family.’ No doubt, she had held her own in that small world. In a sense, all the strength of her life had gone into doing just that; but now in the light of the lamps of these small houses that so cheerlessly lined one side of the street she had suddenly seen the futility of that somehow artificial life on which she had lavished so much energy and wisdom. Was it possible, then, that everything she had lived for was vain and profitless? No: she shook her head in firm rejection of the idea. Her world was a precarious place, a place where one groped one’s way through the gloom; where everything one’s hand touched was colorless, hard, and cold; where the darkness seemed to stretch endlessly ahead. Yet at the end of it all a brighter world surely lay waiting, like the light when one finally emerges from a tunnel. If it were not there waiting, then nothing made sense. She must not despair, she must walk on; unless she climbed and went on climbing she would never reach the top of the hill.”

I cried when I read that.

I loved ‘The Waiting Years‘. I loved Fumiko Enchi’s portrayal of those times. The story had many strong women characters who do their best to survive during a time when life was tough for women. Some of them do questionable things. But it was hard not to like them and not be fascinated by them. The book is just 183 pages long, but in that short space, Fumiko Enchi covers a period of many decades. It doesn’t feel rushed which, I think, is a triumph of her storytelling skills.

Fumiko Enchi seems to be the mother-figure for all contemporary Japanese women writers. Her earliest books date to the 1920s. Just three of her books seem to be available in English translation. It is a shame. Wish more of her books get translated into English. I can’t wait to read the other two.

Have you read Fumiko Enchi’sThe Waiting Years‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Natsu Miyashita’sThe Forest of Wool and Steel‘ through one of my friends who highly recommended it. The book was about the piano and its music and I couldn’t wait to read it.

Tomura is in high school. One day one of his teachers tells him that a man will arrive in the afternoon at school, and asks Tomura to take this man to the gym. When this man arrives, Tomura takes him to the gym and leaves him there. While Tomura is leaving the gym, this man opens the piano there, presses down some of the keys and plays a few notes, and something beautiful, magical happens in Tomura’s mind. It is like someone opened his heart to a Narnia filled with music, in which when each musical note is played, Tomura sees the warm earth, whispering leaves, the forest, the trees. And Tomura comes back while this man is tuning the piano. And that is the end of life as he knows it. The boy from the mountains, Tomura, now wants to dedicate his life to the piano, he wants to become a piano tuner. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

The Forest of Wool and Steel‘ is a beautiful love letter to pianos, piano tuning, music. I loved it. I am happy that I discovered a new favourite book, a new favourite writer. I love how Japanese writers take delightful things, sometimes even everyday things, and compose a beautiful book around them – the way Yoko Ogawa wrote a book about mathematics and baseball, Ito Ogawa wrote about the pleasures of food, Banana Yoshimoto wrote about the seashore and the beach, Hiromi Kawakami wrote about the thrift store, Haruki Murakami wrote about running, Sayaka Murata wrote about the convenience store, Shion Miura wrote about the dictionary, the way Takashi Hiraide, Hiro Arikawa and Genki Kawamura wrote about this beautiful being called the cat. Natsu Miyashita’s book is a beautiful addition to this wonderful list of Japanese books which sing a song in praise of all this beauty that surrounds us.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“And here was another thing : ‘beautiful’, like ‘right’, was a totally new word for me. Until I’d found the piano I’d never been aware of things that you might call beautiful, which is a little different, of course, from not knowing they exist…The delicate frown lines between the brows of a crying baby. The bare mountain trees beginning to bud, and the ecstasy of the moment when the tips of the branches reflect a reddish hue, casting a warm glow across the mountain. The mountain on fire with these imaginary flames would stop my breath and fill my heart to bursting.
It liberated me to have a word for these things – for the trees, the mountains, the seasons. To call them beautiful meant I could take them out any time I wished, exchange them with friends. Beauty was everywhere in the world. I had just never known what to call it or how to recognize it – until that afternoon in the school gym, when it flooded me with joy. If a piano can bring to light the beauty that has become invisible to us, and give it audible form, then it is a miraculous instrument and I thrill to be its lowly servant.”

Have you read ‘The Forest of Wool and Steel‘? What do you think about it?

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