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Posts Tagged ‘My Year of Reading 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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