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Posts Tagged ‘Reading Japan’

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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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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N.P.‘ by Banana Yoshimoto was recommended to me by friends who were Yoshimoto fans. One of my friends lent it to me and I read it yesterday. This is the third Yoshimoto book that I have read in the past three months. Isn’t that cool?

The story told in ‘N.P.‘ goes like this. Kazami, the narrator of the story, is a young woman who works in the university. She talks about an author called Sarao Takase whom she discovered years back, because her boyfriend of that time, Shoji, was translating one of Takase’s stories, from the original English to Japanese. There was one volume of Takase’s stories in print at that time, and that contained ninety-seven stories. A ninety-eighth story was discovered recently, and Shoji was translating it. Then, suddenly, Shoji commits suicide. And Kazami discovers that the three people who tried translating the story have all committed suicide. Now, during the present time, Kazami bumps into Takase’s son, while taking a walk during lunchtime. Soon, they become friends. Before long, Takase’s daughter also comes to meet Kazami and they become friends too. And soon a mysterious woman called Sui also crosses Kazami’s path. She seems to be related to the Takases. How these friendships and relationships evolve, who the mysterious Sui is, whether a new translation of Takase’s story is attempted, whether the story claims one more sacrifice – the answers to these questions are told in the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘N.P.‘ It is the story of a complex friendship between four young people, who are linked together by a mysterious author and his last story. It is also a fascinating love story, though an unconventional one. This book was very different from the other two Yoshimoto stories I had read, because Yoshimoto has really pushed the envelope here, with respect to the unconventional part. Yoshimoto’s prose is spare and glides elegantly through the pages. I read the book in an evening – that is how fast the pages flew by. The book also has some fascinating thoughts on translation which are thought-provoking. The ending of the story is interesting and complicated. Kazami says in the end – “I saw the sky and sea and sand and the flickering flames of the bonfire through my tears. All at once, it rushed into my head at tremendous speed, and made me feel dizzy. It was beautiful. Everything that had happened was shockingly beautiful, enough to make you crazy.” You have to read the book to find out why she says that.

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

“A person without a voice gradually loses language. For the first two days, my thought processes remained the same as before. If my sister stepped on my foot, I would think “ouch” in words. When a place I had been to before appeared in TV, my thoughts would virtually be in the same form as the words might have come out of my mouth at that moment, had I been able to speak – like, “Oh, I know where that is. I wonder when they filmed this,” or something like that.
But after a period of being unable to speak those words, something changed in my head. I came to see the array of colors that lay behind words. When my sister was being nice to me, I perceived a brilliant image of pink light. My mother’s words and gestures when she was teaching us English were gold; a bright yellow orange cane through the palm of my hand when I bent down to pat our cat as she wandered by.
Living like that utterly convinced me of the extreme limitations of language. I was just a child then, so I had only an intuitive understanding of the degree to which one loses control of words once they are spoken or written. It was then that I first felt a deep curiosity about language, and understood it as a tool that encompasses both a single moment and eternity.”

“Time stopped. Perhaps God in his grace glanced down upon us then. It was that peaceful, for an eternal moment, in the valley of the night…When I thought about that moment later, in the light of day, it didn’t seem so monumental. But when it came upon me, the touch of darkness was undeniably vast and pure.”

Have you read Banana Yoshimoto’sN.P.‘? What do you think about it?

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After reading a couple of books by Yasunari Kawabata, I thought I’ll read a book by Yukio Mishima. I picked ‘Thirst for Love‘.

First a few words on Yukio Mishima. Mishima was one of the great Japanese writers of the twentieth century. He was also one of the most handsome. He wrote many books, including novels and plays. His most famous books are probably ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion‘ and ‘The Sea of Fertility‘ tetralogy, which is regarded as his magnum opus. He was expected to win the Nobel Prize for literature during his lifetime, but he didn’t. He died at the young age of forty-five, by committing Sepukku (or Harakiri as it is popularly known).

Now about the book.

Etsuko is a young woman and the main character in the story. When she loses her husband, her father-in-law Yakichi invites her to come and live in his farm with his other two grown-up children. Yakichi’s son and daughter live with him in different parts of the house and help out in the farm. They are both married and have children. Yakichi used to work in a shipping company and when he retired he was the President of the company. After retiring, he decides to move to the countryside and buy a farm and manage it. His wife and children oppose that move, but then they move with him and now help him out in the farm. Yakichi’s wife passes away after a few years. When Etsuko moves into her father-in-law’s house, she is given a special status by him, which annoys his two children. But they still try to be friendly with her. After a while, Yakichi starts making advances on Etsuko. While these things are going on, Etsuko is attracted towards Saburo, who is a servant and gardener who is working there. To complicate things further, the cook and maid Miyo loves Saburo. How these feelings of different characters evolve and how the complex events of the story unfold is told in the rest of the book.

This is my first proper Yukio Mishima book. Though I have read parts of ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion‘, I couldn’t finish reading it then. So I didn’t know what to expect. Though I was expecting that the story would be a bit dark, based on past experience. It is. We experience the story most of the time through Etsuko’s eyes and so we empathize with her. Though sometimes the point of view changes, we continue to be on ‘Team Etsuko’. But as the complex story evolves and one thing leads to another, at some point we are no longer sure what to think. The characters in the story, including our favourite Etsuko, are complex, imperfect, flawed, real. When we read about Etsuko’s feelings towards Saburo and Saburo’s simple-minded ignorance and response to that – it is so beautifully expressed by Mishima. Yakichi’s eldest son Kensuke and Kensuke’s wife Chieko come through initially as two characters who gossip and plot behind other people’s backs, but as we continue reading our heart warms up to them. One of my favourite conversations in the story happens between them. It goes like this.

Chieko : “You don’t have it quite straight. I meant you were a plain, ordinary man of the house.”

Kensuke : “Ordinary? Wonderful! The highest point at which human life and art meet is in the ordinary. To look down on the ordinary is to despise what you can’t have. Show me a man who fears being ordinary, and I’ll show you a man who is not yet a man. The earliest days of the haiku, before Basho, before Shiki, were filled with the vigor of an age in which the spirit of the ordinary had not died.”

Chieko : “Yes, and your haiku show the ordinary at its highest point of development.”

The other characters in the story are also well fleshed out including Yakichi, Saburo and Miyo. A complex story like this will have a complex ending. Yukio Mishima ensures that it does. I won’t tell you what it is. You have to read the book to find out.

I enjoyed reading ‘Thirst for Love‘. I am glad I finally read my first Mishima book. I can’t wait to read more. I am sharing below some of my favourite passages from the book. Mishima’s prose is very beautiful and very different from Kawabata’s. Read it for yourself and tell me whether you find it different.

“She was not religious, yet like devoutly religious women, Etsuko found in the emptiness of her hopes the purest of meanings…Not thinking about things was the basis of Etsuko’s contentment. It was her reason for being.”

“A feeling of liberation should contain a bracing feeling of negation, in which liberation itself is not negated. In the moment a captive lion steps out of his cage, he possesses a wider world than the lion who has known only the wilds. While he was in captivity, there were only two worlds to him – the world of the cage, and the world outside the cage. Now he is free. He roars. He attacks people. He eats them. Yet he is not satisfied, for there is no third world that is neither the world of the cage nor the world outside the cage.”

“In those three short days of Saburo’s absence, the feeling that developed with his absence – whatever the feeling – was to me entirely new. As a gardener who, after long care and toil, holds in his hand a marvelous peach, hefts the weight of it, and feels the joy of it, so I felt the weight of his absence in my hand and reveled in it. It would not be true to say that those three days were lonely. To me his absence was a plump, fresh weight. That was joy! Everywhere in the house I perceived his absence – in the yard, in the workroom, in the kitchen, in his bedroom.”

Have you read Yukio Mishima’sThirst for Love‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Mishima book?

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