9 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Before she left Picador to be an editor at Free Press, Amber Quereshi acquired a few books by Japanese author Yoko Ogawa. The first, The Diving Pool came out last year, The Housekeeper and the Professor is the second and released earlier this spring, and there’s one more in the works. (Can’t remember the title, but I know Stephen Snyder is also translating it.)

Ogawa is a pretty big figure in the contemporary Japanese publishing and has written a ton of books, which, with a little luck, will see the light of day in English after this three-book deal runs out. (Any interested publishers—I think Anna Stein is the agent for this . . .)

Anyway, Will Eells is one of my two Japanese-reading interns this semester and is working toward a Certificate in Literary Translation. This is his first review. And it opens:

Contemporary Japanese literature is all too easy to stereotype. As far as the American reading public goes, the only books that come out of Japan seem to be under one of three genres. The first is the “bizarre things happening in an otherwise normal setting” in the mold of Haruki Murakami. As one of the most successful authors to come out of a non-American or Western-European country in the last thirty years, Murakami is surely a success story that publishers want to recreate. The two other kinds of Japanese fiction published in America seem to be horror novels (Koji Suzuki’s The Ring, et al) and hard-boiled, nihilistic crime novels (think Natsuo Kirino and anything yakuza-related.) Of course, this has led to over-saturation on the bookshelves, and I’ve become completely fatigued by novelists that take an ordinary person with an ordinary life in Tokyo, and then throws in a ghost, or alien, a murder, or any event or characters with motivations completely unexplained to the reader for the protagonist to deal with for instant tension. Why does Japan seem to have a monopoly on novels with extraordinary premises? What happened to all the Japanese realists?

Reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was consequently a breath of fresh air, a beautiful and bittersweet tale by a talented female writer. Ogawa has become a huge critical and popular success in Japan in the last twenty years, winning numerous literary awards including the Akutagawa Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, and the Tanizaki Prize, while also having one of her novels (the one in question) adapted for the screen in 2006. She is also now one of the jurors for the Akutagawa Prize Committee.

Click here for the full review.

9 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Contemporary Japanese literature is all too easy to stereotype. As far as the American reading public goes, the only books that come out of Japan seem to be under one of three genres. The first is the “bizarre things happening in an otherwise normal setting” in the mold of Haruki Murakami. As one of the most successful authors to come out of a non-American or Western-European country in the last thirty years, Murakami is surely a success story that publishers want to recreate. The two other kinds of Japanese fiction published in America seem to be horror novels (Koji Suzuki’s The Ring, et al) and hard-boiled, nihilistic crime novels (think Natsuo Kirino and anything yakuza-related.) Of course, this has led to over-saturation on the bookshelves, and I’ve become completely fatigued by novelists that take an ordinary person with an ordinary life in Tokyo, and then throws in a ghost, or alien, a murder, or any event or characters with motivations completely unexplained to the reader for the protagonist to deal with for instant tension. Why does Japan seem to have a monopoly on novels with extraordinary premises? What happened to all the Japanese realists?

Reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was consequently a breath of fresh air, a beautiful and bittersweet tale by a talented female writer. Ogawa has become a huge critical and popular success in Japan in the last twenty years, winning numerous literary awards including the Akutagawa Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, and the Tanizaki Prize, while also having one of her novels (the one in question) adapted for the screen in 2006. She is also now one of the jurors for the Akutagawa Prize Committee.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is about the relationship between the two eponymous characters (who are never named), and the Housekeeper’s son, only referred to by his nickname Root. The narrator, a single mother employed by the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, has just started her new job working for the Professor, a genius in mathematics who, due to an automobile accident, has a memory that only lasts 80 minutes (and for those who may think this is one of the “unexplained events” that I critiqued above, this condition actually has medical precedent). Every morning, the Housekeeper has to reintroduce herself to the Professor:

“What’s your shoe size?”

This was the Professor’s first question, once I had announced myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is one ironclad rule in my profession, it’s that you always give the employer what he wants; and so I told him.

“Twenty-four centimeters.”

“There’s a sturdy number,” he said. “It’s the factorial of four.” He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and was silent for a moment.

“What’s a ‘factorial’?” I asked at last. I felt I should try to found out a bit more, since it seemed to be connected to his interest in my shoe size.”

“The product of all the natural numbers from one to four is twenty-four,” he said, without opening his eyes. “What’s your telephone number?”

He nodded, as if deeply impressed. “That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.”

It wasn’t immediately clear to me why my phone number was so interesting, but his enthusiasm seemed genuine. And he wasn’t showing off; he struck me as straightforward and modest. It nearly convinced me that there was something special about my phone number, and that I was somehow special for having it.

While the Professor’s memory always fails him, numbers never do. It is the only way he can reach out to the world while everything else constantly disappears. The success of this novel lies in the sense that numbers and their relationship to the world are indeed special, and Ogawa’s straightforward and gentle tone actually make numbers seem magical. The novel also works because of how fully-realized and thoroughly sympathetic the characters are. The deepening relationship between the Housekeeper, Root, and the Professor as they create a make-shift family thanks to the power of numbers, the only thing the Professor can relate to, is powerful and poignant, despite the failure of the Professor’s memory.

The novel is full of explanations about different sorts of math theories, but Ogawa’s prose is so clear and beautiful, thanks in no small part by an excellent translation by Stephen Snyder, that it makes even the most difficult theorems relatable. And because the Housekeeper knows as little about number theory as the average reader, everything is explained gently, and with such passion by the Professor, that even the most difficult theorems become almost magical in their presentation. Every event becomes significant and beautiful in the hands of Ogawa, from getting the Professor to go to a dentist, to the celebration of a ten-year old’s birthday. Even in such a tragic setting, love and happiness blossom in a way that feels both real and sentimental without being saccharine or cloying. Its a novel full of powerful and honest emotions, and a novel that is engaging to the reader even without the aid of metaphysical craziness or grizzly murders. It’s hard to believe that publishing something so ordinary could be called “innovative”, but that’s the state of translated contemporary Japanese fiction right now. It’s going to be hard going back.

27 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Hard to say that the New York Times doesn’t review translations after this week . . . In addition to Kakutani’s possibly insane review of The Kindly Ones, this weekend’s Book Review includes articles on four works of literature in translation.

First off, Liesl Schillinger reviews the Melville House publication of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which we’ll be covering in much more detail in the near future.

A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred, but if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years. This event is the belated appearance in English of the novel Every Man Dies Alone, the story of a working-class Berlin couple who took on the Third Reich with a postcard campaign intended to foment rebellion against Hitler’s Germany. Published in 1947, the book was written in 24 days by a prolific but psychologically disturbed German writer named Rudolf Ditzen, who spent a significant portion of his life in asylums (for killing a friend in a duel, for threatening his wife with a gun), in prison (for embezzling to finance his morphine habit) and in rehab. In spite of his precarious emotional state, he wrote more than two dozen books under the pen name Hans Fallada, which he took from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Then there’s Dennis Overbye’s positive review of Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, which was translated by Stephen Snyder, another Salzburg Seminar participant. Ogawa’s earlier book — The Diving Pool — was included on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and despite my rather tepid review, is worth checking out. I’m sure we’ll review this one sometime in the near future as well. And according to Stephen, the next book of Ogawa’s that Picador is publishing is the best of the bunch . . .

There’s also Clare Clark’s piece on Morten Ramsland’s Doghead, which has been compared in Europe to the work of John Irving:

Yet Doghead is a very different book from The World According to Garp, say, or A Prayer for Owen Meany. For all their eccentric habits and physical peculiarities, Irving’s characters are essentially realistic, capable of making a profound emotional connection with the reader. Ramsland’s are larger-than-life creations who go by a roll call of nicknames, among them Jug Ears, the Bath Plug and the Little Bitch. In the world of the Erikssons, life is shocking and childhood brutal. No one is to be trusted, family least of all. Rambunctious, often imaginative, invariably cruel, the stories rattle through a catalog of adultery, duplicity and casual violence. A father sells his son’s precious coin collection to buy booze. A mother hides the letters sent to her son by his distant love. A brother tapes his sister making out with her boyfriend in the room next door and shares the cassettes with his friends. None of these characters learn from their mistakes. Instead they run away from them. And those who stay make more.

Despite its earthy comedy, then, Doghead is ultimately a bleak book.

And last but not least is Floyd Skloot’s review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Fat Man and Infinity and Other Writings. I wrote a very positive review of this for Quarterly Conversation (coming soon) and really hope that this book gets even more attention than What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? did. It’s more accessible, and a great intro to Antunes’s world. Skloot’s review isn’t entirely positive, but he does sum up the sundry nature of the book pretty well:

Now, in The Fat Man and Infinity, he turns his attention inward, onto his own life and mind, his own experience of place and community. Neither traditional memoir nor in-depth analysis, it collects 107 brief chronicles from the weekly or biweekly columns Lobo Antunes has written for various publications, particularly the Portuguese newspaper O Público. The Fat Man and Infinity is a genuine miscellany, roughly half reminiscence or reflection and half very short fiction, that struggles to cohere. Detailed and often lyrical, it is best at offering moments of nostalgic charm.

I’m sure people will still jump on Tanenhaus for something, but this is a pretty solid issue . . . now, hopefully one of these weeks an Open Letter title will slip in there . . .

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