19 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm and simple until the appearance of their neighbors’ cat, Chibi. Warmth and caring slowly seep into their relationship, with each other and with Chibi, due to the cat’s appearance. Gradually their lives change in subtle yet impactful ways. Finding out they have to leave their home coincides with an abrupt end to Chibi’s visits, and suddenly their newly established lifestyle is in disarray. The narrator describes his life experiences, relationships, and surroundings with simple clarity and beautiful awareness. At one point, as an attempted distraction from loss, the narrator immerses himself in a book on geometry and his reflection on this tactic illustrates his voice throughout the novel:

But perhaps I had embarked on this line of thought merely to distract myself from my own anger and grief. It’s not as if I was actually prepared to waste my time attempting to perform triangular surveying. I was merely seeking comfort in the thought that something as serenely transparent as an ancient surveying method might be applicable to this place of loss and bewilderment where I now found myself.

Having published numerous books of poetry, Hiraide’s poetic experience shines through in his prose as well. His language is gentle and deliberate, pulling the reader in with meticulous details, a style that fits perfectly with the generally peaceful course of the characters’ lives. While focused on one clear plotline, Hiraide’s storytelling, translated to English by Eric Selland, incorporates smaller transformations and events along the way that give The Guest Cat even more depth. The narrator’s description of fate at the beginning foreshadows the set up of the novel, both stylistically and contextually:

As it surges forward people flee, but ultimately they succumb to the water’s momentum. Nothing—no one escapes.
Living beings, in turning a corner, or in producing the movements required to enter the crack in a certain partially opened door, are endowed with certain properties, something which produces its own little river. These daily movements are repeated, and a certain tendency—a certain current if you will—is generated. Then this minor current, because it is a current, must at some point flow into a larger river.

The seemingly minor subplots of Hiraide’s The Guest Cat merge throughout the novel to create a forceful narrative that will captivate any reader.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.

We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history. The book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.

As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:

We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.

We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.

18 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A current MALTS student here at the University of Rochester, Allison M. Charette is also a translator from the French who recently helped launch the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America. After attending this year’s American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, she wanted to write up a couple of the more interesting panels. Here’s one.

You know those list-y blog posts, right? “Top Ten Things You’re Doing Wrong at Work” or “8 Commonly Mispronounced Words” or “25 Ryan Gosling GIFs to Make You Smile”?

Don’t worry, this isn’t one of them.

But I, a true member of my generation, read lots of them. Some of them even have to do with translation (which I also do). And those lists of “Top Ten Things to Make You a Better Translator” always include a directive to talk. Specifically, to read the original text out loud. Then to read your written translation out loud. Everything is supposed to make more sense when you do.

Jordan Smith agrees. As he pointed out in his panel at the recent ALTA conference, “Decentering Semantics: Poetics and Meaning in Translation,” there’s more to words and characters than just their content and contextual meaning. He’s currently translating some wonderfully experimental poetry by Yoshimasu Gōzō, a Japanese poet, which involves a lot of puns, wordplay between different languages, and homophonographic play within its own language.

There’s a practice in Japan called ateji, which replaces a normal kanji character with different characters that are pronounced the same. English has these word games, too—mondegreens, or the physical card game Mad Gab—but it seems to be more poetic and less slapstick in Japanese. Jordan gave an example from Gōzō’s “火・Fire . . .” (published in last summer’s Poetry Review):

smoke: kemuri 煙
ke               mu                           ri
毛               無                             里
HAIR          NOTHINGNESS    VILLAGE

By sounding out each word carefully, the reader gets a new, alternate meaning in each character (or, in English, set of letters). Sounding it out gives it a new sense. In this particular poem, it’s a deeply interesting feature and a novel idea.

In poetry translation, though, it’s something more: the most extreme way to support the idea that sound is more important than content. Rendering a poem literally into another language is stilted at best and wildly off the mark at worst. Jordan argued that the best approach is to keep the semantic meaning decentered, or at least to recenter it somewhere in the space between languages.

To translate this ateji, though, Jordan was faced with a challenge. No matter how you elongate or twist the sounds in the word “smoke” in English, you’ll never hear anything about hair, or village, or a void. But if the sound is all that matters, then “some-oak” or “sumo-oak” should work just fine. And so it does, in Jordan’s translation:

          Thinking of the fire in the heart of Adonis
     «drapé de feu»
“soft flames of the earth’s surface, …….(July 8, 2000. From Miyake-jima, like the hand of an infant, // fresh some,oak (smoke, …….) = hair,nothingness,village (ke毛,mu無,ri里, ……)”
     door = «戸»
seed of the fire even beyond the seed of the fire in the heart of Adonis-san
     door = «戸»

My first reaction to this poetry was “wow, this is strange.” This poem includes three different languages in just this one little excerpt, plus bibliographic information as part of the poem itself. It’s not something you see every day. But it’s beautiful. It sounds beautiful when you speak it out loud. Even though there’s no semantic reference to “oak” in the original poem, it fits. The sound itself fits. And in the end, with poetry, that’s what matters most.

This poem and more will be included in a forthcoming anthology entitled Alice, Iris, Red Horse: Selected Poems of Gozo Yoshimasu: a Book in and on Translation, edited by Forrest Gander.

8 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you’re one of those people who habitually skim the prologue to a book, Minae Mizumura’s _A True Novel_—her third novel and the winner of the Yomiuri Literature Prize in Japan in 2002—might not appear to be for you. That is to say, the prologue takes up at least a third of the first volume of the book, and it’s pretty important for understanding the circumstances in which the story that makes up this “true novel” takes place, in addition to sorting out what, exactly, a “true novel” is. Luckily for you, O prologue skippers of the world, there is nothing dry or uninteresting about the first 165 pages of this book, which introduces the protagonist, Taro Azuma, as Mizumura knew him when she lived in America during her teens. In fact, if you were somehow unaware of the name of the author when you came into the reading the book, you might not realize that the entire thing wasn’t a fictional account from an outsider to establish what happened during the gaps in the main story. I actually forgot a couple of times that I was reading a prologue at all.

The main function of the prologue here is to both set up the circumstances which led to this novel being written, and to sort out for the reader what exactly a “true novel” is. On the outside, it seems like it might be an oxymoron: because a novel is fictional, it surely can’t be “true,” right? Or maybe the title refers more to the fact that the novel is an example of the “true” form that a novel should take. It turns out that in this case, “true” is a combination of the story’s basis in reality and its following in the pattern of Western classics: authentic, “true” novels. Mizumura takes a few pages to explain the history of the “true” and “I-novels” and it makes no sense fragmented, so all I’m going to say is read the damn prologue, or else flounder in confusion. Your choice.

What I can excerpt is a bit on Mizumura’s thought process as she considered making a novel out of the story told to her by Yusuke Kato about a man Mizumura knew as a teenager:

It was when I finally began to write about Taro Azuma that I came up against an obstacle I had not foreseen. What I had taken to be a gift from heaven was, I gradually found out, not all that simple. The further I progressed, the more insistent that problem became: how to take “a story just like a novel” and turn it into a novel in Japanese.

. . .

The story I was told on that stormy night was merely one of many love stories already told a thousand times. Why turn it into yet another novel? There was only one answer I could think of: it recalled the translated Western novels I had encountered as a girl, especially one that never failed to make a disturbing impression on me every time I read it: a literary classic set on the wild Yorkshire moors and written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by the English-woman E.B… What I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese.

So here we finally come up against the thing that the back cover of this book does not want anyone to forget: this novel is “a remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, set in postwar Japan.” I’m hesitant to agree with that statement entirely. While the plot of the story does seem to mimic, in some places, that of Wuthering Heights, with all the main characters represented (the outsider, the housekeeper, the poor abused boy, the rich girl he loves, etc.), the fact that the story is real kind of discounts it, in my mind at least, from being a “re-making” of anything—in addition to many obvious changes, including “new” characters, who shift the progression of the plot away from Brontë’s classic. Mizumura herself states that, although the story seemed to fit that pattern to begin with, as she was writing she saw it take its own, unique shape. But perhaps I’m just splitting hairs. At any rate, I was pleased to discover that I enjoyed A True Novel immensely (much more than I enjoyed Wuthering Heights, in point of fact). I accredit the gap in my enjoyment between the two books to several things, but in particular that, whereas Wuthering Heights is a romance novel, and pretty much only that, A True Novel is the story of so much more—family rivalry, economic turmoil, loss, and the growing modernization of a country coming into the 20th century at full throttle.

And really, all comparisons to Wuthering Heights aside, the stark sense of reality in this book informed both by the genuineness of the general plot and the expertly-done character development plants the story—and the characters in it—firmly on the ground. No one would ever be tricked into believing this is a biography or a non-fiction book, but the skill with which Mizumura fleshes out people who she’s only ever “met” through second and third hand accounts is staggering and wonderful. Everything is cleanly situated in space and time, localized to the latter half of the 20th century in Japan and giving the reader a view into the ever-shifting lives of the “better families” who were forced to make adjustments in their every-day lives due to post-war policies, but held on fiercely to the societal prejudices that allowed them to maintain their social, if not their monetary, superiority. With the added black-and-white photographs illustrating various places and things mentioned in the text, you’ll never lose touch with where or when the story is, and you’ll begin to absorb the feeling of the mourning in which the older generations are for the cultural past swept away in the current of modernity.

The plot is triple-layered: the outside is the story of Yusuke Kato’s brief interactions with the Saegusa family, Taro Azuma, and Fumiko Tsuchiya one summer week when he was vacationing with a friend. The next layer is Fumiko’s retelling—to Yuksue—of the things she witnessed during her acquaintance with the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, Utagawa, and Azuma families. The innermost layer of the plot is the history of the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, and Utagawa families, as told by the Shigemitsu’s maid to Fumiko when Fumiko was in the Utagawa family’s service. Each layer of the plot is nested inside the other to create a fully expanded story, from before the beginning to after the end. Each of the narrators brings a part of the story into being, although not necessarily in order, to create a fully satisfying novel that entirely lacks the tug of lethargy that is always a risk in books this long. Every word is important here, every page brings something new, something that the reader is eager to know, and that makes this novel an easy read, despite its length. Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif have created a translation that is smooth, evocative, and modern, while maintaining the air of affectation that surrounds the central families.

So, for those of you who slept through Brit. Lit. II (don’t worry, I don’t know who you are—I was half-asleep, myself), hate romance novels, or are just generally afraid of long books, fear not. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is reader-friendly, engaging, and, while similar in places to Wuthering Heights, far longer, much more interesting, and (I’ll argue, to the distress of English literature teachers everywhere) more important in the conclusions (or lack there of) it ultimately draws. A True Novel is a simultaneously expansive and private insight into the struggle between traditional Japanese values and incoming Western conventions, monetary wealth and spiritual value, and status and love—a work of literature not to be missed.

8 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, from Other Press.

To go against the grain of prologues and intros (more on that from This Hannah in a bit), here’s the beginning of her review:

If you’re one of those people who habitually skim the prologue to a book, Minae Mizumura’s _A True Novel_—her third novel and the winner of the Yomiuri Literature Prize in Japan in 2002—might not appear to be for you. That is to say, the prologue takes up at least a third of the first volume of the book, and it’s pretty important for understanding the circumstances in which the story that makes up this “true novel” takes place, in addition to sorting out what, exactly, a “true novel” is. Luckily for you, O prologue skippers of the world, there is nothing dry or uninteresting about the first 165 pages of this book, which introduces the protagonist, Taro Azuma, as Mizumura knew him when she lived in America during her teens. In fact, if you were somehow unaware of the name of the author when you came into the reading the book, you might not realize that the entire thing wasn’t a fictional account from an outsider to establish what happened during the gaps in the main story. I actually forgot a couple of times that I was reading a prologue at all.

The main function of the prologue here is to both set up the circumstances which led to this novel being written, and to sort out for the reader what exactly a “true novel” is. On the outside, it seems like it might be an oxymoron: because a novel is fictional, it surely can’t be “true,” right? Or maybe the title refers more to the fact that the novel is an example of the “true” form that a novel should take. It turns out that in this case, “true” is a combination of the story’s basis in reality and its following in the pattern of Western classics: authentic, “true” novels. Mizumura takes a few pages to explain the history of the “true” and “I-novels” and it makes no sense fragmented, so all I’m going to say is read the damn prologue, or else flounder in confusion. Your choice.

Like that little prologue? For the rest of the review, go here

15 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you have enough time, I’m going to recommend you sit down and read this one straight through. Natsuo Kirino is best known for her award-winning 1997 novel Out, which brought her fame in Japan and a considerable readership in the wider world as well, and although The Goddess Chronicles is not a mystery story, per se, I felt the same kind of insistent tug to read on that I get when reading mysteries. It’s not so much the feeling of dangling after a cliff-hanger as it is an almost sick fascination with finding out how next the bitter suffering of women doomed to darkness would manifest.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack for a moment: The Goddess Chronicles is a feminist perspective on the story of Izanami and Izanaki as told, experienced, and then seen through by Namima, the younger sister of the celebrated Oracle of a poverty-stricken island community and the priestess of darkness before she meets an untimely demise and finds herself trapped in the regret-filled underworld with a vengeful goddess. Namima learns the story of Izanami’s love of and betrayal by her husband Izanaki, and witnesses the final moments of their epic struggle, while she herself must come to terms with her own bitterness and regret set off confusingly by her love and concern for her sister and daughter, who are caught in a trap of theistic rigidity that Namima herself died escaping.

Everything in this novel is about opposites—life and death, love and hate, good and evil, yin and yang—but nothing is black and white. The Goddess Chronicles is proof positive that nothing in life (or death) has clean edges, no matter how hard we may try to impose them.

I recalled Izanami’s words: ‘Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yang and yin. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its opposite, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.’

But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark yin and, yes, pollution. It might be presumptuous of me to suggest it, but what had happened to her was not unlike my own death. On Umihebi Island, I had been assigned the role of yin and was named ‘impure.’ I understood Izanami’s anger and bitterness.

The feminist aspect here is refreshing, especially coming from a country whose cultural policies and perceptions have oftentimes teetered on the edge of (and sometimes fallen into) misogyny. Kirino has touched on themes of misogyny in previous novels, including Grotesque and Real World, but it takes on a special kind of tortured poignancy here, where the female characters are simultaneously worshipped and denigrated: Namima, destined to be an important religious figure in her community but treated as an “impure” outsider, who will be required to commit suicide when her sister dies to preserve the balance of nature; Mahito’s mother, whose family’s entire future rides on her giving birth to a baby girl, who has no worth without it; and Izanami, who gave birth to the world and the gods and goddesses in it, who dies in childbirth and is then condemned by her own husband to live in hatred and bitterness in the underworld, killing when she was created to give life. The women in the novel have the tangible power, but they are influenced most strongly by their relationships to men, even to the point of destruction of other women or themselves. And be warned: if you’re looking for a truly satisfying, storybook ending, you’re out of luck. Kirino has a flawless way of injecting bitter reality into her mythic setting.

Something else that caught my attention about this book is its overall flow. I’m really picky about English translations of character languages, specifically how a translator decides to deal with the entanglement of specific kinds of wordplay with the nuances of the individual characters. I could write a book on the things I’ve seen translators do that make me want to hide my face in my hands and scream, but luckily I don’t have to, because translator Rebecca Copeland did everything right in what must have been a veritable minefield (so many gods and goddesses! so many symbolically important names! ah!) of choices. The explanations of names and places is carried off in such a way that none of the explanations of etymologies kicked me out of reading with a big, glaring, “HELLO I AM A TRANSLATION” sign flashing before my eyes. It’s rare that I find a translation from Japanese that leaves me as comfortable as this one, and I appreciate that immensely.

Kirino’s language and touch of reality is all that it takes to turn this book from the fairy tale it might have been into something which seems more like the biography of disillusioned women who find everything out the hard way. You will be repulsed by Izanami, or you will feel pity for her—you can do both. You will hate Izanaki, or you will mourn his losses yourself—is that so wrong? These characters are real enough, with life enough of their own, to transcend their mythical boundaries and become people about whom your opinions will shift and change as if you knew them personally. Like I said earlier, Kirino wants you to know that there are no clean edges in the world. How better to understand that than to experience it yourself?

This tale may be spun from my words but I speak for the goddess, the one who governs the Realm of the Dead. My words may be dyed red with anger; they may tremble in yearning after the living; but they are all, each and every one, spoken to express the sentiments of the goddess. As will become clear later, I am a priestess – a miko – and like the famous reciter of old Hieda no Are who entertains the goddess with ancient tale from the age of the gods, I too serve her with all my heart.

15 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino, from Grove Atlantic.

The interns have been getting marginally scandalous book assignments to review: Hannah had this one, with the nudie woman on the cover, while another of our interns is working on a review of a different book that is nudie/pornographic, kind of, in content. Or so I’ve heard. These students are possibly too patient with us. And we’re grateful.

Here’s the beginning of Hannah’s review:

If you have enough time, I’m going to recommend you sit down and read this one straight through. Natsuo Kirino is best known for her award-winning 1997 novel Out, which brought her fame in Japan and a considerable readership in the wider world as well, and although The Goddess Chronicles is not a mystery story, per se, I felt the same kind of insistent tug to read on that I get when reading mysteries. It’s not so much the feeling of dangling after a cliff-hanger as it is an almost sick fascination with finding out how next the bitter suffering of women doomed to darkness would manifest.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack for a moment: The Goddess Chronicles is a feminist perspective on the story of Izanami and Izanaki as told, experienced, and then seen through by Namima, the younger sister of the celebrated Oracle of a poverty-stricken island community and the priestess of darkness before she meets an untimely demise and finds herself trapped in the regret-filled underworld with a vengeful goddess. Namima learns the story of Izanami’s love of and betrayal by her husband Izanaki, and witnesses the final moments of their epic struggle, while she herself must come to terms with her own bitterness and regret set off confusingly by her love and concern for her sister and daughter, who are caught in a trap of theistic rigidity that Namima herself died escaping.

Everything in this novel is about opposites—life and death, love and hate, good and evil, yin and yang—but nothing is black and white. The Goddess Chronicles is proof positive that nothing in life (or death) has clean edges, no matter how hard we may try to impose them.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser and published by PM Press

This piece is Clark Allen, an artist living in New Orleans, LA who works as a book buyer at Maple Street Used and Rare Books.

I think cognizant persons, those who can see even an inch beyond their own arm’s length, generally have some awareness of this massive oaf, the human condition, something vast and quite unnameable in any perfected sense. We are each individually imprisoned in the obvious confines of the self, an incredibly annoying facet of existence for all sorts of reasons, but primarily inasmuch that it creates a serious hindrance in universal communication when we try to define what we observe—love, art, beauty, humor, despair, this fat stupid thing that can’t be seen but can be abstractly “felt,” just out of reach of, of . . . oh, I don’t know. The task of the artists, novelists and poets (so I’ve read) is to find it within themselves to converse with this condition, open a dialogue upon its table and share their perspective in a veritable pot luck of musing.

In Tomoyuki Hoshino’s recently translated collection, We, the Children of Cats, the reader is invited to his end of the banquet. Five short stories and three novellas written in a span scattered across near ten years, with each tale sidestepping any particular categorization. Magically real, surreal, sometimes humorous, sometimes scary, and by all proper accounts just plain bizarre, the characters in Hoshino’s stories each orbit one similar theme—the confrontation of something at once unnamable and all too human, and their (most often failed) attempts to transition beyond and transcend. To become something other than the self they perceive.

So how does this manifest in Hoshino’s stories? Genital mutilation? Mysterious child-run death cults? First to third world relocation? Well yeah, those are some starts. It is a book which involves sex and privilege, murder and dance, betrayal and longing, drugging and starving all seamlessly. His characters are affected with such invisible problems that it is beyond their ability to contact a solution. Not that it is a hopeless collection of course, but the few who happily make their way to the other side seem merely lucky. More often the reader is drawn into a venn diagram of desires prescribed by multiple narrators that whorl and tangle, forced compatible merely by the fact that they are occupying the same landscape. It is a book populated with mystic sickness and confusion, its characters living strangely and often dying in their own way.

Such are the final words of the protagonist in the story “Paper Woman”

. . . there is no paper, no words that exist in a state of perfection, pristine and hidden from human eyes, such paper is not really paper at all . . .

And yet Hoshino still attempts to confront these human impossibilities. The barriers of perspective and language, how they bleed together and intermingle despite how often they are oil and water. Through his fiction he asks where we are meeting and how we are different, and what is it that can bring us all the closer? It is, in a sense, a collection of stories that serves as a perfect example of why we desire translation in the first place.

8 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the week of Will Eells reviews. In addition to writing about Persona on Tuesday, today he has a piece on Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder and published by Picador.

Here’s a bit from his review:

One of the most pleasant surprises of the literary world in the past few years, at least in my opinion, is the success that Japanese author Yoko Ogawa has seen in the United States. Her breakout, modest hit The Housekeeper and the Professor received national attention and, more anecdotally, was a top-selling book for years (yes, years!) at my neighborhood indie bookstore the Brookline Booksmith. I don’t know if the Boston area just happens to be a particularly hot spot for Ogawa fandom, but thanks to bookseller and local book club love, The Housekeeper and the Professor has done extremely well in my neck of the woods. On top of that, her follow-up novel, Hotel Iris, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010. [. . .]

Therefore, I’m happy to report (knowing full well that I’ve been trying your patience until now, just wanting to know if the damn thing is any good) that Revenge is not only an unbelievably magnificent piece of fiction, but that it is in fact better than The Housekeeper and the Professor, and undoubtedly the best thing American readers have seen yet. Revenge is “Best Thing I’ve Read in a Year” material, and I say this coming off reading the new George Saunders that everyone is currently wetting their pants over.

But let me actually tell you about the book (yes, I know we’re five paragraphs into this thing already). Revenge is not simply a collection of short stories—it’s more of a novel-in-stories kind of deal, an assemblage of interconnected stories that play off each other in various, haunting and beautiful ways. It starts quietly enough: a woman goes into a local bakery to buy a cake. It’s a normal, beautiful kind of day; the only thing wrong is that there’s no one in said bakery, including behind the counter. Eventually, another woman joins her, and they strike up a conversation: how good the bakery is, how strange it is that there’s no one around. The first woman reveals that she’s come for a strawberry shortcake:

“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”
“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”
“Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”

And just like that—quietly, suddenly, matter-of-factly—we enter Ogawa’s dark, beautiful world.

Read it all here

8 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the most pleasant surprises of the literary world in the past few years, at least in my opinion, is the success that Japanese author Yoko Ogawa has seen in the United States. Her breakout, modest hit The Housekeeper and the Professor received national attention and, more anecdotally, was a top-selling book for years (yes, years!) at my neighborhood indie bookstore the Brookline Booksmith. I don’t know if the Boston area just happens to be a particularly hot spot for Ogawa fandom, but thanks to bookseller and local book club love, The Housekeeper and the Professor has done extremely well in my neck of the woods. On top of that, her follow-up novel, Hotel Iris, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010.

I was lucky enough to review (glowingly, I might add) The Housekeeper and the Professor for this very website almost four years ago. The timing was just right; I had just finished reading it before starting as an intern for Open Letter, and the review was my first major contribution to the job. It was wonderful to publicly sing the book’s praises, and seeing the book’s subsequent success has made Ogawa’s minor triumph in the English-speaking world almost like my own.

A few months down the road, I jumped at the chance to review Hotel Iris, but found the novel to be a disappointment. After the sunny beauty of The Housekeeper and the Professor, the disturbingly sexual and gloomy Hotel Iris was a hard pill to swallow, made all the worse by thin characters whose backgrounds and motivations never seemed to coalesce into something that made any sense. Hotel Iris left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I began to wonder in which Ogawa’s path would lead next, and whether it was a path I wanted to follow. I desperately needed a tiebreaker.

So, I’ve been waiting with cautious optimism for the release of Revenge, Ogawa’s latest work to be translated into English. Two things made me anxious in the months leading to my actually reading it: first, Revenge was billed as “Eleven Dark Tales,” lining it up with the Ogawa I felt I wasn’t in tune with; and second, that instead of a novel, the tiebreaker was a collection of short stories. I love short stories and certainly have nothing against them, but for the purposes of breaking said tie that exists, admittedly, only in my mind, I was afraid that Revenge simply would be the oranges to Ogawa’s previous releases of apples. Instead of choosing a path at the fork in the road, it was going to veer off in another direction entirely, make me more lost than ever.

Therefore, I’m happy to report (knowing full well that I’ve been trying your patience until now, just wanting to know if the damn thing is any good) that Revenge is not only an unbelievably magnificent piece of fiction, but that it is in fact better than The Housekeeper and the Professor, and undoubtedly the best thing American readers have seen yet. Revenge is “Best Thing I’ve Read in a Year” material, and I say this coming off reading the new George Saunders that everyone is currently wetting their pants over.

But let me actually tell you about the book (yes, I know we’re five paragraphs into this thing already). Revenge is not simply a collection of short stories—it’s more of a novel-in-stories kind of deal, an assemblage of interconnected stories that play off each other in various, haunting and beautiful ways. It starts quietly enough: a woman goes into a local bakery to buy a cake. It’s a normal, beautiful kind of day; the only thing wrong is that there’s no one in said bakery, including behind the counter. Eventually, another woman joins her, and they strike up a conversation: how good the bakery is, how strange it is that there’s no one around. The first woman reveals that she’s come for a strawberry shortcake:

“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”

“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”

“Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”

And just like that—quietly, suddenly, matter-of-factly—we enter Ogawa’s dark, beautiful world.

The stories that follow are all dark, but the title Revenge belies the kinds of stories actually on display. Revenge isn’t the macabre, bloody collection you might think it will be. While it does contain a few murders, betrayals, and maybe even a ghost, the stories are often eerie and creepy in a much more evocative way, hinting at the evils more than ever showing them. In “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” a woman is questioned by the police in connection to a murder that had taken place on the floor above her, and later finds herself at said museum, where an old man gives her a tour of authentic torture devices, lovingly describing their actual use. One of the more bizarre artifacts is a simple funnel:

“It’s just a funnel,” I said.

“Yes, but a special one. The victim is immobilized on his back, and the funnel is used to drip cold water on his face, one drop at a time.”

“And that’s torture.”

“It most certainly is—one of the most brutal, in fact.” He picked up the funnel and held it carefully in both hands. It was made of a dull silver metal almost the same color as his hair. “For a torture to be effective, the pain has to be spread out; it has to come at regular intervals, with no end in sight. The water falls, drop after drop after drop, like the second hand of a watch, carving up time. The shock of each individual drop is insignificant, but the sensation is impossible to ignore. At first, one might manage to think about other things, but after five hours, after ten hours, it becomes unendurable. The repeated stimulation excites the nerves to a point where they literally explode, and every sensation in the body is absorbed into that one spot on the forehead—indeed, you come to feel that you are nothing but a forehead, into which a fine needle is being forced millimeter by millimeter. You can’t sleep or even speak, hypnotized by a suffering that is greater than any mere pain. In general, the victim goes mad before a day has passed.”

Ogawa’s greatest achievement in Revenge is the strange ways her stories turn, defying expectation and at the same time making each story fit perfectly in the entirety of the work. She never has to resort to a cheap trick to shock the reader; instead she revels in her slow, methodical reveals, masterfully building tension and absorbing the reader into her surreal, twisted world. In one of the highlights of the book, “Sewing for the Heart,” an expert bag maker is tasked with his most difficult challenge yet: creating a bag designed to protect a human heart precariously attached to the outside of a beautiful woman’s body. But other stories work equally well, without the threat of violence, and the darkness that pervades the atmosphere is that of melancholy instead. “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger” follows a woman as she goes to confront her husband’s mistress, only to witness instead the final moments of a dying pet tiger. In “Fruit Juice,” a high school boy accompanies a girl from school through an awkward lunch with her estranged father.

All of these stories connect in surprising ways. Incidental characters from one story become the stars of another; scenes and places from one story collide in the next; inanimate objects become important markers throughout the text. The effect is dizzying, awe-inspiring, electrifying. Revenge is a panorama of people, places, and things that come in and out of focus, tying the work together in unbelievable ways. The stories themselves are short, almost ethereal, and loose in detail, yet they come together into something much more than just the sum of its parts. Amazingly, the problems of Hotel Iris become a strength in Revenge, which, combined with Ogawa’s keen eye for beauty in sadness that characterized The Housekeeper and the Professor, make Revenge a stunning piece of fiction. Really, the only complaint I have is that of the title itself. The theme of revenge is certainly one that filters a handful of the stories, but certainly not the whole, and as a title just feels kind of generic. The original title, which could be translated as “Silent Corpse, Improper Funeral” is much more evocative (and evokes the scene that ties the whole book together), though it doesn’t have quite the same ring in English as the original Japanese: Kamoku na shigai, midara na tomurai.

Already I can see that Revenge is getting some wonderful attention in some influential places, and Ogawa, and particularly this work, is more than deserving. Ogawa is a writer positioned perfectly in the sweet spot of literariness and accessibility, and Stephen Snyder, who has translated all of Ogawa’s major releases in English, has done his job perfectly in nailing the haunting and bewitching tone that makes this book so compellingly readable. Ogawa has many, many novels left to be translated, and in a few years, I could see her having the kind of success that few international authors receive. And with the kind of marketing push Picador has been giving her, I think they think so, too. I sincerely hope she does. Revenge is a career-defining work, and one that readers of international fiction must pay attention to.

4 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Persona, a biography of Yukio Mishima available from Stone Bridge Press.

Mishima is a huge figure in Japanese literature, and this is a huge biography, so let’s just let Will get into it:

ukio Mishima is about as famous as he is infamous. The enormous body of work left behind almost outshines his shocking public suicide after taking hostages with the help of his personal nationalist militia at a Self-Defense Forces base. In Persona, the first biography of Mishima to appear in English in over thirty years and the first translated into English from Japan, Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato take an extremely lengthy and detailed account of this paradoxical figure of modern Japanese literature.

And when I say lengthy, I mean a Tolstoy-esque brick of a tome. You could do some real damage with this book. The reason for this is twofold: Mishima as a writer was extremely prolific, with thirty-four novels, almost two hundred short stories, seventy plays, and countless essays, poems, interviews, and more to his name—and this was all before his death at just 46. Not every piece of writing is addressed here (how could it?) but a shocking amount is, even if certain novels (many unfortunately still untranslated) hardly get a few paragraphs of attention. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to get a taste of Mishima to which English speakers still don’t have full access.

More importantly, perhaps, in regards to Persona’s length, is that ultimately, it is not really just about Mishima. Persona, I would argue, is a book about Japan itself, as filtered through the life of one of its perhaps most important creations. Mishima is Japan in microcosm, a man deeply torn between European enlightenment and patriotic nationalism re: traditionalism. I hate to characterize any argument down to “He’s East-meets-West,” (it has become one of the most annoyingly clichéd characterizations of Japanese culture) but of all Japan’s writers, Mishima encapsulates that beautiful, violent schism most perfectly. If Japan truly represents the Occident and the Orient as so many would have us believe, it’s because of icons like the talented, tragic Mishima.

But Mishima really was a man divided in two. He came from both samurai and peasant stock, his grandparents a witness to Admiral Perry’s Black Ships forcing Japan to open their gates to the West. According to Persona, the great loves of Mishima’s life were women, but his sexual proclivities towards men are well documented and numerous. He was a sickly, smothered bookworm of a child who grew up to become obsessed with bodybuilding and martial arts. He was extremely well read in both Eastern and Western writers, devoted equally to Kabuki as he was to the works of George Bataille. He was a literary writer with clear commercial instincts, aspiring for both the Nobel Prize and blockbuster movie adaptations of his work.

You can read the whole review by clicking here.

4 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yukio Mishima is about as famous as he is infamous. The enormous body of work left behind almost outshines his shocking public suicide after taking hostages with the help of his personal nationalist militia at a Self-Defense Forces base. In Persona, the first biography of Mishima to appear in English in over thirty years and the first translated into English from Japan, Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato take an extremely lengthy and detailed account of this paradoxical figure of modern Japanese literature.

And when I say lengthy, I mean a Tolstoy-esque brick of a tome. You could do some real damage with this book. The reason for this is twofold: Mishima as a writer was extremely prolific, with thirty-four novels, almost two hundred short stories, seventy plays, and countless essays, poems, interviews, and more to his name—and this was all before his death at just 46. Not every piece of writing is addressed here (how could it?) but a shocking amount is, even if certain novels (many unfortunately still untranslated) hardly get a few paragraphs of attention. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to get a taste of Mishima to which English speakers still don’t have full access.

More importantly, perhaps, in regards to Persona’s length, is that ultimately, it is not really just about Mishima. Persona, I would argue, is a book about Japan itself, as filtered through the life of one of its perhaps most important creations. Mishima is Japan in microcosm, a man deeply torn between European enlightenment and patriotic nationalism re: traditionalism. I hate to characterize any argument down to “He’s East-meets-West,” (it has become one of the most annoyingly clichéd characterizations of Japanese culture) but of all Japan’s writers, Mishima encapsulates that beautiful, violent schism most perfectly. If Japan truly represents the Occident and the Orient as so many would have us believe, it’s because of icons like the talented, tragic Mishima.

But Mishima really was a man divided in two. He came from both samurai and peasant stock, his grandparents a witness to Admiral Perry’s Black Ships forcing Japan to open their gates to the West. According to Persona, the great loves of Mishima’s life were women, but his sexual proclivities towards men are well documented and numerous. He was a sickly, smothered bookworm of a child who grew up to become obsessed with bodybuilding and martial arts. He was extremely well read in both Eastern and Western writers, devoted equally to Kabuki as he was to the works of George Bataille. He was a literary writer with clear commercial instincts, aspiring for both the Nobel Prize and blockbuster movie adaptations of his work.

Inose and Sato (Inose wrote the original biography, and Sato both translates and expands the text) are not afraid to draw both literary and political meaning out of the life and work of Mishima, frequently providing criticism and interpretation that the reader will often have to take at their word, since much of the referenced work is not available in English. The criticism is welcome, as Inose and Sato are certainly well researched and compelling, but they often go the opposite direction as well, by taking Mishima’s fiction and mapping it to his life. The parallels between Mishima’s childhood and homosexuality dovetail nicely with the widely accepted autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, but it seems inappropriate to expect the same parallelism from his other work and assume that scenes in other novels and stories probably happened in his real life, as occasionally happens throughout Persona.

Towards the end, Persona’s focus becomes much more political than literary, and though his plays and serialized novels are mentioned frequently enough, the essays and interviews that are expounded upon the most are more political in nature, as the real driving force in Mishima’s life seems to become his nationalism (though in fact he was still writing his Sea of Fertility tetralogy until the end of his life, delivering the final chapters to his editor on the day of his suicide). The book overall is well balanced between the personal, the literary, and the political. We can thank Inose in that regard, as he is both a renowned writer and the current Governor of Tokyo. He is also, refreshingly, not afraid to criticize Mishima’s poorer fictions and his contradictory, sometimes illogical political ideologies.

But what about the gossip you say! Don’t worry, there’s plenty of it, and while the tone of Persona is certainly tasteful and dignified, there is quite the wealth of salacious tidbits. Mishima’s childhood was particularly weird; after he was born, he was basically snatched away by his grandmother, who smothered him, and only allowed his mother to see him at scheduled times purely for breast-feeding (and these sessions were timed at that). He hardly ever left his grandmother’s room, hardly ever even seeing sunlight until she passed away. Those that knew the family describe Mishima’s subsequent relationship to his mother as “incestuous”; one incident describes how Mishima’s mother complained that her foot hurt and had Mishima lick the painful area in front of friends and family.

Mishima was well connected with the writers, poets, and celebrities of the day. He despised his contemporary Mori Ogai, and was also close friends with the Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata (and even pursued his adopted daughter for marriage). He correctly predicted that if Kawabata won the Nobel, he would not, and that Kenzaburo Oe would probably be the next. He briefly dated the future Empress Michiko, before she met the Crown Prince and current Emperor Akihito. Mishima apparently loved to dance, but was notoriously clumsy.

Persona has much to offer for anyone interested in Mishima the writer or political figure, even though because it covers so much ground, it feels like there could be so many more details to explore. Mishima had a fascinatingly full and busy life outside of writing—traveling abroad, starring in films, researching and training for his Shield Society militia—that even after this 800-page journey, Mishima is still very much an elusive figure. That may, in fact, be one of Persona’s strengths as a biography. It can be satisfying to write or read a story that can take a man’s life and tie it nicely into one big, thematic bow. But Mishima was a complicated genius of a man, and any narrative that only focused on one aspect of his life or personality would lose too much in the process. Persona attempts to capture the totality of a man, but instead ties a complex man to his beloved, complex country, which I think is all Mishima could have ever wanted. To the reporters he trusted and invited to witness his final, climatic day, he wrote:

“No matter how you might look at it . . . No matter how deranged an act it may seem, I would like you to understand that to us it derives from our sense of yukoku“—patriotism.

21 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Fuminori Nakamura is no stranger to the world of literature; his works have received much critical praise throughout Japan and have been honored by various literary awards. Nakamura’s The Thief, however, is the first of his novels to be published in English. Winner of the prestigious Oe Prize, The Thief follows a nameless pickpocket through Tokyo. While the reader witnesses events ranging from petty shoplifting to cold-blooded murder, this is by no means a typical crime thriller. Instead of focusing on the scenes of action, Nakamura explores the convoluted psychological and physical sensations of a pickpocket’s world.

The thief is a very solitary character. He occasionally remembers a past lover named Saeko and a fellow pickpocket named Ishikawa; beyond them, however, it seems as if the thief has rarely interacted with others. He does narrate the novel, allowing the reader first-hand access to his thoughts as well as to his physical perceptions. The reader is able to interact with the thief in a very exclusive way, and it soon becomes hard to condemn him, however illegal his pursuits. This sympathy is not so much due to an understanding or approval of the thief’s motivations—he rarely attempts to defend his lifestyle; in fact, he often finds himself stealing for the mere thrill of it instead of as a means of survival. Rather, the reader becomes so intimate with the thief’s thoughts and feelings that it is becomes possible to forgive his moral imperfection.

The novel begins with the thief casually stealing wallets from various members of the Japanese elite. Nakamura renders these acts with scrupulous detail, including the various physical sensations that stealing evokes. After explaining each pre-meditative step involved in an incident of pick pocketing, the thief begins to put his plan into action:

I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body. I felt like I was standing in a void, as though with the countless intersecting lines of vision of all those people, not one was directed at me. (3)

The reader understands the strange excitement that the thief is feeling while committing a crime.

While the thief continues pick pocketing in this manner throughout the novel, it soon becomes evident that the thief’s criminal tendencies are not limited to the mere stealing of wallets. This is not, however, by his own choice—a man named Kizaki coerces the thief, along with Ishikawa and another man named Tachibana, into participating in an elaborate armed robbery in which someone is killed. Nakamura presents Kizaki as a terrifyingly powerful man, one whose past crimes seem to transcend the wildest dreams of a pickpocket; it is clear that his demands should not be declined by anyone who values his life. This event is a pivotal moment of the novel: the thief is now involved in Kizaki’s sinister, bloody world of crime.

The thief attempts to return to his previous life of solitude but finds it impossible to do so. Fear of Kizaki is one major reason for this—Ishikawa has mysteriously disappeared and the thief is afraid for his own life. Another reason, however, comes in the form of a two complicated characters, a young boy and his mother. They are very poor and resort to theft and prostitution as their means of survival. After a series of chance meetings, the thief begins to develop a fascinating relationship with the mother and child. The mother seems to remind him of Saeko, the only woman from the thief’s past whom he ever recalls. In the boy, the thief sees a small child doomed to the miserable life of a pickpocket, and he is possessed by an unexpected desire to help him. Both relationships are peculiar: the thief seems to be somewhat disgusted with the woman’s lifestyle and finds the presence of the child occasionally irritating and unwelcome.

These relationships are an appreciated development in the novel, enhancing the multi-faceted character of the thief. They are also, however, a key piece in the thief’s decline. Just as this new, tender side of the thief is exposed, Kizaki comes back into his life and orders him to participate in a series of near-impossible tasks. If the thief refuses to do so or fails in his attempts, Kizaki will kill him. In addition Kizaki uses the thief’s new relationships to his advantage: he threatens to kill the young boy and his mother if the thief does not complete the assignments. He chastises the thief for giving him the opportunity to do so, saying, “Even though you’ve chosen this lifestyle, you still seek attachments. That’s the height of stupidity. You’d be much better off if you were truly free” (133).

With fear as his motivation, the thief sets off to follow Kizaki’s orders. Again, Nakamura describes every meticulous detail of the thief’s actions, allowing the reader to observe his anxiety and frustration, both in planning and in performing each operation, first-hand. The remainder of the novel is incredibly suspenseful, as the thief experiences several triumphs alongside numerous setbacks. At times, it seems as if he will do the impossible and succeed in his various quests while at others it feels certain that the thief is doomed to fall at the remorseless hands of Kizaki.

Regardless, the thief continues to fight for his life and for the lives of his solitary acquaintances through the shocking final pages of the book. Nakamura succeeds in creating a complicated crime novel in which the focus is not on the crimes themselves but rather on the psychology and physicality of the criminal. The book’s power inheres in the voice of the thief, which is itself as meticulously rendered as the thief’s every action.

9 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all of you Murakami fans out there, embedded below is Haruki Murakami: In Search of this Elusive Writer, an hour-long BBC documentary by Alan Yentob (presenter) and Rupert Edwards (camerawork).

According to this post about it:

Haruki Murakami holds the titles of both the most popular novelist in Japan and the most popular Japanese novelist in the wider world. After publishing Norwegian Wood in 1987, a book often called “the Japanese Catcher in the Rye,” Murakami’s notoriety exploded to such an extent that he felt forced out of his homeland, a country whose traditional ways and — to his mind — conformist mindset never sat right with him in the first place. [. . .]

Rupert Edwards’ camera follows veteran presenter Alan Yentob through Japan, from the midnight Tokyo of After Hours to the snowed-in Hokkaido of A Wild Sheep Chase, in a quest to find artifacts of the supremely famous yet media-shy novelist’s imaginary world. Built around interviews with fans and translators but thick with such Murakamiana as laid-back jazz standards, grim school hallways, sixties pop hits, women’s ears, vinyl records, marathon runners, and talking cats, the broadcast strives less to explain Murakami’s substance than to simply reflect it. If you find your curiosity piqued by all the fuss over 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, you might watch it as something of an aesthetic primer.

12 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Will Eells on 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s “total novel” that is pretty much the only work of international literature making its way onto the year-end lists at the “big” review outlets. It’s a huge book, and in order to get all three books out at once, Knopf used two Japanese translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel.

For anyone who hasn’t encountered his reviews in the past, Will is one of our most personal and interesting reviewers. He’s reviewed a fair number of Japanese works for us, but is interested in contemporary lit in general. He’s also an aspiring translator who is working on a really interesting project. (One that still needs a publisher.)

In terms of 1Q84, I think most anyone reading this blog is familiar with Murakami in general, and this novel in particular. It’s a book that generated a shitton of hype, and one that is beloved by some (see Michael Orthofer’s review) while leaving others unimpressed (see Scott Esposito’s review). Will falls squarely in the middle and breaks this down pretty well . . .

It seems to me now, based on the few reviews that I have read, that the reception of 1Q84 has indeed fallen into these two camps: absolutely transcendent and absolutely horrific. Neither, in my opinion, captures how I feel 1Q84 is as a novel, especially as just one book in a huge body of work. Because for all its ambition and scope, 1Q84 is just pretty good. There’s a lot of it that is really good and some that is really bad. But, I can tell you exactly how it could’ve been so much better.

Murakami should have never written Book 3.

Click here to read his full review.

12 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like many an English-speaking Murakami fan, I have been waiting to read 1Q84 for almost three years. That’s right, three years, since around January 2009, when news reports from Japan were just announcing that Murakami had finished his latest novel, one still without a title and rumored to be twice as long as Kafka on the Shore. And let me tell you, it has been a long wait.

I discovered Murakami at the end of my sophomore year of high school, in a talk intended for the teachers of my school to learn a little more about Japanese art, literature, and film. Five years later, I had read everything by Murakami available in English translation (and soon a few things in Japanese and in unofficial translations). There was probably a year or so period where Murakami was essentially the only literature I was reading. The reason I tell you all this is to inform you that I can only approach reviewing 1Q84, this near 1000-page behemoth, as an unabashed Murakami super-fan, one who has read the majority of his oeuvre multiple times.

I am certainly not alone in this fanaticism. Murakami is one of those authors that just does that to a certain group of readers. The problem with this kind of fanaticism, one that has unfortunately been horribly exacerbated with the rise of Internet culture, is the phenomenon where fans of a certain thing greet the newest thing as either “the best thing ever” or “the worst thing ever.” In Internet parlance: “OMG!!!” vs. “meh.”

1Q84 in particular sets itself up for this deadly dichotomy because of its insane, “total novel”-aspiring length and because it took those two long years after its release in Japan to be translated into English. Murakami even added another 500 pages to it while we were waiting!

It seems to me now, based on the few reviews that I have read, that the reception of 1Q84 has indeed fallen into these two camps: absolutely transcendent and absolutely horrific. Neither, in my opinion, captures how I feel 1Q84 is as a novel, especially as just one book in a huge body of work. Because for all its ambition and scope, 1Q84 is just pretty good. There’s a lot of it that is really good and some that is really bad. But, I can tell you exactly how it could’ve been so much better.

Murakami should have never written Book 3.

But I’ll back up for a moment. If you’re not familiar, 1Q84 follows two protagonists in alternating chapters: the fitness instructor/assassin Aomame and the aspiring novelist Tengo. Aomame is hired by a wealthy individual to secretly murder the most heinous committers of domestic violence and rape, while Tengo is pushed by his editor to secretly rewrite a brilliant but stylistically flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl. To share any more would likely confuse and spoil the novel. Wondering how these two disparate storylines will converge, and how Tengo and Aomame are connected, are but two of the many pleasures in reading this novel.

The following thoughts about the quality of 1Q84 now refer only to Books 1 and 2. I’ll get to Book 3 in a bit.

For all that’s touted about Murakami’s certain blend of magical realism and science fiction, 1Q84 is probably Murakami’s subtlest work to date. New elements and plot wrinkles are introduced slowly, almost quietly along the way. Instead of a mysterious town filled with unicorns, we get an alternate world where the first noticeable difference is the kind of gun the Japanese policemen are using. Despite the relative quietness of the novel, for the first 600 pages, Murakami is pretty good at slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension and the mystery. The first 200 pages had flown by when I realized that I was hooked, but still knew fairly little about what was going on.

I say “pretty good” because there are some missteps along the way. Murakami protagonists have always been prone to biding their time, and there is a lot of pontificating of “what’s going on here?” instead of action. There is also a bit of a problem with repetition. As both Aomame and Tengo are finding out the same things but at different times, all that thinking they do leads to hearing some of the same information a few times more than maybe is needed.

The go-for-broke, “total-novel” approaching attitude lets 1Q84 explore a handful of interesting themes and ideas. In some ways, 1Q84 feels like a culmination of everything he’s ever written. There are elements from pretty much all of his major works. Critics of Murakami have long complained that he is always telling the same basic story, which in some ways has a nugget of truth in it. But none of the reused elements on display in 1Q84 are especially more prominent than another, and in general they feel like background materials, just part of the tapestry. This allows the novel as a whole to feel new and fresh, while making the common Murakamian aspects—disappearing women, parallel/alternate worlds, powerful non-human beings—more like special Easter Eggs spread throughout the text for the fans.

The problem with having so many themes to tie the novel together is that none of them really stick. The relationship between fiction and reality is one theme, but the largest and most compelling theme of 1Q84 is the importance of exercising free will. This is expressed most successfully against the backdrop of religious cults, but even that tends to drift in and out of focus. Murakami gets to vent about many other disappointments in Japanese society, including the literary and publishing culture, the failures of the 1960s student movement against the strong arming of the government, the universal problem of abuse of power by the strong against the weak, but again, only to the extent that they take great prominence in some sections only to fade away again. Eventually, Murakami also undermines his message of good vs. evil with a kind of moral relativism in a way that, instead of allowing for good philosophical rumination, leads to a conflict that, in the end, feels like it has no stakes.

Despite all these criticisms, 1Q84 is genuinely engaging 95% of the time, and the climax of Book 2 brings the work to a near fever pitch. Which brings us to the problem of Book 3.

Book 3, ultimately, squanders every shred of excitement and pacing and brings the book to a screeching halt. A new character is brought in for narration, but the majority of his chapters are spent trying to figure out what the readers already know.

In Japan, these refreshers might have been necessary. Book 3 came out a full year after Books 1 and 2 were released. That’s a long time, and 1Q84 is a long book. It’s very easy to lose track of everything that has been building up. But for English readers, these chapters are frustrating, and excruciatingly boring. For Book 3 to work at all as a part of a larger work, Murakami would’ve had to have somehow continued the excitement found at the end of Book 2 and then increased the tension even more to the “real” climax that should’ve been found at the end of Book 3. That’s basic novel writing. Instead, the climax happens in the middle of the book, followed by what is basically exposition, leading to another, arguably smaller climax.

Book 3 is really more like a sequel to the events of Books 1 and 2. In Japan, it probably felt like one, like a separate, independent story. But in America, presented as the third act in one larger work, Book 3 completely ruins the shape and flow of the novel. This might have been forgiven if the chapters with Aomame and Tengo had more things happening, but frankly, they don’t. Almost nothing happens in Book 3 that renders its very existence necessary. And because this whole fiasco comes at the end, it leaves the reader with a very bitter taste of 1Q84 as a whole.

In the end, 1Q84 succeeds and fails by its own ambition. By throwing everything he possibly could into the pot, Murakami leaves us with a lot of great sequences and a great central mystery, but it also forces us to accept a lot of things we don’t want or need. There’s a short but very memorable section in Book 2 where Murakami seems to be directly expressing frustrations with his critics. It refers to the novel Tengo is ghostwriting but it could refer to almost anything in the Murakami oeuvre, and especially to 1Q84 itself:

One reviewer concluded his piece, “As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious questions marks. This may well be the author’s intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness.’ While this may be fine for a debut work, if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture.”

Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story “put together in an exceptionally interesting way” that “carries the reader along to the very end,” who could possibly call such a writer “lazy”?

The greatest irony of that passage is that if Murakami had ended 1Q84 at Book 2, this passage would’ve perfectly represented the merits of this gigantic, ambitious, flawed novel. But instead, Murakami chose to extend the adventure into a third book, in a way that seems to promise new levels of understanding but ultimately failing to deliver anything worthwhile. (This is made all the more tragic for the way the translations of Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel don’t feel like separate translations at all. No easy task.) If you haven’t yet read 1Q84, I implore you to do so. Just take a good, long break before you start reading Book 3, or, do yourself a favor, and don’t even read Book 3 at all.

9 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all the Murakami fans out there, you can read the first chapter of 1Q84 (Q-teen Eighty-Four) on Facebook by “liking” this page.

1Q84 is due out on October 25th from Random House. It’s translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin (first two volumes) and Philip Gabriel (third volume).

30 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s New Yorker includes an excerpt from 1Q84 (pronounced “Q-teen Eighty Four”) the forthcoming (nearly here!!) new novel by Haruki Murakami:

At Koenji Station, Tengo boarded the Chuo Line inbound rapid-service train. The car was empty. He had nothing planned that day. Wherever he went and whatever he did (or didn’t do) was entirely up to him. It was ten o’clock on a windless summer morning, and the sun was beating down. The train passed Shinjuku, Yotsuya, Ochanomizu, and arrived at Tokyo Central Station, the end of the line. Everyone got off, and Tengo followed suit. Then he sat on a bench and gave some thought to where he should go. “I can go anywhere I decide to,” he told himself. “It looks as if it’s going to be a hot day. I could go to the seashore.” He raised his head and studied the platform guide.

At that point, he realized what he had been doing all along.

He tried shaking his head a few times, but the idea that had struck him would not go away. He had probably made up his mind unconsciously the moment he boarded the Chuo Line train in Koenji. He heaved a sigh, stood up from the bench, and asked a station employee for the fastest connection to Chikura. The man flipped through the pages of a thick volume of train schedules. He should take the 11:30 special express train to Tateyama, the man said, and transfer there to a local; he would arrive at Chikura shortly after two o’clock. Tengo bought a Tokyo-Chikura round-trip ticket. Then he went to a restaurant in the station and ordered rice and curry and a salad.

Going to see his father was a depressing prospect. He had never much liked the man, and his father had no special love for him, either. He had retired four years earlier and, soon afterward, entered a sanatorium in Chikura that specialized in patients with cognitive disorders. Tengo had visited him there no more than twice—the first time just after he had entered the facility, when a procedural problem required Tengo, as the only relative, to be there. The second visit had also involved an administrative matter. Two times: that was it.

In my opinion, Murakami is best taken as a whole. Individual sections are generally fine, but the accumulation of strange images is what makes his books so memorable. (My favorite is still Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and not just for the cool title.)

The only person I know who has already had a chance to read 1Q84 is Robert Sindelar from Third Place Books, who gave the novel 5 stars on GoodReads and started his review with this:

Easily one of my favorite Murakami novels. There is a lot here for his fans sink their teeth into. One of the advantages of the novel being so long is that the atmospheric hauntingly lonely never land that you travel to in most Murakami books, sustains for so long here. This book crept into my dreams and popped its head up regularly in my daily routines. On a subtle level I kept expecting to see the world of the book everywhere I looked.

For now, you can read the whole New Yorker excerpt here.

3 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sasha Miller on The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales, a collection edited by Hauro Shirane, translated by Burton Watson, and available from Columbia University Press.

This book is part of Columbia’s Translations from the Asian Classics series, which is just one of several Asian-related book series published by CUP. In many ways, CUP is to Asian literature as AUP is to Arabic lit . . . As Lily mentioned in this week’s Read This Next post, we’re going to be featuring one of the book from their Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series in a few weeks.

Anyway, onto the review of The Demon at Agi Bridge:

“That must be the demon!” And what a demon it is! Oozing pustules covering bodies, blood excreting from tiny pores, sharpened horns decorating bony skulls . . . The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales is an expounding collection brimming with translated historical and cultural Japanese anecdotes, focusing specifically on traditionally oral Japanese narratives, known as setsuwa. The combined efforts of translator and editor Burton Watson and Hauro Shirane, respectively, elicit tales for the ignorant reader as well as for those more knowledgeable about the Japanese culture.

A book vaguely reminiscent of the Western morality tales Aesop’s Fables, The Demon at Agi Bridge truly reflects the Japanese oral tradition. The stories themselves often end with a lesson—life lessons such as promoting kindness and friendship (as in the tale “How a Man Received a Bounty After a Period of Prayer at the Hase Temple” where a poor samurai, in possession of no goods or money, profits solely from the kindness he gives others along his travels) while dissuading such actions as envy and dishonesty.

Click here to read the full review.

3 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“That must be the demon!” And what a demon it is! Oozing pustules covering bodies, blood excreting from tiny pores, sharpened horns decorating bony skulls . . . The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales is an expounding collection brimming with translated historical and cultural Japanese anecdotes, focusing specifically on traditionally oral Japanese narratives, known as setsuwa. The combined efforts of translator and editor Burton Watson and Hauro Shirane, respectively, elicit tales for the ignorant reader as well as for those more knowledgeable about the Japanese culture.

A book vaguely reminiscent of the Western morality tales Aesop’s Fables, The Demon at Agi Bridge truly reflects the Japanese oral tradition. The stories themselves often end with a lesson—life lessons such as promoting kindness and friendship (as in the tale “How a Man Received a Bounty After a Period of Prayer at the Hase Temple” where a poor samurai, in possession of no goods or money, profits solely from the kindness he gives others along his travels) while dissuading such actions as envy and dishonesty.

The tales also have a wide range of themes, such as Karma, Buddhism (readers well-versed in Buddhist teachings will have the advantage of understanding the reasoning behind various religious undertakings), filial piety, music and dance, Shintoism, animals and insects, the female body, poetry, gambling, and the exploration of the supernatural—in relation to the existence of wild demons, living in the middle of forests or on the sides of mountains, as well as in the transformations of humans into animals after the performance of an unforgivable sin. The settings of each story are often intertwined with court culture, aristocratic society, and political unrest within the Japanese warrior class. Similarly themed and moral-bound, the stories reflect a society striving towards a religious and moral obligatory lifestyle, such as following the way of the Buddha.

While most of the tales end in a moral lesson of sorts, the narratives are often laced with snarky comments and an underlying dark humor. One tale mentions the effects of “mushrooms” and the story’s character’s uninhibited usage of them: “We came on some mushrooms . . . [and] after we’d eaten them, we found that . . . we just couldn’t help dancing.” Another describes a mad, elderly woman removing the hair from her young, dead mistresses in order to preserve the luscious locks and make a wig.

In the short story “How a Court Lady of Royal Birth Demonstrated the Foulness of her Bodily Form,” a beautiful court woman captivates the heart of a Buddhist monk. Falling in love with her, the monk wishes to meet her in private. However, though his advances delight her, she admits that the meeting is to speak about a grave matter. Touching on one of the anthology’s most prevalent thematic occurrences is the mention of feminism, or the antithesis, incorporated seamlessly into the idea of Buddha nature and religious practices. A woman’s body is considered to be tarnished—with her lack of purity, her shameless lascivious seductions of men, and her monthly menstruation. Despite a woman’s inability to control the perceptions of her body, it is made clear she is still considered to be inferior in comparison with a man. “This body of mine is a thing putrid and rotten beyond description. My head is overflowing with brain matter and other fluids; my skin is stuffed with flesh and bones. Blood flows from my body; pus oozes out . . .” The description is of the pure nature of the woman body, seen in Buddhist ideals as foul and uncomely.

In the narrative, “How Ki no Tosuke of Mino Province Met Female Spirits and Died,” a man’s wife, envious of a box a female spirit presented to him, opened it, only to find “several human eyes that had been gorged out and a number of penises with a little of the hair attached.” Though morbidity rather than sarcastic humor is often the most prevalent aspect within these tales, the “humor, word play, and comic twists” of each story present the reader with an enjoyable tale, a quick read, and an unforgettable experience.

This compilation of short stories comes highly recommended for both those interested in Japanese culture as well as those who desire to experience a new society of people and their history.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and available from Melville House Publishing.

This is Will’s second review in a row, so I’m not sure how much of an introduction he really needs . . . He’s a graduate of the University of Rochester, where he majored in Japanese and received a certificate in literary translation. I believe he’s also looking for a job in publishing . . .

Banana Yoshimoto is maybe the most popular female Japanese author whose works have been translated into English. She’s the author of seven books of essays and twelve novels, eight of which have been translated into English, including Kitchen and Goodbye Tsugumi. Michael Emmerich—who, as Will points out, is one of the great Japanese translators of our time—has translated most of these.

It’s been a while since we last reviewed a Melville House book, so this is a great time to point out that they do a ton of great stuff, both in translation and originally written in English, and their Melville International Crime series seems very cool, as does the Neversink Library collection. Also personally very thrilled to see all the Heinrich Boll reprints, although to be honest, I haven’t read any of these because I can’t decide which to start with . . .

Anyway, back to Yoshimoto. Here’s the opening of Will’s review of The Lake:

“The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.”

This is the first sentence of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Lake. I vaguely recall learning or reading somewhere some sort of creative writing related piece of wisdom—or maybe it’s just some advice, or simply someone’s particular philosophy. It might not even be very good advice, or a generally accepted piece of thought. It could be the most common idea in all fiction writing. I’m not sure. It’s just something I sort of remember coming across. (And now that I’ve demonstrated my impeccable credentials for book reviewing, let’s continue).

Anyway, the nugget of wisdom was that the first sentence of a novel should sum up the essence of the work to follow, to lay it all out on the table. It might not be obvious as to how that sentence relates to the following work, and of course the reader will probably forget it on the journey, but the first sentence, as important as it is, should tie the whole piece together in some way. And Yoshimoto does just that.

Although the one line summary on the back cover would summarize it a little differently (more on that later), The Lake is about Chihiro, an up-and-coming mural painter who was born out of wedlock, but by loving if unusual parents: her mother was a bar owner and her father a patron, and although they were in love and had a child together, they never actually got married. Her family life was happy, if not normal, but it was that abnormality that marked Chihiro as different her whole young adult life.

Click here to read the entire review.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.”

This is the first sentence of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Lake. I vaguely recall learning or reading somewhere some sort of creative writing related piece of wisdom—or maybe it’s just some advice, or simply someone’s particular philosophy. It might not even be very good advice, or a generally accepted piece of thought. It could be the most common idea in all fiction writing. I’m not sure. It’s just something I sort of remember coming across. (And now that I’ve demonstrated my impeccable credentials for book reviewing, let’s continue).

Anyway, the nugget of wisdom was that the first sentence of a novel should sum up the essence of the work to follow, to lay it all out on the table. It might not be obvious as to how that sentence relates to the following work, and of course the reader will probably forget it on the journey, but the first sentence, as important as it is, should tie the whole piece together in some way. And Yoshimoto does just that.

Although the one line summary on the back cover would summarize it a little differently (more on that later), The Lake is about Chihiro, an up-and-coming mural painter who was born out of wedlock, but by loving if unusual parents: her mother was a bar owner and her father a patron, and although they were in love and had a child together, they never actually got married. Her family life was happy, if not normal, but it was that abnormality that marked Chihiro as different her whole young adult life:

All my life, I cherished the possibility of escape. I worried that if I started going out with a guy and somehow botched things up and fell seriously in love, if we ended up having a splendid wedding in some hotel in town—or even worse, if I happened to get pregnant!—well, that would be the end of everything. So while my classmates thrilled over their puppy loves and fantasized about getting married, I held myself back. Before I did anything, I considered the possible consequences. And as soon as I graduated from high school, on the pretext of attending an art school in Tokyo, I made my getaway. I left home.

My body knew. It sensed the discrimination, subtle but real, all around me.

vq. Sure, she’s the daughter of a prominent local figure, but c’mon—he knocked up the “Mama-san” of a bar, right? That’s the kind of girl she is. The feeling oppressed me, squeezing all the more tightly because I knew it was only in this city, nowhere else, that my dad mattered.

vq. When I came to Tokyo and became an ordinary art school student, just like everyone else, I felt so free and light I thought I’d float up in the air.

After college, Chihiro’s mother becomes sick, and eventually dies. Sometime after that, she meets Nakajima. The two are remarkably alike, though it takes them weeks of smiling at each other across their windows to find out: they are both in their late twenties, neighbors, and they both have tragically lost their mother. They fall in love slowly, almost accidentally, because they are both, in their different ways, damaged from their respective traumas. The rest of The Lake follows Chihiro and Nakajima’s unusual relationship and life together, while Chihiro slowly starts to piece together the details of Nakajima’s particularly troubled past, and why it is so important, and painful, for Nakajima to visit some old friends at his old family lake house.

The details of Nakajima’s past are unveiled towards the very end of the book, but if you really need to know right away, you can unfortunately find it in the Amazon product description. Avoid reading that, if possible. It’s unfortunate, because the book is a wonderfully sweet tale about love in spite of a history of sorrow, about being on the cusp of adulthood and trying to find one’s future, although the mystery, if you can avoid the spoiler, is a pleasant, and poignant, surprise.

I’m willing to defend the choice, because although the reveal of Nakajima’s past would have been slightly more enjoyable with that element of surprise, that mystery is not really what the book is about, and it certainly doesn’t ruin the pleasures of reading this novel. Yoshimoto’s strength as a writer lies in her clear, unadorned prose; it is simple but effective, even elegant, brought into life in English by translator Michael Emmerich, who proves once again that he is one of, if not the, best Japanese translators working today. Chihiro is a lively, engaging narrator, likeable but not perfect—a genuine human being. Her humor and her sadness are palpable, and it’s a joy to watch her try to figure out her life. The Lake is a short, engaging novel, the kind where you want more to read not because it’s underdeveloped (though part of me wish there was more), but because it is so enjoyable to read. It’s not a particularly action-filled book, and there was a minor plot line that ends up fading away without resolution. I nonetheless found the novel engrossing throughout.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of the most translated contemporary Japanese authors, ever since her runaway bestseller Kitchen in the early 1990s, but it’s a testament to her skills as a writer that she’s been able to keep being published in English for almost twenty years now. The Lake is simply another example of her ability to write powerful, engaging, and accessible fiction.

6 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tananaugh Espinoza on Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru, which is translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and available from Counterpoint.

Tananaugh Espinoza was a student in my “World Literature & Translation” class this past spring. She graduated in May with a degree in Japanese and a certificate in literary translation.

Manazuru was a book that I used in the class, and which enabled to have a fascinating Skype session with super-translator Michael Emmerich. It’s a strange novel—to say the least—one that jumps between reality and memories within a sentence, and which features ghosts, etc. Michael did an amazing job translating this, capturing the oddness of the prose and punctuation in a way that’s poetic, dreamlike, and fun to read.

Anyway, here’s the opening of Tana’s review:

Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru is the carefully crafted story of Kei, and her lingering attachment to the husband who disappeared 12 years earlier. She travels to the titular seaside town, Manazuru, on a whim, feeling somehow that it is connected to her husband, Rei. Beset by a ghostly companion who seems to know something of his disappearance, troubled by the distance she feels toward her daughter, Momo, and her married lover, Seiji, Kei continues on a vague quest for answers and solidity. Although it is intensely personal and internal, Manazuru avoids becoming bogged down with introspection, just as Kei herself avoids it, by escaping into sequences of memory and of fantasy. These sequences, and the way they blend seamlessly in with present reality, are the crux of this novel’s appeal. Everything is rendered in strangely precise, matter-of-fact detail – whether memory, fantasy, or not – all of it blended into a single, tangible experience:

“In one corner of the quiet living room lay a few blocks, round and square, that Momo had been playing with that evening. The blocks were red, looked like things growing from the floor, and though I knew they meant nothing, they seemed to me like an ill omen. Rei. I called again. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was nine, and while every other time I had called him my voice, aimed into emptiness, simply vanished into emptiness, that evening I seemed to hear a voice in reply. Kei. I heard Rei’s voice, weakly, from the living-room ceiling.”

The tangibility of the red blocks, the reliability of the clock and its keeping of time, and the solidity of the memory lend their reality to the voice in the living room ceiling, despite the fact that it is the voice of a man who has completely disappeared. In moments like these the reader can fully appreciate the presence of Rei in Kei’s mind, and the way her life revolves still around him. She endlessly circles around him, like a leaf caught in the eddy around a rock. More

Click here to read the entire review.

6 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru is the carefully crafted story of Kei, and her lingering attachment to the husband who disappeared 12 years earlier. She travels to the titular seaside town, Manazuru, on a whim, feeling somehow that it is connected to her husband, Rei. Beset by a ghostly companion who seems to know something of his disappearance, troubled by the distance she feels toward her daughter, Momo, and her married lover, Seiji, Kei continues on a vague quest for answers and solidity. Although it is intensely personal and internal, Manazuru avoids becoming bogged down with introspection, just as Kei herself avoids it, by escaping into sequences of memory and of fantasy. These sequences, and the way they blend seamlessly in with present reality, are the crux of this novel’s appeal. Everything is rendered in strangely precise, matter-of-fact detail – whether memory, fantasy, or not – all of it blended into a single, tangible experience:

In one corner of the quiet living room lay a few blocks, round and square, that Momo had been playing with that evening. The blocks were red, looked like things growing from the floor, and though I knew they meant nothing, they seemed to me like an ill omen. Rei. I called again. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was nine, and while every other time I had called him my voice, aimed into emptiness, simply vanished into emptiness, that evening I seemed to hear a voice in reply. Kei. I heard Rei’s voice, weakly, from the living-room ceiling.

The tangibility of the red blocks, the reliability of the clock and its keeping of time, and the solidity of the memory lend their reality to the voice in the living room ceiling, despite the fact that it is the voice of a man who has completely disappeared. In moments like these the reader can fully appreciate the presence of Rei in Kei’s mind, and the way her life revolves still around him. She endlessly circles around him, like a leaf caught in the eddy around a rock.

Michael Emmerich’s translation captures this unsettling, restless atmosphere just as Kawakami rendered it, in slightly off word choice, slipping punctuation; he creates a voice that encourages trust with its precision and human irregularity, but offers an hint of its own unreliability through its quirks and a strange, elusive quality born of its slips between the past and present, the real and the imagined. The disjointed and fragmented sentences, cut up by periods or commas and matched with flowing paragraphs of description, provide a visual map of Kei’s mind. One of the most beautiful moments in the book takes place at a bus stop, at which the ten minutes which Kei spends waiting for a bus seem to bleed out endlessly, over pages and pages, with a different sense of time and space:

At some point, more herons came, there is one, now, on the roof of each house. Plodding through the houses, I think of the herons, beyond the ceilings, above the attics and crawl spaces, perched. The herons, unmoving, white, isolated lights in a dark, still scene.
I called, and Rei came.

Kei slides restlessly amongst the various realms of her mind, but despite its distortion, the moment she spends waiting for the bus is enjoyable; the voice and its maneuverings are familiar in their eerie strangeness. The voice which Emmerich creates allows the reader – with some careful reading – to move deftly between these slips of time and normalcy, instead of floundering confusedly in them.
Readers may find themselves feeling, as Kei feels, that they have an “inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.” All possibilities are considered in regards to Rei’s disappearance, and the cause of the ghostly presences that follow Kei, but none of these possibilities can be latched onto. The mysteries that arise, the distant, unstable relationships that Kei ponders, are never addressed to a conclusion. For some readers, this aspect of the novel will lead to a feeling of severe dissatisfaction. The novel provides what might be called the illusion of movement. Kei restlessly paces between her Tokyo home and Manazuru, and up the beaches. Her mind is even more active, panning smoothly and quickly between the scenes before her eyes and those scenes she remembers or imagines. However, Manazuru moves very little in terms of plot. Despite this possible frustration, Kei’s well-crafted voice and her unsettling, tangible-yet-dreamlike experience of life provides a soft, winding but vibrant read which can be enjoyed, if not for its deft solution to the mystery, for its thoughtful rendering and characterization of Kei, a 40-year-old woman still unable to right herself after the upset of her husband’s disappearance, caught up in the the passage of time but still, like the “tiny fish” she observes with the ghost woman, “swimming in circles, frantically.”

25 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

A Public Space has always been dedicated to promoting international literature, so it’s not all that surprising that Brigid Hughes has joined forces with Roland Kelts (author of Japanamerica), Ted Goossen (professor of Japanese lit) and Motoyuki Shibata (translator into Japanese of Pynchon [!] and a number of other great American writers) to produce an American version of Monkey Business, a journal highlighting new writing from Japan.

Monkey Business was founded in Japan in 2008, and, according to Shibata, is modeled in part after APS. It’s also named after the “immortal Chuck Berry tune.” According to Shibata, “No other work of art that I know of deals with the aggravations we face every day so straightforwardly and with such liberating humor. That is the guiding star we follow on this journey.”

The debut English language edition of MB culls the best writing from the first ten issues published in Japan. It was edited by Shibata and Ted Goossen, a professor at York University in Toronto and general editor of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories who has translated work by Murakami, Naoya Shiga, Masuji Ibuse and others. Hughes and Kelts contributed to the English language editing. Stories, poetry, interviews and even a manga, or Japanese comic, reimagining Franz Kafka’s The Country Doctor, grace its pages.

I was too busy this past weekend watching St. Louis take over first place in the NL Central to read through this carefully, but on first glance, I think it will be a vital contribution to Japanesse literature in English. As a publisher, I’ll say that aside from the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, it’s tricky getting good recommendations of Japanese literature. There are a series of posts waiting to be (re)written about this issue, but suffice it to say that with a single 150 page volume, MB has instantly become one of the best sources for info on new “pure literature” coming out of Japan.

In addition to the aforementioned Kafka manga (that runs from right to life [fuckyeahalternativereadingstyles] going from page 137 to 118), this first issue includes a number of interesting looking pieces, including a poem by Inuo Taguchi (translated by Ted Goossen) entitled “Interviews with the Heroes, or Is Baseball Just for Fun?,” a story by Koji Uno (translated by Jay Rubin), a collection of vignettes by Manazuru author Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Ted Goossen), and short story by Hideo Furukawa (translated by Michael Emmerich) that opens like this:

There is no answer. And why not? Because there’s no question. All we’ve got is the fact that the monster is there. And it’s hibernating. That’s stage number one. From here, we move on to stage number two, stage number three. The last stage is more or less identical to the first, so the whole thing is a sort of “cyclical motion,” you might say. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There can be no question that first of all we must address—observe, describe—the movement from the first stage to the second. The monster is there, hibernating . . . or rather, it was hibernating. It’s just woken up.

You can order the issue here, and if you happen to be in NYC over the next couple weeks, you can attend one or more of the opening launch events taking place at the Asia Society, Book Court, and the Japan Society.

I’ll leave off with a bit of Motoyuki Shibata’s “Monkey Business manifesto,” which appeared in the first Japanese issue of the journal:

Monkey Business is the newly founded journal of new writing from Japan and abroad with a few not-so-new works strategically slipped in. We offer nothing in the way of a “concept” or “lifestyle” aimed at a particular age bracket or social group, no useful information to help you get ahead. And we utterly lack that noble desire to provide a sanctuary from the whirl of daily life. If you gain any of these benefits, so much the better, but they are not our goals. Neither, we must add, do we have a radical agenda. Our intent is not to attack the system, whether it be artistic, political, or social. In fact, we aren’t out to pick a fight with anyone, right or left, old or young, conservative or radical.

5 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As started last week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member and Reading the World podcast host Erica Mena.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated by Sawako Nakayasu

Language: Japanese
Country: Japan
Publisher: Litmus Press
Pages: 144

Why This Book Should Win: Outsiders are cool, two-for-the-price-of-one, 1st ever repeat translator winner, the poetry will explode your brain and send you spinning into dreamspace.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air are two separate books, collected into this single volume, and their contrast underscores Ayane Kawata’s breadth of poetic talent and Sawako Nakayasu’s impressive range as translator. Time of Sky is Kawata’s first collection of poems, published in Japanese in 1969. At the time of publication, Kawata was (and still is) an intentional outsider in the Japanese poetry world. This remove is perhaps the strongest feature of this first part of the collection: the distance of the observer from the poetic world she engages with.

These sparse, short verses seem at first to belong to the tradition of abstract, imagistic Asian poetry that most Western readers are familiar with. The grammatical minimalism, the intense images, the staccato rhythm of constrained lines, all of these things feel familiar, within the comfort-zone of contemporary Japanese poetry. But there is a dark tension lurking beneath the surface, and in places it bursts through, startling:

19

From the trace of the incontinent blood of an angel walking along
holding some sky cut out with a class cutter, the dawn—

27

Will the lark’s vein blow up
Or will an earful of the distant blue make its way inside

30

At the speed of a reed of blood crawling about the brain
As if to assault—
Sing

Not all of them are about blood and veins blowing up, but the sky is a threat in many of these poems, a violent imposition on life, body and nature. The distant blue that is too bright, and cut up, and ominous and penetrating and rupturing, is a spectacularly original feat of imagination.

There is also a layered femininity in these poems, that builds sexuality within protest and suffering.

37

O naked women letting out screams and passing through the
invisible automatic doors of the blue sky

38

Breasts that hatch
Like music
Mirrors resound and melt
The sky goes missing

50

How long will the women be gasping as they open and close their
arms in the towering forest of mirrors

The reflection of the body in a mirror is a clear gesture toward feminist positioning, but at such cold remove, such seemingly idle wondering, that the violence of the watcher’s gaze is all but undone. This first book is full of startling imagery, more striking for the distanced tone which Nakayasu preserves throughout. This tone, which could become monochromatic or dully repetitive, emphasizes the layers of image and meaning, and hints at innocence and indifference. But if the tone gestures towards indifference, it is even more exciting to encounter the violence and strangeness of these sharp fragments of image.

Castles in the Air, published in Japanese in 1991, is a dream journal presented as prose poems, and operates within its own hybrid rationale. Operating within a familiar dream-logic, these poems are at once unbearably personal, shamelessly intimate, and frankly grotesque. They unflinchingly reveal the subconscious monstrosity of the speaker, but so bluntly, so unapologetically that the reader too is implicated by the assumed understanding in the tone. These are dreams we all have had, in one way or another, and so no embarrassment is necessary.

With an infant

A man is chasing me—so in order to escape I try to have a relationship with an infant. The idea is to drive the man away by having him see me make love to the infant. The infant understands the situation completely.

Throughout this sequence the poet struggles with impossibility – the attempt (often failed) to escape pursuit, to be seen, to be heard. Familiar tropes of an unsettled dreamer, these are transformed into revelations of weakness and strength.

Flute

I have a flute in my hands and try to play it, but no sound comes out. I accidentally breathe in and something like a scrap of silver foil gets left behind in my mouth. As I am wondering what it’s like inside the flute, the thin wooden flute splits vertically like a cicada shell, exposing the metallic scraps and grass seeds mixed inside. The flute sounds because of something inside it. I put it back together and try again to play it. Still no sound comes out.

This collection moves from cold remove to shameless vulnerability, from verse to prose, from imagistic to dreamlike. In maintaining a recognizable voice and preserving the disparity between pieces, Nakayasu created a remarkable translation, deserving of close and repeated readings.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of the most anticipated books of the year has to be Murakami Haruki’s (or Haruki Murakami’s) 1Q84, an epically long book that Random House is bringing out in October.1 And to warm up the publicity machine, they just released an image of the cover and a blog post from Chip Kidd discussing the design.

Logistically the title is a book designer’s dream, because its unique four characters so easily adapt it to a very strong, iconic treatment. The plot follows two seemingly unconnected stories that eventually weave together. The first involves a woman named Aomame, who in the opening scene finds herself descending a service staircase off a busy elevated highway in Tokyo to escape a traffic jam. Once she gets to the bottom and out onto ground level, she eventually comes to believe that she has entered an alternate reality, one only slightly different than what she had known. She refers to this new dimension in her mind as 1Q84 (the book takes place in 1984 and in Japanese ‘Q’ sounds just like ‘9′), with the Q standing for “Question Mark. A world that bears a question.” This concept becomes one of the novel’s major themes.

Upon reading the manuscript, it soon occurred to me that the duality of Aomame’s situation could be represented by an interaction of the book’s jacket with the binding/cover underneath. By using a semi-transparent vellum for the jacket, and printing the woman’s image in a positive/negative scheme with the title on the outside layer and the rest of her on the binding, once the jacket is wrapped around the book it ‘completes’ the picture of her face. But something odd is definitely going on, and before the reader even reads a word, he or she is forced to consider the idea of someone going from one plane of existence to another.

1 Now I’m not going to tell the largest publisher in America how to do their job, but please please please please please don’t publish this as a straightforward run-of-the-mill hardcover. This isn’t Stieg Larsson or Suze Orman—it’s a book that could be a major cultural event. And not only is the idea of paying $30 for a large, unwieldy tome totally insane, it’s also incredibly passé, as demonstrated by the genius marketing of 2666. I’m guessing you—the anthropomorphized version of an inanimate, heartless corporation that exists in my mind—are thinking that your “mature” readers will shell out way too much of their retirement income to read this “serious literary work they heard about on The NPR,” whereas the hipsters will download the $15 ebook and show off their iPads by flipping imaginary pages and posing in subway stations. And sure, you may well be right. But that’s totally irrelevant. What matters here is long-term image management. You don’t want to be “that dinosaur press” anymore, do you? I mean, you must know we all laugh behind your back at parties about how out-of-touch you are with your non-musty offices and your corporate stationary. Book publishing isn’t about money, it’s about showing off how smart you are and about creating intellectual objects that other people crave. Will I read 1Q84 when it comes out? For sure. But if it’s in a multi-volume form housed in a cardboard slipcase, I’ll read it in public. Rather than completely concede to the advent of e-everything, it would be a public service to the last remaining readers if you gave us all an object that we could cherish. An object that is inherently cooler (in a retro way) than the iPad. Instead of having Chip Kidd just design the cover, give him the opportunity to create a stunning object. Or don’t. I’m sure you’ll still make enough profit off this to feel justified. Justified, but incredibly empty on the inside.

25 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Kotaro Isaka’s Remote Control, translated from the Japanese and published by Kodansha International.

(Quick side-note: the closing of Kodansha International sucks. That’s all I have to say about that. I’m out of witty attacks for today.)

Will Eells is: a University of Rochester student getting a certificate in Literary Translation Studies, a promising young Japanese translator, one of our contributing reviewers (thanks NYSCA for the funding to make this possible), and a very enthusiastic reader of international fiction.

Kotaro Isaka has written a number of novels, but I believe this is the only one to be published in English translation. In Japan though, his novels have received quite a bit of praise and attention, starting with the wonderfully named Foreign Duck, Native Duck Coin-locker, which won the Eiji Yoshikawa Newcomer’s Prize for Literature. He has also been nominated on four occasions for the Naoki Prize, which is given to “the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author.” According to Wikipedia, “the winner receives a watch and one million yen.” The four nominated titles are: Gravity Clown, Children and Grasshopper, Accuracy of Death, and Desert. He won the Honya Taisho in 2008 for Golden Slumber (aka Remote Control).

Here’s the opening of Will’s review:

I’m just going to fess up right now: I’m a bit of a culture snob. I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened in my upbringing that led me to be this way – that I can’t check out a summer blockbuster without reading the reviews first, that I prefer listening to the local college or independent radio station to KISS (at least when I don’t have my iPod and car adaptor on me) – but at this point all I can do is play with the hand I was dealt. With books, this means that my elitism extends to the point that I can’t even look at any sort of mystery, crime novel, or thriller without a hefty dose of cynicism and distance. I don’t even really know why that is; maybe we should call it the “James Patterson exhaustion” effect. But I’m pretty sure that in the history of my book-reading life, I can only recall maybe three books that I’ve read that fall under this category: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Natsuo Kirino’s Out, and (I guess if you consider it a psychological thriller) Ryu Murakami’s Piercing. I was pretty lukewarm about all of these.

In my defense, I realize this is an annoying and extremely close-minded way to experience the world, and I couldn’t possibly proclaim that everything I’ve ever enjoyed was of the highest cultural value. But I say all of this to preface my review of Kotaro Isaka’s conspiracy thriller Remote Control, and admit that its target audience was probably not me.

But lo and behold! It was actually pretty good.

Remote Control takes place in a possibly now, possibly near-future Japan, where the city of Sendai has been outfitted with “Security Pods” in all public areas that can capture 24-hour surveillance in all directions, and can record and track nearby cell phone activity. It is here that the newly elected Prime Minister is assassinated during a parade by a bomb flown in by remote control helicopter. All evidence points to former deliveryman and accidental-actress-rescuing media darling Masaharu Aoyagi as the culprit in the assassination. But is he really the criminal everyone thinks he is?

Click here to read the full piece.

25 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m just going to fess up right now: I’m a bit of a culture snob. I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened in my upbringing that led me to be this way – that I can’t check out a summer blockbuster without reading the reviews first, that I prefer listening to the local college or independent radio station to KISS (at least when I don’t have my iPod and car adaptor on me) – but at this point all I can do is play with the hand I was dealt. With books, this means that my elitism extends to the point that I can’t even look at any sort of mystery, crime novel, or thriller without a hefty dose of cynicism and distance. I don’t even really know why that is; maybe we should call it the “James Patterson exhaustion” effect. But I’m pretty sure that in the history of my book-reading life, I can only recall maybe three books that I’ve read that fall under this category: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Natsuo Kirino’s Out, and (I guess if you consider it a psychological thriller) Ryu Murakami’s Piercing. I was pretty lukewarm about all of these.

In my defense, I realize this is an annoying and extremely close-minded way to experience the world, and I couldn’t possibly proclaim that everything I’ve ever enjoyed was of the highest cultural value. But I say all of this to preface my review of Kotaro Isaka’s conspiracy thriller Remote Control, and admit that its target audience was probably not me.

But lo and behold! It was actually pretty good.

Remote Control takes place in a possibly now, possibly near-future Japan, where the city of Sendai has been outfitted with “Security Pods” in all public areas that can capture 24-hour surveillance in all directions, and can record and track nearby cell phone activity. It is here that the newly elected Prime Minister is assassinated during a parade by a bomb flown in by remote control helicopter. All evidence points to former deliveryman and accidental-actress-rescuing media darling Masaharu Aoyagi as the culprit in the assassination. But is he really the criminal everyone thinks he is?

Of course not. Author Kotaro Isaka makes things interesting by changing up the structure of the novel just a little bit. Like in a movie, he starts the novel off at a distance, letting the reader experience the assassination almost second hand, relying on information passed on by the news. Then, he slowly zooms in until the reader finally gets to follow Aoyagi, as he tries to figure out what in the world is going on.

Obviously, for any thriller to be enjoyable it must be exciting and keep the tension going at all times. And overall, Remote Control does exactly that, even when the narration switches from the fleeing Aoyagi to Aoyagi’s ex-girlfriend and bystander Haruko. The chain of events even makes sense, more or less, with things going right in ways that aren’t too far-fetched and things going predictably or plausibly wrong, just when you think it might actually work. There are implausabilities, of course, and even a little silliness (assassination by remote control helicopter? Really?); that just goes with the conspiracy thriller territory. The biggest plot misstep is more of a problem with character development – where we the reader are supposed to be sympathetic to a crucial helper of Aoyagi’s, who absolutely deserves no such sympathy no matter what the circumstance (to say anything more would be a huge spoiler, even if I hated the way the character was handled).

Looking at the individual elements of Remote Control show a handling of pretty standard tropes: assassination, an ordinary guy caught up something beyond his understanding, the possibility of shadowy government interference, so on and so forth. What makes Remote Control stand out among other thrillers, at least to me and my admittedly little experience, is its unsubtle and incredibly critical portrayal of the media, journalism, and the 24-hour news cycle – allowing the public to point fingers without the facts, manipulating and shaping public opinion before “truth” can even have a chance to emerge:

“If you confess, we’ll try to see that things go a little easier for you. This is a terrible thing you’ve done, but even so there might be extenuating circumstances, something in your background we can emphasize to get a little sympathy out of the media.”

“There’s nothing in my background and nothing in the foreground – I had nothing to do with this!” Aoyagi’s frustration was mounting.

“I mean, we could create the impression that something in your childhood led you to do it.”

“Create the impression . . .” The conversation was getting so weird that Aoyagi was unsure what he was trying to say.

“We can still stir up a little sympathy for you – it’s a matter of creating the right image.”

“You mean you’ll manipulate the facts,” said Aoyagi.

“The image,” Sasaki corrected. “That’s the nature of these things. Images may not be based on much of anything, but they stick to you like nothing else.”

And of course the security pods lead to direct (and in-text) associations with America and the invasion of civil liberties through the Patriot Act.

The description on the cover likens Kotaro Isaka to Haruki Murakami, which is accurate only in the vaguest and most over-simplifying of ways: the everyday hero caught up in an unexpected adventure, the language being easy to read, and an on-going reference to the Beatles’ song “Golden Slumbers” (which is actually the original title of the novel, changed in English, I assume, for headache-inducing copyright reasons). This is no fault, I believe, to translator Stephen Snyder, who keeps the language from stumbling so as to facilitate this page-turner to keep the pages turning – the greatest achievement for making this enjoyable novel accessible to potential readers looking for their next beach-side read.

Kotaro Isaka, although touted as a mystery writer on the back, has a number of books that looked interesting (and are non-genre) when I was scanning bookshelves in Tokyo, so I truly hope this work is successful enough to see more of his work translated into English. Is this thriller a literary game changer? Probably not, but I can’t deny that I was genuinely excited to see what was going to happen next. I can’t say I’m hooked to the adrenaline thrillers and mystery novels can bring, nor can I tell how this compares to other works in the genre. But for this anti-thriller snob, it was a heck of a ride.

21 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Ryu Murakami’s Popular Hits of the Showa Era, which is forthcoming from Norton in Ralph McCarthy’s translation.

As Will points out, in America, Ryu is the “other Murakami,” but he’s quite popular in Japan, and a good number of his dark, strange books have made their way into English.

In case you don’t remember him, Will was an intern for Open Letter last year and has written a number of reviews on Japanese fiction.

Here’s the opening of his piece on Popular Hits of the Showa Era:

Ryu Murakami is sometimes referred to as the “other” Murakami, the yang to the more internationally popular Haruki Murakami’s yin. But in Japan, the so-called “other” Murakami is just a strong a force in the contemporary literary scene. Ryu Murakami has won almost all the big literary prizes in Japan, including the Akutagawa, the Yomiuri, and the Tanizaki Junichiro twice, and with numerous film adaptations of his work, including the critically acclaimed, cult film Audition, Ryu is one of Japan’s most popular and recognizable names in literature today.

In Popular Hits of the Showa Era, his latest to be translated into English, Murakami takes the idea of the “battle of the sexes” to its darkest and most absurd extremes. The novel follows the misadventures of two rival camps: a group of wayward, twenty-something year-old males who have almost nothing in common with each other except their severe lack of social skills and a semi-regular party they throw, in which they all dress up in costumes and record themselves singing karaoke to old pop songs on a deserted beach; and the “Midori Society,” a group of oba-sans, or middle-aged women, who have just as little in common with each other as their male counterparts besides their shared name Midori and the failures of their romantic relationships. When one of the men sexually assaults and then murders one of the Midoris, a twisted and ludicrous inter-generational gender war begins, which over the course of this slight novel rapidly escalates until its absurd and shocking conclusion.

Click here to read the full piece.

21 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ryu Murakami is sometimes referred to as the “other” Murakami, the yang to the more internationally popular Haruki Murakami’s yin. But in Japan, the so-called “other” Murakami is just a strong a force in the contemporary literary scene. Ryu Murakami has won almost all the big literary prizes in Japan, including the Akutagawa, the Yomiuri, and the Tanizaki Junichiro twice, and with numerous film adaptations of his work, including the critically acclaimed, cult film Audition, Ryu is one of Japan’s most popular and recognizable names in literature today.

In Popular Hits of the Showa Era, his latest to be translated into English, Murakami takes the idea of the “battle of the sexes” to its darkest and most absurd extremes. The novel follows the misadventures of two rival camps: a group of wayward, twenty-something year-old males who have almost nothing in common with each other except their severe lack of social skills and a semi-regular party they throw, in which they all dress up in costumes and record themselves singing karaoke to old pop songs on a deserted beach; and the “Midori Society,” a group of oba-sans, or middle-aged women, who have just as little in common with each other as their male counterparts besides their shared name Midori and the failures of their romantic relationships. When one of the men sexually assaults and then murders one of the Midoris, a twisted and ludicrous inter-generational gender war begins, which over the course of this slight novel rapidly escalates until its absurd and shocking conclusion.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era, like many of Murakami’s works, is an exploration of the darker, more twisted aspects of humanity, but at the same time, it is his most satirical and humorous work available in English so far. The rival camps are each twisted in their own way, and Murakami depicts what makes each person (not) tick with a certain irreverence that knocks each gender down a notch. For instance, when the young men try to buy a gun, which are illegal in Japan, their shady connection obliges:

“Our friend was murdered by a middle-aged Oba-san, and with an unprecedented weapon – a sashimi knife duct-taped to the end of a Duskin handle!”

“What kind of Oba-san?”

“What kind?”

“The type whose husband left her and who’s hurting for money but can’t work in a massage parlor or soapland because she’s getting too old, and – “

“According to our investigations, no. Not the the type who buys her clothes at Ito Yokado bargain sales either, but rather at boutiques or speciality stores.”

“Ah. So, not the sort of Oba-san who sits behind the counter at a stand bar preparing little dishes of pickled daikon strips, but the sort who puts on a nice dress and sings fashionable pop songs by people like Frank Nagai in a karaoke club with chandeliers?”

“That’s correct. Frank Nagai or Nishida Sachiko or Yumin.”

“And eats spaghetti with mushrooms in some restaurant with big glass windows that everybody on the street can look in through?”

“Yes, sir. Also doria and onion gratin soup and Indonesian-style pilaf and so forth.”

The storekeeper squeezed his hands into fists and clenched his jaw. He looked to be fighting back tears.

“And why,” he asked more quietly now and between gritted teeth, as his wrinkles ebbed and surged in complicated patterns, “would an Oba-san like that want to murder your friend?”

“The reason isn’t entirely clear. Apparently she was bored.”

“Gotcha,” the storekeeper said, and rose to his feet. “Wait right there a minute.” He shuffled into the back and soon returned with something wrapped in oiled paper, which he placed on the counter in front of Yano.

“There are ten live rounds in the magazine. It’s a hundred and thirty thousand yen, but since your motives are pure, I’m going to give you a discount. Make it a hundred and ten thousand.” Yano collected money from the others, counted out eleven ten-thousand-yen bills, handed the stack to the storekeeper, and asked one last question.

“Do you sell these to just, like, anybody?”

The storekeeper laughed, his wrinkles fanning out like rays of the sun.

“Hell, no. Only to people I feel good about. I like your spirit. They always say that when human beings are extinct, the only living thing left will be the cockroach, but that’s bullshit. It’s the Oba-san.”

It is this touch of absurdist humor that saves Popular Hits of the Showa Era _from the absolutely overwhelming darkness and depravity that weighs down other Murakami novels such as Piercing. Even so, _Popular Hits is not for everyone, especially those who cannot stomach a little of the grotesque on their way to some laughs.

While the overall translation of Popular Hits is not bad, there are a couple of missteps along the way that detract from the enjoyment of the novel. In trying to stay absolutely faithful to the original Japanese, there are places where the translation is simply much too awkward. One of these is a section where the characters play a word game linking the last syllable of a word to start the next, which apparently requires the use of footnotes to explain that the Japanese word for “golf” is “gorufu” or that “banana” is the Japanese word for, you guessed it, banana. Choosing complicated explanations over slight rewrites, purely linguistic translation over cultural translation, is the downfall of a number of passages and the biggest distraction to this dark and humorous tale.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some of you might be interested in this announcement regarding the 2011-2012 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, which is sponsored by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture and carries with it $6,000 in prize money.

Last year’s winners were Michael Emmerich for Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami (it’s a Michael Emmerich day here at Three Percent), and Thomas William Hare for Zeami: Performance Notes by Zeami Motokiyo.

The submission deadline is October 28, 2010, and you can click here to download an application form.

Here’s the list of eligibility requirements:

- The Prize is intended for translators who are not widely recognized for their translations, though they may have published. Those who have previously received the Prize are ineligible.

- Translations must be book-length works of Japanese literature: novels, collections of short stories, literary essays, memoirs, drama, or poetry.

- Translated works submitted for consideration may include: (a) unpublished manuscripts; (b) works in press; © translations published after January 1st, 2009. Translations published prior to January 1st, 2009, are ineligible.

- Previously submitted works are ineligible.

- Applications are accepted from individual translators and from publishers on behalf of eligible translators.

- Translators must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., which was translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and published by Kodansha International.

We’ve already mentioned this book on Three Percent several times, including in this JLPP interview with Michael Emmerich, and more interestingly, in relation to this piece he wrote for CALQUE and the “ensuing debate/exchange it provoked.“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=1171

As if those pieces weren’t enough to get one intrigued, this is a book about a woman who wakes up with a penis growing out of her big toe and runs off to joint a “traveling performance show with other sexual misfits.” Sounds pretty crazy and fun, no? Well, unfortunately, Monica wasn’t as enamored with it as she had hoped to be:

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Monica does love the translation though . . . To read the full piece, click here.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Not only does Kazumi appear naïve, but perhaps a bit daft. For instance, when she questions her boyfriend, Masao, about being homophobic, her ruminations sound much more authorial than an authentic voice of a innocent twenty-year old whom just discovered that she had a penis:

Come to think of is, was the fact that Masao had sex with women proof that he wasn’t a faggot? He thought penises were dirty and he didn’t like the idea of sex with men, but he felt no qualms about sticking his dirty penis into my mouth at the same time that he emotionally felt closer to men than women. He was so confused, his emotional life so riddled with contradictions, he couldn’t possibly be normal! . . . But then who was I to talk? I had a penis.

Exactly. The main character does have a penis and this it what it takes for her to recognize someone else “riddled with contradictions” because apparently, she hadn’t noticed any of his contradictions in the three prior years that they had dated. This is what makes the main character inconsistent and then, unbelievable. Throughout the book, Kazumi is sickened and frightened by the idea of lesbianism, finding the idea of sticking her toe-penis in a vagina “gross.” Later, she experiments with a woman after she leaves her current boyfriend, Shunji, and finds that perhaps it isn’t as disgusting as she thought it was, but still not convinced that lesbianism or any other relationship is worth it:

Then he began preaching: “Forget this lesbian stuff! Nothing ever comes from two women getting together. I guess it can’t be helped if a woman is too ugly to attract a man—that’s a reason to turn lesbian. But you’re cute. Don’t you think that you should just stay with this Shunji kid here?”

I hardly knew what to make of these bizarre statements. True, maybe nothing came from two women getting together, but nothing came from a man and a woman getting together either—nothing but babies. Or did he know something I didn’t know? I had no idea whether or not there women who turned to homosexual love because men wouldn’t have anything to do with them, and I couldn’t help wondering what led Utagawa to believe there were. And what made him think he could be so arrogant as to decree, even if he wasn’t explicit about it, that women who could attract men were better off in heterosexual relationships—that they should mold their sexual proclivities to the needs of men, rather than stay attuned to their own desires?

Again, this sort of interior monologue runs contrary to Kazumi’s alleged innocence. Also, I get nervous as a reader when the author has the character asking questions. Matsuura has Kazumi asking questions in her mind frequently and it wears on the reader because it’s a lazy way of developing character. The reader is smart enough to ask those questions without the character doing it. So, this kind of intellectualizing does nothing for the reader in terms of believability of Kazumi as an innocent or even as a fully developed person.

Ultimately, the characters in this novel are thinly veiled stereotypes of what sexuality is. They give method to the intellectualization of gender and sexuality, but no meaning or passion. Matsuura intellectualizes the hell out of any attraction or passion so that by the end of the novel, the idea of sex of any kind seems joyless. More time spent on investing in the characters would have made me care, made me believe in Kazumi and her “apprenticeship.” As grating as this novel is, I found the translation above the material and hoped at some point, the writing would match the translation. Instead, I felt relieved that I was rid of her and her sexual musings and wished someone more fun would have grown a toe-penis.

6 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The “latest addition”: to our “Reviews Section” is a piece by Will Eells on Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris, which is translated from the Japanese by superstar Stephen Snyder and published by Picador.

This is the third Ogawa book available in English, and we’ve actually reviewed all three. (I wasn’t a fan of The Diving Pool, but Will had some nice things to say about The Housekeeper and the Professor.)

Unfortunately, although this book sounds to me like the most interesting of the three, Will wasn’t entirely convinced:

Reading Hotel Iris, the latest Yoko Ogawa book to be published in English, may be quite a jarring experience for those who have read Ogawa’s last novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. Although they share a common theme of unconventional love, the two works could not be more dissimilar in tone and atmosphere. The Housekeeper and the Professor is light and heartwarming with a touch of the bittersweet. Hotel Iris, on the other hand, is dark and twisted, with only a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Mari, the narrator, is a seventeen-year old girl living in a remote seaside town, working the front desk of the family hotel with only her controlling mother and a part-time, kleptomaniac maid. For better or worse her father is long dead, as is the grandfather who helped raise her afterward. Her life is suddenly shook up when a fight between a middle-aged man and the prostitute he hired erupts in the middle of the night. Mari is drawn to this mysterious and harsh man, a widow and Russian translator who lives alone on a nearby island, and so she seeks him out. Thus begins the strange and twisted relationship between the two that is the focus of the rest of the novel.

Click here to read the full review.

6 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Reading Hotel Iris, the latest Yoko Ogawa book to be published in English, may be quite a jarring experience for those who have read Ogawa’s last novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. Although they share a common theme of unconventional love, the two works could not be more dissimilar in tone and atmosphere. The Housekeeper and the Professor is light and heartwarming with a touch of the bittersweet. Hotel Iris, on the other hand, is dark and twisted, with only a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Mari, the narrator, is a seventeen-year old girl living in a remote seaside town, working the front desk of the family hotel with only her controlling mother and a part-time, kleptomaniac maid. For better or worse her father is long dead, as is the grandfather who helped raise her afterward. Her life is suddenly shook up when a fight between a middle-aged man and the prostitute he hired erupts in the middle of the night. Mari is drawn to this mysterious and harsh man, a widow and Russian translator who lives alone on a nearby island, and so she seeks him out. Thus begins the strange and twisted relationship between the two that is the focus of the rest of the novel. The mood for the entire work is established immediately:

He first came to the Iris one day just before the beginning of the summer season. The rain had been falling since dawn. It grew heavier at dusk, and the sea was rough and gray. A gust blew open the door, and rain soaked the carpet in the lobby. The shopkeepers in the neighborhood had turned off their neon signs along the empty streets. A car passed from time to time, its headlights shining through the raindrops.

I was about to lock up the cash register and turn out the lights in the lobby, when I heard something heavy hitting the floor above, followed by a woman’s scream. It was a very long scream – so long that I started to wonder before it ended whether she wasn’t laughing instead.

Human emotion is a complicated business, and the bread and butter of any work that calls itself literature. And although Ogawa deftly handles and brings life to certain aspects of her characters’ contradictory behavior, at a slight hundred and seventy pages there isn’t enough room for the novel to really grow. A work of such short length and heavy atmosphere must be tight and honed to a razor’s edge; unfortunately, only half of what is there is as effective as it should be, and even that could be attributed to the shock value of some of the sequences.

Ultimately, the novel’s biggest downfall is that the novel is too short to really see what makes the characters tick, and what little that is there is too broad and dramatic to be effective. It’s as if Ogawa told herself she could only write two hundred pages and used trauma as a lazy shortcut to establish what could have been very sympathetic characters (see the all-too-brief introduction of the translator’s mute nephew, by far the most interesting character, who regrettably can only stick around for forty pages). There are times where Ogawa’s strong sense of human emotion shines through, and passages where her writing (with the help of Stephen Snyder’s able translation) has the punch Hotel Iris needs. But sadly, these moments are too infrequent and the work too short to be a truly effective piece of fiction.

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The “latest addition” to our Reviews Section is a piece on Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling, which was translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm and comes out from Grove Press in March.

Will Eells—who is a former Open Letter intern and did a fantastic job reviewing The Housekeeper and the Professor for us some time back—wrote this review, giving the book a very measured and thoughtful response.

Which is all great, but holy crap! Grove got a new website! One that works. One that has individual book pages, is easy to search, and, although maybe a bit cluttered, presents some damn good information about their titles. Well done! (Hey—is anyone at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reading this? See—it’s possible for a website to make sense!)

Anyway, all that aside, here’s the opening of Will’s review:

Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, has always been a novelist concerned with big, important ideas and big, important problems, and yet his works are always written on a much smaller scale, focusing on that one individual character and how he is affected by the world around him. One may never read a narrative so intimate and personal as Oe’s, which leads to some pretty dark places. It’s like reading someone’s private diary—inherently compelling, but afterwards you’re left with a sick, guilty feeling with the realization that you learned some things that probably should have been well left alone.

Oe has a profoundly honest view of what it is to be human, especially the parts we don’t always like to acknowledge: the selfish, self-destructing, contradictory parts. And Oe seems to achieve this power because his works really are very personal—events from his own life are often the main events of his novels, often with little dress up. Obviously writers draw from personal experience, but Oe’s seem to be the most transparent and forthcoming about the events in his life, for instance the well of novels, including A Personal Matter, that have sprung up because of his handicapped son Hikari.

The Changeling, Oe’s most recently translated novel published by Grove Press, is a work that directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. The protagonist of the story is an established sixty-odd year old Japanese author who is sent a case of cassette tapes from his brother-in-law, a friend since their teenage years and now a famous movie director. The tapes are a series of monologues by the brother-in-law, in which he reminisces about their relationship over the years along with ruminations about their mutual artistic endeavors. On the last tape, the brother-in-law cryptically announces that he is now “going to the Other Side”, and then, nothing but a loud thump. And as soon as the protagonist hears this, his wife comes in to tell him that his brother-in-law was found dead—he had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building.

Click here for the full review.

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, has always been a novelist concerned with big, important ideas and big, important problems, and yet his works are always written on a much smaller scale, focusing on that one individual character and how he is affected by the world around him. One may never read a narrative so intimate and personal as Oe’s, which leads to some pretty dark places. It’s like reading someone’s private diary—inherently compelling, but afterwards you’re left with a sick, guilty feeling with the realization that you learned some things that probably should have been well left alone.

Oe has a profoundly honest view of what it is to be human, especially the parts we don’t always like to acknowledge: the selfish, self-destructing, contradictory parts. And Oe seems to achieve this power because his works really are very personal—events from his own life are often the main events of his novels, often with little dress up. Obviously writers draw from personal experience, but Oe’s seem to be the most transparent and forthcoming about the events in his life, for instance the well of novels, including A Personal Matter, that have sprung up because of his handicapped son Hikari.

The Changeling, Oe’s most recently translated novel published by Grove Press, is a work that directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. The protagonist of the story is an established sixty-odd year old Japanese author who is sent a case of cassette tapes from his brother-in-law, a friend since their teenage years and now a famous movie director. The tapes are a series of monologues by the brother-in-law, in which he reminisces about their relationship over the years along with ruminations about their mutual artistic endeavors. On the last tape, the brother-in-law cryptically announces that he is now “going to the Other Side”, and then, nothing but a loud thump. And as soon as the protagonist hears this, his wife comes in to tell him that his brother-in-law was found dead—he had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building.

The rest of the novel follows the protagonist as he tries to piece together why his brother-in-law committed suicide. He obsesses over the contents of the tapes by starting a nightly ritual of “talking” to his dead friend, an addiction so compelling he takes a year-long guest professorship at a university in Berlin to leave the tapes behind and free himself. However, the majority of the novel is set in periodic flashbacks, highlighting important events in their lives that led them down the paths they take today.

The Changeling is thus a long meditation on the power of real life events and how they shape a person and their fiction. It’s both a love letter to the creative process, as well as a philosophical treatise on the power of art and the way it reflects an inescapable past. In a way, The Changeling feels like it might be a work more personal to Oe than even a novel like A Personal Matter. It’s a direct view into the soul of Oe the writer, as opposed to Oe the father or Japanese citizen, and in a way, that’s more powerful:

Perhaps the feeling of loss—even downfall—that accompanied his sense of relief was due to the constant awareness that he was growing old and irrelevant, and that he would live out the remainder of his days without ever being able to liberate the heart inside his skull from this vast collection of beloved, familiar books, which were an anchor but also, at times, an albatross.

The Changeling reads very well; the sentences, though often long, flow with ease and with a powerful narrative sweep. However, because the novel is in its essence more interested in certain philosophical ideas than the physical happenings of the plot, the characters, who are otherwise characterized and behave like human beings, often end up as mouthpieces for Oe, and talk almost exclusively in monologues instead of really talking to each other. The translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm is solid, although there are places where cultural explanations are awkwardly shoehorned into parentheses as opposed to being more integrated into the text. Finally, there is a seventy page long epilogue that suddenly switches perspectives to the protagonist’s wife, which seems almost jarring after what seemed like a perfect conclusion by the protagonist; however, in the end it does tie the work together nicely and is the section from which the work gets its title.

The line between fact and fiction is blurred in The Changeling, and how the reader sees the novel can change depending on how much the reader knows about Kenzaburo Oe’s personal life. It’s amazing that the novel can work on these two completely different levels: as a total fabrication and as a work of fiction that can be traced along the lines of real life events. In any other novel, it would be irrelevant as to what personal experiences go into what, in the end, is supposed to be a piece of fiction. But in The Changeling, it’s the novel’s raison d’etre. The question of what is real and what is fiction, while interesting to ponder, are overshadowed by the real question: which one, in the end, is more important to not just the reader, but to the author.

15 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the last post about December being a month of year-end donations, it’s also a month of submitting applications and books for a variety of awards. So here’s the first of three posts about various book prizes:

On behalf of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University, I am pleased to announce that submissions are now being accepted for the 2010 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.

For over twenty years, the Keene Center and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission have annually awarded a monetary prize (current annual total: $6,000) to deserving American recipients whose works represent outstanding translation of Japanese literature. We would appreciate your support in making this year’s competition our most successful. A prize in the amount of $3,000 is given for the best translation of a modern work and for the best translation of a classical work, or at times the prize is divided between two equally distinguished translations regardless of category.

To qualify, submissions must be book-length translations of Japanese literature: novels, collections of short stories, literary essays, memoirs, drama, and poetry are all acceptable. Furthermore, all applicants must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States. Submissions are judged on the literary merit of the translation and the accuracy with which it reflects the spirit of the Japanese original. Eligible submissions may include unpublished manuscripts, works in press, or books published within two years of the prize date (works published before January 1, 2008, will not be accepted). Applications may be submitted by individual translators or their publishers. Past winners and previously submitted works are ineligible.

Required application materials include: seven (7) copies of the English translation; one (1) copy of the Japanese original; seven (7) copies of the translator’s CV or resume; and seven (7) copies of the application form. Letters of support or recommendation are also encouraged.

The deadline for submissions for the 2010 Translation Prize is Tuesday, January 19, 2010.

For additional information, please visit the Keene Center Web site..

There you go . . . And stay tuned for info if you’re a publisher/translator of a French book, or someone wanting to get in on the Best Translated Book Award for Poetry . . .

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.

7 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of my interns mentioned this the other week, and now The Millions points to this article about ads for next summer’s release of the third volume in Murakami’s already mammoth 1Q84:

Murakami is currently working on the story, aiming for a release next summer, sources said. Sales of the first and second volumes, which hit the market in late May, have sold more than 2.2 million copies in all.

The ads, posted in stations including Tokyo and Yokohama, say, “We will continue receiving invaluable things from the story.”

It shows three Qs — a blue Q to go with the yellowish green one on the cover of the first volume and the orange one on the second. Shinchosha said it will leave it up to the readers to imagine what the ad means.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:

Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.

Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.

Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:

“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.

Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.

One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.

I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.

I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”

29 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The other day, we posted a short piece about an exchange between Michael Emmerich and Daniela Hurezanu that took place on the Calque website and centered around a recent interview with Emmerich the striking differences between his unedited version of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P and the version edited by Elmer Luke.

Thanks to the general awesomeness of St. Mark’s Bookshop I was able to pick up the most recent issue of Calque last night. And thanks to the boring, depersonalized nature of airports, I just had a chance to read this entire interview and versions of Emmerich’s translation of Matsuura Rieko’s novel.

First off, the edited version of the translation reads much better than the unedited one. The concerns Hurezanu expressed in her letter to Calque are completely valid—there are occasions when editors mutilate a translation to fit certain preconceived notions about the reader—but in this case, my personal feeling, and no offense to Emmerich, who is clearly one of the top Japanese translators working today, is that the edited version simply reads better. (For instance, “Roused from my slumbers by a barrage of knocks on the front door, it gradually dawned on me that an hour earlier I had agreed to have a talk with Kazumi, and I made a mad dash for the hall,” doesn’t read as well as “I was roused by a barrage of knocks on the door, and suddenly remembering Kazumi was coming over, I made a mad dash to the door.”)

And Emmerich’s description of this book makes it sound wonderfully perverse:

The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is an unusual sort of masterpiece. Riveting, provocative, funny, disturbing, touching, verbose, explicit, and absurd, it was also a bestseller. I doubt anyone in the United States who can’t read Japanese even suspects that Japanese literature contains novels like this, or authors like Matsuura. A novel, that is to say, whose heroine has a penis on her foot and spends much of the book on the road with what amounts to a sexual freak show.

Aside from the excerpts though, the interview with Emmerich is simply amazing and totally worth the cover price. The opening section about Ukigumo—which is considered the “first modern Japanese novel”—is fascinating, since its author, Futabatei Shimei (which is a pseudonym and pun that reflects a Japanese phrase that translates as “drop dead”) translated Ivan Turgenev and was heavily influenced by Russian writers.

Futabatei also cites Dostoevsky and Goncharov as the stylistic models that helped him break out of the distinctly “early modern” written style and prose rhythms that dominate Part 1 of Ukigumo, and we know that when he was struggling with Parts 2 and 3, he sometimes wrote in Russian first, then translated his Russian into Japanese [. . .]

There’s a ton of things to quote from this interview, but my plane is boarding, so I’ll leave off with Michael’s response to a question of “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”

The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.

To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s somethign only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]

30 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I finished reading Contemporary Japanese Writers, Vol. 2 over the weekend, and found seven writers/books that I wish were translated into English:

Yoshikichi Furui

Asagao (Rose of Sharon) is a masterpiece from Furui’s middle period. In a commentary to the paperback edition, writer Hisaki Matsuura remarks on the author’s dogged efforts to finish the book, grappling with it until his mid-forties: “Through his struggles, he must have looked hard at the potentials and limitations of this writing format and fully experienced the inherent inconsistencies between it and his own temperament.” By “this writing format,” Matsuura means maintaining the framework of the modern novel while incorporating elaborate devices in a style reminiscent of Nabokov.

Kariojoden shibun (Accounts of Provisional Rebrith: A Draft) sounds most interesting to me. It’s a collection of personal essays interspersed with episodes of the “hapless deaths of various eminent Buddhist monks.” Two collections from Furui have been published in English: Ravine and Other Stories (Stone Bridge Press) and Child of Darkness: Yoko and Other Stories (University of Michigan).

Hideo Furukawa

In his novel Veruka, hoenai no ka? (Bark, Veruka!), the author’s epic imagination is compressed to such amazing density that the work conveys a sense of tremendous speed. Half of the story is a historical tale that traces developments in the latter half of the twentieth century through the propagation of military working dogs. [. . .] The other half of the book is a suspense story about a former KGB military dog handler who kidnaps the daughter of a Japanese yakuza gangster. Eventually the two stories merge, developing into a richly textured faux history in which military dogs are, it would seem, major players in world history.

Steve Erickson is one of the authors cited as an influence on Furukawa, which is intriguing as well. (As is the fact that Steve Erickson is cited over and over and over in this book . . . I think that’s great, but I didn’t really that Erickson had such a huge reputation in Japan.)

Naoyuki Li

His short story collection Nigotta gekiryu ni kakaru hashi (Bridge Over a Muddy Torrent) contains nine works. A swift-moving stream divides the town into Right and Left Bank sectors, while repeated improvements to the lone bridge linking the two sides have left it an involuted, fantastical structure impossible to grasp in its entirety. A collection of odd people live in the town: a clan with bulging heads; a woman who has single-handedly organized the “Bridge Improvement Volunteers’ and stands o the bridge day in and day out campaigning for safety; a mayor who is able to communicate only with cats and lives the life of a recluse, yet whose preternaturally keen political instincts are intact. Each story interlocks organically with the next, revealing a richly imagined universe. In the last chapter, the characters reappear in unexpected fashion and the story ends as though swallowed in the waters of the torrent.

Akiko Itoyama

Her novel Tobo kusotawaka (Dang Fools On the Run) (Ed. note: “Damn Fools”?) is about a manic woman (the narrator) and a depressed (and possibly deluded) man escaping from a mental institution. “The pair head south in a beat-up old car, quarreling along the way, with the narrator bothered by aural hallucinations of a voice repeating a mysterious line from Marx’s Das Kapital.

Masahiko Shimada

Oboreru shimin (Drowning Citzens) is a collection of fourteen short stories numbered from 0 to 13. Each one describes the ordinary yet odd daily lives of the residents of Nemurigaoka, or “Sleepy Hill,” a neighborhood that might be found in any Tokyo suburb. In the fourth story, “Chonai bika” (Town Beautification), Mr. Kodama bids his wife goodbye each morning and sets off for work. Ever since he retired, she has somehow lost the power of speech and can say only “Goodbye, dear” and “Welcome home, dear.” Kodama’s “work” consists of picking up litter, and the townspeople call him “Volunteer Guy” or “Trash Master.”

Shimada’s Dream Messenger was published in English back in 1994. The PW review was less than enthusiastic: “In this trying-too-hard-to-be-hip contemporary novel of fantasy, kinky sex, and emotional insecurity, young Japanese writer Shimada explores the fate of ‘rental children,’ who grow up willing to do anything—for a price.”

Gen’ichiro Takahashi

Takahashi is compared to Pynchon, Barthelme, and Calvino, in part for his novel Sayonara, Gangsters, which came out in English from Vertical back in 2004. According to PW:

Takahashi’s first novel to be translated into English can be amusing, sexy, moving, intelligent and maddeningly obtuse-often all at the same time. Which is exactly what Takahashi, acclaimed author of postmodernist romps and former porn director, intends. Somewhere in a future time and place, people have no names. Lovers find this inconvenient, so they begin naming each other. he two main characters settle on the following names: the woman is the Nakajima Miyuki Song Book, and the man, who teaches at a poetry school, is Sayonara, Gangsters.

(“Naming” and confusing signifiers seems to play a large role in Takahashi’s work. His novella “John Lennon versus the Martians” “starts with a prologue in which a third base coach gives a batter the incomprehensible sign, ‘John Lennon versus the Martians.’” And the narrator of the novella receives a postcard from a guy named “Japan’s Wonderful War.”)

The novel Nihon bungaku seisuishi (The Rise and Fall of Japanese Literature) sounds like the most promising of his works.

To discover why it is so hard to write fiction today, Takahashi examines the history of modern literature, with the Meiji period (1868-1912) as his startying point. He summons literary giants of that era such as pioneer Shimei Futabatei, who like Takahashi agonized over his inability to write, and attempts to share his agony. [. . .] The author himself barges into this epic fantasy. Is he writing a fictional history of Japanese literature, or is he merely ridiculing writers?

Yasutaka Tsutsui

Tsutsui is most well known as one of Japan’s “Three Great” science-fiction writers. That said, apparently he’s continued to expanded his interests and writing style, and has published a number of metafictional and slapstick books. (His novel Hell was recently published by Alma Books in the UK and was part of the JLPP program, and sounds a bit Philip K. Dick-esque.)

A book which stirred great discussion is Tsutsui’s satirical novel Bungakubu Tadano Kyoju (Professor Tadano, Faculty of Letters). This hilarious work of metafiction exposes the inner workings of a faculty of letters at a private university in Japan. At the same time, through samples of literary theory interpolated into the story, it mocks the absurd underpinnings of contemporary literature and thought.

23 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As I was poking around the JLPP site this morning, I came across this recent interview with translator Michael Emmerich, who has translated more than a dozen books from Japanese, including Asleep, Goodbye Tsugumi, and Hardboiled & Hard Luck, all by Banana Yoshimoto and The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P by Matsuura Rieko, which was on an earlier JLPP list, and I believe is coming out from Seven Stories early next year.

(As a sidenote, Emmerich is going to be part of a translation panel here at the University of Rochester taking place on October 1st and also featuring Marian Schwartz, Edward Gauvin, and Martha Tennent—more details to come.)

In response to the opening question about Matsuura Rieko’s fiction, Emmerich has some interesting things to say about both the book and women’s writing in Japan.

Some years ago, it struck me that most of the writers I was reading in Japanese were women—people like Enchi Fumiko, Tsushima Yuko, Tawada Yoko, and many others. I still have the sense that a fairly large proportion of the writers I find most interesting are women. You can imagine that, until recently, when men really occupied the center of the Japanese literary world, it must have been incredibly difficult for women to break into publishing. But perhaps in some ways that situation also enabled women writers to be more experimental than their male counterparts, or to experiment in different ways.

When I was a Master’s student at Ritsumeikan Univeristy, in Kyoto, a good friend recommended Matsuura Rieko to me, and I made a mental note of her name. Then one day during a visit to Keyaki Shoten, one of the dozens of bookstore in the Jinbocho area of Tokyo, I happened across a signed first edition of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P. I started reading it on the train back to Kyoto, and I was completely sucked in—I simply couldn’t put it down. And since lesbianism is one of the main themes of the book, and that’s not something you see all that often in Japanese literature, certainly not Japanese literature in English translation, I had the sense it could have a big effect on the image of Japanese literature in English. Part of what I’m trying to do as a translator, I think, is to help readers see that there’s more to Japanese literature than just Kawabata Yasunari and Murakami Haruki.

He also touches on the situation of translation within the academy:

When the late Edward G. Seidensticker and other scholars of his generation were on their way up, establishing themselves as scholars, translation was really the only way to go—there was a pressing need to introduce Japanese literature to scholars in other fields, to show them that it was worth studying. And of course translation was the only way to do that. But by the late 1970s, once translation had established the field, people began to ask whether translation really ought to be counted as scholarship at all. “Theory” was on the way in, especially in English departments, and there was a strong sense that Japanese literary studies needed to head in that direction, too. And so, by the 1980s, translation was something to be actively avoided. People sometimes ask me “So are you a scholar or a translator?” But the truth is, that’s not a question you can ask—it’s not a choice we have in this field. You can only be both. And yet if you do a lot of translation at the same time that you’re active as a scholar, people tend to pass over the scholarship and focus on the translation.

But his reason for learning languages is my favorite part of this interview:

As a child, I really liked to read, and my sister and I had a dream that one day we’d be able to speak seven languages. We figured that if we could learn seven languages, we could speak a different one every day, and that would be really great.

17 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Language Hat points out this interview from 1965 between Yukio Mishima and Robert Trumbull, which has a great bit about translation:

Mr. Mishima always writes in Japanese and never changes a translation. “The translator asks me thousands of questions,” he said, “but I don’t mind small mistakes.” He was amused, not angry, when the translator of an earlier novel rendered the word “yatsuhashi” as “eighth bridge,” which is a perfectly correct alternate reading of the characters that the author intended to mean a kind of cake sold in Kyoto. “The translator really had to struggle with that sentence to have it make sense with a bridge in it,” he said, chuckling.

30 January 08 | Chad W. Post |

I have to admit right upfront that I was disappointed by this book. I had such high hopes based on all the people involved, the fact that it’s a 2008 Reading the World title, the pretty cover (which Picador is plastering everywhere these days), the blurb from Kenzaburo Oe, etc. In the end though, this just simply isn’t my sort of book. (Although I do want to applaud the spectacular job Stephen Snyder did in translating this.)

According to the flap copy, Yoko Ogawa is the author of over twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, which makes me curious as to why Picador decided to introduce her with this collection of three novellas. And “novellas” is a bit of a stretch . . . each piece is pretty short—around 50 very white-space heavy pages long—and all three read more like short stories than novellas.

Not that there’s a distinct difference between a long short story and a novella, although to me a novella is more complicated thematically, structurally, etc. This is a real broad generalization, I know, but one of the things that bugged me about this book is the singular focus of the plot and characterization.

A good example of this can be found in the title story, which is about a young woman whose parents run an orphanage, and a young man she has feelings who is a diver. The story itself is very constrained and well-crafted with a sinister touch (more on that in a minute), but the constant references to diving get a bit tired. Sure, there’s a subtext to all of their conversations about diving, but when they meet up late at night and “share a moment,” this starts to get a bit ridiculous:

“For some reason, when I’m washing my suits and the house is still, I can think about diving.”

“About diving?”

“I go over the dives in my head—the approach, the timing of the bounce, the entrance.” His hands went on with their work as he talked. “If you picture a perfect dive over and over in your head, then when you get up on the board you feel as though you can actually do it.” [. . .]

“You love to dive, don’t you?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“I do,” he said. Two words, but they echoed inside me. If I could have just those two words all to myself, I felt I would be at peace.

Uh, OK. And this by itself might be fine, but this is probably the fifth diving conversation in thirty pages . . . And then, two pages later, they share a memory of diving into the snow that blew in through cracks in the roof and filled the hallway. . .

This same thing happens in “Pregnancy Diary,” in which the main character’s sister is characterized almost exclusively by her relationship to food throughout her pregnancy.

All three of these stories are told by overlooked characters: a girl with parents growing up in an orphanage, a woman whose pregnant sister and husband come to live with her, a woman whose husband is paving the way for their relocation to Sweden. And all three stories have a sinister undertone, generally involving the idea of the main character poisoning someone. (The final line of “Pregnancy Diary” encapsulates this demented undercurrent: “I set off toward the nursery to meet my sister’s ruined child.”)

This controlled creepiness is the best aspect of the book, and really comes to the forefront in “Dormitory,” the last novella, and by far the best. Much more ambiguous and disturbing than the previous two, it points to a more sophisticated, intriguing style of writing that may well be evident in Ogawa’s other books.

And it’s completely possible that her other works aren’t quite so representative of what’s boring about contemporary realistic writing. Contemporary Japanese Writers Vol. 1—produced by the J-Lit folks and featuring tons of Japanese writers—has a nice overview that includes a bit on Hotel Iris a “sensual, sadomasochistic” novel about a decrepit old man and a young girl that sounds in keeping with what I liked about “Dormitory.”

30 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Publishers Weekly is one of my favorite review sources, providing a slew of brief, intelligent reviews every week. I especially like the fact that they cover a higher percentage of independent, small press, and university presses than most newspapers or magazines.

In this week’s reviews there’s a nice write-up of Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool: Three Novellas. My friend Amber Quereshi acquired this for Picador some time back, and I’ve been anticipating its release ever since. (I believe James Gurbutt from Harvill also bought this, adding even more literary coolness to the book, topped off by the fact that Anna Stein was the agent.)

PW calls her work “crafty” and “suspenseful,” and state “Ogawa’s tales possess a gnawing, erotic edge.” The novella “Domitory” about a Toyko wife who nurses an armless one-legged manager at her old college dormitory sounds fantastic.

And if you’re interested, two of her stories appeared in the New YorkerThe Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain and Pregnancy Diary.

What’s troubling about this week’s PW is the starred review of the new Dean Koontz book. Really? He needs to be reviewed? I think there should be a ban on reviewing titles I can by in the Express Checkout Line at the local Wegmans. Yuck.

6 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

As if Natsuo Kirino’s books don’t sound interesting enough by themselves, this interview in the LA Weekly has convinced me to check them out. Her books—two of which are available in English, Out and Grotesque, which was a Reading the World book this year—are beyond categorization, seeming to inhabit a space between crime fiction and literature, with a strong feminist underpinning that is twisted and disturbing.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, here’s Margy Rochlin’s take:

Margy Rochlin describes her work as:

Author Natsuo Kirino is often referred to as “the queen of Japanese crime fiction.” But is that really the best way to classify her work? Her queasily disturbing, gender-political tales have also been called “Japanese feminist noir,” while in Japan, her brainy writing-style mashup is known as “Kirino Jynru,” or a book that borrows freely from several genres but feels beholden to none of their rules.

Michael Orthofer pointed this out as well, but Kirino’s response to the question about super-agent Binky Urban and which books are next in line to be translated provides an interesting glimpse into the politics of fiction in translation:

I went to New York and I hoped that Soft Cheeks would be translated because I thought it was a really good book. But Binky did her own research and found out through a Japanese connection that Grotesque might be a good option. After hearing a little bit about it, she decided that that would be the next one.

Since Binky doesn’t read Japanese, it’s odd that she has so much say in what comes out when. Although that kind of attention to the American market is what created the image we have of Murakami Haruki . . .

The next book does sound cool though, especially since it sounds like Americans won’t like it:

[What Remains] is a pretty dark story of kidnapping, and appears to be well received [in Japan], but I have my doubts about how it’s going to be received over here because of the sexuality. The narrative is structured in kind of a sandwich form, where you’ve got the author in the present, who’s reflecting on this time in the past when she was kidnapped for one year and held captive by a guy who said he wanted to be her friend. It’s a dark remembrance with these sexual scenes in it, so I feel a little skeptical about how it’s going to be taken here.

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