14 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all of you lucky people living in the great city of New York, here are two fantastic upcoming events that you should try and attend.

First off, next Thursday, February 21st at 7pm at McNally Jackson, Stephen Snyder and Allison Markin Powell (both of whom make me swoon) will be talking about Japanese literature in translation as part of the always excellent Bridge Series.

Here’s a bit about both Stephen and Allison:

Stephen Snyder is Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent translation is Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (Picador, January 2013). He has translated works by Ogawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, and Miri Yu, among others. His translation of Kunio Tsuji’s Azuchi Okanki (The Signore) won the 1990 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission translation prize. His translation of Natsuo Kirino’s Out was a finalist for the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 2004. His translation of Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. He is the author of Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu and co-editor of Oe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan, and he is currently working on a study of publishing practices in Japan and the United States and their effects on the globalization of Japanese literature.

Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator and editor. She has translated works by Motoyuki Shibata, Osamu Dazai (Schoolgirl, published by One Peace Books in 2011), and Hiromi Kawakami, among others, and was the guest editor for Words Without Borders’ first Japan issue. Her translation of Kawakami’s novel The Briefcase (Counterpoint, 2012) has been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Prize.

I’ll bet this will be fantastic . . . really bummed that I’m only staying in NY through Wednesday night. And we’ll have a review of The Briefcase soon. I quite liked Hiromi Kawakami’s earlier novel, Manazuru, so I’m psyched to check this out. And Ogawa’s Revenge is top of my to read pile thanks to Will’s review.

*

Also next weekend, the Fourth Annual Festival Neue Literature celebrating German-language literature will be taking place across Manhattan and Brooklyn. This year’s festival is curated by Susan Bernofsky and will feature Clemens Setz (Austria), Cornelia Travnicek (Austria), Leif Randt (Germany), Silke Scheuermann (Germany), Ulrike Ulrich (Switzerland), and Tim Krohn (Switzerland), as well as U.S. authors Joshua Ferris and Justin Taylor.

There are two “signature discussion panels” taking place this year: “Closed Circuits: Shrunken Dystopias” and “Breaking Away: Contemporary Travelogues.” Here’s all the info about both of those:

Closed Circuits: Shrunken Dystopias
Saturday, February 23rd.
6:30-8:30pm @ powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street, Brooklyn

With authors Leif Randt, Silke Scheuermann, Clemens Setz, and Justin Taylor

Dystopias used to be grand affairs, encompassing entire planets, but now you can find one contained in a suburban block on the outskirts of Frankfurt, an uncannily odd resort town in a mysterious locale, or a home for children suffering the world’s strangest disorder. Dysfunction is the new dystopia, and these subtly wry to bitingly ironic commentaries uniquely encapsulate the post-modern condition.

Moderated by Susan Bernofsky

And:

Breaking Away: Contemporary Travelogues
Sunday, February 24th
6:00pm-8:30pm
McNally Jackson Bookstore
52 Prince Street, Manhattan

With authors Tim Krohn, Cornelia Travnicek, Ulrike Ulrich, Joshua Ferris

Here today, there tomorrow. Old-style travel stories seemed always to be about characters in search of themselves as inscribed in foreign landscapes. But what if the point of the travel is more escapist than exploratory? In these novels of discovery-avoidance – an avoidance not always successful – the journey is both more and less than a destination.

Moderated by Claudia Steinberg

You can find the complete schedule of events here.

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.

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.

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 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for the full review.

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

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

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

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

“What’s your shoe size?”

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

“Twenty-four centimeters.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the twelfth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. (Almost half-way!) Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

According to Contemporary Japanese Writers, Vol. 1:

Yoko Ogawa is one of the stars of Japanese literature who is anticipated to be “the next Haruki Murakami.” Of her works, over ten have been translated into French. In France, she is as popular as her predecessors Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima.

The Diving Pool is her first title to be published in English, and came out from Picador earlier this year. (I reviewed it a few months back.) This is a collection of three novellas, including “Dormitory,” which was my favorite for its creepy, ambiguous quality. (Even the flap copy description for this story is great: “A woman nostalgically visits her old college dormitory on the outskirts of Tokyo, a boarding house run by a mysterious triple amputee with one leg.”)

Stephen Snyder is one of the best Japanese translators working today, and he did a marvelous job with this book. I know that before leaving Picador, Amber Quereshi signed on a few of Ogawa’s titles, all of which Snyder will be translating.

The next one—The Housekeeper and the Professor—is due out in October, which is written up in Contemporary Japanese Writers:

Hakase no aishita sushiki (The Gift of Numbers) marked a transformation within Ogawa. It is a tale about the kind and affectionate relationship between a math professor—whose memory lasts only eighty minutes as a result of injuries he sustained in a car accident—and his housekeeper and her child. A beautifully written masterpiece, it attracted an overwhelming number of readers in Japan. The warmth with which the author runs her eyes over these characters, and the delicacy with which she portrays them, succeeded in making Ogawa’s world into something more expansive and enchanting.

The title of hers that sounds most interesting to me though is Hotel Iris:

Fans were split on the sensual, sadomasochistic world inhabited by an old man and a girl in Hotel Iris. It also proved controversial when it was translated into French; even the well-respected newspaper Le Monde criticized it as being merely erotic. In the story, the girl feels sorry for the old man’s deteriorating body bound for death, and motivated by a certain sense of masochism, she gives herself to him.

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.”

....
The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >

Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

Read More >

Little Grey Lies
Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

Read More >

Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

Read More >

A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

Read More >

Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >