2 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true, to a certain extent: Murakami, for better or worse, has a particular style, and with it come the trappings and clichéd Murakami-isms that, as a fan, you come to both love and loathe about the 65-year-old writer. He has become the master of a certain kind of metaphysical mystery wrapped in urban ennui. You’re either on board (like me), or you aren’t (like a certain editor of this website).

But anyone attempting to play Murakami Bingo with his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is going to lose. There are no parallel worlds, talking animals, or mysterious women. There’s only one passing reference each to wells and cats, both only as metaphors, and there’s really only one piece of music that’s talked about at any length. And it’s not even jazz.

This is Murakami at his most straightforward and subdued, the likes of which we’ve really only seen—in novels, at least—in Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun. It is a relatively straightforward tale of friendship, depression, and memory. As such, it sheds a beacon on both Murakami’s core strengths and weaknesses as a writer, some thirty odd years into his career.

In this latest novel, the eponymous Tsukuru, a middle-aged train station engineer, reflects on his high school days, when he belonged to a group of friends so close that its importance to his life has become essentially mythic. Each of their names even contain a color—Aka (red), the temperamental brainiac; Ao (blue), the cool people-person; Kuro (black), the sarcastic comedian; and Shiro (white), the quiet beauty—except for Tsukuru, who they joked was “colorless.” This moniker takes on a whole new meaning for Tsukuru when the group unceremoniously and without explanation excise him from their circle after he leaves their hometown for Tokyo and college. Tsukuru’s sudden exile sends him into a wretched depression, from which he clearly did not come out entirely intact. Sixteen years later, in the present day, a casual girlfriend prompts Tsukuru to try and figure out just what exactly happened, in the hopes that he might be able to finally heal, and perhaps commit more fully to his present relationship with her.

Peel away the usual pseudo-magical realist trappings, and this is the template for the über-Murakami story: an average, lonely man embarks on a quest. But time changes both the man and the world around him. An adventure like this, thirty years ago, involved research and a cross-country trek into parts unknown, á la A Wild Sheep Chase. In Colorless, his girlfriend suggests he checks Facebook.

This epitomizes what makes Colorless both compelling and frustrating in equal measure: it is, essentially, drama-free. The conflict, such as it is, takes place entirely in the past, waiting quietly to be unearthed. Tsukuru systematically contacts each friend, one by one, and slowly comes to learn the truth. And while there is a conspiracy of a sort, and twists and turns along the way, the universe does not fracture in two in response; there is no McGuffin to set it all right. The only thing Tsukuru can do is to push forward and engage with his old friends, and finally be able to come to terms with the contents of his present existence. It is perhaps the best novel I have read where nothing actually happens.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, well, it is and it isn’t. The novels that Murakami is best known for—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84—are bombastic in their everything and the kitchen sink approach to writing. They’re weird, messy, digressive, splashy, about seemingly everything and nothing at the same time. They succeed and suffer in their attempts at a fractured 21st century “total novel,” the kind that Doestoevsky and Victor Hugo used to write. Stripped down to just an emotional core, Colorless is outwardly less ambitious, but a lot more personal. Without the distraction of the typical Murakami weird, however, it is a lot easier to spot Murakami’s weaknesses.

For one, Tsukuru is boring. Like every Murakami protagonist, Tsukuru is the consummate everyman. He is average in just about every way, as we’ve been told over and over in one story or another. In other novels, it is pretty easy to get past this—the narrator is a cipher, our surrogate, the straight man in a cast of weirdos, holding our hand as we bemusedly come to terms with a strange new reality. Colorless has no such distractions, and there are no other characters that stick around long enough for us to get interested in, like the vivacious Midori in the similarly somber Norwegian Wood. Tsukuru trots from one friend to the next, knowing that despite the amicable, nostalgic peace that comes with reconnecting with an old friend, things will never be the same, and it’s time to be moving on.

Murakami has always had a straightforward yet quietly elegant way with words, but the language in Colorless is so undemanding it frequently comes across as repetitive. (Translator Philip Gabriel has always been more than up to the task in previous translations; it seems unfair to throw him under the bus now.) When tasked with illustrating a character’s feelings, Murakami generally has no qualms with telling instead of showing—a big no-no any Intro-level creative writing class will teach you—but in Colorless it feels like this has become a bigger problem than ever before. While reading I even came up with a drinking game: a shot for every time you read some variation of Tsukuru wanting or needing something “more than anything.” Spoiler alert: you’re going to blackout.

So, to tally up so far: a boring narrator, facile language, clichéd characters, and a conflict-free narrative. Sounds pretty dismal.

And yet, there’s something about Colorless that works despite all these obvious flaws, something that makes all these seemingly egregious sins click into place. It is still just so damn readable. And while this subtle propulsion certainly doesn’t make the work transcendent, it makes it a far cry from the mess that I make it sound to be. Murakami is a workman, a writer in some tangibly fundamental way—in short, a professional. He can’t help but get a few things right.

One of the ways in which Colorless is much cleverer than at first glance is the way Murakami so deftly and subtly illustrates the fallibility of memory. Tsukuru is reflecting on events that happened sixteen years ago, the aftermath of which has colored his perspective of himself and the world around him. He frequently remarks that nothing is interesting or remarkable about him because that’s fundamentally how he sees himself. He has carried the feeling of being “colorless” for years; he is someone who seems himself, essentially, as someone who is very easily abandoned. His friends are described practically with only one characteristic each, as if stock characters right out of the Breakfast Club. But memory orders our lives by both exaggerating and obliterating the truth. Each friend had their role to play, as we all do during those formative years, and the distance of time amplifies those impressions even more. It’s telling that with every friend Tsukuru reconnects with, Tsukuru can’t help but notice how they seem both exactly the same and inexplicably different.

So while the language itself is perhaps shallow, its simplicity belies a complex and satisfying narrative thread of a man who is taking his first steps toward self-actualization. A man who learns he has self-worth, and value, and that his friends, his history, his fundamental self, are not what he assumed they were. They are simple but powerful truths about what it means to grow older and wiser, and to be able to look back at the past without letting it define you. Anyone who has suffered, and survived, episodes of depression or trauma will easily relate.

Murakami moves deftly back and forth between past and present in the beginning of the novel, so while it takes nearly a hundred pages for the “plot” to begin, in the meantime we get to enjoy another common but more welcome Murakami-ism: the story within the story. Here, it comes courtesy of a friend named Haida (another colorful name, this time gray), whom Tsukuru meets in his traumatic college years. The tale concerns Haida’s father, who, after suddenly dropping out of college, meets a pianist at a secluded hotel who claims to be able to predict his own imminent death. Haida similarly drops out of college soon after, another colorful friend who suddenly abandons the colorless Tsukuru.

The reader will have to decide whether the sum of the novel is equal to more or less than its parts. At times it feels both simultaneous too long, with a hundred-odd pages just to feel like something is happening, and too short, with that niggling sense that characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. On this issue I might perhaps place blame on the presentation of the book itself. Chip Kidd has designed the book beautifully, as he always does, but the font and margins are absolutely gigantic, making what should be a relatively concise 200-odd page character study feel like a sloppy mess at 400. Perhaps Knopf wanted to hedge their bets and make readers feel like they are getting “their money’s worth” or, “a real page-turner”; I hope the paperback will adjust the layout so I won’t feel like I’m reading a large-print young adult book.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will not go down as Murakami’s masterpiece, but it certainly won’t go down as his worst either. I absolutely cannot imagine it will change the minds of Murakami detractors, and even amongst his fans it will be a pleasurable read that might leave some feeling hollow by the end. But, as perhaps befitting of the old saw, still waters run deep. Strip all the metaphysical nonsense away, and Colorless is Murakami to the very core, fault lines and all.

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.

4 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by regular contributor Will Eells on Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine, which is translated from the German by Andrew Joron and available from Wakefield Press.

Speaking of Wakefield Press, I truly believe that it is one of—if not the—most interesting presses out there today. From the deliciously funny and incredibly off-color Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments to Perec’s Attempt at Exhausting a Space in Paris to Fourier’s “Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bandruptcy,“http://wakefieldpress.com/fourier_cuckoldr.html Wakefield has carved out a niche for doing peculiar books that defy categorization in very intriguing ways. Witness:

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.

The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”

Read the full review here.

4 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Paul Scheerbart was a German writer and artist who lived around the turn of the twentieth century. He was perpetually broke, even though he was constantly writing books, newspaper articles, and plays. Even when he was alive he was not generally well known or successful, despite the influence his book Glass Architecture would soon garner, or the praise he would receive from eminent intellectual Walter Benjamin.

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.

The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”

However, what makes The Perpetual Motion Machine occasionally transcendent are the moments when Scheerbert contemplates the ramifications, both good and bad, of his “perpet.” That is when the text bleeds from non-fiction to eerily prescient fiction—or one might say fantasy, or science fiction:

In the year 2050 A.D. there lived in the nation of Germania a general who was more malicious than all the other generals of his time put together.

At that time the Europeans were waging a great war using bombers against the Americans. Many bombing victories were achieved, thanks to the ultramodern science of war. In spite of this, the Americans continued imperturbably to survive.

Naturally this aggravated the most malicious general of his time, who held the highest power of command in Germania.

What did this monstrous person, who went by the name of Kulhmann, do as a result?

Kuhlmann worked out a plan that was supposed to inundate all of America.

He wanted to surround all of Europe with gigantic walls and then inject the waters of the Mediterranean and the Baltic into the Atlantic Ocean with the aid of two billion perpets.

The response to this barbaric plan was a single cry of horror; a peace agreement was immediately reached with America.

Through these hypothetical musings, Scheerbart effectively illustrates what I see as the joy of science: the possibility, the hope, and the expectations that come with the potential applications of a newly developed scientific theory or model. Thus, the question becomes almost more important than the answer, which when unsolved remains unknown, and therefore infinite.

This is how I understand the drive for the individual to pursue science, and The Perpetual Motion Machine is the kind of book, a very specific category to which I would also add Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which renders the beauty of science in a way the artist can experience it. Translator Andrew Joron deserves recognition for his superb rendering of Scheerbart’s humor, joy, ego, and despair, in a language that is extremely readable but somehow still feels like it comes from a bygone age. Though the story drags when Scheerbart explains the insignificant changes he makes to his model, as the reader knows full well the project is doomed to fail, Scheerbart’s flights of fancy—and tailspins into fear—elevate The Perpetual Motion Machine into something that will likely appeal to anyone who dreams of the coming future.

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.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Dany LaFerrière’s I Am a Japanese Writer, which is translated from the French by David Hormel and available from Douglas & MacIntyre.

Will—who got a certificate in literary translation from the U of R and focuses on Japanese lit—is one of our contributing reviewers. You can read all of his pieces by clicking here.

Dany LaFerrière is an author I’ve been interested in checking out for a while, in part because his book titles are so strange and provocative. (The last novel of his to be translated was How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.) May be way off base here, but based on the descriptions, his work brings to mind the novels of Percival Everett. All the novels sound fun, playful, interested in identity and race and nationality, etc.

Anyway, for more info on LaFerrière, be sure to check out this interview that just went up at Words Without Borders. And here’s the opening of Will’s review:

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity.

Click here to check out the whole thing.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity. The novel begins with the unnamed narrator getting a call from his publisher looking for the next book in the narrator’s contract. The narrator has no such next book, and looking at all the junk littering his editor’s desk, he pulls a title out of his head: I Am a Japanese Writer. His publisher loves it, but to the narrator it’s nothing special at all, telling the reader: “It was pretty banal, actually—except for the word ‘Japanese.’ And that was no joke: I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” He starts telling people randomly on the street about how he is a Japanese writer:

On my way out, just to gauge his reaction, I tell him, “I am a Japanese writer.”

His eyes cut back to me.

“How’s that? You changed nationality?”

“No. That’s the title of my new book.”

A worried glance at his assistant, a young man busy wrapping fish. My fishman never looks at the person he’s speaking to.

“Do you have the right?”

“To write the book?”

“No. To say you’re Japanese.”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you going to change your nationality?”

“No way . . . I already did that once, that’s enough.”

“We should find out about that.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, at the Japanese embassy . . . Can you imagine me waking up one morning and telling my customers I’m a Polish butcher?”

“I’d think you’d be a Polish fishman, since you’re in fish.”

“Anything but a Polish fishman,” he answers, turning back to the next customer.

The rest of the novel follows the narrator doing everything except writing the book. He constantly is reading the Japanese poet Basho or evading his landlord. He befriends a Japanese musician named Midori and her entourage, even getting mixed up in one of their suicides. But even so, word spreads of his latest book until it causes an uproar in Japan. Members of the Japanese embassy start visiting him to help him go to Japan, learn about it, so as to better write his book, but as the fervor for his book grows more and more intense, the narrator becomes increasingly desperate to escape the attention.

I Am a Japanese Writer is written almost like a noir—the tone is dark, and the plot almost Kafkaesque in its gritty lunacy. David Homel deserves credit for his excellent translation in keeping the tone of the work consistent and for rendering various cultural nuances and artifacts clear and recognizable in American English. But the novel is at the same time incredibly fun to read, with an absurdism that makes the novel both incredibly funny and at the same time nightmarish. What else is there to do but utter a bewildered laugh when a character named Haruki Murakami, the same name as the most popular and famous Japanese writer in recent memory, is a black, gay New Yorker?

It is a recurring element throughout the novel: nearly every Japanese person in the book, regardless of who they are or what they do, is named after a famous Japanese writer or cultural figure. In fact, all cultures and peoples in the novel are portrayed using the most obvious clichés and stereotypes. For as the narrator himself tells us, “the problem with being a foreigner is that you’re not allowed to play anything but folklore.”

By using these deliberately clichéd elements, I Am a Japanese Writer offers an amusing and very readable analysis on the flimsiness of racial identity, and illustrates the power literature has to transcend ideas of race. The ideas would work well without them, but the meta-fictional games LaFerrière uses bring a whole new depth and clarity to his arguments. As the narrator describes reading Mishima as a teenager:

I dove into the universe set before me the way I dove into the little river not far from my house. I hardly even noticed his name, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I realized he was Japanese. At the time, I firmly believed that writers formed a lost tribe and spent their lives wandering the world and telling stories in all languages. That was their sentence for some unnamable crime . . .

I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them. Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Cesaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot—they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer? I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.

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.

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on An Empty Room: Stories by Mu Xin, translated from the Chinese by Toming Jun Liu, and available from New Directions.

Will has become a regular contributor for Three Percent, and is likely to be reviewing even more for us now that he’s graduated with his degree in Japanese and certificate in literary translation.

Here’s the opening of his piece on An Empty Room:

Like countless other foreign authors, Mu Xin is only just now getting his first collection of fiction published in English with An Empty Room, though he has more than twenty books published in mainland China. What seems all the more tragic is that many of these works were written while Xin was living in the United States, as almost all his previous literary and artistic works had been destroyed in the social turmoil of post World War II and mid-Cultural Revolution China. Luckily, English readers now have An Empty Room, a stunning, beautiful collection of fiction that hopefully will lead to more of his work in the future.

In the translator’s afterword for An Empty Room, Toming Jun Liu states that the thirteen stories collected in this collection can be read individually or as a linked story cycle akin to a kind of bildungsroman. And it is quite tempting to do so. Most of the stories are written like long-ago memories being recalled, often melancholy stories of growing up: both the natural growing up of a child, and the unnatural maturation that hits a young adult confronted with tragedy. All the stories are written in the first person too, so though the titles change, the narrator seems constant, even in stories like “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” which follows Alice and takes place in a post-war Britain.

What is particularly interesting about this collection of “stories” is how personal they seem, and how un-story like they can be. “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” is less a short story than a curious little essay, like the kind of internal monologue one has when talking a long walk by themselves (which is actually what the narrator is doing in the piece—talking a stroll through Queens, New York). Translator Jun Liu attributes this as Xin’s affinity with the Chinese prose style sanwen (which is usually just translated as “prose”), a classical Chinese genre of writing that “freely crosses the boundaries of poetry, meditative essay, and fiction.” I personally did not respond as strongly to “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” than to some of the other pieces in this collection, but that, of course, is one of the many road bumps one has to deal with when faced with artistic standards and styles that differ from one’s norm. But what ties almost all the pieces together is their sense of pure storytelling—like the narrator is a close friend, telling you the reader his most cherished personal anecdotes and feelings.

Click here to read the entire review.

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like countless other foreign authors, Mu Xin is only just now getting his first collection of fiction published in English with An Empty Room, though he has more than twenty books published in mainland China. What seems all the more tragic is that many of these works were written while Xin was living in the United States, as almost all his previous literary and artistic works had been destroyed in the social turmoil of post World War II and mid-Cultural Revolution China. Luckily, English readers now have An Empty Room, a stunning, beautiful collection of fiction that hopefully will lead to more of his work in the future.

In the translator’s afterword for An Empty Room, Toming Jun Liu states that the thirteen stories collected in this collection can be read individually or as a linked story cycle akin to a kind of bildungsroman. And it is quite tempting to do so. Most of the stories are written like long-ago memories being recalled, often melancholy stories of growing up: both the natural growing up of a child, and the unnatural maturation that hits a young adult confronted with tragedy. All the stories are written in the first person too, so though the titles change, the narrator seems constant, even in stories like “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” which follows Alice and takes place in a post-war Britain.

What is particularly interesting about this collection of “stories” is how personal they seem, and how un-story like they can be. “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” is less a short story than a curious little essay, like the kind of internal monologue one has when talking a long walk by themselves (which is actually what the narrator is doing in the piece—talking a stroll through Queens, New York). Translator Jun Liu attributes this as Xin’s affinity with the Chinese prose style sanwen (which is usually just translated as “prose”), a classical Chinese genre of writing that “freely crosses the boundaries of poetry, meditative essay, and fiction.” I personally did not respond as strongly to “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” than to some of the other pieces in this collection, but that, of course, is one of the many road bumps one has to deal with when faced with artistic standards and styles that differ from one’s norm. But what ties almost all the pieces together is their sense of pure storytelling—like the narrator is a close friend, telling you the reader his most cherished personal anecdotes and feelings.

A few decades have passed since then. I still remember the surprise I felt when I first pushed open that screen door. The desolate winter scenery of the mountain, the abandoned church and temple as if the whole of humanity had disappeared, contrasted strikingly with the flowering cherry blossoms that blazed before me—people, life… bluish-white letterhead, golden yellow Kodak boxes—it was like the welcome of spring, or an unexpected encounter with an old friend.

Those fleas that had bitten Liang may have also bitten Mei. A poet once compared the blood of a man and a woman mixed with the living walls of a flea to a marriage temple. What a refined sentiment of tragedy! By coincidence my own blood was mixed in as well, though I was innocent. I never witnessed the marriage of Liang and Mei.

I record this story in memory of my youth. And still I cannot comprehend what it means—which only demonstrates that I haven’t made much progress these past few decades.

The best stories in this collection are among some of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve read in recent memory. The title story is a haunting tale of the narrator finding a temple in the mountains, and trying to unravel the circumstances that lead to a deserted room filled with abandoned love letters. In “The Boy Next Door,” the narrator debates taking a picture with one of his friend’s young neighbors, who is the spitting image of the narrator as a child, when all of his own old pictures have been lost in a “catastrophic fire that would last more than ten years.” And in “Fong Fong No. 4” the narrator describes a lifelong relationship with a sometimes friend, sometimes lover as she reinvents herself over the years.

Besides writing, Mu Xin has made a name for himself as an artist and painter, and in my opinion, it shows. It’s hard to say whether this was an aspect of the original or the translation, but translator Toming Jin Liu has rendered Xin’s prose in this collection as extremely literary. This is certainly not a bad thing per se, but at times it comes off as a little over the top and somewhat pretentious, which can be off-putting. It also seems to me that they were all translated at different times. Although the majority of the stories are honestly translated not just ably but beautifully, for some reason “Quiet Afternoon Tea” stands out as being incredibly awkward and stilted—particularly in the characters’ dialogue (which I find rather ironic, since this is one of the only stories where the characters ostensibly are speaking in English). I find it strange that this one story stands out so strongly amongst the others in the way it is translated, but again, the rest of the collection doesn’t really have any problems like the ones I see in this particular story.

It already seems unfair to devote a whole paragraph to my minor complaints about this collection, because An Empty Room is an excellent collection of fiction by any standards. I was stunned by the quality of the prose and the depths of its emotion, and I sincerely look forward to reading more of Mu Xin’s work in the future.

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.

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and available from New Directions.

Will is one of our “contributing editors” (which are sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts) and a former Open Letter intern. He’s reviewed a number of titles for us, is very interested in Japanese literature, and is a translation student here at the University of Rochester.

Roberto Bolano is someone you’ve all heard of. New Directions has and is publishing approximately 1,000 of his books, four of which arrived in the mail today: Antwerp, Monsieur Pain, The Return, and The Insufferable Gaucho. I’m a huge fan, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Will . . .

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

“Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.”

Click here to read the full review.

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.

And what may be even more interesting is how the two essays in the back of the collection are written in a way that feels almost more like “fiction” than the actual short stories do. Too bad the actual subject matter at hand is not nearly as interesting as the way Bolaño writes it, once you sift through his bag of literary tricks.

Bolaño is certainly a talented writer, but he writes with the cynicism of someone who maybe knows a bit too much for his own good, so at times he comes off as kind of a smart-ass. I don’t think the reader would find the eponymous “insufferable gaucho” quite so insufferable otherwise, and Bolaño’s namedropping of his favorite (and least favorite) writers can grow tedious, if you forget that, like any writer, this is someone who really loves literature. On the bright side, award-winning Chris Andrews’ translation is practically seamless, and save for one in text translation of some song lyrics, the reader could go through the whole book without realizing they were reading a translation.

The Insufferable Gaucho is certainly an interesting set of pieces that show that Bolaño is capable of many different feats with his writing. When it works, it really works, and the stories “Jim,” “Police Rat,” and “Alvarro Rousselot’s Journey” show how good Bolaño can be. But overall I found the collection to be a mixed bag, and for someone who hasn’t already contracted Bolaño-mania, it just quite wasn’t enough for me to join his growing throngs of fans.

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.

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.

14 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’m home sick—damn winter colds that are even resistant to Advil Cold & Sinus, the Wonder Drug—so it’s a perfect day for a guest post from intern Will Eells. You might remember Will from his review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, and he will be writing more reviews for us in the future, including one of “The Changeling,” the new Kenzaburo Oe novel coming out from Grove this spring. Anyway, Will’s a huge Murakami fan—even did a translation of a previously untranslated Murakami story for his translation class project—and was very intrigued by this situation regarding the new Murakami novel . . .

It was reported a few days ago that Haruki Murakami’s newest novel 1Q84 (my favorite way of saying this is “Q-teen Eighty-four”) has all but demolished sales records this year and is the top-selling book in Japan for 2009, selling at least a million copies for both volume one and volume two. From The Literary Saloon:

Tohan said 1Q84 was the first literary work to top the year’s best-seller list since it began compiling the data in 1990.

Who is the competition? Mainichi Daily news offers some (worrying) insight in their own report, Murakami’s 1Q84 tops 2009 bestseller ranking:

“In second place was 読めそうで読めない間違いやすい漢字 (Easily confused kanji which look readable but aren’t), published by Futami Shobo Publishing Co. Third place was secured by ドラゴンクエスト9 星空の守り人 大冒険プレイヤーズガイ (Great adventure player’s guide to Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies), published by Shueisha.”

It’s pretty cool to see that Murakami is finally seen as someone “literary” by the Japanese after years of being considered light pop-lit (he’s got an awesomely bitter short story called “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman about his disgust with Japanese literary critics), and it’s even cooler to see that people are genuinely excited about his work. On the other hand, although Japan is typically thought of to be a nation of readers, their top selling books are overall pretty lame, even after accounting the fact that almost every person and their dog is playing Dragon Quest IX in Japan right now. Looking through the rest of the top 10, I only discovered one(!!) other piece of fiction, and the rest of the list being rather light-weight non-fiction books like new weight-loss and “health” guides and more language trivia.

All of this means of course that American publishers are also very excited and want to get the book out as fast as possible. And of course Knopf and Vintage, who have published all of Murakami’s other work in America, will be publishing 1Q84 as well.

Normally this would pose no problem at all, but Murakami himself is throwing a huge curveball towards the American publishers. And how is he doing that? He’s currently writing Volume 3, and it’s not even being released in Japan until next summer.

So what does Knopf do now? They want to get it published as soon as they can (but without rushing, so we can have a good translation . . . right, Knopf?), but I can’t think of any single work that was published in more than one installment in the U.S. Apparently, this is the solution:

UK and Commonwealth rights, excluding Canada, have been acquired and Harvill Secker will publish the first two volumes in a single edition simultaneously with Knopf in the States in September 2011. The paperback editions will be published by Vintage. The first two books are being translated by Jay Rubin and the third by Philip Gabriel.

This, my friends, is madness. Knopf is fusing volume one and volume two into a single work, as they assumedly planned to all along, but not only can they not wait for volume three to come out, they won’t give Jay Rubin the extra time to translate it and are handing the next part for Philip Gabriel to work on separately.

It’s fascinating, and a little scary, to have two translators working on what’s officially supposed to be one work. By now, Jay Rubin has translated the majority of Murakami’s works, and besides the early stuff Alfred Birnbaum tackled, Philip Gabriel has been responsible for a good chunk of Murakami’s work as well, including Kafka on the Shore. They’re both great translators that I trust with Murakami’s work. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to translate 1Q84 the same way, so it poses some interesting questions as to what’s going to happen. Will they be communicating with each other? Will they be reading each other’s manuscripts and collaborating? Since typically Japanese editors don’t exercise the kind of creative control that Western editors are typically thought to have, Jay Rubin is known to act as an editor for Murakami as he translates (which he even does with Murakami’s involvement, which in one case resulted in revisions in the Japanese from the hardcover edition to the paperback), but does Philip Gabriel have the same editorial vision? There’s no telling how a sudden third volume will effect 1Q84 as a whole anyway, so how will that affect how the readers see the novel both in the original and in the translation? Will Vintage’s paperback version be one or two books?

It’s a lot of stuff to think about, and we won’t find out what happens until both volumes are finally published sometime in late 2011.

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.

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