Japanese Literature Challenge 12: State of the Challenge #10

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Gretchen of Gladsome Lights has written a beautiful post entitled Four Sad Poems from the Japanese, taken from a collection of One Hundred Poems From the Japanese, gathered and edited by Kenneth Rexroth in 1964.

Here is another post of hers highlighting two poems. One is entitled At The Boundaries of Life and Death by Jun Takami, and the other poem is by Kusatao Makamura.

She has also read Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, although I did not see reviews of the last two books. (How much I would like to know your thoughts on the Murata book, Gretchen!)

Michele of su[shu] has written a review of Hideo Yokoyama’s book, Six Four, a novel I have started at least three times and always abandoned as I was intrigued by the mystery, but found the police bureaucracy so tedious!

She has also read and reviewed The Emissary by Yoko Towada, published outside of the States as The Lost Children of Tokyo.

Akylina of The Literary Sisters has read and reviewed Three Short Stories by Akutagawa and Others. Whenever I see the name Akutagawa, I think of Japan’s literary prize named in memory of him, especially as he is known as the “Father of Japanese short story.”

Sylvie, of Sylvie’s English and French blog, read and reviewed Farewell My Orange by Iwaki Kei. It sounds like an unusual and touching book, reflecting Sylvie’s caring heart when she wrote this sentence: “Written with great warmth, Farewell, My Orange offers optimism in the face of adversity.” It won the Kenzaburo Oe prize.

There is only one week left in March, and so I will write a wrap up post for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 on Sunday, March 31. I have enjoyed writing a weekly post highlighting what I know has been read and reviewed, but I am certain I have not caught all the posts written or books read for the challenge. Do let me know if I can link to something I have missed.

With the Japanese Literature Challenge coming up to the time that the Man Booker International Prize long list is announced, I find my interests rather divided. I am thinking that next year, the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 will be for only one month: January. What do you think of that? While the duration is shorter, the intensity is more concentrated, and that appeals to me, but I am always interested in suggestions and improvement. Until next Sunday, then, happy reading!

Jokes for The Gunman by Mazen Maarouf (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

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Here we have a collection of stories told from the perspective of the young. The narrators seem to believe in their ability to overcome the death and fear which surrounds them. Their wishful thinking wounds me in its futility.

One of them thinks he will be able to buy a glass eye for his father; at the end of the story we learn the son must wear a glass eye after losing his in a game where a ball strikes him in the head. My sorrow for him is mitigated by the fact that he wanted to sell his deaf twin brother to get the money for his father’s eye.

Another father who plays the gramophone in a bar loses both his arms when a bomb strikes. He asks his son to give him one of his arms, for him being reduced to one is better than the father having none.

In “Biscuit”, a son drives his mother to a care-home, not because she has Alzheimer’s, “but to make sure she goes on believing the biscuit story.” A story he told her when an elderly man was killed at an intersection as they were passing through. The fantastic story he told involved this man “hopping nimbly between the vehicles, avoiding one car, dodging and weaving, whirling around, spinning like a wheel, doing splits and throwing feeble punches.” Whenever the old man touched the side of a car, he would turn it into a biscuit. Making it much more palatable a situation, of course, than the man spinning futively to his death.

“Aquarium” is about a clot of blood, which could or could not be a foetus. The couple loves it, and names it Munir, and keeps it in an aquarium. Of course there had to be such a story, in times like these when people don’t seem to know when life starts.

As you can see, not all of the stories are about war, although most of them are. They are interesting, and bizarre, but not nearly as dreadful as Samanta Schweblin’s collection reviewed earlier.

It’s interesting that two of the thirteen books on the long list are short stories. I always think the novel has so much more power.

(Thanks to Granta for the copy of Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf to review.)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (translated from the German by Jen Calleja, Man Booker International Prize 2010)

The first thing I loved about this book was how it mirrored my experience in Japan this October. I could immediately relate to seeing Japan for the first time from a Westerner’s point of view. The cleanliness, the bare beauty, the efficiency, everything described was similar to what I noticed as well.

Gilbert Silvester has dreamed that his wife Mathilde has been cheating on him. And so he flies to Tokyo on a transcontinental flight, leaving quite abruptly.

Soon he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, who is poised to throw himself in front of a train because he is terrified he won’t pass his exams. Because his beard is trendy and neat, and Gilbert is a beard researcher, Gilbert decides to speak to him. Because Yosa is a Japanese young man, and therefore extremely polite, he interrupts his plan to talk with Gilbert.

Gilbert suggests there must be a better place for Yosa’s intentions. He decides to follow the poet Basho’s footsteps to Matsushima, “the most beautiful place in Japan, the bay of pine islands.” They would travel to the pine islands, taking the same route Basho took; it would be a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.

Somewhere along the way, Yosa disappears. We do not find out if he has changed his mind, or if he has gone elsewhere to fulfill his original plan. Several times, Gilbert thinks he sees him, but perhaps it was only a reflection in the tea bowl or in a dream.

Gilbert makes it to the pine islands himself. He writes haiku as Basho did, and explores his journey.

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Far away from home

pine trees as old as the stones –

fleeting clouds above.

This haiku examined the relationship between durability and ephemerality, the unremitting transitoriness of things, of travelling.

It is such a quiet kind of book that I didn’t realize its impact until I closed it. Only then could I see that the implications are universal. We are all ephemeral.

p.s. The night has passed since I finished this book and wrote this extremely brief post. I am still thinking about all the nuances within its pages, about the haikus and how difficult they must have been to translate accurately.

Typical of so many Japanese novels, The Pine Islands is more of a “slice of life”: dropping us in, and pulling us out, of the story before anything is truly settled. We take the pilgrimage with Gilbert, mimicking Basho’s travels. And the more I think about it, the more the novel has crept into my mind like a mist which will not readily dissipate.

(Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my copy of The Pine Islands.)

A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I’ll make this short, as I don’t like to disparage authors or their hard work. Also, I sent my opinion out in Twitter and Instagram, so you may already know this.

I didn’t like A Mouthful of Birds.

This collection of short stories had an auspicious beginning. The first story, “Headlights”, tells of a bride abandoned by her husband while she’s still in her wedding dress standing by the side of a road. One has the idea that the field nearby is filled with abandoned brides who are screaming; near the end, a trail of headlights are seen coming back.

Another story, “Preserves”, has a pregnant woman not emotionally prepared to have her baby yet. After seeing a doctor, who has developed a solution, she spits an almond shaped object into a jar of fluid.

The story taking the title of the collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” has a set of parents who do not know what to do with their daughter who thrives on eating birds. Alive and whole.

“The Test” is a horrible story about a man who must kill a dog to prove that he can follow orders and eventually kill a person. He bashes a dog over the head with a shovel, but doesn’t quite kill it. Instead, the dog is in agony, and the man learns he didn’t qualify because he hesitated when given the order to strike.

Each story is more upsetting then the previous one. I suppose you could say the writing is imaginative; it certainly is bizarre. But ultimately, the dark violence became overwhelming, and I came away from this book quite distraught. If literature reflects life, I am concerned about how Samanta Schweblin sees the world.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12 (State of the Challenge #9 and winner of Star by Yukio Mishima)

Michelle of su[shu] has read The Traveling Cat Chronicles and written a beautiful review here.

Akylina of The Literary Sisters has read and reviewed Masks by Fumiko Encho here. She gives us a meaningful look at what the book means, one I have intended to read myself for quite awhile.

Mel U of The Reading Life has read a short story entitled The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach by Akiyuki Nosaka. There is time yet for a good short story before the challenge ends!

I have read Star by Yukio Mishima, which is not only appropriate to the Academy Awards ceremony we had in America in February, but is applicable to so much of life itself. The winner of the give away for this novel is Lewis Mclean. I will contact you for your mailing address.

Now that I am reading so assiduously for the Man Booker International Prize, my reading of Japanese literature will dwindle somewhat. But, as you continue, please be sure to inform me of reviews you have published so I can link them to these weekly updates.

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Man Booker International Prize 2019) ~ As near to perfect a book as I have ever read.

I was alone in the world and in the evening I watched the river as I ate.

This sentence, on the very first page, pierces me with its loneliness. But when our narrator, Benia, joins the Red Army to fight on the Romanian front, he finds he is not alone anymore.

He met Pavel when he was hidden from the road, behind a wall, heating up water to make some tea. They met Kyabine, who was built like a lumberjack and seemed a bit slow, when he watched them playing dice in the middle of the street. They invited Sifra, who never had any trouble with anyone, to help them build a hut in the pine forest where they could endure the winter, and the group became four.

They discover a pond, which they keep to themselves, and Pavel and Kyabine splash in it like children. They play dice and gamble tobacco, or roll it into cigarettes. They take turns sleeping with a watch, taken off of a fallen soldier, that has a picture of a woman inside it. When Pavel gets up in the darkness, he gently wakes Benia to accompany him; Benia is his comfort from the terrible nightmares that come in the night.

Their friendship charms me.

The tenderness of their youth charms me.

There is an innocence and joy about the comrades, about the four soldiers, that charms me.

And, there is a sorrow lying underneath the joy that is almost unbearable.

Once, while trying to capture a horse, they became separated.

So I spoke in my head to my parents: Don’t believe what you see. I told them: There’s Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra somewhere in the field, so don’t worry.

I sat down in the grass.

I watched the sun sink beteeen the grass stalls, and after a while I lowered my head and began to sob. But believe me, it wasn’t out of sadness…

And now I held them both in my arms and I sobbed as I pressed them against me and I swear it wasn’t out of sadness.

You know they have to leave the pond, burning the huts they have built because they don’t need them anymore. They are ordered to advance on the enemy.

A kid they have met, who sleeps in their tent and writes in a notebook with a pencil tied to a string, records their precious days together. They tell him all that they want him to write, reminding him to skip no detail.

When Benia takes the notebook after the kid has fallen, there are only letters. Nothing that could form a word. It does not take away the time they shared as four comrades, but it does point to the impermanence of their lives.

I am as impressed by this book as I ever have been. It caught me by surprise because I don’t like books about war, and I didn’t particularly like Mingarelli’s earlier book, A Meal in Winter.

But, The Four Soldiers? I will never forget it. Reading it caused a worthy sadness.

The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list)

The Shape of The Ruins is a novel of historical fiction which dwells on many themes: the past, coincidence, conspiracy, how mistaken we might be about what we are told is factual. What if the Twin Towers in New York did not fall just because two planes crashed into them? What if John F. Kennedy was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald alone? And, what if Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the Liberal leader of Bogata, was also part of a nefarious plan when he was assassinated on April 9, 1948?

I like how Juan Gabriel Vasquez highlights pieces of American history and parallels them with that of Colombia’s, in terms of possible deception to the people. He presents governments who, at the very least, have distorted or omitted facts for their own political agenda. And, he presents himself as an author within this book, for authors have the freedom to interpret what happened in the past.

And nevertheless, that was the only thing that interested me as a reader of novels: the exploration of that other reality, not the reality of what really happened, not the novelized reproduction of true and provable events, but the realm of possibility, of speculations, or the meddling the novelist can do in places forbidden to the journalist or historian. (p. 181)

Juan Gabriel Vasquez gives us many interpretations of what the past can mean, this being one which particularly stands out to me:

That’s what the past is: a tale, a tale constructed over another tale, an artifice of verbs and nouns where we might be able to capture human pain, fear of death and eagerness to live, homesickness while battling in the trenches, worry for the soldier who has gone into the fields of Flanders and who might already be dead when we remember him. (p. 224)

The plot within these pages is quite involved. It is detailed, in some places, to the point of being tedious. (Especially the section from page 290-390 which describes the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe.) Facts, as we know them, have been intertwined with the author’s conjecture, portraying a country’s history as tenuous at best.

I don’t know when I started to realize that my country’s past was incomprehensible and obscure to me, a real shadowy terrain, nor can I remember the precise moment when all that I’d believed so trustworthy and predictable—-the place where I’d grown up, whose language I speak and customs I know, the place whose past I was taught in school and in university, whose present I have become accustomed to interpreting and pretending I understand—-began to turn into a place of shadows out of which jumped horrible creatures as soon as we dropped our guard. (p. 441)

The last section of the book pulls me in with sentences like that. I remember being a child who believed that teachers taught you, doctors healed you, and leaders led you. Now that I am grown up, I, too, see the shadows all around me, and for that reason I think The Shape of The Ruins has an impact far beyond its pages. Far beyond Colombia or America. Perhaps all of us can find a certain disillusionment in what we thought to be true about our country.

The Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list

Perhaps it is not a surprise after all, to find that of the thirteen books long listed for the Man Booker International Prize, I have read two of them. It seems that the jury wishes to find the unsung heroes for translated literature, the books which could go unnoticed were it not for the attention given by this prize. While I had hoped for Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore to be included, it makes sense to read authors whose novels are less known. It makes sense to draw attention to the small presses who publish such magnificent works.

The Shadow Jury and I will begin reading tonight, if I speak only for myself, as eager to begin as those who attended a release party for the Harry Potter books when they came out at midnight.

Our library had only three of the thirteen titles, a fact which does not surprise me as it wouldn’t leave much room for John Sanford or Kristin Hannah if they filled their shelves with the mind-broadening books listed here. Therefore, I am searching for the remaining 10 titles as I plan on reading them all before the winner is announced in May.

Man Booker International prize 2019 longlist

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)

Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue (China), translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated by Alison Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Scribe)

Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf (Iceland and Palestine), translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Granta)

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (France), translated from French by Sam Taylor (Granta)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail)

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina and Italy), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Quercus)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from Spanish by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands), translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe)

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile and Italy), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)

The Shadow Jury and I will be reading and posting our thoughts on as many titles as we can before the short list is revealed on April 9, 2019, and the winner declared on May 21, 2019. 

Star by Yukio Mishima (A review and give-away for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12)

“Not once had I been able to forget so entirely that a town was all hollow, all facades and make believe.”

Rikio Mizuno is a star, playing the leading role of a yakuza, followed by screaming young girls he cares nothing about.

I was exhausted. The girls could scream their way to hell for all I cared. Their shrill voices splashed over me like rancid oil. If only I could line them up and march them all into the mouth of an incinerator. (p. 22)

This jaded attitude is shocking from a 23 year old, just turning 24, who knows that real stars never attend a party even if its for their own birthdays.

It’s better for a star never to be around. No matter how strict the obligation, a star is more of a star if he never arrives. The question of whether he’ll show up gives the event a ceaseless undercurrent of suspense. But a true star never shows. (p. 27)

As I read, I found myself rereading paragraphs several times over, sensing that Rikio was speaking about the set as well as real life. The two seemed intertwined, almost indistinguishable from one another

I was no longer on a set, but in an undeniable reality, a layer inside the strata of my memory. (p. 34)

Over and over again, we are pointed to the isolation he feels. Certainly being a star does not bring the fulfillment he desires.

It’s useless trying to explain what it feels like in the spotlight. The very thing that makes a star worth watching is the same thing that strikes him from the world at large and makes him an outsider. (p. 47)

When the American Academy of Awards displayed the stars hoping to win an Oscar Award on February 24, 2019, I remained largely as unimpressed as I ever have been. Their empty world of facades and images means nothing to me. What is a star more than a flawed character filled with desparation at living for fame?

It’s become a tradition for me to pin up the life-size poster from my current project right inside the front door. That way every night when I get home I’m the first one there to greet me.

The self adoration is so ridden with loneliness it’s heartbreaking.

Written shortly after Yukio Mishima himself had acted in the film “”Afraid to Die,” this novella is a rich and unflinching psychological portrait of a celebrity coming apart at the seams. With exquisite, vivid prose, Star begs the question: is there any escape from how we are seen by others? (back cover)

An even more important question may be, “Is there any escape for a star to care about how he is seen by others?” Because one of the most freeing things in the world is to be fully secure in oneself, secure enough that it doesn’t matter what opinions others may hold.

I found this novella very piercing, one which had me pausing every few pages to ponder the subject of stardom, weighing it against the values I hold dear. It is one of the books for which I am hosting a give-away. If you would like to enter, leave a comment with your opinion on what it means to be a star. I will announce the winner a week from Sunday, March 17, 2019.

The Man Booker International Prize 2019: a few of my predictions

 

Several members of the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury have been thinking about the books they’d like to see on the long list which will be released March 13, 2019. Each of us gave Tony three of our favorite titles so that he could determine if the jury would add a title should it be neglected from the official list.

But my predictions for the MBIP long list include these books:

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen)

Convenvenience Store Woman by Sayata Murata (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

The Last Children of Tokyo (published as The Emissary in the United States) by Yoko Tawada (translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell)

The Three Governesses by Anne Serre (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson)

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe)

The Children of The Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)

How exciting it is to wait for the official list, to see what it includes and to begin reading. Hopefully, you will see some of the above-mentioned titles.

The Man Booker International Prize is awarded annually for a single work of fiction, translated into English and published in the UK. Both novels and collections of short stories are eligible.