Confessions by Kanae Minato

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“It’s not just that your bodies are growing and changing. I know what you’ve been up to.”

From the very beginning we are presented with tension between children and their teacher. From the very beginning we know why she is talking to her class about this year being her last.

“So why am I resigning? Because Manami’s death wasn’t an accident. She was murdered by some of the students in this very class.”

The teacher’s daughter, Manami, has been found floating in a swimming pool, and after a brief explanation she tells us at whose hands her daughter has died. And then, before dismissing the class, she reveals a terrible act of revenge on her part toward the two students who killed her child.

Through each subsequent chapter, confessions are revealed through the eyes of a classmate,  one of the murderer’s mothers, and even the murderers themselves.

The confessions are shocking and appalling, but the whole tone of the book is one of quiet resignation. It is almost as though each tragic event is a matter of fate, and must simply be lived out. It is, as my father has often said, like watching a slow motion horror film.

For perhaps worse than the confessions are the hearts of each character, for what they are willing to do instead of forgive. Or, even love.

JLC11I read this fascinating novel after reading the review on su[shu], and now I’m glad to know of another excellent Japanese writer for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Kanae Minato is a former home economics teacher and housewife who wrote Confessions, her first novel, between household chores. The book has sold more than three million copies in Japan, where it won several literary awards, including the Radio Drama Award, the Detective Novel Prize for New Writers, and The National Booksellers’ Award, and was adapted into an Oscar short-listed film directed by Tesuya Nakashima. (from back cover)

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (“I Had Allowed Too Many Things to Distract Me From My Central Priorities…”)

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It’s been very tiring and even now, here in this city, there’s so much pressure on me. The people here. Obviously they’re expecting a lot of me. I mean, it’s obvious…”

But, it isn’t obvious at all. At first. Ryder has come to an unnamed European city and is welcomed to the hotel by no one. They had all given up waiting for him, as he is so late, and he doesn’t even remember viewing the schedule for the series of events in which he will be expected to appear. It seems he is a pianist of some reknown, and that he will give a much anticipated performance. However, there is a great deal he needs to sort out first.

Everyone is asking something of him. The porter, Gustav, wishes him to meet with his estranged daughter, Sophie, to see what is wrong, but when Ryder goes to the cafe where she will be it is evident they know each other already. They even have no small degree of anger and frustration between themselves. How can this be? We realize that this is a dream (with many qualities of a nightmare), or an alternate reality, or at the very least some degree of amnesia on Ryder’s part. This mystical quality is exactly what I love most about Japanese literature.

I read on with trepidation, feeling the same sensations I do when I experience an unresolved dream sequence of my own. Do you recall a terrible struggle to get some place to which you can never arrive, or do something that you somehow can no longer do? I think of trying to run when my feet feel mired in clay. I think of dreams I’ve had appearing in my classroom for the first day, woefully ill prepared, or worse, undressed.

Each page holds some element like that. One small example is this: Ryder follows a little red car to lead him to the Karwinsky Gallery, but stops en route at his wife’s urging at a pastry shop where his son enjoys the doughnuts. There is a sense of urgency about him arriving at the reception in the gallery, he is already late, and yet here they are looking at delicacies through the glass case. When he arrives st the gallery he sees the ruins of his family’s car, from when he was a child, and he climbs in remembering the times he played in it.

Gradually, we learn of more and more distress in his life, from his unhappy marriage to his mother’s emotional instability, and we wonder how any of this will be resolved. Perhaps, the very journey through these pages is a working out of his life. Yet, Ryder’s life is not the only one full of unconsolations. Gustav, the porter with an indomitable will, weakens and lies inert backstage on a cot; Brodsky, the conductor, must face his alcoholism and longings for his ex-wife, Miss Collins; Miss Collins, a psychologist, loves Brodsky but is reluctant to become entangled in his issues yet again; Ryder and Sophie seem unable to arrive at a peaceful relationship for long, much to the distress of themselves and their son, Boris.

This is a beautiful novel, elegantly told, which speaks to the complications and heartache in life of which I am so fond of reading. It is my first book for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11, and one I highly recommend.

Japanese Literature Challenge 11: Welcome!

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I can’t help but think of Japanese literature especially in the month of June, for that is when summer begins, and that is when I have always hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge. Mel U and I have been chatting on Twitter this morning, deciding that our stack of Japanese books calls our attention. I am looking forward to seeing what he has planned. (Here is a list of suggested titles from the Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Here is a post from Mel’s blog, The Reading Life, on getting started.)

I have received some lovely books as gifts, and for review, which are as follows:

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Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko narrated and translated by a David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi

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The Gate by Natsume Soseki

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Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

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Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami

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The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

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The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

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The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi (because my classes have loved them and I bought an autographed set when the author came to visit)

And, Europa Editions has just published The Nakano Gift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami this June:

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So, I hope you will join us again this year, or perhaps for the first time. The challenge runs from June through January, “requiring” only one work (or more, if you choose) which has been originally written in Japanese. I have placed a challenge button on the bottom of my blog under which I will list the participants, as well as the titles and links to reviews you have read. I will also post updates every month highlighting the books we read. Please be sure to let me know in a comment below if you would like to participate, and/or when you have a book reviewed.

I’m looking forward to this time together!

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

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This book tells a story within a story within a story. There is, at the core of it, the relationship between Taro Azuma and Yoko, his childhood friend. These two are where the resemblance to Wuthering Heights is strongest, for they are obsessed with each other although Taro is an unwanted ruffian, and Yuko comes from an affluent family.

Her family is served faithfully by Fumiko, a character through whose point of view much of the story is told. After all, she was there when the children were small; she was there when they grew into their complicated adult lives. But, she does not tell everything, leaving certain parts of the narrative out until the very end, which were only revealed by Yuko’s aunt in the final few pages.

It was a novel I wanted to enjoy, and certainly there were parts which I did. But, I found much of it tedious and overwrought; I was unable to care about the characters who seemed increasingly dramatic and immature. I could not find  much emotional involvement of my own within its pages, not like that I have for Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, or even Jane Eyre.

This novel may by considered a Japanese rendering of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and indeed it resembles that classic. But the way A True Novel calls to mind the indelible relationships we form in our youth, or the pain we may have experienced in waiting for someone to perfectly love us, is a theme that involves many romantic novels, most of which I found more compelling than this one.

Find more reviews at Vishy’s Blog, A Bookish Way of Life, Tony’s Reading List, and Mirabile Dictu.

December Is…

img_3516I saw a post entitled “How to Survive Christmas”, and I thought it was the saddest title I’ve seen in a long time. Survive Christmas? What happened to celebrate Christmas? But, it is no wonder that if we are not careful we are reduced to a survival mode rather than a celebratory one.

The political climate has not enriched our sense of peace or hope. The inundation of advertisements do not contribute to satisfaction with what we have or what we’ll give. The pressure “to do” is perhaps greater now than it is at any other time of the year. If we are not careful, joy will escape us.

I thought of my goals for this season, goals which you may find helpful as well:

  1. Simplify. I wanted to put up one balsam fir, with white fairy lights, and the crèche my parents made for me when I was eight, and that’s all. We have a bit more than that in our home, including two little, felted snow girls with a reindeer, and a small collection of snowmen on the mantle. But simple is my favorite.
  2. Reduce my expectations. This used to be an enormous load for me to bear; my expectations for myself far exceeded what I was able to accomplish, let alone those I held for anyone else. Ridiculous. Instead of expect, I am now better able to accept, and it makes me so much happier.
  3. Focus on what matters. We might have different things upon which to focus. But, if those few things become the center, I will be less inclined to turn my attention to every other trivial thing demanding that I acquiesce. I will focus on Christ (advent, the church, the crèche), and I will focus on my family.

The End.

Except, not really.

img_3515Because I didn’t write anything about books, and that, after all, is why I’m here. This December I will be reading A True Novel by Minae Mizumura for the Japanese Literature Challenge 10 and for my own pleasure. Vishy and Nadia will be joining me I believe, and perhaps a few others. All are welcome, of course. Here is the blurb from the publishers:

A True Novel begins in New York in the 1960s, where we meet Taro, a relentlessly ambitious Japanese immigrant trying to make his fortune. Flashbacks and multilayered stories reveal his life: an impoverished upbringing as an orphan, his eventual rise to wealth and success—despite racial and class prejudice—and an obsession with a girl from an affluent family that has haunted him all his life. A True Novel then widens into an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class.

The winner of Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Literature Prize, Mizumura has written a beautiful novel, with love at its core, that reveals, above all, the power of storytelling.

Storytelling. Love. Christmas. All the things I want December to be.

 

Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

“Death is going to find us all, no matter what, we still have to take active responsibility for what remains of our lives.”

This quote found early on in Death by Water is what I’m taking away from a novel with many themes. Kenzaburo Oe has written about parenting, aging, writing, and the future event we all will face, weaving them together in a novel which centers on a 74 year old author’s point of view.

Why the red leather suitcase in the photo above? Because it emerges again and again throughout the novel, though more acurately as a red leather trunk which Kogito’s mother bought at an antique store. It housed important papers and books and correspondence which Kogito’s father had taken with him the night he took a boat into the raging river and drowned.

But once Kogito is finally able to open it, he finds nothing of value to help him write “the drowning-novel”, the book he supposes will be his last. The book that he hopes will help answer the many questions he has about his father’s death. Why did he set out in his boat on such a perilous night? Was Kogito really with him, or did he dream the sequence of events while watching on the riverbank?

“I was looking for a way to express what a momentous occurrence my father’s drowning was for our family, but in a fit of cowardice I wrote the whole scene as if it were the recollection of a dream.”

The title of the novel, indeed its overarching theme, comes from these lines of poetry written by T. S. Eliot:

DEATH BY WATER

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.”

~T. S. Eliot

But the lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem is echoed in the first two lines of a poem that Kogito’s mother wrote, and the last three written by Kogito in response:

“You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest
And like the river current, you won’t return home
In Tokyo during the dry season
I’m remembering everything backward
From old age to earliest childhood.”

The name Kogii has many meanings. It refers to Kogito’s nickname, but also to an imaginary friend, a supernatural alter-ego if you will. Kogito has come to figure out that his mother used the name to reference his mentally disabled son, Akari, as well.

The phrase “to go up into the forest” is a Japanese euphemism for death, and it seems that she is chiding her son, Kogito, for not taking care of his son, Akari. For indeed, their relationship is a troubled one.

Akari has a mental disability, but a great passion for music. He listens to classical CDs which make up the environment of their home, and is able to read the scores of music to compare sonatas between Beethoven and Hayden. But when he uses a pen to mark up a particularly special sheet of music, instead of the soft lead pencil his father has given him, his father says, “You’re an idiot!” It causes what seems to be irreparable damage between them.

When I wondered why his father did not apologize, it occurred to me that perhaps he couldn’t. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about accusing his son of what he saw as truth, no matter how hurtful it might have been. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about expressing his frustration at living with a son who in many ways is still a child.

I have read of Oe describing a father’s frustration over having a handicapped child before, in his novel A Personal Matter. It seems that the themes he uses are from his own experience, that his novels resonate with truths which he has experienced.

Near the end of the novel, a theater critic interviews Kogito in his study, and makes these observations while discussing his previously published books:

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but the author’s alter ego is nearly always the main character in his books. At some point doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered general novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over people who want to read a novel that’s actually novelistic: that is, an imaginative work of fiction. So at the risk of seeming rude, I really have to ask: Why do you choose to write about such a solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world?

and the answer:

“I’ve often asked myself how I ended up following such a constricted path in my fiction, but I always seem to come back to the sobering realization that if I hadn’t used the quasi-autobiographical approach I wouldn’t have been able to write anything at all. In other words, I’ve had to maintain this narrow focus out of sheer necessity.”

We close with another line from T. S. Eliot’s poetry, a favorite of Kogito’s and therefore perhaps Oe’s as well:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

These words, uttered by Kogito, have made his friend Unaiko cry. Why? “She said it made her realize that even for an older author who has had a great deal of success, the struggle never ends; on the contrary, it goes on forever, until you die.”

As it does for all of us.

Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
424 pages

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura (Japanese Literature Challenge 9)

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I wanted to experience every aspect of the gun thoroughly, and to abandon the firing of it that now loomed before me would mean there would be nothing left to do but to relinquish the fun. That was an impossible option, one that I couldn’t even fathom. Losing the gun would turn me into an empty shell of myself, and the prospect of carrying around that lifeless husk for the remaining years of my life seemed like an endless torture. I had often heard it said that humans lived to achieve what they chose to do, and I believed that.

The Gun tells what it is like to find a gun and become obsessed with it. When Nishikawa is wandering around late at night, he comes across the body of a fallen man beside whom is a gun. The young man picks up the gun and, as suddenly as that, is entranced. Through the subsequent pages of the novel, the gun becomes more than an acquired object for him; it is as though it has taken the place of a loved one.

Nishikawa buys special white cloth onto which he can lay the gun to show off its beautiful lustre; he polishes it and carresses it almost as if he would a woman.

It is fascinating to see the passion with which the gun takes hold of his life. As he fondles it, and daydreams about it, even in the company of his friends and lovers, the inevitable step for him to take next is to use it.

The reversible jacket, the leather gloves, the small flashlight, the gun – these four items constantly reminded me of the fact that I was a criminal. Sometimes I liked the way this made me feel, sometimes I didn’t. Yet these shifts in mood, this ambivalent consciousness that could be swayed by whatever vague reasons did not matter much to me. This was a simple process that I needed to follow, and what was important was whether I would succeed.

It is almost as though the gun has control of him rather than the other way around. Can it be that a gun holds the shooter “hostage”? At what point does the gunman lose his conscience: when he first picks up the gun, or before?

For a person who considers herself quite a pacifist, I was mesmerized by this novel. It created a plot which pushed relentlessly forward, while at the same time depicting psychological dilemmas for the central character which have no simple resolution. Just the kind of thing that makes me love Japanese literature so much.

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

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“…I was taken in by Miss Naomi, but the truth is, it was my own foolishness.”

I couldn’t help but think of Contempt by Alberto Moravia as I was reading Naomi. Although the first is written by an Italian author, and the later is Japanese, both novels address marriage and the disaster it can become.

When Joji meets Naomi at the Diamond Cafe she is a teenager whom he sees as “ingenuous and naive, shy and melancholy…” He determines to make an educated woman out of her, a women who is knowledgeable in music and English, a woman who is refined and genteel. He pays for lessons, and her extensive wardrobe, and everything she desires even though he quickly runs through the savings account he has been so diligent about building. What he doesn’t expect is that she will become a rough, extravagant, insolent woman who takes advantage of him at every turn.

Their marriage quickly dissolves into shambles. At first he is unaware of her deceptions, the way that she carries on with other young men behind his back. But even when it all comes to light, he is unable to let her go. In fact, he completely debases himself so that she will continue to live with him; there is nothing he won’t do for her presence in his life.

It his hard to understand such sacrifice. Joji himself admits his foolishness, his powerlessness in the face of his obsession. And so we are left wondering about the influence of our emotions, thinking about the effect they can have in a relationship when one has forsaken himself for the object of his obsession.

 

Find TJ’s review at My Book Strings, Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink, and My Carved Words‘ review.

 

I’ve Been Missing Japanese Literature So Much of Late…Coming Soon: Japanese Literature Challenge 9

As June approaches, so my thoughts turn to Japanese literature. For that is when I typically begin the Japanese Literature Challenge which runs through January. I wondered how I would make it fresh this year, but my friend Parrish Lantern felt that it needs no added incentive; reading Japanese Literature is its own reward. For those of us who love it, that is surely so.

But, I’ve been reading Jacqui‘s, and MarinaSofia‘s, posts concerning their #TBR20 (stack of twenty books waiting to be read), and I realized I’d like to do the same with my own stack of Japanese literature. It has accumulated to double stacked shelves, since the first Japanese Literature Challenge begun in 2006, and now I plan to read these books for the ninth Japanese Literature Challenge this year:

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I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying For Awhile by Taichi Yamada (purchased because I loved Strangers so much);

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Evil and The Mask and Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura (because I loved The Thief so much);

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The Tattoo Murder Case and Honeymoon to NoWhere (because I’ve not read anything by Akimitsu Takagi before);

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Asleep and The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (because a dear friend bought me Asleep when she heard how much I enjoyed Kitchen, and I was sent a first edition of The Lake years ago);

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South of the Border, West of The Sun, After the Quake,and Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (because those are the only three books left that I haven’t read of all he’s written);

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Spring Snow and Runaway Horses by Yukio Mashima (because they are books 1 and 2 of his Sea of Fertility series);

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The Decay of the Angel and The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima (because they are books 3 and 4 of the Sea of Fertility series);

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Nocturnes and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as:

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A Pale View of Hills and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (because the only book I’ve read by him is The Remains of The Day)

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Naomi and Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki (because I’ve not yet read anything by him, and the Tanizaki Prize is one of the most sought-after writing awards in Japan).

~o0o~

Soon the Japanese Literature Challenge 9 will begin. The review site is here, where those who wish to participate can leave links to their reviews. As a reminder, the challenge runs from June, 2015 until January, 2016, and all you “have” to do is read at least one work of Japanese Literature.

The review site has a page called Suggested Reading in case you’re looking for further titles. However, if anyone wishes to read any of the books I have listed above, I would love to have a shared read together. Just let me know.

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I hope you are as eager to begin as I, and remember these famous words from Haruki Murakami: “Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

We will hold ourselves wide open to possibility.

The Sound of The Mountain

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Do mountains make a sound? I’m a Midwestern girl, and I know more about plains than I do about mountains. But when I consider Shingo telling us his story, I can see the allusion to the mountain he fancies he hears making a deep, low rumble.

A mountain is implacable. It doesn’t move, unless bits of it crumble away, or it combusts from within as a volcano. And Shingo seems very passive to me.

His daughter-in-law, Kikuko, who lives with him and his wife, is passive, too. She waits quietly for her husband to come home at night, drunken, and leaving his mistress behind. She serves her father-in-law with apparently effortless kindness. She watches her sister-in-law’s children with care and grace. It is no wonder that Shingo seems more attached to her than to anyone else in his home.

His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. p. 37

Kikuko, although a daughter-in-law, seems irresistibly attractive to Shingo. It could be because she is beautiful, or kind, or abandoned emotionally by her husband. But she serves her father-in-law tea every morning, and brings him gifts from her childhood home, and in every way ingratiates herself to him. Maybe she is relieved to find affection of any kind, since her husband is so caught up with his mistress.

This is a quiet sort of book, deceptively simple. It bears heavy themes, however, about a family whose members are ashamed of one another, themes of longing, disloyalty, and subsequent embarrassment.

When Shingo’s son makes his wife pregnant, she has an abortion because she cannot seem to bear being pregnant while her husband has another woman. When his mistress also becomes pregnant, and intends to keep the illegitimate child, Shingo is horrified, and angry for the way his son has treated Kikuko.

But what can he do? He is 62 years old, an old man in his own eyes, who is past the capability of having a young lover of his own, past the capability of easily remembering things, and wholly incapable of changing his life or anyone else’s life in his family. Happiness is elusive to him. Happiness seems to elude them all.

In a way I have come to expect from Japanese novels, there is no resolution at the last page. We come into his life in the middle of his 60’s, we leave many years later, not seeing anything change in Shingo’s family. We are left with the impression that life will carry on as it always has for them: troubled, ineffective, ungrounded.

I think the most distressing quote I came upon was one little line on the bottom of page 235. “He had contributed to no one’s happiness.” That’s all. If I was reading quickly, I may have missed it. But I think that’s the point of the whole novel, and for me that is the worst thing that can be said when looking back over one’s life.

I read this book for Tony’s January in Japan, as well as my own deplorably neglected Japanese Literature Challenge 8. Find other reviews here, here, and one from several years ago, here.