Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 26-31

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 7 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we’re moving along with less than two weeks now to the shortlist announcement. This week’s reviews are:

  • Jahnavi Barua‘s Rebirth (India) by Fay of Read, Ramble who thinks it has some interesting things to say about women’s lives in contemporary India but feels that it’s not fully successful as a novel
  • Amitav Ghosh‘s River of smoke (India) by Mark of Eleutherophobia. Mark liked it, with some reservations. He feels it’s a little overambitious, trying to do too much, but nonetheless calls it an “epic, intense, richly rewarding novel”.
  • Haruki Murakami‘s IQ84 (Japan) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. Lisa didn’t like it much, echoing many of the bloggers’ reviews I’ve read, including Matt who has also reviewed it for our project.
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother (Korea) by Mark of Eleutherophobia who liked it, calling it “a quaintly crafted story”.

And, of course, if you missed it, I posted my second review for the project this week: Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake. My next one will be Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 11-17

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 5 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we’re moving along with quite a bumper crop of reviews this week  …

  • Haruki Murakami‘s IQ84 (Japan) by Matt of A Novel Approach. Matt, a student of Japanese literature, has mixed feelings. He calls it unwieldy, though he also admits that he’s not a Murakami fan.
  • Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth (India) by Fay of Read, Ramble. Fay, like Matt and me, admired the writing but had reservations about the whole.
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother (or Mom, depending on your version) (Korea) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. Lisa didn’t like it as much as Stu and Matt did from our team. I guess that’s one that she won’t have to worry about choosing from!
  • Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake (Japan) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She’s not overly impressed by it, stating that this “tale of adolescent introspection dressed up as a surreal mystery looks very slight indeed”. I liked Kitchen, the first (and only) Yoshimoto book I’ve read, but that was a long time ago now. I look forward to seeing what I think about The lake which will be my next read for the project.

And, of course, if you missed it, I did finally manage my first review for the project this week: Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth.

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Alice Pung and Haruki Murakami

Regular readers here may know that I like Haruki Murakami and so will understand that I was tickled when, out of the blue, Alice Pung alludes to Murakami in her book, Her father’s daughter, that I reviewed earlier this week. It appears in her description of a prostitute who has come into her father’s Retravison store with a pimp. Pung writes:

It was summer and the girl, Diep, wore a long white smocked dress. She looked like a Murakami heroine – there was an anaemic delicacy to her face and a butterfly clip in her hair.

If you’ve read much Murakami, you will immediately have a picture of this girl, and you will think, too, that she may be a little lost, a little, shall we say, not of this world. But, hmm, maybe not. She does speak to Alice before she leaves with her pimp:

‘You have a good smile. You don’t have to sell phones, you know.’

Pung has a lovely sense of humour!

Haruki Murakami, Blind willow, sleeping woman

Murakami, Blind willow, sleeping woman

Bookcover, used by permission of the Random House Group Ltd

Granted, my fiction contains more than its share of invention, but when I’m not writing fiction I don’t go out of my way to make up meaningless stories. (from “Chance traveller”, 2005)

This is as good a way as any to commence my review of Haruki Murakami’s recent short story collection, Blind willow, sleeping woman, because it clues you in immediately to the games Murakami plays with his reader. In “Chance traveller”, we are told that the “I” “means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story” and that most of the story is “third-person narrative”. In fact, this short story, like several in the book, comprises a story-within-a-story, a story told to a narrator who is present in the story himself.

It may sound odd to say this about a short story collection but I found it a bit of a page-turner. It comprises 24 stories written between 1980 and 2005. There are a lot of similarities between the stories  – the “disconnected” tone, the frequent use of first-person narrator, the story-within-a-story technique, and the regular use of flashbacks – but Murakami’s inventions are so varied and odd that you are compelled on.

What I love about Murakami is the matter-of-fact rather detached tone he uses to tell stories that often start off being quite ordinary but usually end up taking us to the strangest places. By focussing on the ordinariness of people, by including seemingly unimportant everyday and often pedantic-sounding details, Murakami lulls us into believing in his world so that when the bizarre happens – as it often does – we accept it with barely a blink.

Those of you who know about Murakami know that he is enamoured, if that’s not too strong a word, with the West – and his stories are peppered with allusions to Western culture from Elvis to Richard Strauss, from John Ford to Balzac. His cultural knowledge is quite prodigious. It is this “westenisation” that has, historically, put him at odds with the Japanese literary establishment. He explores this amusingly but pointedly in his story “The rise and fall of Sharpie Cakes” (1981/82) which satirises the drive to conformity and tradition. The final words of this story are:

From now on I would make and eat the food that I wanted to eat. The damned Sharpie Crows could peck each other to death for all I cared.

Like Murakami’s novels, these stories tend to be about alienation and loneliness. Most of his characters have trouble connecting with others, and when they do it often doesn’t go as well as they hope. Murakami  seems to see being alone as the essential condition of life:

He found it natural to be by himself:  it was a kind of premise for living. (“Tony Takitani”, 1990).

In  “The Ice Man” (1991) the couple go to the South Pole which “turned out to be lonelier than anything I could have imagined”. “The year of spaghetti”  (1981/82) concludes with the narrator alone, cooking spaghetti and suggesting that, in exporting durum, the Italians had exported “loneliness”. And so on, from story to story. Somewhat related to this focus on loneliness is a sort of fatalism, a view that life is not to be understood but just is:

Life: I’ll never understand it. (says Tony Takitani, in “Tony Takitani”, 1990)

Life is pretty damn hard. (says a girl to the narrator in “A ‘Poor Aunt’s’ story”, 1980/81)

That’s life. (says the young man, about something pretty trivial, in “A perfect day for kangaroos”,  1981/82)

He had to be as true to his homosexuality as he was to his music. That’s music, and that’s life. (“Chance traveller”, 2005)

Get all the fun out of life while you’re still able. They’ll serve you the bill soon enough. (“Hanalei Bay”, 2005)

And alongside all this, Murakami explores the fine line between reality and unreality or illusion. His characters tend to either escape reality when they can or find it slipping away from them – or, conversely, find it intruding when they don’t want it. The young couple in “A folklore for my generation” (1989) find “reality … invisibly starting to worm its way between them”. The first-person narrator in “Man-eating cats” (1991) writes that “for a second or two my consciousness strayed on the border between reality and the unreal … I couldn’t get a purchase on the situation” and a little later says “From time to time I was sure that I could make out the cat’s eyes, sparkling between the branches. But it was just an illusion”. And in one of my favourite stories, “A ‘Poor Aunt’ story” (1980/81), the fictional aunt becomes “real”, “stuck” to the narrator’s back, and disconcerts his friends:

‘Gives me the creeps’, said one friend.
‘Don’t let her bother you. She minds her own business. She’s harmless enough.’
‘I know, I know.  But, I don’t know why, she’s depressing.’
‘So try not to look.’
‘OK, I suppose’. Then a sigh. ‘Where’d you have to go to get something like that on your back?’
‘It’s not that I went anywhere. I just kept thinking about some things. That’s all.’

Not only do I like this for its idea – the making concrete of the thing you are thinking about – but it’s a good example of Murakami’s facility with dialogue.  “A ‘Poor Aunt’ story” has to be a bit of a writer’s manifesto – about the power and the limits to that power of words (and perhaps more generally of art). In fact, the idea of art as salvation appears a couple of times in the book. Earlier in this story it is suggested that writing about something, like a poor aunt, means “offering it salvation” and in “A seventh man” (1996) there’s a sense that art may offer “some kind of salvation … some sort of recovery”.

I could write much more on this book – tease out delicious story after delicious story, and give lots of examples of his expressive imagery, such as “I was beginning to feel like a dentist’s chair – hated by noone but avoided by everyone” (“A ‘Poor Aunt’ story”). However, that might spoil the pleasure for you (if you haven’t already read it), so I will finish with Murakami’s own words from his introduction:

My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left behind. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are the guideposts to my heart, and it makes me happy as a writer to be able to share these intimate feelings with my readers.

All I can say to this is, what a fascinating heart to know…

Haruki Murakami
(Trans: Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin)
Blind willow, sleeping woman
London: Vintage Books, 2007
436pp.
ISBN: 9780099488668

Haruki Murakami, What I talk about…

Haruki Murakami (Photo by Wakarimasita, Wikipedia, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

Haruki Murakami (By Wakarimasita, Wikipedia, using Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

What a strange little book! I guess it’s not surprising that Haruki Murakami’s notion of a memoir is not quite that of the rest of us. This is not because it has any of the, shall we call it, weirdness you find in his novels, but because in its 180 pages, What I talk about when I talk about running talks quite a bit about – yes – running.

The book was written over a period covering August 2005 to October 2006, and the chapters read largely like diary entries. In the foreword he says:

Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I couldn’t agree more. No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.

So, what does this book tell us about Murakami? He is not competitive, he is not particularly comfortable socially and in fact enjoys being alone, he is tenacious, he is highly self-motivated … and he is modest. We learn all of this through his attitude to running. Early in the book he draws some parallels between his life as a runner and as a writer, but by the end of the book his focus is almost solely on running (and triathlons). He says that running marathons and writing novels are similar in that the point is not whether you win or lose, but whether “your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself”. The book describes in some detail the standards he sets for himself as a runner and how he goes about (or not as the case maybe!) achieving them.

I enjoyed the book, but I must admit that I was really hoping for more insight into why he writes the sorts of books he does. Fairly early in the book he writes of his years of owning/running a jazz bar in Tokyo. He says:

Thanks to this…I met all kinds of offbeat people and had some unusual encounters. Before I began writing, I dutifully, even enthusiastically, absorbed a variety of experiences.

Aha, I thought, we are getting to the meat of things but, in fact, he doesn’t expand on this. Regarding his writing goals, he very simply says that his “duty as a novelist” is to ensure that each work is “an improvement over the last”. Regarding writing as a profession he says you need three things: talent, focus and endurance. You need these same things for long-distance running too.

While running is clearly in his bones and he plans to run long distances for as long as he can, he does say at the end “the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels”. Oh, and his philosophy? It seems to be this:

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well.

Book coverI’m glad I read the book – Murakami seems like a decent, gentle man with some thoughtful things to say about life – but I really don’t think it gave me any real insights into his work. It really is mostly about running!

Haruki Murakami
What I talk about when I talk about running
Vintage Books, 2009