Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman (#BookReview)

Book coverConvenience store woman, which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, is Sayaka Murata’s 10th novel, but her first translated into English. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. A rather unusual book, it elicited a stimulating discussion at my reading group last week.

The convenience store woman of the title is 36-year-old Keiko Furukawa. She isn’t “normal”, and her family worries she will never fit in to society. However, when 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened Smile Mart convenience store, and quickly feels comfortable, undertaking routine daily tasks, and following the store’s rules. Eighteen years later, she’s still there. This is not seen as a valid situation for a woman of Keiko’s now mature age. Why isn’t she married? And why doesn’t she have a better job? Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems by having him move in with her.

It’s a short book, at just 176-pages in the print edition, and is told first person. Now, for those of you who remember my recent discussion of first person voices, Convenience store woman is a perfect example of an effective use of first person. The main theme is the push for conformity, the push to follow the expected narrative of a life, but our narrator, Keiko, is not, for whatever reason, able (or willing) to conform. This theme is particularly relevant to Japan, which has a reputation for conformity and group behaviour, but it’s also universally relevant, because many societies, my own included, are not good at coping with people who stray from the “norm”.

So, Keiko is different. She’s been different all her life. She knows it, and she’s mystified. She’s particularly mystified by the way people often behave which seems counter to logic, and also by the way people cheer up when they think she’s behaving “normally”. An example of the former happens in her childhood, which she tells us via flashback. There’s a schoolyard fight. The kids call for the fight to stop, so she goes to the toolshed, gets a spade and bashes one of the kids with it. Everyone is horrified,

“But everyone was saying to stop Yamazaki-kun and Aoki-kun fighting! I just thought that would be the quickest way to do it,” I explained patiently. Why on earth were they so angry? I just didn’t get it.

An example of the latter occurs after she invites Shiraha to live at her place. Everyone assumes they are in a relationship. “They were all so ecstatic”, she wondered, she says, “whether they’d lost their minds”. Listening to her friends “go on”, she says,

was like hearing them talk about a couple of total strangers. They seemed to have the story wrapped up between them. It was about characters who had the same names as we did, but who had absolutely nothing to do with me or Shiraha.

There it is – the expected story or narrative of life!

Of her convenience store colleagues, she says:

I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?

As you can see there’s a good deal of humour in this book. You can also see why this story could only be told first person. Any other voice would risk undermining Keiko’s authenticity, her reality.

So, for Keiko, it’s “convenient” having Shiraha at her place. Everyone is happy for her, and she likes that “they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business”.

However, while Keiko, for all her strangeness, is a likeable character, Shiraha is not. He has no desire to work, and takes advantage of her wish to appear “normal”, even though it satisfies his need for the same. He excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men:

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

Worse, he’s arrogant and cruel:

“I did it! I got away! Everything’s okay for the time being. There’s no way you’ll be getting pregnant, no chance of me ever penetrating a woman like you, after all.”

Actually, he only “got away” because Keiko had the idea of his moving in. Fortunately, she has no interest in sex, so his comment falls on flat ears – but we notice it.

The novel, then, hinges on the idea of normality, with the word “normal” recurring throughout the novel. Early on, Keiko realises that “the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects”. This is why, it dawns on her, her family wishes to “cure” her. She is therefore grateful for the convenience store, where she can operate as “a normal cog in society” – until her age makes it no longer “normal”. The charming Shiraha has his own take:

“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know. But if you kick me out now, they’ll judge you even more harshly, so you have no choice but to keep me around.” Shiraha gave a thin laugh. “I always did want revenge, on women who are allowed to become parasites just because they’re women. I always thought to myself that I’d be a parasite one day. That’d show them. And I’m going to be a parasite on you, Furukura, whatever it takes.”

Shiraha shows us that Murata’s understanding of deviations from the norm is nuanced, not simplistic.

Anyhow, later in the novel, after her sister asks “How can we make you normal?”, Keiko comes to recognise that her sister is happier seeing her as “normal”, albeit with “a lot of problems”,

than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality—however messy—is far more comprehensible.

In the end, Keiko does resolve her conundrum regarding how to live in a way that is true to herself. It is inspired, in fact, by the convenience store, which I think we can read as a microcosm of society. She suggests that “a convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like”. She can play a role in that.

Convenience store woman is a wonderful read. Perfect in tone and voice, and fearless in its exploration of the confining nature of “normality”, it forces us to look beyond, and imagine other lives and ways of being.

Sayaka Murata
Convenience store woman
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
London: Portobello Books, 2016 (trans. ed. 2018)
eISBN: 9781846276859

Banana Yoshimoto, The lake (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

When I saw that Banana Yoshimoto‘s novel The lake was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize I knew that it would be a high priority for me to read, because I like Japanese literature and I have read and enjoyed Yoshimoto (her novel Kitchen) before.

The first thing that struck me, however, as I started reading the book was a case of reading synchronicity. Roy’s The folded earth, the first book I reviewed for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 project, is about a young woman grieving the death of her husband. In The lake, the protagonist, Chihiro, also a young woman, has just lost her mother. And, in further synchronicity, both women meet men who impact their lives. This is not unusual, of course, but the thing is that in both books there is a sense of mystery surrounding these men. However, this is where the similarity ends: the mystery in The lake has nothing to do with the death of Chihiro’s mother. Rather, it relates to something the man has experienced, something that has clearly damaged him.

So, what is the plot? It is basically a romance. The first line of the novel is:

The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom*.

Chihiro, our first person narrator, then flashes back to tell us about her background, her somewhat unusual life with her bar-owner mother and businessman father who never married due to his family’s objections. Chihiro is around 30, but this is, really, a coming-of-age novel because she doesn’t yet feel grown-up:

I’m still a child. I still need my parents, and yet, I suddenly feel I’m walking alone.

Into this solo life comes a young medical student, a “puzzling young man”, Nakajima, who lives in the apartment opposite hers. They first communicate non-verbally across the dividing space. Gradually Chihiro feels she is falling in love with Nakajima, but she is not sure, partly because he’s odd, uneasy, something he admits to but can’t (yet) explain. However, it is through learning to accept Nakajima, to not push him but simply to care for him, that Chihiro starts to grow up. At first she wants to have fun – “I didn’t want to deal with weighty matters” – but she comes to realise that she needs him, and senses that he is “the one”. All this develops before we know what happened to Nakajima. Plotting the story through Chihiro’s description of their developing relationship puts the focus less on what happened in the past – though we certainly want to know – and more on how two young “kind of weird” people might move together to a good future.

Now, here’s the rub. Do I let on what happened to Nakajima? The blurb inside the jacket hints at what it is, so perhaps it’s ok to. However, I think I won’t. All I’ll say is that the lake – to which Nakajima takes Chirihiro half way through the novel – and the brother and sister (Mino and Chii) living there are important to the resolution. Chii is bedridden and mute but she can foretell the future and she does this through Mino. This adds a supernatural element to the story, which works well enough for me though I’m not sure what it specifically adds to the novel (except perhaps a sense of “otherness” to the atmosphere?)

The more important question to ask is why has this novel been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize? Is it more than a nicely written coming-of-age love story? Well, the mystery and its impact on Nakajima, Mino and Chii is a significant one, but that, from the way the story is told and how the plot is resolved, doesn’t seem to be the main point. It is clearly about grief, trauma and recovery, but I think this might be overlaid with the struggle in Japanese society, particularly for the current young generation, to not follow the norm blindly. Nakajima and Chihiro did not have “normal” upbringings. This means that, whether they like it or not, they symbolise nonconformity – and must, consequently, make active decisions about where to next. Freedom is not, I understand, a high value in Japanese society … but it is an issue that comes up regularly in the book. Chihiro’s parents aren’t, through family expectations, free to marry. The mystery surrounding Nakajima relates to a loss of freedom. In her work as a muralist, Chihiro’s only demand is the freedom to paint what she wants and, when that is threatened by a sponsor wanting her to incorporate an enormous logo into her mural, she intelligently but resolutely conducts a campaign to encourage him to change his mind.

Late in the novel, when talking about his experience, Nakajima says:

When you’re in a state of homogeneity, you’ve lost yourself.

Beyond loss and childhood trauma, then, it is the ongoing things like homogeneity, lack of freedom, the push to be normal that challenge Yoshimoto’s characters. But this is a quiet, lyrical book rather than a feisty one. It recognises that life involves “dull repetition of the same old thing” peppered by those “little leaps of your heart to put a splash of colour in the world”. Have I fully understood this novel? I’m not sure that I have … but I did enjoy reading it and thinking about the issues Yoshimoto seems to be exploring.

Matt of A Novel Approach and Lisa of ANZLitLovers, on our Man Asian team, have also reviewed it and are worth reading for their different takes.

Banana Yoshimoto
The lake
(trans. by Michael Emmerich)
Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011 (orig. Japanese ed. 2005)
188pp
ISBN: 9781933633770

* An American translation. We would say “mum”!

On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 3, Matsue and beyond

This will be my last post on our Japanese adventures (unless something specific inspires me to write again – always leave yourself an out is my motto) and I’m going to share a few particular experiences, so here goes.

Matsue and Lafcadio Hearn

Our prime reason for going to Matsue was to visit the Adachi Museum of Art, and its famous garden. However, Matsue is also famous for having one of Japan’s best original castles, so we visited that on the day we arrived – and then explored the castle environs. And here we found a house and museum devoted to Greek-born Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He only lived in Matsue for a short time, but he met his wife there and the town has taken him as their own. I have downloaded the eBook version of one of his best known books, Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan (1871) which was published just a little earlier than Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan.

For now though, I’ll just share two little tidbits that attracted my attention in the museum. The first is that Lafcadio Hearn was apparently the person who introduced the word “tsunami” to the rest of the world. He wrote, in 1897:

From immemorial time the shores of Japan have been swept, at regular intervals of centuries, by enormous tidal waves – tidal waves caused by earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action. These awful sudden risings of the sea are called by the Japanese “tsunami”. The last one occurred on the evening of June 17, 1896, when a wave nearly two hundred miles long struck the northeastern provinces of Miyagi, Iwaté, and Aomori, wrecking scores of towns and villages, ruining whole districts, and destroying nearly thirty thousand human lives. (from “A living god”)

The second is another quote the museum included from Hearn, this one on Japanese gardens:

Now a Japanese garden is not a flower garden, neither is it made for cultivating plants. As a rule a Japanese garden is a landscape garden. Another fact of prime importance to remember is that, in order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand – or at least to learn to understand – the beauty of stones. Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only. (From “Glimpses …”)

He’s right, though I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but stones are a significant part of Japanese gardens and you can’t help but notice and ponder them when you stroll around gardens here. At Korakuen in Okayama, an English-speaking guide told us that stones represent “prosperity” and would often be given as gifts.

Okayama and folk tales

Okayama manhole cover featuring Momotaro, the Peach Boy

Momotaro and friends on Okayama manhole covers

Japan, like many countries, is rich in folktales, and we came across several during this trip. There was one particular story, though, Momotaro, the Peach Boy, that I think is somewhat known in the west – at least, I came across it when our children were young – so it was rather meaningful to meet him in his home, Okayama. The Momotaro story involves his fighting marauding demons with the help of a dog, monkey and pheasant. The demons may, according to Wikipedia, have been from the island of Megishima – and we did visit the demon cave there some days later (but that’s a whole other story). What I want to introduce here instead is the topic of Japanese manhole covers. Each town seems to have its own design (or two) – and if you search Flickr you will find a goodly number of them. They are appealing and are just one of those little details that make Japanese travel fun. Anyhow, for Okayama the design is based on the Momotaro story.

Ogishima and John Masefield

One of the most surprising literary experiences of the trip was finding, within sight of the lighthouse on the little island of Ogishima, a beautifully polished marble stone monument engraved with the three verses of John Masefield’s famous poem “Sea fever” . I haven’t been able to find out what Masefield has to do with Ogishima, and perhaps it’s simply that it’s an applicable poem for a little sea-focused island, but with Japan’s close relationship with the sea I would have thought it had its own famous sea poems to use in such a situation. Whatever the case, this westerner rather enjoyed coming across something familiar in an unfamiliar place.

Onomichi and the Path of Literature

Engraved writings by Suiin Emi, Onomichi

Suiin Emi's stone on the Path of Literature

There is, as the Rough Guide to Japan will tell you, a long temple walk you can do in Onomichi, that takes you up and down the hillsides that line this little port town. We decided to follow the Rough guide’s advice and just do selected components of the walk, which happened to include the Path of Literature. According to an Onomichi Travel Guide the path was developed because Onomichi is known to have inspired many poets/writers because of its “beautiful scenery and quiet life style”. The walk contains 25 stones (stones, again), each inscribed with some words from a particular writer and each accompanied by an interpretative sign which includes the writer’s name in English. (Nothing else was in English, but the name’s a great help for later research.)

I have chosen the Suiin Emi stone to illustrate this post because he was born in nearby Okayama. Basho is, of course, represented … as he is also in the little fishing town of Tomo-no-ura.

An apparent incongruity

Japan is a country of contrasts, paradoxes even you could say, and so I thought I’d illustrate this with something from our second day in Japan when we visited the quiet little town of Obuse (which I mentioned in my first post for its Hokusai connection). We walked out of the station and across the rather empty little street to discover what appeared to be a restaurant (albeit closed at the time) with the following sign on its door:

We have NO relation with Yakuza.

We are still pondering that one …

On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 2, Kanazawa and Kyoto

Isabella Bird (Unbeaten tracks in Japan, 1880) doesn’t appear to have visited Kyoto or Kanazawa, which is a shame as I would have enjoyed reading her comments. However, I thought I’d quote from her anyhow, from Letter I. It covers her arrival in Yokohama harbour on May 21 which is close in time of year to now:

The day was soft and grey with a little faint blue sky, and, though the coast of Japan is much more prepossessing than most coasts, there were no startling surprises of colour or form.

She’s right. Japan is a subtle country. When I, an Australian, see a weather forecast for a fine day, I expect bright blue skies, but in fact that’s pretty rare in Japan. Even when there are blue skies they aren’t particularly bright. I am gradually getting used to it … and this softness goes, as Bird says, for colour in general here. It’s mostly muted, subtle … variations of green in the countryside, and beige and grey in the cities and towns. It’s quite a shock to see bright colours (in anything but flowers, which are of course blooming now that it’s late spring).

Anyhow, onto the subjects of this post, Kanazawa and Kyoto. By the end of this trip, our third in Japan, there will be three cities that we have visited every time: Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto. Tokyo, primarily because we pass through it; Kanazawa because we fell in love with it on our first visit; and Kyoto because who doesn’t love Kyoto?

Kanazawa

Plaque in Kenrokuen containing Basho's Haiku

Sign containing Basho’s Haiku in Kenrokuen

Haiku by Basho. In my first post I quoted a haiku by Issa, one of Japan’s four haiku masters, so this time I’ll quote one from Basho, another of the four. A major reason people visit Kanazawa is to see its famous garden, Kenrokuen. In the garden is a stone monument engraved with a Matsuo Basho haiku in 1689. I had a tricky time trying to find the actual haiku because it is, of course, written in Kanji (on the stone and the wooden sign). But after some googling I found haikugirl who has kindly agreed to my copying from her post the translation given to her. Here ’tis:

Aka aka to
Hiwa tsure naku mo
Aki no kazu

This roughly translates to “How brightly the sun shines, turning its back to the autumn wind”, which sounds pretty appropriate to me, regardless of the accuracy of the translation. So thankyou haikugirl.

Carson McCullers in Japan. It took three trips to Kanazawa for us to finally visit its impressive 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. They were running two excellent exhibitions, but I’ll just mention one, “Silent echoes”. The curator’s notes start with the following quote from Carson McCullers’s The heart is a lonely hunter:

How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. The music was her – the real plain her.

Murata Daisuke, the curator, goes on to explain that the centrepiece of the exhibition is “L’echo” by Tse Su-Mei, a Luxembourg artist whose work “resonates deeply with the world of music and human life conveyed by the above quote”. The aim of the exhibition, Daisuke writes, is to highlight “an artistic world created through a complete fusion of self, technique and the world”.

We found the exhibition appealing and accessible, and demanding engagement. It occupies 8 galleries/spaces, with each space containing only one or two works of art. This gives the viewer a wonderful opportunity to engage with the work, to contemplate its meaning for herself without being overwhelmed by surrounding works. The pieces range from three-dimensional sculptures and installations to two-dimensional pictures. One, for example, by Brazilian-born Vik Muniz, is a cibachrome print of an image of a (sky)diver he’d created using chocolate sauce. It’s two-dimensional but is tactile and free-spirited. It’s titled “Picture of Chocolate: Diver (After Siskind)”. Most of the works are monochromatic or use minimal colour, which also forces us to engage more deeply with the work I think.

But the exception to this muted colour use, and also the highlight for me, was “L’echo”. It’s a video projection showing a rear view of the artist playing a cello in a mountain landscape. She wears a red vest, while sitting on a stool on bright green grass and facing a very high dark green/blue forested mountain. She plays short simple sequences on the cello and pauses while the echo comes back. Sometimes she starts playing again before the echo finishes, so it sounds almost like a round. Sometimes the echo doesn’t quite replicate what she has just played. It’s mesmerising and beautifully evocative of the way humans and nature/landscape can engage on a level beyond reason and logic. I found it moving, and hard to leave.

Other works in the exhibition work at a similar level, and generally complement each other well, but I’ve not the time to dwell more on this now.

Kyoto

Our main reason for revisiting Kyoto this trip was to see Ginkaku-ji again and re-walk the Philosopher’s Walk because last time we’d done these it was late in the day and we had not “done” them justice. It was worth the effort. Ginkaku-ji is a lovely comparatively subdued temple with smallish but beautiful grounds which incorporate a dry landscape garden as well as “strolling garden” of paths, trees and shrubs.

In the grounds of the Honen-In, Kyoto

In the grounds of the Honen-in, Kyoto

The literary connection I want to refer to was not here though, but along the Philosopher’s Walk from which you can detour to visit a number of other temples. One of these is Honen-in and I was rather thrilled to discover that Junichiro Tanizaki is buried in the grounds here. We visited the cemetery but of course couldn’t read the tombstones. However, I rather liked knowing he was there, since this sort of literature-spotting is not such an easy thing to do in Japan (though I’m sure I could do more if I put my mind to it!). I read Tanizaki’s The Makioka sisters about 20 years ago, and found it a real eye-opener. It introduced me to a more multi-cultural Japan than I was aware of, while also conveying the challenges of maintaining traditions in a changing world. Max of Pechorin’s Journal recently wrote a post on a book by Tanizaki on reconciling tradition and modernisation in Japan. Do read his post – and the following discussion.

A little more Japlish

And just for fun, I’ll conclude with one bit of Japlish. It comes from some instructions for hotel guests:

Washing machine: 300 yen
Desiccator: 30 yen for 10 minutes.

I decided not to find out how long it would take to desiccate our clothes, and so left the washing for another day and hotel. Funnily enough, the “desiccator” itself was well labelled by the manufacturer as “dryer”. Clearly though the translator chose a dictionary over the object itself … and I’m rather glad s/he did.

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

Sawako Ariyoshi, The doctor’s wife

The doctor’s wife is the third Ariyoshi novel that I’ve read. The other two – The River Ki and The twilight years – I read well over a decade ago. According to Wikipedia The doctor’s wife is considered her best novel. All, though, are fascinating reads providing an insight into a culture which is so different from my own but in which, at the same time, people experience similar desires, pressures and emotions.

The twilight years is set in 1970s Japan and beautifully captures the cultural changes that were occurring around the time as Japan was (and still probably is) moving from  feudal/traditional parent child relationships to our more modern independent ways, with women caught in the middle. The River Ki chronicles three generations of women from the late 19th to mid 20th century, exploring changing attitudes and expectations of women. You are probably getting a picture here and you’d be right: Ariyoshi’s overriding theme concerns the role of women in Japanese society, both historically and in modern times. (Ariyoshi died in 1984.)

Hanaoka Seishu

Hanaoka Seishu (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

The doctor’s wife is an historical novel, spanning 70 years from around 1760 to 1830 and based on the life of famous Japanese doctor Hanaoka Seishu. A quick plot summary. The doctor’s wife is Kae, a young woman from a wealthy family, who is lured to become Seishu’s bride by his ambitious mother Otsugi, herself a woman married from a wealthy into a poorer family. The novel then chronicles Kae’s life in this extended family household as Seishu develops his medical skill and training until, near the end, he performs the world’s first surgery under anaesthetic (1804, breast cancer)*. While Seishu’s development as a doctor frames the novel, the real plot concerns the relationship between Kae and Otsugi.

The novel is told in third person, mostly the more objective omniscient voice, but occasionally we feel we are specifically in the heads of Kae or Otsugi. According to my edition’s introduction, Ariyoshi had access to Seishu’s personal records, diaries and books. However, being a man of his time and a doctor focused on his research, he did not, I assume, document much of his family life. The story, then, of the women is largely fictional. Mostly through dialogue, with description as needed, Ariyoshi describes how the loving supportive role Otsugi initially presented towards her daughter-in-law changes when her son (who had been married to Kae in absentia some three years before) returns home from his medical studies in Kyoto. Overnight, the relationship, to Kae’s shock and distress, changes into a competitive one – a competition that has serious consequences as they vie to be guinea pigs for his experiments in anaesthesia. Both women are presented as flawed, but as it is Kae who opens the novel and is the more powerless, it is with her that we are most keen to identify and empathise.

Why has Ariyoshi chosen to tell this story of conflict and competition within an historically based story of a great man? Does the historical “truth” add credibility to her exploration of familial power discrepancies? I’m not sure it’s necessary, but perhaps it helps … It is a very human tale – the grand gestures made by the women to support his research are small in the scheme of things though the impact on them, particularly on Kae, is immense. Ariyoshi realistically explores the nuances of their relationship through the normal day-to-day patterns of life (weaving, cooking, house management, childbirth) suggesting that this sort of conflict doesn’t have to be but that it often (traditionally, even) is. In fact, we readers are lulled into seeing it as the norm – the lot of women – until we are shocked out of that frame of mind near the end by Seishu’s unmarried sister who says (in broken speech because she is ill):

I think this sort of tension among females . . . is . . . to the advantage . . . of . . . every male.

She continues to explain her particular perspective on women’s secondary lot, and pronounces that:

as long as there are men and women side by side on this earth, I wouldn’t want to be reborn a woman into such a world.

Clearly, given the story Ariyoshi has told, she rather agrees  – or, at least, agrees for such societies as she depicts here in which women’s lot is not only an inferior one but which work to discourage them from cooperating and supporting each other. The novel may be set in Japan, but the fundamental truths, unfortunately, are not so confined.

What I have described here is the main story, but there’s more here that can be discussed, including the development (or history) of medicine in the east and west, the experimentation on animals and humans, and Japanese social life and customs in the Tokugawa period.

It’s a short but engrossing read. It falters a little I think right at the end when the historical facts are presented so prosaically that they threaten to overwhelm its novelistic achievements, but the last line fuses the two so beautifully that you forgive this.  The doctor’s wife is a fascinating and keenly observed novel that deserves to be read.

*Ironically, in 1811, novelist Fanny Burney underwent a horrific mastectomy without anaesthesia because it was unknown in the west!

Sawako Ariyoshi
The doctor’s wife
(trans. by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Silla Kostant)
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1966 (orig ed), 1978 (trans)
174pp.
ISBN: 0870114654

My first book for Christmas

I know that Christmas is still over a week away but last night I received my first book of the season…and that, I think, is a litblog-worthy event!

Actually, I tell a bit of a lie, because last week I was sent, by a very kind internet bookgroup friend who knows my likes, the British Library Jane Austen appointment diary for 2010. It is gorgeous, containing Regency era images, silhouette images, and quotes from Jane Austen (from her books and letters). Being an appointment diary it notes standard public holiday dates, but being a Jane Austen appointment diary it also records dates important to Austen’s life – such as the poignant (possibly!):

January 15: I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy (from letter to Cassandra)

It is a lovely diary and I shall treasure it way past its expiry date (that is, past December 31, 2010).

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

And now to the book I received last night. It is Birthday stories, an anthology of thirteen short stories “selected and introduced by Haruki Murakami“. (The givers knew that I like Murakami.) The book was originally published in Japanese, Murakami having both selected and translated the stories from English, but was later published in English with “a specially written introduction”. The stories all deal with birthdays and are by such luminaries as Raymond CarverDavid Foster WallacePaul Theroux, and William Trevor – as well as by Murakami himself. Each story has a brief – and delightfully personal – introduction by Murakami.

In his introduction to the anthology, Murakami writes that his inspiration for compiling the anthology:

was my consecutive reading of two outstanding stories that happened to be based on the theme of birthday: “Timothy’s birthday” by William Trevor and “The Moor” by Russell Banks. … Both stories left me feeling haunted.

I imagine that there will be various interpretations of “birthday” from the day of one’s birth to those days in which we celebrate our own or the births of others. I rather like themed collections of short stories, and so am looking forward to reading this book – perhaps by dipping into it over time rather than reading it all at once, so you’ll probably hear about it as I go.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking that if these are the sorts of gifts arriving before Christmas, some wonderful delights must be in store for me when the day itself arrives! After all, you can never receive too many books for Christmas – can you?

Haruki Murakami (ed)
Birthday stories
London: Vintage Books, 2004
206pp.
ISBN: 0099481553

Haruki Murakami, What I talk about…

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

Haruki Murakami (Photo by Wakarimasita, Wikipedia, under 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 it 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.

I’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!

Murakami on The Great Gatsby

F Scott Fitzgerald, 1937, by Carl van Vechten (believed public domain)

F Scott Fitzgerald, 1937, by Carl van Vechten (believed public domain)

I have nearly finished Haruki Murakami’s slim memoir, What I talk about when I talk about running, but thought this little tidbit deserved its own post. As well as writing his works in Japanese which others translate for him, he also translates English language works into Japanese. Interesting eh? Anyhow, while he was writing this memoir, he was also translating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This is what he says:

Gatsby really is an outstanding novel. I never get tired of it, no matter how many times I read it. It’s the kind of literature that nourishes you as you read, and every time I do I’m struck by something new, and experience a fresh reaction to it. I find it amazing how such a young writer, only twenty-nine at the time, could grasp – so insightfully, so equitably, and so warmly – the realities of life. How is this possible? The more I think about it, and the more I read the novel, the more mysterious it all is.

Well, that’s it. I really do have to read The Great Gatsby again. I felt it when I read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, I feel it when I see it appear in those top 10 (100, or whatever) lists, and I feel it again now. Murakami, with lovely modesty, has pinpointed that thing which defines great literature – the ability to read a work again and again and find “something new”, or “experience a fresh reaction”. That’s what I get from writers like Jane Austen. It’s not what I get from, say, Toni Jordan (as enjoyable as her novel  Addition was).

Gatsby, here I come – sometime soon I hope!

On growing old

Photo by Chalmers Butterfield (via Wikipedia)

Photo by Chalmers Butterfield (via Wikipedia)

I am currently reading Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running. I will write more on it when I’ve finished it, but today I came across this statement which rather caught my attention:

…one of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honour of physical decline is waiting, and you have to get used to that reality.

“The blessed right to grow old!” I like that. It is how I am going to think of myself from now on…