Much human - and some non-human - weirdness is here in these cyberpunk sex stories. Almost everything apart from your conventional vanilla slightly-doMuch human - and some non-human - weirdness is here in these cyberpunk sex stories. Almost everything apart from your conventional vanilla slightly-dom male/ slightly-sub female pairing. Instead: the femme assassin contracted to hunt down her secret butch lover; female gangsters kidnap the male star of the current fifteen minutes; the drug-addicted hooker who's also half-cat; the sex-cult priestess who never has sex herself; corrupt immigration officials having a threesome with a beautiful hermaphrodite; tentacle porn; semi-cyborgs who sell their experiences to plugged in paying customers... You get the idea. Maybe. (And then there's an utterly extraordinary story about abusive relationships: this book is more than just erotica.)
Midori is better known under that oddly American term, as an "educator" in kink matters - an author of factual books and giver of talks and workshops. In Master Han's Daughter it's evident that she can also write pretty reasonable fiction.
Firstly, she can often make scenes hot despite violence and weirdness. (So if you're actually really into that stuff, then you'd probably love this book even more). And that hotness makes it utterly evident how and why many of the characters use sex as escapism from their brutal lives.
She creates a complex world in which characters from one story may appear in the background in others - and we get an idea of government, international politics, religion and the lifestyles of rich and poor.
She understands something that few curent erotica writers have grasped: stories don't always have to have happy endings and a trajectory of emotional "realness" can make them more appealing.
The story Love - which in the notes Midori states was inspired by a friend who fell into "an unhealthy relationship of profound codependency" - is a mindblowing (and stomach-churning) short fable applicable to anything from being too into someone who is a little bit of a bad influence, to full-on domestic violence. It's some of the best, and least cliched, fiction I've ever read on the subject and I would easily give it six stars.
Not in that story, but in some, and in the general features of this world, there are various cyberpunk cliches. In the opener where a male character - worrying about his marginal life and his next fix - takes a break to get off with an internet neural plugin to a Japanese porn star in a schoolgirl outfit, it was difficult not to imagine Neuromancer starring Momus. (Midori has the courtesy to state that the porn star is 21, to alleviate possible legal dubiousness for readers in some countries.)
A newsfeed comment got me started reading about self-destructive Japanese writer Osamu Dazai. Not sure I wanted to start his longer, darker books, I lA newsfeed comment got me started reading about self-destructive Japanese writer Osamu Dazai. Not sure I wanted to start his longer, darker books, I looked at available short stories, and this one appealed to me most. (It turned out the Kindle version, though labelled as English, was actually in Japanese, so I returned it and after some scrabbling about online, read the story on Questia in Modern Japanese Literature: From 1868 to the Present Day.)
Dazai is here effectively narrating from the viewpoint of his own wife. (His Mary-Sue, Mr Otani, has just published a story named Francois Villon, after the late medieval Frenchman described by Paul Verlaine as the first poète maudit.) The cover of this French edition is a little unrepresentative to show her crying. Whilst she does shed tears at one point, much of the narrative is fairly unemotional as Mrs Otani sets out to try and find out a way of paying off her alcoholic husband's debts and then finding some more focus through her new work - even if it is in a bar he sometimes frequents. I can imagine some saying this means he's unempathic with her situation, though I found the approach quite right as a portrayal of one of the types of people who is accepting of such a partner. ... " Then he disappears and doesn't return for three or four nights..." This sort of thing reminded me of when I was younger and quite often involved with such people: their particular "randomness" itself became reliable after a while; I usually benefited from the space and wanted inspiration rather than someone constantly there being eloquently opinionated, implying - without ever meaning it, I was just terribly sensitive in certain ways, they thought I was interesting to debate with - that I should do anything differently or think differently about the few things we disagreed on; someone I semi-worshipped who would manifest with hits of intermittent variable reward. (Although the men I was involved with, unlike her Mr Otani, never ever wanted money from me and were adept at living on very little.)
The standard "inspirational" narrative would see her moving steadily further away from him, but that gigantic (non)literary cliche is not here. Also I cannot quite decide whether the treatment (or rather mention) of a rape by an acquaintance could be better or if it is more that writing about such things is expected to contain certain formulae. And that there is an idea somewhere that even if someone tends to react to trauma in a very delayed way (and what's more comes from a notably stoic culture) they ought still to be describing an "aftermath" in particular terms to specifically convey that. I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, given one article which mentions some sort of complex trauma experienced by Dazai himself + my unfamiliarity with the culture + my readiness to questioning standardised correct portrayals of difficult issues especially when there is evidently more than ignorance at work.
I have really read so little Japanese literature that I don't really know what translations should feel like. This one was a good enough story though and it did give a sense of a subtly different cultural response to some themes which are not uncommon in European writing.
[4.5] A couple of people on my Goodreads friendslist who have very good taste love this little book, and Dazai generally. I'm not so enthusiastic (he[4.5] A couple of people on my Goodreads friendslist who have very good taste love this little book, and Dazai generally. I'm not so enthusiastic (he usually seems to be the wrong kind of depressing for me) but reading this was an interesting experience.
I wanted to work through some of the unread books on my Kindle before they got out of hand. This one was short but could be difficult and today felt like a day I'd be prepared for it. The first few lines, I remembered, had a joyful, thoughtful playfulness that brought to mind the adorable anime film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. But then it started going all antsy like Kevin The Teenager with brains. Bit of a lazy comparison, but anyway. This is a strikingly modern day inside the thoughts of a slightly depressed teenage girl. In its unflinching acuity it reads like something from the late 1950's to ... any time before teenagers started to totally live on the web, but it was actually written in the 30's. There are a few references which place it in pre-war Japan but the psychological modernity is what really hits.
The narrative scratched at my mind in ways that I didn't like, bringing up things it hadn't occurred to me to be bothered about for years and years, making me feel like I could start disliking myself and others more, being snappy, and to counter this I was mentally pushing the words away from myself. The nameless narrator is very bright and for her age fairly self-aware, but also preoccupied with the minutiae of judging and being judged, and sometimes unapologetically ungenerous. She shares my feeling that some traits that most irritate me in others are ones I have myself, but I just looked forward to getting out of the recursion loop of being faced with this and finding something daft to laugh at.
After a short while I decided it might help to read it whilst sitting and breathing as if meditating. I'm not sure if it was this or the progress of the story or both (for the second half has some moments of tranquility which are rather lovely) but I started to feel very peaceful and content through the awareness of all this irkedness. Like a psychological equivalent of those products which are supposed to "draw out" spots in order to get rid of them - if they actually worked. I even didn't mind the sound of drilling from next door quite so much.
Most readers probably won't have quite such a voyage with this little story, but if you like intense inner first-person narratives it's a very interesting piece.
(Incidentally, one of the books the narrator reads is Belle de Jour. I had no idea it was a book first. Several times a week over the past couple of months on Goodreads I've been running into posts about books which I'd thought were only ever films, despite having watched some of them or read numerous reviews about them. Original films must be considerably rarer than some suppose.)...more
This is an exquisite little cultural history of Japan centred around the tea ceremony and a philosophy of "teaism" which includes elements of Zen andThis is an exquisite little cultural history of Japan centred around the tea ceremony and a philosophy of "teaism" which includes elements of Zen and Taoism.
It's also a work of art and design philosophy which especially falls into place on realising it was written in the wake of the Western aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century. (The Book of Tea was first published in 1906.) The Japanese perspective described here seems to unite, or else trace a middle way between, the opposition of "artificial" and "natural": nature is here preferred and described as such, but it is a vision of nature honed by human intervention: coloured autumn leaves scattered on a swept path; a single perfect flower in a vase.
This was written at a time when the West still knew little about Japanese culture but the author (a Japanese scholar who emigrated to Boston and wrote in English) points out that one aspect had taken hold: a less formal adaptation of the tea ceremony. I had almost forgotten the idea, but the preparation and role of tea does retain a ritualistic aspect even in mundane contexts. Unless perhaps it's from, as Douglas Adams described, "a machine which provide[s] a plastic cup filled with a liquid... almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea" - and even then, there is some (im)patient waiting to be done.
I've ended up with a Project Gutenberg version of the book via a cheap Kindle purchase. This lovely little work deserves better, although academic editions - with the introduction and notes from which it must benefit - don't seem to be easy to find here. Now, one with the background material and illustrations would be just gorgeous....more
A Tale for the Time Being currently has almost twice as many Goodreads ratings as any of the other Booker longlisted books. At an average of 4.04 starA Tale for the Time Being currently has almost twice as many Goodreads ratings as any of the other Booker longlisted books. At an average of 4.04 stars from 3200 users, people obviously like it. It has four pages of adulation from the papers at the beginning and seems to have been turning into a word-of-mouth success. But I'd barely noticed it before, just the title, and I don't think I'd even read the synopsis.
I really clicked with much of it, which surprised me. The surprise of liking it wasn't because of what it was about - there was a reason I read it first and not only because it's already available quite cheaply in paperback. It's that for a long time I've assumed by default (based on the evidence of reading only a small proportion) that I won't much like Booker books, and certainly won't connect with them. That may be true of several winners I abandoned when I was younger, and Salman Rushdie in general, but several favourites of mine have been on shortlists (including Darkmans, A Month in the Country, and A David Lodge Trilogy). If this year's prize is true to form, then A Tale for the Time Being will be shortlisted but won't win.
It's a very clever book: it was a compulsively easy read (though part III of IV was quite dark even by my curious standards) yet there are many layers. It's one of the most effortless and involving pieces of metafiction I can remember reading: I felt completely immersed in the story and unusually, had to keep reminding myself to look at it more closely. Usually this type of novel makes me hyper aware that I am reading a book about someone writing a book. This one is more about someone - who's also an author - reading a book, a diary, and the mechanics of construction are hidden and obliquely commented on.
(Writing, this is already feeling like one of those unenjoyable wading-through-mud posts which serves only to record thoughts. Thoughts which seem to grow in volume when put into words, like a boring toy which expands in water but doesn't do anything else.)
Ruth, a character based closely on the author, finds a package on the beach near her rural Canadian home. It contains a diary written by Nao, a sixteen year old Japanese girl. Chapters alternate between Ruth's life as she reads, and Nao's writing. Some of Ruth's reactions to the diary mirror (my idea of) the conventional mainstream reader's: a preoccupation with how realistic things are (she keeps trying to Google Nao and her relatives), and a sort of mother-hen smothery concern and judgementalism about an unusual or unhappy "character". It's a very cunning device for getting more people to connect with "weird" material. That makes it sound like something designed for a target market, but it actually seems completely natural.
The bit about realism spoke to me. I may not be one of those reviewers who writes sentences like "This book wasn't very good because it wasn't realistic", but I do pick at details of setting or fact. A Tale for the Time Being touches on a lot of subjects I like and know a little of but don't have the specialist knowledge to answer myself when I think "Is that accurate?" Things about Japanese culture, and nature viewed scientifically. Also Proust, and there may be extra layers of meaning here available to those who've read him.
After reading a couple of Goodreads reviews I'd been braced for some annoying quantum mysticism - but what I found were explanations about quantum mechanics and the theory of parallel universes very similar to those I've heard from friends who did physics degrees, and conscious use of those ideas in fantasy elements of the story. (Including the first instance of magic realism about the internet I think I've seen in a book.) In turn that gave me more faith in the use of other topics. This is a book which contains both romanticism and geekiness and it's nice to see these together. Parallel universes and the like are a bit of a theme in fiction this year; I've already encountered them in Life After Life and The Secret Knowledge.
Another criticism which mystifies me: that A Tale for the Time Being is overwritten. Perhaps these people were using a different meaning of the word. The writing is very clear and practically nothing is over-described. If you want to see 'overwritten' [i.e. an artificial or excessively elaborate, wordy style] in a new novel, have a look at Ghana Must Go.
I very much liked Nao's sections. Apart from occasional lapses where she seemed to be aware that that the imagined "you" she was writing for was an older westerner, they were immersive. Her voice was very appealing; she recounts a pretty miserable life, including severe bullying, in a matter-of-fact, almost chirpy tone without leaving out interesting cultural details ... I think the best way of describing it might be to say that, without hiding things from herself, she has little self-pity. Before I read the preview, I'd wondered if Nao's diary might be hard-going like Osamu Dazai's Schoolgirl, but this was a book I kept picking up when I should have been doing other things.
I haven't even mentioned Buddhism yet, one of the things that attracted me to A Tale for the Time Being and which influences the title itself. The relatively mundane content of Ruth's sections is implicitly an expression of mindfulness, and gave the book a calming, grounding effect which it wouldn't have had if it were simply Nao's story. (There's also something book-groupish about them - discussion and reflection on what we've just read - yet not as cloying as that could suggest to those who aren't fans of group reading.) Whilst it doesn't shy away from "unBuddhist" sort of content, the philosophy does ultimately pervade the book. Nao is troubled, but even at her most miserable times there's something very accepting about the way she recounts everything, which probably comes of having a Zen master for a great-grandma.
The problem I have with the book is that it's pretty negative about Japanese culture other than Zen. (In so far as I can comment - I know a couple of people who lived in Japan for a while, and others who are real Japanophiles; my knowledge is low compared with theirs.) I love the way Nao talks about "weird stuff" in a way that shows it's completely normal to her. The negativity is more in the selection of what is shown, some aspects of Ruth's concern about Nao and in the conclusion.
Nao spent her early life in America and misses the place. She was so engaging as a character that - especially as someone who was also very affected by a childhood move to a place I never felt at home in - I still find it hard not to say "I don't blame her". Even whilst I'm trying to comment on her as a construct. Ruth-the-character also mentions that both she and her mother "weren't very Japanese" and I daresay the author is reflecting some of her own feelings in the book.
I'd read and watched so few Japanese things before recent months (not for want of recommendations) so this is a fairly superficial impression... but there are certain features of the culture which I like better than the typical American/Western approach. An acceptance of "weird" sex and of certain types of eccentricity and subculture, a more accepting and unafraid attitude to death, and an obsessive love of aesthetics which is never regarded as shallow. And a "shame culture" is, on a gut level, something I can relate to more than a "guilt culture" even if it's not much fun. The older Japanese model of conformity and duty has always sounded very stifling, but the contemporary impression of the society as having that as a (nagging) backdrop to something much more varied is interesting and, again, relatable.
Lovely though A Tale for the Time Being is, I got the impression that it was trying to show all these distinctive aspects of Japanese culture (except perhaps the aesthetics) rather unfavourably. It took quite a while to become apparent, but the subtle cultural imperialism and motivational-posterness disappointed me slightly and made me hope that in 50 or 100 years time Japan hasn't become completely Americanised in its values. However (view spoiler)[it was interesting that a happy ending was only found for the characters through use of fantasy. (hide spoiler)]
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Elegant horror: several have said so before, but these words sum up Ogawa's book of short stories perfectly. (Incidentally very few of the stories areElegant horror: several have said so before, but these words sum up Ogawa's book of short stories perfectly. (Incidentally very few of the stories are about revenge; it looks like the English translators were stumped given that the original title means something like "Reticent Corpse, Indecent Burial" or "Quiet Corpse, Erotic Funeral", to quote a couple of online sources. Here that wouldn't be likely to sell much outside the goth market.) And it's easy to see why Ogawa has been called the Japanese Angela Carter: this book is just as strange and intelligent and otherworldly.
These are not simply short stories: in the tradition of classical Japanese poetry collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, [people and places,] as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. (back blurb) The term "well-crafted" is a staple of reviews, but if all that stuff is well-crafted, this is almost exquisite, and the stories are remarkably consistent in quality. It's horribly lazy to say so, but this has a very traditionally Japanese aesthetic combination of precision, beauty, and distance, with moments of cruelty/suffering. I feel like a big gallumphing oaf trying to sum it up - you may be better off reading a sample of Ogawa's writing. The original was published in 1998 and its being in that moment, so close and so far away, with a daily life free of the internet and mobile phones yet right on their cusp, now multiplies the sense of a strange parallel world which exists in the book. The narrators, some of them sinister, some of them not, are an excellent alternative to the hackneyed routines of unreliable narrator and slow-reveal in English-language novels dealing with strange crimes.
I've noticed recently on Goodreads that a number of posters have been disturbed by various books that didn't bother me - it's odd compared with the world of film, where I'm more sensitive than average. Are bookish people even more sensitive, or is it different responses to different media? Anyway, there were actually a couple of things in Revenge which got to me - it seems to be details related to physical torture that I find more horrible than anything else. (Very big trend in recent films, of course.) Even simply mention of instruments of torture - there are no big detailed scenes here ... whilst we're on the film theme, it's a 15-cert sort of book as the nastiest things happen off-camera. 4 stars because I simply didn't feel much connection with it, though it's not like you're meant to; there are certainly people out there who will love this as it is. In my last post I mentioned that the IFFP is sometimes concerned with political novels at the expense of interesting art - at least by shortlisting Revenge they have bucked that trend....more
Not as twee as it looks. The heroine is about 15 years older than the flying manic pixie dreamgirl on the cover, she gets drunk a lot, worksBook 2200.
Not as twee as it looks. The heroine is about 15 years older than the flying manic pixie dreamgirl on the cover, she gets drunk a lot, works stupidly long hours, has arguments about sports and forgets to clean a pair of muddy shoes for weeks. Out of the characters in the limited number of Japanese novels I've read, Tsukiko is furthest from the traditional idea of a Japanese woman, though she doesn't seem to have set out to reject it; she isn't intellectual, she simply sees herself as not "old-fashioned", and is a solitary person in a communal society. (I could relate to her thinking of buying a huge saucepan to use when there are lots of guests - probably imagining a Sunday supplement sort of life - then realising she practically never has that many guests.) She is not simply an anti-stereotype, she feels very real; she is also socially reticent and likes long baths and cooking. (This is a very foodie book; if you're into Japanese cookery you'd find it inspiring.) So it's somewhat curious that she slowly falls for a much older man, about thirty years older - one of her former school-teachers who's a regular at the same bar - and who's a bit of a stickler for proper, ladylike vocabulary; opposites attract evidently. I'd personally find that way too big an age gap (making a theoretical exception for Bruce Robinson) but as regards those who use the word creepy about this aspect of the book, I roll my eyes and note that neither of these characters is a clueless teenager or a senile millionaire, so it's not as if one person is taking advantage. This love story was interesting for the very reason that I couldn't relate to it, and was trying to understand how different people experience life: their romance grows very slowly out of a close friendship and feeling comfortable with one another, and physicality and appearance are hardly mentioned - whereas I see romance as a possible product of lust, I have incredibly specific physical types, and if I don't fancy someone on first sight, I never do; getting on well with someone without lust is platonic friendship. I can't say I fully grokked their experience, described in the blurb as "old-fashioned romance", but it was still interesting to try.
Strange Weather in Tokyo, although it's only 176 pages, was a little too much about the romance, and I could have done without the Kojima episode entirely. I got bored at times and would have liked more on culture and ideas in the middle of the book; that would have been out of character for Tsukiko as a first-person narrator, but we could have heard something about her work, which exhaustingly consumes huge chunks of her life whilst remaining a mystery to the reader. Still, elsewhere in the book there's lots of food, expeditions to museums and little islands, and a memorable anecdote about the Big Laughing Gym Mushroom (a real thing!) which sounds like a cross between magic mushrooms and laughing gas. It's very readable without being too slight and has a combination of familiarity and strangeness that look likely to prove popular - in Japan, where it was published in 2001, it is regarded as a modern popular classic. ...more
A tad overhyped, this (in some quarters). It's an interesting and unusual book, of interlocking short stories about art, beauty and the sacred. I'm noA tad overhyped, this (in some quarters). It's an interesting and unusual book, of interlocking short stories about art, beauty and the sacred. I'm not saying emperor's new clothes - but some of the superlatives...
- Unique, like nothing else. [Collective gist.] A non-exhaustive list of things I was reminded of whilst reading Seiobo There Below: documentaries about art & building restoration; documentaries about and visits to buddhist monasteries; meditation and writing and talks on; How to Be Both by Ali Smith; Revenge by Yoko Ogawa; history lessons; the puzzles in Georges Perec books; the number/chapter games in The Luminaries; experiences of arriving somewhere ill-prepared, or feeling irritable whilst in queues; other long-sentence writers, especially in the German tradition. (All those 'as it were's were very familiar.)
- an impossibly wide range of knowledge Seiobo is undoubtedly a knowledge and terminology-heavy book. However, nearly all of that knowledge is from two domains. a) Mainstream European [art] history of the medieval & early modern period: a repetitive surfeit of Ital Ren; the Alhambra; Andrei Rublev. (Also, a reasonable knowledge of the bible is necessary for studying that period. Anyway, I wonder if this stuff seems more exotic to Americans, for whom it isn't so standard in curricula and holiday destinations.) b) Traditional Japanese culture. Not a few enthusiasts of that around, and not an unusual overlapping interest with art history. This is depth more than breadth: it's possible to see one person checking all this from a handful textbooks if he didn't know it already off the top of his head - it's not the vastly disparate facts that Pynchon employs researchers to verify; different from the scale of Perec who mentions stuff from many domains, giving a sense of how much general knowledge there is in a whole other culture; having been the sort of kid who read encyclopaedias for fun in Britain did little more than scratch the surface. Part of the point is, of course, comparison with the likes of Perec - not with most other literary fiction published in 2014.
For a book I'd heard spoken of for the fascinating, intoxicating properties hidden beneath this plain cover*, it got a touch monotonous at times. Did we really need that many C15th-C16th artists' workshops? And such a lot of obvious destinations in the European sections, Italy, Spain, Greece: bloody Cook's Tour. (The Romanian lake and the land sculpture of the horse, though, was exactly the kind of strange and wonder I'd come here for.) Most main characters are men who are in late middle age and/or Hungarian. Surely the fabled Krasznahorkai does better than writing self-inserts? Among the most memorable lead characters were those who differed noticeably from the template, especially the Dostoevskyan working class Hungarian (still a Hungarian) stranded in Barcelona by an employment scam, and the embarrassed young Japanese chap trying to cope with his Euro friend's frequent faux pas at 'The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine'.
Seiobo There Below had become a barometer or test to me since I first looked at it in March. I had a specific block on, or a very high threshold for, processing the run-on sentences of the first chapter. A couple of pages and my mind felt like a failing printer with 30 items backing up in the queue; soon jammed, it ground to a halt completely. And this wasn’t just at the worst times when I might expect that: even whilst I was up to enjoying Blinding: The Left Wing by Mircea Cărtărescu or The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth – books of comparable difficulty in the eyes of many - I couldn’t properly process this. But I kept looking at the sample (I must have read chapter 1 about ten times by now). On a couple of occasions, the text started to flow and so I got a copy, having become determined to conquer this thing at some hoped-for suitable time.
I’d now say that the first chapter, along with the first page each of chapters 377 (13) and 2584 (17 - they have Fibonacci numbers), is considerably more dense structurally than the rest of the book. (My head finds abstract sentences more challenging to deal with than specialist terminology.) Through the early chapters, I was aware of a slight physical tension produced by the multi-page sentences. Sometimes it suited the content very well (e.g. the harried, overheated tourist ‘Up on the Acropolis’). At others, whilst I understood their use as creating a sense of long-term unity for scenes that develop slowly, such as during ‘The Preservation of a Buddha’, this tension didn’t always seem appropriate to the subject, and I thought Krasznahorkai could perhaps have written some scenes in shorter sentences and others long to fit rhythm and mood of actions taking place**. Throughout the book, sentences, though extremely long, almost never had the sort of complexity I’d been apprehensive about. They don’t go back to an earlier point after a three page anecdote , rarely even a three-line one. It all flows along like a stream. (And sometimes the camera pans to a scene of another stream that’s a tributary of the same river.) Simply there are, for page after page, commas and conjunctions where full stop, space, capital letter would normally be found. A portion of the tension came from chopping up these sentences and editing in the conventional punctuation in my head – making a conscious decision about the ‘pause to take breath’ that Gertrude Stein acknowledged was part of the purpose of the punctuation she rejected on paper. Regardless, it was always hypnotic: more than with most books, it was easy to fall into it for pages and pages and not look up - I even remained engrossed at times when I had to use a book stand, not something I like. At some point, into the second day of reading, I stopped noticing: it wasn’t a problem any more, I wasn’t tense and I didn’t need to repunctuate consciously. I was just reading. It’s not Finnegan’s Wake.
A lot of this post so far has been about blowing raspberries at Krasznahorkai, or rather his reputation - but there are many, many wonderful things in Seiobo There Below. This is a work which, unusually, understands deeply meditative and reverent states, and great darkness and black comedy. Several chapters end with a sudden sting in the tail - most of these made me laugh; and I loved the way that they could turn a scene on its head without diminishing its earlier meaning. And whilst he does deal with some hackneyed subjects (who needs another postcard from the Alhambra or Florence for instance?... Especially at this distance, in a book, not in the place, I was sometimes like Brancoveanu, the sceptical colleague of the Venus de Milo worshipping Louvre security guard character, the one who feels the sculpture is trite) Krasznahorkai does bring a sprinkling of extra magic to these locations, conjured from detailed information that's less often heard, and from the meditation-like state of the prose which is intended to mirror both the transcendent experience of viewing great art on one hand, and the taut rope of sustained concentration, and the near-impossible perfectionism (which would be denigrated in many other scenarios) needed to produce it.
I wrote detailed summaries of all chapters(in the status updates below). But personal favourite pieces were: - 'Kamo-Hunter' - a heron hunting, a beautiful creature yet predatory, nature and its cycles living alongside the bustle and buses of Kyoto, a city where the book returns several times. (Seiobo appears to follow the same classical Japanese tradition as Ogawa's Revenge, stories which are in some respects separate but which contain motifs and themes shared, though not according to a mechanical sequence.) - 'Up On the Acropolis' - Just simple identification, this kind of journey, the eager adventure, the draining effort, having forgotten something vital. How often have I had this? (Though not, of course, the last few lines.) - 'Something is Burning Outside' - at an artists' workshop in the Romanian countryside, no-one seems very productive. An impoverished-looking old man arrives, who turns out to be nationally famous artist Ion Grigorescu. Early one morning two other artists go out for a walk and find him and his project. [Grigorescu is real and I found this page for a Tate exhibition that included him. Watching its video led me to another artist's photographs of Armenia juxtaposing beautiful snow scenes and decaying concrete tower blocks of stunning yet brutal design.] - 'Private Passion'. A scene which would have been quite different, laughable probably, in the medium of film or radio. An old architect, of repulsive appearance and grating voice, delivers an adult education lecture to a few bored, numbed Swiss villagers. He is, at best, a buffoon - worse, experienced by his audience as a Job-like test. His crazy passion for the music of the Baroque has a Byronic intensity which comes through on the page, making it possible to hear how differently it might have been received from a person who was attractive and charismatic, and to consider the idea of a personality trapped inside an exterior shell that doesn't match. (Or did Krasznahorkai just write this text too well for this character?) - 'Screaming Beneath the Earth' - I don't really agree with the extent of darkness which things, life and death are viewed in this final chapter (c.f. some people find looking at the stars and thinking how insignficant we are to be depressing, I find it comforting). But the archaeological vision in this piece was exhilarating, of all these past creatures under the ground. - In general, I've become more interested in Shinto, and the unique way in which an ancient animist / pagan religion remains part of every day life in a highly developed country. (Amazing to imagine if we still had continuous traditions like this.) It's thanks, I'm guessing, to Japan's long isolation from monotheisms, and the economic strength and stability that allowed it to forge ahead for itself without subjection to significant outside influences.
There is great stuff in Seiobo There Below, but it doesn't have the magic for me that it does for many other readers; it wasn't a transcendent experience, though it was meditative. I daresay a few others in time will find the characters a little samey. Nonetheless, there's be an ineffable something I just don't get, as with my similar underwhelmed-but-not-disliking reaction to another of the Best Translated Book Longlist, Stig Saetterbakken's Through the Night. I'd still rate a few of those longlisted books higher than this one, and, contrary to almost every opinion I've read, think the Cărtărescu better for its unusual fusion of biological science and surrealism and narrative - art in literature has been done often enough (and there's been a lot of it about in 2014 publications). I wasn't quite in the mood for these topics and places right now - the Meditteranean, Japan - they feel more summery: I wanted the dark and brooding of central European traditon, which likely would have been better served by Satantango rather than Krasznahorkai's sunlight-dappled, meditation-infused, voyage away from home.
* The chest on the cover, as well as being an obvious metaphor for looking into, opening up etc, refers to a trousseau-chest from the school of Botticelli that features in chapter 2. Its outline and the title lettering are made of a rainbow-shimmery stuff most familiar from kids' stationery. So up close, not entirely as plain as it looks.
** There's a pretty good discussion about Krasznahorkai's sentences in this interview and the comments. Shame that, despite the mention of his 'broken English', that people sharp enough to know better then take his phrase 'loss of a culture of poverty' at face value rather than considering consumerism and folk culture....more
At the beginning, I thought this book a mistake. It was 99p on pre-order, and I'd got it on the strength of a couple of good blog reviews without readAt the beginning, I thought this book a mistake. It was 99p on pre-order, and I'd got it on the strength of a couple of good blog reviews without reading a sample; it was just after I'd read lots of books from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Best Translated Book Award longlists and I was keen to look at prospects for 2015. Especially if they were this short. (I'm not as fast a reader as many of you and this only took an hour.)
If I'd seen a sample of the early pages, I very likely would never have read further. It's narrated in a fairly cold style by a solitary 56 year old Japanese man who works in a meteorological office. He comes home and inspects his fridge, plunging a ruler into a carton of orange juice, convinced that someone has been habitually breaking in to his house and half-inching his food supplies. So it's going to be one of those paranoid unreliable narrators, 'are they or aren't they mad?' sort of things. They're quite popular and have enough literary scope; it's just that personally I don't want to read any more of them.
However, it's not quite like that after all. Nagasaki is eccentric rather than sinister in tone. (And even if it had been what I assumed at first, the beautifully crafted style would have elevated it somewhat out of the ordinary. It seems like an excellent translation, which meant that very occasional errors became more noticeable. The translator evidently isn't familiar with the phrase 'uncanny valley' which was instead called 'mysterious valley' in a discussion about androids.) One of the few things that mars it is the withholding of a piece of information in a way that feels artificial. (view spoiler)[ The woman had lived in his house as a child; it seemed really odd this was never mentioned in court. Perhaps something to do with Japanese etiquette or assumptions, that she didn't want it to be? (hide spoiler)]
It's also difficult to discuss without spoilers. Like Hiromi Kawakami's Strange Weather in Tokyo, which I read earlier this year, it looks at lonely, atomised lives in contemporary urban Japan. Though Nagasaki, set in 2008, has the additional dimension of the financial crash which the earlier book doesn't. The names 'Hiromi' and 'Kawakami' appear separately within a few pages in the second half of Nagasaki; they're each quite common but it did set me wondering whether this was a deliberate reference to the Japanese author. Nagasaki feels entirely Japanese (to someone who isn't a keen Japanophile) and if I'd read it without knowing the author's name, I'd never have guessed it to be a translation from French.
(view spoiler)[Shimura's narrative was a bit too cold and mechanical to be truly engaging - he gives the impression of a boring man. But I really grew to like the woman's narrative, and there were lots of little bits I connected with. - After I’d finished, I would put everything back where I had found it, just as I did in the kitchen. That meant memorising exactly where an object was before moving it out of place. My memory and dexterity aren't sharp enough for that now, but I used to do this as a kid sometimes, this very physical art which needs exact proprioception: it's a modest description but I felt again the stress associated with the need to get it right, whilst also being up to it. - The more at home I felt there, the more wary I had to be; the temptation to let my guard down was stronger, the risk of slipping up even higher. - scared stiff I was going to lose this haven where I was rebuilding myself, recovering from the bumps and bruises life had given me. - this: there is no meaning. That is to say, it didn’t exist before we did. The idea of meaning was invented by humans as a balm to their anxieties, and their quest to find it is obsessive, all-consuming. - Having completed a sizeable cycle of my existence, I was returning to one of my oldest habitats.
As I liked her so much, I was disappointed that the narrative returned to the initial mood of potential unhingement WRT the letter she was thinking about sending Mr Shimura. (Though I have no idea how such an action would be thought of in Japan.) Ultimately though, we don't know if she actually sent it, so I guess I'm free to assume that she thought better of it, or made it much shorter. (hide spoiler)]