Yasunari Kawabata: The Old Capital

•17 November, 2007 • 8 Comments

old capital.comps

Author: Yasunari Kawabata

Title: The Old Capital

ISBN: 1593760329

Pages: 182

The most quintessentially Japanese author I’ve read has to be Yasunari Kawabata. Employing a precision of language that has an elegant, understated beauty, Kawabata’s economy of words evoke an ancient Japanese ink and brush painting rather than the Jackson Pollock style explosion of language of somebody like Thomas Pynchon. Allied to this, his novels have the slow, deliberate pacing of the Japanese tea ceremony, amplifying the impression that each word carries added meaning.

When Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, three of his novels were cited: Snow Country, Thousand Cranes and The Old Capital. Kawabata referred to The Old Capital as his “abnormal product”, although I personally find his writing so unique that any such differences between books are lost in my overall admiration for his craft.

The Old Capital is set in post-war Kyoto, a city of many traditional festivals but also one where western innovations were first adopted. Truly a place in Japan where old meets new, and one that was indeed the old capital of the country.

That meeting of tradition and modernity is one of the central themes to The Old Capital, a story centring on Chieko, the adopted daughter of local shopkeepers. Since childhood, Chieko has known that she was a foundling, abandoned as an infant but found and raised by her adopted parents as their own child.

Chieko discovered the violets flowering on the trunk of the old maple tree. “Ah. They’ve bloomed again this year,” she said as she encountered the gentleness of spring.

The maple was rather large for such a small garden in the city; the trunk was larger around than Chieko’s waist. But this ancient tree with its coarse moss-covered bark was not the sort of thing one should compare with a girl’s innocent body.

Chieko’s existence is pampered, but also closeted, by the tradition that surrounds. Leading her to prefer kimono’s of her father’s design to the western clothes that are becoming increasingly popular amongst her contemporaries. And it is her father, Takichiro, who moulds the nature of Chieko’s life, as she is expected to display self-contained restraint and a dutiful deference to his wishes and the needs of their family. Takichiro, of course, faces no such constraints, feeling free to plan their future without consultation, pursue relationships with Geisha ‘s of his daughter’s age and even alluding to youthful experimentation with narcotics.

Sosuke examined the design for a moment.

“Mmm, it’s excellent. The colour harmony…fine. You’ve never drawn anything so novel before. Still, it’s restrained. Weaving it will be difficult. But we’ll put our hearts into it and give it a try. The design shows your daughter’s respect for her parents and her parents’ affection for their daughter.”

“Thank you. Nowadays people would be quick to use an English word like ‘idea’ or ‘sense’ to describe it. Even colours are now referred to in faddish Western terms.”

“Those aren’t high-quality goods.”

“I hate it that Western words have come into such use. Haven’t there been splendid colours in Japan since ancient times?”

“Even black has various subtle shades,” Sosuke nodded.

It is when Chieko accidentally meets her twin sister Naeko – a sibling she never knew existed – that she learns what happened to her biological family. It’s a disturbing truth that reveals how differently her life’s path could have been; one far removed from the comfortable familiarity of her adopted family. As Chieko attempts to integrate Naeko back into her life, we see the affect this has on both her family and friends.

As is so often with Kawabata’s books, the story is as paired back as the prose, with more importance placed on clarity of characterisation than wild plot twists. But it is this, very Japanese, understated style of writing which makes his work not only intriguing, but also at times quite perplexing. In particular the undercurrent of emotions and restrained reactions of the characters could be misinterpreted as being almost clinical for those not fully conversant with Japanese society. The most obvious example being a scene when Chieko’s father strikes a young man for the merest perceived verbal slight, with the blow accepted with barely a blink of the eye. Similarly, Chieko’s passive acceptance of her position in life is in stark contrast to the attitudes of a modern western woman. But the joy of Kawabata is that he is different, and so is the society he documents. That difference may confuse, but it can also educate and certainly should be enjoyed.

The Old Capital is a melancholy, delicate novel, with as much importance placed on what remains unsaid as what is revealed. It is a book well worth reading, but one whose full meaning remains as elusive to this Westerner as the nature of the Japanese temperament itself.


Shusaku Endo: Wonderful Fool

•15 November, 2007 • 4 Comments

Wonderful Fool - Cover Image

Author: Shusaku Endo

Title: Wonderful Fool

ISBN: 072061080X

Pages: 237

Just how gorgeous are the sleeve designs for Peter Owen Modern Classics? So gorgeous they can use pictures of a bespectacled middle-aged Japanese author on the front cover, with the colour scheme and layout instantly making it a thing of beauty.

And how good is the writing of that bespectacled middle-aged Japanese author? So good he can justify the description ‘Japan’s Graham Greene’ and manage to put a contemporary giant like Haruki Murakami into the shade. As Shusaku Endo is not only a great writer, but also a great novelist, something he achieves with an effortless ease.

Like Greene, Endo’s work is often deeply rooted within his Catholic faith. In particular, reflecting the difficult time Christianity has fond in gaining acceptance within Japan. It’s a subject he tackled brilliantly in his masterpiece, Silence – a book of such genius that even a committed agnostic as myself could enjoy it all the more, the further it dipped into theological waters.

Echoes of Christianity can also be found in Wonderful Fool, as a Christ-like figure arrives in humble circumstances and affects everyone he meets, before leaving at a moment of salvation. There’s even betrayal for thirty pieces of silver. Well, some silver bars purloined during the Second World War anyway.

Wonderful Fool is set in late 1950’s Japan and begins with the arrival in Tokyo of Gaston Bonaparte, a distant descendant of Napoleon, who has come to stay with his long time pen pal, Takamori. Gaston has travelled by ship in fourth class, possesses little money and is so unfamiliar with Japanese manners and etiquette he immediately proves an embarrassment to his hosts. He is a large, ugly man, described by Takimori’s sister, Tomoe, as “Horse-Face” and one who gives the impression of being a bumbling simpleton. But what Gaston does posses is a purity of heart, a naïve trust in the innate good in people.

Simple Gaston was constitutionally incapable of harbouring resentment or hated towards anyone. Even when a child, no matter what trick his companions played on him or how cruelly they treated him, he was of such a temperament that he could not hate his persecutors. To hate was for him the most odious of tasks. Instead, he was quickly moved to trust in the goodwill and friendship of others, or at least to want to trust in them.

It’s whilst travelling through the seedy underbelly of Toyko, befriending stray dogs, beggars and prostitutes as he goes, that Gaston encounters a mob hit man, Endo – someone that carries not only the author’s name, but also his childhood illness, tuberculosis. Endo is a cold, bloodless man, at the opposite end of the moral spectrum to Gaston, and one who is both emotionally and physically enfeebled. He is also driven by a determination to exact revenge on those who shifted blame for their war crimes onto his brother.

In Gaston, Endo sees an unwitting accomplice to this revenge, but as with so many other people in Japan, he has underestimated the moral and physical courage of the Frenchman. As at every turn he is hindered by Gaston who doggedly follows Endo in the belief he can reach out to the good within.

For the first time in her life Tomoe came to the realisation that there are fools and fools. A man who loves others with an open-hearted simplicity, who trusts others, no matter who they are, even if he is deceived or even betrayed – such a man in the present-day world is bound to be written off as a fool. And so he is. But not just an ordinary fool. He is a wonderful fool. He is a wonderful fool who will never allow the little light which he sheds along man’s way to go out. It was the first time this thought had occurred to her

As the story reaches its strangely beautiful climax, we learn just enough to explain the motivations of Gaston and Endo. Leaving Wonderful Fool as a novel that mixes prose, characterisation, humour, plot and pacing together to give a wonderfully satisfying reading experience.

Rodolfo Fogwill: Malvinas Requiem

•11 November, 2007 • 1 Comment

Malvinas Requiem - Cover Image

Author: Rodolfo Fogwill

Title: Malvinas Requiem

ISBN: 1852429658

Pages: 154

In the twenty-five years since its end there has been plenty of published material about the Falklands conflict, most of it memoir dominated non-fiction. Malvinas Requiem by Argentinean writer and media figure Rodolfo Fogwill is the first fictionalised account I’ve read, and indeed, the first I’ve even heard of, from those who would refer to the Falkland Islands as ‘Islas Malvinas’.

The story centres on a group of young Argentinean conscripts, who have deserted to set up their own community in a cave high amongst the mountains surrounding the islands capital, Port Stanley. Theirs is a brutal and basic existence as they try to sit out the final few weeks of the war. The risk of being shot or imprisoned forces them to stay underground in cramped conditions during the daylight hours, making an outbreak of diarrhoea particularly unwelcome.

Provisions are bolstered by nightly bartering with soldiers from both sides, as the booty from corpse robbing is exchanged for food and torch batteries. Order is maintained by ‘The Four Kings’, self appointed leaders of the group, whose ruthless determination to survive results in those injured or deemed the weakest, being handed over to the British, or in some cases, left outside overnight to freeze to death.

“It was one of the rare mornings when the sun shone, and you could glimpse the green grass and the English-style houses in the distance. ‘This is theirs,’ he thought. ‘They can keep it.’ You had to be British, or like the British, to want to come and freeze your arse off here, when over there lay Argentina, so fine and wide and with the sun shining down on it.”

A dark humour hangs over the group as they pass time by telling stories, discussing life back in Argentina, and the political mistakes that have led them to their current situation. It’s that criticism of the Argentinean military dictatorship that caused the book to make waves when it was first published and led Fogwill to become one of the leading advocates of democracy in his country. For not only is there little sentiment shown in this story, there is little enthusiasm for the cause either. These are merely young men trying to survive and return home.

“The dillos had plenty of time in between shifts of digging. They always dug in the morning, so that the wind would cover the noise of falling rocks. They talked together.

‘What do you want?’
‘A shag.’
‘A good bath.’
‘To be home.’
‘To sleep in laundered white sheets.’
‘Have a shag.’
‘To have a decent meal… Think about that grilled beef…’
‘See my folks.’
They couldn’t believe it. They checked:
‘Your folks?’
‘Yes, and then a shag and a bath,’ said the one who talked about his old folks at home, to cover his embarrassment.”

But as you progress through the book, more and more of the described events start to grate. From the factually inaccurate: large numbers of British soldiers being transported by helicopter. To the barely plausible: a British soldier using the cave as a lookout post is killed but subsequently replaced by his commander without comment or retaliation. To the libellous: large scale rape, torture and murder of Argentinean POW’s. To complete fantasy: Nuns seen wandering the mountains, formations of planes disintegrating in mid-air and the deserters keeping a large tapeworm as a pet.

It’s two thirds of the way through before the nature of this unreliable narrator starts to become more apparent, as it’s at this point that the narrative suddenly switches into first person. So suddenly, that I had to re-read this scene several times to realise the story was now being told by the sole survivor of the group to an increasingly sceptical journalist. From this point on, the boundary between what was fictionalised reality and what was pure fantasy had become so blurred that I lost trust in the story and eventually started to lose interest in it as well. Others may like this technique, but I was enjoying the feeling that what I was reading had at least some degree of authenticity.

Overall, Malvinas Requiem is an interesting, well-written book and one worth seeking out for a ‘view from the other side’. This edition could be improved with a forward that puts its story into context – readers should at least know it was published before the end of the war. Decent footnotes to explain references to Argentinean politics are another serious oversight.

The back cover makes a comparison to Catch-22, which in my opinion is overplayed. As whilst the tone and dark humour of the two books are similar, Fogwill simply isn’t in the same league as Heller, at least on the evidence of Malvinas Requiem – a book with potential for greatness that it never quite achieves.

Erlend Loe: Naive. Super

•5 November, 2007 • 2 Comments

Naive Super - Cover Image

Author: Erlend Loe

Title: Naive. Super

ISBN: 1841956724

Pages: 208

 “My life has been strange lately. It came to a point where I lost interest in it all. It was my 25th birthday. A few weeks ago.”

Twentysomethings going through a premature mid-life crisis. Don’t you just want to slap them in the face?

Naïve. Super was the 1996 best-selling novel by Norwegian author, Erlend Loe. It’s a deceptively simple book in many ways. The plot, what little of it there is, concerns a young man in the final year of his masters degree who has lost grasp on what life is about and what his future will be. With few friends and no love life to speak of, he decides to quit university and his part time job to ‘turn down the tempo to zero’.

You may be thinking that none of this sounds promising, or particularly original. In fact, you could be forgiven for wondering if Loe spent far too long during his teenage years locked in a bedroom poring earnestly over Morrisey lyrics. Fortunately, it turns out that Loe is ‘smarter than the average bear’, or in this case, Smiths fan, as Naïve Super reveals itself to be a warm, endearing, and at the risk of sounding twee, charming book.

“I am convinced that it’s all about eagerness. That it’s missing.
I must find it. Get it back.
It’s out there.
It’s probably pointless to talk about it.
It’s a bit Zen.
I’ll never make it as long as I try to.
Only when I don’t try, will I make it.
Fucking Buddhists. They think they’re so bloody clever.”

After selling most of his possessions, Loe’s narrator, whose identity is only revealed on the final page, flat-sits for his brother whilst he is away in New York. It’s there that he finds a book about ‘life, the universe and everything’ which only serves to magnify his feelings of intimidation at the complexity of life.

“I flipped through some pages, but started sweating and had to put it down. It was too much for me.
There are limits to what I can handle right now. I walked around the flat for awhile, feeling uneasy.
To divert my thoughts, I started to look through one of my brother’s old photo albums. There are several photographs of me there. I am little. And often dressed in the strangest clothes. Corduroy. Always corduroy.
I must have had outrageous self-confidence as a child.”

It is to the naivety and comfort of childhood that the narrator turns. He purchases toys, a ball and a wooden hammer and peg set, with which he plays for hours. But it is when he befriends a young neighbourhood child, Borre, that his life starts to change, as whilst babysitting the boy he finds a girl with whom he can connect.

After much insistence, he agrees to visit his brother in New York, somewhere he is told will ‘give him perspective’. It is there that it becomes apparent that the naivety of childhood is not an escape from the complexity of adulthood, but a compliment to it. That the solutions to our problems cannot be found in the words and thoughts of others, but that we must find them ourselves. And most importantly, the realisation that the comfort we need to live life comes from our family and friends.

There is much wisdom to be found in Naïve Super, mixed with a wonderfully dry sense of humour. The short, sharp, simple sentences used, are deliberately childlike. With the narrator’s obsession for lists – reminiscent of ‘Hi-Fidelity’ which had been published the year before – seeming to mirror the fragments of experience that form all our lives.

Creating an alienated character is a risky move, as they can often end up alienated from the reader as well. But Loe is a skilful writer, and one capable of connecting to the fears we all have, and creating a book of such deceptive simplicity that it can be used as a canvas to project our own problems. Naïve? Yes. Super? Yes. Impressive novel? Definitely.

“My life has been strange lately. It came to a point where I lost interest in it all.
It was my 25th birthday. A few weeks ago.”

Twentysomethings going through premature mid-life crisis. Don’t you just want to slap them in the face? Unless they’re smart and can make you laugh. Then you might let them off.

Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz

•3 November, 2007 • 1 Comment

Pan Tadeusz - Cover Image

Author: Adam Mickiewicz

Title: Pan Tadeusz

ISBN: 0781800331

Pages: 598

O Lithuania, my country, thou
Art like good health; I never knew till now
How precious, till I lost thee. Now I see
Thy beauty whole, because I yearn for thee.

So begins Pan Tadeusz, Poland’s most celebrated literary work and an epic poem taught to all Polish school children. That Poland’s literary masterpiece begins with a eulogy to Lithuania both enlightens and confuses, in equal measure, those not familiar with the complex and fractured nature of that region’s history.

Pan Tadeusz is set in 1811-12, a time following the end of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, when Poland no longer existed as a legal or geographic entity – a situation that would continue until the end of World War One. The country had been partitioned, with our story set amongst the Szlachta – the noble class of Poland and Lithuania – who find themselves under Russian rule waiting in hope for Napoleon’s approaching armies to bring them liberation.

The eponymous hero of Pan Tadeusz is a young nobleman returning home from studying in the city and arriving just ahead of news that Napoleon is recruiting Polish units in readiness for his ill-fated 1812 campaign against the Russian Tsar. Tadeusz finds his uncle attempting to make peace with a nearby rival family with whom they have been sworn enemies for many years, one which includes a young woman who Tadeusz falls immediately in love with – as seems to have been the fashion at the time. It is a seemingly doomed infatuation, as relations between the families quickly break down into bloody confrontation.

This all sounds deceptively simple, but there are a number of different plots running across each other in what is a beautifully told story. Parents long thought dead disguised as monks, young love between members of feuding families, high drama of noble life contrasted with more a humorous tone set by their servants, all combine to give a quite Shakespearean feel to the plot. This is allied to a satisfying slow-slow-quick-quick-slow pacing as scenes of idyllic country life and young love are inter cut with fierce arguments – the centrepiece being a wonderful battle scene about three quarters of the way through.

Then through the window opposite the door
The gentry led by Switch began to pour,
While Plut and Rykov standing in the hall
The nearest soldiers to their succour call.
Three bayonets gliding through the doorway shine
And three black helmets over them incline.
Beside the door Matthias waited like
A cat for rats, his switch upraised to strike
A fearful blow; but being too excited
Or else because the old man was short-sighted,
Before their necks appeared his switch had dashed
Their helmets off and on their bayonets crashed.

The various characters are well drawn, with my particular favourite being Gerwazy, a belligerently impulsive trouble maker who could start a fight in an empty room, but one who waits until it’s full of heavily armed men from two feuding families first. Exactly the kind of character that could do to be injected into some of the more dreary English costume dramas.

It’s that impulsive ‘act first, think later’ attitude that seems to be one of the most debated aspects of Pan Tadeusz, as it has been long discussed how accurate a portrayal that is of the Polish national character. Whatever the prevailing opinion is amongst Polish readers, I’m just happy that the impulsiveness of the characters provides an effective catalyst for action.

For non-Poles, Pan Tadeusz is a book that needs a little preparation, as an understanding of Polish history from that period is required for you to fully understand the background to which the action takes place. It’s well worth the effort however, as ‘Pan Tadeusz’ is a richly rewarding read.

The translation I read was by Kenneth R. Mackenie, which was the first to maintain the metre and rhyming couplets of the original throughout its 10,000 lines. Obviously there must have been some compromises made to achieve that, and there is the occasional rhyme that grated, but overall the poem reads as if it was written in English.

Without wanting to give the ending away, it is the various characters love of their country and determination to liberate themselves from Russian rule that overrides all other thoughts. Which makes it easy to see, even from a western viewpoint, how important a message that was to the Poles throughout their troubled history. For the rest of us, we can just enjoy Pan Tadeusz for what it ultimately is – a gem of world literature.

Stanislaw Lem: The Futurological Congress

•2 November, 2007 • Leave a Comment

The Futurological Congress - Cover ImageAuthor: Stanislaw Lem

Title: The Futurological Congress

ISBN: 0156340402

Pages: 156

The Polish Sci-Fi writer Stanislaw Lem is best known for his novel Solaris which has been adapted for the big screen twice, first in the early 70’s by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovski and thirty years later by Steven Soderbergh. If Solaris was all you knew of Lem’s work you could be forgiven for thinking his brand of sci-fi was not only more philosophy than phasers, but fairly serious, dry stuff as well. That would be a misleading impression as a number of his other books display a cutting satirical edge as well as Douglas Adams-like, almost Wodehousian, comic sensibility. Sensibilities displayed in full in his 1971 novella The Futurological Congress.

Structurally, The Futurological Congress is a mess. The opening twenty or thirty pages are set in a Costa Rica struggling to hold a scientific congress on the population explosion, at the same time as a violent revolutionary uprising is doing its best to alleviate the problem. The writing here is Lem at his most impish, with the humour becoming quite farcical, to the point where the plot becomes so subservient that you almost lose sight of it.

However, it’s once the main character, Ijon Tichy, has been shot, frozen, and then revived in the year 2039, that all semblance of story is cast to the wind. From here on in the book becomes a maze of ideas, some more serious than others, as Tichy finds himself in a world the inhabitants view through the prism of psychotropic drugs supplied by a totalitarian state. As Tichy learns more he discovers the population exist in the false reality of an artificial world, feeling artificial emotions, and speaking an artificially enhanced language.

So far this is fairly standard stuff, quite reminiscent of something like The Matrix. Given this book was written in 1971 it may well of been an inspiration for that film, although probably via the well-read Grant Morrison, whose comic strip The Invisibles was one of the Wachowski Brothers most obvious influences. But Lem goes much further and deeper with his ideas than could be expressed in a Hollywood film, as further layers of doubt and artifice are added, till the possibility that Itchy has never left the present day starts to emerge. As you near the end, you start to question everything you have read and wonder how many of the ideas Lem has introduced are part of the books reality and how many are mere smoke and mirrors.

The Futurological Congress is a book rich in ideas and humour, but is structurally unsatisfying, and with some of the wordplay surrounding the development of language descending into a conveyor belt of puns. But the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad for a writer who is sadly overlooked, even by fans of the genre – a recent trip to ‘Forbidden Plant’ revealed just one book by Lem in stock.

As an interesting footnote, having been written in the early 70’s, Lem depicts the future as being several degrees cooler. “The New Ice Age” having been the predicted ecological disaster at that time.

C L R James: Beyond a Boundary

•1 November, 2007 • 1 Comment

Beyond A Bounary - Cover ImageAuthor: C.L.R. James

Title: Beyond a Boundary

ISBN: 022407427X

Pages: 368

Beyond a Boundary by the West Indian writer, political activist, and cricket lover C L R James is often touted as one of the greatest sports books ever written. In contrast to the outpouring of cash-in publishing that followed the 2005 Ashes, which posed no greater question than ‘how little can I say in return for your money’, James asks something far more fundamental: “what do they know of cricket, who only cricket know”. During the course of the next 340 odd pages, he attempts to answer by placing the game within the context of society as a whole.

James begins be looking back at his upbringing on Trinidad. He was born into the black middle-classes of that island and his gifts for literature and sport earned him a scholarship to the local public school as well as a chance to play in the thriving post World War One Trinidadian cricket scene. It was there that he encountered a number of the great West Indian players from the era approaching their introduction into the test arena. George John, the first great West Indian fast bowler, the legendary Constantine whose game is revealed to have been built as much on hard work as the spontaneity for which he was renowned and George Headly, who is compared favourably to Bradman.

It is here that James begins to introduce wider social themes into the mix. He shows how his schooling, and in particular cricket, instilled a code of ethics that were to stay with him for the rest of his life. The obeying of umpiring decisions, subordinating personal desire for the sake of the team, not complaining about misfortune, and of most significance in pre-independence Trinidad, restraint and loyalty. James reflects on how cricket teams of that era mirrored the complex racial divides of Trinidad, a situation he encounters when choosing a club to play for, and one which makes selecting a team to represent the island a finely judged balancing act.

From here James moves to nineteenth century England, a society whose class division he likens to the twentieth century West Indies. What follows is a masterly dissection of W.G. Grace as both player and figurehead for change within an England on the verge of the Victorian era and he argues that the great man almost single-handedly incorporated cricket into the life of the nation.

It’s at this point that the book really takes flight as James links the explosion of popular sport in England at that time to the invention of the ancient Olympics; developments that he argues go hand in hand with the expansion of democracy and personal freedom. Cricket is shown to be intertwined with the historical movements of the day and the case is made for sport to be regarded as an art in itself – although I felt this particular passage dragged a little.

The text eventually returns full circle back to the West Indies of the late 1950’s as James mounts a powerful avocation for Frank Worell to become the first black captain of the West Indies – this at a time when the author himself was also at the forefront of the campaign for Trinidadian independence. Although it’s interesting that whilst James is fighting the injustices of Trinidadian society, he maintains a great fondness for Britain. Perhaps this is because of his education, which leaned heavily on English literature, as he even refers to himself as a British intellectual.

It must be remembered that the book was written in 1963, with passages from articles by the author that pre-date that. There are times when the language has dated, and discussion of negative tactics & attitudes in the late 1950’s are overshadowed by the increased tempo of the game in the last few years – a development you feel that James would have wholeheartedly approved. As befits a student of English literature, the prose is of the highest quality, perhaps at times running the risk of losing itself in the dictionary, but never dull or pedestrian.

Not a book to take to a cricket match and flick through in-between deliveries. Beyond a Boundary demands and deserves to be read at leisure, with time left to mull over the questions and issues it raises. You could read any number of career biographies and find only a fraction of the depth of insight found within this single volume. A must for any cricket fan with a desire to truly understand the importance of the game and its place in society.