I first visited Japan (Tokyo and Yokohama) in 2004. A friend was travelling through and invited me along (one major attraction was that we could crash at his cousin’s place – free accommodation in Tokyo, and in a nice central neighbourhood too). Tokyo was at once fascinating and overwhelming! The Asakusa temple and the street food! The craziness of the Shinjuku station. That awe-inspiring sight of Mt Fuji (and the many many elderly people making their ascent). Hitting the Tsukiji fish market for a sushi breakfast.
It was all so amazing that a few days after I returned to Singapore, I was back in Tokyo again, this time for a press junket for the Trocks (Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo). So it was for work, which meant interviews, and watching rehearsals and a performance (and marveling at their many Japanese fans who would hang around outside the theatre and hotel), and erm, staying at a rather nice Hilton.
And I’ve never been back since.
Isn’t that sad? Especially since I owe my Japanese flatmate (when we were in the UK in 2006-7) a visit. She’s become such a dear friend although we’ve only seen each other once since 2007.
I guess this is a long segue into what I’ve been reading recently, because in just a a couple of weeks I read three works of Japanese fiction: Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, thanks to holds (two e-books, one physical book) coming in at pretty much the same time.
This isn’t my first Natsuo Kirino read.
Out was a fascinating tale of murder in the suburbs, a young woman kills her husband and seeks help from her coworkers.
Real World has similar undertones, a murder in the suburbs, this time by a teenaged boy, and how it affects those around him. But perhaps because the cast of Real World is young, teenaged, and angst-y, there was this sense of irritation as I read this book. Erm yeah, I was a teenager myself, half a lifetime ago, and I was angst-y and moody and all that, but to empathise with a killer? Really?
Perhaps that might have been the point, that these teenagers were behaving like teens, self-absorbed, and Kirino offers no other viewpoint than theirs (from the perspective of four girls and the one boy). The boy, Worm, is probably the perspective I didn’t like the most. I appreciated that the girls were all so different, one is intellectual, another is the flirty girl obsessed with boys, another coming to terms with her homosexuality and her mother’s death, and Worm’s next-door neighbour Toshi who is just trying to fit in.
Like Out, Real World is less about the murder than the insight into the life of Japanese teenagers, trying to make their own path in this loud, brash, uncertain world. I was just a little ambivalent about it. But I’m still looking forward to reading more of Kirino’s books.
Nakamura’s Thief has one character at its core but he too is troubled one. He is, as the title suggests, a thief. We meet him as he deftly picks pockets, making sure to carefully choose only rich marks. He has become so adept at his job that he finds himself having picked pockets he doesn’t even remember.
Our thief finds himself being roped in for a big job, a robbery at a mansion that he later learns is just a cover-up for a bigger crime.
The Thief is not your typical crime novel. It is instead more of a kind of, well, a reflection on crime. There is some talk of a tower, a symbol for something I didn’t quite get and made me a little confused. And a bit of an philosophical meandering about how life is already laid out before us.
But it was still a relatively enjoyable read. The intricacies of his pickpocketing ways, his ‘mentorship’ of a young boy whom he catches shoplifting in a supermarket (at his mother’s request). This is the first of Nakamura’s works translated into English, it won the Oe prize and I’m curious about his others.
I’ve saved my favourite for last. Ogawa’s Revenge is a true treat (I’ve previously enjoyed her The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper and the Professor). The stories are written simply, but there is a constant element of creepiness, in a subtle way. They are separate yet linked somehow, faintly, obscurely, like a little secret between the reader and Ogawa.
“But the heart itself still appeared to be cowering in fear, the blood vessels trembling with each contraction. From close up, the sinews and folds of muscle seemed to conceal a mysterious code.”
Some of the stories that really stuck with me are Sewing for the Heart, where a bag maker has an unusual request; Tomatoes and the Full Moon, where a writer, on assignment in a seaside resort meets a strange woman and her dog; Afternoon at the Bakery, the opening story about a woman trying to buy strawberry shortcakes.
But you know what, writing a description about these stories seems to render them very trivial. I can’t tell you anymore about the stories because that really would be too revealing. And as I thought of the stories that stuck with me, I realized that each of them, in their own way, kind of did. Whether it be the way they are tied together or just the little details Ogawa slips in gently (but disturbingly), this collection of stories prods at you, like that dream that isn’t quite a nightmare yet you can’t shake it in the morning when you wake up.
Natsuo Kirino (桐野 夏生) quickly established a reputation in her country as one of a rare breed of mystery writers whose work goes well beyond the conventional crime novel. This fact has been demonstrated by her winning not only the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction in Japan for Out in 1998, but one of its major literary awards–the Naoki Prize–for Soft Cheeks (which has not yet been published in English), in 1999. Several of her books have also been turned into feature movies. Out was the first of her novels to appear in English and was nominated for an Edgar Award.
Kao ni furikakeru ame
Tenshi ni misuterareta yoru
Auto (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997); English translation by Stephen Snyder as Out
Mizu no nemuri hai no yume
Faiaboro burusu [Fireball Blues]
Yawarakana hoho; French translation by Silvain Chupain as Disparitions
Gurotesuku; English translation by Rebecca L. Copeland as Grotesque
Riaru warudo; English translation by J. Philip Gabriel as Real World
Zangyakuki; English translation as What Remains
Boken no kuni
Rozu gâden [Rose Garden]
Ambosu mundosu [Ambos Mundos]
Fuminori Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. In 2002, he won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize for New Writers for his first novel, A Gun, and in 2005 he won the Akutagawa prize for The Boy in the Earth. The Thief, winner of the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan’s most important literary award, is his first novel to be published in English.
Yoko Ogawa was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son. Since 1988, Ogawa has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. In 2006 she co-authored “An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics” with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.
Bibliography (translated works)
The Man Who Sold Braces (Gibusu o uru hito, ギブスを売る人, 1998); translated by Shibata Motoyuki
Transit (Toranjitto, トランジット, 1996); translated by Alisa Freedman, Japanese Art: The Scholarship and Legacy of Chino Kaori, special issue of Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. XV (Center for Inter-Cultural Studies and Education, Josai University, December 2003): 114-125.
The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain (Yūgure no kyūshoku shitsu to ame no pūru, 夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 9/2004.
Pregnancy Diary (Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 12/2005.
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (Daibingu puru, ダイヴィング・プール, 1990; Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991; Dormitory, ドミトリイ, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder
The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase no ai shita sūshiki, 博士の愛した数式, 2003); translated by Stephen Snyder
Hotel Iris (Hoteru Airisu, ホテル・アイリス, 1996)
Revenge, Translated by Stephen Snyder