Tuesday, 15 April 2014

'Nagasaki' by Éric Faye (Review)

As you might know, I'm a big fan of J-Lit, but there must be many more over in France, where the number of works of Japanese literature in translation far outstrip those available in the Anglosphere (I've been very tempted on occasion to dip into this pool of books to see what I'm missing...).  Apparently, though, the fascination with Japan doesn't stop there - it seems that for some, the country also provides inspiration for novels written in the French language too...

Éric Faye's Nagasaki (translated by Emily Boyce, review copy courtesy of Gallic Books) is a short work based on a real-life story, an event which happened in Japan in 2008.  It starts with a man in his fifties, Kobo Shimura, a worker at the bureau of meteorology who lives alone, never having found a lasting relationship.  Recently, though, he has begun to feel a little uneasy in his small house, and with good reason - a check on the level of juice in the bottle in his fridge shows that someone has been visiting while he's at work.

Shimura decides that he needs to investigate matters further, so he installs a camera in his house through which he can monitor his home from work.  Sure enough, he soon sees an intruder in his kitchen, drinking his juice and relaxing in the sun.  However, in pursuing the truth about these unusual intrusions, Shimura finds out that matters are much worse than he could ever imagine...

Nagasaki is a great little book, one which can be read in an hour or so, but which resonates for far longer.  Part of the charm is the voice of the main character, a man who... well, I'll let him tell you himself:
"Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets.  Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what else peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo.  That is where I live.  Who am I?  Without wishing to overstate matters, I don't amount to much.  As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features."
p.11 (Gallic Books, 2014)
It's a wonderful start to the book, and typical of the first part, in which Faye introduces a man whom time has passed by, a bit of an oddity at work for not wanting to join everyone for drinks at the end of the day.

Shimura struggles through everyday life, forcing his way to work amid the noise of trams and cicadas, and life is gradually wearing him down.  He's becoming a fussy old man, dull and a little deluded, and the writer (and translator!) manages to show this perfectly, gently mocking his disdain of a centenarian on the television who has never drunk alcohol.  It doesn't occur to Shimura that he isn't exactly the life and soul of the party himself.

It's when we get to the discovery of the intruder that all this becomes relevant, as the discovery of the woman in his kitchen forces Shimura to take a good, hard look at his life; it's fair to say he doesn't exactly like what he sees.  In fact, Nagasaki is less about the crime itself than its causes and effects, with the woman's capture leading to a crisis of kinds for the innocent Shimura:
"And that wasn't all.  The woman's presence had somehow opened a tiny window on my consciousness, and through it I was able to see a little more clearly.  I understood that the year she and I had shared, even if she had avoided me and I had known nothing of her, was going to change me, and that already I was no longer the same.  How exactly, I couldn't have said.  But I knew I wouldn't escape unscathed." (pp.56/7)
In fact, the event is to affect him markedly.  Already obsessed with news of the increasing number of old people, and the robots being developed to look after them, Shimura realises that this is his fate - to die alone, in the care of a machine...

It's not all about Shimura, though.  Faye actually switches the point of view about two-thirds of the way through, and we get to hear the woman's side of the story and her reasons for the home invasions.  The writer is attempting to add another angle to the story, showing how easy it is to slip through the cracks without realising and end up with nowhere to go (it's no coincidence that this all happens around the time of the GFC).  However, for me, this final third is a little unnecessary, and I would have preferred the story to stick with Shimamura, leaving the woman's motives in the dark.  As the Japanese know full well, there's a lot to be said for leaving the reader to figure some things out for themselves...

Overall, this a lovely little book though, deftly written with sly humour everywhere in the first half.  I particularly enjoyed the focus on the grey Sanyo fridge, with its rather apt slogan of 'Always with You'...  There were also some nice Japanese touches, such as when Shimura starts to suspect that he might have to look beyond the purely natural to find answers:
"What deity would demand offerings of yogurt, a single pickled plum or some seaweed rice?  Never mind that I was raised a Catholic, I often go to feed our 'kami' at the local shrine, but it never occurred to me for one moment they would come into people's houses and help themselves." (p.31)
If only it had been the household gods stealing his food ;)

Despite my reservations about the final section, Nagasaki is an excellent read, a thought-provoking look at the loneliness of modern life.  It's a book which makes the reader think about their own social ties, wondering if they too might be looking forward to empty twilight years.  And, of course, the book has one other effect on the reader - you won't be forgetting to check your doors and windows in a hurry...

Sunday, 13 April 2014

'Where Tigers are at Home' by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (Review)

As you may have noticed, I've been rather occupied with translated fiction prizes recently, what with shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and casting occasional glances in the direction of the American Best Translated Book Award.  However, it's important to remember that (as I've mentioned on several occasions) the judges for these things are far from infallible - and today's book is one which, somehow or other seems to have fallen between the cracks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Which is quite a feat, seeing as it's a very big book ;)

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès' Where Tigers are at Home (translated by Mike Mitchell, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is a big book in every sense of the word.  Running to 817 pages in my beautiful hardback edition, the novel is a wonderful look at history, geography and many other sciences besides, all wrapped up in several related stories involving characters who manage to reach across time and space to have an effect on other people.

We start off with expatriate French correspondent, Eléazard von Wogau, a man living in the provinces of Brazil sending occasional reports back home about Brazilian news, most of which are simply ignored.  With his geologist wife, Elaine, having left him, and his daughter, Moéma, off having fun at university, von Wogau uses his time translating a document he has been sent, a biography of the life of famed seventeenth-century Jesuit and polymath Athanasius Kircher.  It's a fascinating story, and one which intrigues both von Wogau and the reader, but there's a lot more to Where the Tigers are at Home than that.

Eventually, the writer introduces several other strands to the tale: we follow Elaine von Wogau as she sets off on a perilous journey into the Brazilian interior in search of fossils; Moéma's story is played out on the beaches and in the shanty towns; Nelson, a young crippled beggar, gradually enters the story, destined to cross paths with several of the other characters; and Governor José Moreira, a corrupt politician with plans to transform the region, will eventually cast his shadow across all of the stories...

If one thing has come across from the few paragraphs I've written so far, it's that Where Tigers are at Home is a rather expansive and ambitious work.  It's one where the reader is compelled to take the writer's intentions on trust, as it takes a long time for the underlying framework of the novel to become clear.  With Caspar Schott's biography of his mentor Athanasius Kircher taking up a good third of the novel (these sections begin every chapter), an impatient reader may well give up before the story gets into second gear.  However, the book is well worth persisting with, and each of the strands is interesting in its own right.

As mentioned, the biography takes up the bulk of the novel, and on its own it's interesting to read.  It follows the (real-life) Kircher throughout his travels, as he wanders Europe in a quest for knowledge, hoping to unlock the secrets of the universe and link them all back to an all-powerful deity.  While he is undoubtedly a genius, the trouble is that he is working from a false premise - and almost everything he comes up with is completely lacking in facts...

Much of the humour from this part comes from the hapless Schott, the Doctor Watson to Kircher's Sherlock, and while his master braves evil to further the church's aims, it always seems to be the assistant who has to take one for the team.  A particularly memorable episode is when Caspar encounters a beautiful lady of high standing, who turns out to be more interested in worldly pleasures than in heavenly delights.  Poor Caspar, trapped by events, is forced to submit to her wishes:
"Lingua mea in nobilissimae os adacta, spiculum usque ad cor illi penetravit."
p.269 (Other Press, 2013)
It's a little too racy for me to put into English here, but if you are interested in Latin porn, there's always Google Translate ;)

The whole point of Kircher's story, though, is the way it reflects on events taking place in contemporary Brazil, as the actions described in Schott's biography mirror those elsewhere in the chapters.  The debauchery at the prince's house is contrasted both with an evening party at Governor Moreira's mansion and with a frenzied native ritual in the jungle.  When Kircher foils a charlatan who claims to have the secrets of alchemy at his fingertips, Nelson then tells us of a girl who was tempted with sweets, only to wake up with no eyes...

The title of the book comes from Goethe's Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), from a passage that says:
"No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity,
           and ideas are sure to change in a land where
                           elephants and tigers are at home."
However, as Eléazard argues with a friend, what this passage actually means is up for debate.  Are we obliged to travel the world and broaden our horizons, or does becoming aware of the wider world blind us to what is going on around us?  To paraphrase, is increasing globalisation a good thing?  As Eléazard remarks:
"What can one say of a population that is incapable of visualizing the world in which it lives except that it's on the road to ruin for lack of landmarks, of reference points?  For lack of reality... Is not the way the world has of henceforth resisting our efforts to represent it, the mischievous pleasure it takes in escaping us, a symptom of the fact that we have already lost it?  To lose sight of the world, is that not to begin to be happy with its disappearance?" (p.782)
A rather telling thought in the land of the rapidly disappearing rainforests.

It's here that the Brazilian side of the story comes into its own, as several of the protagonists have their own encounters with indigenous culture, all falling victim to the lure of the exotic.  Moéma's desire to atone for her privileged upbringing takes her to some rather dark places, while her lecturer, Roetgen, finds his own connection with the past on a fishing trip with some locals.  It's Elaine, though, who has the most confronting encounter - in pursuing knowledge from hundreds of millions of years ago, she is brought face to face with a slightly more recent past...

At which point, I have to simply give up on analysis and recommend you to the work instead.  There's far too much here to be covered in a single post, and in the end I'm reduced to offering tempting comparisons, hoping to entice you into giving Where Tigers are at Home a read.  One of those would undoubtedly be David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, for while the set-up is slightly different, both books share an overarching ambition and a desire to let people know that what we think we know is not always right - and that progress isn't always a good thing.  If you're the sort of person who was able to stay with Cloud Atlas, trusting that the writer was steering you in the right direction, then this might be a book for you :)

Sadly, as I said in my introduction, Where Tigers are at Home has been strangely overlooked.  The Dedalus Books UK edition pretty much sank without trace, and while Other Press' US version has received more praise, it was still, inexplicably overlooked for the BTBA longlist this year.  Why?  Well, it's a rather off-putting beast, and I suspect that many people simply couldn't bring themselves to give it a go.  A book centred on a Jesuit priest, a novel which you might struggle to lift if you haven't been eating your greens - I can see how that could be a bit of a hard sell.

However, while taking a leap of faith isn't always a good idea (and there are several examples of that in the book...), this is one time when it's definitely worth the risk.  Yes, there might be tigers out there, but if you don't venture out into the literary jungle from time to time, you're never going to stumble across the gold that's buried in its midst.  Deep breath, turn the page - and off you go ;)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

'Exposure' by Sayed Kashua (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 11)

After a little time in Iraq, today's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize stopover takes us to Israel, where we'll hang around in Jerusalem and meet a couple of the country's Arab inhabitants.  They're very different people, but their lives are inextricably bound - by a small scrap of paper...

Exposure by Sayed Kashua - Chatto & Windus
(translated by Mitch Ginsberg)
What's it all about?
We first meet a lawyer in Jerusalem, a young Arab living in comfort with his wife and two children.  While he's happy with his lot, he knows deep down that he has missed out on certain facets of a more cultural upbringing, so he likes to buy books from time to time (even if he doesn't always read them...) in an attempt to build up some cultural street cred.

One day though, after buying a copy of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, he finds that he's getting more than he bargained for.  Inside the book, there's a love letter - one which the lawyer is convinced is in his wife's handwriting.  It's at this point that we jump back a few years to a second strand of the story, one in which a young social worker is about to meet an attractive young woman.  Perhaps the lawyer's suspicions aren't that far off the truth...

Exposure is an interesting, highly plot-driven book, a novel which, in addition to constructing a race against time over two different periods, takes a look at the lives of the (successful) Arabs of the Israeli state:
"Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors - brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities, a few thousand people, living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside.  They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable."
p.10 (Chatto & Windus, 2013)
Our lawyer is a prime representative of these people, and he has become fairly successful in his dealings with the poorer Arabs living in Jerusalem.

The social worker is a different story.  He has just started out on his professional path, wasting his time in a clinic where there's very little to do.  An outsider from a young age, he's in no hurry to return to his village, detesting the overgrown children who strut about there:
"I couldn't figure out how it was that these overgrown kids could still intimidate me.  You idiots, you assholes, if only you knew what I know.  If only you knew what you look like to people who don't live in these little hole-in-the-wall towns.  If only you could see how lame your lives are.  If you had even the slightest awareness of your social status, you'd lock yourself up in your house and never come out." (p.273)
However, he's also struggling to find a place for himself in a confusing, alien society, a second-class citizen living amongst the elite.  It's then that he begins a part-time job looking after a young Jewish man in a coma, a man who he actually resembles physically.  This resemblance leads to an idea which will both change his life and threaten the lawyer's attempts to track him down years later.

This book was published in the US under the title Second Person Singular, and both the title and the cover (with an Arab man hiding his face behind a book with a Jewish man's face on the cover) hint at a subtle, literary text.  This UK version, by contrast, is going for more of a thriller vibe, with its short title, familiar thriller-style design and an intriguing blurb:
"Maybe it was just a game, I don't know.  But suddenly, I was someone else, someone unfamiliar, foreign..."
Having read the book, I tend to think that the British publisher had the right idea - this is a book to pitch to thriller readers, not fans of literary fiction...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, sorry, not in my opinion.  It's not a bad book - although it starts very slowly, the pace slowly increases, and it's definitely a page-turner.  The two-strand idea works well, culminating in a meeting which closes the story off nicely (I'm still not completely sure whether the ending is clever or cheesy though...).  It's not really a book that I'd expect to see in this kind of prize, however, with some fairly pedestrian prose in places.

While it's actually not the worst of the books I've read from the longlist so far, I'd have been very disappointed if this had made it into the final six.  Which is not to say that I wouldn't recommend it.  If you like the sound of this plot, please go ahead and read it - just don't expect anything too profound...

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
I'm not really sure why it made the longlist, to be honest...

Well, moving on from Israel, it's time to pack up and head off to Japan, where we'll be meeting a whole array of characters in a fairly short book.  Once again, however, things beneath the surface are a lot darker than they first appear - if you were looking forward to a happy read, you might be waiting a while...

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

IFFP 2014 - Two Shortlists

Well, the judges began about a month back by announcing fifteen candidates for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the field has now been cut to just six.  While nine books will retreat, licking their wounds, the remaining half-dozen will live to fight another day, all hoping to be crowned top dog in May :) 

Just who are those top six?  Well, it's actually a top ten - you see, the Shadow Panel, as always, sees things a little differently ;)

The Official Shortlist

The Shadow Shortlist

This year, there are only two books overlapping (The Mussel Feast and A Man in Love), and while there's nothing on the official list which offends me (unlike the previous two years), I'd still have to say that the Shadow list is far stronger.  Lovers of beautiful prose will be dismayed at the exclusion of The Sorrow of Angels, The Infatuations and Brief Loves that Live Forever from the official list, and several people had The Corpse Washer down as a dark horse for the entire thing.  Still, Stu, David, Jacqui, Bellezza, Tony and myself all have the chance to give them their moment in the sun, as they're still in with a shout of the Shadow Prize :)

As for the real thing, a few points to note.  Firstly,three of the shortlisted works are by women, and while I can't help but feel that this is a deliberate choice, given the discussions about the lack of submissions by female writers in recent years, they're all great books and worthy of the attention.

Secondly, two of them are short-story collections, and that's a big surprise (I know a certain blogger who will be very happy to hear of their inclusion!).  Short stories don't always fare well in these competitions, so well done to both Ogawa and Blasim.

Finally, I'm very happy for two of my favourite small presses, Comma Press and Peirene Press, for managing to get a book onto the shortlist.  Peirene have had four successive longlistings, but this is their first shortlisting - well done!  Oh, and can I just say I told you so... ;)

That's all for the shortlists then - now we look ahead to the unveiling of this year's grand champion, the Yokozuna of the translated fiction world.  The official prize will be announced on the 22nd of May, and I'm sure the slightly more prestigious Shadow Prize will be awarded a day or two before.  Stick around, though - there's a lot more to read and discuss before all that happens :)

Sunday, 6 April 2014

'At Least We Can Apologize' by Lee Ki-ho (Review)

It's time for another selection from Dalkey Archive's Library of Korean Literature, and today's choice is a fairly recent one, a novel which looks at modern society and all the bad things that exist within it.  You haven't read it?  Please, no need for apologies...

Lee Ki-Ho's At Least We Can Apologize (translated by Christopher J. Dykas, review copy courtesy of the publisher) starts off in a mental institute, where two men, Si-bong and our narrator Ji-man, are whiling away their days, taking their pills and packing socks for sale to the outside world.  Suddenly, though, they are co-opted by a new inmate into appealing to that outside world for help, and shortly afterwards they find themselves released, free to return to their former lives.

As Ji-man has no memory of his home, the two stay with Si-bong's sister, Si-yeon, but with few skills their lack of money soon starts to bite.  One thing they're very good at, however (a skill picked up in the institute), is their ability to apologise, and with the help of Si-yeon's partner, they begin a business offering their apologising skills to the public.  Soon though, they discover that a case they've been offered, one involving a man who abandoned his family, might just be a little more than they can cope with...

The book revolves around a very clever idea.  For two men with limited intelligence trying to reintegrate into society, the only thing they really have to offer is a keen sense of the idea of 'wrongs' and apologies.  It may sound bizarre at first, but it's a service that is more in demand than you may think, particularly when you consider that everyone has something to hide if they look hard enough.

These 'skills' were first developed at the institute, and much of the important action happens there, mostly in the form of flashbacks.  It's here that the casual tone is interrupted by the brutal truth of time inside:
"After we confessed a wrong, we always made sure to commit it.  That was on account of feeling unsettled after having the confession in our heads all day long.  So, on days we said we didn't take our medicine, we really threw it away instead of taking it.  On days we said we'd cursed the superintendent in the bathroom, we really cursed him,  We made sure to commit exactly the wrongs we confessed, and only those wrongs.  Only that way could we ease our minds and sleep soundly."
p.26 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
In fact, the inmates are persecuted by the 'caretakers', and these confessions  are accompanied by savage beatings.  The abuse doesn't stop there though - the two friends are also used to cover up some inconvenient occurrences...

Lee uses a deliberately understated, neutral style, one excellently conveyed in English by Dykas, and we can only infer that this is meant to be representative of the limited intelligence of the narrator.  Despite this, there's often a surprisingly dark humour running though the novel too - as when Jin-man thinks back to the institute's superintendent:
"Sometimes he would suggest we put on a play.  He said that it would help our treatment.  We were always the mother, and the superintendent was always the child being spanked.  The dialogue was always the same: We would spank the superintendent on the behind with a pointer while shouting, "That's it?! Is that the best you can do?!"  Then the superintendent would yell out loudly, "Mother! Mother, please, more! Hit me more!"  With his behind facing us, raised high into the air, sometimes he would even start to bawl.  Then, when the play was over, he would give us chocolate milk or a yogurt drink." (p.45)
Even in telling us this story, Jin-man doesn't blink an eyelid...

Having developed a tough mental shell, the two friends are able to carry out their apologies and are surprisingly effective at manipulating people into using their services.  It's not an easy job though.  You see, apologising involves taking whatever action is deemed necessary to right the wrong, and the bigger the wrong, the more drastic the action required to right it.  The case which they take on involves a pretty big wrong, and the price of the apology seems far too high.  However, this is where a bit of lateral thinking comes in handy - sometimes thinking differently can be a distinct advantage.

At Least We Can Apologize is a clever, cutting look at society seen through the eyes of an outsider.  While Jin-man and Si-bong are treated like little children, when you see all the sex, violence and abuse happening around them, you begin to wonder.  At times, it's difficult to decide who the crazy ones really are in this novel.

It's an interesting story, one which ends ambiguously in many ways.  As mentioned, Lee has done an excellent job in constructing Jin-man's voice, allowing him to manipulate the reader's opinions of the main characters.  Despite the signposting and clues, the way matters come to a head is still a rude shock.  It seems that no matter how much you apologise, in the modern world, you just can't trust anyone.

I'm sorry about that - I really am...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

March 2014 Wrap-Up

March is, of course, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize month, and once the longlist was announced, I leapt straight into it (luckily, I'd already finished seven of them...).  Still, with enforced waits owing to library lists and delivery times from overseas, it was a good job I had a few other books to tide me over ;)

The stats?  This way...

Total Books Read: 17

Year-to-Date: 34

New: 12

Rereads: 5

From the Shelves: 6
Review Copies: 7
From the Library: 3
On the Kindle: 3 (2 review copies)

Novels: 11
Novellas: 3
Short Stories: 2
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 14 (5 Japanese, 2 Korean, Russian, Swedish, Icelandic, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish)
In Original Language: 0
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)

Books reviewed in March were:
1) Ekaterini by Marija Knežević
2) The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov
3) No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin
4) Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir
5) Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov
6) The Dark Road by Ma Jian
7) Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

Tony's Turkey for March is:
Auður Ava Olafsdóttir's Butterflies in November

While Butterflies in November wasn't an awful book, it simply wasn't what I would have expected from one on the IFFP longlist - slightly disappointing.

Tony's Recommendation for March is:

Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes

Not many reviews to choose from in March, and to be honest there weren't really many strong candidates.  Honorable mentions go to Vladimir Lorchenkov and (especially) Jang Eun-jin, but Le Grand Meaulnes was really in a class of its own this month...


Looking ahead to April, there'll be the rest of my IFFP reviews (although the reading should all be done by now); in fact, there'll be a lot of posts going up as I read a heap of books in March.  Something to look forward to, then ;)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

'The Corpse Washer' by Sinan Antoon (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 10)

Stop number ten on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize magical mystery tour takes us back to Iraq, a country we last visited in encountering The Iraqi Christ.  Today's book also has a religious side as we meet a young man involved with sending people on their way to the afterlife - with a few bowls of water...

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon - Yale University Press
(translated by the author)
What's it all about?
Jawad, the son of an Iraqi mghassilchi (washer of corpses), is expected to follow in his father's footsteps, especially after his brother's death in the Iran-Iraq war.  The young man has other ideas though, having been inspired by one of his teachers to become an artist, later choosing to concentrate on sculpture.  Braving his father's disapproval, he decides to escape the cool, dark wash-house and dreams of studying abroad.

However, these dreams are dashed by the outbreak, and aftermath, of the Second Gulf War.  With Baghdad occupied by American troops, the idea of time at a European university seems light-years away, and when his father dies, Jawad is forced to rethink his decisions.  Money is scarce, but in a city rocked by sectarian violence, corpses are not...

The Corpse Washer was a surprise to most of the Shadow Panelists, perhaps the least-known of the books on the longlist.  It was definitely a nice surprise though, an elegant little book which gives a fascinating insight into a time and place which, while  known superficially from the news, is in reality almost completely alien.

The book begins by introducing the concept of the mghaysil, a place for Muslims to be ritually cleaned before being buried.  Jawad's father is a master of the art, and for decades he has been preparing the people of the city for their final resting place in a calm, professional, caring manner.  At this point, the writer describes the process masterfully, choosing to use short, simple unhurried sentences, dispensing with sequencing words; it all gives the impression of a well-rehearsed ritual, taking away any mixed feelings the reader may have on entering a house of the dead.

This life is not for Jawad, though.  Even on his first professional visit, there to help his father out during the summer holidays, we sense that this is not what he wants for himself.  On a later visit, the signs are even more ominoums
"I got to the mghaysil, the washhouse.  The door was ajar.  I crossed the walkway and saw the Qur'anic verse "Every soul shall taste death" in beautiful Diwani script hanging over the door.  The yellowish paint on the wall was peeling away because of the humidity from the washing.  Father was sitting in the left corner of the side room on a wooden chair listening to the radio.  Death's traces - its scents and memories - were present in every inch of that place.  As if death were the real owner and Father merely an employee working for it and not for God, as he liked to think."
p.11 (Yale University Press, 2013)
For Jawad, this is the realm of death, and for a young man bursting with life, escape is the only possible choice.

As much as The Corpse Washer is a story of Jawad's choices, it's also a picture of Iraq during the American occupation.  This is the period that Antoon focuses on, and the occupying forces, while only briefly shown, do not come off in a good light, being portrayed as uninterested in preventing the inevitable decay of Baghdad.  Of course, suicide bombers and power cuts don't help the situation any, and when Jawad's uncle returns from Europe for a visit, he's astounded by what he sees:
"Wasn't this the most beautiful neighborhood?  Look at it now.  Then you have all this garbage, dust, barbed wires, and tanks.  There aren't any women walking down the street anymore!  This is not the Baghdad I'd imagined.  Not just in terms of the people.  Even the poor palm trees are tired and no one takes care of them.  Believe me, these Americans, with their ignorance and racism, will make people long for Saddam's days." (p.96)
Baghdad was a city long known for tolerance and learning, but the American occupation, far from restoring the city to its former glories, unfortunately appears to have made things worse.

In the end, though, the reader always returns to Jawad and his journey.  Despite his best attempts to escape, through art, love and flight, he is destined to return to the mghaysil, unable to throw aside a rather weighty legacy.  Like the old pomegranate tree outside the wash-house, kept fresh by the water running from the body of corpses, Jawad's life is made possible by the wages of death, his whole existence financed by corpses.  The question we are left with is whether that's really such a bad thing...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
My initial feeling was not quite.  It's not that the book isn't very good - on the contrary, it's probably one of the finds of the longlist.  However, while there are few real stand-outs this year, the level of the top eight or so books is very high, and I'm not sure this one quite makes it into the top six. 

One reason for this is the way the American occupation is handled.  With the Iran-Iraq war and the brutality of the Saddam regime glossed over, it seems a little strange to focus purely on this period as a bad one.  No doubt this would not come across in the same way to an Iraqi reading the original Arabic text, but to me the style of the book as a whole was interrupted by some of these scenes.

I'm also on the fence a little about the self-translation decision.  It's definitely not a bad translation, and you sense that the writer has been able to give the book a flavour that an outsider might not have been able to recreate.  However, there were a few inconsistencies and odd phrasings which I felt that a more accomplished translator would have ironed out.  Of course, the main problem with translating the book yourself is that everyone knows you did it - and is waiting to pounce on errors ;)

Coming back to the question, I'm starting to change my mind a little.  It's been about a week since I finished The Corpse Washer, and its stocks have continued to rise.  Hmm - I think I'll reserve judgement here ;)

Will it make the shortlist?
I think it'll go close :)  I wonder which book will impress the judges more - the calm, elegant prose of The Corpse Washer or the horrifying, heart-breaking violence of Ma Jian's The Dark Road.  If they decide to go down the literary path, I think Antoon's book may have a shot, but this is the IFFP, and you never know what those judges are thinking...

Time to wrap things up in Iraq then and get moving.  No need to hurry though, as our next destination isn't too far away - I'll meet you all in Jerusalem for the next leg of our IFFP journey :)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

'The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature' by Michael Emmerich (Review)

Despite having read many works of Japanese literature over the past five years or so, one which I haven't managed to get around to as yet is the undisputed classic of J-Lit, Murasaki Shikibu's epic The Tale of Genji.  Having decided, then, that 2014 is the year to rectify this shortcoming, I thought that a nice way to warm up for the main event might be to learn a little more about the book and its history.  But how, you might ask?  Well, it's funny you should say that...

The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature (from Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a non-fiction work by well-known scholar and translator Michael Emmerich, in which he takes a close look at the legacy of Lady Murasaki's classic novel.  Surprisingly, though, it's not a work which lingers overly on the actual book itself; instead, Emmerich discusses the myth of The Tale of Genji as the quintessentially Japanese novel and focuses his energy on some fairly surprising areas.

The book begins in November 2008, with Japan in full Murasaki fever, ready to celebrate the millenium of her work.  As the nation rejoices in Genji's anniversary, praising a novel which has been read for a thousand years, Emmerich takes the reader by the hand, leading them back to the early nineteenth century - where we discover that the idea that The Tale of Genji was always popular is actually not all that accurate.

The truth of the matter is that the 1673 Kogetsushō edition of the book was to be the last new publication of the novel for over two centuries, which meant that while most people had heard of The Tale of Genji, by the start of the nineteenth century, very few had actually ever seen a copy.  When you also take into account the fact that the original book was written in an archaic Japanese, rendered in a script illegible to the uninitiated, you begin to realise that Murasaki's work was in danger of becoming nothing more than a faded memory...

So why is The Tale of Genji world-renowned today?  Emmerich has several explanations for this, and they all revolve around the idea of translation, in one form or another:
"Any academic study of 'Genji' will inevitably connect, then, in one way or another, to the fields of canonization and translation studies, and to the recent burgeoning interest in world literature."
p.8 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
However, this idea of 'translation' is not limited to what we would expect (a version appearing in a foreign language) - the word is used in a much wider context, explaining a wide range of adaptations.

The first of Emmerich's 'translation' choices is an illustrated serial which began appearing in 1829, Ryūtei Tanehiko's Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (A Fraudulent Murasaki's Bumpkin Genji).  This work, a beautifully-illustrated adaptation of the original Genji, brought Murasaki's story back into the minds of the ordinary people, preventing the classic from disappearing completely from view.  Emmerich devotes the first half of his book to Tanehiko's creation, arguing that far from being a cheap knock-off of a sacred text, the Inaka Genji was actually a worthy adaptation of Genji itself, one that replaced the original in the eyes of most Japanese.

Another important step was the translation of the original work into English, and here too the writer is eager to right common misconceptions.  While many credit Arthur Waley's full translation of The Tale of Genji (the first volume of which was published in 1925) with spreading awareness of the work in the West, Emmerich shows that the earlier partial translation by Kenchō Suematsu in 1882 actually made a much bigger splash than many people realise.  It is Suematsu's work, both in translating and promoting The Tale of Genji, that raises the profile of the novel and leads to the first modern reprints of the book in Japan in 1890 - translation leading to a reappreciation of the text in its native country :)

Finally, Emmerich turns his focus towards the first translations of the original text into modern Japanese, a turn of events which allows ordinary Japanese readers to experience the book for the first time.  However, even here, he has a few surprises up his sleeve.  Instead of heaping all the praise on Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, the famous writer who published three modern translations of the classic, Emmerich again looks at two slightly neglected figures when he apportions praise.

The first is Akiko Yosano, a poet who actually brought out a modern translation of The Tale of Genji a quarter of a century before Tanizaki did.  The second is Hakuchō Masamune, a literary critic whose essays on Genji, particularly the ones written after having read Waley's translation, were a major factor in influencing Tanizaki to take up his pen on behalf of Lady Murasaki and her amorous hero.  As he said:
"I have the feeling, though, that if this English translation were translated anew into Japanese, it might attract a large and avid readership that would enjoy it as one of the great novels of the world." (p.328)
And Tanizaki was obviously listening.  Were it not for these two unsung heroes, Genji's return into the public domain may have been even further delayed...

While a little scholarly at a times, Emmerich's book is eminently readable, even for lay persons such as myself, and the story behind Genji's resurrection from literary oblivion is a wonderful one.  The first half of the book, centring on Inaka Genji, contains many fascinating illustrations, and the writer explains their significance so skilfully that the reader almost envies the old Tokyoites (Edoites!), wishing there was a copy of Tanehiko's book to hand.  Perhaps not everyone will be as intrigued as I was - however, this is a book that anyone with an interest in Japanese literature is sure to enjoy.

And yet....  There's something missing from Emmerich's book, for all its dedicated research, and that's the original itself.  You see, after four-hundred pages about the modern history of the work, I am still, unbelievably, none the wiser as to what actually happens in Murasaki's story!  Some might say that this is an unforgivable oversight on Emmerich's part, but in fact the opposite is true.  All this talk about Genji has just whetted my appetite for the real thing :)

That's enough for today, but if you liked the sound of all this, stay tuned for some more Genji news - I'll be setting off on my great journey soon enough, and I'll be happy to have some companions along for the ride...

***Footprint Books say that this book is available in good Australian bookshops and directly through their website :)

Sunday, 30 March 2014

'Le Grand Meaulnes' by Alain-Fournier (Review)

After working my way through a whole pile of review copies in an attempt to give myself some breathing space before my IFFP reading got underway, it was time for something a little different, a return to old comforts.  I was looking for something I hadn't read in a while, and I also wanted to practice my increasingly rusty and creaky French before I found it too difficult to bother with.  The answer?  Well, my shelves have something for every occasion ;)

Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913, has become a true French classic.  It's the story of François Seurel, a teenage student, whose life is turned upside-down one day by the arrival of another boarder at the Seurels' village school - Augustin Meaulnes.  Le grand Meaulnes, as he is soon dubbed by his classmates (both for his size and his charisma), becomes firm friends with the smaller, frailer François, taking over as the head of the class, the shining star of the establishment.

One day, however, Meaulnes skips school, having decided to take a horse and cart to pick up François' grandparents from a distant railway station.  Unfortunately, he fails to return that day, with the horse and cart being returned after dark by a traveller who found them abandoned in the middle of nowhere.  A few days later, just as François' father is on the verge of departing to tell Meaulnes' mother of his disappearance, the weary student makes a dramatic entrance into the schoolroom.  Once he has recovered, François persuades him to tell the story of his journey - and it's a very good one...

Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful story of the magic of youth, a time when all kinds of adventures seem possible.  François (along with the reader) lives vicariously through Meaulnes' hopes and dreams of finding his true love.  However, in the final part of the book, it becomes a more sombre adult affair, a tragedy of dashed hopes and expectations.

The story revolves around Meaulnes' brief stay at 'le domaine perdu', a lost estate in the middle of nowhere.  Eight days before Christmas, the daring young student finds himself in a run-down, semi-deserted castle, in the middle of his very own fairy tale.  On a walk through the grounds, he glances into a stream and barely recognises himself:
"Il s'aperçut lui-même reflété dans l'eau, comme incliné sur le ciel, dans son costume d'étudiant romantique.  Et il crut voir un autre Meaulnes ; non plus l'écolier qui s'était évadé dans une carriole de paysan, mais un être charmant et romanesque, au milieu d'un beau livre de prix..."
p.78 (Fayard - le Livre de Poche, 1983)

"He noticed himself reflected in the water, as if angled towards the sky, in his disguise of a romantic student.  And he saw another Meaulnes; no longer the student who had made off in a farmer's cart, but another being, charming and novelesque, in the middle of a fine romance..."
(my translation)
The strange lights and laughing children he then encounters are heralds of preparations for the arrival of Frantz de Galais and his new bride - you see, he's gatecrashed a wedding...

It's here that he encounters the sister of the prospective groom, Yvonne de Galais, a beautiful, unreachable fairytale princess, and he falls hopelessly in love.  However, having left in the dark, with no idea of the direction his carriage has taken, Meaulnes is unable to find out exactly where he has been.  On returning to the drab everyday life of his studies, he vows to spend his youth searching for the scene of the wedding, hoping desperately to find the young woman who has stolen his heart.

Finally, through François, he uncovers the secret of the lost estate - and the two young lovers meet again:
"Puis le group entoura Mlle de Galais.  On lui présenta les jeunes filles et les jeunes gens qu'elles ne connaissait pas...  Le tour allait venir de mon compagnon ; et je me sentais aussi anxieux qu'il pouvait l'être.  Je me disposais à faire moi-même cette présentation.
  Mais avant que j'eusse pu rien dire, la jeune fille s'avançait vers lui avec une décision et une gravité surprenantes :
  "Je reconnais Augustin Meaulnes", dit-elle.
  Et elle lui tendit la main." (p.204)

"Then the group gathered around Madamoiselle de Galais.  They introduced the young girls and the young folk she didn't know...  It was almost the turn of my companion; and I felt every bit as nervous as he must have been himself.  I readied myself to make the introduction.
  But before I could say a word, the young woman moved towards him with surprising decisiveness and gravity:
  "I recognise Augustin Meaulnes", she said.
  And she offered him her hand."
So everything ends up happily ever after?  Not quite - unfortunately, life doesn't always run like a fairytale...

While the the book is entitled Le Grand Meaulnes, in fact, it is just as much about Seurel, and the longer the story goes on, the more he comes to demand our attention.  François grows up and matures, gaining a position as a village teacher and having to take care of his friends.  As Meaulnes dashes off on his fairytale adventures, Seurel is the one left behind in the real world.  The poor young man also has to deal with his unspoken love for Yvonne, which is subordinated to his platonic love for Meaulnes; in the end, he is left with sadness, and crushed hopes...

Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful novel with some beautiful writing.  In addition to a compelling, fascinating story, the book is full of elegant description, especially of the country surrounding the villages.  It's a story about fairytales and what comes afterwards, and the writer explores what happens after the end of the conventional myth.  When the two lovers find each other, and the reader closes the book happily, it's really just the start of the story.

My edition came with an introduction and a detailed afterword (the French are very big on supplementing their classics...), allowing me to discover that the novel was based on actual events.  The setting is the fictionalised scene of Alain-Fournier's childhood, and the romance with Madamoiselle de Galais is based on the writer's own unrequited love for a young woman named Yvonne de Quiévrecourt.  Allowing his creation to find his true love was, perhaps, the writer's way of dealing with his sadness.

Sadly, Le Grand Meaulnes was Alain-Fournier's only novel.  The First World war broke out the year after its publication, and towards the end of 1914, the writer was killed in battle - his body was never found.  With a life, and career, cut tragically short, all that remains as his legacy is a wonderful novel of shattered dreams...

Thursday, 27 March 2014

'The Dark Road' by Ma Jian (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 9)

After a couple of diversions, I'm back on my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey, with today's leg taking us on a watery trip though the Chinese provinces.  A word of warning before we begin, though - this is most definitely not one for the faint of heart (or weak of stomach)...

The Dark Road by Ma Jian - Chatto & Windus
(translated by Flora Drew)
What's it all about?
Meili is a young woman pregnant with her second child, which in most places would be a cause for celebration.  Sadly, this is late-twentieth-century China, and the womb is the property of the state, meaning that for those who get pregnant without permission, the so-called Family Planning Officers are able to come and issue fines - or worse.

With Meili's husband, Kongzi (a seventy-sixth-generation descendant of Confucius) set on producing a male heir, the small family is forced to flee their home village, taking to the polluted waterways in an attempt to find a safe place to bring a son into the world.  Sadly, there are few safe places in this country, particularly for those unfortunate enough to be born both peasants and poor - this is a journey which will take a very, very long time...

A warning - The Dark Road is one of the most upsetting books I've ever read.  From the very first chapter, Ma plunges the reader into a chaotic, brutal world where our nerves are shredded simply by reading about Meili's experiences.  Every time that Meili and Kongzi appear to be making headway, you can guarantee that there's another disaster waiting around the corner, each more horrible than the last.

It's a novel of life in a totalitarian state, a country which has taken control of the most basic functions of life.  Most people will have heard of the One-Child Policy, but few will have envisaged the way in which it was carried out:
p.15 (Chatto & Windus, 2013)
The state has its eye on all women of child-bearing age, jumping in with mandatory IUD insertion and forced sterilisations, seemingly on a whim.  With slogans like this posted and painted on walls all over the towns and villages, it's a wonder that women dare to fall pregnant at all.

That they do, and this is certainly the case with Meili, is mainly due to the importance of the male heir in Chinese society.  In fact, while the state may have primary control of the uterus, the husband is next in line, well before the woman herself.  As one of Meili's friends comments:
"Take my advice: never rely on a husband for your happiness.  The government persecute men, then men persecute their wives in return." (p.26)
Much of Meili's suffering is brought about by the stubbornness of her husband.  A kind, educated, decent man, he is simply unable to accept life without a son and is determined to do anything he can to fulfil his filial duty.  You'd think that the well-being of his wife and daughter would take priority when the Family Planning Officers are (literally) above the law - you'd be wrong...

The novel is about far more than the effects of the One-Child Policy though.  The family's flight southwards allows the writer to take aim at several other contemporary Chinese issues.  Some of them are environmental, such as the effect on the communities forcibly relocated to make way for the impending Three Gorges Dam and the horrific pollution caused by the dumping of recycled electronic products in Guangdong Province.  The picture Ma paints of this part of China is not a pretty one.

However, the novel also explores the plight of the 'peasant' in a country where (as was the case in countries like France and Russia centuries ago) free movement is impossible.  Meili dreams of becoming a city dweller, but while she is able to mimic city fashions, she has little hope of actually making it one day:
"So, what documents do you need to avoid arrest?" Dai asks, brushing some white cotton fluff from his jumper.
"Identity card, health certificate, temporary urban residence permit, temporary work permit, birth permit, marriage licence..." Kongzi says, rattling off the list.  "But even if you have them all, if you are in a big town or city, and you look like a peasant, they'll still arrest you.  And once you're in handcuffs, they'll squeeze as much money from you as they can." (p.101)
With corrupt officials all around, one false step will see Meili lose all the ground she has painstakingly made over years.  It's not easy being a 'peasant'.

In the end though, the story always comes back to Meili and the fight for a chance to raise her children in freedom.  It's an incredible tale, made all the more chilling by the realisation that it's mostly true.  The writer spent time incognito in China researching the information - not only could this happen, it did, every day...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Personally, I'm undecided.  The Dark Road is an excellent book, both fascinating and compelling, but it has one flaw for me, and that is the way the writer strings the reader along with his plotting.  While it's an important novel, one which allows us to witness events we would not have been able to experience otherwise, there are far too many cliffhangers and dramatic scenes.  Ma deliberately ratchets up the tension time and time again before finally unloading the next bombshell - it's certainly effective, but I felt manipulated at times, and that took the novel down a few points in my estimation.

Will it make the shortlist?
Almost definitely.  This has all the makings of a potential winner, ticking just about every IFFP box you can think of.  In my BTBA v IFFP discussion a while back, one idea that came up was that the British prize is very much concerned with problems and social issues, and this is a fairly major one.  A couple of years back, Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village, a novel about an AIDS epidemic in China brought about by a drive for selling blood, made the shortlist (and was highly commended) - The Dark Road is a far better novel.  Don't be surprised if you see Ma Jian and Flora Drew (writer and translator, husband and wife) accepting the prize in May :)

Time to move on, and while I'd love something cheery after all these dramas, I suspect that I'm unlikely to get it.  The next stop on the tour is Iraq, and in a country devastated by war, there are pretty much guaranteed to be corpses...