Category Archives: Japanese Literature

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802128256
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The comfort in the constant. That’s how I have preferred to live life, to be honest. It never happens this way. Not all the time. Not ever, come to think of it. Yet, I have also learned how to turn the change into being constant over a period of time. Isn’t that what it is really? The humdrum of the sameness. The monotony of the constant. The familiar is utmost reassuring if nothing else. But that’s just for me, and rereading “Convenience Store Woman” got all those feelings to the fore, emerging one by one from the shadows, overwhelming me to the point of tears.

I shall try not to get the personal involved in this review. I try, but I do not guarantee. Anyway, back to the book. Sayaka Murata has written close to ten novels (I think) and this is the first time one of her books is translated to English. I read this book for the first time last year. There were too many emotions I was dealing with after finishing it. Most of them were a product of the read. The loneliness, the making peace with it, the awareness of using the familiar as a crutch, the times I had ideas or thoughts I shouldn’t have had – all of these were in sync with the protagonist Keiko Furukura’s way of being. I related so strongly with her (most of her, not all) that I was almost scared of reviewing this book.

August is the month of women in translation. This is my first read of the month and a reread that I enjoyed and loved. So here goes: As the title suggests, the book is about a Convenience Store and a person who works there. Keiko considered herself reborn once she joined the store. Her life is divided almost into two parts – before and after joining the store. She is awkward, she is clueless about how to fit in the world, and she struggles with day-to-day interactions. Yet, beneath the surface there is the Keiko that wants to blend in, wants to feel included, and live life according to the manual – get married, have kids, and get people off your back. Keiko has been made to feel like “damaged goods” throughout her life – by her parents, friends, baby sister, and colleagues. The idea of “change” or “cure” oneself runs deep in the book. It is in a way the plot-point through which Murata mocks the society we inhabit.

The book deals with so many broad questions that people face every single day. I will get to that in a bit. Though the book is set in Japan, it is universal in its approach. Murata touches on loneliness, middle-age, the way we see ourselves against the parameters set by society (marriage, child-birth, job satisfaction, what job you do, whether you fit in or not, and the gender stereotypes set for us from the time we are born), and above all of this the need to belong at a very basic level – that of acceptance.

Keiko and Shiraha (A part-time worker at the store. That’s all I can reveal about him) are so different and of course similar on all counts. Murata’s characters are constantly on the edge, on the brink of falling apart or coming together to save what they can of themselves, and more than anything they are about life being lived in the mundane with pragmatism and ironically hope at the same time.

The translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori is nuanced in every single way, and like I said would appeal to every single reader, in any part of the world. Ginny transports us to the store, and Keiko’s world with a sudden rush as it should be and before you know it, as a reader you don’t want to leave the world created by Murata. For every translation, it must be so difficult to get the exact phrase, the nature of the dream, aspirations, and thoughts of characters down to pat the way the author intended it. The translator also then is nothing but a co-writer of the book in the truest sense of the word.

Convenience Store Woman’s title when read in Japanese is Convenience Store Human or Person and that to me makes more sense. It somehow adds that layer of making it common – of the tonality it deserves even if it is also in the title. But that is something that can be overlooked in a jiffy only because the book is par excellence. It touches all the notes – the awkward ones, the peculiar, the bitingly familiar, the hauntingly real, the one that sets you apart, and achingly wants to be a part of the world at large. This August, it being Women in Translation, please do read this book. You must.

 

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Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami. Translated by Lucy North.

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Author: Hiromi Kawakami
Translated from the Japanese by Lucy North
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1782272717
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella, Short Stories, Japanese Novellas
Pages: 156
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Record of a Night Too Brief” is a weird book and that I say in a good way. It took me some time to wind my head around it, but it proved to be a very satisfying read, nonetheless. This book is a collection of three fantastical short stories and on the surface, while they all seem to be rather easy and direct, they are anything but that.

In the first titular story, there are dream sequences (reminded me a lot of Murakami when that happened), talking animals, shrinking girls, mathematics, and a night-sky that you should only experience while reading this story.

The second one titled, “Missing” is about a sister mourning for her missing brother, while her entire family is rejoicing the fact of his would-be-wife entering the household. This is my favourite story in the book and you will know why when you read it.

The last story is called “A Snake Stepped On” where a woman accidentally steps on a snake, the snake is transformed to a girl and follows her home, thus living with the woman and her family.

You might think it to be super strange but like I said before, while these stories are strange, they are entertaining and profound to a large extent. These stories are about three women, trying to make their way in this world, surrounded by strange circumstances. In this way then, all these stories are sure inter-linked.

The writing cannot be bracketed in any genre. It is refreshing, haunting and almost new (Like I said, it did remind me of Murakami to some extent). I’ve read Kawakami’s books earlier and I must say that this happens to be her best, according to me. She has truly evolved as a writer in this one.

Lucy North has translated this book to perfection, because I didn’t feel anything lacking in it. If you want to start with contemporary Japanese literature and understand its people and way of life, I would most certainly urge you to read this collection.

Men without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Title: Men Without Women: Stories
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780451494627
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

When Murakami writes, you sit up and take notice. It happens to me every single time I pick up his books – he shocks me out of my existence, and takes me to a world of missing cats or women, jazz, elephants even, books – more so noir ones, and places where one loses their soul and don’t know how to get it back. His world is weird but I must also admit that it is pretty close to the one in which we live – only we don’t see it that clearly, whereas he has managed to and that’s why has the capacity to sweep us off our feet, every single time.

The same anticipation and excitement made me start his latest collection of stories (this means there is a novel coming up in 2018) “Men without Women” (inspired by Hemingway and thank God that’s where the inspiration ends). Well, let me be honest – as much as I love and adore Murakami’s writing, I wasn’t impressed initially. They all seemed to be the same kind of stories I had read in the past – about jazz, cats, women leaving men, etc. I thought it was the same but I was gladly mistaken when that perception changed as I finished the fourth story.

“What changed?” you might ask. Well, I think after the fourth story, at least to me, his stories made sense like they never had. The loneliness existed (but obviously) in each of them and there was this sense of ennui as well that loomed large, but there was something else that kept gnawing at me – something that I just cannot define. Was it my mid-life crisis (I just turned 34) that I saw being manifested in these stories? At some point, was it the realization of being lonely and perhaps abandoned by someone I love? What was it, that kept tugging at my heart relentlessly? Trust me, I tried very hard to find the answer within the pages of this collection of 7 stories (out of which I love four) that are vintage Murakami – and so be it if he has to write the way he does every single time, as long as people’s hearts and souls can relate to his written word.

Murakami’s characters are mysterious, enigmatic, call them what you might but they are just human – like you and I. The only difference is that their vulnerabilities are to be peeled – layer by layer – they don’t show it. So it could be Kino right out of a bad marriage, who opens a bar and emerges himself in it, only to understand his purpose. Or for that matter it could be the story of a successful plastic surgeon who hopelessly falls in love with a married woman (with whom and many others he has a clockwork arrangement of meeting and fucking and nothing else) and is doomed because he cannot have her. Murakami’s characters and his worlds are hidden and yet once in a while you get some glimpses of it to help you navigate through the writing, which to me is superlative.

The story that stood out most particularly for me was “Samsa in Love” – a tribute to Kafka, where Gregor Samsa woke up to find that he is human (loved the irony there) and how there is some sort of dystopian world at large outside his house, which he is unaware of, till a lady who deals with making locks makes him aware of it. This is Prague by the way – one of the few times I have read a Murakami story set outside of Japan. The pace at which this story moved – extremely fast and at the same time, leaves you with this unsettling feeling. I think most of his stories do that. They jolt you from your reverie and you don’t even realize that it has happened long after till you mull over it.

A lot of people have also criticized this collection by calling it sexist. Have they even read this collection of stories? To my mind, there is nothing sexist about it – it is if anything about empowered women who know better than men – a lot better if you ask me. They are not vague about their decision-making, nor are they women who need men – in fact it is the other way around – in all these 7 stories it is the men who want women so badly, that they might just do anything to have them in their lives. The translation by Philip Gabriel (who to my mind has translated most of Murakami’s works) and Ted Goossen shines – you can sense everything that Murakami might want to say (maybe I felt it because I have read a lot of his work?) and nothing seems to be lost to the reader.

From a recently widowed actor in the story “Drive My Car” to a teenager who has no ambition whatsoever and wants his girlfriend to date other men in “Yesterday”, Murakami’s men are there everywhere. Some of them lead lives that are content. Some that aren’t. Some who glide through life not wanting to upset the order of things and some who will challenge everything laid out for them. But they are around for sure. We just need to see them with the right set of eyes.