Tag 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.

 

Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

Ms Ice SandwichTitle: Ms Ice Sandwich
Author: Mieko Kawakami
Publisher: Pushkin Press, Japanese Novella Series
ISBN: 978-1782273301
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Now, we think we have read enough stories about first love but it is never enough. First love has its own charm of innocence, heartbreak, and above all the coming-of-age if it happens and when it does, sooner or later. “Ms Ice Sandwich” is one such book of first love, of young love, awkward love that is very happy being just an observer sometimes with want for nothing. You know the kind of love I am talking about, don’t you? We’ve all been there, in one way or another, haven’t we? This book is about those tender moments and I wish weren’t so short though.

A boy is obsessed (well, I wouldn’t call it obsessed, but more like enchanted) with a woman who sells premade sandwiches. He visits the supermarket every day just so he can look at her face, even if it means buying sandwiches he particularly doesn’t enjoy. He just needs to see her and feel the closeness. And in all of this, there are his relationships with his mother and grandmother (rather flimsy but nonetheless important to the narrative). And one fine day, his world crumbles and that’s for the reader to find out how.

The narrative is restrained in so many places and that  is what I guess works for the book. There is drama, some amount of humour, introspection and above all so many moments of kindness in the book that you cannot steer away from it. The two main characters are nameless and that doesn’t bother you at all. I didn’t even think about it till I reached the end of the book. Kawakami’s writing and the translation by Louise Heal Kawai doesn’t  make you want  for more. The writing and the tone of the book is just perfect.  If you’ve never read Japanese literature before, this is a great place to start. If you have, this is a great place to explore it more.

 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami Title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 9781846558337
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3.5/5

There will always come a time in a reader’s time when his or her favourite author diverts a little bit from the writing style and the reader will not appreciate that move. There will also be a time when the reader will start reading the book, leave it, be riddled with preconceived notions and come back to it eventually. Reading is a love-affair, between the reader and the author at so many levels. The reader bickers. The author retorts. The reader loves. The author returns the favour. There is so much going on between the two and what conjoins them of course – the written word. I felt like a jilted lover mid-way of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami. I had a love-hate relationship with it to suffice the least.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” sustain most elements of Murakami’s writing and yet seems to move away from them. While I appreciated that, there were times that nothing would make sense (not in terms of plot) and even that was alright, till it reached a stage when everything that I read felt like I had already read before. Maybe even that was alright, but somehow the pace could not keep me attached to the book after page seventy or so. I left it. I was angry. I had fought with the book.

After about a week or so, I went back to it. I pleaded with it. I wooed it. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be loved by the book. I took off from where I left and somewhere down the line; I began reading it with an open mind more than anything else. Some parts I had to underline – I loved them so much, while others, I could not care for much. And now to the plot.

Tsukuru Tazaki is not someone special. He is ordinary. He loves trains and train stations. He works with trains. He is away from home and does not miss them. This is typical of a Murakami novel. Well, at least so far it is. He had his friends once upon a time. The five of them were inseparable. Till they decided one fine day to cut all ties with him. Tsukuru did not know why and he never asked. He moved away from his hometown and began living life differently. Something changed within him and now after all these years, he wants to know the reason they drifted apart, and that stimulus has come in the form of someone who he is currently dating.

The title comes from all his friends’ last names representing colors, while Tsukuru’s last name is colorless. The years of pilgrimage represents something else, however I shall not reveal it for now. The book is linear (for some time) and then it goes into Murakami territory – where dreams mingle with reality and nothing is what it seems. The range of emotions is wide – from envy to love to lust to everything possible, Murakami looks at it all.

For me, the connect came with the friends leaving bit – it hit hard and I could not stop thinking about my friends. The parts I was disappointed in: Too many subplots, too many themes running wild in the book, with no closure at all. But of course that is what one expects from a typical Murakami novel, isn’t it? Perhaps. But for me the expectations from this one were very high and I am also glad to say that the last two chapters of the book make up for every disappointment. There are magnificently written. The words, the expressions and Tazaki’s thoughts and dreams are succinctly put for the reader to just soak himself or herself in them.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is a book that maybe is not like other Murakami books; however he does manage to stir emotions. It was a mixed read for me, as I have said before. It is mostly confusing in parts, but if you let go of those notions and read it the way it is meant to be read, then you will get to see the other side of Murakami.

Here is the trailer of the book:

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387 Short Stories: Day 36: Story 36: Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon Title: Rashomon
Author: Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Taken from the Collection: Rashomon and 17 Other Stories

Many of you would have heard of Rashomon. We all perhaps would have watched it as well. I mean, it is one of the most iconic movies of our times and rightly so. Tonight’s story was a reread for me and I loved it as much as I did when I first read it.

Akutagawa entered my life after I watched the film, “Rashomon”. On knowing that it was a short story on which the film was based, I had to read it. And here I am rereading the story and loving it even more.

Sure enough, the short-stories written by Akutagawa are spectacular. This one revolves around the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife, followed by four versions – the bandit’s story, the wife’s story, the samurai’s story and the woodcutter’s story – each version with a different twist and re-telling.

I love the story. For me, it is in the hall of fame of short-story writing. There is so much there which is done in terms of language and description and yet so much left to the reader’s thought process.

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The Art of Japanese Literature

Japanese fiction needs to be read slowly. It deserves that. You cannot rush through it – even if it is a crime pot-boiler or a love story. It needs patience. Like a good brewed cup of tea. The beauty of Japanese fiction sometimes is only best understood when you read more and more of it and do not generalize it to be flooded by suicides or dark plots.

My introduction to Japanese fiction began when I was sixteen and picked up my first Yukio Mishima. Mishima’s works are dense, full of longing, yes suicides as well and of a Japanese Era gone by – that of aristocrats and empires and emperors. The books written by him are something else – The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy is epic in its scope and story-telling. Moreover, the translation is just perfect. And that is where my love for Japanese literature took place.

Yasunari Kawabata is another under-rated Japanese writer in my opinion. He had written all in all around twelve books and that’s that, most of which aren’t even translated to English. Having said that, most that are translated are small gems of brilliant literature. His language is simple and subtle, almost like haiku, almost like enjoying a cup of sake and not being too greedy about it as it satiates the mind and the soul anyhow. Yasunari Kawabata in his time wrote of social issues at hand – a love story between a Tokyo dilettante and a Geisha, depicted beautifully in Snow Country to another ill-fated love story as seen in Thousand Cranes. Kawabata’s short stories are full of eroticism (which is not in your face) and desire that stems and grows. In short, he is one writer; I would urge you to read.

Then came the significant time in my life when I read the first novel so to speak, “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a Japanese noblewoman and a lady-in-waiting. It almost changed the way I viewed fiction and its importance in my life. It has all the elements of the modern novel – and is considered to be a psychological novel – probably the first of its times. The characters are defined by their function in the book, rather than their name and that stood out the most for me, giving an insight to early Japanese culture. The book recounts the life of a son of the Japanese Emperor, known to the readers as Shining Genji. The Tale of Genji takes us through his romantic life, the aristocratic society then and the barriers. It could have very well been an ancient Romeo and Juliet. The fact of the matter is that it is a great read, though strenuous at times.

I then lapped up Natsume Soseki’s “I am a Cat”, which spoke of a Cat’s life and the world through its eyes over three volumes. What I enjoyed about this one was the one singular voice of a Cat and the impact it had on me as a reader. The cat is aware of the human world and its fallacies and depicts it with great humour, sarcasm, and wit. So there is also the funny side of the Japanese writer.

Very soon other writers joined the bandwagon. The urge to read more Japanese literature was like no other. I wanted to know more about the culture – their behaviour patterns, the way they thought, the society formed – the way of thinking – ancient and modern and the conflict within. No better writer than Junichiro Tanizaki to put that in perspective. I have read five of his books, and each book down the line spoke of two themes – sexual freedom and the free will to think and act. Tankizaki’s characters are strong, with the hidden weak side that they do not want anyone else to know and that as noticed and understood through his writing is a treat.

Kazuo Ishiguro joined the forces very soon. Ishiguro, a native of Japan and now settled in England, speaks of varied themes. From cloning and unrequited love as depicted in Never Let Me Go (a brilliant film also) to the state of butlers and maids in The Remains of the Day, his novels are not traditionally Japanese – except for two, but his sensibilities sure are and that is what makes him a great writer – the sensitivity, the sparing and effective use of language and the best judgment displayed in making his characters feel and speak the way they want to.

Japanese Literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite literally at that. There are close to a thousand nuances probably out there in every second book. The plot doesn’t reveal itself till it wants to be seen. The reader almost gets frustrated and his patience levels do not sustain the beauty of the language at times. I have seen that happen to most people. One such Japanese writer who has currently taken the literary scene by storm is but definitely Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s works again are not easy to understand and yet he connects with his readers in a manner unlike anyone else. It does take time to seep in to his books, but once you have, then there is no way out for you. You will read and re-read and quote and be dizzy with his words and the beauty of translation. From unrequited love to a detective story to parallel universes and subtleties of love and heartache, Murakami touches on these topics and more like a true genius. My love affair with him started with Sputnik Sweetheart and still continues to this very day. Thank you for writing the way you do.

Akutagawa entered my life after I watched the film, “Rashomon”. On knowing that it was a short story on which the film was based, I had to read it. Sure enough, the short-stories written by Akutagawa were spectacular. It revolves around the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife, followed by four versions – the bandit’s story, the wife’s story, the samurai’s story and the woodcutter’s story – each version with a different twist and re-telling. I loved the stories. For me, that was a hallmark of short-story writing. There was so much there which was done in terms of language and description and yet so much left to the reader’s thought process.

I could go on and on about Japanese Literature. However there are so many writers I would urge you to explore if you have not already – Banana Yoshimoto being one of them, with her classic themes of loss of identity and voice, Osamu Dazai, well known for his character sketches and romanticism, Kobo Abe, with his skill in explaining the gore and the unknown nature of man, and Kenzaburo Oe, with his ruthless description of the dark corners of the human mind and soul.

Japanese Literature for me in most ways is the mirror to my soul. Every book read and every author speaks to me in different ways and on different levels.