Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama

March 18, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 2012
Translated into English by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies in 2016

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The week starts on a very sombre note. Mikami is at the mortuary with his wife, here after travelling a long way from their home. They are tired, afraid. They don’t know if they are ready for this, to know if the child under that white sheet is Ayumi, their daughter who has disappeared from home since three months ago. And when they find out it is not, their relief is short-lived. This dead child is not theirs. But that also means they still don’t know where she is.

Mikami is the Press Officer at the Police HQ of Prefecture D. It’s a relatively new position for him, one that he’s not particularly fond of, having been in the Criminal Investigation Department for the majority of his career as a police officer. He doesn’t have the best relationship with his superior, who seems to not trust him; he doesn’t have strong ties with the media, and it’s about to get worse; and his relationship with his wife is strained, especially since the disappearance of their daughter.

Life, as it is right now, doesn’t seem to be working too well for Mikami. And to make matters worse, his arrogant boss has just informed him that he needs to prepare for a huge press event that’s going to happen in just a week from today, and it has got everything to do with the biggest failure of the police force in history. An unsolved kidnapping that ended with the ransom being paid, the child being found murdered, and the kidnapper scot-free.

The Criminal Investigation detectives have a code name for this case: Six Four.

We follow Mikami everywhere for this entire week. We’re with him when he’s fighting with the reporters in the Press Room. We’re with him when he goes home and finds himself walking on eggshells around his wife. We’re with him when he visits Amamiya, the father of the kidnapped child from Six Four. We’re with him when he’s alone, and we hear all his thoughts, often messy, disjointed, and contradictory.

There’s a lot going on all throughout the story. And because we’re constantly by Mikami’s side, it’s almost impossible to not get caught up with his thought process, his emotions, and his deductions of the things that are happening around him. This means that sometimes, he can get a little repetitive. Other times, he is so self-contradictory that I wonder if he even knows what he’s thinking! And then I realise that I think like that all the time, too. I think one thing, only to contradict myself one second later. I pull myself apart overthinking minute details. And the mild irritation that I feel coming to the surface just dissipates.

Because Mikami has become a real person.

This story is every bit a crime thriller, as it is a study in Japanese police politics. At the same time, it also has a strong human side, a gentle insight into the hearts of parents and their love and attachment to their children. There is heartbreak and loneliness. There is also bravery and solidarity.

There’s a lot going on in this book. And I think Yokoyama did a good job at tying it all together.

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Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

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The Emissary – Yoko Tawada

March 13, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 2014
Translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani in 2018

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Mumei is a young child who lives with his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, in a Japan that none of us today would recognise. Yoshiro goes to the Rent-A-Dog place every day to get a dog to run with, while his great-grandson, unable to walk or do much without him, waits patiently for him to return home, so that they can prepare for school.

In this world, it’s the young that are weak, sickly, and dying. The elderly appear to have somehow found the secrets to longevity and immortality. They even have different phrases to differentiate them: “young elderly” for those who are in their seventies and eighties, and “middle-aged elderly” for those who are well into their nineties. It reminded me of how we have different phrases for the young today: infant, toddler, tween, teenager, young adult.

Early on in the book (page 10), we are shown just what the world has become. Mumei asks Yoshiro if they can get some paint for the walls.

“We can paint them blue, like the sky. With pictures of clouds, and birds, too”

“You want to have a picnic indoors?”

“Well, we can’t have one outside, can we?”

So matter-of-fact, as if a passing remark by the young child, but it stabs right into Yoshiro’s chest, the fact that his great-grandson will never know the joys of spending time in and getting to know Mother Nature.

I am, to be entirely honest, a little at a loss for words in terms of talking, or writing, about this book. The nearest word I can come up with that rather sums up my feelings, is “strange”. I found it difficult to immerse myself into the story, right from the start, because there was a layer of “strangeness” to it that threw me off balance. It got slightly better as I got to know the world a little better, though.

However, and I am rather regretful of this, perhaps I did the book a disservice when I stopped halfway through it, to only finish it the next day. The novella is short enough (at only 138 pages) that I’m sure I could have finished in one sitting, if only I had started the book a little earlier in the day.

I believe that all books have and emit some sort of a frequency, and there is an internal antennae of sorts within each of us that we use to receive and internalise these frequency transmissions when we read. It had taken me some time and effort to tune, and fine-tune, my internal antennae to the frequency level that The Emissary was giving off, and when I stopped for the night, the tuning just went straight out the window.

Otherwise, I believe the book would have resonated a little more. It’s a gentle sort of buzzing, very unlike many of the books that I’ve read. In fact, it almost feels like there’s TWO layers of buzzing, one decidedly lower than the other, almost out of range, but ever so present, all throughout the novella.

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Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa

March 7, 2019 § 2 Comments

First published in Japanese in 2015
Translated into English by Philip Gabriel in 2017

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Nana didn’t used to be called Nana. In fact, he didn’t have a name before the human Satoru came into his life, quite by accident. Nana had a favourite place to sleep, you see, and it just so happened to be on the bonnet of a silver van that incidentally belonged to Satoru. One day, Satoru approaches Nana, and the two of them establish a kind of connection. Then, when Nana gets involved in a car accident, the first human he thinks of is Satoru.

That is how Nana left his stray cat days behind him, and how he came to be Satoru’s cat.

Much of the story is told from Nana’s point of view, and I was immediately reminded of the book I Am A Cat by Sōseki. In fact, Arikawa refers to the master’s great work in the very first line of her book.

I am a cat. As yet, I have no name. There’s a famous cat in our country who once made this very statement.

I don’t own any pets, but I know for a fact that if I ever was to have a pet, it would most definitely be a cat. I have a soft spot for these elegant felines, the way they seem to have great instincts and such a high regard for themselves. And in a way, Nana’s voice came across exactly like that, in very clear and distinct tones.

He was sarcastic, shooting straight from the hip; no excuses, no exceptions. And it was endearing. Because he was also such a lovely, loving character. The disdain in his voice felt like disguise for what was an enormous love that he had for Satoru.

This book felt magical to me. It had a wealth of emotions that never felt overpowering or forced. In typical Japanese fashion, everything was subdued, tempered, and yet so so powerful.

It’s been a while since I’ve read something that had such an impact on me. It’s not a book I will forget any time soon.

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Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

Strange Weather In Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami

March 2, 2019 § 1 Comment

First published in Japanese in 2001
Translated to English by Allison Markin Powell in 2012

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Tsukiko, our narrator, meets one of her old high-school teachers at a local sake bar one night. He greets her out of the blue, saying that he’s seen her a few times before at the same bar, and even went so far as to check the school yearbook from the past to check. Unfortunately for Tsukiko, she cannot seem to recall his name, so in order to not appear rude, she resorts to calling him Sensei (teacher).

From then on, they seem to cross paths at the same sake bar every once in a while, always by coincidence, or fate. Their conversations remain formal and slightly aloof, very much as though they are still teacher and student; Sensei lecturing her on her command of the Japanese language and various poets, and Tsukiko quietly listening and reacting to her teacher’s lessons.

As time goes by, they slowly grow closer to one another, though never in the obvious way that most romantic relationships start. In fact, sometimes it almost feels like there’s really nothing going on between them, the distance always respectable, yet the connection so strong. What is he thinking, we wonder with Tsukiko, as we ponder on his words and actions.

Tsukiko has become so good at being alone. She comes across as a lonely soul, but not particularly melancholy or depressed. In fact, she feels very much like an independent woman, having chosen this quiet, uneventful life for herself, content to spend time with herself. Perhaps that is also what draws her to Sensei: he, too, comes across as a lonely soul, and seemingly happy to remain just so.

So what really happens on the emotional level, when two such lonely souls meet each other? What expectations do they carry? Or is it precisely because of the lack of any expectations that they were even able to continue enjoying each other’s company as their connection grew and blossomed?

I fell in love with Tsukiko. There was a raw vulnerability in the way that she shared her feelings with us, her readers, and I couldn’t help but slow down to drink in her words, let them play in my heart and mind, turning them on their heads and back again so that I knew just how she felt, deep down in my own heart.

I had a habit of acting as though I were having a conversation with someone beside me – with the me who was not really there beside me – as if to validate these random effervescences.

It was almost painfully liberating to open my heart to embrace Tsukiko’s feelings. I know exactly how this feels, I found myself thinking. And almost against my own will, my mind wandered off to snippets of memory that I thought I had locked away.

As if there were an invisible wall between us. It might seem flexible and blurred, but when compressed it could withstand anything, nothing could get through. A wall made of air.

Tsukiko, and in extension, Kawakami, spared nothing, chipping away at all the masks and costumes that we put on until only the heart of the matter was left.

I must have been drunk. Even I could only half-follow what I was babbling on about. Although the truth was that I fully understood, my head seemed to be pretending I was only half-aware of my own words.

Tsukiko’s voice is clear, true, and very very touching.

Genocide Of One – Kazuaki Takano

February 23, 2019 § 2 Comments

First published in Japanese in 2011
Translated into English by Philip Gabriel in 2014

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The President of the United States of America is presented with a problem, one of many that he has to deal with on a daily basis. To him, it seems small enough (it is, at this point, just a suspicion), and remote enough (right in the middle of the African continent), surely it can be dealt with quite easily, especially with the power he has at his disposal. What he doesn’t know, nor have the ability to comprehend, is that the enemy, the threat that he is now facing, has intelligence that is far beyond our wildest imaginations.

In the battlefield, four mercenaries are sent as a team to solve this problem–eradicate this threat. Shrouded in secrecy, they embark on their training without much clue as to who or what it is that they are supposed to eradicate. They do find out soon enough, but unbeknownst to them, the true aim of the operation is something much more sinister.

Then there is a young scientist in Japan who, completely unwillingly and unwittingly, gets tangled up in a project leftover by his father who had unexpectedly died of an aneurysm. The project itself feels dodgy and shrouded in mystery, not to mention the suspicious people who have suddenly come to talk to him regarding his father. What was he up to while he was still alive? Why were the police suddenly after him? And what was he to do with the two laptops–one of which refused to boot, and the other that ran a curious software unlike any he had ever seen?

I felt the story was a very good one. It was exciting, thrilling almost. I turned the pages wanting to find out more about the mercenaries and their journey, when they would find out the truth behind their gruesome operation. I wanted to follow the young Japanese scientist and see if he could successfully figure out what his father had left for him.

Yet at the same time, it also felt like the author was leaning on being preachy. There were many, many opinions, political and ethical ones, that I felt like the story could do without. Many of them felt two-dimensional, not quite deep enough, or complex enough, to be argued in the book, especially as these opinions did nothing to move the story forward. Some of the science explanations were also a little overbearing, smallest details being explained on the cellular, DNA level. Were these details absolutely necessary? Maybe, maybe not.

I could have enjoyed the book a lot more, I feel, if it was edited down a bit more. Did I really need to know about the President’s backstory to appreciate his decision-making process? Did I really need to know about that one time when the young scientist’s grandfather and uncle made derogatory remarks about Koreans, and his feelings about them, to appreciate his closeness and trust in his new Korean comrade?

No, I don’t think so.

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Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12

Sulphuric Acid – Amélie Nothomb

February 18, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in French in 2005
Translated to English by Shaun Whiteside in 2007

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In a random event, a woman 20 years of age, Pannonique, is arrested. In a separate random event, another woman 20 years of age, Zdena, is recruited. Both of them have been roped in to be part of a new TV reality show, simply titled Concentration, a show that mimics concentration camps from the Nazi era.

Overnight, Pannonique, or now CKZ 114, has become a prisoner, while Zdena, or now Kapo Zdena, has become a guard.

The whole nation is watching them.

I came across this title when I was going through some of the comments on the first post regarding my thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale, and a fellow blogger at that time had suggested that maybe I would like to read this book, too. I was in the mood for reading authors new to me, so off to the library I went.

This is a very short book, a novella, almost. The idea is provoking enough, the premise shocking enough. However, perhaps a little abrupt for my tastes.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 1986

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Our narrator is a woman, and Handmaid, who lives in the home of her Commander and his Wife, along with two Marthas and one Guardian. The two Marthas do all of the housework, from cleaning to cooking and everything else in between. The Wife, well, she mostly sits and knits, or tends to her garden. The only two men in the house, the Commander and the Guardian, well, what they spend their time doing is not mentioned much, as our narrator, our Handmaid, does not have the freedom to roam about and observe what everyone is doing. She only ever gets to leave the house to go to the market, to purchase with vouchers what the Marthas say they need in the kitchen. She walks past checkpoints, keeps her head down, and waits a the corner of the same street every day, until a second Handmaid, her partner, appears, so that they may go to the market together.

And then, once a month, our narrator, our Handmaid, goes into the Commander’s room, with his Wife, hoping to get pregnant. After all, she is a Handmaid, our narrator, and her main role is to produce the next generation, especially in a world where the world population is in dire straits.

Women are no longer required, or expected, to do everything. Not like in our world today, where we are expected to be wives, sisters, daughters and mothers. Where we are expected to  climb the corporate ladder just like the men, while at the same time take care of the home and the kids, while tending to our parents. We’re expected to be able to juggle work and family, and look perfect at the same time.

No, in this world, in the Republic of Gilead, women don’t have to do it all. In fact, women don’t even need to earn a wage, or read, or think.

I’m reading this book for the second time. The book is still powerful, the ridiculousness still impacts me. Yet I think this time, the book felt different, also. Perhaps it’s the years in between (it’s been about 8 years), and the experiences that I’ve had, that colour how I read it this time. I saw not only how the women and the world was portrayed, but also how our narrator, our Handmaid, felt throughout her narration.

She no longer came across as aloof and far away. She no longer felt resigned to her fate. She felt to me a silently strong woman; a woman who knew she didn’t have the strength to fight the world; a woman who knew she didn’t want to lose herself despite being unable to change the world; a woman who did whatever she could, no matter how inconsequential, to make sure she knew who she was.

It was like she was saying to me, there are still some liberties that they will never be able to take from us, without really saying it to me at all.

Our narrator, our Handmaid, refused to give us her name. And I think this is what I want to believe: her name, her real name, is the only thing she has left that really belongs to her. Telling it means giving it to us. Keeping it a secret, and repeating it to herself everyday, meant that she held on to that one thing that belonged to her, to the end of her life.