June 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the English in 2007
A murderer is dead. Billy is a policeman in the locality where the murderer’s body is being kept before it is finally cremated, and he’s pulled in to sit through an overnight shift to keep watch, to keep away prying eyes and inquisitive journalists.
What takes centrestage, though, is not so much the actual death of said murderer, but the memories and feelings that come rolling into Billy’s mind throughout his shift. It’s a killer shift, and the fact that he didn’t get to sleep before the job only makes it even more difficult for him to stay awake and sharp.
He starts imagining conversations with the spirit of the dead murderer, and for the first time in a long time, he finds himself being brutally honest with himself, allowing hidden memories to flood his mind once again.
Death of a Murderer is not so much a plot-driven book, as it is a very deep study of character. As Billy goes through his memories, and the emotions that come along with them, it’s almost like being dipped into a large bucket of really dark stuff, and you’re not sure if the dark stuff is just water without light, or if it’s really gooey stuff that will stick on you when you’re picked up from the bucket again.
It’s dark, and sometimes, it also feels a little scary. And the more honest he got with the murderer, and himself, the murkier it got for me, too.
I’ve never been a believer of the wholesome and sunshiny. I believe everyone has their dark moments, however rare, and sometimes these moments snake up to us when we least expect it. And for most of us, we don’t really want to own up to having those dark moments—we don’t like to have to face up to them, and we don’t have the courage enough to want to find out how we would feel once we do.
Billy came across as a really really lonely man. Heck, every character in Death of a Murderer was lonely. So lonely, sometimes it broke my heart. And sometimes it reached into my chest and just gave it a little squeeze, simply because those words rang so true for me.
‘Not everyone’s ambitious,’ he said. ‘I like being on the streets, I suppose. Close to the ground. Where things happen.’
‘I’m all right,’ he said, ‘I’ll be fine.’ He smiled at her through his tears. ‘It’s just that it’s difficult sometimes, and no one’s very strong, really, are they?’
It was so so lonely, this book. It was shrouded in lonely.
May 11, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the English, as part of the anthology “Winter’s Tales No. 3”, in 1957
Something Special was my choice for the most recent flight I took. I had always carried heavier books, and always found that I couldn’t finish them before the plane landed, so I thought I could go with a thinner book this time.
I finished it in less than two hours.
I’ve seen the name Iris Murdoch around very often, but I’ve never been familiar with her work. And usually it’s so important to choose just the right book to start a new author with. Sometimes, good authors, and other good books by the same author, can be ruined if that first book was the wrong choice.
I’m still a little unsure about how this book was for me. It’s been more than a week since my flight, and while I can’t say that it was extremely memorable and I’ve been thinking of it ever since, I must say that it was definitely very intriguing for me.
Nothing much happens, I feel. The story starts in the living room of a house, where Yvonne, her mother, and her uncle are having a discussion of sorts about why Yvonne is refusing to marry a man called Sam. Later, Sam comes to the house and brings Yvonne out on a “date”, which involves walking around the city, then going into a bar to have some drinks.
The night isn’t going very smoothly at all, and when something goes wrong and upsets Yvonne, Sam brings her to a secret place that he is convinced will lift her spirits. She doesn’t react the way he expects her too. The book then ends in such a spectacularly surprising way, I was simply at a loss for a long while, and just sat staring out into the clouds.
I haven’t been reading that many short stories recently, and while the edition I read was a standalone book, the back cover blurb did mention that this is the only short story that Iris Murdoch ever wrote for publication.
Like I said, I was definitely intrigued. In a way, I felt like the house in which Yvonne, her mother, and her uncle, were talking in, as well as the streets of the city, and the bar that Yvonne and Sam later went into, were all important characters in the story as well. It says, also on the back cover blurb, that the story is set in Dublin in the late fifties, and it’s a backdrop that is as alien to me as Mars. So trying to get my head wrapped around what it looked like, and how Christmas cards were sold during that time, and why bars were separated into upstairs and downstairs and why it mattered, was a little bewildering.
And perhaps it’s because the backdrop is so foreign to me, I found it difficult to indulge myself into it. The story held itself up, of course, but in a way, I feel that if I had been able to completely immerse myself into the setting, into 1950s Dublin, it would transform my whole understanding of the story.
This was as much a story about Yvonne, as it was a story about the times.
And it got me to thinking, if we put Yvonne into modern-day Malaysia, what would that be like?
April 24, 2017 § 3 Comments
First published in the Korean in 2005
Translated into the English by Sora Kim-Russell in 2014
I had started this book right after I came back from New Zealand. I was fresh from reading two books that were somehow related to North Korea, and had realised at that time that I hadn’t actually read any books by South Korean authors. I think I have three or four sitting at home, and just picked this one out at random as a first.
The author tells a tale of a woman, Yujeong, who has unsuccessfully attempted suicide for the third time. Her uncle, who’s a psychiatrist, insists that she should attend sessions, just to talk, or get better. Her aunt, a nun, offers her an out. Yujeong can skip those “therapy sessions” with her uncle, if she’ll follow her to the prison every once a week, to visit death-row convicts. The book focuses on one of these convicts, Yunsu, and how Yujeong’s life changed after having met him.
To start, I really liked the premise. I like my books dark.
Yet, here’s the thing. The book came across as somewhat… preachy.
It had its moments, of course. There were parts where I felt like I could relate, or where I would try to pry the character into revealing more to me. But halfway through the book, I started to lose interest in them. It was almost as if I didn’t care if he did what he was accused of, or if I guessed correctly what had happened to her, or even if there would be a miracle and he would not be executed.
I hate it when I don’t care about the characters.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just my problem. That maybe I’ve grown colder, somehow. That maybe I had chipped away the pieces of me that could empathise with another’s plight.
I don’t know.
But still. I had started reading this book way before I read Snow Country and Perfume. And I usually finish one book before starting on the next. Yet, I paused in between, and picked another to read. Then another. And both books were absolutely beautiful. Stunning. Breathtaking. They grabbed me by my heartstrings and flung me around. This book did none of that sort.
I’m underwhelmed, to say the least.
March 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the German in 1985
Translated into the English by John E. Woods in 1986
So much of this book was already in my head, even before I started reading the book. I still remember the first time I heard about this story where a man murders women to make a perfume out of their scents. My partner was telling me about a film she had just watched, about this man who kills women because he wants to get their bodily smells and produce some kind of wonder perfume, and told me that she thought I would find the premise interesting.
I did. She knows me well.
Then, of course, I found out that the film was adapted from a novel, and being the “book before movie” kind of person I am, I decided to first read the book before watching the film. This was almost 10 years ago.
Since then, I’ve heard so many people around me talking about either the film or the book, encouraging me to make the time to finally give it a go. But for some odd reason, the book just sat there on my shelves looking pretty (the 2010 Penguin Books edition that I have has a most sensual-looking cover), but it never spoke to me. It never yelled out, the way some books do, for me to grab it. It quietly waited for me to seek it out.
The first sentence of Perfume did me in.
In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.
From there, the book just soared, gliding so easily through the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, it was almost like water gently rolling off smooth rocks.
Given that the man in the story, Grenouille, has the most powerful sense of smell in the world, a lot of time was spent describing how everything smelt in 18th century France. And perhaps because we are more used to long descriptions of what we can see, compared to how the air around us smells, there was a certain allure in the words. I could feel myself willing myself to smell those scents that Süskind named, that Grenouille could pick out and identify with as much ease as breathing in.
Grenouille didn’t become a murderer until almost halfway through the book, which was a little surprising for me. I had thought initially, given how much I had heard about his crazed pursuit of the perfect scent, that the murders would take up a major chunk of the novel. And under usual circumstances, when my expectations and the real thing don’t match up, my experience of the book will be marred by this difference. Not so for Perfume. I almost forgot that he was supposed to be a murderer, so I wasn’t looking or waiting for it. I just kept on reading, wanting to know what he would do and learn next.
Finishing this book, I didn’t feel a deep sense of loss, or some very strong emotion. There was a certain kind of sadness, a quiet pity, for lack of better word, that resonated from his story, but it wasn’t so much because I could empathise with him. He was a murderer. He did some very very terrible things. But unlike Lolita, where Humbert Humbert almost felt like he was trying to get your sympathy and understanding, Perfume simply told Grenouille’s story, without any other motive or intention, other than to tell it.
Perhaps, one of the strongest things that I came away with from Perfume, is the sudden awareness of how much of the world is unknown to me, and will most likely stay that way. And it gets a little scary, a little bizarre. A little unsettling.
February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the Japanese in 1947
Translated into the English by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1956
My first Kawabata book was The Old Capital, which I read quite a number of years ago. I don’t remember much of that book now, but I remember thinking, this author seems to have a way with words when it comes to describing the atmosphere. In Snow Country, what really stood out was the coldness of the winter time, highlighted by the white snow and dark mountains.
Snow Country is the literal translation of the original Japanese title, 雪国（ゆきぐに）, which, the translator tells us in his introduction, is “very specifically the part of the main island that lies west of the central mountain range.” It is, for its latitude, the snowiest region in the world. And it is against this background that we are given the story of a man and his attachment to two women in this part of the world.
We don’t know much about Shimamura, though he is very obviously our main character. Trying to get to know him is like trying to peel an onion with only two fingers, eyes closed—it is painful, it will hurt, and there are still more layers to go. Incidentally, the woman we are introduced to first is not the woman who is, and remains, the main reason behind Shimamura’s visit to the Snow Country. Indeed, this woman seems so insignificant to us at first, that we only learn of her name, Yoko, somewhere in the middle of the book.
Shimamura never really develops any kind of relationship with Yoko, despite being extremely intrigued and drawn to her. It is the way her voice carries itself, a voice “so clear it was almost sad, the voice that seemed to be echoing back from somewhere.” It is this voice, and that small flicker of light he saw passing through her eye for only a fraction of a moment, that so deeply pulls at him, he can’t help but watch her from afar.
The other woman, the real reason why he made those few trips to the Snow Country, is the hot-spring （温泉）geisha, Komako. But despite the clear fact that they have both developed feelings for each other, Shimamura is never certain what kind of feelings they are. Is it love? Is it lust? Is it just an attraction? Or is it something deeper and more meaningful?
“I didn’t have any money, and I bought a plain notebook for two or three sen and drew in lines. I must have had a very sharp pencil. The lines are all neat and close together, and every page is crammed from top to bottom. When I had enough money to buy a diary, it wasn’t the same any more. I started taking things for granted. It’s that way with my writing practice, too. I used to practice on newspapers before I even thought of trying good paper, but now I set it down on good paper from the start.”
So visual, this paragraph. I can almost see the young woman, painstakingly drawing lines onto blank paper, creating the margins needed for her to write her thoughts. I can see her holding a brush above old newspaper, thinking about the best way to mark the strokes, imagining everything in her head before the ink even touches the surface of the newspaper.
So visual, and also so so moving. How easy is it for us to forget how we started out, to take for granted the niceties and privileges we have today, that we did not have just a year or two ago. How much of what we have today we take as a matter of fact, as if we naturally deserve it, when in the past we had to work so hard just to get a whiff of it. How arrogant we become, despite never meaning to.
The transition feels so innocent, we don’t recognise the changes we make to how we perceive the world. Yet, the change is constant as we keep putting one foot in front of the other. The view is not the same; it would be ignorant for us to pretend otherwise.
And with all this constant change around us, as we keep moving forward in one direction or another, comes the concept of “wasted effort”, an ongoing theme that is consistently brought up throughout the book. All the things that we do, that we put so much of our time, love and effort into, what does it bring to us in the end? If there are no rewards, is all our effort not then in vain? Is it not all wasted?
To be so beautiful, to learn to play such an intricate instrument as the samisen, to write so diligently in our diaries. What are all these things for? Why do we keep going?
For me , this book was like Yoko’s voice, that voice so clear that it was almost sad. For me, her voice, and this book, was like the mountains, so dark and lonely; like the sky, so clear and empty; like the stars, so bright and far away. I have no doubt that I’ve missed many of the subtleties that come with Japanese writers of that era, subtleties that I have not yet even begun to comprehend, but right now, Snow Country is, to me, an extremely sad book. It’s a deep, quiet kind of sadness that wraps around you and cradles you in a hypnotic embrace.
January 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
First published in the English as a limited comic series in 2010
Published as a collected edition in 2011
The first thing that caught my eye about this graphic novel, was that it was an Eisner Award winner, and also that Craig Thompson, author of Blankets and Habibi, had written an Introduction for it. Being a fan of Thompson, I decided to give this graphic novel a try.
What surprised me about the Introduction, which in hindsight, should have been quite obvious, is that it’s not “written” but illustrated instead. The page had all the markings of Thompson—intricate patterns and a daydream-like style that sucks you in without you even noticing it.
The book asks you simple questions: What was the best day of your life? What is the most unforgettable moment, a memory you will cherish for the rest of your days? When did your life take a sudden turn? How have you lived?
These are pretty deep questions, things we don’t like to dwell on, that we prefer to just quietly keep in the back of our heads, blocking it from coming up with every other mundane thing there is to think about. But these thoughts push through, every once in a while, and more often than not, at the most inopportune times.
The book starts with our protagonist at the age of 32. He is stuck in a rut. He is a writer, but not one as accomplished as his dad, which builds a certain kind of envy and jealousy that can only exist between two people so close to each other. He hasn’t published, but at 32, is it too late for him to start? Has life created long tendrils that are constantly pulling him down and holding him in place, instead of letting him spread his wings and fly?
That sparked something in me, myself having just turned 30 a few months back. Is the big 3-0 a sign that there are some things that are simply too late for me to try? Are certain things out of my reach, simply because “life” has happened? But then again, what is life, but a collection of days that I spend breathing, thinking, and doing? Does age bind me? And should I let it?
There was one panel that stood out the most:
How often do we start conversations with friends and family, acquaintances and strangers, with the question: “So, what do you do?” How have we become a society so obsessed about how someone else makes a living? Why is it that our job positions have so much power in determining where in the social ladder we stand?
This panel gave me much to think about. Since I started working, I’ve done many different types of work. They don’t always link back to each other, and my full CV would cause most potential employers to shy away from me. I’ve recently started to find my niche, in writing and editing, but somehow, when I think of myself, I feel like I’m both a writer, and not.
This has given me much grief, especially during family gatherings or when I’m meeting new people. I dread having to explain what I do for a living. What is my job? Do I even have a job? And if I don’t, then what do I do?
But, really, does it matter whether I have a job or not? Should your opinion of me be formed simply from what my non-existent namecard says? Will you not take the time to get to know me on a more personal level? Is that not more satisfying?
Is there a day in your life that you remember so clearly, it could have been yesterday? Have you experienced a moment, or many moments, that you know changed something in you forever?
January 9, 2017 § 2 Comments
First published in the French in 2003
Translated into the English by Helge Dascher in 2005
There’s very little that I know about North Korea. And I never found myself interested in finding out much more about this “authoritarian” country. Then, about a couple of months ago, I watched a Korean TV drama, Descendants of the Sun, which had a very small side story involving a North Korean soldier and peace talks between the North and South. That intrigued me a little, because I knew nothing about the reunification attempts, but it also frustrated me to know that there’s so much to learn!
Then, by pure chance, I came across a book by Ryu Murakami, From the Fatherland, With Love. In that book, there was a significantly bigger North Korean appearance, and again my interested was piqued. I knew then that I was keen to learn about this country that had so far eluded itself from me.
So, by no coincidence, I picked up this graphic novel at the local library. I wanted to see what a foreigner might see in this evasive country. What else can he show me about it that I have not read or gleaned from the Murakami book, and that I have not seen or felt in the Korean drama series? I was thirsty for more.
The graphic novel does read like a journal of sorts—he writes about what he encounters, his benign work days, the Friday nights that offer him a sense of what the rest of the world might be up to in this country that cuts itself off from everyone.
Truth be told, though, I was a little underwhelmed. Much like the Osamu Tezuka book, I felt like this one presented more facts than it did tell a story. Perhaps it was meant to be this way; a simple illustrated recollection of the things he saw and experienced, limited as they were, as foreigners in a country that mandated translators and guides to follow you around. Perhaps the lack of story is not his doing, but entirely in the way the country presented itself to him—there is no room to meander.
This is the first book of his that I’ve read, so I don’t really know. But judging from this book alone, I don’t feel an immediate need to rush for his next.