The Secret History – Donna Tartt

July 5, 2017 § 8 Comments

First published in the English in 1992

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Bunny is dead. The Secret History is Richard Papen telling us what had happened.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

He brings us back to when he was 20 years old, and new student at a small town college. He decides to study the Classics, and joins a rather exclusive class to study Greek. Bunny is one of his classmates, along with an enigmatic Henry, a rather flamboyant Francis, and twins Charles and Camilla. They grow close, the six of them, and it’s unavoidable since they spend so much time together.

At the same time, Richard also feels a little on the sidelines, since he was the new addition to their original gang of five. So many things seem to be happening where he isn’t looking, and he isn’t entirely sure if it was simply because he was not paying close enough attention. Soon, though, he finds out about something—a terrible something—and that’s when things start spinning out of control.

At this point, Bunny is still very much alive, but he is starting to make everyone very nervous, which leads everyone, including Richard himself, down a very slippery slope. This ultimately leads to Bunny’s death. And that’s really all I can really say about Richard’s story, because anything more and I feel like I’m telling too much of his story myself.

This is not an easy book to talk about. It was tragic, there’s no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the kind that was sad or weepy or made you want to get all teary-eyed. It was painful, even a little shocking. Excruciating. I was drawing sharp breaths between the swift turning of pages, then make long exhales at the ends of chapters.

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

The beauty, the terror, wasn’t just in Richard’s story. It was also in each character in Richard’s Greek class. All of them were so complex, so likeable and disagreeable at the same time.

I never got a full picture of any of Richard’s friends. After all, it was a story he was telling us, and if he never fully understood them, then we never would either. And there were times when I almost wanted to pull my hair out, wishing that I could, in some way, jump away from Richard’s mind for a moment and dive into Henry’s mind to see what he was really thinking about. I wanted to wiggle into Camilla’s heart, and Charles’s too, to try and understand what they were going through. I wanted to spend a day wearing Francis’s shoes, or see the world through Bunny’s eyes.

And yet I knew, at the very back of my mind, that the beauty also lay in not knowing. Not for sure, anyway. I could venture a guess, I could make my own deductions, very much like what Richard could do, but there was never any knowing for sure.

It’s the same for us, living our own lives, isn’t it? We want so much to dig a little hole into the minds of the people around us to find out what they are thinking, or to crawl into their hearts to know what they are feeling. Even just a glimpse. But we know we cannot. And frankly, if we were indeed to be frank with ourselves, we may not dare to.

Something else that I felt while reading Richard’s story, was a little bit of doubt I had about his own honesty with himself. Was he being completely honest and transparent as he told us his story? And if, by any chance, he was suppressing something he did, or saw, or heard, or felt, if by any chance at all he hid a tiny bit of truth from us, was he also hiding it from himself? Did he know it?

I doubt he did.

And like all of us, I doubt we’re able to be absolutely transparent, even with ourselves, when it comes to our deepest, darkest selves.

Confessions – Kanae Minato

June 29, 2017 § 5 Comments

First published in the Japanese in 2008
Translated into the English by Stephen Snyder in 2014

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A teacher (we don’t know her name yet) is speaking to her class on their last day of school. She mentions that the free milk they’ve been drinking all throughout the school year was a random study that the Ministry had been conducting to see if the additional calcium would do the students any good. Then, she announces that she will be retiring at the end of the month, meaning that after spring break, she will no longer be their teacher. She then goes on to ramble about teaching, about school protocols, and even tells us a little bit about her past, and how she ended up becoming a single mother to her 4-year-old daughter, Manami.

Then the shocker comes: her daughter is dead.

Because Manami’s death wasn’t an accident. She was murdered by some of the students in this very class.

She doesn’t say this, but as I’m reading, I can feel the class going silent around me, all of us hanging on her every word. But instead of telling us straight away who those students are, she decides to talk about the Juvenile Law instead, and how it protects minors from being persecuted. “Murderers go free, simply because they’re deemed too immature to understand what they have done,” is more or less what she thinks about the Juvenile Law. And because the students in her class, the people who murdered her daughter, are all only 13 years old, she doesn’t trust the justice system.

She tells us that she has taken matters into her own hands. Then, she actually tells us what she has done to the students responsible for her daughter’s death. She then promptly ends her confession session, dismissing the class and thus ending the first chapter.

The rest of the book is told through the eyes and voices of other characters embroiled in this murder mystery. And through each new voice, we get to hear a different take on what had actually happened before that led to the death of Manami, and also what happened after that shocking revelation on the last day of school. None of them are what they seem, and none of them know what someone else is really thinking. The motivations behind their actions, their thought processes as they make different decisions. It’s like being given the privilege of diving straight into their souls. But the more we know—about each of the character’s deepest and darkest thoughts—the less sure we are of anything in that world. It’s no longer a question of right and wrong. The entire world has shifted, and suddenly, you look up and realise it’s been painted every shade of grey.

This book is not so much a conventional mystery story, where a murder happens, and the story in its entirety is about finding out who the killer is, and the motives behind the killing. Instead, it’s more a mystery of the human mind, and what we are truly capable of. How dark can we actually become? And what does it take for us to turn into something we never saw coming? How strong are our convictions? And really, what is morality?

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to just sit and read a book in less than 3 days. Despite the alternating voices, there wasn’t a time when I felt disengaged from the story. “Who is this voice now?” quickly became “What does he/she have to tell me?” And that was what made the book so powerful for me. There was no need to introduce who the new narrator was in each new chapter. It could be anyone, and yet it could only be that someone.

This was Minato’s first novel. Powerful stuff. She’s got a second novel that’s only just recently been translated into English, Penance.

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I watched the film adapted from this book some time in 2011-2012, and was immediately intrigued. I searched for the English translation, which was when I found out that it had yet to be translated. I’m so glad that this work has finally found its way into the English-speaking world.

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It’s been a number of years since I’ve actively participated in any reading challenge, so I’m glad to have finally made it to participate in Bellezza’s 11th edition of the Japanese Literature Challenge this year. Here’s to more Japanese literature works before year end.

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I rewatched the film a few days ago. My thoughts on the film HERE.

Death of a Murderer – Rupert Thomson

June 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 2007

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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.

Something Special – Iris Murdoch

May 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English, as part of the anthology “Winter’s Tales No. 3”, in 1957

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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?

Our Happy Time – Gong Ji-Young

April 24, 2017 § 3 Comments

First published in the Korean in 2005
Translated into the English by Sora Kim-Russell in 2014

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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.

Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer – Patrick Süskind

March 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the German in 1985
Translated into the English by John E. Woods in 1986

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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.

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata

February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese in 1947
Translated into the English by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1956

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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.