December 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the Japanese in 1987
Translated into the English by Wayne P. Lammers in 2003
Hideo Harada is a 47-year-old scriptwriter. He’s recently divorced, and as a result, his finances are in the worst possible shape, forcing him to move into his office. It’s busy enough in the day, he tells us, but when night comes along, everyone else leaves the building, and soon, the silence is eerie, the rumbling of trucks hurrying along a busy road just amplifying how quiet the building really is.
One night, he sees a light in one of the units as he is walking into the building. Ah, he’s not alone after all. A beautiful woman lives in that unit—it is someone he has seen before once when he was sitting in the lobby and she was rushing in and simply walked past him. This same woman, Kei, pays him an unexpected visit one night, and later, a rather awkward love affair starts between them.
During this same time, he decides, on a whim, to visit Asakusa. That’s the place he grew up in with his parents, until he was 12 and his parents died. Just visiting the place brings up dear memories of his time with his parents, so much so that he thinks he is seeing things when he sees a man who looks very much like his own father. His father, that is, as Hideo remembers him—a man of thirty plus years.
This man who looks like his father invites him to his home, and Hideo accepts this invitation, perhaps out of curiosity. How far will this hallucination go? When he walks into this man’s home and sees his wife, his heart almost skips a beat—that is his mother as he remembers her!
How young they are! How is this possible? Even as ghosts, shouldn’t they have aged? But somehow, he talks to them as if they are indeed his parents, yet it seems ridiculous, even to himself. After all, it’s impossible for a 47-year-old man to have parents younger than himself!
He knows how impossible it is, but he can’t seem to resist going back to Asakusa again and again. Soon, he even looks forward to those visits, glad that he is able again to spend time with his parents. At the same time, he realises (though he cannot see it for himself) that he has changed much physically—he has lost a great deal of weight, looking quite pale and wasted. He knows this, and suspects that it is his visits to Asakusa—to see his “parents”—that are doing this to him. He knows this, and yet—
Perhaps I was destined to go on wasting away, never able to see the ravages with my own eyes, until suddenly one day I dropped dead. So be it, then. One who’s been given the chance to spend time with his departed parents must not ask for much more.
I don’t usually like reading stories about ghosts, but Strangers is quite different. There is nothing spooky about it, because Hideo simply tells it as if it’s quite normal to meet with ghosts of your past. However, it does have an immense feeling of indulgence—in the past, in loneliness, in worthlessness.
It is beautiful book about dealing with loneliness and lost time with loved ones. And because it is so spare with its words, there’s a lot of space to read in between the lines. What would it mean for you to be able to spend time with departed loved ones? What does living this life mean for you now? How real is the now, and how real is the past? Are your memories ghosts of your past, or are you a ghost of your own life?
I read this for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 11.
November 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the English in 2010
Jack has just turned five years old. He lives in Room with his Ma, and every day, they go through more or less the same routine. They wake up and clean up, eat, watch some TV, play some games, read, and when night-time comes, Jack has to go and sleep in Wardrobe so that Old Nick doesn’t see him.
Some days, they stare up at Skylight and play Scream. They also get to ask Old Nick for some things they want as Sunday treat. But Jack has never left Room, nor has he seen what is outside of Door. It’s Outer Space, as far as he is concerned, and everything in Outer Space is not real. Not like him and Ma and Old Nick.
A few days after he has turned five, Ma starts telling him some very disturbing things about Outer Space: it is real, it is where she was from before she lived in Room, and she wants to go back out there. She comes up with an idea on how to do that, but Jack thinks it’s ridiculous. Why would she want to go into Outer Space? It’s making him have a headache.
Room is entirely told from young Jack’s point of view. I’ve read a few books now (not many, just a few) that are told from a young child’s perspective, and I have to say that this book, as well as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has been very convincing. The voice was naive enough, and there were no instances (not that I can recall) where Jack felt like he had to explain anything to us readers. He tells it like it is for him, and it’s up to us to decipher what he means.
That’s part of what made this book work. The topic itself is immensely depressing—a woman and her child are kept under constant lock-and-key for years on end by their captor. But Jack has never known life outside the four walls of Room, and it’s not depressing for him that he has to live in such a confined space. From his point of view, this is what life looks like, and because he’s not upset, I didn’t get upset either. (Which I would have, given the nature of the topic, if it was Ma who told the story instead.)
I felt for the boy. So innocent to the world.
October 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
First published in the English in 1982
Etsuko is a Japanese woman residing in modern-day England. Her youngest daughter, Niki, is coming for a visit—one that doesn’t come by too often, it seems. They don’t seem to have the easiest of relationships, but there is something floating between them—something they seem to want to talk about and avoid at the same time. Etsuko’s eldest daughter, Keiko, had committed suicide not too long ago.
Instead of talking about this incident with Niki, Etsuko chooses to talk about a woman she once knew from a long time ago, back when she was still in Nagasaki. A woman and her daughter—Sachiko and Mariko.
Much of the book dwells on Etsuko’s past, or more precisely, that one summer in Nagasaki when she had gotten to know Sachiko and her daughter. And it is through Etsuko’s memories that we get to know them as well, which then becomes convenient for us to be influenced by Etsuko’s descriptions of the woman.
Sachiko comes off as someone immensely odd. She constantly tells Etsuko to ask whatever she wants, making it seem as though she’s willing to tell all. And yet Sachiko answers none of Etsuko’s questions directly. In fact, she often just laughs or smiles, then walks circles around the question before arriving to a conclusion that perhaps it is Etsuko who is too worrisome, too close-minded, too doubtful.
Mariko is an even odder character. She ignores her mother and Etsuko most of the time, then stays out late into the night. She refuses to answer questions, choosing to repeat herself, sometimes saying completely unrelated things. Weirder still is how she constantly talks about a woman she sees by the river—a woman that neither Sachiko nor Etsuko can see.
The overall atmosphere, aura if you will, is one of slow, misty resignation. As if the sun doesn’t shine too brightly, not even on the hottest of summers, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It almost feels like Etsuko believes that she has no say, that things simply happen to her—like meeting Sachiko, and Keiko committing suicide.
I’ve read a few of Ishiguro’s books by now (this book itself is a rereading), and I found A Pale View Of Hills very similar to An Artist Of The Floating World. Similar not only in tone and atmosphere, but also in the descriptions and characters. Beautiful and quiet, very nostalgic, a little melancholic.
If you’ve not read the book, and plan to do so, this is where you should turn away. *Spoiler Alert*
Because I read this book as part of a read-along with Bellezza, I thought it would be good to have this extra bit to discuss a bit further about my other thoughts.
There were two things that really stood out for me, especially as I reached the end of the book. The two mother-daughter pairs (Sachiko-Mariko, and Etsuko-Keiko) felt so eerily similar that I find it hard to believe that Etsuko is perhaps Sachiko herself. Did Sachiko really exist? Or did Etsuko make her up, gently moulding her own memory to make it seem as if Sachiko was indeed a neighbour?
This became even stronger in that scene where Etsuko tried to convince Mariko to follow her mother to America, saying that “If we don’t like it there, we can come back,” as if talking to her own daughter. Perhaps it was really Etsuko talking to Keiko, and not Mariko at all.
The second thing that sort of caught me by surprise also came in this scene. As Etsuko continues to talk to Mariko, Mariko suddenly sees a rope in Etsuko’s hand and asks about it. Etsuko says that it just got caught on her ankles.
But as I was reading it, I had this nagging feeling about it, so I did a Google search. Apparently, there’s an interpretation about this—perhaps Etsuko is really the child murderer, and the rope that she had in her hand was really for her to use against Mariko.
I’m not completely convinced about this, and it could mean something else entirely. But it just really stood out as something out of the ordinary, and the fact that Ishiguro cared about that rope being caught on Etsuko’s ankles should mean that there’s something more there than meets the eye.
July 5, 2017 § 8 Comments
First published in the English in 1992
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.
June 29, 2017 § 5 Comments
First published in the Japanese in 2008
Translated into the English by Stephen Snyder in 2014
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.
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.
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.
I rewatched the film a few days ago. My thoughts on the film HERE.
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?