Diary of A Void by Emi Yagi

It’s so hard to wrap my head around it. It’s so weird to think of you being pregnant. I mean, I’ve never heard you say anything about love or marriage. That’s why it was such a surprise to find out that you’ve been…getting out there, you know? Having a life.

p. 74

A void can mean so many things. An emptiness. A longing. A life.

It could also mean “avoid.” Like what Shibata does to keep from cleaning up the coffee cups which have gone cold, and are filled with cigarette butts smashed into the liquid, so that they smell terrible. It is expected that a woman should clean up the mess, and so she says she can’t because she’s pregnant.

At first, Shibata stuffs her clothing with padding to carry on her ruse. But, as the story progresses, so does her pregnancy, such that near the end, even the doctor is pointing out the baby at the ultra sound.

Of course, there is no baby. And so, the novel raises many questions, like: what is the role of women in society; do doctors even know what they are doing; how does what we tell ourselves effect what we believe?

Shibata tours the factory where she works, which makes hollow cores to be used as paper toweling tubes, for example. As she watches them turn out, we read this paragraph:

Words summoning more words, making space for a new story to come into the world. Solemnly, modestly, reverently. And inside the core a void. Ready for whatever story was going to fill it.

p. 160

Again: a void. Again: what story will fill it?

This was a fascinating novel, and even though it has few pages, it has many themes. None of which are easily answered.

I am hoping to see it on the International Booker Prize longlist this year.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (Japanese Literature Challenge 16)

I remember how as a young bride I enjoyed staying at home and caring for my husband. We lived in Germany at the time, and I would walk to the Konditorei for bread to make us lunch which I would then carry to where he worked.

It was an idyllic time, yet I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to teach when the new school year came. Could I have been happy being a homemaker forever? It is something I’ll never know, for I taught until I retired, occasionally yearning for the privilege of “only” caring for the home; having one job, instead of two.

Maybe it is as simple as wanting what we cannot have, for when Asahi’s husband is transferred to a small village, she, too, gives up her job in Tokyo. Which is not something she loved in the first place, being a part time employee. Yet she and a colleague fantasize about the prospect of not having to go to work any more. Until it becomes a reality for her.

I’d wake up a little before six, pack my husband’s lunches, make his breakfast, see him off, go shopping, clean the house, or maybe run the laundry – but, after that, I didn’t have anything to do. Living the dream? Really?

p. 17

One day, her mother-in-law calls from her work to ask Asa if she will make a deposit at the bank for her. The bills and deposit slip are waiting on the counter, where she forgot them that morning. So Asa sets off in palpable Summer heat, I can feel it through the description on the pages, and suddenly falls into a hole.

The hole felt as though it was exactly my size – a trap made just for me.

p, 23

It is a hole she did not see, could not anticipate, and therefore could not avoid falling into. A metaphor for the life she is now living in a remote village, with no job, no friends, no entertainment, and a husband who is only described as either sleeping or scrolling though his cell phone.

I knew what I was getting into. But that doesn’t mean I knew everything.

p. 40

When do we know everything? We blindly go forward, making the best choices we can, and some of us pray for wisdom along the way to guide us. But now, added to this “simple” story, Asa begins seeing strange animals. Meeting strange people, like the Sensei at the 7 Eleven, and children flipping through comics who don’t look at her. She encounters her husband’s brother, whom she didn’t even know existed, and he warns her of a sleeping animal’s fangs when he points it out at the bottom of another hole.

“Fangs? That kind of animal had fangs? Then again, how would I know? I didn’t know anything.

p. 41

And so we encounter a discouraged wife who also seems to be seeing things, or at least imagining them, and reality is mixed with a bit of surrealism. Still, I found plenty to ponder in this slim volume packed with powerful observations.

People always fail to notice things. Animals, cicadas, puddles of melted ice cream on the ground, the neighborhood shut-in. But what would you expect? It seems like most folks don’t see what they don’t want to see. The same goes for you. There just be plenty you don’t see.

p. 46

“It takes a writer of great talent to mold the banality of the everyday into the stuff of art, and to build an entire world around a metaphor other writers might quickly deploy and cast aside, but Oyamada is in complete control of her talent. “

Japan Times

The Hole by Hiroko Okayama, translated by David Boyd, won the Akutagawa Prize. It is a short book, which I read in one afternoon and highly recommend.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda (Japanese Literature Challenge 16)

I must admit to feeling equivocated about this book. I loved the cover, as if that matters, and the concept of two people struggling over the course of one night to discover why their guide died during a mountain trek they had taken. They each suspect the other of murder, as neither was in the other’s line of sight when he fell to his death.

But, it took me almost a week to read 204 pages because I just couldn’t engage with it.

Actually, the story ended up being more about these two, Aki and Hiro, than about the death of their guide. We don’t even know how he died, exactly, other than Aki’s suppositions at the end. What we are embroiled in is the relationship between Aki and Hiro, their combined memories, and what they mean to each other.

It was a little confusing, at first, as they both speak in the first person, and I wondered who it was that was telling me their perspective. The chapters alternate between each voice, so after awhile it became clearer. But, as far as Japanese literature goes, and especially a book from Riku Onda, I felt it far from thrilling.

I am going on now to The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd, which won the Akutagawa Prize.

Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka (International Bestselling Author of Bullet Train)

I think it’s a good idea to make Isaka’s books into film, such as happened with Bullet Train. They are certainly more plot driven than anything else, and if it is action you seek, there is no other Japanese author I can think of to provide the drama that Isaka does.

This wasn’t exactly a book I would choose to read at Christmas time, for there certainly is neither love nor peace within these pages. But, it came in ‘New’ at the library, so I checked it out, then promptly spilled a mug of coffee all over it. “Was there cream in it?” my friend who works at the library asked. “Yes,” I replied. So, I have a stinking suspicion I just bought myself a book which isn’t even worthy, literally, of giving away.

The three assassins are the Cicada, the Whale, and the Pusher. They are introduced to us as their roles revolve around a man named Suzuki, who is seeking retribution with a company named Fräulein, or Maiden. The company has a boss whose “idiot son,” has crushed Suzuki’s wife with his SUV, just for the thrill of it.

But, before he can kill the idiot son himself, Suzuki sees the son run over. Apparently, a man named the Pusher has thrust the idiot son into traffic, and he is crushed before the crowd’s eyes.

The Whale “forces” people to commit suicide at his boss, politician Kaji’s, request. His favorite book, the only one he ever reads and rereads, is Crime and Punishment. When his copy wears out, he buys a new one. Lives under a tarp in the homeless section of Tokyo, where he encounters the ghosts of people he has forced to die.

The Cicada feels like a puppet, manipulated by the strings beyond his control…

These three interact with one another in a somewhat unbelievable fashion; it seems their paths cross because they are all in a powerful underground world of murder. The scenes shift quickly from one event to another, as The Times (London) has said, “(it)…has a Tarantino meets the Coen Brothers feel to it.”

If reading a book which feels like watching a movie is your sort of thing, then this thriller is for you.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 16 is coming soon…

I wondered if there would be an interest in hosting the Japanese Literature Challenge for the sixteenth year, and so I threw out the idea on Instagram last evening. It seems that there are, in fact, a few ardent fans for whom the event still holds great interest. As it does for me.

And so we shall begin in January, reading such literature as catches our eye and leaving links, if you so desire, to a sticky post which will be at the top of my blog. Let’s hold the event for January and February, giving us two months to indulge this passion.

I will be reading, and hosting a few give-aways for, the following books:

People From My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami
The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth (not technically Japanese literature, but still an exploration of the culture)
Lady Joker Volume 2 by Kaoru Takamura
Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura
My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura

Already, I can feel the excitement building within my heart. Can you?

Will you join in?

(On Instagram as #japaneselitchallenge16)

Scattered All Over The Earth by Yoko Towada (translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani) for Women In Translation Month…sadly, I abandoned it.

Scattered All Over the Earth has a label on it reading “Science Fiction.” But, I wonder how accurate that classification is. Consider these quotes, which seem entirely possible:

…since China has stopped exporting goods, America must produce all its daily necessities domestically, but no one there knows how to sew anymore. This being the case, they’re desperately trying to recruit immigrants who can speak English and are good with their hands. Europe, on the other hand, has developed a comprehensive welfare system that covers everyone, including immigrants, but with national budgets running low, they would rather have all the foreigners who can speak English move to America.

(p. 43)

In the beginning of this novel, Knut, Hiruko, and Akash go to dine in an Indian restaurant, which serves pizza, before visiting the Umami Festival held at the Karl Marx House in Germany.

Knut is studying linguistics; Akash is a Comparative Cultures major. He is also transitioning from male to female. “So you can change your sex, but not your caste,” Knut says to him. Her.

“That’s right,” I (Akash) said a little flustered. “Our bodies are always changing from moment to moment. In these baths (in Trier) the ancient Romans surely felt that. They’d have unwanted body hair plucked away, get their hair and nails cut, enjoy a massage to loosen their muscles. The body changes when we sweat in the sauna or drink water. And that’s not all. Even our brains change sex every second – depending on the book we’re reading, we become men or women.”

p. 57

Yet some of the points of view are disconcertingly accurate. Here is one from a character named Nora:

Just at that time, I was reading a book in which contemporary society was compared to a multi-tenant building. The tenants are not bound together by common ideals. While they share a desire to protect the building from fire, the inner sufferings of other tenants mean nothing to them. Nor do they care about equality or human rights. Basic principles the state once held in esteem have broken down, so that even if a neighbor is covered in urine or feces, as long as one’s home doesn’t smell, one doesn’t interfere.

(p. 68)

While I made it almost halfway through, I must admit to defeat: I lost interest at page 90 of 219. The insights are profound, and the future they point to almost terrifying (what if everyone stays inside and just orders what they need through the internet?), but it felt repetitive. Perhaps you will fare better than I, but Scattered All Over the Earth was ultimately not for me.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book Two (July – October 1984): Bird as Prophet. “When it is time to wait, you must wait.”

So many riddles. What is in the light that Lieutenant Mamiya described while he was at the bottom of the well in the desert of Outer Mongolia? What is the evil that Noboru seems to represent? Who is the woman, whose name she claims that Toru knows, but can’t remember? What does Malta know about good things and bad things that are entering his life at this time? What is that Kumiko wanted to tell him, but didn’t? And, finally, what (or whom) is the wind-up bird which winds up the world’s spring?

In Chapter One of Book Two we discover that Kumiko never came back one night. After one o’clock Malta Kano calls him to say, “I must tell you, Mr. Okada, I believe that the cat will almost certainly never be found. I hate to say this, but the best you can do is resign yourself to that fact. It is gone forever. Barring some major change, the cat will never come back.” (p. 118) Then she asks if there is something else with which she can help? It is as though she knows that Kumiko is the one who not to be found.

Two chapters later, Malta and Noburo meet Toru for coffee at the Shinagawa Pacific Hotel, where Toru met Malta before. Noburo tells him quite bluntly that Kumiko has taken another lover and left him. He goes on to say that Toru was wrong from the start; his head is full of garbage and rocks. Apparently, Kumiko had not only met with her brother to tell him she had taken a lover, she had met with Malta, after discussing the disappearance of the cat. “You will have to win with your own strength,” Malta tells him. “With your own hands.” Is it in his power to find his wife, Kumiko? To bring her back?

“Mr. Okada,” she (Malta) said, “I believe that you are entering a phase of your life in which many different things will occur. The disappearance of the cat is only the beginning.”

“Different things,” I said. “Good things or bad things?”

She tilted her head. “Good things and bad things. Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.” (p. 44)

Another letter from Lieutenant Mamiya arrives, with information that he feels Toru alone would understand. Mamiya’s memories only get stronger with each time he tries to push them away. The time that the light struck him while he was in the well he saw a shape of something there, but he could not make out what it was. “It is trying to come to me, trying to confer something upon me very much like heavenly grace.” (p. 208) What he suffered with, more than hunger and thirst, was not being able to attain a clear view of what it was in the light. “Had I been able to see it clearly, I would not have minded dying right then and there. I truly felt that way. I would have suffered anything for a full view of that form.” (p. 209) But, just as Mr. Honda had told him, he could not die, even though he would have preferred physical death to liberate him from the pain of being himself.

Toru decides to go the bottom of the well in a vacant lot himself, to think. While at the bottom of the well, Toru has a dream that isn’t a dream that “happened to take the form of a dream.” He is talking to the woman who had first called him. She is in a room with a bouquet of freshly picked flowers with quite a heady scent. She tells him that he already knows her name. “All you have to do is remember it. If you can find my name, then I can get out of here. I can even help you find your wife; help you find Kumiko Okada. If you want to find your wife, try hard to discover my name. That is the lever you want. You don’t have time to stay lost. Every day you fail to find it, Kumiko Okada moves that much farther away from you.” (p. 246)

In the early years of their marriage, Kumiko became pregnant. While Toru wished her to have the baby, she decided it wasn’t good timing in their lives, and when he was away in Sapporo for a business trip, Kumiko had an abortion. Afterward, when they were talking about it, she told Toru she had something to tell him, but she just couldn’t yet. “I’m not hiding it from you. I’m planning to tell you sometime. You’re the only one I can tell. But I just can’t do it now. I can’t put it into words.” (p. 252)

And so, like Toru, I am waiting. Not at the bottom of the well, certainly, but pondering all these puzzle pieces as I ponder my own life and the people who have entered, and left, as we go on our journeys. And, while waiting, I can’t help but wonder if the name that Toru is looking for is Forgiveness.

I am reading this with Stephen, of Swift as Inspiration, as a shared read-along.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book One (June and July, 1984): Magpie “A Well Without Water. A Bird That Can’t Fly. An Alley Without An Exit.”

Book One, The Thieving Magpie, takes place in June and July, 1984. But, it ends with the most horrible scene that I can imagine: the skinning alive of a Japanese man named Yamamoto, that happened decades ago. The Russians had demanded a document from him, which he would not give, even under pain of torture by the Mongolians. This story, told by Lieutenant Mamiya, pierces the quiet, dreamlike mood of what has come before in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The novel opens with Toru Okada asking the question, “Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?…We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?” (p. 24)

It seems that Toru knows very little about anything. He does not know the woman who is calling him at 10:00 in the morning asking him for ten minutes of his time. He does not know where his wife’s cat, Noboru Wataya (named after her brother) might be. He does not know what he wants to do with his career, quitting his job in a law firm even before taking the bar exam. And, he does not understand these strange people who are entering his life at this moment of time.

There is Malta Kano who asks him to meet her in a tearoom, telling him that his brother in law, Noburo Wataya, had recommended her to help find the missing cat. Her name comes from Malta, and Kana is translated “god of the water.” She tells him that he is entering a stage in his life when many different things will occur; the disappearance of the cat is only the beginning.

Then another fortune-teller, this time Mr. Honda, tells Toru that legal work might be the wrong thing for him. “The world you belong to is above that or below that.” When Toru asks him which is better, he says not to “resist the flow…now’s the time to stay still. Don’t do anything. Just be careful of water. Sometime in the future, this young fellow could experience real suffering in connection with water. Water that’s missing from where it’s supposed to be. Water that’s present where it’s not supposed to be. In any case, be very, very careful of water.” (p. 51)

After that, a sixteen year old girl who lives in Toru’s neighborhood, May Kasahara, shows Toru a dry well in an empty house near their own. Mr. Honda had told him, “When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom.” What does all this mean?

Malta Kano’s sister, Creta, whose real name is Setsuko, comes to visit dressed as a woman from the sixties. She says that Malta sent her, and when pressed for more information about herself from Toru explains that she has had tremendous pain, physical pain, for most of her life. Headaches, menstrual cramps, bruises appearing such that she never wanted to go swimming. Furthermore, she became a prostitute and was brutally attacked by Noboru Wataya. Before she can explain more, she abruptly leaves Toru’s home.

All of these occurrences, these characters with strange and seemingly disparate stories, combine to form a mysterious aura. Although I have read the book before, I cannot remember being so careful with each piece as I am now because I want to know how they fit together properly.

Coming back to where this post began, Lieutenant Mamiya, who told the horrible story of torture, was sent to Toru’s home by Mr. Honda, a man who had also witnessed the torture. Mr. Honda had given Mamiya the mission to present a keepsake he had especially selected for Toru, something from his closet just for him. When Toru unwraps layer after layer of wrapping paper he finds a Cutty Sark box. It is completely empty inside.

Clearly, the themes from Book One are water. A well. An emptying of oneself. War. I am eager to continue reading, while keeping the image of Jacob from the Old Testament, who was thrown into the empty well by his brothers, in the back of my mind. It may, or may not, have anything to do with this story, but I know that coming out of the well can be a form of transformation. At least it was for Joseph, who went in a hated brother, and came out to be a ruler in Egypt.

I am reading this book with Stephen, of Swift as Inspiration, looking forward to his insights as we proceed.

Sunday Salon: A Messed-Up Foot and A Wind-Up Bird

I was born with bones in my feet which refused to align. My mother would put rubber spools between my toes when I was a baby in order to encourage them to grow straight, but alas, they would not. Thankfully, I was always able to walk, but not without discomfort.

I had a surgery on both feet in 1975, after which they were casted for the entire summer. I had another surgery in 2006, which turned out much better. After that one, I had to wear tennis shoes for six weeks which was a huge improvement over plaster casts. On Monday, I had surgery on my right foot; when that heals, I will have the left done.

It is not entirely woeful. I love having time to read. It is so sweet that my husband brings me every meal, my parents bring me bread pudding and jelly beans, my son brings me roses and aranciata San Pellegrino. All that, and being an introvert at heart, makes being quiet at home a sort of paradise.

As there is a lot of time needed for recovery from this third procedure, I asked a new blogging friend of mine at Swift as Inspiration if he had any interest in reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami with me. It is a rather lengthy book, one which I would love to discuss because I’m not entirely sure I understood all of it the first time around.

Then, I thought I would widen the invitation. If you have any inclination to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with us, the schedule will go as follows:

Book One: The Thieving Magpie for the week of July 18

Book Two: Bird as Prophet for the week of July 25

Book Three: The Birdcatcher for the week of August 1

After each week, we will write a post with our thoughts and observations; hopefully you can engage in our discussion should you wish to read along (and post as well?).

Meanwhile, I am finishing books for Paris in July 22, and 20 Books of Summer. I have only read 12, if you count two I could not finish: Book of Night by Holly Black and Geiger by G. Skordeman. But, the French books have been an utter delight: Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley, Paris by Edward Rutherfurd, Maigret and The Reluctant Witness by Georges Simenon, and The Martins by David Foenkinos.

And you? Are you finding time to read? Enjoying anything related to France? Finishing your 20 Books of Summer?

Sunday Salon: Twenty Books of Summer, a Taste of Spring in Illinois, and anticipation for the International Booker Prize Winner.

It’s great that Cathy allows flexibility in her Twenty Books of Summer challenge because I have been tossing around lists in my mind since she first announced it. “Should I cull all the books I’ve wanted to reread?” I asked myself, for they are legion.

“Or, should I read all the review copies which have been sent my way this Spring while I was focusing on the International Booker Prize list?” (and what an exceptional list it is!).

“Maybe the best thing to do is open the Japanese literature books that I gathered for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15 but never got around to reading…,” I thought, and that is how I’ve decided to begin.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is, of course, a reread for me. But, all the others are new, especially Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda. The WSJ says this of it: “Part psychological thriller, part murder mystery – it is audacious in conception and brilliant in execution.” I am so eager to begin this book sent to me by Bitter Lemon Press.

I must confess to already beginning Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino, as I have been listening to it on my walks. Publishers Weekly says, “Hoshino’s ambitious novel is pleasingly uncomfortable,” which indeed it it. It seems there is a bit of unreliable narrator going on, and I can see that it will look deeply at what our identity is. I particularly anticipate the afterword by Kenzaburo Oe. (You can find a review on Tony’s Reading List, who clearly has read it before I have.)

The rest include The Roads to Sata, Lonely Castle in the Mirror, and people from my neighborhood. Each one calls my name in its own way, as I am so hungry for Japan. Perhaps some of these may appeal to you, too?

May I show you a few pictures from our walks this Spring? Truly, Illinois has its beautiful moments. Before we get to our ghastly summers, which my husband aptly calls Hell’s Front Porch.

Finally, this week brings us the winner of the International Booker Prize, which will be announced on Thursday, May 26. Our Shadow Jury will declare our winner before that, and I will tell you they are strongly inclined to choose Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell, or Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur. I, however, will never sway from my opinion that Jon Fosse’s Septology is far and away the best I have read in years. So much so that when I finished A New Name it was many weeks before I could even read another book.