Reviews of Japanese novels


As usual, until I manage to amend my ways, lol, here comes the end of the year and I have zillion of reviews to post, so I have recourse to the short form. Mind you, there is no relation whatsoever with the quality of these books. I actually enjoy very much Japanese Literature, and have been doing the Japanese Literature Challenge for a few years now. In 2014, I have managed to read 5:

As I have already reviewed the first book by Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage, let’s start first with a few words on this other one by him – how lucky we were to have 2 books by Murakami come out in the US this year!

The Strange Library:

No comparison in format with his usual novels, for instance the massive 1Q84: this one is just 96 pages and is a cross between a novella and a picture book.
The illustrations are awesome, first the cover, but you are probably used by now to having awesome covers for Murakami’s books.
But as in his other books, it’s about a strange world, here a very peculiar library –beware, it may make you hesitate before your next trip to your own public library!!
Here again Murakami excels at evoking the question of reality vs. unreality. Could the world we see hide another one?
I loved his correspondences and symbols between worlds, and of course watch for the moon!
The book is also about grief and the ending yes is rather sad.

I actually read another Japanese book this year dealing with grief and sadness:

Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata

This book won the Newbery Medal (2005)

Kira-Kira (which means glittering) is a young Japanese girl, actually born in Iowa in 1951.
It’s about the life of her family in Iowa and then in Georgia where they move in hope of a better economic situation, but the poultry factory has a crazy work load in horrible conditions.
There are lots of details on their life as Japanese, and her experience of discrimination and curiosity of the people around her –imagine being a Japanese girl  in Iowa in the 1950s!

Kira-Kira feels very close to her sister Lynn, four years older, but then Lynn has lymphoma…

I’m the first one reacting on how kids around me are raised in cocoons, different from what I remember in France, and illness and death do  touch everyone, but still, it felt a bit odd to me to read this book knowing children were the intended readers.

It is beautifully written, but very sad, very different in mood from all the other Japanese novels I have read so far.
I would like to share one quotation:

My sister had taught me to look at the world that way, as a place that glitters, as a place where the calls of the crickets and the crows and the wind are everyday occurences that also happen to be magic.

I rarely read short stories, but wanted to try something by Shusaku Endo, and somehow had this title on my shelf:

Five by Endo

Actually, a common them in these 5 short stories is also death.
“Winner of every major Japanese literary prize, his work translated around the globe, Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) is a great and unique figure in the literature of the twentieth century”, to quote Goodreads. But he was unique in the sense that he was Roman Catholic, definitely not that common in the world Japanese authors.

The first story, Unzen is about Suguro, baptized as a Christian, who goes to the village of Obama, home of many Christian martyrs  around 1630. He tries to retrace the footsteps of one of these men, wanting to find a “regular” Christian to emulate.
The same Christian theme is explicit in the 3rd story with 10 Japanese tourists arriving in Warsaw. Poles keep asking them if they know of Father Kolbe, the famous martyred priest who had been a missionary in Nagasaki in 1930. But they are not Christians and have no idea whom they are talking about. Except Imamiya who thinks remembering him.

The theme of current death or the past death of other people is common to the 5 stories, with the addition of the unchristian theme of reincarnation in the last story.

I have read he wrote a much longer novel on the topic of Christians in Japan, and that format might work better for me than  short novel.
I was unfortunately not really able to feel the greatness of his writing through this very short book.

Well, I did read a much longer book, 464 pages:

Light And Dark, by Natsume Sōseki

Unfortunately, the book is unfinished.
At the time it was published, in 1916, it was considered quite modern in style: indeed, basically almost nothing happens, it’s very interior and actually made me think many times about Proust whom I am reading at the same time.

Tsuda, 30, married O-Nobu 6 months ago. He has a lesion in the intestine and needs surgery. Most of the book is spent in his clinic room, and then in a place he goes to recover, at least that’s the reason he gives his wife.

There are a lot of dialogs, and it’s a lot about what people think, what façade they offer to other people around them, their families, their friends, and themselves. How one can get caught in lies and deceit to oneself and others. It’ also about the complexity of human relationships, between husband-wife, brother-sister, father-children, boss-emplyer, friends, relatives, in-laws, man-woman.

The chapters are short and punchy. I am intrigued to know how the book would have ended, but I don’t think I’ll ever know.

This book is unlike any other I have read by this author: like in Proust it focuses on social interaction and analysis, and just like Proust’s narrator, I find the characters too self-tortured.
But the writing is very good and there are some very interesting images, such as this one:

Walking along, he recalled bits and pieces of their conversation. And when he came upon a certain portion of it he sampled its flavor, chewing, as if it were a mouthful of toasted soybeans.




17 thoughts on “Reviews of Japanese novels

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  2. I didn’t enjoy Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, so maybe I should The Strange Library a try. The other books sounded very interesting too, especially Kira-Kira.


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