Ito Ogawa, The Restaurant of Love Regained (Jap. 2008)

‘Tis the season where we all frantically try to tie all loose ends before the end of the year… which  actually doesn’t make much sense. This is a struggle doomed from the start. Yet I am guilty of hoping and trying every single year. I’d love to have all my books neatly finished when the bell strikes, and all my blog posts lined up with a nice bow. Sigh…

Sometimes it’s a mistake not to write about a book right after finishing it, sometimes it makes us more balanced in our opinion. But actually, I haven’t made up my mind yet.

At first, the book grated on my nerves because of its lack of focus and its (in my opinion) forced naivety. Rinko works in a restaurant in town, she has an Indian boyfriend, who suddenly takes off with all of her (theirs) belongings. From the shock, she stops speaking altogether, only communicating with writing and gesturing. She gets back to her mother’s home, in a remote countryside village, which she left when she was 15, and decides to open a restaurant, because that’s the only skill and passion she has. There’s also a pig that doubles as a pet for her mother. And the very special relation to food that Rinko has.

Maybe it was my stomach that had the upper hand over my brain, but I hadn’t had time to get acquainted to Rinko in the first pages, so her bad breakup was not a real tragedy to me. But when she frantically searched for her beloved cooking tools in her empty flat, and found only a jar of pickled vegetables inherited from her grandmother, and that she hangs on to it like a lifesaver, I kept on reading.

Who uses a pickles’ jar as a plotting device? For sure the book was going to be kitsch, quirky and a bit heavy of the metaphors.

The description of food, the special respect that Rinko has for plants, animals and natural resources that end up on the restaurant’s plates and bowls was actually the best part of the book to me. Yes, there is also gruesome bits when it comes to preparing meat from a live animal, but personally it didn’t bother me and it made me quite sympathetic to the writer’s project. Gourmet cuisine is an art, but it’s also an act of destruction, of consumption. Despite the difficulties, the writer managed to convey emotion and sensation to food, which is no mean feast.

But for the rest, I found that the book followed too many directions, too many anecdotes, way too many characters (Rinko prepares bespoke menus for her customers, so we get a lot of back-stories), many of them quite teary and predictable.

It was a quick read and not unpleasant at all (I am not a vegetarian, I hasten to add, and I have no problem with eating weird stuff), but it didn’t live up to its potential.

Back from Holidays with a Treat!

Usually, when French people come back from holidays in late August (the entire country sort of shuts down from 08/5 to 08/25, except for the tourist industry), there are bad surprises in the mail: the tax sheet and lots of invoices. That makes you get back in the (grumpy) mood right away, believe me.

But this year, a nice surprise awaited me too, that helped me find the courage to open the tax sheet: a book by Pushkin Press: Salad Anniversary by Tawara Machi, that will come out in October!

Some years ago I wrote a review of this book after I fell in love with these evocative poems full of those tiny moments daily life and mundane emotions. Machi Tawara had used a very old poetry form to express herself and created a huge success in Japan.

Some 5 years later I opened the book afresh (the one I’d read was a library copy) and I enjoyed it again. Here a few lines that resonated with me this time, from the poem Hashimoto High School (Machi Tawara is a teacher):

Proctoring the exam,

Suddenly I think of each one’s mother,

The day she conceived this child

 

Parents claim to raise their children,

but garden tomatoes turn red

unbidden

In case you need a refreshing break from fall’s hectic schedule (back-to-school! new projects at work! budgets! the end of year already looming! arggh…) and the noise of social media, a book of poetry (in paper with a clean design and a cute cover) is a good place to start.

Interrupted: Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom (1972)

Sometimes I wander among the manga shelves at the library, and I feel like a grandma trying to buy clothes in a hipster shop. Does it ever happen to you?

I simply lack references and so I have no clue how to choose something that I might like. Actually, I do have some references, but they are quite old and come from anime I watched in the 1980s or 1990s: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cat’s Eye and such. After all, I was raised with Candy Candy and lots of other Japanese anime, and I’m a big fan of Studio Ghibli. I’m not totally a virgin in the manga department, but it seems that genres have evolved so much that the popular mangas now have nothing to do with the older generation’s. So where should I turn now?

The other problem is more practical. At the library, every time I get attracted to a title, I discover that the volumes 1 and 2 are already borrowed. The only manga whose beginning was available at the time was The Drifting Classroom.

In retrospect, I should have known something was amiss when the person at the library desk raised her eyebrow at my choice. And perhaps it was no coincidence that nobody had taken these two first volumes.

It was soon confirmed. I read the first volume within a few hours and then I told myself: this is a pure nightmare, you should not go on: this is my first ever horror manga, and probably the last for a long, long, long time.

I have nothing against post-apocalyptic science fiction (uh, well, that’s not quite true, I have decided to avoid McCarthy’s The Road, I’m too much likely to get depressed by its theme), but nothing prepared me for that. Survival manga with lots of gory details. With main characters being elementary school children. Ugh.

I must be grateful I’ve read (skimmed, rather) Lord of the Flies as a novel a lifetime ago and that words are not as, well, visual, because perhaps it would have looked a bit like that. Except the violence is much worse. Add post-apocalyptic monsters. And don’t get attached to any of the characters, because they’re likely to die in horrible circumstances in the next few pages.

Well, I wanted to try something new, didn’t I? I promptly returned both books, it was a different person at the desk, but in retrospect, a pregnant mother with a 5 yo borrowing a horror manga? Perhaps a raised eyebrow was a bit of an understatement.

After all, it’s October, so if you’re looking for something seriously creepy, look no further. But don’t come back here complaining that you haven’t slept a wink or you’re shocked out of your wits.

Yoko Ogawa, Secrete Cristallization (Jap. 1994)

Original Title: Hisoyaka na kesshō, 密やかな結晶 (translated to French but sadly not -yet- to English)

I will go back to all those books I finished long ago and never managed to speak about here, but I have to say a word right NOW about the book I finished yesterday, so moving and powerful it was. I nearly finished the book in tears and I’m still sad this morning, as if I’d lost a real person and not a fictitious character.

I owe SilverSeason a great “thank you!” for pointing me toward Yoko Ogawa again, a prolific Japanese female writer I’d read years ago but a little neglected of late. It’s easy to dismiss Ogawa’s books because it’s always very subdued: characters aren’t shouting at you for attention and plots aren’t dazzling you with clever tricks and turns. They are subtle, a bit slow, always very polite, slightly apologetic, and never wish to disturb you, just like perfect Japanese manners would require.

But disturb you they actually do, because of the bizarre circumstances that characters seem to consider banal and the accumulation of small touches that eventually build a cruel, moving, fantastic world. In this novel, the narrator is a young woman, a novelist, who lives on an island where things disappear.

Regularly, the inhabitants discover that something, may it be an object, an animal or an emotion, are disappearing from their lives and their memories. The remaining objects are to be destroyed or rid of and people don’t even remember the name of the disappeared thing. At the beginning it’s small “useless” “stuff”: candy, perfume, music boxes, then it moves on to flowers, birds, calendars, books. People who can’t forget are rounded up by the police. In this Kafkaian totalitarian world, people aren’t very unhappy, they have a melancholy tone and a numbness that goes with not quite living normally, but they make do and always remain polite and disciplined. They are more  worried about the lack of food and the continuous bad weather (“has spring disappeared too?”) than by the ever-diminishing pool of things and feelings they are allowed to keep, because they aren’t even aware of what they miss. That’s heart-wrenching.

The young woman who tells the story is no rebel, but she knows that her publisher, a man who remembers way too much, will sooner or later get arrested, and she just knows that she has to have him near (Ogawa’s characters aren’t prone to self-analysis). She decides to hide him in her home with the help of an old man, friend of her family. The relation between these three characters is full of respectful gentleness, which softens the cruelty and incredible darkness of the world Ogawa creates.

The reader is increasingly aware that there’s no way out in this plot, as things that go missing get closer and closer to what make people humans. Their hearts, devoid of memories and emotions, are more and more full of cavities (as Ogawa say), and soon they even lose limbs, making Ogawa’s world even more absurd (dark humor and morbid. The published tries to rekindle memories and emotions in the young woman but his attempts aren’t quite successful.

It’s definitely not a book to read when you’re melancholy, but the poetry and the beauty of the descriptions of banal disappeared objects, the gentleness, the sheer humanity of these odd characters make it a precious and deeply original experience.

Akiko Itoyama, Waiting in the offing (Oki de matsu, 2005)

Two novellas are offered together in this book, both of them with fresh voice and subject. The subject is work, office life, at its most banal. Reading those I once again realized that not so many novels represent a faithful image of what we spend most of our days at. The voice is original too. If you tend to think that Japanese fiction is always about delicate feelings and emotionally detached characters, think again. Akiko Itoyama presents two women with straightforward, even blunt voices (with some slang). itoyama’s women are not the cute, Hello-Kitty- or Louis-Vuitton-collecting type we might come across in Japanese clichés.

The title story, “oki de matsu” is about a special kind of friendship between two colleagues, Futo and Oikawa, the woman who tells the story. They have bonded years ago as they have been recruited together and sent to the same provincial office. There share old jokes, intimate details, they know by heart what the other will say and do at work, they help each other, spend most days together and yet they are not friends in the general sense (they don’t see each other outside work) or lovers (there is absolutely nothing sexual in the novella).

It was a kind of a-ah moment for me to realize that I have many such “friends” at work: people I know so much about (if they eat their meat rare or well done, where they put their savings, what secret present they’re preparing for family for Christmas), yet I haven’t met their kids or wife and wouldn’t spend a weekend with them because we don’t share any outside interest. We are loyal to each other, confide each other some stuff, yet there’s a line that protects our “outside persona” from our professional one. (Is it a personal thing or a French thing to keep worlds separate? I don’t know).

In Itoyama’s novella, these two colleagues have kind of crossed the line: they have pledged each other, on one of those alcoholic office parties Japanese favor, that the one who will survive the other will go to the deceased home and destroy his or her computer’s hard drive so as to erase embarrassing details. They have even exchanged keys. So what happens when Futo dies in an accident? Will Oikawa feel her part of the pledge?

The other story present the flip side of the workplace. “Kinrô Kansha no Hi” (Labor Thanksgiving Day) is about a woman in her late 30s who has been unemployed for some time. She worked in one of those nasty male-chauvinistic workplaces ripe with sexual harassment and she quit without reporting it. She only got out of it a bad reputation, and now she’s bitter and quite cynical about the Japanese Big Corporate world. In the novella she is pressed into accepting a blind date, but the guy turns out to be completely full of himself and brown-nosing his way up the corporate ladder. Needless to say, these two are not set for the happily-ever-after ending.

I liked both stories for their strong heroines full of dark humor, matter-of-fact realism (mixed with magical realism!) and would look forward to reading more from Itoyama, but it seems that she hasn’t been much translated beyond these two.

ETA. I misspelled the author’s name: it’s Itoyama and not Toyama. Sorry!

Yu Nagashima, Mother at Hyperspeed (2001) and Dog in a Side Car (2002)

These two novellas are published together in France under the first title, but it’s pretty misleading because the mother in the second story is hardly present.

Anyway, it seems logical to present them together. Both stories are told from the point of view of a child (a girl in the Dog…, a boy in Hyperspeed…) not quite into their teens (I’d say 12). Both children are sensitive, and rather wise for their age, lonely and introspective, but they seem aloof and don’t register much emotion while adults play havoc with their family life. They coolly observe adults acting emotionally, sometimes foolishly, but always unexpectedly.

In The Dog in a Side Car, a young woman, Kaoru, remembers a particular summer of her childhood when her mother had left her home and children (her brother and herself) under the “care” of the father, who is every bit of a loser. He’s supposed to run a used-car business but he’s mostly a lazy feckless guy who likes to play tricks with his buddies.

On the contrary, the mother seems a model of neurotic, petit-bourgeois rigidity and it’s little wonder that the self-possessed little girl is not particularly saddened by the absence of her mother at first, especially as both parents fought all the time. She enjoys a bit of freedom, especially as her father’s “girlfriend”, an eccentric young woman, Yoko, settles in. There’s no trace of judgment in this pretty sticky situation, because the girl is so young that she seems to take in everything as normal, and she doesn’t consider the future or the implications of all the events that the adults are going through.

Yoko is a bit of fresh air for the young girl. She helps broaden her horizon and brings joy, laughters and passion to her otherwise dreary and empty life. But as we read it as adults we know that the summer’s arrangement is only temporary and that Yoko will leave sooner or later. The novella ends on a bitter-sweet note as we are to contemplate the later development of the family after Yoko left and how Kaoru and her brother grew up.

The second novella is about a young boy who is raised by her divorced mother. After the divorce they have gone to live in a small town in Hokkaido where she grew up. She fights to build a new life despite financial hardships, the pressure of her parents to remarry and the pressure of her boyfriends to make concessions. By little touches, we get to see how much the son cares for her mother. Like Yoko in the other text, the mother in this text is very far from the cliché of the meek, polite and conventional Japanese woman.

These two novellas leave a light, subtle impression and there’s a lot more to enjoy than just the facts I’m crudely summing up here. The children’s voice in each story is pleasant and clear. Sadly Yu doesn’t seem to have been much translated (although both novellas won literary prizes in Japan), but I’m always happy to give a chance to new Japanese voices.

Daisuke Igarashi, Little Forest (Jap. 2005, Fr. 2008)

Let’s dispel a myth before breakfast: mangas are not always about robots that save the world, cold-blooded androids and shirt-skirted heroins with super powers. It’s also, at least sometimes, about growing plants, village friendships and rediscovering a recipe your mother cooked in your childhood.

Little Forest is a refreshing manga in a very original style : part diary, part cooking book, part documentary on growing rice and vegetables in a little Japanese backwater, part meditative and personal elegy, it’s at times matter-of-fact, at times dream-like and sensual (the pleasures of eating and living surrounded by nature). It might be upsetting for people attached to the traditional manga form, but I rather took it like a short story collections with images (sketches and even photos!)

It made me think of Miyazaki’s anime movies in terms of themes, but the art and design are quite different. The manga is traditionally in black-and-white, but the first chapter of each tome (there are 2) are wonderful watercolors – I wish there was a full coloured edition!

Ichiko goes back to her rural village of Komori in the north of Japan (I’m not sure this is an actual village, but I read that it’s in part inspired by the author’s personal experience of living 6 years in the area), after finding herself disappointed by life in the big city.

The details of her life before taking that bold choice are only alluded from time to time, especially the sudden disappearance of her mother and Ichiko’s separation with her boyfriend. Ichiko’s life is about basic survival – she focuses on sensations and physical work. It’s a very Buddhist approach, in a sense.

Villagers there rarely buy food from shops; they do everything themselves, occasionally working side by side and helping each other depending on the season. Ichiko learns their planting and cooking techniques, often from very old grandmothers who are fitter and more ingenious than she in the first place!

Every chapter reads like a page of a diary, placed under the theme of a recipe (all the way from harvesting the plant or picking the fruit to preserving and eating), and Igarashi’s sketches make them very appetizing! Most plants are very local (perhaps even not available in all Japan), so I know I’ll probably never know how they taste in real life, but this book made me wonder. I especially love the beginning chapters, when Ichiko prepares Worcestershire sauce. Like some other foreign foods, her mother made her believe that it was a Japanese recipe, and she created a variation using only local ingredients! Imagine her surprise when she went to a supermarket and discovered it had been invented elsewhere!

I have already at least 2 people in my mind I want to offer this book to. That would make  a great present for many more friends, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be translated into English!

Banana Yoshimoto, Hardboiled, Hard Luck (Jap. 1999, Eng. 2005)

I didn’t want to stay for long with my bad impression of Yoshimoto’s Amrita, because her writer voice is so sweet and honest that it didn’t feel fair. She has the ability to reach out to readers even if her subject is strange or difficult and if she and us live worlds apart. But still, after just a few paragraphs she talks to you (yes, you!) as if she was your little sister. Only you never knew you had a Japanese sister… Her texts are indeed deeply ingrained in Japanese mentality, but in a modern, emotional way that we can easily relate to. So I felt I had to work around my previous disappointment and I jumped soon enough on this book actually made of two novellas both centred on the theme of grief.

“Hardboiled” is the strange tale of a young woman travelling alone by foot in the Japanese countryside and crossing a stone shrine that lets out evil vibes. Soon afterwards she reaches a small town where her whole experience will be marked by uncanny and ghostly experiences, reminding her of a dear friend who died exactly one year before. It seems completely stretched, and of course it is, but the sweet voice of the narrator saves it all. Being around ghosts seems something both natural and simple. I also appreciated that the writer spoke of a lesbian relationship without making a fuss about it (I don’t know if it’s rare in Japan but I suspect as much). I genuinely cared for this young woman and her girlfriend, in a way that kind of astounded me a few days after I’d finished the book. In a sense, I felt as if Banana Yoshimoto had cast a spell on me.

The second story was even more heartbreaking, with a young woman  coming to term with her sister’s death. The sister had a brain haemorrhage as she overstretched herself at work before her own wedding (how terribly Japanese, don’t you think?) and was thrown into an irreversible coma. The fiancé left her and got back to his family, never reaching out to the girl’s family, who hold a grudge against his weakness. But his brother continues to come to the hospital and soon a deep friendship develops between these two people united by loss. They might have fallen in love in other circumstances, but grief and the “other couple” make a tragic barrier for their relationship.

Yoshimoto expresses herself with simple and delicate expressions, you can’t avoid being touched by the pain and the beauty of the situations she presents. My guess is that she might be more comfortable with shorter forms than long ones, so I’ll definitely read her stories again.

I Guess I’ll Call it a Day…

Banana Yoshimoto, Amrita (Jap. 1994, English 1997)

This is such a pity that I couldn’t really enter this book and  that I had to skim through half of it. It started well, with an endearing main character, Sakumi, a young woman from Tokyo with a fresh and friendly voice. She comes from a bit of an oddball family (by Japanese standards): the mother has married and divorced, and has welcomed into her home several female relatives. Sakumi’s sister has recently committed suicide after being depressed for a long time, but Sakumi’s grief is rather subdued. She is more worried by her young brother who shows signs of eccentricity and threatens to drop out of school. Sakumi herself has a close call with death after a bad accident that leaves her with huge memory loss. She recovers but is changed forever, more attuned to senses, dreams and visions.

I could follow Sakumi for a good third of the book, even as the novel veers from the psychological to the supernatural. I could do with the telepathic brother, and with Sakumi and him witnessing a UFO near Tokyo. I’m not crazy about magic realism, but the brother – sister relationship was endearing enough to stretch myself to this point. But after a while, I couldn’t see where all this was leading. I draw the line at the crowd of spirits in the Pacific island of Saipan, and dead soldiers of WWII in said Saipan Island reincarnated in sea cucumbers. No to sea cucumbers! I can eat them if I have to (it’s tasteless, by the way), but I can’t accept reincarnation into these flabby, slightly disgusting creatures. Yuck.

More seriously, it’s the lack of plot that annoyed me. In a disarming foreword, Banana Yoshimoto nearly confesses this weakness herself: “Now as I read over this novel I realise how naïve it is … The theme of this book is simple. I want to express the idea that regardless of all the amazing events that happen to each of us, there will always be the never-ending cycle of daily life.” It’s okay to have a naïve narrator, or to offer a portray of daily life, but the hodgepodge with supernatural doesn’t work that well. I prefer keeping his mind Yoshimoto’s very nice collection of short stories, Lizard, where daily life and the uncanny mix a lot better.

Tawara Machi, Salad Anniversary (Sarada Kinenbi, Jap. 1987 translated in English and French)

I don’t often read poetry and I have no clue how to review it, but this collection of tankas was fun to read and very engaging. It’s as odd and accessible as its title. I never before thought that a poem could be described like a salad: fresh and crisp, or that language could be compared with chocolate: “sweet and a little bit bitter, not to be overeaten, and yet so tempting” (in Tawara’s words).

I scoured the web for everything about Tawara Machi and tanka, but it’s still rather scarce to my taste. Here’s what I learnt: in the mid-1980s Tawara Machi was a 20-something high school teacher in Japan when she came by chance upon the traditional poetry form called “tanka”, a rhythmic form based on thirty-one Japanese syllables divided into groups of 5-7-5-7-7, and adapted it to modern life.

Tanka, a 1300 year-old tradition, had become an old-fashioned and stale, but she revived it by using contemporary words and modern images. It’s not like a haiku, because I understand that the original version is only in one line, and there’s so many stanza to form the poem, so there’s something like a story in it, instead of being a seasonal snapshot like the haiku.

Salad Anniversary was an instant hit in Japan with millions of fans, but she was also recognized by “serious” poets with several national prizes. The common thread of this collection is a young woman’s love deceptions, but some poems also speak of her day job as a teacher, of her parents, of travels. In just a few words she paints ordinary events and feelings associated with them, just like eating a particular salad on a particular day can remind you of a lover who left.

Of course, my appreciation of the poem depends a lot of the translation. This French edition by Yves-Marie Allioux was very light and flowing, but the visual form on the page reminded me of the haiku form, so my eye stopped from stanza to stanza instead of moving on. It would be difficult and silly (not to say risky) for me to re-translate from French to English the poems, so I looked for them on the Internet but my own favourites weren’t there, only the most famous ones.

Salad Anniversary Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter:
“This tastes great,” you said and so
the sixth of July–
our salad anniversary

Another attempt taken from Tawara’s website:
“Hey, this tastes great!” you said, and so henceforth July the sixth shall be Salad Day.

Another found through Google in Linguistic creativity in Japanese discourse by Senko K. Maynard
Because you said, “This has a nice taste”, July sixth is our salad anniversary

August Morning Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter:
Always playing this song
you race along the seacoast road–
“Hotel California”

I watch you on your surfboard
poised between blueness
of sky and sea

Beach picnic for two –
thinking of egg sandwiches
never even touched

Morning in August Translated by Jack Stamm:
That’s you.
Deciding that your song
for speeding headlong
along beachside roads must be
Hotel California.

Into the space
between pale blue sea and sky
I stare fixedly
at you coming toward me
riding a surfboard.

Picnic on the sand:
that egg sandwich lying there
just lying there
untouched. Suddenly I find
it’s been worrying me.

[It’s quite wordy but much more visual and less dry than the Carpenter’s translation]

Translated by Quentin S. Crisp
Lunch on a sandy beach.
An egg sandwich left untouched
bothers me somehow.

[Probably my favourite]

Another attempt taken from Tawara’s website:
Blue of sky blueness of sea surfboard riding between : you only in my gaze.

Finishing our lunch on the beach, I notice they’ve gone begging, those egg sandwiches — it begins to bother me.

As you see, results are very different from one single Japanese sentence! I really wish I could read the original, especially as this collection seems to be the only one translated in foreign languages (perhaps because it is so difficult…)