The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki, translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas

 

Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.

Click on the cover image to read my full review of Yosio Aramaki’s novel, The Sacred Era, over at the Quarterly Conversation.

3 Novellas for Summer

Loud footsteps in a vast and otherwise silent corridor; the cloying perfume of lilacs; an ice-cold drink at the end of a hot, dry day.  In Winter we bundle-up, huddle inside and create a barrier between ourselves and the elements. Summer, though, is a different story. We open ourselves up to the full sensuality of the natural world – we wear less clothing, bask in the sun & surf, spend as much time out-of-doors as the weather allows.  Antonia Skármeta, Marie NDiaye and Haruki Murakami are writers who know the power of evoking the senses. Below are three novellas.  Small enough to read at the beach, while camping in the woods, or on a shady park bench.  And still broad enough in scope to provide a brief (and welcome) escape from the everyday.

ADistantFatherTitle:  A Distant Father
Author:  Antonio Skármeta
Translator:  John Cullen
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051625 6

I’m the village schoolmaster. I live near the mill. Sometimes the wind covers my face with flour.

I’ve got long legs, and nights of insomnia have stamped dark rings under my eyes.

My life is made up of rustic elements, rural things:  the dying wail of the local train, winter apples, the moisture on lemons touched by early  morning frost, the patient spider in a shadowy corner of my room, the breeze that moves my curtains.

During the day, my mother washes enormous sheets, and in the evening we drink lemon balm tea and listen to radio plays until the signal gets lost among the dozens of Argentine stations that crowd the dial at night.

A Distant Father by Antonio Skármeta is straightforward storytelling written in beautiful prose. Imagine a handmade diorama of a Chilean country village, populated by picaresque characters, that depicts a young man’s coming of age and you’ll have some idea of the rudimentary plot (and feel) of this charming 92 page novella. Our narrator, the young man, describes his father’s departure on the same train from which he disembarked on the day he returned home after completing his studies.  This estrangement, between his father and his family (the narrator and his mother) forms the central mystery meant to drive the plot.  But the characters are what truly move this story forward.  Skármeta has a talent for developing fully realized individuals on the page – allowing them their quirks and eccentricities while avoiding grotesque caricatures of life.  The result is delightful: moments of tenderness balanced by comedic episodes (usually revolving around the narrator’s attempts at getting laid).


SelfPortraitInGreenTitle:  Self-Portrait in Green
Author:  Marie NDiaye
Translator:  Jordan Stump
Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 39 9

I have a love-hate relationship to Marie NDiaye’s books. The savagery of NDiaye’s writing repels even as it entices me to keep reading… a bit like a venomous snake. The kind that mesmerizes its prey as it rears back to strike.  She is a challenging writer, but her readers and fans find her worth the effort her books demand.  Marie NDiaye stands easily among the most exciting and experimental writers being translated into English today.

… The schoolyard is empty, the sweet lilac has numbed me. I must have been one of those children the woman in green carted off down an endless hallway, but fear and the inescapability of the torments to come kept me from crying out. Was I ever seen again? It’s true that green can’t possibly be the sole color of cruelty, just as green is by no means inevitably the color of cruelty, but who can deny that cruelty is particularly given to draping itself in all sorts of greens? Before going on my way, I pull three leaves off the lilac and slip them into the pocket of my shorts. That might come in handy, I tell myself, though for the moment I have no idea what’s awaiting me.

Self-Portrait in Green is  a disturbing little book, filled with portraits of women connected to a narrator who we are led to assume is NDiaye herself.  I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as a collection of linked short stories. Though the format feels more connected forming a unified, continuous narrative than you’d expect in a book of stories. And there is the fact that the paperback is exactly 7-inches tall, 4-1/2 inches wide and 103 pages long – “petite” is an adjective that springs to mind.

These women in green who appear in story after story are subversively feminist (as were their predecessors in All My Friends). The intensity with which they interact with the world and the reader is terrifying. They present as strangers, friends, mothers, lovers, daughters and wives.  They are strong, mysterious, neurotic, paranoid, nurturing, dominant, submissive, beautiful and grotesque.  They contradict each other and at times cancel each other out, yet the copy on the back cover tells us that “(t)hey are all aspects of the internationally celebrated writer Marie Ndiaye.”


TheStrangeLibraryTitle:  The Strange Library
Author:  Haruki Murakami
Translator:  Ted Goossen
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 385 35430 1

Haruki Murakami is a bona-fide international literary celebrity with a huge following. When that happens publishers are wont to rush to print anything – even random scribbles discovered on the back of a napkin. An argument could be made that The Strange Library is such a case.  It’s a remarkably slight book, dependent on the illustration/graphic design talents of Chip Kidd* to transform it into something more substantial.  Happily the collaboration is entirely successful.   Bright, beautiful, with a definite Zakka (a style of Japanese handicraft) influence – the book itself is an object to desire.  The story, narrated by a boy who discovers and is imprisoned within the labyrinthine basement of the strange library, is weird enough to meet the expectations of Murakami fans across the globe.  Of course, you’ll be finished with the entire book in 20 minutes – the slow, careful reader might stretch it out to a half hour – but sometimes good things really do come in small packages.

The library was even more hushed than usual.

My new leather shoes clacked against the gray linoleum. Their hard, dry sound was unlike my normal footsteps. Every time I get new shoes,it takes me a while to get used to their noise.

A woman was sitting at the circulation desk, reading a thick book. It was extraordinarily wide. She looked as if she were reading the right-hand page with her right eye, and the left-hand page with her left.

Murakami novels are often an assemblage of odd & uncomfortable, deceptively mundane, details – as demonstrated in the passage above. The narrator constantly remarks on the strangeness of the world he has stumbled into: the librarian’s strange eyes which read two pages at once, the awkward way in which the other characters speak, the size of the basement versus the footprint of the building & his ability to understand books despite their being written in Turkish (a language he does not speak). This mood/atmosphere of unease is established through direct explication. What information we are not told is simply not there – leaving an informational vacuum that is too substantial not to have been intentional. Perhaps this is because The Strange Library was targeted at children (albeit, in the way Grimm’s original Fairy Tales might have been targeted at children) and the legion of hardcore  fans. The Sheep Man, a character from Murakami’s earliest published writings makes an appearance. But, this “insider baseball” doesn’t detract from the book’s charm and shouldn’t deter the casual reader.  The Strange Library is a wonderful diversion into fantasy regardless of how you approach it – as a Murakami aficionado or amateur.

 

*The British version of the book is illustrated/designed by Suzanne Dean, the art director at Harvill Secker

 

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter

A True Novel SlipcaseA True Novel by Japanese author Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, has been receiving a lot of positive attention since its release this past November by Other Press.*  Not least because it comes in a lovely two-volume, illustrated and slip-cased edition.  Most readers will come to A True Novel, or avoid it, based on the Wuthering Heights connection. But this reinvention of that classic novel, set in post-war Japan, manages to transcend the material on which it is based.

The major themes are the same: gorgeous landscapes; a tragic love story; ghosts; unreliable (and multiple) narrators. And if that was all A True Novel was – a simple retelling of a classic tale, with the same characters placed in a more modern setting –  getting through 880 pages might have been more of a challenge.  But the differences are significant.  Mizumura’s decision to set her story in the affluent and tranquil Summer community of Karuizawa, Japan – at a time of major social transition – instead of the tempestuous and dramatic Yorkshire moors changes the overall tone.  And the way she playfully approaches the act of homage transforms it into something else entirely: an elaborate version of whisper down the lane.

The novel has three distinct narrators. The first is Mizumura herself, who spends the first 150+ pages explaining her connection to the characters she writes about. This Preface and Prologue is meant to establish the illusion that the book is a work of non-fiction. An “I novel“. She explains how the bulk of the story was told to her by the second narrator: a young man named Yusuke who corresponds with the Lockwood character.  Yusuke, in turn, learned most of what he tells Mizumura through a third narrator: Fumiko is the maid who was actively involved in the lover’s adventures – Nelly Dean if you’re keeping track.  And so we are four times removed, reading Mizumura’s transcription of Yusuke’s retelling of Fumiko’s version of the events she witnessed (and influenced).  All of which is, once again, loosely based on Emily Bronte’s original Wuthering Heights. I use the term loosely because this is a version of Wuthering Heights as translated through the dual lenses of Japanese culture and language.

There’s a cleanness to Japanese translations that I adore. A sharpness and a clarity.  A characteristic stripping away of extraneous adjectives and sentimentality.  Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation is a sharp contrast to Bronte’s 19th-century Gothicism.  For an example: compare the words of the two heroines, Cathy & Yoko, describing their connection to their respective heroes –

“My great miseries in this world have been  Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.” – Cathy

“I feel as if I’ve disappeared, myself.” She sounded even more remote.  It was as if while she was standing there her spirit had gone off to wander some far corner of the earth…  “I will never, ever forgive him,” she said in a low firm voice, and bit her lip again. “Never. Not as long as I live.” She put up a good front, but she may finally have begun to understand what it meant to be loved that much by someone like Taro – in a life she was given only one chance to live. – Yoko.

Yes, Mizumura’s prose (in Carpenter’s hands) is minimal. Particularly when compared to Bronte’s. But that doesn’t mean the words suffer from a lack of substance or are devoid of poetry. There is an aching sense of loss that permeates every character in every word on every page of A True Novel.  And it is still very much a ghost story; more so even than the original.  The characters in Wuthering Heights (including the dead) are vibrant, full of life and passion. Yoko and her lover Taro, Fumiko, the three sisters (who feature prominently and who I’ve intentionally avoided describing so that you can discover them for yourselves), even Yusuke… they are all haunted. Each has crossed an invisible line.  Their connections to the past  is stronger than their grounding in the present. As a result the reader instinctively understands that this story is over, the characters left wandering among shades, even as we are experiencing it for the first time.

 Anyway, in the end, as he alone knew – and knew only too well – she held absolute sway over him.

“You apologize!” The demand rang out more insistently.

In the white light of the full moon I saw Taro drop down on his knees and, supporting himself with both hands, lay his forehead flat on the ground in an attitude of abject apology.  The flashlight he’d laid down shone on the pebbles. I gasped as Yoko slipped off one wooden clog and put her bare foot on his head to press it down farther. There was no need for me to intrude, however. As soon as her toes touched his head, she lost her balance and toppled over, landing on the ground beside him. Now she began bawling even harder, fists in her eyes, elbows sticking out in the air. Taro jumped up, grabbed her by the hands, and pulled her up off the ground.  Then he was on his knees again. He took her bare foot in his hands and slipped the wooden clog back on, then brushed the dirt off the hem of her yukata. His slim figure was radiant in the light of the moon.

I watched in bemusement as the two children disappeared hand in hand up the dark mountain path to the strains of the “Tokyo Ballad.”

One item the many reviewers and fans of this book don’t seem to be discussing (except in passing) are the photographs.  Lovely black & white pictures with simple captions of the places where they were taken: “Western-Style Summer Villa With Bay Windows”; “Chikuma River”; “Oiwake Station”.  All places mentioned book. But deserted. Emptied of people. Brilliant.  The illustrator N.C. Wyeth once said that his goal was to illustrate the scenes that were not fully developed or described by the author.  His illustrations were created to add and build on the author’s text, not just interpret it. His portrait of blind Pew in Treasure Island being the most famous example.  Toyota Horiguchi’s gorgeous photographs are the next stage in the evolution of this tradition.

Toyota Horiguchi's black & white cover photos.
Toyota Horiguchi’s black & white cover photos.

A True Novel is a favorite among the judges of this year’s Best Translated Book Award. It’s a foregone conclusion that it will be on the long list.  I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the shortlist.  Should it win… well…  it would be a huge departure from past winners which have fallen into the category of less traditional (less accessible, even) works.  It’s looking to be an interesting contest and I can’t wait for  March 11th to see how it plays out.

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051203 6

*Other Press consistently gives as much care to the quality of the physical book as it does to the words it contains.  They are one of my favorite publishers – always interesting and always innovative. And yet they’ve surpassed even my expectations with the loveliness of this book.

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated from the Japanese by Andrew Driver

PaprikaThe 2006 anime film Paprika, based on the Yasutaka Tsutsui Japanese novel and its subsequent manga adaptation, has a cult following.   Unfortunately, the original book contains the very elements in anime and manga which I find most distasteful:  the sexual objectification of women, homophobia and a hysterical prose style.  Add to this a plot built on a dubious pseudo-science – i.e. dream therapy based on a Jungian model – and there’s very little left in Paprika to recommend it.

The novel’s heroine and namesake Paprika (a.k.a. – Dr. Atsuko Chiba) is the stunningly beautiful psychiatrist.  She and her morbidly obese colleague, Dr. Kōsaku Tokita, are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for their research and work in dream therapy.  Dr. Tokita is the inventor of the “PT” (short for psychotherapy) device which allows Dr. Chiba to access, enter, and sometimes even perform treatment in, a patient’s dreams.  During its early development PT devices were illegal, and so Dr. Chiba created a cover identity named Paprika.  After the ban was lifted Atsuko Chiba still uses Paprika to treat high-profile clients, those whose mental illnesses might hurt their careers.  While Atsuko Chiba is intellectually gifted, poised and professional; Paprika is often mistaken for a teenager.  She speaks in a juvenile slang in order to put her client’s at ease.  She wears jeans and a tight, red shirt to her meetings.  The clients, invariably men, are all sexually attracted to her and she to them.

The plot rolls into motion when internal politics endanger the institute where Chiba and Tokita perform their research.  Tokita has created a new PT device, known as a PT mini, which allows for a kind of dream “wi-fi”.  But it is stolen while still being tested.  Someone is using the PT mini to “infect” employees at the institute with schizophrenia.  Should it be made public there would be mass-hysteria and the institute, and subsequently all Chiba and Tokita ‘s research, would be shut down.  Not to mention the innocent people being driven insane.

And so Paprika goes to battle in the world of dreams.  There she fights the bad guys with the help of two former patients – both middle-aged, powerful men – in a surreal landscape that begins bleeding into the real world.  The dream landscapes that Yasutaka Tsutsui creates are by far the most engaging aspects of the novel.

On one level Paprika is a fairly typical science fiction novel, with good using futuristic scientific technology to fight bad.  Taken on that level, the writing is no better or worse than the fantasy writer R. A. Salvatore.  But Yasutka Tsutsui was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and the English translation of Paprika is being published by Knopf Doubleday under the Vintage Contemporaries imprint – which leads readers to have certain expectations.  My expectation was that the quality of the writing would be on par with other Vintage authors, such as Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Orphan Pamuk or Haruki Murakami.  Instead, what I actually got was:

“Are there any other functions we don’t know about?” asked Osanai.  “If there are, you’d better tell us quickly.  This device is dangerous.  We need to control it rigorously, under high-level isolation and in all secrecy.  Please return all DC Minis in your possession to us.”

“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep going on about?  Would it be you and your gay lover?” Atsuko countered with a smile.  “I wonder if he’s at work yet.  There’s something I want to ask him.”

or

By intentionally withholding the discovery of a murder, Atsuko knew she was sinking even deeper into guilt as a co-conspirator in evil.  Even winning a Nobel prize might have been part of that evil.  Fortunately, though, she felt no such guilt about winning the prize itself.  She could therefore put on a brave face, drawing on her feminine ability to become impervious to evil as necessity demanded.  Atsuko waltzed into the Meeting Room as if nothing had happened.  While expressing dissatisfaction at her absence, the reporters had reluctantly started questioning Tokita and Shima.  Now they started to remonstrate and call out loudly to Atsuko, without even waiting for her to settle in her usual seat.

I’m inclined to blame the translator for the awkwardness and hackneyed quality of the prose.  But the juvenile attitudes and prejudices are all the responsibility of the author.  For example, when two gay men use the DC minis for sexual encounters they are treated as perverts – “They’re not playthings for gay sex games.”  But when Atsuko uses them to have sex with her clients, sometimes multiple clients at once, it is viewed with an abashed acceptance.  Perhaps most offensive is the scene where one character attempts to rape Atsuko – and instead of fighting back she reacts by urging him to do it and to make sure he satisfies her in the process.  Later in the book she will admit to herself (in a dream, because apparently everything except homosexuality is allowed in a dream) that she loves and is attracted to him (Paprika/Atsuko is attracted to and engages in sex with almost all the male characters at some point).  And she has sex with him, her would-be rapist.

Therein lies the problem with Paprika.  Yasutaka Tsutsui has created a strong, capable and intelligent female character in Dr. Atsuko Chiba.  Then, he housed her sexuality in Paprika.   And, according to Tsutsui, it is permissible for the male characters to sexually objectify Paprika – she (literally) becomes the receptacle of their fantasies and desires.  Because, we’re not accountable for what we do in our dreams according to Yasutaka Tsutsui.

That may be good enough for some of his male readers, but it’s guaranteed to leave most female readers cold.

Publisher:  Vintage Books, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 307 38918 3

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Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Revenge-ElevenDarkTalesYoko Ogawa shares the same elegant, pared-down aesthetic of Kazuo Ishiguro and/or Akira Yoshimura.  Like them, she exerts remarkable control over her prose narrative.  And, like them, the fact that something significant is occurring is not always immediately apparent.

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales provides eleven intimate encounters with love, loss, desire and, yes, revenge.  The violence committed by Ogawa’s characters is particularly chilling, often presented as an afterthought.  The situations into which the reader is pulled are eerily familiar,  like in dreams.  The stories are imbued with a sense of artistry.

Afternoon at the Bakery begins with a woman waiting at the counter of an empty bakery to purchase strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday.  An elderly woman wanders in and sits beside her.  They trade small-talk, and in the course of their conversation it is revealed – very matter of factly –  that the birthday boy is dead.  He suffocated (perhaps years ago?) playing in an abandoned refrigerator.  The elderly woman sympathizes and then she leaves, promising to send back the baker if she should see her.  The mother continues to wait, seemingly with unlimited patience.  Eventually she notices the baker in the kitchen, clutching a phone and crying.  She wonders at the cause of the girl’s tears but decides not to interrupt.

People passed by the shop window – young couples, old men, tourists, a policeman on patrol – but no one seemed interested in the bakery.  The woman turned to look out at the square, and ran her fingers through her wavy white hair.  Whenever she moved in her seat, she gave off an odd smell; the scent of medicinal herbs and overripe fruit mingled with the vinyl of her apron.  It reminded me of when I was a child, and the smell of the little greenhouse in the garden where my father used to raise orchids.  I was strictly forbidden to open the door; but once, without permission, I did.  The scent of orchids was not at all disagreeable, and this pleasant association made me like the old woman.

On first reading, that may sound a little too simplistic of a plot.  The author is using a classic bait and switch scenario – pull a reader into a seemingly average, everyday situation and then draw back the veil.  She keeps the action and revelations balanced on the edge of what is possible.  Ogawa performs this trick over-and-over-again throughout the collection, yet the novelty never diminishes.  And even when things begin to feel unsteady, she uses the (authentic) emotions of her eleven narrators to steady us.

Every story is told through the first person, introducing a new storyteller who brings a new set of emotions, responses and perspective to events.  So one woman’s confessor becomes another man’s creepy uncle.  These tales are linked together by a delicate cord of tenuous relationships.  As the book progresses the number of connections grows and the cord becomes a net.

Part of the fascination of Revenge is derived from the joint discoveries of what the next connection will be and where it will occur.  A woman who wears her heart outside her chest, a surgeon’s jealous lover, a black-sheep uncle, a college student’s patroness, that crazy neighbor you made the mistake of talking to once… Ogawa binds the macabre and the mundane with brilliant results.  She and her translator Stephen Snyder make it look easy – allowing the action to move at its own, languid, pace.  Together they are carefully constructing prose environments, emotional tableaux, frozen in time like the scene in a Vermeer painting.

Or like Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill.  It’s been a favorite of mine since college.  The artist  has thrown together an assortment of mostly common, everyday items – except for the skull.  And it is that one disparate element which sets the tone and defines the viewers response.  Claesz was a 17th century “Haarlem painter who gave extraordinary presence to familiar things”.   It’s the gift given to every true artist:  that ability to draw back the veil and show the rest of us what is not always immediately apparent.

Publisher:  Picador, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 312 67446 5

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