Tag Archives: Japanese

Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water with the Book Group

Kenzaburō Ōe, Death by Water ( 2009, translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm 2015)

Before the meeting: In flagrant disregard for established practice, our current Designated Chooser nominated two titles, to be read for successive meetings. The first, Edward Said’s On Late Style, was not exactly a triumph (the link is to my blog post), though it has been working away in the back of my mind ever since I read it. This is his second pick.

Kogito Choko is a writer in his eighties who revisits his childhood home with the intention of writing a novel about his father’s death by drowning when he was a child. What he thinks of as ‘the drowning novel’ had been one of his earliest projects, which he had laid aside because his mother wouldn’t give him access to the red trunk that his father had with him on the fateful night. Now, ten years after his mother’s death, the chest is released to him. An experimental theatre group who are passionately interested in his work are developing a project that will involve a dramatisation of his complete works, and hope to incorporate the process of writing the long awaited drowning novel. The theatre group has a signature audience-participation process featuring soft toy dogs and vigorous disagreements.

That’s the set-up. Nothing goes to plan. At one stage a character describes Mr Choko’s recent novels as ‘serial slices of thinly veiled memoir’, and that isn’t a bad description of some aspects of this one.

Kanzburō Ōe has a lot in common with his protagonist: same age, same childhood locality, same artistic medium (though Mr Choko doesn’t seem to have won a Nobel Prize as Ōe has), several novels in his back-catalogue with the same names. According to Wikipedia, Death by Water is Ōe’s sixth novel featuring Kogito Choko and his brain-damaged son Hikari (Ōe’s own brain-damaged son is named Akari). The novel’s imagined reader probably knows all this: I’m coming in very late, so shouldn’t complain if I feel disoriented at times. Which I do.

The novel progresses in an apparently haphazard way. The drowning novel is abandoned (a development it took me many pages to accept) and Mr Choko is persuaded to help write the script for the theatre group’s new project. A different theatre production is described in great detail. His wife is hospitalised and pretty much disappears from the book. He has a terrible falling out with Hikari and the problem of how to provide for Hikari’s needs remains on the agenda until the end. Key characters turn up well after the midpoint of the novel. The final movement deals with historical and remembered rape, incest and abortion – issues that have hardly even been hinted at earlier. It feels like one damned thing after another.

We learn about much of the action by way of letters to Mr Choko or conversations with him. Many words are spent describing theatrical performances and interpreting dreams and poems, though some of the dreams, we’re told, may actually be memories even though they involve a flying boy. Other characters tend to talk at Mr Choko, often offering him unflattering analyses of his personality or work, and they keep on talking in the absence of any verbal response, even one meant only for the reader. Mr Choko is asleep during the dramatic climax, and when his sister tells him (and us) what has happened she can only infer the action from what she has heard and overheard. The very final moments are Mr Choko’s imaginings of what might be going to happen.

At times it was like watching one of those Japanese movies that you can’t take your eyes off but which leaves your Western mind floundering.

My ignorance of Japanese history is part of the problem. Two historical uprisings feature strongly. The theatre group’s project is a stage play based on a film about an uprising during the Meiji Restoration, led by weeping children and warrior women. And Mr Choko’s father was involved in an ultra-nationalist plot to kill the emperor after the end of World War One. The incest-rape-abortion theme is linked to the first of these, and has a definite, though unclear to me, political meaning.

There’s also something about the tone of the writing that doesn’t travel well. For example, Masao, the artistic director of the theatre group, asks Mr Choko to reply to a questionnaire to help with the theatre project. What follows is several pages in which Masao delivers a series of monologues expounding on Mr Choko’s creative intentions and mental states at various points of his career. At the end of each monologue Mr Choko replies briefly to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct,’ ‘That’s exactly right,’ ‘You may very well be right about that, too,’ and so on. In a movie, no matter how deadpan the performance, this would be comic. But it’s just not funny on the page. Something isn’t translating.

But I’m not blaming the translator. I was disconcerted by a number of US-isms: a mention of a character’s ‘trail of tears’, for example, had me wondering why Ōe was referring to that terrible event from US history, until I realised he probably wasn’t. But other unsettling language is most likely just as unsettling in the original. I had to return my copy to the library so can’t give examples, sorry.

Mr Choko plans to write a book in a ‘catastrophic late style’ à la Edward Said (who was a friend of his), and perhaps this is Ōe’s version of the same. Perhaps this is Ōe’s ‘drowning novel’.

Having written a first draft of this blog post, I re-read the last ten pages of the book before returning it to the library, and realised that for all the book’s opacity and apparent incoherence, it does hang together. It comes back again and again to the main image of Choko’s last contact with his father, just before the father drowned. The boy’s unresolved feelings about that moment are the novel’s engine, echoed by a young woman’s need for resolution about her experience of rape and incest: it’s a tortuous, and tortured, path for both of them, but in very different ways they each find some sort of resolution.

After the meeting: There was a terrifying moment when it seemed out host, who was also the Designated Chooser, wouldn’t be able to come to the meeting because of a family crisis. Happily – both in terms of the crisis and for the good of the group – he did turn up, and was able to deal with our general bafflement with lucidity and grace.

But first: my bafflement was generally shared. One man said that he had never experience so strongly a sense that he and a book were travelling along separate, parallel lines. His partner got exasperated with his moaning and told him to abandon it and read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles instead – advice he was happy to follow. He wasn’t the only one to jump ship.

Our host agreed that some elements of the book were mystifying, but they didn’t determine his response. For him it worked as a comedy – the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, who thinks of himself as a distinguished novelist, perhaps a national treasure, but is in fact pretty much a has-been: the theatre group, which he thinks of a celebrating his legacy, is actually using his work as a springboard for something very different – devoted though they may be. He is managed by the women in his life – his mother, his sister and his wife; is useless at dealing with his son’s difficulties. And alongside this comic aspect, our host was enthralled by the way the images of forest and water are woven through the book, so that he was thrilled by the final moments (which I felt were clumsy and arbitrary).

I don’t know that he persuaded any of us to go back and reread the book, but it was a wonderful to have someone lay out a very different response to a book. One of us would say, ‘But what do you make of [blah blah]’. ‘Oh that,’ he’d say, ‘that’s something from Japanese culture.’ It’s no good argung about taste, as my Latin teacher used to say (but in Latin, De gustibus non est disputandum), but you can definitely learn a lot from talking about where different tastes take you.

Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint

Keigo Higashino, Salvation of a Saint (2018, translated by Alexander O Smith, Abacus 2012)

salvationThis is exactly the kind of book I’ve decided not to read any more – the novel equivalent of a run-of-the-mill police detective TV series. But I’d borrowed it from the Book Club, and the cover quoted The Times saying Keigo Higashino is ‘ the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ so I read it.

Evidently it’s part of a series, the second to be translated into English, featuring Tokyo police detective Kusanagi, his retired scientist consultant–friend Professor Yukawa and junior-detective-who-brings-a-woman’s-insight, Utsumi.

It’s pleasant enough, once you get past the very telling writing (as in not showing), like an episode of Jonathan Creek. It pretty much tells you who done it on page 5 before the murder has even happened, and from then on the question is how.

If there’s any wider social observation it’s been lost in translation. I don’t mean that Alexander O Smith has done a bad job. As far as I can tell the translation itself is fine. But if, for example, there are subtle comments about cultural change in modern Japan, they are too subtle to cross the East-West divide. Unless something huge has been lost, the only possible justification for the comparison to Stieg Larsson is that the series is very popular. There is certainly none of Larsson’s politics.

Also: the title doesn’t make sense.

As we say in the Book Club, 2 out of 5.

Leith Morton’s translations of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki

Leith Morton (selector and translator), Poems of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Asia_Pacific_Series_Japan1Indonesian writer and translator Maggie Tiojakin said recently on the ABC’s Books and Arts Daily that in translating Kipling’s Just So Stories she had to negotiate between wanting people to understand Kipling’s playful language or just enjoy the sound of it. Having opted for understanding, she worried that she had ruined Kipling’s work.

People enjoyed her Elephant’s Child anyhow, so all was well, but a similar dilemma faces any translator where the sound and look of the words matters. This includes most poetry, particularly when translated into European languages from languages like Chinese and Japanese that are written in characters: a simple word-by-word transition just doesn’t do it. The difficulty – and the joy of the challenge – are charmingly illustrated by the web page Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku (Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary); likewise by Robert Okaji’s annotated translations from Chinese (thanks for the tip, Will).

Inevitably then, in a book like this one, presenting three Japanese poets in translation, there’s a sense that one is reading the poems at one remove: they really are at one remove. The translator, Leith Morton, discusses some of the challenges in his preface, at one point expressing the hope that ‘the many textual pleasures … available to [a] Japanese audience can be gestured towards in translation’. He succeeds admirably, but it’s still frustrating to read gestures towards other people’s pleasures. But then when I came back to the book a couple of weeks after my first reading, its pleasures had miraculously become much more immediate.

The first of these three poets, Masayo Koike, is the youngest and possibly the most accessible to readers who, like me, have slender acquaintance with Japanese literary forms. There are wonderful haiku-like moments, like this in ‘The Ashtray and the Girl’:

The end of summer
In the middle of the road
Lying on its back a Brown Baker cicada

A number of her poems are remarkable for their ease with bodily functions: ‘A Short Poem about Daybreak’ begins:

America, in a toilet in Santa Fe
Daybreak
I was urinating softly for a long long time
In the whole world
I felt as if there was only this sound and myself

In ‘Bathhouse’ the speaker looks at other women’s bodies, ‘Naked backs, hips and backsides / Private parts / … The many hollows of the female body / Water gathering there / Dripping down’ ; ‘Penis from Heaven’ (a title that must put Leith Morton in line for some kind of award!) recalls an intimate, sexual moment from a film with no hint of prurience or transgression.

The second poet, Shuntarō Tanikawa, is, according to Leith Morton’s preface, generally acknowledged to be the most famous poet in Japan today. Urination features in his section of the book as well, most notably in ‘Peeing’, which I read as a cheerful anti-war poem. There are a number of fine poems about poetry and writing. Possibly because I read the book while my mother-in-law was dying, his poem that most struck me was ‘My Father’s Death’. This is in a number of parts, the first of which might almost have been called ‘The Day Father Died’ in homage to Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ – it is preoccupied with minutiae, except for the stark description of the dead body:

his mouth with the false teeth removed was open and his face had turned into a Noh mask of an old man, he was already dead. His face was cold but his hands and feet were still warm.

If you get a chance read this whole poem – it moves on to concentrated meditation, to the speech Tanukawa gave at his father’s funeral, to a beautifully captured moment of memory and realisation a month later.

Rin Ishigaki (1920–2004) doesn’t have any piddling, but she does have a bathhouse poem, ‘At the Bathhouse’. Perhaps as she was of an earlier generation than Koike, she takes the bodies of the women for granted and takes as her starting point the one yen pieces that women receive as change when they enter the bath – a humble coins that

Soak to their fill in hot water
And are splashed with soap.

The heart of this poem, and possibly of Ishigaki’s section of the book, is in the later lines:

What a blessing to be of no value
In monetary terms.

That is to say, many of the poems are about humility – about poverty, deprivation and economic oppression, but also about humility, and a kind of surprised appreciation of small unvalued things. The point where I fell in thrall to Ishigaki was in the poem ‘Sadness’. Here’s the whole poem (note – I’m 67):

I am 65.
Recently I fell over and broke my right wrist.
They told me at the hospital that
After it heals it will not be the same as it was before.
I rubbed my arm crying.
‘Mother
Father
I’m sorry’
Both of them
Died some time ago and are no longer here
This body I received from them.Even now I am still a child.
Not an old woman.

This is the third book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series. The others (which I blogged about here and here) were translated from Chinese.

Wa modern

As the Japan Foundation web site says:

Wa Modern is a blend of cherished traditional Japanese crafts (floral arrangement, ceramics and calligraphy) presented as one. For a limited time only from 9–16 October, floral artist Setsuko Yanagisawa, ceramist Malcolm Greenwood and calligraphy artist Ren Yano come together in their first mixed media collaboration at the Japan Foundation Gallery.

We trotted off to Chifley Square this afternoon. Really, it’s a brilliant exhibition, and exactly as advertised the three crafts speak to each other and with each other in wonderful harmony. The flower arrangements are based in ikebana and use Australian plants. The pottery could have been created for these arrangements. The calligraphy, to my completely uneducated eye, seemed to have taken liberties with tradition, to be looser, more relaxed, more – possibly – Australianish.

As we were leaving the young woman at the front desk asked if I’d taken any photos, and when I said I hadn’t told me I should come back with a camera. So I whipped out my phone for a couple of parting snaps.

Some dramatic waratahs:

Waratahs

A big arrangement. You can’t really see it in the photo, but those poppies appear to be standing in a shallow pool of water on the shell-like pottery dish, defying gravity. Looking closer, one sees that the poppy stems are actually supported by being pierced by thorns on the branch that lies across the dish

alcove

The exhibition is open all week. I recommend it.