The Waiting Years – Fumiko Enchi (tr. John Bester)

Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years is my contribution to #JanuaryinJapan and Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge, and what a terrific read it turned out to be!

Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.

Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. But while the Shirakawas are a symbol of respectability when it comes to outward appearances, privately within the confines of the family the scenario could not have been more different.

In the very first chapter, Tomo is tasked with a heartbreaking mission, a matter which causes her much anguish. Now that her husband has risen the ranks in his career, bowing down to expectations from certain quarters that he can allow himself a mistress, Yukitomo entrusts Tomo with the job of finding a suitable concubine for him, the younger the better and preferably untouched. Yukitomo has granted funds to Tomo for this purpose with permission to take her time in finding a suitable woman.

The very idea that a husband is asking a wife to find him a mistress is detestable, but Tomo is aware that she hardly has much choice in this matter. She could refuse, but that would not stop Yukitomo from finding a mistress himself and Tomo takes some solace (if one could call it that) in the fact that if the matter of a permanent mistress for Yukitomo is a given, then at least she can have full control of who will set foot in the house.

The earlier chapters focus on the turmoil raging within Tomo, her love for Yukitomo when she married him, a man she still desires, which is why this task is so much harder. Yukitomo’s waywardness is nothing new to Tomo, she is aware of his womanizing ways but officially installing a mistress in the house is a different matter altogether. If Yukitomo has risen in his career, so has Tomo in her position as a government official’s wife – despite her country roots and lack of sophistication, she adapts to the demands of maintaining a respectable household, ensures that the Shirakawa name is held high, and effectively manages all property, land and sundry matters commensurate with the wealth and status of her husband.  

When the novel opens, Tomo and her young daughter Etsuko make the journey to Tokyo from the provincial town of Fukushima. Her destination is the Kusumi house by the Sumida River, the residence of a woman called Kin who Tomo decides to enlist to help her find the right mistress. This job is all the more cumbersome because of its very nature – all forms of enquiries must be discreet and the people consulted must be trustworthy.  Tomo, along with Kin, visits a slew of geisha houses, where even the proprietors are struck by the strangeness of the situation – a man having mistresses hardly raises eyebrows, but a man asking a wife to find a mistress seems bizarre.

Three months pass by without yielding any results until finally, Tomo finds the girl she is looking for. Through a reference, Tomo and Kin visit a school where they watch girls practicing for a dance and her attention is brought to Suga, an innocent girl barely fifteen years of age. Suga is strikingly good-looking, a baleful beauty that is particularly captivating. Suga’s family is in dire circumstances financially, the family business has gone under, and under sheer desperation, they agree to send off Suga to the Shirakawa family. The guilt in Suga’s mother is palpable for having literally ‘sold’ her daughter, and she privately requests Tomo to take upon herself the responsibility of caring for her.

Suga has been vaguely told by her family to respect the master’s wishes without really conveying their true nature. Thus, when ensconced in the Shirakawa household at the very beginning, Suga seems carefree and happy. She is barely older than Etsuko and the two hit it off immediately. But after a few days when reality hits her hard, Suga slowly begins to sink into despondency.

As the novel progresses, in a timespan encompassing several years, various developments take place in the Shirakawa household that only heighten how dysfunctional the family is, particularly its male members – another young woman called Yumi is installed as Yukitomo’s mistress, Tomo and Yukitomo’s emotionally distant and unstable son Michimasa is married off to Miya who comes from a trading family and whose easygoing, coquettish manner results in her embarking on a highly forbidden affair with her father-in-law.

Where Enchi excels is to offer a window into these women’s inner lives. She beautifully captures the internal drama of Tomo, Suga and even Yumi – the anguish of their narrowed existence, catering to the whims of a morally irresponsible man, and given the times they lived in, a feeling of having their hands tied and their dreams and desires squashed.

Right from the time she is entrusted with the burdensome task of searching for a suitable concubine, we are privy to the range of emotions that flit through Tomo’s mind; the knowledge that she is no longer desired and that her rightful place in the marital bed is upended by a young girl.

Her mind that under the pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having publicly to hand over her husband to another gnawed at her within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than that creed. Tormented by the one-sided love that gave and gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.

The idea of leaving Yukitomo and moving back to her parent’s place does occur to her, but she senses the futility of this. Tomo’s upbringing has been as per old-fashioned moral codes and for her to simply abandon them is not easy. She realises she has her children to care for and a wife’s standing to maintain, and she decides to take these developments in her stride. Of course, over the years, Yukitomo’s irresponsible behaviour hardly recedes, and Tomo treads on eggshells, left with the thankless, difficult job of keeping the household together and preventing it from falling apart, which not surprisingly begins to take a toll on her. Although she no longer shares Yukitomo’s bed, her position as his wife remains secure, and yet at the beginning, a flicker of fear passes through her that this might not be so. And yet despite it all, there is an inner strength that is inherent in Tomo, a will of steel palpable that enables her to perform her duties, however unpleasant they may be.  

If Tomo’s standing is not something to be envious of, Suga’s circumstances are even worse (“Pity welled up at the sorry fate of the girl fluttering before her like a great butterfly”). At the very beginning when the reality of placement in the Shirakawa household dawns on her, Suga is beset by a growing sense of disillusionment and sadness. Although her material comforts are taken care of and she no longer has to worry about money, she is struck by the hopelessness of her situation, the loss of freedom that it entails, the feeling of her wings being clipped. Suga’s position is particularly cruel because she is trapped in no-man’s land – she might be Yukitomo’s favourite but does not enjoy the privilege of being the official, respectable mistress of the house, that status irrefutably belongs to Tomo. Suga also lacks Tomo’s managerial skills when it comes to matters relating to handling Yukitomo’s plethora of estates and other business matters.

As the years pile on and Suga grows older, her sense of claustrophobia only heightens and along with it her resentment for being answerable to Tomo. Nor can Suga marry another man, set up her own home as a respectable wife and start a family. To make matters worse, Suga’s worries only deepen when Yukitomo begins to have an affair with his daughter-in-law, a development that only increases her sense of peril.

There’s also the delicate, complex relationship between Suga and Yumi, the latter installed in the Shirakawa household initially as a maid, only to move on to become another of Yukitomo’s concubines. Suga’s family on hearing this, worry about the rivalry that is likely to arise between the two women, but interestingly rather than become sworn enemies, Suga and Yumi bond as sisters, probably Suga broadly identifies with the grimness of their situation, a spider’s web in which Yumi is as much trapped as Suga.

Yukitomo is the quintessential, tyrannical man, ruling the household with an iron fist, disrespectful of women, compelling them to kowtow to his demands and find a way to adjust to his increasingly untenable loose behaviour. The less said about him the better.

The book also subtly explores the transition of Japan to the Meiji era which is visible in the way Yukitomo’s career plays out. Yukitomo espouses conservative values and along with his boss strongly opposes liberal thinking and the stance of the liberal movement. But he is increasingly aware of the frailty of their seemingly invisible seat of power.

General Kawashima, a man not easily daunted, had said, his large heavy-lidded eyes creasing in a grim frown:  “If we don’t get complete control within the next year or two, it’s all up with us. Personally, I don’t want to live to see that day come.”

Could it be that the demon superintendent, the man who had devoted all his energies to suppressing the popular campaign for civil rights, had come to realize that the new age rolling towards them like the sea at full tide was something against which resistance was possible? Shirakawa could not avoid a sense of disheartenment at the crack he saw appearing in the disposition of this obdurate man who had once so blithely seized people’s homes in what amounted to daylight robbery, and pulled them down in order to make way for a prefectural road – the man who had happily tolerated the poisoning by mineral wastes of a whole area along the banks of the Watarase river so that the copper mine at Ashio might prosper – all this done in the name of loyalty to the state. 

As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time.

It is a quietly devastating tale of the plight of women who are compelled to be subservient to the unreasonable demands of men in a patriarchal society. Enchi’s prose is suffused with an elegiac, haunting power; her writing is sensitive and perceptive, finely attuned to the turmoil that seethes within her female characters. The way she delves deep into the complexity of their emotions and depicts the impossibility of their situation is particularly striking. This is an emotionally wrought tale and yet there is no melodrama, which also in a way lends the story an atmosphere of sadness. The novel also simmers with tension, a sense of foreboding about how the events are likely to unravel, not to mention an ending that throws a punch to the gut.

The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. Highly recommended!

Haunting, Dreamy Reads for Autumn

We are in September and autumn beckons – the season of red and gold leaves, coziness and even a whiff of melancholia. “Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonize,” wrote George Eliot in a letter to Miss Lewis, 1841.

Autumn also seems the perfect time to immerse oneself in haunting, atmospheric, dreamy reads and here are eight books that fit the bill…

THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader. The second book in the Septology series – I is Another – is pretty remarkable too, and I plan to read the final installment – A New Name (shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize) in the coming months.

WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. Haunting and mesmerizing, it’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures. The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

THE GATE by Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE-D’AVRAY by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for that ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading. 

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

On that particular autumn afternoon, as the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

INVISIBLE INK by Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

This is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill. Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

BLACK NARCISSUS by Rumer Godden

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of obsession, madness and colonialism.

Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. 

A Month of Reading – August 2022

August was a great month of reading in terms of quality, especially because it also focused on Women in Translation (WIT). I read three books for WIT Month (a novel, a novella and a short story collection) covering three languages (Japanese, Spanish and Danish), along with a Booker Prize longlisted title, a contemporary debut novel, and of course, the seventh book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Revolving Lights.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

SPACE INVADERS by Nona Fernández (Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)

In her novella Space Invaders, using this cult game as a motif and through a series of visions, dreams and fragmented memories, Nona Fernández brilliantly captures the essence of growing up in the shadow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

These set of childhood friends are now adults, but they remain haunted by events when they were young, particularly those around their mysterious classmate Estrella Gonzalez, who one day suddenly disappears. They vaguely recall rigid class assemblies and class performances imbibing nationalistic fervor. Estrella, herself, is a potent force in their dreams, but the dreams are all different (“Different as our minds, different as our memories, different as we are and as we’ve become”). 

Space Invaders, then, is a stunning achievement, a haunting dream-like novella of childhood, the loss of innocence it entails, and real life under junta rule whose very nature remains opaque and unfathomable.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.

The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

 A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

CHILDREN OF PARADISE by Camilla Grudova

Children of Paradise is a lovely, beguiling tale of cinema, flimsy friendships, loneliness and the evils of corporate takeovers. Our protagonist is a young twenty-something woman called Holly who at the beginning of the first chapter sees a sign outside Paradise cinema advertising that they are looking for recruits. Paradise is one of the oldest cinemas in the city located in a decrepit building. Holly is hired on the spot, but in the beginning, the work is arduous, and Holly struggles to the point of tears but holds on. Holly also grapples with loneliness as her colleagues, a circle of close-knit oddballs, are initially hostile towards her. Gradually, the ice breaks and Holly finds herself enmeshed in their world, made up of cinema, drugs and casual flings. Until one day, a major development threatens to uproot their already fragile existence.

Surreal and immersive, Children of Paradise effortlessly packs in an array of themes – cinema, capitalism and camaraderie – into its 196 pages, churning out an offering that is truly original in the way it views the world.

REVOLVING LIGHTS (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

Revolving Lights is the seventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim and Deadlock.

Revolving Lights immediately follows the events from Deadlock, but at the same time is also marked by a series of flashbacks with Miriam recalling certain events in the immediate past.

In terms of structure, it again differs from the earlier books – there are four long chapters, each focusing on certain key episodes during Miriam’s life. The book begins with Miriam’s thoughts as she walks the streets of London to Mrs Bailey’s boarding house on Tansley Street. As Miriam reminisces on various events we learn of her conversation with Hypo Wilson where she talks about Michael Shatov and airs her views on women artists…

“Well, the thing is, that whereas a few men here and there are creators, originators … artists, women are this all the time.”

“My dear Miriam, I don’t know what women are. I’m enormously interested in sex; but I don’t know anything about it. Nobody does. That’s just where we are.”

“You are doubtful about ‘emancipating’ women, because you think it will upset their sex-life.”

“I don’t know anything, Miriam. No personality. No knowledge. But there’s Miss Waugh, with a thoroughly able career behind her; been everywhere, done everything, my dear Miriam; come out of it all, shouting you back into the nursery.”

“I don’t know her. Perhaps she’s jealous, like a man, of her freedom. But the point is, there’s no emancipation to be done. Women are emancipated.”

“Prove it, Miriam.”

“I can. Through their pre-eminence in an art. The art of making atmospheres. It’s as big an art as any other. Most women can exercise it, for reasons, by fits and starts. The best women work at it the whole of the time. Not one man in a million is aware of it. It’s like air within the air. It may be deadly.”

She recalls a picnic with the Orlys in the previous summer around the time of Leyton Orly’s engagement…

And they had suddenly asked her to their picnic. And she had been back, for the whole of that summer’s afternoon, in the world of women; and the forgotten things, that had first driven her away from it, had emerged again, no longer mysterious, and with more of meaning in them, so that she had been able to achieve an appearance of conformity, and had felt that they regarded her not with the adoration or half-pitying dislike she had had from women in the past, but as a woman, though only as a weird sort of female who needed teaching. They had no kind of fear of her; not because they were massed there in strength. Any one of them, singly, would, she had felt, have been equal to her in any sort of circumstances; her superior; a rather impatient but absolutely loyal and chivalrous guide in the lonely exclusive feminine life.

At one point, Miriam is also disconcerted by the sudden appearance of the opportunistic Eleanor Dear (“lliterate, hampered, feeling her way all the time. And yet with a perfect knowledge. Perfect comprehension in her smile”).

I could have kept it up, with good coats and skirts and pretty evening gowns. Playing games. Living hilariously in roomy country houses, snubbing “outsiders,” circling in a perpetual round of family events, visits to town, everything fixed by family happenings, hosts of relations always about, everything, even sorrow, shared and distributed by large rejoicing groups; the warm wide middle circle of English life … secure. And just as the sense of belonging was at its height, punctually, Eleanor had come, sweeping everything away.

The next key episode focuses on her evening with Michael Shatov and his friends the Lintoffs, who are revolutionaries. But more importantly, Shatov proposes to Miriam and she firmly declines…

“You know we can’t; you know how separate we are. You have seen it again and again and agreed. You see it now; only you are carried away by this man’s first impression. Quite a wrong one. I know the sort of woman he means. Who accepts a man’s idea and leaves him to go about his work undisturbed; sure that her attention is distracted from his full life by practical preoccupations. It’s perfectly easy to create that impression, on any man. Of bright complacency. All the busy married women are creating it all the time, helplessly. Men lean and feed and are kept going, and in their moments of gratitude they laud women to the skies. At other moments, amongst themselves, they call them materialists, animals, half-human, imperfectly civilised creatures of instinct, sacrificed to sex. And all the time they have no suspicion of the individual life going on behind the surface.”

Although Miriam does not regret her decision, she does waver for a moment (“All the things she had made him contemplate would be forgotten…. He would plunge into the life he used to call normal…. That was jealousy; flaming through her being; pressing on her mind”).

Miriam spends a long summer vacation with the Wilsons – Hypo (modeled on H.G. Wells) and Alma. Miriam’s has conflicted feelings about Hypo. On the one hand, she revels in the knowledge that he is interested in her thoughts, but on the other hand, she is repelled by his views on  women (“To shreds she would tear his twofold vision of women as bright intelligent response or complacently smiling audience”).  

While Revolving Lights for the most part focuses on Miriam’s thoughts and her flashbacks, there is often a sudden but interesting switch in narration from the third person to the first person, a technique I first came across in Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. Revolving Lights also continues to focus on Miriam’s strong opinions on the dynamics between men and women, the pleasures of solitude, the joy of London and the sense of freedom she experiences when strolling the city’s streets, a feeling particularly accentuated after she immediately rejects Shatov’s proposal. Richardson also excels in the way she describes light, which particularly comes alive during Miriam’s stay with the Wilsons, at their Bonnycliff residence by the sea. One gets the sense that Miriam has evolved a great deal since Pointed Roofs, both by the substance of her interior monologues and the way social encounters and interactions have shaped her. Revolving Lights didn’t always make for easy reading, but it was interesting enough for me to want to continue with the series. On to The Trap and Oberland next!

That’s it for August. In September, I started Hernan Diaz’s Booker longlisted novel Trust as well as Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour, both very good. Plans on the anvil also include reading the seventh and eighth books from the Pilgrimage series – The Trap and Oberland (I continue to lag behind for #PilgrimageTogether).

Scattered All Over the Earth – Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

Language and identity seems to be the major theme of my August reading. Just a few days back I reviewed Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel The Colony, which touched upon those topics, and now here I am writing about Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth which highlights those very ideas but in a completely different and unique way. This was my first Tawada and I liked it so much that I definitely plan to read her earlier books particularly The Emissary and Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.

The novel is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

“Even when an empire sinks to the bottom of the sea,” he said, “it doesn’t disappear from history because it lives on in memory, from generation to generation, and then somebody decides they want to revive it. But isn’t there something frightening about the idea of bringing an empire back to life? Of course it’s fine to fix something that’s broken, to restore it to its original condition. But doesn’t the idea of reviving an empire bother you?”

The book opens in Copenhagen with Knut, a Danish linguist, sprawled on the sofa watching TV. Knut lives alone, his parents divorced when he was a kid, and his relationship with his mother is hazy and strained.  While flipping TV channels, Knut comes across an interview with the other central character in the book, Hiruko. We learn that Hiruko was a citizen from the ‘land of sushi’ forced to relocate once her country of origin disappeared. Hiruko now resides in Odense, having secured a post at the Märchen Centre. Having created her own language called ‘Panska’ or ‘homemade language’; it’s how she communicates with the immigrant children who attend the centre where she narrates stories showing picture dramas.

“recent immigrants wander place to place. no country obliged to let them in has. not clear if they can stay. only three countries I experienced. no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.”

As a linguist interested in all sorts of languages including the ones that have vanished and are no longer spoken, Knut is struck by the interview and immediately calls up the TV station to connect with Hiruko. He discovers that Hiruko is keen to travel to Trier in Germany to visit the Umami festival where a ‘dashi’ competition is set to take place.

“I’m sure that sometime in the future, when fish are extinct, people will rely on chefs to extract fish traces, distant memories of fish from plants that grow in the sea. That is my project: I call it ‘Dashi Research’.”

On learning that a man named Tenzo is hosting it, Hiruko is excited about the prospect of connecting with someone from her vanished homeland, a chance to seek out her roots and communicate in her now extinct language in a world where she often feels adrift. Knut, interested in how the encounter between Hiruko and Tenzo will play out, decides to join her.

On their quest to locate Tenzo, their travels take them to Trier, Oslo, Arles where they meet a host of people along the way; chance meetings which quickly transform into easy friendships. They come across Akash, a Marathi speaking, red sari-clad transgender student; Nora, a blonde German who has arranged the Umami festival at the Karl Marx House in Trier and is also Tenzo’s lover, and then Tenzo himself whose case is that of mistaken identity – he is not Japanese but a Greenlander. Not to mention, a mysterious character called Susanoo, who disillusioned with the robots his father designs in Fukui turns towards a career in ship building in Kiel, only to completely change course again and become a sushi chef in Arles.  

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole.   

The themes depicted are pretty wide-ranging. First up is the idea of language, nationality and loss of identity, a topic touched upon through Hiruko’s dilemma. In the modern world, borders, nationalities, clear-cut identities heavily define an individual, but what happens when these are obliterated? What becomes the fate of people who find themselves in the murky in-between, those caught in a Kafkaesque position of belonging nowhere on paper – refugees and immigrants in particular? As her country no longer exists, Hiruko and the rest of her kinsfolk become stateless refugees overnight forced to migrate all over the globe, struggling to eke out new identities and begin life anew.  Other characters like Tenzo are surprised to discover how race and identity matter so much in urban cities, things he had hardly ever given a thought to during his childhood in remote Greenland (“I wasn’t ashamed of being an Eskimo, but a whole life with just one identity seemed kind of dull”).

We get an inkling of the fraught complexities of language and communication as the novel progresses and how helpless refugees are almost always at the receiving end, their fates sealed by the whims, fancies and random policies of governments. For instance, in the dystopian world of Tawada’s creation, Hiruko invents the homemade language because she desires to procure residency in Scandinavia; however, Europe wants to pare down welfare costs and are more than willing to pack refugees off to America where English-language speakers are in demand, but Hiruko afraid of being deported to America refuses to speak English freely even though she can. Tenzo, meanwhile, displays a flair for languages conjuring up a ‘second identity’ for himself (“Learning a new language that would give me a second identity at the same time was much more fun”). One can’t help but feel that language is probably a theme close to Tawada’s heart given her background – Tawada was born in Tokyo but has lived in Germany for 40 years and writes in both German and Japanese.

“Once when I asked Cho who had taught him all this tuff, like how to press rice into little oblongs for sushi, or what to boil to make dashi for miso-shiru, or how to make perfect agedashi tofu, he told me he’d learned it all from a French chef at a hotel where he’d worked in Paris. I was shocked. “When the original no longer exists,” he said, “there’s nothing you can do except look for the best copy.”

The debilitating impact of climate change as well as natural and man-made disasters is another theme explored in the novel. Japan’s disappearance forms the cornerstone of this idea but through Susanoo’s monologue we are also introduced to how the construction of nuclear power plants affects a community as livelihoods dependent on nature (read: fishing) are lost. Then there’s the dead whale whose survival skills are destroyed by the greed of oil companies boring laser beams deep into the sea to detect oil deposits.

But what I really loved about the novel was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.   Tawada’s modern world might be a complex, frightening space but no such barriers exist in the way her motley band of travellers openly befriend one another on parameters not related to race, class, identity and language.

The novel is also delightfully funny in places largely fuelled by cultural misunderstandings. I am reminded of a particular conversation between Hiruko and Akash intently engaged in a heated discussion about the origin of the word Osho, whether it’s a proper noun (the famous sage Osho with his ashram in India), or a common noun (osho, which means Buddhist priest).

As far as the book’s structure is concerned, the reader is presented with myriad points of view – first-person retellings with each character narrating a chapter or two. The language is plain but the story is richly imagined, and the narrative is drenched with an energy that propels it forward turning it into an immersive, absorbing read.

Scattered All Over the Earth, then, is a fascinating prism of a novel refracting a slew of varied ideas; a delectable mash-up of exotic ingredients that are a joy to savour. Highly recommended!

WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Japan, Korea & China

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, one that I always look forward to. I thought I’d write a post every week on few of my favourite reads in recent years that are worth considering for this month. So without much ado, first up is a look at some excellent literature from Japan, Korea and China.  For detailed reviews, you can click on the title links.

Translated from Japanese

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

Woman Running in the Mountains, then, is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly. She immediately knows that she’s in labour and gets ready to make the arduous journey to the municipal hospital where she has reserved a place. Takiko is hell bent on going there by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira).

That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time giving a glimpse into her immediate past – her dismal family circumstances, the brief paltry affair that results in her pregnancy and the venom and abuse her parents subject her to when she decides to keep the baby.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read.

THE MEMORY POLICE by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.

Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.

In the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.

Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. 

THE TEN LOVES OF MR NISHINO by Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.

Translated from Chinese

LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

Translated from Korean

UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure. A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

THE WHITE BOOK by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian made it to my Best of the Year list in 2015 (pre-blog days), and was unlike anything that I read that year. The White Book is a completely different book, but brilliant in its own way. Hang Kang focuses on white objects as a medium through which she explores themes of grief, loss, finding peace and solace. The novel is in the form of fragments, short paragraphs each fitting on a page, and told in a style that is haunting and lyrical.