Oe, Kenzaburo (translated by Paul St John-Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama)
Marion Boyars Publishers, London
ISBN: 07145 29974
Is there something about the Nobel Prize judges that make them favour harrowing shit? Maybe – I can’t confess to even a working knowledge of Nobel literature, but I know one thing, and that is that this book isn’t for the faint of heart, or even anyone who is tenderly inclined towards an idealistic notion of the adult-child relationship. Damn, the adults in this book make the Trunchbull look positively friendly.
For all that it is a bit on the intense side of things, it’s certainly an excellent read, and doesn’t come across as preachy at all. Given its subject matter, that would be a pretty easy thing; set during the mid- to late-Second World War period, in Japan, it deals with a group of reformatory boys who are forcibly evacuated to the countryside. To my mind, Oe has captured with amazing alacrity the capacity for children (the eldest is perhaps 12 or 13 years old) to feel responsibility, and to feel a desire to sacrifice their own comfort for the comfort of another. He’s also captured really nicely the tensions which exist between adults and children even during peacetime. These boys are continually being shunted about by adults, being always told that they’re terrible human beings and worthless when really, most of the adults aren’t any better – and mostly a lot worse. Read the rest of this entry
Kirino, Natsuo (translated by Rebecca Copeland)
ISBN: 978 0 099 52083
I’d like to think I’m a pretty patient individual. I’m okay with working slowly toward things, as long as I feel like the rewards are either incrementally increasing as I go through my task, or that the eventual reward is going to be worth the effort. This book has taken me a stonkingly long time to finish, nearly six months for 467 pages. That’s pretty shabby by anyone’s standards.
I mean, you can tell that a book called Grotesque is going to be pretty much up my alley, right? Pretty promising, lots of references to murder and prostitution and stuff like that. But the going got tough when I realised that the characters were all pretty much entirely obtuse, which I think is why I had such a hard time getting into it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the obtuseness is actually part of the characters, self-indulgent little trollops they are too, but for the most part it was like being talked at by a fourteen year old girl who is yet to realise that the Earth doesn’t actually revolve around her.
This may be made worse by the fact that it’s told in the first person for the first half. Usually I really like this, when you’ve got two characters squaring off with each other about which version of the truth is the correct one. This one is a little weird though, because you’ve got two sisters telling you their stories. One sister, the elder, is embittered, angry – but it’s not a good rage-y kind of anger, more like it comes off as being slightly pathetic. She’s always moaning on about how horrid (and yet, beautiful) her younger sister Yuriko is, which I have to say, gets a little tedious. Yuriko is the other voice; she’s just as pathetic, but has this kind of veneer of intractability and stubbornness. Yuriko is determined to use her sexuality in this really twisted way, which seemingly why she becomes a prostitute in the first place – she sees it as the only way that she can have power over men.
So far, so boring right?
Murakami, Ryu (translated by Ralph McCarthy)
Let me state this right out front. I’ve never seen the movie that they made out of Audition, but I heard some really good things when it came out – it was shown here in a film festival a few years ago and provoked quite a wee storm of controversy (which is kind of what film festivals go for). So when I was perusing the shelves in the library (I was actually looking for Kafka by the Shore by the other famous Murakami, Haruki) and came across this book instead, I thought I’d give it a bash.
The story is basically that Aoyama, a 42 year old widower with a fifteen year old son, Shige, concocts the idea of auditioning a bunch of young lovelies for a bogus movie, when really, he’s auditioning them for wife material. He owns a video production company, and his friend Yoshikawa (who is the one that comes up with the kind of morally ambiguous idea) is in films, so it’s not outside the realms of possibility. The wanna-be actresses are all asked to submit a biographical essay, and it is this essay that causes Aoyama to fall head-over-heels in lurve with Yamasaki, a 24-year-old ex-ballerina (turned crazy-ass serial mutilator, but he doesn’t know that yet). If I was a 42 year old man, I’d like to think that even a tiny part of my suddenly-testosterone-ravaged brain would be at least a little mistrustful of this demure, intense young woman hanging off my every word, which Yamasaki is frequently described as doing. But no, Aoyama follows the path beaten out for him, “in the received style, like any other spoony”, in the words of Edward Rochester. But Edward Rochester he ain’t, cublings.
The good bits first – it’s short. The translated version that I got runs to 200 pages exactly. I think that I would have felt more than a little discouraged if a book that short couldn’t be finished because it was just that terrible to read. Uh… other good bits? Isn’t one enough for you? It’s got a snazzy manga-esque cover. It’s… short, did I already mention that? The family relationships are okay, I guess – Aoyama is sort of well written, if only he wasn’t such an insufferable ignoramus, and Shige is a bit too perfect, and in fact becomes almost a cypher by the end of the book (though he does have an important part to play). I mean, for a boy who says flat out to his dad “Ever thought about getting married again?”, he’s a bit too respectful of the rest of his fathers business – never pushing to meet this girl who his dad is obviously mooning over in a big way, never even really asking questions about her. I guess all of that could be code for a bigger kind of metanarrative thing of how we’re all so disconnected nowadays (which seems to be an idea that Japanese fiction returns to again and again), but I don’t know. You could also read it in a way that when you’re as obsessively in love with a person the way Aoyama becomes, everything else (and every one else) ceases to exist for you. But I just never really cared enough about any of the characters to find out or to even think that much about why they do what they do.
I guess that there can be a two-word summation of the bad parts of this novel: it’s dull. I mean, I was expecting quite a lot, given the hoo-hah over the movie, but honestly. It’s billed as a psychological thriller, and I was anything but thrilled. You really shouldn’t be able to read a psychological thriller before bed, but I found myself drifting off, only able to read a page at a time. Now that is heavy dullness. Maybe I’m just jaded though; I am making my way very slowly through Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, which is gross out of the highest order. I mean, that shit is amazingly disgusting – what made me want to read it was this review, which is quite hilarious, and useful because it gives us the helpful phrase ‘Palahniuk Pass-out’. It’s not the Japanese-ness of the text either; the reason that I was looking for Kafka on the Shore is that I wanted to re-read it because it’s a great book; if you like that sort of thing (which I certainly do), you should try The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and some of the short stories and novellas of Junichiro Tanizaki too. Read the rest of this entry