Sunday, February 9, 2020

Next Stop: Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station

Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (JR Ueno-eki Koen-guchi), which I read in Morgan Giles’s translation from the Japanese, is a novel that examines absence and presence. A first-person narrator, Kazu, tells the story of his adult life, most of which is spent away from his wife, son, and daughter, as he works in Tokyo as a laborer. His account is alternately harrowing and oddly soothing.

Yamanote Line platform 2 at Ueno Station in Tokyo
Tokyo Ueno Station is neatly constructed, nesting multiple inserted voices into Kazu’s narrative. Kazu, for example, quotes his father’s account of “the trials of our ancestors” and offers the reported speech of museumgoers and people on the street. The novel is temporally framed by two Olympic years for Japan, 1964 and (looking ahead) 2020, as well as births in Japan’s imperial family. Although locations play key roles in the novel, too, pinpointing places like Fukushima and, of course, Tokyo’s Ueno Station (with history!), the book balances concrete details with an otherworldly sense of abstraction, an abstraction born largely of the contrast of the absence and presence I already mentioned. Buddhism also plays a significant role.

On the plot level, Tokyo Ueno Station is primarily the story of a homeless man, yes, Kazu, who lives in Ueno Park. The stories that make up his life story feature gaping absences. These absences are physical – Kazu works away from his family and there are deaths – but they are also mental:
My children held little affection for me, the father they rarely saw. And I never knew how to talk to them, either.
We shared the same blood but I meant no more to them than a stranger.
Kazu seems to feels closer to a fellow resident of Ueno Park, Shige, who invites him into the cardboard hut he shares with his cat, Emile. Shige offers a drink of hot sake to celebrate his son’s birthday. He, too, knows little of his family:
He was ten when I left. I guess he has his own family now. I might even be a grandfather.
Families, particularly sons, play a large role in Tokyo Ueno Station, despite their brokenness: the novel parallels lives like Kazu’s and Shige’s with those of the emperor, who was born in the same year as Kazu and whose son was born on the same day as Kazu’s son. The imperial family is a constant in Kazu’s life for reasons beyond those coincidences (this being literature, though, there are no coincidences) because when members visit the park area, the authorities clear the homeless encampment. Absence/presence as well as stability/rootlessness – we’re right by the mobility of the train station – contrast again, this time through a monarchy that dates back many centuries.

The contrasts that Yu Miri depicts are cruel, particularly set against the backdrop of a park with beautiful cherry blossoms or the pageantry and expenses of Olympic games or the demands of the imperial family. The book’s sense of absence/presence feels real thanks to Morgan Giles’s translation, which read flawlessly to me. She treats this polyphonic text with care, establishing a distinct, matter-of-fact voice for Kazu and letting him tell his own story while incorporating the words of others. Her careful work with the text ensures that this slender but very substantive novel builds quietly, gathering momentum and ending (how to put it to avoid spoilers?) one-on-one with Kazu. Tokyo Ueno Station is a book that I’d recommend to a very broad swath of readers for its stark and evocative depictions of life, passing, homelessness, relationships, and contemporary sociopolitical issues in Japan. It feels both very concrete and very elusive, rather like Kazu himself, who says:
To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past, while still being in full view of everyone.
P.S. On February 12, 2020, Morgan Giles won the TA First Translation Prize for her translation of Tokyo Ueno Station. I also noticed on Giles's Twitter feed that the book will be out in the U.S., from Riverhead Books, in June of this year.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: None, I bought my copy of Tokyo Ueno Station.

Photo credit for “Yamanote Line platform 2 at Ueno Station in Tokyo”: Nesnad via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

I’m Back, Thanks to Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley

When I unceremoniously stopped writing posts for this blog in mid-2014, I knew my absence was temporary. Even so, I wondered for more than five years what would bring me back. I nearly returned a year or so ago thanks to Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1, in Frank Wynne’s grittily wonderful translation, but time felt like too much of a problem. Time feels like (slightly) less of a problem now, so when I started reading Melissa Harrison’s All Among theBarley on New Year’s Day, I knew it was time to resurrect the blog. I bought the novel last year on the recommendation of a helpful salesclerk at Waterstones Piccadilly: all he really had to say was “crushing tragedy.” I do love a good crushing tragedy (the salesclerk likely intuited that based on my other purchases) and Harrison’s beautiful and quietly brutal coming-of-age story set in rural England, between the world wars, does everything I like a novel to do.

Edie Mather, fourteen years old, tells her own story in language dense with the flora and fauna at and around her home, Wych Farm. On the first page of the prologue, she’s lying awake at night, “remembering the day the Hunt ran me down in Hulver Wood,” adding in the next paragraph:

“As I walked, a white owl kept pace with me, drifting silently at head-height on the other side of the hedge; perhaps it hoped I would startle some blood-warm creatures from its tangled base.”

A landrail, a.k.a. corncrake.
There are plenty of unsettling elements here: the apparent insomnia, the Hunt, and the eerie owl who seems to be seeking out a warm-blooded snack. Harrison has already established a lot: Edie is clearly telling her story when she’s older (I’ll avoid major spoilers but will say it turns out her narration is made many decades later) and there’s already a very strong sense of nature, hinting at the relationships between predators and prey. Cycles of life for humans, animals, and plants, including crops, will be an important motif throughout All Among the Barley, and Harrison’s choices can be very colorful. I wasn’t familiar with all the plants and creatures – Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon and fritillaries among them – but somehow that gave the text even more mysterious allure than bits of witchcraft. (Maybe nature is the ultimate witchcraft? I think so.) There are also landrails, birds I wasn’t familiar with; Edie cares for one, which is very sweet but oh, we know it won’t end well.

The same – both mysterious allure and “it won’t end well” – goes for writer Constance FitzAllen’s presence in Elmbourne. She’s come to learn about rural life. Connie’s appearance in the area, where she interviews the locals, bring in an outsider who exposes differences of opinion on “whither England?” Early in the book she declares that “soon the peasant class will all be gone” and Edie tells Connie much later that she shouldn’t expect “old ballads and harvest traditions; the olden days are long gone.” In many senses, they are, though the past is complicated: in these between-the-war years, fallen soldiers are still remembered. Alongside those memories, though, is resentment toward certain outsiders. Again, I won’t reveal much other than to say that nearby squatters provide an opportunity for Edie to hear and discuss prejudice and anti-immigrant demagoguery.

This, too, fits with the predator/prey motif (unsurprisingly, the word “parasite” comes up, too), particularly since Harrison so skillfully describes various types of communities and circles that nest and overlap: Wych Farm, the Mather family, neighbors, the nearest town, the country, the rest of the world. What’s particularly admirable about All Among the Barley is that Harrison’s story of Edie’s maturation reflects both her insularity – she’s a bright, dreamy child who loves reading, traces witch marks, feels different from others, and lives in the country – as well as her interactions with her siblings, parents, Connie (an outsider), and a rather predatorial suitor. Most remarkable, Edie is a literary character who bears a lot of meaning but still feels very real.

Differences are what lead to the crushing tragedy the kind man at Waterstones mentioned, and that tragedy, at least in my reading, ripples through nearly everything in the book, from Edie’s fate (revealed at the end of the novel) to a way of life that is weakened and susceptible to demagoguery. Those tragedies are accompanied by cycles based in biological nature – crops, clutches of landrails, growing up, adolescent suitors – as well as cycles of a historical nature. We know what the demagoguery in the book presages, less than a decade after the book’s primary action as well as later, now. I don’t believe All Among the Barley is currently available in the U.S., though hope it’s on the way.

Disclaimers: Although I bought my copy of All Among the Barley, I did receive a copy of Vernon Subtex 1, which I mentioned briefly in this post, from MacLehose Press at a bookfair in 2018. Vernon is available in the U.S. from FSG. Many things about Vernon struck me, particularly Despentes depiction of aging.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Quick Run Through Running through Beijing

Every now and then I read a book and want to dispense with blogging and write something quick like, “Just read the book, you’ll enjoy it.” That’s how I feel about Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing, which I read in Eric Abrahamsen’s translation from the Chinese: the novel offers a wonderfully concise portrayal of purveyors of false identities and DVDs, all told with gentle humor and atmospheric details that feel real and precise rather than showoffy or gratuitous.

Running Through Beijing by Xu ZechenRunning through Beijing begins when a man, Dunhuang, is released from prison into the fine grit of a dust storm. He makes his way back to Beijing after serving three months for selling fake IDs and has little other than his resolve to earn money so he can set his partner, Bao Ding, who took the fall, free from a longer sentence. Soon after arriving in the city, Dunhuang meets a DVD seller, Kuang Xia, and they quickly fall into a romance of sorts—she’s separated (kind of) from her DVD supplier, Kuang Shan—that gets off to an auspicious start when Dunhuang scams the owners of a hotpot restaurant where they go to eat and drink.

On many levels, Running through Beijing doesn’t feel particularly remarkable: it simply tells the story of Dunhuang’s romances and business dealings, describing his trips around town on a bicycle (which is stolen in more ways than one) and, of course, running. What’s interesting is the texture of the novel, by which I mean more than just the elements—the basement bunk and backyard shed Dunhuang rents as housing, or the shadow economy and markets for various types of pirated goods—that are obviously foreign for an American reader like me who has never been to China. There is all that dust and blurriness, there is the feeling of “a year of bad omens” because everyone’s in jail, and there are all the movies Dunhuang sells and even begins to watch. Among them, of course, are The Bicycle Thief and Run, Lola, Run. It’s no wonder Two Lines Press made a movie card to send with the book. The online DVD playlist lacks a Bollywoodesque cover so isn’t as stylish but it does have links to video.

What appealed to me most in Running through Beijing, though, might be its most universal layer: continuums of fake and real. Is the love real or only for convenience? What about the friendships? The IDs are fake, and so are the DVDs, which all contain movies that imitate life (or maybe vice versa?). Then there are the porn DVDs, which show what, exactly? There are also loyalties, particularly Dunhuang’s for Bao Ding, who hardly seems to care. And we have the characters’ identities, too, the stuff not printed on official (or pirated) cards. Here’s a brief passage from when Dunhuang passes himself off as a doctoral student in film while he’s living in the basement. One of his roommates is a philosopher, and Dunhuang gets nervous:
It was all a big lie, for one thing. For another, of all the academic subjects that hinged on the Chinese language, philosophy was the one he respected the most. That instinctual reverence began while he was studying at his miserable vocational school. He had no idea how you did philosophy. It was mystery upon mystery; you couldn’t see it or touch it, and as far as he was concerned it was no different from witchcraft or sorcery.
Finally, I thought Eric Ambrahamsen’s translation read nicely, with crisp, clear dialogue, and that gentle humor I mentioned earlier. Best of all, he finds nice momentum in short sentences to keep the narrative running along, something that’s not always easy.

Disclaimers: I bought Running through Beijing under a Two Lines Press subscription plan. I published one of my first translations (a story by Margarita Khemlin) with Two Lines a few years ago, in the Counterfeits issue of their “World Writing in Translation” series. Two Lines subscriptions, by the way, are very affordable!

Up Next: My trip back to the Middle Ages begins with John L’Heureux’s art-heavy The Medici Boy and then, OMG, there’s Erika Johansen’s schlockily sociological The Queen of the Tearling, which attempts, not very successfully, to give dystopia a medieval feel with contemporary sensibilities.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

It’s a Mystery: Three to Keep Me Guessing

Hmm, three detective novels in a row is something of a record for me: it’s a mystery in and of itself that I pulled the books off the shelves that way. Here’s a post with all three, to get caught up…

I’ve had a soft spot for detective Hank Palace, the narrator of Ben H. Winters’s World of Trouble, ever since I read The Last Policeman (previous post), the first novel in a trilogy that ends with World of Trouble. Palace is a down-to-earth, loyal guy who continues investigating crimes despite the fact that an asteroid is hurtling toward earth and about to destroy everything. In World of Trouble, Palace and his ailing dog, Houdini, have come to Ohio to find Palace’s sister, who’s disappeared. Disappearances aren’t unusual in these fictional end days: people have been going “bucket list” for ages but Palace knows something bigger is amiss. There are lots of plot threads to pull in World of Trouble: an attempted murder, a search for a concrete worker, and, of course, Palace’s relationship with his family, ethics, and impending demise. Winters finds a near-perfect balance of humor, grieving, and realism, and he finishes the book in what I think must be the best possible way. Yes, I laughed and I cried, and [mild spoiler] I love the fact that Palace remains true to himself and the social compact ‘til the end. He doesn’t even yell “Police!” near the end of the book, “because I’m not a policeman anymore, I haven’t been for some time now.”

Commissioner Nicolas Le Floch, the investigator in Jean-François Parot’s The Man with the Lead Stomach, the second book in a series, isn’t quite as endearing or imperiled as Palace but this historical detective novel set in 1761 France made for worthy entertainment. I admit I was more interested in atmosphere than the mystery itself, which involves the rather grisly murder of a courtier’s son. That murder leads to another. Of course. But about that atmosphere: it’s a nice change of pace when there are no fingerprints taken, the investigator travels by horse-drawn carriage, and the detective drinks chocolate for breakfast and lots of wine with his meals, some of which are described in detail, this being a translation from the French. (I opened the book randomly to a page where a cook describes how to cut a rabbit for making pâté…) There are also smells in this early passage describing theatergoers: “There was a disconcerting contrast between their luxurious clothes, and the foul-smelling remnants of wax, earth and horse droppings with which they were soiled.” Michael Glencross’s translation from the French was particularly fun to read because it had some obscure words and terms in common with the book I was working on—this was a perfect way to see them in action in another setting and translated from another language.

Finally, a second book that originated in French: Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read in Sam Taylor’s translation of La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert. The truth about The Truth is that it’s an unholy mess, a blend of a writer coming of age (well, in a sense, two writers coming of age), a satire of the publishing industry, and a murder mystery, with whiffs of Peyton Place and Lolita tossed in. In any case, Marcus (“The Magnificent”) Goldman, a blocked writer who was the toast of New York a year or so ago, comes to the aid of his former writing teacher, Harry Quebert, after Quebert, author of a much-praised novel, is accused of killing a teenage girl, Nola Kellergan, back in 1975; the accusation comes after Kellergan’s body is unearthed in Quebert’s seaside yard nearly twenty years after her disappearance. Quebert lives in Somerset, New Hampshire, so Goldman is dealing with all sorts of small-town relationships, oddballs, and secrets as he interviews townspeople in his quest to free Quebert. Dicker throws in everything from the 1998 ice storm that “paralyzed” lots of New England to the first Obama presidential campaign to lots of seagulls in what feel like attempts to create verisimilitude and capture a time but The Truth is just too filled with extraneous pages, clichéd dialogue, and bits and pieces of disparate genres to come together as a full-fledged novel. Even so, damn it, the book is moderately entertaining and I did read every page. Part of the reason was probably inordinate curiosity after hearing Dicker and his editor from Penguin, John Siciliano, speak at BookExpo America in late May… but I think I’m even more curious to see how writers—not just Dicker but also Winters and Parot—adapt and adjust the detective genre’s typical casts, aesthetics, and plot turns to fit their interests and readers. For a very detailed account of The Truth, check out The Complete Review, here.

Disclaimers: I received review copies of all three books, thank you to the publishers and/or publicists: Eric Smith of Quirk Books for World of Trouble, which will be officially released on July 15; Meryl Zegarek Public Relations for The Man with the Lead Stomach, which was published by Gallic Books; and the nice man at the Penguin booth at BEA, who pointed me to a finished copy of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair masquerading as a galley. Thank you to all!

Up Next: Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Winterbach’s Elusive Moth

I loved my sixth-grade lessons in entomology so much—How could I not? We went out on bug-hunting expeditions and collected our insects in cigar boxes!—that I suppose I’m predisposed to love Ingrid Winterbach’s Karolina Ferreira, which I read as The Elusive Moth, Iris Gouws’s and Winterbach’s translation from the Afrikaans.

The Elusive Moth contains lots of elements (beyond the bugs) that I always seem to enjoy. Karolina Ferreira comes to a small town to do moth-related field work, giving us the outside observer; she’s given a ride to an herbalist named, appropriately enough, Basil, on the way, which adds an element of chance meetings. They proceed to watch more than just plants and insects: they see a tryst in a cemetery and the hotel where Karolina stays features a ladies’ bar, which features a singer, plus there’s a snooker room where members of the local police force often hang out. All this gives them plenty of chances to monitor the local human population at least as well as the bugs and herbs. I’m not sure who’s more comprehensible.

It’s heat, drought, and a slow-growing sense of menace that let The Elusive Moth soar, though: there are hints of secrets (the affair) from the very start but underlying hints of racial tensions are a broader concern. Meanwhile, Karolina regularly dances with a “fellow” named Kolyn who has short pants, sneakers, and hairy legs; he’s nothing like Karolona’s new Buddhist boyfriend… Karolina and Kolyn dance together beautifully, she dips so her hair nearly touches the floor, she experiences “a strange, impersonal ecstasy,” and all the drinking, dancing, and game playing starts to take on a carnival feel that reminded me of nothing so much as Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (previous post), another book about a small town, though there’s more of a feel of escape wishes there.

The Elusive Moth felt sneaky and stealthy, though I knew from the start that Karolina (who’s burned most of her possessions) would necessarily be as elusive as her moth, Hebdomophruda crenilinea, which is “a small inconspicuous moth, difficult to find, pale as a shroud.” (This particular moth, BTW, is so elusive that it’s listed on Wikipedia but doesn’t have its own page.) It’s the odd little things I enjoyed so much—the singer Pol, for example, is the first to resemble an amphibian, then others do, too, and so they drink more alcohol to warm their chilling blood. And about halfway through the book, “Every variety of urine intermingled in the toilets” near the bar and snooker room, so Winterbach goes on to describe the colors. Talk about fieldwork on humans! There are also flying ants, thoughts of death and mortality, unraveling psyches, mentions of bad haircuts, a mysterious play, and much, much more, a lovely combination that won Winterbach the M-Net Book Prize and Old Mutual Literary Prize, during the 1990s, when she wrote under the pseudonym Littie Viljoen. Gouws’s and Winterbach’s translation, which includes a few Afrikaans words that made perfect sense to me within context, has a nice matter-of-fact, almost reportorial, feel to it.

Disclaimers: Thank you to Open Letter Books, a press with whom I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, for the review copy of The Elusive Moth. The book won’t be released until July 2014.

Up Next: Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star, which I liked very much but don’t quite know how to describe, and then Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.