The Sound of Waves – Yukio Mishima

First published in 1954, translated from Japanese

The Sound of Waves is the first of Yukio Mishima’s book to be translated into English, and I can see why. For the fans expecting the darker, more brooding version of latter Mishima might be disappointed. This is Mishima when he was not yet cynical, the world was still a nice and simple place, and love triumphed. For Western audience, this seems a perfect entry into his works too. It’s short with just 183 pages, the story is simple, the plot is safe, the setting is an exotic remote island of Japan. What’s not to like?

The book runs on the main plot of two teenagers getting in love with each other, but lo and behold, social class barrier! Unsupportive parents! Tale as old as time you might say. But the real appeal I think is in the description of the island and the life of its inhabitants. Set somewhere in the 50s, or late 40s at the earliest, the island is late compared to the mainland of Japan in terms of trend and technology, and pretty much everything else. Life is much simpler and bare on the island. I loved it.

I may sound slightly cynical about the love story, but I actually loved it too. I found the depiction of the teenagers love believable and quite accurate – the awkwardness, the drama, the vague respect of existing beliefs and societal systems, the lack of control. This book is published in 1954 when Mishima was 29. I’m curious about when he wrote this, because it seems written by someone who had not left teenage-hood for very long. Someone in my Japanese Lit reading group mentioned that Mishima had a sickly and controlled childhood, so it’s possible he was still quite young, even at the age of 29.

I’d highly recommend this especially for someone looking for an entry into Japanese literature, though there’s lots to like for veterans too. My third entry for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

I’ve only read The Sea of Fertility tetralogy (the first three), and now this. I haven’t read Mishima’s earlier works, so I’d be interested to see how they compare. Taking his most famous books (translated to English), the list by the order of publication is:
Confessions of a Mask
Forbidden Colors
The Sound of Waves *
The Temple of Golden Pavillion
After the Banquet
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
The Sea of Fertility tetralogy *

(I’ve only read those marked with stars)

Bearing in mind the order of publication may not reflect the time of writing, especially at the beginning of an author’s career, I do wonder if you’re to read them in order, whether you’d recognise an obvious “flip” when he goes darker and more cynical. With this in mind I’d be interested to read Confessions of a Mask or The Temple of Golden Pavillion for my next Mishima (when I get to them, and after finishing the tetralogy).

The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima

First published in Japan in 1970, The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy.

The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. My review for book #1 Spring Snow here and book #2 Runaway Horses here. If you have not read the first two, warning there will be possible spoilers.

So my relationship with Mishima’s epic has been long and slow going, as I read Spring Snow in 2015, and Runaway Horses in 2016. With The Temple of Dawn in 2017, I plan to read the last book The Decay of the Angel in 2018. That’s one book per year if you noticed, as I’m not the type of reader that can read more than one book consecutively by the same author. The good thing is that way you give adequate time for each book, the bad thing is you may forget details from previous books.

I read this with my Goodreads Japanese Literature group (discussion board here), and it seems to cause very conflicting reactions – unlike the first two books. My own take was just lukewarm – there are bits I liked and bits I didn’t like. But my overall impression is that it’s definitely the weakest book of the tetralogy so far. Even Mishima couldn’t avoid the “saggy middle” that seems to often happen to a book and especially a series of books. It felt like a filler, something in between an exciting beginning (book 1), peak (book 2), and the (possibly exciting) ending (book 4). Makes me wonder, do we need a middle at all? Why don’t we just cut the middle of everything?

So in The Temple of Dawn, the readers are brought to Thailand and India at the early chapters – which I actually quite enjoyed, before going back to Japan. Mishima used the settings to explore the roots and other branches of Buddhism, including Hinduism. He went into the history and philosophy of those religions, which I could see the reasons of, considering the series is all about transmigration. But it doesn’t bring much into the narrative. It’s meandering and self-indulgent, and I’m not sure how much I remember of it at the end.

Unlike the previous two books that concentrate on Kiyoaki and Kiyoaki reincarnate, The Temple of Dawn dwells on Honda, who is frankly a boring character compared to any form of Kiyoaki. This time Honda believes that he has encountered his friend in the form of a Thai princess, who is somewhat still related to the two Thai princes appeared in Spring Snow.

The book is divided into two parts, separated by untold years of World War II. I initially thought WWII would take central stage in book 3 or 4, but apparently it was just swept under the rug. The princess is 7 years old in part 1, Honda 46 years old, and the year is 1941. Part 2 is set 11 years later in 1952, Honda is 57 years old, Ying Chan the princess is 18 years old.

So Kiyoaki is now in the form of female – a passive one annoyingly, and is the object of obsession of Honda. Is he symbolically attracted to “life” and the embodiment of the mysterious transmigration? Or is there a homosexual undertone there? (Mishima is largely accepted as homo or bi-sexual – though his wife would disagree.) In any way I failed to grasp the purpose of Honda’s lust in the overall narrative. He came across as an old creep. The age and gender of Kiyoaki’s form this time really hinder her to blossom into her own character like Isao, who was at the peak of his life. As Kiyo reincarnate gets younger and younger, I wonder how his last form will contribute to the narrative. Those who have read all books in the series hinted that the last book makes the whole journey worthwhile. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

My first book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

Runaway Horses – Yukio Mishima

runaway horses

Runaway Horses is the second book in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. You do have to read the books in order, so there will be spoilers for the first book below (My review of Spring Snow).

The book starts with Honda – Kiyoaki’s friend in the first book, who is now a middle age judge. He meets a young man named Isao, who he finds out later to be Iinuma’s son. Iinuma was Kiyoaki’s tutor, who after his dismissal went to marry the lover from the same Matsugae house. So some old faces from Spring Snow, which I was quite glad about. The prince that Satoko was supposed to be engaged with also makes appearances and plays quite an important role, albeit from the sideline, just like his role in Kiyo and Satoko’s story.

It should be well known from those following or intending to follow the series that the main character dies and is believed to reincarnate in each book, with Honda as the persistent character witnessing the existence and life of his friend and the subsequent lives he was born into. In Runaway Horses, Honda believes that Isao was Kiyoaki reincarnate.

Isao is a patriotic 18-year-old who has problem with the direction Japan goes (the story is set around 1930s). The governmental body is gaining power, reducing the power of the Emperor and the imperial family. There’s reformation of samurai class, which bans the carrying of swords in public. There are many references to real life events – so wiki became my friend (or our friend, since I read this together with my GR Japanese Lit bookclub). I wouldn’t even pretend to understand the many layers of Japan political situation in this period at the end, but I did learn a great deal more since I started. Lots of history to digest.

But don’t worry too much if you don’t know this period well, as I think it doesn’t hinder you from enjoying the story. An idealistic young man wants to do something radical (and illegal) that he thinks is good for the country. That’s something that everyone can recognise, right? But just because this is Japan, there’s a heightened perception of suicide and taking one’s life to preserve one’s honour and purity.

If you know a little bit about Mishima, you’d know that he committed suicide not long after he finished writing this tetralogy. In a way it’s hard to read Isao without having Mishima at the back of your mind. I’m thinking among the 4 characters in the 4 books, Isao is probably the closest to Mishima himself in terms of ideals and personality. The subsequent characters in the series will be younger and younger, as the timeline is bound by Honda’s age, so I’m very interested to know Mishima’s take on them.

Similar to my experience with Spring Snow, I found the beginning to be slow. There’s a whole chapter early in the book, that is sort of a book within a book – a propaganda pamphlet that Isao gets his idealistic inspiration from. In a way it was a bit boring to read, but it really set the stage of what is to come. And just like Spring Snow, I found Runaway Horses to be a satisfactory and worthwhile reading at the end. I definitely intend to continue to read the third and forth book.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

the vegetarian - han kang
First published in 2007, in English in 2015, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. Winner of Man Booker International Prize 2016.

I found this book at my library and couldn’t believe that it was free to borrow and nobody had reserved it. At the time Man Booker International Prize 2016 was still ongoing, and The Vegetarian was one of the shortlist. I knew that unlike what I do usually with other books (renew them again and again), I had to read it within the allotted time period. Sure enough it won the prize, and I couldn’t renew it as it was reserved by someone, so I decided to read it quickly. By my standard, quickly means a few days, but it was 181 pages of big font, so even for me it was a short read.

The book started the way I liked it. Our main character Yeong-hye is an average Korean wife, when out of the blue she had a dream that turned her into vegetarian overnight. Her family, most of all her father, reacted violently.

I really liked the beginning. It is a subject that I wonder why someone hadn’t written about earlier. Vegetarianism by choice is something that only got really popular in the recent decade or two. In Western world, surely many years after the war. I can’t speak about Korea, but in many parts of Asia, not eating meat is often associated with religious reasons. Refusing to eat meat just because, is still an odd thing.

As I grew up in a country where meat is a luxury and fish a daily staple, I always equate vegetarianism with fussiness. Honestly you can only be so selective when there is food in such abundance. Tons of people in many parts of the world would be happy to just be able to eat. I can understand not liking meat, or not wanting to eat too much meat for ethical and environmental reasons, but I don’t understand the need to declare “I’m a vegetarian” and openly refuse and reject meat, no matter what the circumstances, for example when people have cooked for you. This is probably one point that readers from certain culture would be hard pressed to understand, as in most Asian culture, it is quite rude to refuse food offered to you. It’s like saying “Your food isn’t good enough so I won’t have it”.

Another point is wastage. I’ve seen vegan friend putting egg aside on his plate in a restaurant, not because he doesn’t like egg or allergic to it, but because he was a vegan. It’s outrageous. The egg was already broken and cooked, and you threw it away just to make a point? To who? To the waiter? To me?

Yeong-hye’s family reactions, her father’s in particular were slightly exaggerated, but I don’t think it’s too far fetched. I could only imagine if I go back to my big family reunion, and openly tell everyone I don’t eat meat anymore, by choice. All hell would break loose, and I’d have to explain myself to no end. Even if I were a vegetarian, I’d just quietly eat a little, and save all the drama. I just don’t get the need to make a declaration, to insist on your point in expense of people’s feelings, and the waste of food. I don’t think I ever will.

So The Vegetarian started nicely. However it becomes very strange as it goes. The book is divided into 3 sections, all revolving Yeong-hye. The first section is the perspective of her husband, the second is her sister’s husband, and the third is the sister. There are plenty dream scenes, flower images, and trees. Seems Yeong-hye wants to become a plant. It is strange, but somehow the strangeness felt familiar in a way. This is the first time I read a book by Korean author, but it reminded me of Chinese and Japanese literature – somewhere halfway in between.

At the end I’m not too sure what to make of the book. My rating is for its readability and being different. The “world literature” aspect of it is also a plus. But I can’t say I totally understand the book.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Han Kang
Han Kang

 

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka (Vol 1: Kapilavastu)

buddha vol 1
First published in Japan in 1972, published in English in 2004

Buddha is an 8-volume manga by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka is best known as the creator of Astro Boy, which I never watched or read, but I knew Tezuka has also produced some more grownup manga, like Buddha. This is my first time reading his work, as I noticed the big volumes readily available at the Westminster libraries.

As titled, Buddha tells the story of Siddharta Gautama, on whose teaching Buddhism was founded. I have only a rough idea of Siddharta: how he was a prince born in India, and in opposition to the caste system he renounced his identity and went on a journey until he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.

Knowing that, I expected volume one of Buddha to jump straight to his birth and early childhood, however it is not the case. In volume one: Kapilavastu Tezuka takes his time to introduce the other characters (some invented, some possibly historical), but most of all, the caste and society system of the time. The birth of Siddharta practically just appeared in a few pages of the 256-page manga.

Though that surprised me a little, it makes sense. Siddharta is born a prince as the highest caste (Brahmin). There needs to be a balance, other characters that are born as the lowest caste (slave and pariah) who will show the flaws and cruelties of the caste system.

Kapilavastu is the place where Siddharta was born – in Nepal, just close to the border with India. There’s a map at the beginning of the book, showing places that we visit in that volume and future ones. So I wasn’t quite right about Siddharta being born in India, but very close.

Animals have quite an important role here. One of the teaching of Buddhism is that animals are just as important as humans (hence the preference not to eat animals), and according to the story I was told as a child, upon Buddha’s death 12 types of animals come to give him respect, and those become the symbols of Chinese zodiac as we know it until today. Animals seem important in the story of the Buddha and I like how this is used by Tezuka early on in his retelling. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Buddhist so my knowledge is pretty limited, mainly gained from some older family and even so the beliefs and teaching have been very watered down I assume.)

Some qualms: some attempts to modernize are downright silly (e.g. comparing a big city in Nepal at the period with New York or Paris. WHAT. I’m really curious whether this is just the translation problem.), some attempts to be funny are not funny (e.g. jokes at serious times seem misplaced), and the nudity seems unnecessary (I wonder whether women being bare-chested is the norm for its time and place?)

Negative point notwithstanding, I enjoyed the compelling story, and I love to learn more about the making of the Buddha, and Tezuka’s take on it. Hubby who is not a big reader is devouring volume after volume of this series, faster than me! I’ll definitely be reading more and gradually finishing the series.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Osamu_Tezuka_1951
Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989)

 

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

the summer book
Sort Of Books, 172pp. First published in 1972. Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

I knew about Tove Jansson only in the recent years, after I moved to Europe, from her beloved series Moomin. I didn’t grow up with Moomin, but fell in love immediately with the white hippo looking characters. Today I have a Moomin soft toy, Moomin shirt, and Moomin postcards stuck on my bookshelf :) – all without having read or watched the series.

The Summer Book is a standalone non-Moomin grownup book, and it seems very critically acclaimed and loved everywhere, appearing in many book lists. I didn’t know what to expect, but like with Moomin, I fell in love with it almost immediately.

The book tells the story of six-year-old Sophia and her elderly grandmother, spending summer on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Sophia’s mother recently passed away, and her father is busy working a lot of the time (though he’s nearby in the same island), so Sophia and Grandmother spend most of their time together.

Perhaps there are other books that have explored the grandparent-grandchild special bond, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across that of the a grandmother and a granddaughter. What I love the most is Grandma is not your average knitting, cooking grandmother. She is a wood-carving, smoking, feisty grandmother. And Sophia is no princess. She is adventurous, curious girl-scout type of girl.

The book consists of 22 short stories or chapters, and it starts slow, laying out the setting of the island. The chapters can be considered vignette, but they’re not as short as The House on Mango Street, and therefore more satisfying for me. Gradually, the pair’s bantering and conversations reveal to the readers and to each other their fear, whims, and yearning for independence. The island plays a major part. I’m not usually a big fan of setting description, but here I found it soothing, giving me space to breathe, to reflect, and for my imagination to fly around the island. In a way it reminded me of another recently read book set in islands: The Ten Thousand Things.

It’s hard to put into words how much I love Sophia and her grandmother. I love how they spend time together, but also apart. Like in the chapter The Tent when Sophia wants to try to sleep in a tent outside by herself. She learns how to be alone, and very aware of her surroundings, listening to the sound of the island all night. Grandmother always gives Sophia space –  her love is not the strangling type. Sophia has to learn this herself in the chapter The Cat, in which she meets a cat who refuses to be affectionate. Sophia realises that the more she wants to love the cat, the more he wants to get away.

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.

My most favourite part is probably one where Sophia decides to write a book about angleworm in the chapter Of Angleworms and Others. She finds that it’s too slow to write herself – as she has to stop to ask for the correct spellings, so she asks Grandmother to write for her while she dictates. It’s hilarious, while conveying universal truth at the same time. In a way Sophia and her grandmother reminded me of Pooh and Christopher Robin (which I absolutely love as well).

But most of all, I guess Sophia reminded me of me. I grew up in a stiffling big city, but I always yearned for nature and independence. I even have cat now who sometimes does refuse to be affectionate. The more I squeeze her the more she wants to get away. Sophia and I discovered that there’s a fine balance between loving too much and letting one to follow its nature. And the tent! I think staying in a tent by yourself is one thing everybody needs to experience at least once in their life.

The copy that I read published by Sort Of Books has a beautiful introduction by Esther Freud – which I’d recommend to read at the end (not at the beginning). She went to meet the real life Sophia, who is Tove Jansson’s niece and was the inspiration of The Summer Book. She even went to visit the island that inspired the stories too, where Sophia lived in, and another island not far away where Tove Jansson lived in for a period of time (her house is now a kind of museum). Real life Sophia had to explain to occasional Japanese tourists that ask her to sign pebbles, that she’s not Tove Jansson, isn’t really even Sophia. (Sounds like an echo of the real life Christopher Robin too.) The island was way smaller than what Esther had imagined, which she could cover by foot in minutes. But at the end of her few days stay, her focus changed. The island was no longer as small, and she realised it would take a whole summer to discover everything there is to do.

I can go on, but hope you will discover Sophia, her grandmother, and their tiny island in Finland by yourself. I can imagine revisiting this book again and again in the future.

Mee’s rating: 5/5 – Not a perfect book, but I loved it for its rare portrayal of a unique girl and her unique grandmother.

Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

Tove Jansson herself sounds like a very interesting figure to me. She was both a writer and an illustrator. Was briefly engaged to a man before meeting her life-long partner Tuulikki Pietilä. The two women collaborated on many works and projects, and they spent many summers together in the small island mentioned in The Summer Book introduction. Based on this book I will read more of her works – grownup or children’s literature. I’m interested to even read her biography when I get a chance.

The Outsider – Albert Camus / The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik

I’m back to doing double bill. My most recent reads are The Outsider by the Nobel prize winner French-Algerian Albert Camus, and the most recent release from Peirene Press: The Blue Room by Norwegian writer Hanne Ørstavik. Both are novellas, or short books – which is my favorite type of book in recent years. Both are also translated and the authors are originated from countries that I had not read before, so they add nicely to my Reading the World project.

The Outsider – Albert Camus

The Outsider - Albert Camus

In The Outsider (or The Stranger in some translation) we meet a main character who has trouble expressing any outer sign of grief at his mother’s funeral. Throughout the first half of the book we follow his day to day life at work and home, and his interactions with other people, in particular his neighbours who live in the same building, and his girlfriend. I like how the characters are described, and find that a couple of them to be memorable – like the grumpy old man with his dog, who look alike but dislike each other.

Just at the end of the first part, something happens, and the second part of the book is dealing with the repercussions of this incident. Details from the first part that seem a bit mundane are brought back to Meursault (our main character) and the reader, and used to explain his character and actions.

On one hand, I got slightly frustrated at how “cold” and how un-feeling Meursault is, how distant he is from the world and everyone else, but on the other hand, I felt for him, and I could see the absurdities of taking random everyday’s details to judge you as a character — and this is not even far off from real life. How could you say someone is of a “good” character by how he takes coffee or smokes?

In one sentence I would describe The Outsider as Catcher in the Rye for adults, but infinitely more interesting. It’s very thin and doesn’t take much time at all to read, even for me, and it could fill in a few of your reading goals, like the Nobel, foreign/translated fiction, and 1001 books, like it did mine. Lovely.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik

The Blue Room - Hanne Ørstavik

I seem to catch the Peirene bug, because this is the second Peirene book I read this year (I read and reviewed The Dead Lake a while ago).

The Blue Room was pitched by Meike as such:

“The Blue Room tells the story of a woman who is locked in a room by her mother. I read The Blue Room first a couple of years ago in German translation. It was around the time when Fifty Shades of Grey was hitting record sales and I was struck by the similarity of sexual phantasies depicted in both books. However, while Fifty Shades glamorises submission phantasies (and is extremely poorly written), The Blue Room holds up a mirror to that part of the female psyche that yearns for submission. It shows how erotic phantasies are formed by the relationship with our parents, and then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers.”

I have not and will not read 50 Shades of Grey, but the comparison intrigued me. What struck me most was how different my take was of the book. While there are a few flashes of the aforementioned “sexual phantasies” – so shocking they’d hit you like electric shock, they are very few and far in between. The theme that was more prevalent for me was the mother-daughter relationship. In a way, it’s almost like the Norwegian Amy Tan’s – mother-daughter tension, misunderstanding, and painful love, but in a Norwegian setting, even the way it is told felt cold.

With 160 pages long, it is novella on the long-ish side, and I found the first half to be on the slow side with rather distant characters. But as I entered the second half, I started to relate, and surprised myself by finding more things in the story that reminded me of my own mother and my relationship with her. At the end, I concurred with Meike’s take on the book that it “delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers”.

I could relate with the struggles, I could so relate, surprisingly, considering how different our background and theirs are. The surface of our struggles were very different, but the tension was familiar. The end was fantastic and would definitely divide people. I am on the opinion that mother’s love is often painful, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need to save you from the world, and from yourself.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

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