Review of The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

This book is a prime example of the commercial bent of recent Japanese translations. It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers.

It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers. It was well-marketed to adults by a very reputable publisher. Of course it is selling well, garnering misleading blurbs and reviews, and impressing lots of important people. However, it is written at about a sixth-grade level, is only about 30,000 words long, and boasts no innovation in character, plot, or prose. Did we learn nothing from the author’s last book? A year from now, are they going to rinse and repeat this same process with another example of this lite, disposable, un-literary silliness?

It is no surprise that it received the Akutagawa prize, and that is the most likely reason for its short length. In recent years, this prize has come to indicate the opposite of its original intention. When they gave it to Kenzaburo Oe and actual writers, I had some respect for the prize. The downhill track it has followed since is startling.

This short novella reads very like the examples I encountered in Creative Writing 101 in college. 75% of the short, repetitive sentences could be edited out. The attempts at building atmosphere are transparent and simply an accumulation of mundane interior monologues. The narrator will ask up to twenty rhetorical questions in a row sometimes. And the rest of the prose is simple reportage on the surroundings: grass, cicadas, trees, houses, hoses, fences, store items.

Very little happens during the course of the novella: Main character moves to new house. Weird, unexplained things happen to her. It concludes without resolving any of the questions raised. You are supposed to draw an allegory using these dreamlike hints throughout. The housewife is feeling directionless. When she literally falls into a hole, you are supposed to realize she has metaphorically fallen into a hole as well. Society pigeonholes women. Japanese traditions are getting old. Those are the background themes. But lacking all character development, relying so heavily on bland descriptions, is simply amateurish. This is not fit to be printed. The author has ideas, but lacks formal development.

Comparing this book to this year’s translation of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, I see a world of difference.

Review of Eight Dogs, or “hakkenden”: An Ill-Considered Jest, Being the First 14 Chapters of Nansao Satomi Hakkenden by Bakin Takizawa

“The Hakkenden” is the nickname for the longer titles by which this monumental novel has been known since it appeared in Japan in serial form. 

Bakin was one of the most prolific authors of all time, and wrote historical novels in a variety of styles. His work might be superficially compared to Alexandre Dumas: A hundred thousand pages of battles, drama, quick action, pithy dialogue, plot twists, page-turn inducing reversals. But this work is closer in spirit to the material by which the basic skeleton of the Eight Samurai Dogs was inspired: the Water Margin, one of the five superlative Chinese novels.

I compared Hakkenden to Tale of Genji while reading it. It felt like one of the proto or Ur novels of Japan. Genji, along with Heike and other poetic long works, borrowed much from Chinese literature, Confucius, Mozi and the like, but Bakin’s work boldly repurposes tropes in a grand and dramatic manner. It is more than twice as long as the Tale of Genji and similar in length to Remembrance of Things Past. Thus, this first volume only represents 1/12 th of the whole work. I need not mention that I am dying to read the rest. For the sake of my own sanity, I hope Walley and the publisher release the next volumes quickly. I fear we will be waiting decades before we reach the conclusion in English.

I have been waiting for this translation for about ten years. In the interim I read excerpts from the novel in translation in a few Japanese literature anthologies and an online fan translation. Walley’s translation in this volume is very impressive in a number of ways. Most clearly, in the copious footnotes. Dozens of woodblock illustrations from the original first and second editions are included, along with Bakin’s advertisements, prefaces, and glosses.

The book is written in a mélange of pre-modern styles, combining Chinese characters and idiomatic expressions with ancient Japanese and Chinese references. The convolutions of allusion within the work are labyrinthine. Like the incredible early vernacular novels of China, this book seems to be a culmination of wisdom, quips, and history, synthesized into a single, unified story. A cursory reading will reveal hundreds of characters, place names, conventions, and contextual differences between this work and the world of modern day. Not only did Bakin set his tale in the warring states period, he wrote it in a sneaky way, conjuring language reminiscent of Murasaki and other paramours of the poetic mode.

Bakin managed to internalize thousands of relevant proverbs and morals so that he could unholster them in his work whenever necessary. The book is a convoluted one. Far too intricate to easily summarize. If you have read Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) you may notice some parallels, though this volume barely begins the epic tale of the infamous band.

The translator provides a succinct overview of the work in his long introduction, along with a thorough explanation of the immense cultural gulf separating the work’s context and execution from the modern American reader’s. Thus, the majority of the audience for this work will likely be those with a scholarly bent. It is translated for people with a deep interest and appreciation of Japanese history. Reader’s should expect to encounter a panoply of archaic cultural references and an intricate layering of narration with moral commentary. Some of the footnotes will mean little to you, being so abstruse as to direct your attention away from the action. Bakin simply could not stop himself from lassoing in every idiom he could. But the overall effect does convey a grandiose sense of accomplishment and intimacy with the whole web of literature that makes up a great author’s opus. You might study this book as you study the plays of Shakespeare or the Divine Comedy. The density of the book is one of interconnectedness and allusion.

There is no lack of poetry here, and I found it more readable than Tale of Genji. Poetry has been a vehicle for moral argument, and Bakin is a didactic author. As the translator explains, he had his reasons for shoehorning commentary and didacticism in his epics. I can only pray that we see the remainder of the book published in the next decade, though the translator has clearly been compiling and supplementing his work since his graduate thesis. To read Bakin is to experience a raw exposure to early Japanese literature, while still taking part in a breathtaking and entertaining interplay of plotlines and twists. The common themes of filiality, fraternity, love, and perseverance take center stage, while deceit and spiritual consciousness move the story forward.

The only other novel by Bakin in English, The Captive of Love, tackles similar concepts in a surprising and satisfying way. Authors like Akutagawa place Bakin on a pedestal as the greatest Japanese novelist. While his books may not be visible in the West, his legacy endures in Japan, as you can see from the many anime, manga, literary, and film adaptations you can find of his most famous novel. I would love to collect and devour as much of his oeuvre as makes its way into English in my lifetime, which I fear, will be a very small percentage.

Review of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This book is a synthesis of subtle magical realism, well-rounded characters, and straightforward storytelling. 

I love learning about Japanese history and culture and this novel reminded me of that love. Ozeki provides snide commentary, learned context, surprising twists, humor and pathos. It contains ample literary chops and old-fashioned family drama charm. She is an excellent audiobook reader, and adds a lot of texture to her performance. All-around her writing becomes an irresistible and heart-breaking novelistic voice through clever narration and balanced analysis of modern societal problems. Very close in technique to vintage Murakami.

My one gripe is it contains yet another explanation of Schrödinger’s cat. I’ve lost count of the times books and teachers and television and movies have explained it to me. I get it already.

I will be reading the rest of her books now.

Review of The Easy Life in Kamusari (Forest, #1) by Shion Miura

The Easy Life in Kamusari is an easy read. It is compulsively readable, and I loved it.

It is one of the most pleasant novels I have read in my life. It is not as humorous as Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but it is frequently chuckle-inducing.

Read it, learn about Japanese tradition, history, and the great beauty of the wilderness, which above all, is a reflection of inner beauty, the same inner beauty hidden within human beings, concealed by the smog of city life, like a particulate cloud ensconces our modern minds and bodies – distraction, a sort of blindness. To immerse yourself in this green-hued story, to work with your hands alongside the protagonist, through all of the agonizingly detailed forestry implementation and day-to-day administration, is to rediscover a primordial love, harmony, and lust for life. It is a balanced tale, flowing as effortlessly as a leisurely river, the product of a wise and gentle writer who does not resort to literary writing in all of its egotistical indulgence.

It depicts the clash between a modern urban city youth within an unpandering forest community, where he learns to trust himself, others, and appreciate the fruitful and rewarding life he was prepared to ignore along with the bulk of contemporary homo sapiens. A brilliant and moving and unforgettable reading experience.

It is not slick or daring, except in the incredible level of fidelity to actual rural life in Japan. A breath of fresh air, an escape and antidote from the self-absorbed fiction produced in reams daily over the last hundred years.

Review of The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

ISBN 0141395621 (ISBN13: 9780141395623)

Since I’ve read every word Haruki Murakami has published in English I felt obligated to read his introduction once it showed up in the preview on Amazon. People saying “Haruki Murakami is my favorite author” has now become a cliche. But cliches can sometimes be true.

His introduction was nice and long and juicy. My impression of the collection of stories was that they were chosen, as Mr. Rubin explains, for the casual reader. Maybe it’s pretentious but I consider myself more than a casual reader of Japanese fiction. I have an entire bookcase devoted to Japanese literature.
I like to imagine what stories I would have picked if I had the opportunity to compile an anthology of this kind.
There are new translations, which are sorely needed in this day and age. Akutagawa’s previously untranslated short story “General Kim” was my favorite inclusion. Out of Akutagawa’s 300+ works only 77 have thus far been translated into English. Since he’s one of my other favorite authors I’ve actually gone to extremely nerdy lengths to read them all. I wish Rubin would just translate all of Akutagawa already. And maybe Bakin while he’s at it.
I am glad that he put a lot of translating into this volume, but why include “Patriotism” and the first chapter of Sanshiro? Not only do they take up valuable space but they are available almost anywhere. I buy anthologies because they contain stories on the brink of obscurity. Where are all the translations of Hiromi Kawakami or Junnosuke Yoshiyuki? I would have liked to see something new from Ryu Murakami, who never gets anthologized but is one of the best Japanese writers of all time.
I gave this book four stars because it was excellent, but it really could’ve gotten five. The two stories by Haruki are previously available, but luckily we get something new by Banana Yoshimoto and Akutagawa which save this collection, in my opinion, from being a rehashing. It’s hard to find Kenji Nakagami and we are treated to a new story by Mieko Kawakami, which was appreciated, so while I would not recommend this for your shelf if you can only have one Japanese literature anthology – it’s hard to beat the two volume Columbia anthology – I’d put it in my top 5 Japanese literature anthologies. Yes, I am that much of a geek that I would create a top five.
Though this is a step in the right direction there’s about 3000 miles of stepping left to do if we are ever going to get the most out of J. Lit. I keep asking myself, why can’t I just read Japanese? Oh yeah, it’s insanely difficult. Anyway, check it out if you are a fan.