Strange Weather in Tokyo (2014, Portobello Books) by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell starts with the informal reunion of Tsukiko and Sensei, her former high school Japanese teacher, at a bar in the city. The narrative slowly traces the development of their relationship from friends to something more than friends. In this novel, Kawakami, like Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman, is able to pin down the ennui, loneliness, and alienation single people of all ages face in urban Tokyo. A good read, although sometimes, I found the narrative focused too much on quotidian details.
Convenience Store Woman (2018, Portobello Books) by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori focuses on Keiko, a woman past her prime who has been working part-time in a convenience store for the last 18 years. She is different, to say the least, and her individualism shines through during early childhood. However, every time she “misbehaves” as a child, she is scolded and told that she needs to be “cured” of her eccentricities.
As she gets older, she learns that the easiest way to live in contemporary, capitalist Japan is to adapt to her surroundings and to the people in it. She is “reborn” as a convenience store attendant, the perfect job for a self-effacing cog in society. The mask she wears, however, slowly slips when she meets Shiraha.
Murata’s writing style is clean and darkly comic. I also liked that the author was able to capture the undercurrent of urban life in Tokyo, where the convenience store becomes a microcosm of the artificiality and alienation of everyday life in the mega city. The novel is extremely readable – I was able to blaze through it in a couple of hours before bed.
Have you ever read Convenience Store Woman? What did you think about it?
“He saw him standing on the shore of the Vistula Spit, scanning the sea with his binoculars – ‘When are they going to come and get us?’ – while behind him the refugee wagons rumbled from the east to west and west to east. Jonathan pounded the armrest with his fist and the words kept hammering in his brain – all for nothing! ALL FOR NOTHING! He didn’t mean the death of his mother or of his father, who’d had to ‘bite the dust,’ or the sofa beds his uncle manufactured, but the suffering of all creatures, the flesh lashed to the stake, the calf he had seen bound and gagged, the torture chamber in the Marienburg, the shuffling procession of mankind beneath the condemning sky.
It’s all for nothing, he thought again and again. And: Who’s to blame?” – Homeland by Walter Kempowski (Granta, 2018)
I’ll be honest. Before I received Homeland from the publishers, I had never heard of Walter Kempowski before. However, the good thing about reading literature in translation is that you discover voices from all over the world, not just from the English-speaking and writing world. The novel was translated from German by Charlotte Collins. In Homeland, the story is set in 1988, pre-Berlin Wall fall. We follow Jonathan Fabrizius, a writer who goes on a press road trip from Hamburg to former East Prussia/Poland and ends up revisiting the homeland he never really knew. A common theme that runs throughout the work is an existential angst associated with the futility of war, violence, suffering, and death. Reading this work, I was also sharply reminded of my short story “Homecoming” in We Mark Your Memory that explores similar themes of identity, homeland, and belonging. He’s definitely a writer I’d like to read more of.
Exterminate All The Brutes is written by Swedish author Sven Linqvist. It was originally published in 1992 and in 2018, it was translated by Joan Tate and published by Granta Books. This collection of essays include travelogue-style entries on the author’s journey through the Sahara while he researches the social, political, and economic context of the world of author Joseph Conrad. It recounts the theories that were the rage around the time he wrote Heart of Darkness.
In particular, this book delves into the European attitude to the “inferior races,” summed up in Kurtz’ horrible but pithy statement, “Exterminate all the brutes.” The author also intersperses his historical research and reflections with snippets from his personal life including childhood memories and dream-like sequences. Although at times his ruminations can appear disjointed and fragmented, overall, the book offers rich historical details regarding European imperialism on the African continent, particularly how they justify their rapacious and cruel behavior with reference to the “white man’s burden” to civilize the uncivilized world. It’s great critical reading, especially in the world we live in today.
Have you ever read it? What did you think?
Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, translator, and journalist Mazen Maarouf has written a strange and unsettling collection of twelve short stories. It’s called Jokes for the Gunmen. Although originally written in Arabic, it’s been translated into English by Jonathan Wright and published by Granta Books this year. Many of the stories show how the human psyche can become twisted and distorted during wartime. “I was known as ‘the grasshopper’ on the grounds that my father was also a grasshopper, since grasshoppers always jump and never attack.”
This quote is taken from the titular story, “Jokes for the Gunmen.” It’s also the longest in the book, divided into ten short chapters. In this story, when the boy notices that his father is constantly being belittled and beaten up by wartime thugs, he embarks on a mission to earn his father some street cred by getting him fitted with a glass eye like the sahlab seller who no one hassles.
“Matador” is another strange concoction about a boy’s uncle who dreams of becoming a matador in Spain but who can’t even get a visa to go there and beats cows (sometimes to death) at the slaughter house instead. The uncle dies three times only to find that his matador suit can no longer fit him, which adds to the story’s sense of the pathos, unpredictability, and absurdity of life.
“Aquarium” is perhaps the most surreal and most heart-rending of all. A young couple name and keep a blood clot (probably a fetus or not) in an aquarium much to the chagrin of everyone around them.
Many of the stories end abruptly and may leave you scratching your head. However, I think it’s the writer’s intention in these stories to underline the absurdity of war and to reveal how civilians adapt to the weirdness of their wartime living situation.