Tag Archives: Japanese novels

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki – Haruki Murakami


I’m so glad I picked up a brand new copy of his latest novel in Books Galore for only R140 as opposed to the retail price of R360.I’d been  very tempted by pre-release offers from my favourite bookstore,  but had resisted them, and tripped over a bargain instead.  And I will have no trouble in taking this one back to the BG shop & claiming my one-third back on it. It’s not a book I want to keep and re-read.

This said, I have to report that the book has a stunning cover design : vibrant orange, red, indigo, black and white discs – anything but colourless! Plus a large pull-out sheet of small stickers which seem to be related to the story, but are confusing – usually its pre-teen girls who are sticker mad, not adults reading Japanese novels. I don’t know – visualize me shaking my head, shrugging my shoulders, at this point. It’s a mystery, but then this is Murakami.

Suddenly I’m over my Murakami madness. Having now read some of his other novels, I can see how he returns to the same themes over and over again. TT is yet another of Haruki Murakami’s self-sufficient 30-something young men who cook, clean and iron their shirts and lead quiet, modest, regulated lives, apart from a dramatic incident in his early 20s which nearly kills him, but leaves him stronger and even more self-sufficient.

And of course, Music plays a role – a piano piece by Franz List, Le Mal du Pays  seems to be important but somehow isn’t. And there’s the ghostly jazz pianist Midorikawa, who features in Haida’s story, with a maddening clue about a mystery object in a cloth bag, reverently placed atop the piano, prior to playing. Yet another fascinating clue which evaporates  into ..? what? I don’t know: I’m baffled! This is either the charm or the irritation of Murakami’s writing, depending on the reader’s mood.

However, in this book, there are no cats! Often these are a feature of his novels, particularly in Kafka on the Shore.   Also much less of magic realism, or surrealism, or just plain magic, whatever you want to call it. There’s only one magical section where a long story is told to the main protagonist (TT) which – at one point – I thought might be a clue, or a suggestion as to the how & why of  the  murder in the NOVEL; but he never develops this suggestion and the story stands alone – a strange almost ghost story – it’s difficult to pin it down. And the murder is never solved.

Another strange element is the introduction of polydactylism – people who are born with six fingers. Very late in the book there’s a short section about lost property on the Tokyo Metro, and one of the bizarre things in the Lost Property is a mayonnaise jar containing two neatly severed fingers in formaldehyde.  Which may or may not be connected to the jazz pianist and the ghost story.

Despite all my grumbles, I  read on, quite intrigued, and continued to the end of the novel. One of the things I like about Murakami is his intense Japanese-ness. There’s a sort of stark minimalism about his work. Despite the oddness of his plots/story-lines, I keep on reading.

My friend Anita thinks his short stories are better than the novels and she may well be correct. I need to read them.


Filed under BOOK REVIEWS

Recent reads # 17: GOODBYE JAPAN!


Amrita – Banana Yashimoto

Okay: I’m now done with Japanese novels, at least for the time being.  I’m all Japanned out.  I bought this book on the Book Lounge 40% off-sale, and was peeved to discover that the book was second hand – & if not second hand, then very very old stock,  because the pages have browned, the way that old books do.  I have a feeling that this novel was the personal possession of someone on the store staff.  Or something.  Anyway: not one of my better buys. Which serves me right, because bought it on a 100% whim, based on the writer’s crazy name; also I was also curious to read another Japanese novel, after two from Haruki Murakami.  And having read Banana, I now realise just how good Murakami is.  Also the translation on the Amrita novel was not so great.  I had the impression of a very limited vocabulary – whether this was a fault of the writer or the translator, I couldn’t say.

I had to work really hard to force myself to finish the book – it was a struggle.  Partly because the plot (what plot?) wasn’t very interesting, or at least, wasn’t presented in a way that engaged my interest or made me identify with the characters.  We’re in Tokyo, modern Japan, looking at  an unusual family, Mother, daughter Sakumi the narrator, her step-brother Yoshisho, her cousin Makiko and a  lady friend of the mother, called Junko who decided to live with them. Sakumi falls down some stairs, has brain surgery and returns home, but without her memory; the brother has psychic powers and is moody & withdrawn; Sakumi takes up with Ryu-kan who is the former  lover of her sister Maki who committed suicide; now that I summarise the book it looks quite interesting, but it was presented in such a manner that it wasn’t! Nothing much happens, but we hear a lot about Sakumi’s dreams, and the spirit world (i.e. ghosts) the whole thing reminded me of a self-absorbed teenaged girl’s journal that endlessly describes her FEELINGS, dreams, fantasies. But no details whatsoever about her sexual encounters, although  we do know she’s sleeping with Ryu-kan,  and there’s a sub-plot about her friend Eriko who’s a married man’s mistress and gets stabbed by his aggravated wife – but even this crime doesn’t come across as remarkable

The blurb said “novel is the voice of young Japan”. Well, judging by this novel,  young Japan is not very interesting. The characters all seem to drink a lot, and be fond of staying up all night, wafting around. Quite often we get to hear what they eat – Murakami’s novels  are also very explicit re the menus.

And why it was titled Amrita I’m not sure, although near the end Sakumi has an experience of Amrita, the divine nectar (this is a reference from Hindu mythology {??}  which has not been a feature thus far).

The novel left me stone cold and I can only hope it read better in the original Japanese.  I certainly won’t be trying any more of her books.


Filed under BOOK REVIEWS


IQ84 – Haruki Murakami

My first Murakami; Tony’s 2011 Christmas gift to me.
The book was so heavy, I had to sit with a cushion on my lap and prop it up on the cushion, rather than try to hold it.  900 +something pages. Its two days since I finished reading & am still trying to digest it, come to terms with what I read. And I can’t bring myself to start a new, lighter book either. My head feels overfull, even though I’m no longer thinking of the Murakami novel.

The Novel defies classification. Yes, it’s a love story – Tengo and Aomame (female assassin with a name of ‘ green pea’ {huh? I mean, what’s that all about, giving the main female character a comical name?} ); yes, its fantasy, if not SciFi – there’s a parallel world, characterised by two moons, a little greenish moon just to the side of the normal yellow moon, that’s the world of IQ84.  Apparently the Japanese word for 9 sounds like our letter Q. Verbal pun.

I found the book very Japanese:of course– how could it not be? Set in Japan, written by one of  Japan’s  foremost modern authors. Okay;  but what struck me was how extremely POLITE  the characters were to each other – none of the usual American style foul-mouth ‘mother-fuckers’ etc. in fact, no bad language at all. And there was a meticulousness to the detail: what the characters wore, the routes they followed; the food they prepared and cooked; what was in the fridge.  Somehow  I didn’t find it irritating, as I did in Stieg Larson’s l-o-n-g  novels.

But on the other hand, there was a lot of Western cultural influence. For instance, the use of the Janicek (obscure Czech composer) work Sinfonietta  as a recurring motif in the novel.

I deliberately didn’t read the review  articles I’d downloaded last year, until I’d finished the book.  Then I read them to try and help me make sense out of what I’d read .  They did help. Apparently his books always feature cats – this one had a whole sub-story about the town of the giant cats. And apparently Japanese purists get very cross with HM because of his love of American Jazz, and other Western influences.  This novel did have quite a number of Western cultural touchstones in it. Even I noticed this.

A reviewer talked about the ‘hypnotic effect’ of HK’s book, & I suppose it was hypnotic.  After all, despite the length, I kept reading, and wondering what was going to happen, so the book did engage my interest, but I’m still not too sure that I (a) got the plot or (b) really understood it.  & P.S. : what associations/parallels are we to draw with the original novel 1984 – do I really have to read this  again? Don’t want to! – and not going to!

The book was also disturbingly sexy, at least in book one;  and quite violent too.

There were wonderful characters : Shinake, the misshapen lawyer turned PI; the dowager and her bodyguard; the Leader of the Sakigake cult – fascinating, in fact.

One thing’s for sure: it WAS DIFFERENT, with bells on, and I’m willing to go back and try some more, but preferably  from the Library, IQ cost nearly R300, it’s a vast tome at a vast price. Am still not sure what my verdict is.  The review articles spoke of the lack of Nobel prize for HM, who is seen as a major literary figure.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I read the novel quite quickly. It was much shorter and simpler than IQ84.  But now I’m all Murakami’ed out.

Apparently this was the book that got HM noticed as a major league novelist in the West.  It’s his homage to the 60s, to the West and the Beatles in particular – the book title is a Beatles song.

So this novel is a Japanese version of the 60s and student life in Tokyo.  Again, I found it very Japanese ( the hero is forever catching trains – limited car ownership in Tokyo –  and working really, really hard)but I suspect that the Japanese readers might have felt the book to be way, way too full of Western influences.  As ever, one’s perceptions are dependent on their point of origin.

I found it to be a book about fantasies – male sexual fantasies (of course) but it also contains a huge Utopian fantasy (the remote rural D.I.Y. Mental clinic section).  And shades of Thoreau, the  protagonist Tori, living alone in a garden cottage –  in the Japanese urban context, a wild fantasy!

Another theme was First Love – also suicide and death – doomed pure first love – many of  the themes that Young Adult Fantasy/Gothic novels treat so superficially but which HM deals with so effectively and to such devastating effect.  Blurb said he is “a subtle novelist” and I agree.

Apparently Norwegian Wood is Murakami’s most read novel in Japan.  Must say I’m quite surprised that the-most-read-in-Japan is not his “Underground” which deals with the terrorist Saran attacks on the Metro.  However, I’m not strong enough to tackle that one yet!


Filed under BOOK REVIEWS