It is already August and, unfortunately, the pandemic is still getting more virulent, especially with the growing prevalence of the Delta variant. Here in the Philippines, the strictest lockdown level is going to be imposed in the following two weeks, starting tomorrow, to help curb the threat of this more potent variant of the virus. I hope that all of you are doing well, wherever you are in the world. I fervently pray that you are staying healthy, both in mind, body, and spirit despite the trying and uncertain times. I am one with everyone in hoping that this pandemic will end soon so that we can all resume our lives before this invisible threat started spreading.
With the seemingly endless lockdown protocols here in the Philippines, I managed to tick off several books from my infinitely growing reading list. In the past few months, I have been traveling all over the world (at least in literature). From Africa in March to South America in May and June, my next literary journey made me land in Nippon, the land of the rising sun, and the host of the ongoing Olympic Games – Japan. I did start my immersion in Japanese literature in mid-June; I originally planned to have June as my Japanese literature month but I have extended my stay in Latin America. This is the fourth consecutive year that I had a Japanese literature month, underscoring how much I love this part of the literary world.
With this being said, here is a peek into how my journey went. Here is my reading list for July.
The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
I resumed my immersion into the heart of Japanese literature with a more familiar name. In the ambit of Japanese Literature, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s name stands tall; one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes was even named after him. My first encounter with the renowned Japanese storyteller was in early 2019 when I read Some Prefer Nettles. This experience gave me a glimpse into Tanizaki’s prose although the title I have been looking forward to for the longest time was The Makioka Sisters. The book immediately grabbed my interest when I first came across it and after years of pining for it, I finally got to read it. The titular Makioka sisters Tsuruku, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko were born into an upper-middle-class family in pre-war Osaka, Japan. On the surface, the narrative revolved around finding a suitable husband for the third born, who, in her early thirties was believed to be beyond her prime. A lot hinges on finding a partner for Yukiko, with Taeko, the last born, being unable to marry until her older sister does. The novel was what I expected it was and more. It was the quintessence of Japanese literature, offering the readers a vivid and often intimate depiction of pre-war Japanese society and culture. It is no wonder that The Makioka Sisters is often prescribed as a must-read Japanese literary masterpiece.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
A couple of years ago, while going through an online bookseller’s listing, I encountered Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. Back then, I simply passed over it; this was when I was building my appetite for world literature and I was still mostly in the dark about Japanese literature. I also thought that it was some sort of a cookbook. A couple of years thence, I still kept on encountering the book, finally catching my attention. My interest was further piqued when I learned it was listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and late last year, I finally received my copy of the book. Originally published in 1988 in Japanese, Kitchen is the story of Mikage Sakurai who recently lost her grandmother. Mikage had no other family member to turn to but soon saw salvation in the form of Yuichi Tanabe, a friend of Mikage’s grandmother. Mikage ended up living for a while with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko Tanabe. Kitchen was not as intricate as The Makioka Sisters but was nevertheless equally powerful in its exploration of contemporary Japanese society. It explored sexuality, and grief, with the tinges of developing romance. It was a memorable coming-of-age story that was accompanied by a novella, Moonlight Shadow. The novella explored the same themes of love and loss.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Last year, I was charmed by Yoko Ogawa’s heartwarming short novel, The Professor and the Housekeeper. The story about the small but meaningful relationships we create with those around us spoke volumes despite its deceptively slender appearance. It was easily one of my favorite reads of 2020. This pleasant experience made me want to explore further Ogawa’s works which have been receiving quite global attention lately, with some of her older works getting published in English. One of these works is The Memory Police. Originally published in Japanese in 1994, it was published in English for the first time in 2019. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize, making it somehow imperative that I must experience it as well. The Memory Police transported me to a dystopian future where memory is both a luxury and a curse. Those possessing memories are punished by the Memory Police, thus reminding me of the Thought Police in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Both novels also explore censorship although I did find The Memory Police ephemeral in its impact. Ogawa barely gave any context as to what happened and why memory has become a precious commodity. It was, nevertheless, an interesting facet of Ogawa’s corpus.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
Kōbō Abe is highly regarded as one of Japanese literature’s most revered personalities. His works, with their modernist elements, often draw comparisons to Franz Kafka. Honestly, I have not read either of these authors although The Woman in the Dunes has long captured my interest. However, I was initially a bit reluctant about delving into the book because I thought it was a work of science fiction, a part of the vast literary world that I rarely venture into. In time, I got over my apprehension and found myself buying myself a copy of the book. The winner of the 1962 Yomiuri Prize for Literature, The Woman in the Dunes commenced with a fledgling entomologist traveling to a remote village in search of a rare beetle. After missing the last bus going out of the village, he readily accepted the villager’s hospitality, staying in a house in the dunes accessible only through a rope ladder. The next morning, however, the ladder disappeared and he found himself trapped, together with the woman who owns the house. To understand the messages obscured by the text, one must sift thoroughly. In the man’s effort to escape we see the reflections of an existential narrative, starting with denial and finally culminating with acceptance.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
Just like The Makioka Sisters, Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs was a book I badly wanted to read after learning about its existence. I initially wasn’t too keen on the book but after learning what it grapples with, I changed my mind. I wanted to buy a copy of the book but was holding out, hoping for a hardbound copy. In the end, I settled with what is available for I can’t wait to immerse myself in this contemporary novel. The original book was published in 2008 as a novella with the title Natsu Monogatari. The 2020 English translation, however, was a totally different version of the original Akutagawa Prize-winning novella. The 2020 version was divided into two parts and related the story of Natsuko, a young woman who dreams of becoming a successful writer. Natsuko’s story explored the story of contemporary Japanese women, including vivid portrayals of modern Japanese society and culture. The novel’s strong messages about body autonomy also resonate on a global scale. Whilst there was not much of a plot, Kawakami did a stellar job of revealing, on an intimate and deep level, the complexity of Natsuko’s personal thoughts through inner monologues and conversations with fellow women.
The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata
Yasunari Kawabata is quite a celebrity in the world of Japanese literature. With his prolific career, he earned the distinction of being Japan’s first Nobel Prize in Literature winner. He was also one of the reasons why I have become a fan of Japanese literature. However, it has been almost four years since I last read any of his works (Thousand Cranes). Luckily, I recently purchased a copy of The Lake, thus, ending my long Kawabata drought. The Lake is also my fifth Kawabata novel, making him my second most read Nobel Prize winner, after Kazuo Ishiguro (with seven). If there is something I have learned after reading several Japanese literary works is that they rarely follow a plot; some of the works in this list belong to that category. It was the same with The Lake. It zeroed in on Gimpei Momoi, a former teacher who was dismissed from his job after it was revealed that he had a relationship with one of his students. The stalking and perversion the novel explored were uncharacteristic of Kawabata’s corpus although The House of Sleeping Beauties also come to mind. Nevertheless, The Lake offered a different facet of his prose as he concocted the profile of a voyeur whilst giving the readers a dream-like study of his profile.
How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino
My July Japanese literature month culminated with yet another unfamiliar name. Earlier this year, Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live? came to my attention after news broke out that it was going to be adapted into an animated film by the famed director Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli and Spirited Away fame. I immediately knew that it was a work of young adult fiction but I didn’t mind. I, later on, learned that the original work was published in 1937. How Do You Live? is the story of a 15-year-old boy named Junichi Honda, nicknamed “Koperu”, or Copper (after Nicholas Copernicus). He lives with his mother after his father died when he was younger. His uncle, his mother’s brother, then took on the role of a father figure, and the narrative revolved mainly around their discourses on a vast range of subjects such as capitalism, history, memory, science, and life in general. The philosophical discourses somehow reminded me of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. Whilst I loved the discussions, I wished that Yoshino explored other aspects of Copper’s life as well. I particularly liked his friendship with Mizutani, Uragawa, and Kitami.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2021 Top 21 Reading List: 12/21
- 2021 Beat The Backlist: 4/12
- My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List: 1/11
- Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 55/75
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 9/20
Book Reviews Published in July
- Book Review # 265: The Makioka Sisters
- Book Review # 266: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- Book Review # 267: The Good Soldier
- Book Review # 268: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
- Book Review # 269: Interior Chinatown
Japanese literature again did not disappoint. It delivered on all points as I had yet another memorable read, with a great combination of familiar and unfamiliar (from my perspective) writers. It only makes me want to dig deeper into the heart of Japanese literature. And because I was enjoying my immersion in Japanese literature, I did extend a bit, completing Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, and Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings in the past week. I am also currently reading my second Kenzaburō Ōe novel, Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids. Japanese literature is like a genre within a genre for, under it, one can uncover several variations of popular genres.
With the 2020/1 Tokyo Olympics also drawing to a close, I am about to embark on a new literary journey. Because of my backlog, I am planning to read novels published within the year, including two books that are part of my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List. On deck is Ashley Audrain’s The Push. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This are also in line along with works of familiar writers such as Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. My hands are full this August; I just hope I get to read all of these interesting works.
For now, keep safe, and happy reading everyone!