First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
The House of Nire will come as a surprise to readers who expect a Japanese novel to be a mixture of gloom and sensitivity. This one is unashamedly comic, and its view of human life derives from a warm curiosity that accepts the world as it is and wastes no time complaining about it. The book relates the history of the Nire family from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second. We meet Kiichiro Nire, founder not only of the family mental hospital but of the family itself, for he has changed their real name to something more sophisticated. Kiichiro, in all his vanity, selfishness, and absurdity, is one of the great comic creations of Japanese literature. His children, adopted children, grandchildren, and any number of hangers-on including a friendly but flabby Sumo wrestler whose career is going nowhere, form a cast of characters who, for all their oddities, tell us more about actual Japanese people and their lives than almost anything we have yet seen in English. And when, with the eventual fall of the House of Nire, the mood changes and the laughter dies away, one recognizes just how true to life this novel is and how involved in it one has become. (Source: Goodreads)
Happy Friday everyone! The Catholic world is currently observing Good Friday. I hope that everyone spends this time reflecting on themselves and their actions. For others, especially in the Philippines, it means a very long weekend; April 10 is also a holiday in observation of the Araw ng Kagitingan, traditionally celebrated on April 9 but since it is a weekend, its commemoration has been moved to the 10th. I am among those who took advantage of the long holiday; I am currently touring around Kyoto in Japan. This is my first time traveling to Japan, a destination that has long been on my bucket list. I dreamt of visiting Japan, Kyoto in particular since I was younger and, at times, while traveling across the city, I can’t help but feel sentimental and, of course, elated.
Enough of me. Anyway, I hope everyone is doing well and that they have ended the week on a high note. I hope that you were able to achieve everything you set out to accomplish at the start of the week. More importantly, I hope everyone is doing well, in mind, body, and spirit. to cap this week, I am sharing a new First Impression Friday update, my first for April. Woah. We’ve already spent a quarter of the year; how time passes us by. However, I do hope that the first three months of the year have been great and that the coming months would even be greater. I hope the rest of the year will be filled with good tidings and blessings. The end of March also marked the end of my venture into the works of British and Irish literature. With a new month comes the start of a new reading adventure and what better place way than to spend it in the works of the place I am currently visiting. Yes, I pivoted back to Asia with works of Japanese Literature.
As I have repeatedly mentioned, in the past few years, Japanese literature has become one of my favorite parts of the literary world. I always look forward to this part of the literary world, hence, I always reserve it for my birth month. This year, however, is an exception as I am holding it earlier than usual. I am kicking it off with a Japanese writer whose oeuvre I had not explored previously, Morio Kita (北 杜夫, Kita Morio) with his gargantuan work, The House of Nire. It was during the pandemic that I first came across the writer and his work. Curious, I immediately obtained a copy of the book without much ado. My resolve to cover as much ground of Japanese literature as I can is my main driver. As it is, The House of Nire is also my first translated literature this year.
The House of Nire chronicles the story of the Nire family, starting at the turn of the 20th century. The family’s story started with the establishment of the Nire Hospital for Mental Pathology located in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. It was founded by the family patriarch Kiichiro Nire. The story then moves forward and introduces the various members of the family, with their lives intertwined with the fate of the hospital. This is where it gets rather tricky as the hospital is chiefly an asylum for patients with mental disabilities. Somehow, these mental disabilities extended into the family. There is a wisdom behind what has been said about mental disabilities slowly trickling into the psyche of psychiatrists. Or at least that was how the story makes it up to be.
Beyond the story itself, after reading a little about Kita, the book’s focus on medicine comes as no surprise. Morio Kita, which I learned was the pen name of Sokichi Saitō (斎藤 宗吉, Saitō Sōkichi) was a psychiatrist who graduated from Tohoku University’s School of Medicine. Another interesting trivia about the book is that it is a parody of Buddenbrooks, a book by German Nobel Laureate in Literature Thomas Mann; Mann is another writer whose oeuvre I am looking forward to. I actually thought it was The Magic Mountain, another novel by Mann, that was being parodied because of its theme of mental health. Anyway, this was also one of the reasons why I wanted to read The House of Nire. Interestingly, it was Mann who inspired Kita to be a novelist.
Back to the novel. I can barely find traces of the parody; maybe because I haven’t read Buddenbrooks yet. However, I find the book complex and deep. Failure is a recurring theme with some members of the family, albeit descending from a “fine” line, kept encountering failures. Some failed as politicians while some failed as intellects. One character even wrote an extensive book on psychology but was easily challenged by the intellects of the period. There was another character who failed as a sumo wrestler. It seems to be hinting that failure is a profound reality and that we should learn how to cope with it. The hospital itself was also the center of several failures, from failure to comply with standards of health to failure in maintaining its finances.
Failure, in the ambit of the story, extended beyond the family and the hospital. Toward the end of the story – I am just a little under a hundred pages from completing the book – the landscape of the story started to change. From the hospital, Kita transported his readers to the heart of the Second World War, at least the part of the war that involved the Pacific. Some members of the family have been sent to fight the war. Like their leaders, they had the confidence of winning the war. We know how it ended. What I am interested in, however, is how it will impact the life of the Nire family as the war comes to a close. Speaking of the war, the novel was very rich in historical context. Several prominent historical events and figures were part of the dialogues between members of the Nire family.
There are a lot of things I am looking forward to. I am hoping to finish the book over the weekend. How about you fellow reader? What book or books are you taking with you for the weekend? I hope you get to enjoy them. Again, happy weekend everyone!