Ice

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice was published in 1967 and is the author’s final published work before she died. Anna Kavan (1901 – 1968) lived a fairly eventful life, but struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Reading about her, I immediately managed to get her and Anais Nin conflated into one person. Totally unfair and awful of me, I suppose, but there you have it.  I started this novel with the feeling that “there is nothing about this book that appeals or interests me in any way. Likely I won’t enjoy it.” I hesitate to call this work a “novel” because it is so far outside of the typical definition that I am not sure that the definition can apply. I also suspect this would not really bother the author. Allegedly in his biography of Kavan, Callard quotes Kavan as knowing fully that her work was on the edges of the fiction-spectrum; she herself says it is not supposed to be a realistic.

I had never before met anyone who owned a telephone and believed in dragons. It amused me, and also contributed to my sense of the unreal. – pg. 35

Reviews/comments of this work frequently reference Kafka. They suggest that this is Kafka-esque. I’m no fan of Kafka whatsoever and, frankly, do not find Kavan to be an imitation of Kafka. After reading this work, I do think Kavan stands on her own and deserves to be treated without some cheap comparison to Kafka. I think, maybe, I see more similarities with Ernst Junger – believe it or not.

Most reviews also begin by stating that there is an unreliable narrator who is surviving in a dystopia. Narrator. The Narrator. As I read this work, throughout I had the nagging feeling, which was stronger at some points than others, that there is no separate narrator. The word that I put on all of this story is schizophrenia. Now I am aware that some readers may gesture at the last chapter as if that proves there are at least two characters. I dispute and firmly hold my position that there is one character. If there are any characters. The majority of the work, to me, seems like a study in atmosphere. I use that word a lot when thinking of Ice and it is because it is, as Christopher Priest calls it, “virtually plotless.” So, instead of storylines, the reader must focus on small scenes, chunks of disjointed settings.

I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing. – pg. 56

How disjointed? Very disjointed; here is how I imagine it. There are lakes frozen across solidly. It is still and cold. And then there are rivers on which flow chunks of ice, mini-glaciers that are a lot like white stepping stones loosened by the current. So, on each chunk the setting is just the same ice as on the solid lake. But one is a congruent, solid mass. The other is a broken off fragment. A lot of this novel is full of fragments. They appear to have come from one solid mass, but we cannot see that lake of ice, we can only focus on each individual chunk being tossed around in the river.

The “characters” in the novel have similar focus points. For example, the narrator focuses often on the Indris animals. Why? No outstanding reason, I think. Or, perhaps as a stark and jarring contrast from everything else in the scene. Also, the girl’s wrists – focused on a great deal, repeatedly.  I might suggest, too, that a common symptom of mental illness is fragmentation and disorientation to the point of increased inability to establish a whole picture of reality.

In any case, it is nearly absurd to discuss a novel as a novel that is so disjointed and has such jarring focus points. This is why I think the discussion must always look at atmosphere and tone.

This work contains some excellent prose.  There are turns of phrase, so to speak, that are so lovely to read, one wants to read them aloud. They describe with such ease the confusion and mayhem that the story is running through – it hardly seems fair that any author should be able to have this skill. However, I am not sure that the work as an entire piece has the payoff for the reader. No doubt, the sentences here and there are marvelous, but overall the work is symbolic, difficult, and maybe maybe maybe….. empty. I am unsure.

Much of the writing is repetitive. I find this is typical in any author using symbolism. They want to drive the symbols deep into the reader’s psyche. Also, this repetitious “pseudo-storyline” combines with an overwhelming, but nearly undescribed sense of doom that is coming down like an unstoppable curtain – but only in the corners of the mind – creates a super intense atmosphere. The “ice” of the title is the final doom of the planet, but rarely can it be seen head-on. Usually in this work it is referred to as if caught from the corner of the eye, or some remnant of a nightmarish dream still latent upon awakening.

The intensity and tone of this work is very well done. Overall, this is an intense work – an intensity that comes very much outward toward the reader. Continually, it reminded me VERY MUCH of many elements in the video for the song I Follow Rivers (2011) by Lykke Li [The music video, directed by Tarik Saleh and filmed on the Swedish island of Gotland, features Li in a black robe and veil chasing a man (actor Fares Fares) through a snowy landscape.] – I feel that Tarik Saleh would have captured the tone/atmosphere in Ice very, very well.

All that was left was the ceaselessly shrinking fragment of time called “now.” – pg. 177

Overall, what will readers get out of the time invested in this novel? It is unique in some ways that make it valuable to know about. However, it is also jarring and gruesome at times – particularly in its matter-of-fact moments. The avant-garde style of absolutely transitionless slips into daydreams/mirages/memories/hallucinations are worthy of notice. I suspect this is evidence of Kavan’s heroin usage. In other words, the ability to describe blackouts, mental confusion, hallucinations as experienced. There are some neat ideas that come as “scenes” or “brief segments” of writing. But I do not know that overall there is a take-away that is necessary or integral. Its not for all readers, certainly, and maybe most strong readers would have no interest in it. So perhaps the takeaway is the study of a heroin-addicted schizophrenic. It can be a frightful thing in these pages….

I give this two stars. It is not easy to rate this sort of work at all. My somewhat “low” rating is because, at the end of the day, though I will remember pieces of this novel, it will never resonate with me on the same level as a number of other novels will. Further, I cannot think of a single person I would want to recommend this to. Sadly, this makes it seem like I do not appreciate Kavan’s efforts.

2 stars

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Time is the Simplest Thing

Time SimakTime is the Simplest Thing is the fifth book by Clifford D. Simak that I have read. It was published in 1961, I read the Crest 1962 edition with Richard Powers’ artwork on the cover.  I keep working my way through Simak because I agree with the consensus that he is one of the best “vintage science fiction authors.”  Since January is, as everyone knows, Vintage Science Fiction month  Twitter Feed I took advantage and started 2018 off with another Simak. (Cp. origin of Vintage SciFi Month)

Compared with the other four novels of Simak’s that I have read, this one came across as far more aggressive. Simak is a very good writer, which is again demonstrated in this novel.  Simak sometimes touches on social issues in his works – not quite to the extent of Poul Anderson – but one gets used to finding these elements in Simak’s fiction.  This novel, though, seemed like Simak wanted to club readers in the head.  Speculative readers might suggest that Simak was giving social commentary, particularly reflective of the time in which it was written and published. However, I think “commentary” is a bit loose of a word. Simak’s commentary, then, is quite heavy-handed and forceful. More so than I am used to from him.

vintage-sf-badgeAnother facet that I have decided is part of Simak’s style, are the multitude of plotline directions that occur in his novels.  I think this generally works for Simak, but in each of the novels I have read, it did seem like there was a whole lot of different threads and the plot would 180° more sharply than I liked.  And maybe, sometimes, I did not love the new direction the story took.

Telepaths, like the main character, can project their minds beyond the usual barriers of space and time. Shep Blaine is one of the telepathic explorers – he mentally/spiritually – is able to traverse galaxies and time and explore. He is in the employ of a corporation named Fishhook which capitalizes on the findings of telepaths like Blaine. So, immediately, I was comparing some elements of this novel to that of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (a novel I really despise). The novels are similar with regard to a few elements, particularly the corporation capitalizing on exploration.

Chapter eight gives a brief overview of the “telepathic” ability. Simak blends it with a variety of esoteric history such as shamanism and medicine men, magic makers, etc. He does a very skilled job of juxtaposing the existence of these abilities with that of the history of science. Unlike the exhaustingly common polarization of science vs. religion/magic, Simak insists that these abilities are just as “science” as regular Enlightenment-style science. Anyway, the storyline explains that those who kept researching the “magic” science were dispersed about the globe. But:

Finally, a country with a heart – Mexico – had invited them to come, had provided money, had set up a study and a laboratory, had lent encouragement rather than guffaws of laughter. – pg. 45

So, from this laboratory, Fishhook was born. Allegedly, it starts out with a focus on study and research. But, naturally, it eventually gets corrupted or, let’s just say, its purpose seems to be a little less about knowledge and a little more about control and economics.

By every rule of decency, parakinetics belonged to Man himself, not to a band of men, not to a corporation, not even to its discoverers nor the inheritors of its discoverers – for the discovery of it, or the realization of it, no matter by what term one might choose to call it, could not in any case be the work of one man or one group of men alone.  It was something that must lay within the public domain.  It was a truly natural phenomena – more peculiarly a natural phenomenon than wind or wood or water. – pg. 140

Shep Blaine is an employee of Fishhook and we meet him as he is on one of his space explorations. He has encountered an alien lifeform:

It was pink; an exciting pink, not a disgusting pink as pink so often can be, not a washed-out pink, not an anatomical pink, but a very pretty pink, the kind of pink the little girl next door might wear at her seventh birthday party.

It was looking at him – maybe not with eyes – but it was looking at him. It was aware of him.  And it was not afraid of him. – pg. 6

I am at a loss for words about that pinky paragraph – I have not read anything like that in awhile and thought any good review of this novel should include that segment. Anyway, here is the essence of difference between a pulp novel and a literary novel – painted in very broad strokes. A pulp novel, from here on out, totally focuses on the alien and Blaine and they have adventures or horrors or action. There is a mystery or a challenge and there is a great deal of rushing around resolving it. In a literary novel, its all well and good to meet up with unheard of lifeforms and interact with them. But those engagements seem to be something of a context rather than a focus.  Simak is not pulp, so early on in the novel, even though there are a few moments of escape/evasion, the majority of the novel is “social commentary.”  Utilizing the elements of space exploration and alien lifeforms and whatever is seen as “science fiction” to drive satire or comment on or even as an allegory for present-day scenarios.

I have said before I do not love agenda fiction. I would not classify Simak as such, though, because even in his social commentary he serves up a tasty and intriguing story. However, I wonder what two versions of the novel would be like. One version is this one, complete with social commentary and thoughtful allusions. Another version being the one that follows the fun and pulpy storyline exclusively. I want both, but if I have to pick just one, I do think this is the better choice. I cannot help but admit I miss the action adventure novel, though.

Another fact:  time travel – no matter how defined – is quicksand to science fiction writers. The concept draws them in and then they just sink in a muddied mire. I am not saying that this novel is about time travel. Not at all do I say that. I do say, however, that Simak does enjoy playing with time in his novels. Particularly in Time and Again.  But in the middle of this one, there is an explanation that Simak gives that impressed me a lot. I loved the way the situation was described and I appreciated Simak’s explanation.

This was the past and it was the dead past; there were only corpses in it – and perhaps not even corpses, but the shadows of those corpses.  For the dead trees and the fence posts and the bridges and the buildings on the hill all would classify as shadows.  There was no life here; the life was up ahead.  Life must occupy but a single point in time, and as time moved forward, life moved with it.  And so was gone, thought Blaine, any dream that Man might have ever held of visiting the past and living in the action and the thought and the viewpoint of men who’d long been dust.  For the living past did not exist, nor did the human past except in the records of the past.  The present was the only valid point for life – life kept moving on, keeping pace with the present, and once it had passed, all traces of it or its existences were carefully erased. pg. 65

This paragraph contains a sharp-minded and well-written concept of time. And I really wish all those authors who think they have a great idea about time/time-travel would read it. I like how this paragraph is haunting and shadowy – with a touch of sorrow. But also how it looks forward with an active and lively feel. I really liked this paragraph when I read it; I worked to imagine what Blaine was seeing.

Simak uses technology in his novel to round out the “future feel” to it. For example, dimensinos exist, which are something like virtual reality/hologram systems, even commonly in personal homes.  And then Trading Posts sponsored by Fishhook possess something like pseudo-Star Trek “transporters” that allow them to offer merchandise without having it in physical stock and opening the trade globally.  Believe the hype when they say science fiction comes up with the gadgets first!

Overall, this is a good novel. Readers expecting any pulpy alien-adventure will be disappointed. This one looks at humanity’s fear of the Other, the use and misuse of technology, the fear that ignorance breeds, the juxtaposition of persecutor and persecuted, and the control-factor of corporations/capital. The main character is fairly likeable, if a bit robotic. Readers who love vintage science fiction and who would like to read good 1960s offerings will enjoy this one.

4 stars

Thousand Cranes

Thousand CranesThousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in 1952 and in English in 1958. It is the second Yasunari Kawabata novel that I have read. I disliked his main characters, however, in this novel they do seem to possess a measure of realism. I felt that the characters in Snow Country were not realistic. While this is a speedy read, one can finish it in a day, it is not really an easy story to penetrate. There is a great deal of native culture within that can keep non-Japanese readers at bay. Further, this entire novel is very much focused on human interrelationships and their responses to each other. For some readers, this could be challenging.

Wikipedia’s entry, in very forthright style, explains precisely what this book is about. This means this, that means that. And while some of that is probably true, I think there are deeper and more complex interpretations possible.

The storyline, the characters, and the other general dimensions of the novel were not anything I was particularly drawn to. It is quite a dramatic work and does not immediately appeal to any of my major interests. As I mentioned above, this work is very heavily focused on human relationships. The defect is in me, clearly, because I am usually disinterested and bored and even confused by novels like this. Autistic. Russian. I have a hard time with some aspects of stuff in this genre. All of this being said, though, I will admit wholeheartedly and very profusely that in this novel, Kawabata’s skills are on showcase. In a sense, I feel this is almost a brag novel – Kawabata knows he is that good of a writer and he is showing off. He is an excellent novelist and even if this particular storyline does not appeal to everyone – the skill with which it is written is undeniable.

Do not suppose, however, that this novel is arrogant or that it is over-the-top with writerly flourishes.  Perhaps in its minimalist oh-so-Tanizaki/Japanese manner, it is precisely what it needs to be:  no more and no less; and Kawabata deserves all the praise he gets for it.  He proves himself an acutely aware, highly sensitive, perfectly edited, writer. He is a master-writer.

Layered upon the story are tea ceremony items and elements of Japanese aesthetics, specifically pottery. This would be best understood by someone with familiarization with such topics. To some readers, the frivolous and fastidious obsession with which tea bowl to use, which vase, what tokonoma flower, may seem massively tedious. I was able to assimilate my personal cultural experiences fairly easily and completely empathize with the discussions of the tea items etc. To some people, such concerns seem “petty” or “decorative” as opposed to practical. The tea ceremony is such a THING, though, that I hardly know what to say about it. From its origins, to all of its iterations throughout history, and from the praises of it, to those who scorn it… whatever one thinks of it, it is not something to merely hand wave at.  Yet, I struggle to discuss it.  Regardless, if someone were to ask me about the tea ceremony, I do think I would recommend that they read this book. It sort of provides a situation for the whole process without directly confronting it.

Like the back of book says: “a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.” Again, this is going to be felt more by a reader who can assimilate certain cultural/religious aspects. This blurb accurately describes the novel. But I liked all the smaller points, symbolism of water, of mould, of the thousand cranes. And more than anything, the very subtle presentation of old Japan crashing with modern Japan.

The symbolism in this work is significant and excellently written. And while I dislike the main character, Kikuji Mitani, even I could not help but be caught up in some of the sensitivities Mitani faces and is caught up in.  The dispositions and inheritances (both in objects and relationships) that befall him from his deceased father are mighty and certainly not pristine “black and white” dichotomies.

This is a very good novel. I think I took it for granted as I was reading it and only afterwards was I able to process how good a work it is. I think it is a written by a master writer, but the storyline itself does not interest me at all. Three stars is a very good rating for a plot that I was uninterested in…….  Recommended for all fans of Japanese literature, students of the tea ceremony, ikebana scholars, and readers of quality literature.

3 stars

Bullfight

bullfightBullfight is one of Yasushi Inoue’s (1907 – 1991) early works. This story won Inoue the Akutagawa Prize in 1949. It is definitely not for every reader, but there are many who will be able to appreciate it. As is expected with his writing, the plot and the story are not thrillers. In another review of another of his works, I described his stories as haunting and mundane. I think that is still true. While the storylines are not outrageous and unusual, the way in which they are written can be haunting. The setting is enveloping and the characters are very realistic.

Entitled “Bullfight” and yes, there is a bullfight (a sort of bracket tournament among actual bulls), the bullfight itself is a minor element in the story. The story focuses on newspaperman Tsugami and his efforts to stage this bullfight in post-war Osaka. The novel portrays the struggles that take place before the actual bullfight. I love this Pushkin Press edition that I read because it has a good feel to it and there is a nice black and white photo of Inoue on the first page.  The cover art is by artist Ping Zhu ( https://www.pingszoo.com ) who’s work I am discovering that I highly enjoy.

The concept of a bullfight in this context is entirely different from the more well-known Spanish bullfighting. Readers are probably more familiar with the Spanish forms wherein humans compete against bulls – matadors and picadores taunt, wound, and evade the bull.  The bullfighting in Inoue’s story is traditional to the Ryukyu Islands and is better translated a “bull wrestling” or “bull sumo.”  Bulls are pitted against other bulls and the contest is similar to sumo wrestling in which one contestant attempts to wrestle/push the other from the ring.

The true bullfight tournament in this novel may not really be between the bulls. It may be between the main character and his business partner. Or the main character and his girlfriend. Or between the Japan of what was and what could be. Or even symbolizing the concepts of Success and Greed and Failure and Resignation. Or, in the most radical interpretation, between Tsugami and his own Self. There are many ways this story, in its utter mundanity could be interpreted.

Inoue writes as if putting his scenes and characters on a microscope – and it seems he turns the knob and zooms, zooms in – until the we are focused on the character’s reactions to their daily lives. Facial expressions. The way they smoke their cigarette. Their posture. We do not get to see extraordinary characters in unusual situations. Instead, we see realistic characters in intensely portrayed realistic situations. And when it rains, we feel the raindrops. When they pour tea, we see the steam from the cup.

The supporting cast is both a reflection and a competition for Tsugami. His girlfriend Sakiko provides the only exterior view of Tsugami in the story, so she is a vital component to the novel. Mirua Yoshinosuke, president of Toyo Pharmaceuticals, provides an almost dopplegänger-like challenge to Tsugami.

He was a young man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, with long sideburns and a red necktie in a large, loose knot; he had the affected air of someone in the film world – an assistant director, perhaps – but he exhibited a certain drive as he rose, an unmistakable energy, like that of a sportsman meeting an opponent. – pg. 79

This little description has an awesome, subtle clue in it that may or may not relate to the very last page of the book, in which the result of the bullfight is mentioned. As the reader follows the various struggles that Tsugami faces in order to put on this show, each character that he is forced to deal with presents some facet of his own personality. It is interesting for the reader to consider Tsugami’s relationships with each of the other characters. Mirua’s seemingly successful status versus that of Okabe’s is the contrast that I most enjoyed.

For strong readers and for fans of Japanese literature.

3 stars

Devils in Daylight

tanizaki_devils_in_daylight coverDevils in Daylight by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965) was first written in 1918, but not published in English until 2017. I read this 2017 New Directions edition translated by J. Keith Vincent. I had previously read Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1933) – his very important, but short, nonfiction essay. Devils in Daylight is really, from what I understand, representative of all things Tanizaki – even if it is one of his earlier pieces. It contains all the elements and themes that Tanizaki is usually associated with. The first key item to be mentioned is Tanizaki’s being impressed with all things modern and/or Western culture early in his life. This is probably one of the main reasons that this book is nearly an homage to, or a reworking of, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug (1843).

I strongly recommend having familiarized oneself with Poe’s work before reading Devils in Daylight. There are so many parallels and also allusions and references that the reader would be shortchanging their reading experience by skipping the Poe work. Tanizaki’s work is highly influenced by The Gold Bug, though I would hesitate to say “based on.” The main character in Devils in Daylight, Sonomura, is nearly exactly the character in Poe’s work, William Legrand.

I found him well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy. He had with him many books, but rarely employed them. His chief amusements were gunning and fishing, or sauntering along the beach and through the myrtles, in quest of shells or entomological specimens… – The Gold Bug, E. A. Poe.

Tanizaki basically tells the reader that Poe’s work is necessary reading. Sonomura is talking to his only friend, the narrator:

He suddenly doubled over and cackled with laughter, whereupon he continued, with immense self-satisfaction, like some insufferable scholar showing off his vast learning.

“I take it you have not read Poe’s famous story ‘The Gold Bug.’ Anyone who had read it would recognize these symbols immediately.”

Sadly, I had only read two or three of Poe’s stories.  I had heard of one with the title “The Gold Bug,” but I had no idea what it was about. – pg. 15

So much for the proofs needed for reading The Gold BugDevils in Daylight begins by Sonomura telephoning Takahashi (the narrator) in mid-morning insisting that Takahashi come over to his house immediately. Takahashi is a writer and had spent a sleepless night with his pen in his hand trying to finish a serial novel for a magazine. Sonomura says:

“Later tonight, at around one o’clock, in a certain part of Tokyo, a crime. . . a homicide will be performed. I want to get ready now and go see it happen, and I want you to go as well. . . . But I want to watch it happen, in secret, without any of those involved knowing that I am there.  And I would feel a lot better about it if you came with me.  Doesn’t that sound more enjoyable than staying home writing a novel?” – pg. 9

Straightaway Tanizaki shows his hand and gives the reader all the usual themes that he is known for.  Sonomura expresses a desire to watch a crime – in secret. And then there is the juxtaposition between writing and watching and performing that rolls through the entire novel.

The novel is rather short – only 87 pages. I do not want to quote or comment too much about what the storyline actually contains.  This sort of noir-esque novel can be spoiled easily, although the crime and mystery is not really the strong part of this novel.  The excellence of this work comes from the finely-tuned writing that describes the narrator’s experiences. Using only as much as needed, Tanizaki carefully shows the reader the entirety of the story without burdening him with too many words, concepts, and descriptions.

Throughout the novel, Takahashi remains tired and sleepless. The few hours of sleep that he manages to get is punctuated by interruptions from Sonomura and images that disturb Takahashi’s psyche.  Takahashi’s tiredness provides this neat feeling to an already noir story. It also provides Takahashi a small excuse for not thinking/judging perfectly throughout.

The element of a femme-fatale is present in this story and the reader should appreciate her mysteriousness and her effectiveness. This is a theme that Tanizaki returns to quite often in his works. In this work, the femme-fatale may or may not be a geisha – which neatly juxtaposes the Western concept of femme-fatale with the Japanese-rooted geisha archetype.  More than simply using certain symbols and elements over and over, Tanizaki utilizes these elements to demonstrate the tension he feels and observes between Western and Eastern cultures. Hopefully reviewers will forgive this possible spoiler:  it seems that in this novel Tanizaki (as well as Sonomura and Takahashi) do not view geishas as capable of being femme-fatales – a point that is an intriguing insight into Tanizaki’s understanding of Japanese culture.

The ending might aggravate some readers – particularly ones who do not appreciate certain literary chess moves. Throughout the novel it is difficult to know whether one likes or hates Sonomura. By the end, I think readers will be even more suspicious of Sonomura (and by default, William Legrand) than anything. The title of the novel, for me, made no sense originally, but then at the end, I decided who the devils were and they are, indeed, also in daylight.

I recommend this to noir-fiction fans, readers of Japanese literature, and also Poe fanatics. I enjoyed this work and definitely will be reading more Tanizaki.  He has a reputation of writing some unsavory topics, so I will still attempt to be selective with what I read by him.

4 stars

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the DunesThe Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 – 1993) was first published in 1962.  I read the Vintage International edition from 1991. The novel won the Yomiuri Prize. In 1964, a Japanese film by the famous Hiroshi Teshigahara was released – author Kobo Abe wrote the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the Italian film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Vittorio De Sica.

This is probably Kobo Abe’s most famous novel. I have not read any of his other works, but I do own The Ark Sakura. I am open to reading other works by this author, but he does not interest me at the same level as some of the other super-famous authors of mid-20th Century Japanese authors. Sometimes his works are classified as absurdist/surreal literature, which is a genre I can sometimes devour and at other times am disinterested in.

The man intended to collect insects that lived in the dunes. – pg. 10

I enjoyed this book, and I really do appreciate what the author has shown us via sand. However, I cannot help but subtract a few points from my estimation of its rating due to a few sections of the novel.

There are dozens of ways to interpret this novel, but the erosion of the main character’s opinions via the Sisyphus-lifestyle is the overwhelming concept. The sand claims all – eventually. Survival alongside the eroding powers of the sand drives the story. The way the sand affects everything is really well done. The author very gradually traps the main character within the pit in the dunes. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the writing; the character being trapped is done so subtly and simply.

I really enjoyed the early chapters because the early interactions between the man and the woman are so very well written. In translation, the woman’s sentences are often open-ended, with ellipses or simple statements that only seem innocent:

“But somebody just said ‘for the other one.'”

“Hmm. Well, they’re referring to you.”

“To me? Why mention me in connection with a shovel . . . ?”

“Never mind. Don’t pay any attention. Really they’re so nosy!” – pg. 30

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how the woman clearly knows what is going on and yet, is able to seem innocent. Though she knows what is happening to the man, she may or may not be powerless to stop/change it. Like the man, the reader will probably consider, in turns, the woman to be mentally challenged, an entrapping vixen, or a resigned, but dedicated villager.

The author really puts the main character through some suffering, but he also inflicts some on the reader. Readers will constantly want “justice” or “to know the reason” or “someone to accuse” through the novel. And Kobo Abe just doesn’t provide a clear and direct target for all of that. Frustrating? Maybe. Engaging? Definitely. (Probably the reason for Kafka comparisons.)

Stop looking so stupid! He was angry; he wanted to make her admit her guilt even if he had to force it out of her. – pg. 90

The subtle horror of being trapped/imprisoned for, seemingly, no reason is the key that makes this novel so vibrantly emotional. Even if I disliked parts of the novel, I have to credit the author with the ability of being able to tap into that fundamental chord in my being that I assume every human possesses, which rebels against such a circumstance. It seems it is easier to accept a prison sentence if there is a reason. But without reason or cause, without an authority or a captor to blame, without a purpose or goal – such an imprisonment is a magnitude of horror well beyond a reasonable incarceration.

For some time he concentrated on digging.  The sand was exceedingly tractable, and his work appeared to be progressing.  The sound of the shovel as it bit into the sand, and his own breathing, ticked away the time. However, at last his arms began to grow weary. He thought he had worked for a considerable time, but his digging had apparently had no results at all. Only a little bit of sand had fallen from right above where he was digging. – pg. 68

The man’s psychological state is what one might expect. He is outraged, indignant, and frustrated. He calms himself by convincing himself a rational and thoughtful method will rescue him. He dips into the violent and the desperate. He only very gradually comes to realize an outcome, which, perhaps, the woman knew from the start. The woman’s reaction to the man’s arrival, when you think about it in retrospect, contains all of the pensive understanding of what she knows he and, by connection, herself will have to undergo. Her early timidity is probably because she knows what emotional turmoil will occur – and she has to resign herself to going through the turbulence as well.  In a way, this also means that nothing the man does truly surprises her.

And what of the man’s mental state? At points he forces himself to be relatively rational. Bargaining and reasoning with his supposed captors. He also attempts “scientific” escapes and schemes. But he is also clearly disturbed because he has mental conversations with himself – or the Mobius man.  Kobo Abe even suggests, subtly, that there is an element of schizophrenia at play. Late in the novel, the man has a mental conversation with an imagined judge:

-Your Honor, I request to be told the substance of the prosecution. I request to be told the reason for my sentence.

-I am telling you that in Japan schizophrenia occurs at the rate of one out of every hundred persons. – pg. 217

And this fascinating little segment with the man conversing with himself continues to an amusing conclusion:

-Well, listen to me calmly.  Acrophobes, heroin addicts, hysterics, homicidal maniacs, syphilitics, morons – suppose there were one per cent of each of these, the total would be twenty per cent. If you could enumerate eighty more abnormalities at this rate – and of course you could – there would be statistical proof that humanity is a hundred per cent abnormal. – pg. 218

I disliked, though, the chunk at the end where the main character is told the “deal” how the villagers will let him see beyond the pit. This was weird/vulgar and destroyed a lot of good faith I had in the author. This part was the “too far” point in the writing.

Excellent in concept and writing, although the 1960s-Freudian-focus is a bit too prominent in the whole thing. Definitely for an adult readership. I appreciate the “horror” of the novel, but dislike some of the episodes. In any case, this is an excellent novel for book clubs, I think, because there is a lot to discuss about all of the various interpretations available.

3 stars

The Counterfeiter and Other Stories

CounterfeiterThe Counterfeiter and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) that contains three stories. The Counterfeiter was published in 1951, Obasute was published in 1956, and The Full Moon was published in 1958.  Although the three stories are different from one another, I think they do give a good sample of the author’s style and tone. I really enjoyed The Counterfeiter and I also enjoyed The Full Moon, but Obasute was not very likeable. I think that to enjoy Obasute one needs to have a lot more understanding of Japanese culture and history – particularly Izu Peninsula – than I have.

I knew right as I finished The Counterfeiter that many readers would dislike these stories. I think the concept of what a novel is and should be, what a story ought to contain, what a narrative’s purpose is, is very different from the Japanese perspective than the typical post-Enlightenment Western conception of literary works.  I do not claim to be any sort of literary expert whatsoever, but I can speak for some of the non-Japanese mindset.

Western Europeans and Americans are educated in literature since they begin school with the idea that a literary work has a point and purpose.  Small schoolchildren begin writing book reports wherein they are drilled in the exercise of figuring out the main point or the resolution or the purpose of the book. In fact, I know that many schoolchildren are told to summarize their readings.  This serves to really cement in the mind the idea that literature has a beginning, a middle, and an end and can be summarized in terms of writer’s intent, character development, and climactic action.  Reading more Japanese literature, I am discovering that this sort of mindset will struggle when encountering some authors like Yasushi Inoue.

Inoue, more than others, seems to have a skill in bringing to life a vivid story, with excellent wordsmithing, about a mundane matter.  The fullness with which Inoue tells us a story about what in reality is a very everyday sort of “story” is very interesting.  This is the sort of author who can tell you about the day he had, which may have consisted of mundane work, a couple of meals, and watching the trees outside, but yet you listen so intently because he makes this narrative into a story.

In The Counterfeiter, there is a strong sense of autobiographical writing. The narrator is a journalist who is commissioned to write a text on the artist Keigaku Onuki.  We learn that the narrator is a bit disinterested in the project.  Boredom or laziness or disinterest cause this text to have taken far longer than it should have.  The narrator tells us this is because he cannot form a definitive chronology of the artist since no one alive is able to accurately detail out Onuki’s years. And in searching for data, the narrator becomes more interested in Hosen Hara than in Onuki, who really fades from the narrative altogether.  The last chapter, which is merely two pages, explains the narrator’s feelings on his biographical research. To discuss that here would be to ruin the reader’s experience.

I can see myself making a pseudo-archetype out of Hosen Hara. I will probably use him as an example in the future. These are all such unique stories that the characters in them stand up among the multitude of characters in fiction.  And one of the other feelings I have about this story is how realistic it is. If I handed this “story” to someone who knew nothing about this, I could convince them it was an excerpt from a non-fiction biography. The realism is so strong that I suspect we could start a silly quest (a la Foucault’s Pendulum and “The Bee Book” by Kit Williams) to find Hara’s paintings.

Obasute was a tougher piece to penetrate because I am lacking some of the cultural data that probably makes the story far more potent. I did, however, appreciate the narrator’s efforts to examine other members of his family in light of his thoughts on his mother’s Mount Obasute request. Still, the family relationships element also fell weakly on me. At the end, I felt I wanted more from the story – either regarding the mother or regarding the sister.

The Full Moon was actually just as good, if not better, than The Counterfeiter. Against the backdrop of the harvest moon festivals, the rise and fall of executive businessmen is portrayed. If there is cynicism regarding the business world involved in Inoue’s writing, it is hidden.  The rise and fall of the businessmen sometimes has a destiny/karmic feel to it. Ambition and sycophancy are highlighted, but so are the choices of the quite melancholic main character, Kagebayashi. Although not full of action and excitement, this story is haunting in its everydayness .  The truth factor question of Jiro Kaibara’s stories about Kagebayashi plays with how such a random event can influence so much, whether or not that event is true or false. Just like in The Counterfeiter, the story is subtle and melancholic. Just like in real life, there is a sense of lack of closure and resolution. These are not tidy, manufactured stories.

Well, I recommend these stories for advanced readers who have some interest in Japanese literature. I can see some readers being frustrated by these subtle stories. I think words like haunting and mundane suit this collection well. I intend to read more Inoue.

3 stars