Novelist as a Vocation

Novelist as a Vocation
Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami ranks among the best known contemporary Japanese authors. In more than 30 years, he has written 14 novels, a number of nonfiction works and countless short stories and essays, many of which were translated into dozens of languages. Despite his status as an international celebrity, Murakami stays mostly out of the limelight, preferring to write books rather than giving interviews.

This book is a collection of 11 essays in which he talks about his path as an author. He explains his views on writing, his audience, literary prizes, and the relationship between mental and physical fitness when it comes to write books. Although some essays have titles like “On Originality”, “What to write about”, or “What characters do I put on stage”, these are not manuals on how to write but rather detail how Murakami himself approaches the craft.

I have read this book a few years ago in a German translation (Von Beruf Schriftsteller). While I like Murakami in general, that translation doesn’t read very well. He used a lot of “in my view” and “in my opinion” hedging, which may be expected by a Japanese audience, but to me, it seemed a bit arrogant at times. I wonder if the English translation suffers from the same problem. However, if you’re interested in a (partial) autobiography of one of the world’s best-selling authors, you should definitely read this one.

Even if you’re not a writer, this one is interesting if you like Murakami. Get the book from amazon.

Tokyo Ueno Station

Tokyo Ueno Station
Miri Yu

Just outside Ueno Station, where the trains bound for northern Japan leave, lies Ueno Park, one of the largest parks in Tokyo. It attracts lots of homeless people, and Kazu is one of them. He talks about his life in the park, how to build a house from tarps and cardboard that is easy to dismantle. How to make a little money by selling cans and used magazines. How, thanks to local restaurants leaving out leftovers, food is a minor problem. And how to make friends among the homeless without revealing too much about yourself.

Kazu is one of many people from the north of Japan who came to Tokyo to build the infrastructure for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And they stayed on, always in search for jobs, so they could send money to their wives and children at home. Kazu also has a family, and he did return to them upon retirement. But when his wife died unexpectedly, he chose not to be a burden to his daughter and granddaughter, and so he returned to the place where he spent most of his life in: Tokyo. But life isn’t easy in Ueno Park, and eventually, there is only one way out…

If I had to summarize this book in one word, it would be “heartbreaking”. What got to me most, interestingly, wasn’t so much the descriptions of Kazu’s homeless life in the park, but of his life before that. When his children were small, he left for Tokyo to earn money; the price his family pays is his constant absence. He is not there to see his children grow up, and when his son dies at 21, Kazu cannot come to terms with his loss.

Miri Yu does an exceptional job portraying Kazu and the other homeless people in the park with compassion, and she draws a vivid picture of those who live on the edge of society. In an afterword, she describes the research that has gone into this novel. She also relates some remarkable acts of callousness after the Tohoku earthquake, which I wouldn’t have thought possible from the ever so polite Japanese.

Miri Yu, born in 1968, is one of Japan’s most critically acclaimed writers. In 1997, she received the Akutagawa Prize for the short story “Family Cinema”. Being of Korean descent, she knows from experience what it means to be an outcast from society. After the Tohoku earthquake, she moved to Fukushima in 2015, where she owns a bookshop.

For a heartbreaking glimpse into the life of the homeless of Japan, get this book on amazon.

Snakes and Earrings

Snakes and Earrings
Hitomi Kanehara

19-year-old “not a Barbie girl” Lui meets mesmerizing Ama in a club and moves in with him rightaway. She is fascinated by his forked tongue and soon takes the first step to get one herself: Ama’s friend Shiba pierces her tongue. On a whim, Lui decides to get a tatoo as well, and Shiba uses the opportunity to talk her into having sex with him. Lui is torn between the two men, but when Ama’s jealousy explodes, she is forced to take drastic measures. Can she prevent things spiralling out of control?

The unexpected meeting with Ama draws Lui towards the edge of Japanese society, where people experiment with body modifications, choose unorthodox lifestyles, and mingle with underworld types. This book provides an interesting glimpse into a part of society that (prefers to?) remain in the shadows.

I picked up this book because Dogen mentioned the author in one of his videos. To be honest, I didn’t like it very much. Although the subject matter reminded me of Ryu Murakami, she’s not a writer of his calibre, and some of the violence and an s&m sex scene were too graphic and drawn out for my taste. Since these occured faily early in the book, I wonder if the author wasn’t only after the shock value. It was also pretty short, more of a novella, and the best thing about it is that it’s a fast read.

Hitomi Kanehara was born in Tokyo in 1983, dropped out of school at age 11 and left her home when only 15. Snakes and Earrings was written when she was 21, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and subsequently sold more than a million copies in Japan. She claimed that some of the themes in the book were inspired by her own issues with self-harm. In 2012, she moved to France with her husband and children where she lived for 6 years before returning to Japan. Kanehara has gone on to write more than 10 books to date, some of which won further literary prizes or were translated into other languages as well.

If you want to try something a bit different, you can get this book from amazon. But don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Newcomer

Newcomer
Keigo Higashino

When a woman is murdered in Tokyo’s busy Nihonbashi district, newly transferred detective Kaga is assigned the case. His sharp observation skills and relentless questions lead him through the woman’s neighbourhood, which is filled with little, old-fashioned shops. Many have been there for generations, and Kaga uncovers a number of their owner’s carefully kept secrets. But which ones are pertinent to his case? It turns out that the murdered woman, who had only recently moved to that neighbourhood, had some secrets of her own…

This is another one of Keigo Higashino’s masterful mysteries, but this time it’s told from the perspective of the people of the neighbourhood, as detective Kaga is coming around and asking questions. We peek into their lives and follow what’s going on right behind the old shopfronts, where not everything is what it seems but deserves a closer look. I love Higashino’s mysteries, I feel that he comes up with something new in every book.

Keigo Higashino grew up in Osaka and is one of the most popular writers in Asia. He has written more than 65 novels, including books for children. Almost 20 of his books were turned into movies, and his work was also translated into many languages. He has won numerous Japanese awards for his books, and in 2012 he received the American Library Association Award – Best Mystery Novel for his book The Devotion of Suspect X.

Newcomer is set in Tokyo in the sweltering heat of summer, so if you need something suitable for beach reading, you can get it from amazon.

The River With No Bridge

The River with no Bridge
Sue Sumii

Koji Hatanaka has just started school. He has many friends in Komori, his village, and he even wins the governor’s prize as the top student of his class. Still, his future is less than bright because all the people from Komori are eta or burakumin, outcasts from Japan’s strict class hierarchy for generations. Once Koji understands what that means, he is determined to prove all of those wrong who call him dirty and a good for nothing. But this may mean to leave Komori behind, like his older brother did, and even in the big cities, escape from his background is not certain.

The book is set in the early 20th century, when discrimination against the burakumin was officially outlawed after centuries. However, old habits die hard, especially in the countryside. We follow Koji through his time at primary school as he becomes more and more aware of the daily injustices he and his fellow villagers have to endure. It is heartbreaking to read about his struggles, even more so when you realize that the story is all too close to reality.

Sue Sumii was born 1902 in Nara Prefecture. She was an advocate for the burakumin and devoted her entire life to breaking down barriers for them. The River With No Bridge is her best known work with that goal; however, of the 7 volumes, written over 30 years, only the first has so far been translated into English. Sumii died in 1997.

If you want to learn more about a part of Japanese society and history that is decidedly not talked about, get this book from amazon.

The Decay of the Angel

The Decay of the Angel
Yukio Mishima

Former judge Honda is 75 years old and long retired when he meets Toru by chance. The teenage boy bears three moles that make Honda believe that Toru is another reincarnation of his school friend Kiyoaki. Honda sees another chance to prevent Kiyoaki’s/Toru’s premature death, and he decides on the spot to adopt the orphan.

But Toru could not be more different from Kiyoaki. He has a malicious streak and joyfully seeks to thwart Honda’s best intentions. He gets one of his tutors dismissed, destroys a proposed marriage and abuses the maids. Things only escalate when Toru becomes a legal adult, and he is now violent towards Honda as well.

However, when his presumed former lives are revealed to him, and that he may be a fraud after all if he survives his 20th years, Toru cannot accept this. Clearly upset, he makes a drastic decision that changes his life for good.

This is the last of the four books of the “Sea of Fertility” and the one I liked least. Toru is, quite frankly, an asshole from the very beginning. In “Runaway Horses”, I didn’t care for Isao’s nationalistic views, but he honestly believed that he’s doing the right thing. Toru, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities, he is mean because he can. Interestingly, it seems that Honda can see through his facade also from the beginning, and yet, he doesn’t do anything to address the issue, not even when he stop believing in his reincarnation theory.

Over all, the book is worth reading, though – Mishima was a great writer – but you may need the other three books to understand some of the references, and the ending in particular.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) is considered one of the greatest writers of 20th century Japan. Already his first short story was a great success, and in 1968, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which ultimately went to his benefactor, Yasunari Kawabata. Besides being part of the intellectual elite of his time, Mishima trained rigorously in martial arts and achieved several black belts in kendo, battojutsu, and karate, respectively. After a failed coup d’état that he instigated, Mishima committed ritual suicide. This book was finished only shortly before that.

Follow Mr. Honda through the last years of his life and get the book from amazon.

The Temple of Dawn

The Temple of Dawn
Yukio Mishima

Shigekuni Honda, successful international business lawyer, is called to Bangkok in 1941 to settle a dispute. While engrossing himself in the study of Buddhism, in particular reincarnation, he is permitted an audience with the royal princess Chantrapa. She is the daughter of Honda’s high school classmate and insists that she belongs to Japan. When she recognizes Honda, he believes her to be a reincarnation of the revolutionary Isao whom he had defended years ago, but in the end, he must leave Thailand without proof.

They meet again 11 years later when the princess – now 18 years old and calling herself Ying Chan – comes to Japan to study. Honda is obsessed with the young woman and tries to crack her secret, but Ying Chan avoids him whenever she can, just spurring on the advances and scheming of the lawyer.

The first part of this book, set in Thailand, is heavy with Buddhist teachings that demand quite some attention. In the second part, we can focus on Honda and his desire to find out whether Ying Chan is indeed Isao’s reincarnation. Although some of Honda’s schemes are quite unsavoury, I still felt sympathy for him overall. I feel that Mishima is at his best when describing land- and cityscapes, and I loved the images of Bangkok he could conjure up in my mind’s eye. This is probably the reason why I liked this book more than the “Runaway Horses”, and I myself got very curious about this whole reincarnation business…

This is the third book in Mishima’s “Sea of Fertility” cycle, and it centres on Honda, who has hitherto been a mere side character. There were so many references to Isao, the protagonist of the second book, that it would be hard to follow without having read “Runaway Horses”.

Yukio Mishima is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost authors of the 20th century. A weak child, he took up bodybuilding and kendo when he was older and became very fit. He started writing early and eventually became the protégé of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Besides his numerous books, he also wrote plays for Noh and Kabuki, as well as for contemporary theatre. He was 45 when he committed ritual suicide.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into Buddhism and the practice (or art?) of reincarnation, you can get this book at amazon.

Runaway Horses

Runaway Horses
Yukio Mishima

Japan, 1932. Isao is a youth who lives and breathes the ancient samurai spirit. He is worried about the modern Japan that he sees in the hand of greedy industrialists instead of that of the benevolent emperor. Spurred on by a book bout a group of rebels in the early Meiji era, he forms his own “League of the Divine Wind” with 20 of his best friends. Supported by high-ranking men in the military, they set out to kill the country’s business elite and to restore the purity and integrity of Japan under the emperor.

This book tells of a fanatic group of young men in their early 20s who see the greatest honour not necessarily in killing, but in dying for a cause they believe just. Ideas of nationalism are expounded in detail, which make this book difficult to read at times, in particular when knowing that these ideas led to war just a few years later.
This is the second novel in the “Sea of Fertility” series by Yukio Mishima. Except for a few recurring characters, it can be read as a stand-alone, though.

Yukio Mishima was born into an old samurai family in Tokyo in 1925. He started writing at a very young age and had his first work published in a literary magazine when he was only 16 years old. Five years later, he approached Yasunari Kawabata with manuscripts and became his protégé. Mishima wrote 15 novels and more than 250 other works in his lifetime. He is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost novelists, but his nationalistic tendencies are viewed more sceptically by the Japanese. The above novel foreshadows his own death in 1970.

Not my favourite novel of the four, but if you want to have a go at it yourself, here’s a link to amazon.

Spring Snow

Spring Snow (Sea of Fertility I)
Yukio Mishima

Japan 1912. The Meiji era has just ended, and the old ranks of aristocrats are slowly giving way to a new class of rich people who are staking their claims at the top of society. Kiyoaki Matsugae, of lower samurai class, has been raised by the aristocratic Ayakuya family, together with their daughter Satoko, who is two years older. Kiyoaki’s complex feelings for Satoko eventually blossom into a tender young love, which is destroyed because both lovers avoid being open with each other. Only when Satoko is promised to an Imperial Prince do they recognize what they are about to lose, but now it is too late for a happy ending…

This is one of those romances where you’d like to slap both parties and force them to speak to each other. Much pain would have been avoided. And yet, Mishima draws a detailed picture of the time with all the scheming going on so that the Matsugaes can advance their position and the Ayakuras can at least keep theirs.

I greatly enjoyed this book; the romance between the two youths is only a part of it, which is growing in importance towards the climax. I loved the insight into Japan of the early 20th century, and Mishima once again is able to draw up splendid pictures in your mind’s eye.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970; pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka) is considered one of Japan’s greatest authors. When he was 16, he got a story published in a very prestigious literary magazine, the editors of which thought him a genius already. After the war, Mishima was taken under the wing of Yasunari Kawabata. Both of them were considered for the Nobel Prize of 1968, but the elder Kawabata received it. Mishima wrote 34 novels in total, and committed ritual suicide after a failed coup attempt.

This book is the first of four novels that make up the “Sea of Fertility” cycle, which were the last four books written by Mishima before his suicide. I have read them all, and will give a final verdict when I post the last one. In the meantime, you can get this one from amazon and judge for yourself.

Thousand Cranes

Thousand Cranes
Yasunari Kawabata

Kikuji is on the way to a tea ceremony held by Chikako, who had been his father’s mistress. Over the years, he had received many invitations from her, but since his father’s death, this is the first one he accepts. At the ceremony, he meets Mrs. Ota, who is the total opposite of Chikako, and Kikuji falls for her immediately, just as his father once did. From then on, Kikuji finds himself at the center of Chikako’s intrigues, and although he is not a born fighter, it is not clear yet who will get the upper hand in the end.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Kikuji who is torn apart by his feelings for no less than four women: meddlesome old crone Chikako who wants to see him married to Miss Inamura, a nice girl and protégé of hers, and the attractive and still young-at-heart Mrs. Ota and her daughter Fumiko, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with her mother’s strange attraction to Kikuji – or her own.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972), was born in Osaka into a wealthy family, but was raised by his grandfather after he was orphaned. From a young age, he showed talent – and was interested in – both painting and writing, but he eventually turned to writing and published his first stories when still in high school. After graduating from university, Kawabata quickly became one of the most important modern Japanese writers. After WWII, his fame spread internationally, and in 1968 he became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you’re up for something melancholy and short, try this one – it’s available on amazon.