May 29, 2012
I was very lucky to have some excellent recommendations for Japan, including a hit parade of must-reads put together by Japanese writer Kyoko Yoshida (see the List for these). However the title of this book was given to me scribbled on the back of a business card at the end of a talk at the London Book Fair.
The card belonged to translator and editor Lucy North, who described Michael Emmerich, the translator of this novel, as her mentor. As I was studying it, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned round to find myself facing Dr Valerie Henitiuk, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. Henitiuk was one of the kind and patient people who put up with me asking all sorts of inane and obvious questions when I was researching this project late last year. We’d emailed and spoken on the phone but never met. It turned out she’d been sitting just behind me all the way through the panel discussion.
‘Lucy’s great,’ she said. ‘If she’s given you a recommendation, you should follow it up.’
That decided things. Much like my German book, it felt as though this novel was choosing me.
As it turned out, coincidences and unexpected connections were a very fitting way to come to Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami. Charting the struggles of Kei to find meaning in her life 12 years after her husband’s disappearance, the book reveals the uncanny links that thread through the past and present, tying us to events that are yet to come.
Disorientation is a big theme in the novel. Drawn again and again to the little seaside resort of Manazuru, Kei wades through a sea of half-memories where time telescopes in on itself and ‘things are vague, unsettled’. Against the relentlessly shifting backdrop of the ocean, she finds the world flooded with otherwordly figures and oddly familiar people and scenes that wash her into a whirlpool of remembering in which she founders, seeking the rock on which she can build a meaningful life.
Kawakami’s spare and precise style works by homing in on details that flash like beacons in the grey mist of Kei’s confusion. From the mended tear in the sleeve of a café cook, to the interaction of bulbul birds in a persimmon tree, she creates a sense of an intricate world balanced by the minute movements of its constituent cogs and wheels.
This attention to specifics gives Kawakami’s work a poetic power, which enables her to write about the contrariness of human emotion and existence with sometimes shocking clarity. Riffing on the theme that ‘disgust and tenderness do not stand in opposition’, she reveals the strange sense of detachment that runs through much of life: ‘however fiercely we hurl ourselves together, it comes to seem that we are only mimicking forms that we have seen before, somewhere’, reflects Kei.
This sense of isolation coupled with gasps of sudden emotion and violence that shudder the text, gives the novel a compelling and often eerie feel. We do not always know where we are or what we are witnessing, but this is the key to the narrative’s power: cast adrift on an ocean of impressions in this striking and subtle work, we come to appreciate the vastness of human experience – and that loneliness may sometimes be the thing that binds us together most of all.
Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (Counterpoint, 2010)
May 5, 2012
The question of what counts as ‘national literature’ is a tricky one. As I’ve found during the first four months of this project, lots of people have very different ideas about what it means.
Some people say it’s all about books by people from particular countries. Others think it has to be set in a certain place. The real hardliners claim it’s both, while another contingent argues that it’s more about what stories countries consider to be part of their national literature.
As the months have gone on, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition involving books written by people with strong connections to particular nations. Usually these will be people with citizenship, but at the very least they’ll be writers who have lived in a country long enough for it to be woven into the story of who they are.
However, the protagonist of Dany Laferrière’s novel I am a Japanese Writer, which is on the shortlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award, would probably disagree. Having bagged an advance for his next novel on the strength of the title alone – it’s also called I am a Japanese Writer – the Haitian-Canadian struggles to get started on the manuscript. Claiming to be ‘tired of cultural nationalism’ and wanting to ‘show that borders have disappeared’, he attempts to immerse himself in whatever Japanese culture he can find in his home town of Montreal in the hope that a story will emerge from it. But when news of the book sparks a cultural movement in Japan and the Japanese embassy wants to involve him in all sorts of literary ventures and events, the writer finds he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
As the subject matter suggests, the book unpicks what makes up works of art. For my purposes, the meditations on cultural identity – from comments highlighting the oddness of concepts such as the ‘French kiss’, which ‘exists everywhere but France’, to full-blown discussions of nationality – were particularly fascinating. I couldn’t help but be challenged by one particular passage early in the narrative:
‘I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. [...] Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Césaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot – they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?” I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.’
Where did this leave A Year of Reading the World then? Was I being foolish to even contemplate something so reductionist as trying to read a book from every country? Was I one of the ‘space police’ the protagonist describes, grimly shoehorning writers into boxes they would never choose? What if, as Laferrière’s protagonist would have it, I was simply assembling piles of British books on the shelf in my living room because, being British, I was unable to read books on any other terms?
These weighty discussions are offset by the narrator’s self-deprecating humour as he repeatedly dismantles his soap boxes and shifts ground. The witty portrayal of writer’s block and the protagonist’s ham-fisted attempts to immerse himself in Japanese culture – at one stage he bombards a bewildered Korean with questions on the assumption that the two countries are ‘the same thing’ – are great fun.
In addition, the arguments are undercut by the way Laferrière circles his readers, Sumo-wrestler-style, daring us to make the false move of conflating his protagonist with him. The writer may be a Haitian-Canadian living in Montreal and working on a novel with the same title as his creator’s, but he is of course not Laferrière. Or is he? And would it add any more authenticity and credibility to his arguments if the two were one and the same?
Ultimately, of course, the protagonist’s self-deterministic approach to his own work is blown apart by the wild reaction of the Japanese. Whether he likes it or not, the work he produces (or, in this case, has yet to produce) can not be controlled. As this fiendishly clever and enjoyable book demonstrates, the act of publishing is about setting a work free for others to criticise, categorise and cannibalise as they chose. Cultural nationalism may be a construct, but it is a construct to which the vast majority of the world subscribes.
Does that make it true? I don’t know. But hey, if all I’m doing here is assembling a library of British books, novels like this mean it’s definitely my most interesting and diverse collection to date.
I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière, translated from the French by David Homel (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011)