Japan: strange coincidences

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)

24 responses

  1. I like the sound of this one – have added it to my to-read list. In fact, I’ll just see if the uni library has a copy…

  2. Hazy, impressionistic literature is my thing, although my two modern forays into Modern Japanese lit of this type haven’t been so productive, I’m still fascinated by particularly the expression of grief and eeriness. I have a pile of books to get through but hope to pick up this one at some point, if nothing else to get a feel of it.

    • Interesting – what were the two you tried? I have to confess I don’t read a lot of impressionistic stuff and do sometimes get a bit frustrated if I don’t have enough to hold on to, but I found this one did pay off once I made the decision to go with it and accepted the haziness.

      • Banana Yoshimoto’s Amrita was the really impressionistic one. I liked it at first, but the vagueness and solipsism wearied after a while. The other, less impressionistic (but still non-realistic and ‘drifty’) was Murakami’s Kafka By The Shore. Which I loathed. Now I don’t bring him up because some people love him fanatically, but I just can’t bring myself to try again.

        Another Japanese work is more compelling – I am currently reading the Tale of Genji, which is in parts hard to grasp – the names and changing titles of characters mean it is hard to keep a grip on who is who, and the historical and culturally alien nature of the text is quite distancing. But the emotional intensity stands out now and then, as do the beautifully posed scenes and poems – so many referential poem fragments, stacking one upon the other. It’s tough, but I stick with it because it is so different and occasionally beautiful.

  3. Excellent review, I love the story of how the book revealed itself to you and your own very poetic at times discourse. I’m not sure if it is your writing or the book that I am enjoying 🙂 Both perhaps.

  4. Can’t wait to read this. In fact, I hopped over to Amazon to bookmark it on my wishlist and saw there’s no Kindle version. Not a biggie, but I’m increasingly opting for e-books because they occupy less physical space in my nomadic life (as much as I love the physicality of books, portability is becoming more important).

    Anyhow, that made me wonder if any of the books you’ve read so far were e-books (haven’t gone back to check all posts). I suppose some books are difficult enough to get a copy of that e-copies are unlikely. On the other hand (as I have said before I think), digital publication could open the world to some of these rare translations (and would allow more of the world to enjoy them too).

    • Thanks Alua. Yes the star on the Kindle in the picture shows the number of books read on ereader. And you are right that ebooks are opening up new vistas of reading – some of the more unusual texts (my Andorran and Lithuanian books, for example) are only available through ebook.

  5. This sounds interesting – perhaps another one for the imminent Japanese Literature Challenge. Not a writer I’d heard of before this (and I’ve read a *lot* over the past few years!).

    Of course, as usual, there’s a lot more of her work available in German than English (sigh…).

    • Good stuff. Glad it’s throwing up some new things for you – yes, the Germans are generally streets ahead in terms of texts available in translation, aren’t they? It’s often the case with French too…

  6. Pingback: Japanese Novel Review: Manazuru (真鶴)by Hiromi Kawakami (川上弘美)  | Self Taught Japanese

  7. I suggest “Botchan” by Soseki Natsume. This is the story of a young man from Tokyo who has been clumsy and unable to come to terms with his surroundings since childhood, and his struggle to become a teacher in Ehime. He believes in himself and fights for justice, but he is ultimately unsuccessful. I think the straightforward personality of Botchan’s main character is very interesting, which is why it is my suggestion.

  8. Hi hon. Just 2 quick comments. If you haven’t read Bochan yet, or even if you have, I hope that there’s a better, or at least more contemporary sounding, translation than the one I read, from the 1940s is or so. It was the rare translation of a Japanese novel in English that just wasn’t working for me.

    My 2nd comment is simply that Like many readers I too like the murkinesss, the dreaminess, the uncertainty in the mood of Manazuru. Does she steal her theme from murakami? No, or even if she stole the premise from the wind up bird chronicle, it is by no means at all a copy. but not too far from the end, I think there is a paragraph that is a tribute to that novel. For in that paragraph we hear 3 things: Alley . Cats. And a wind up toy.

    well that wasn’t very short. Anyways best of luck in your writing career.

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