World bookshopper: #12 Jimbocho, Tokyo

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I had lunch with my Japanese literary agent and Mr Akira Yamaguchi, editor in chief at Hayakawa Publishing Corporation, which will be publishing my novel Beside Myself later this year. Over an array of delicious dishes of tofu, meat, fish, rice and miso soup, I decided to pick their brains about bookshops in the capital.

Both men were in agreement: I should visit Jimbocho. And so that afternoon I lost no time in following up on their suggestion.

Jimbocho is not a single shop but an entire neighbourhood devoted to bookselling. Well over 150 bookstores operate here, catering to the many enthusiastic bibliophiles for whom this city of more than 13 million people is home.

Interestingly for a society in which technology is so seamlessly integrated into many aspects of daily life – from vending-machine ordering systems in many restaurants to washroom facilities – ebooks are not very popular in Japan. Although the nation spawned the cell-phone novel, one of the earliest forms of literature to be widely enjoyed on-screen, most Japanese are apparently reluctant to buy electronic devices purely for reading. As a result, the physical book is still the preferred format for many of the nation’s readers and certainly those in the older generation.

This much is evident is in bustling Jimbocho, where crowds of booklovers throng the new and second-hand shops in search of their latest read. You can find anything you can think of here and a lot more besides.

Although the vast majority of books sold here are in Japanese, anglophone visitors will recognise many of the names and faces peering up from the covers in the shops stocking contemporary fiction. Home-grown superstars such as Murakami rub shoulders with English-language commercial giants, as well as internationally renowned authors working in other languages. Pierre Le Maitre is hugely popular: the Japanese version of his novel Alex has sold more than a million copies and it seems no mystery section is complete without him.

There are also some surprisingly niche titles in the mix. You might not expect sheep farming in the UK’s Lake District to be of much interest to city dwellers on the other side of the world, but you can find new publications on it here.

And there are instances of not particularly well-known writers from elsewhere who have an unusually devoted following in Japan.

I was particularly pleased to spot a novel by the US writer David Gordon prominently placed in one window display. In 2014, Gordon wrote a witty article in the New York Times about the surreal experience of discovering that his modestly successful debut novel The Serialist had become a smash hit in Japan. ‘You might not know me, but I’m famous. Don’t feel bad. Until recently, I didn’t know I was famous either, and most days, even now, it’s hard to tell,’ the feature begins.

But though many of the names in the contemporary-fiction sections may be familiar, the layout of the shops can take some getting used to. Rather than being arranged alphabetically by author name, paperback novels are ordered by publisher, with special tabs for famous writers. As a result, in Japan, authors are particularly reliant on their publisher having strong distribution arrangements with retailers: unless the press releasing your book has good shelf presence, your creation is unlikely to find its way into readers’ hands.

In addition, there are several sections that you would be hard-pushed to find in most English-language bookshops. As well as the extensive manga aisles – featuring strikingly large erotica sections in some stores – there are shelves devoted to a particular kind of Japanese non-fiction (known, as far as I am aware, as shinso), which is written with the aim of helping intelligent readers get to grips with particular topics and issues of the moment. Running to around 200 pages, these books are extremely popular – so much so that it is common for publishers to commission writers specially to produce them. Slender yet thought-provoking, these titles are the perfect companion for commuters braving crush hour – as are small-format versions of longer books, which are often sold split into several volumes, partly for ease of reading in tight spaces.

The new-book trade is just one facet of what Jimbocho has to offer. In fact, most of the stores and stalls you’ll see in the district offer primarily second-hand works. As varied as the titles they sell, many of these places specialise in particular subject areas. There are shops devoted to writing about music or titles from particular language groups.

Here and there, you’ll spot cardboard boxes stuffed with Western classics and contemporary bestsellers. And there are also a number of stores that carry first-edition anglophone books.

Often gleaned from house clearances, these titles offer occasionally mind-boggling insights into the tastes of some of the English speakers to have lived in Tokyo. I spent some time browsing the shelves in Kitazawa Bookstore, a wood-panelled emporium at the top of a curved staircase.

There, along with early editions of works from many famous, largely American, names – Hemingway, Melville and Stein among them – I was intrigued to encounter A History of Secret SocietiesWelsh Folklore and Folk-Custom and WOG Lofts and DJ Adley’s formidable-sounding The Men Behind Boys’ Fiction.

It made me wonder if, long after I have written my last post on this blog and slipped off into virtual oblivion, a UK first edition of Beside Myself might one day find itself here, six thousand miles from home…

Book of the month: Yoko Ogawa

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I wasn’t sure whether to write about this book. I’ve read some marvellous novels this month – among them Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted A General Theory of Oblivion (trans. Daniel Hahn), Brazilian star Alexandre Vidal Porto’s Sergio Y. (trans. Alex Ladd) and Taiye Selasi’s powerful Ghana Must Go. With such a strong selection of titles to choose from, it wasn’t easy to single out one to review.

When it came to Japanese writer Yōko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris (trans. Stephen Snyder), however, there was an additional reason to be uncertain. Brilliant though it is, the book made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the way it treats its dark themes or how to describe its strange and unsettling plot.

But if this project has taught me anything, it’s that when I identify a personal limitation or blind spot, I ought to confront it head-on. And so, erhem, here goes.

Like Manazuru, the Japanese book I read for this project back in 2012, Hotel Iris takes place largely by the sea. The protagonist-narrator is 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of an overbearing hotelier who requires her to work long hours to keep the business afloat. But when a middle-aged guest is caught up in a scandalous scene after a prostitute refuses to comply with his wishes, Mari finds her world shifting. Drawn to the man’s voice, she seeks him out and fosters a friendship with him that quickly turns to something much deeper and darker, testing the boundaries of her being, releasing her from her mother’s rules, and allowing her to explore the nature of pain, pleasure, humiliation and desire.

The summary makes the book sound sensationalist and even trashy (I defy you not to think of EL James), but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, there’s the writing: a spool of precise sentences consisting of descriptions of small details that hint at the calibration and adjustments going on beneath the surface. The succinct simplicity of Ogawa’s (and Snyder’s) writing about Mari’s mother’s obsessive styling of her daughter’s hair or the snatches of music that drift through the hotel from the rehearsals of a visiting choir, for example, belies the sophistication of this multi-layered text.

There is humour and there is beauty, too, evoked through neat flashes of insight that net a moment, a character, a view in a handful of words. The kleptomaniac maid who nearly betrays Mari’s secret, for example, only appears on a handful of pages, and yet she feels like a familiar figure when she stumps into view, swigging beer and helping herself to unsupervised trinkets.

We see intimacy and vulnerability in both Mari and her partner, but we also hear a frightening clarity in her words. Time and again, she smashes open her descriptions with a final jab or last detail that lays bare the darkness beneath.

This is particularly true when the narrative spirals in on the violence and humiliation Mari silently wills the man, who we learn is a translator, to inflict on her. Here, the shock is often delayed, just like the translator’s blows, to fall all the heavier when it comes, as in this sentence, capturing the narrator’s anticipation of the physical engagement to come: ‘The fingers clutching the pen would grasp my breast, the lips pursed in thought would probe my ribs, the feet hidden under the desk would trample my face.’

Reading Mari’s frank descriptions and her admission that ‘only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure’ is troubling. The violence is one thing, but what lingers long after the final page is an uncertainty about how to view the events described.

Should we see this as an account of a vulnerable young person groomed and seduced by a ‘pervert […] not fit for a cat in heat’, as the prostitute calls the translator in the opening chapter? Or does Mari’s pleasure in and desire for what befalls her turn the story into something else, regardless of the fact that – as far as she tells us – Mari never openly expresses her longing or consent so that for all her partner knows she may be enduring his ministrations under duress.

Is Mari, in fact, another kind of victim – warped in her sexuality by her mother’s control and the sad deaths of her father and grandfather? And does the fact that Hotel Iris is written by a woman have any bearing on how we answer these questions?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I think that this may be part of the point. In allowing all these possibilities and questions to co-exist between its covers, this novel pulls off quite a feat. Not only does it make us question human nature, sexuality, power and agency, but it also forces us to examine the way we respond to narratives, make choices and give credence.

In short, Hotel Iris makes us explore how we read.

Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Picador, 2010)

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)

Haiti: am I being stupid?

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)