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Last week I promised to share my thoughts on my first read of 2012: Dromen van China by Ian Buruma, or The China Lover (‘Dreaming of China‘) as it’s originally called. This edition is translated to Dutch by Eugène Dabekaussen & Tilly Maters.
I prefer the Dutch title to the English because more than anything, The China Lover seems to be a story about feeling at home in a place that isn’t — and may not even exist. I think all book lovers can relate to that?
It’s a historical novel in three parts, all set in different time periods, revolving around Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Ri Koran/Li Xianglan: a beautiful, Manchurian-born Japanese screen star. She is not the main character of the book, but a centerpiece in the lives of three male protagonists. These men share another love: cinema, turning The China Lover also into a story about film.
Strangely enoug the book is not really about China but about the development of Japan and the country’s positioning in the world throughout the decades of the mid 20th century.
It starts in the 1930s with Sato Daisuke, a Japanese ‘information broker’ in Manchukuo. Manchukuo was an under ‘The Last Emperor’ Pu Yi established Japanese puppet state in Manchuria — really an aggressive occupation of Chinese territory. Daisuke falls in love with China (and its women) and believes in creating an ideal state through cinema as he feels more at home here than in the ‘straightjacket’ Japan.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi is his protege: by his hand she starts working as an actress & singer. The movies in Manchukuo are mere propaganda, meant to help give Manchukuo its shape and to sway the Chinese in favour of their Japanese occupiers. Therefore Yoshiko Yamaguchi must keep her Japanese nationality top secret and pretend to be Chinese under the stage name Ri Koran, or Li Xianglan.
The second part of the novel is set in post-war Tokyo. The story is told from the perspective of an American GI, Sidney (‘Sid’) Vanoven, who falls in love with Japan. He becomes a film reviewer and befriends Yoshiki Yamaguchi in that capacity. The starlet even goes to the US where she reinvents herself as Shirley Yamaguchi.
In this part the big screen is again used for propaganda, this time by the American occupiers: to impress democratic values on the Japanese people. Feudal samurai stories are no longer allowed. But cinema is also an escape from reality; not because of glamour, but by looking at folks in similar situations. There is no need to wallow in unhappiness when you can cry freely for the misery of fictional characters.
The book closes in the 1960s-1970s with Sato Kenkichi, a soldier of the Japanese Red Army fighting the Palestinian cause, imprisoned in Beirut. Starting out as a ‘pink’ (porn) movie assistant he later gets to work for a TV show with.. Yoshiko Yamaguchi as presenter. Even after their paths take different directions, Yoshiko still travels the world bringing news of oppressed peoples and their leaders. Film is used in this section as a medium for atonement, as well as propaganda.
All three men tell their story looking back from an uncertain time in the ‘present’. That their names are similar cannot be a coincidence and it probably means that this isn’t really about them, but about the growth of Japan as a nation. It can also explain why this book is called The China Lover, after its first protagonist: Sato Daisuke. He’s the one infatuated with China, and his surname, Daisuke, can even be translated as ‘favourite’ or ‘I love it’. At first I didn’t understand why this book would be called after him but now I understand that although the separate narrators are different (showing consecutive phases in Japan’s evolution), they are also the same.
Besides, he is not the only one who loves China above all places.. that also goes for Yoshiko Yamaguchi.
Embracing The China Lover?
So, did I love The China Lover?
I had a bit of a hard time getting into the story. Buruma takes his time explaining the setting of the first part (which was needed as the history of Manchukuo was completely unknown to me), introducing many characters — some of which have more than one name.* I’m not familiar with Chinese names and places and for the first time I understood a complaint I heard several times about David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’ve read quite some JLit and at the time I couldn’t accept that people had trouble keeping the Japanese characters and places apart… Now I can. ;)
But the most serious drawback of this section was that the narrator didn’t really sound Japanese or Asian to me.
* Just like Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Ri Koran, Li Xianglan, Shirley Yamaguchi and a literal translation of her Chinese name that I forgot. She’s even got more names that aren’t mentioned in the book!
So ‘the China part’ was giving me most trouble. But in the following pages I also felt at times that the author wanted to include everything into the story; even Idi Amin, Ghadaffi and Yasar Arafat got covered. Isn’t that a bit too much?
About the second part of the novel I like how you know immediately there’s an American speaking by the use of a military acronym in the first sentence (GOMIP = Geen Omgang Met Inlands Personeel). This character is probably closest to the author, who’s been an American in Asia for several years. That’s probably why the narrator of this section felt much more true.
In regard to the translation I was sometimes bothered when sentences were confusingly long and would have been better constructed in a different order. It may not be a major issue, but it disturbed my ‘flow’ and increased the already present flaw that the story was at times was hard to follow because of all the information to absorb. Next time I hope Buruma takes the trouble to narrate a story in Dutch himself. ;)
Considering my interests in Asia (specifically Japan), cinema, feminism and globalism, and the fact that the book is broad and quite entertaining, it seems strange I was not swept of my feet by it. So I guess reading another novel by Ian Buruma is not high on my priority list (though his book about the Theo van Gogh assassination piques my interest). But I came to learn new things about Asian and Western history and was triggered to look up facts about Manchukuo and Yoshiko Yamaguchi, now Yoshiko Ōtaka. Did you know she’ll turn 92 in 3 weeks?! During her active years she took up politics and was a member of parliament for 18 years.
What I am really excited about is the fact that my favourite movie director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, is said to be planning a feature film about the life of this many-faced woman. Now that’s something to look forward to!
The China Lover has been in my possession since its year of publication (2008) but I never got around to it, even though I stacked it on my readathon pile several times. Thanks to Chinoiseries’ Chinese Literature Challenge I finally picked it up!
I was surprised to find that a book with this title wasn’t really about China. Only the first section of the book is set in Manchuria, or Manchukuo at the time. It is an important section of the book but as I related above, I had a little trouble getting focussed with all the unfamiliar names, places, political and historical setting. I’m still not sure whether that (small) problem lies with me, or with the author. I have learnt something about a time and place I had no knowledge of whatsoever and feel wiser now. ;)
With this review I just managed to accomplish my goal for the Chinese Literature Challenge. Next time I’ll try to aim a little higher!
That I had started 2012 with a historic novel made it easier to enter the Historical Fiction Challenge on Historical Tapestry and Eclectic Reader Challenge on Book’d Out. It is not a genre I’m much used to, and being able to cross off one daunting book from the challenge list is always a good feeling.
As I mentioned with the Chinese Literature Challenge, I have learnt some interesting facts about historical people and places. I like that very much and look forward to reading more historical fiction. Although I wasn’t convinced that the first narrator was Asian, all the characters felt true to life — and alive. I could not differentiate between truth and fiction, which seems a good thing?
Now I’ve got one more historical novel to go for the ‘Out Of My Comfort Zone’ level in the Historical Fiction Challenge, and 11 more (other genres) as an Eclectic Reader…
To Be Continued!
A while back I buddy read Haruki Murakami’s collection of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman with Elsje, from Elsjelas. We decided to turn it into a buddy review as well — such a fun project! Elsje usually blogs in Dutch but she immediately agreed to do it in English because of Graasland readers! How cool is that?!
We hope you’ll enjoy our ‘interview’ as much as we did :)
Why did you read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman?
Elsje: Well, ever since I discovered Murakami, two years ago, I have been wanting to read his whole oeuvre. Not many authors have invoked this type of avidity in me, that’s for sure. And reading more only made it worse. So, this was my 10th Murakami… In addition, this was the most recent book published in Dutch (or any other language, for that matter). Last but not least, my friend Gnoe, also a true Murakami-addict, was looking for someone to read along with.
Gnoe: My reason for picking up Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is quite similar. Shortly after reading my first (and long-time favorite) Murakami The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in 2004, I decided to read all books by the master. Up until now I’ve read most of his novels, but I kept postponing ‘BWSW’ because I’m not really a short-story-grrl. A buddy read with Elsje was exactly what I needed! And it didn’t hurt either that March was Murakami Month at In Spring it is the Dawn ;)
What did you expect?
Elsje: After nine Murakami’s I pretty much knew what to expect: a little supernatural, complicated relationships, unobtainable love, desperate searches for lost loves, death by freak accidents and suicides, music and food. I always seem to like the Murakami novels better than his short stories: Murakami needs to elaborate to be able to hold my thoughts in his train of thoughts. So my expectations were not skyhigh.
Gnoe: Not being a fan of short stories I expected to be a little frustrated ;) Just getting into a story and then… oops! — The End. Hate that. Of course I hoped Murakami would surprise me with some enchanting writing… But I’d already read After the Quake (twice) and it didn’t impress me. Only Super-Frog Saves Tokyo lingers in my mind because it was weirdly sympathetic (or sympathetically weird).
Did Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman live up to your expectations?
Elsje: Absolutely, and more than that. I have to say that some of his most beautiful short stories can be found in this volume!
Gnoe: Well, having such low expectations Murakami could hardly disappoint. And indeed, I loved Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman! But it’s not just because of my anticipations. The stories are wonderful: little gems that are not too short at all. Of course I couldn’t (nor shouldn’t) read them in one sitting, so I had a great time savoring Murakami’s fantasies. Each had that magical touch of the master: lovely language and amazing atmosphere.
What was your favorite story?
Elsje: That one is hard to answer… Browsing the book to make a choice, I find myself absorbed anew… Impossible to choose just one. I believe my favorite stories are:
- Birthday Girl in which a girl experiences a very strange encounter on the evening of her twentieth birthday
- The Mirror in which a man finds himself looking at himself in a mirror. Creepy story!
- The Seventh Man in which a man tells a group of people how, when he was a boy, an enormous wave took the life of his best friend. The man felt guilty for years because he had not tried to save him.
- The Year of Spaghetti. A man obsessively cooks spaghetti. A whole year of loneliness. Interrupted only by his own thoughts. And then: a telephone call.
- Toni Takitani: a beautiful story about a man, the son of a jazzmusician, who looses his spendthrift wife in a car accident. The clothes she leaves behind form the basis of a strange advertisement: Toni pays a girl to wear his wife’s dresses, so that he can get used to her being dead.
- The Ice Man: a girl falls in love with, indeed, an iceman. Heartbreaking story!
- Where I’m Likely to Find It describes the search for a lost husband. And when I say lost, I mean lost: he disappeared in between floors, going from the apartment of his wife to that of his mother in law.
- The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day tells the story of a writer who has been told by his father that every man is granted only three true loves. Waiting for that love he is afraid to commit. When he meets Kyrie, he is stuck in one of his stories, a story about a kidney-shaped stone.
Gnoe: I just can’t choose one favorite story either… I liked many of them, but two really stand out (both already mentioned by Elsje): The Seventh Man and The Ice Man. Hm. There’s a striking similarity between those titles, what does that say about me?! LOL
Why did it become a favorite?
Elsje: These stories are little gems: they harbor all the Murakami ingredients, and, moreover, are complete stories. That which I found lacking in short story volumes I read earlier – elaboration – was more than sufficient in these stories. I was mesmerized by especially The Mirror, The Ice Man, Where I’m Likely to Find It and The Kidney-Shaped Stone.
Gnoe: Explaining why I rather like a story is always the hard part, but I’ll try to make sense. Beware of SPOILERS though! Elsje already gave a brief summary of the narratives in relation to previous question so I’ll just skip to my thoughts on The Seventh Man. It brings to mind early school camps & scouting outings, where the — older — supervisors (often teenagers or in their early twenties — like I said: old ;) told scary stories in the evening. The confession of ‘the seventh man’ gives me the chills, but rings true. It’s really heartbreaking, but heartwarming at the same time. I could imagine finding myself in his shoes: shock-reflexes triggering self-preservation but being paralyzed to the point where you can’t warn your ignorant friend for the approaching killer wave. I understood his feelings of guilt although we all very well know he cannot be held responsible. The image of the little boy swallowed by the sea is equally grim and beautiful at the same time. That scene is so vivid, it will stay with me forever. And I just listened to the seventh man telling his story — imagine what’s before his mind’s eye…
The Ice Man is just a beautiful love story: romantic and tragic at once, the way it should. In fiction I mean, in real life we’d like to live happily ever after ;) What I admire about this story is that I completely and totally believed in the existence of such a creature as an ice man — and in our protagonist’s unconditional love for him.
Fun fact: in his introduction Haruki Murakami says about these stories:
‘Ice Man‘, by the way, is based on a dream my wife had, while ‘The Seventh Man‘ is based on an idea that came to me when I was into surfing and was gazing out at the waves.
Explanation of the title
Elsje: The title refers to the first story, in which one of the friends of the antagonist writes a poem about a blind willow, of which the pollen, when conveyed to the ear of a girl make her fall asleep.
Trivia: I found a video on YouTube by a band named Willow, called Blind of which I don’t believe it was an inspiration for Murakami…
Gnoe: Well, there’s nothing much to add to that, is there? Unless I could elaborate on how this title reflects the complete collection of short stories, but I don’t have a clue ;) I would also like to muse a little on the meaning and importance of the poem — but again I’m tongue-beaten. I just can’t seem to put my finger on it; frustration finally setting in! ;) The story goes that the long, long roots of the blind willows go deep into the ground where there’s complete darkness. (Darkness: No Good, right?) Then there’s a medium — those little flies — that transfer the doomed pollen to innocent people. Nothing you can do about it: we all got that vulnerable spot (our ears). And then you fall asleep: lead a passive life (not living to the fullest). But what does it all mean? I’m stuck.
Anyway, the darkness reminds me of another Murakami novel: Dance Dance Dance, in which the Sheep Man (the medium between the darkness and the human world) tells the main character he has to dance to keep living. And there’s a connection to After Dark of course, in which a girl falls into a deep sleep as well. But hey, book connections is a question further along!
Elsje: I really cannot think why Murakami specifically brought these stories together in this volume.
Gnoe: I don’t believe there’s an overall theme linking the stories in this collection either, except for some general elements that keep recurring in Murakami’s books. I’ll talk about that relating to next topic. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman probably just consists of stories not previously published outside Japan.
Links with other Murakami stories/books
Elsje: Plenty links can be found. For instance
- Blind Willow reminded me of Norwegian Wood, in which the main character forms a kind of triangular friendship with a girl and a boy. The boy kills himself and the girl suffers as a result of that. In addition, the memory of the antagonist is jogged by a song he hears on a plane. In Blind Willow, a similar triangular friendship existed in the past, and entering the hospital with his cousin brings memories back about their friendship.
- Birthday Girl reminded me of A Wild Sheep Chase, probably because of the mysterious events in a hotel. Room 604… Is that the same room number?? No, the room number in A Wild Sheep Chase is 406… Remarkably similar, though!
- New York Mining Disaster stirred a faint memory of South of the Border. I think that is because the main character owns a bar.
- Man-Eating Cats: I believe Murakami used part of this story to construct Sputnik Sweetheart.
- Firefly: this story contains the same early morning ritual as Norwegian Wood. In addition, the roommate is again spic and span. I don’t remember if in Norwegian Wood this roommate was a geography student, but I think he was…
- The brilliant pianoplayer in Hanalei Bay could be based on the same idea as Reiko in Norwegian Wood?
- The Kidney-Shaped Stone reminded me somewhat of Thailand, one of the stories in After the Quake.
Gnoe: First I’d like to say that I find it amazing how much Elsje remembers of those books! I guess my taking ages to read the complete works of Murakami has its downside…
I was thinking more of book relations through recurring elements, like ears, food, storytelling, young people dying (early) / entering new life stages and (unrequited or lost) love. Of course there are many more but these come to mind thinking of Blind Willow. Elsje considered them her expectations! (I’m referring to her answer on our second question ;) A Murakami theme I actually missed in this book is the QUEST.
I’d like to highlight some of the elements because they seem important (or beautiful) in any way.
- Ear: you’ve already heard how ears play a special role in the title story. But it’s not just the poem: the antagonist’s cousin has a hearing problem that was caused by a baseball that hit his right ear as a child. Again an innocent victim hurt by external causes. And it wouldn’t be a Murakami without a special earlobe; in Birthday Girl.
- Food: Next to the obvious titles The Year of Spaghetti and Man-eating Cats there’s a disgusting story called Crabs (another vivid image I can’t erase from my mind but I’ll spare you that), which shows us a meaningful insight on the topic of food.
“You know, eating’s much more important than most people think. There comes a time in your life when you’ve just got to have something super-delicious. And when you’re standing at that crossroads your whole life can change, depending on which you go into — the good restaurant or the awful one. It’s like — do you fall on this side of the fence, or on the other side.”
Yeah well, nice observation but it doesn’t help us much, does it? ;)
- Death (young people dying):
“A man’s death at twenty-eight is as sad as the winter rain.” (New York Mining Disaster)
And a quote from Firefly:
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” (How zen!)
- Storytelling: plenty of storytellers in this book, but there’s a special narrator in Chance Traveller. The story begins as follows:
“The ‘I’ here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story. [..] The reason I’ve turned up here is that I thought it best to relate directly several so-called strange events that have happened to me. [..] Whenever I bring up these incidents, say, in a group discussion, I never get much of a reaction. Most people simply make some non-committal comment and it never goes anywhere. [..] At first I thought I was telling the story wrong, so one time I tried writing it down as an essay. I reckoned that if I did that, people would take it more seriously. But no one seemed to believe what I’d written. ‘You’ve made that up, right?’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. Since I’m a novelist people assume that anything I say or write must have an element of make-believe.”
How mean ;) The author made me feel guilty for not believing his story! And it brought to mind that other book in which a (failed) writer appears with a familiar sounding name: Mr Hiraku Makimura in Dance Dance Dance!
Elsje: Just a few suitable musical links to listen to while reading the book…
- Chance Traveller: Star crossed lovers – Duke Ellington and Barbados – Charlie Parker
- New York Mining Disaster: New York Mining Disaster – The Bee Gees
- Firefly: Dear heart – Henry Mancini
Gnoe: Thank you for the music!
Anything else to say?
We didn’t believe it at first but Elsje discovered that dabchicks really exist! From now on they’re my favorite waterbirds ;)
Elsje: Mr. Gnoe kindly lent me a book on Murakami, written by his English translator Jay Rubin: Haruki Murakami and the music of words. I really recommend this book to Murakami-adepts. Rubin addresses some of the things Gnoe and I have commented on above, in addition, he touches a whole lot of things we seem to have missed. For instance, when answering question no. 8, Gnoe confessed to feeling guilty for not believing one of the stories. Well, Gnoe, let me ease your guilt: according to Rubin, Murakami did make this story up after all!
Gnoe: That’s good to hear Elsje! But as you know there’s something else that keeps bothering me… It’s probably supposed to, but I’d like to hear people’s opinions anyway! Even though it can be considered a spoiler… What is the wish Birthday Girl made? I wanna know! Do you have any ideas?
Elsje: My volume is a first print, published by Uitgeverij Atlas in 2009. Translation into Dutch was executed by Elbrich Fennema. I am not sure wether she translated the stories directly from Japanese or from the English translation Gnoe read.
Gnoe: My paperback is a first print, published by Harvill Secker in 2006 (copyrighted 2005 by Haruki Murakami). The stories are variably translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin; both seem to have done the job very well!
Elsje: I love the way in which the Dutch translations have been styled. Always bicolored, with a tiny picture at the border between the two colors, signifying one of the main themes. The cover of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Jerry Bauer, depicts the eyes and nose of, indeed, a sleeping woman.
Gnoe: I prefer my English copy to Elsjes’s Dutch because it’s more poetic, suitable to the stories. There’s a Japanese woman sleeping underneath a persimmon branch. She lying on a soft, white underground — obviously a mattress when you take a close look, but it evokes the image of snow. The woman is wearing a spring/summer dress or nightgown, so she has definitely been sleeping for quite some time! In Buddhism the persimmon stands for transformation. The picture is a combination of a modern photograph and a detail of the early nineteenth century painting Persimmon on Tree by Sakai Hoitsu. Yep, I like it ;) The book has a white background with lettering in silver, black and several reds — colors that ‘we’ (Western people) associate with Japan. A subtle detail is that the author name is embossed, not the title (as in the thriller genre).
Well, that’s a long description of something you can largely see for yourself at the beginning of this post ;) The combination of these colors on a white background is visible in the designs of other Murakami editions from the same publisher. Of course it’s a smart move to make them look like a ‘series’ because what bibliophile wouldn’t want to show of his collection of books by Murakami? It would be fun to compare several different Murakami ‘series’ someday! By the way: did you know there’s a group on Flickr with pictures of Murakami book covers?
Gnoe: Hey Elsje, now that our buddy review is ready — let’s make plans for a follow-up to see the Tony Takitani movie?!
Elsje: I think that would be an excellent idea! In addition we could buddyread 1Q84 which appears in print next week… #hinthint
Yep: real fans, that’s what we are ;)
March was Murakami Month. 31 days of special attention for the famous & well-loved author Haruki Murakami. What a good idea for a Hello Japan mini challenge!
This month’s task is to read, or otherwise experience Haruki Murakami’s work.
I have already read a LOT of Murakami’s books, so I decided not to join in the The Wind-up Bird Chronicle read-along, nor the Japanese Literature Book Group choice of A Wild Sheep Chase & Dance, Dance, Dance. But of course I could not let March pass without any Murakami on my plate! And since I don’t get much reading done these days, I have only read Murakami this month! Next to Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book read-along that is…
First I picked Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman of the shelf; a collection of Murakami tales. I’m not really a short-story-grrl: I like to dig into a book and need some time to get acquainted with (get a feel for) the characters. My problem with short stories and novella’s is that they seem to be over before they begin :\ But I do want to read the complete works of Murakami, so ‘Blind Willow’ became a buddy read with Elsje. She finished it a while ago whereas I’m still only half way! Is it that bad??? No, not at all ;) I like the characters and the magical atmosphere, so I am really enjoying myself. It’s also nice that I can (often) finish a story in one sitting. But the book does not call out to me to come and read NOW, the way a pageturner does.
So. To complete my mission I could have chosen to write a review of just one of the stories. Or to rent the Tony Takitani dvd again. But nooooo. I did something else I want to tell you about: I reread another, special edition of short stories by Haruki Murakami! It’s called Een stoomfluit midden in de nacht and was a 2006-2007 New Year’s gift of a group of Dutch publishers. Not for sale :) My copy was generously given to me by maupi, who came by it through her work as a translator.
Next to the title story Yonaka no kiteki ni tsuite (originally published in 1995), this publication contains two other stories: Kreta Kanō (Kanō Kureta, 1993) and De tweeling en het verzonken continent (Futago to shinzunda tairiku, 1985). It’s a real scoop because these stories have never before been translated into a foreign language! ^_^
So I now stand for the great task to translate the titles in English — from Dutch, because I don’t read Japanese LOL. The name of the book means literally: A Steam Whistle in the Middle of the Night. Maybe someone can give a hint whether it is the same in Japanese?
* * * Note: the rest of this post contains spoilers! * * *
The story A Steam Whistle in the Middle of the Night is REALLY short: only 3 pages. But it’s the most beautiful of the lot, and maybe that’s why it is also the title of the book; even though it’s the closing story. It’s a heartwarming narrative of a boy expressing his love for a girl. To truly feel the extent of it, she needs to understand first how awful, absolutely gruesome it is to wake up alone in the middle of the night, far from reality. Like being locked up in an iron coffin that has sunk to the bottom of a deep sea — running out of oxygen. The only thing that can bring you back is the faraway sound of a steam whistle. That’s how much he loves her.
Aw.. The image of a steam whistle in the night recalled my childhood, lying in bed on those rare nights of extreme fog.
The first story of A Steam Whistle in the Middle of the Night is Kreta Kanō. Those of you who have read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle will immediately recognize the name :) Kreta works for her Sister, Malta Kanō, who listens to the sounds of body fluids to solve people’s problems. Kreta’s got a huge problem too… She is so irresistible to men that once they lay their eyes on her, they need to possess her: assault being the result. All men. Malta says it’s because her water is out of synch with her body. That’s why men are attracted to her — like the tides, I guess. It’s a fascinating story, set after her adventures in ‘Wind-up Bird’. Kreta also brought to mind the woman in Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers…
The ‘longest’ story in this 61 page booklet is called The Twins and the Sunken Continent (again my translation is very literal so I’m open to improvement :) I should read it for a third time because it’s a typical Murakami, making me wonder what the hell it’s all about. There are two mysterious twin sisters (who are also supposed to appear in his novel Pinball, 1973; a book I unfortunately still lack!), a glass club in Roppongi, weird dreams and a missing colleague called Noboru Watanabe — again a name that may sound familiar. In an early story that was later made into The Wind-up Bird Chronicle both the missing cat and the protagonist’s brother-in-law bear that name. In the novel they were renamed to Noboru Wataya. It is said that in real life Haruki Murakami has a very good friend called Noboru Watanabe ;)
Een stoomfluit in het midden van de nacht is a real gem to have. It even makes me reread – and read once again; something I normally just don’t do.
So as you can probably tell, I’ve had a great Murakami March!
I hope I’ve made you join in the fun a bit?!
* All stories in Een stoomfluit midden in de nacht are translated from Japanese by Jacques Westerhoven, © 2003.
Earlier I’ve posted some of my thoughts on A Wild Sheep Chase on Graasland (in Dutch).
I’m not Truman Capote so I’m not going to take as long as he did to write his book In Cold Blood and ponder 7 years over a review. Let’s just get it over with.
In Cold Blood is a faction novel: fiction based on facts. It tells the story of a horrible murder that happened in Holcomb, Kansas, on the night of Friday 13th 1959. Is that where our superstition about Friday 13th originates from? (No, it’s not.) That night, the much loved Clutter family was slaughtered in cold blood by two young man that had met in jail: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The book concentrates on the events leading up to the killing, the quest to find the murderers, their trial(s) and eventually their execution.
I’ve had the book on my shelf ever since I saw the biopic Capote in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an awesome leading role as the author. But I never picked it up for fear of being bored… Because of the movie I already knew what had happened, see. But I’m glad I no longer procrastinated! I buddy read it with the Boekgrrls in November 2009; exactly 50 years after the crime. And it was quite a powerful experience.
Knowing about the case was no problem at all: the events are revealed at the beginning of the story. That’s partly what’s good about the book: although the outcome is public knowledge, it is still interesting to read. Most times… it is a bit slow in some parts as well.
I admire how Capote skips around the actual murder for quite some time; getting us to know Herb Clutter, his wife Bonny, daughter Nancy and son Kenyon. Meeting Dick and Perry ‘warming up’ with some petty crimes. The author guides us through the days preceding and following the massacre, showing us the town and its people, following the detectives that are hunting down the killers. And then finally, the moment of horror.
In Cold Blood is supposed to be the first in a genre that is now well-known: ‘true crime fiction’. Capote was looking for inspiration as a writer when he read a small newspaper article about the case in Holcomb. It took him 5 years of ‘investigating’ and another 2 to finish the book. Its suggests to be factual (presenting letters, reports etc.), so many of the people involved criticized him for not being completely true to the case. Capote himself replied that it was obviously a novel = fiction.
An interesting question is why Capote was so immensely fascinated by this case that he worked on it for so many years. I recall from the movie that the author seemed extremely ‘attracted’ by the perpetrators, especially Perry. And the weird thing is that even I felt sorry for him at times — or even sympathy, no matter that he was such a ruthless killer. On of the strongest scenes in the book is Perry’s confession to KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) officer Albert Dewey.
*** spoiler alert *** The suggestion that Perry Smith would have suffered from schizophrenia is pretty convincing. Unfortunately for him at that time in Kansas state the Durham rule was not yet in practice. This act decrees that “an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act is the product of mental disease or mental defect“. I must say that I’m against the taking of any life, which means I do not approve of the death penalty in any case – not even in a horrible crime like this.
Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee accompanied him to the Midwest as his research assistent. I recently read her most acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird which she wrote a few years after the Holcomb tragedy. It has nothing to do with this case, but it does deal with legislation and justice, telling the story of a murder courtcase in Alabama. Capote is depicted in the book as the boy Dill. But Lee is never mentioned in Capote’s In Cold Blood.
BTW from the movie Capote I had gotten the impression that the author himself would play a role in his book as well, which he does not…
Perry’s childhood during the Great Depression, his family travelling the country in search of work, also brings to mind John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I had read just before In Cold Blood:
‘Tex John Smith Family picking berries in Oregon. 1933’ Was the caption under a snapshot of four barefooted children wearing overalls and cranky, uniformly fatigued expressions. Berries or stale bread soaked in sweet condensed milk was often all they had to eat. [His sister] Barbara Johnson remembered that once the family had lived for days on rotten bananas, and that, as a result, Perry had got colic; he had screamed all night, while Bobo, as Barbara was called, wept for fear he was dying. [p.177]
Because of some quotes about the role of women, the story also made me think of the October Boekgrrls’ buddy read: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which is set in fifties as well. Since I’m participating in the Women Unbound challenge, I’ll give this topic its own heading.
The role of women
Bonny Clutter was a very troubled housewife (according to this book = according to Capote? The people in the village? Her family?). Bonny herself believed that a pinched nerve was the cause of her problems. But to the contemporary reader it is obvious that she was depressed; which might be postnatal depression as is suggested in the book, but I rather believe her unfulfilling everyday life must have amplified it. In the past she had been living in Wichita for 2 weeks, having her own apartment and a job. Doctor’s orders. And it seemed to help…
[..] but she had liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment’s therapeutic value. [p.26]
So she turned into a woman that:
[..] had reduced her voice to a single tone, that of apology, and her personality to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease. [p.23]
Then there’s Nancy’s attitude to her father Herb Clutter.
‘[..] Can’t you make your father understand that?’ No, she could not. ‘Because,’ as she explained it to Susan, ‘whenever I start to say something, he looks at me as though I must not love him. Or as though I love him less. And suddenly I’m tongue-tied; I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.‘ [p.19]
I don’t have any intelligent thoughts about this but I do think it says a lot about the way women wore culturally imposed and emotional straitjackets at the time. It seems to have been engraved in our x-chromosomes — and the leftovers sometimes pop-up… Because although it’s 50 years later and I’ve been raised by a feminist mom, I’m embarrassed to say that the feelings described are not completely unfamiliar to me. (Can I get another Honest Scrap Award now, please? ;)
Other thoughts on the book…
I did think the Clutters were a bit too good to be true — except for poor Bonny of course, who was such a troubled, incompetent mother & wife :\
If I had not known the book was based on facts and written relatively short after the real events, I would have sworn to have come upon an anachronism:
[..] Nancy had cleaned up, put all the dishes in the dish-washer, [..] [p.49]
OMG my well-to-do grandparents (or should I say my grandma?) first got a washing machine about a whole decade later! Let alone I would know anyone who had a dish-washer at that time… But hey, I wasn’t born yet either ;)
In Cold Blood has made such an impression that I was reminded of it during several movies I saw shortly after. That happened because of the schizophrenia in the horror movie Bug and the bloody massacre in Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance.
But it doesn’t end here; the bookgroup read will result in a film follow-up real soon! Some Boekgrrls are coming over to watch the 1967 film In Cold Blood with me. It got 8 stars in the Internet Movie Databse so I’m having no worries about being bored because I already know the story ;)
Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort. [p.7]
The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase no Aishita Suushiki) is a novel by Yoko Ogawa about a single mother who comes to work as a housekeeper for a former mathematics teacher whose short time memory lasts for only 80 minutes — needing multiple post-it notes pinned to his suit to help him remember things. Each day it’s like meeting eachother for the first time; still they grow close.
Names are not relevant in such a situation, basic properties are. So it’s just ‘the Housekeeper’ and her 10 year old son ‘Root’, nicknamed by the Professor because his head is flattened like the square root sign: √. Just like characters of a mathematical puzzle that need to be named to be able to calculate with them.
It’s a charming, heartwarming story about family bonding between people that are not related. I was afraid I would be bored because I’m not particularly interested in mathematics… Nor do I know anything about baseball, which appeared to be another main subject of the book :-o But I had no problem at all enjoying this lovely story. I actually learned something ;) About ‘amicable numbers’ and ‘twin primes’ for example. You can look them up in Wikipedia but it’s much more fun to read this book! It probably explains it better too ;)
Being a museumgrrl I also liked the concept of collecting baseball cards. Though I didn’t learn much about it ;) But something I did come to know more about through the baseball topic, are Devas. I looked them up after reading the following depiction of a famous Japanese baseball player ‘in the field’.
Enatsu on the mound, his fierce stance like a Deva King guarding a temple. [p.81]
Deva king, picture courtesy of Aschaf
Devas are Buddhist deities — those angry looking red giants that you must have seen somewhere, sometime. These temple guardians ward off evil = anything that threatens Buddhism. The biggest museum in The Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum (where Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch is on display), recently acquired two of these statues originating from the 14th century Iwayaji temple in Shimane, that was restored in 1839. Research will determine the exact date of these ‘heavenly generals’ (Niō).* When the Rijksmuseum reopens after many years of building activities — hopefully in 2013 — they will flank the entrance of the new Asian Pavilion.
Although The Housekeeper and the Professor is (obviously) about living in the present, the story is constructed of memories from the housekeeper. She has a gentle way of telling, so when the story unfolds you know something is about to happen, but there’s no real shock effect.
Because of the Professor’s loss of memory and the sticky notes that aid him, this book of course strongly reminds of the fascinating movie Memento. Except in the film Guy Pearce relies on tattoos — and it’s not a kind story like The Housekeeper… But the book also reminded me of another very good movie: Goodbye Lenin, in which a son pretends their hometown East Berlin is still communist when his mother awakens from a long coma in 1990. The Professor’s memory ends in 1975, the year he had his accident, so the Housekeeper and her son often act as if no time has passed as well.
Now, how do you like my bookmark with a Japanese housekeeper on the left? It’s a print from around 1795 by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), called Servant Naniwa O-Hisa carrying a cup of tea and a smoker’s set. Would you like to have one just like it? I bought a duplicate to give away! Just comment on this post telling me if you know of any more GOOD movies about memory, numbers, mathematics or science (you get the picture). The giveaway ends on Friday 5th of February and is open to all!
I read The Housekeeper and the Professor for the Japanese Literature Book Group (discussion post) and as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge and 3rd What’s in a Name challenge (category ‘title’). It was a fine story to begin the year with.
* As far as I’ve been able to figure out, Niō and Deva kings are (almost) the same kind of temple guardians. But I’m open to correction!
This week I could no longer keep myself from joining the Graphic Novel Challenge as an Intermediate, which means I need to read 3-10 comic books before January 1st. It was a logical step because I had just finished Mutts earlier in the week (short review to be added later on) and I was also really interested in Read All Over’s mini challenge about reading the graphic version of a classic.
So I picked up Dick Matena’s illustrated version of Gerard Reve’s De avonden (The Evenings) at the library; 4 volumes in total. So far I’ve only read part 1 — and I think that might be enough…
De avonden: een winterverhaal (The Evenings: a Winter Story) is a Dutch 1947 classic by Gerard Reve (1923-2006), one of The Grand Threesome of Dutch postwar authors. It’s his most famous work, that is known by all generations that lived during and since the forties. The novel describes the last 10 days of 1946 from the perspective of Frits Egters, an office clerq (not a job he’s proud of). It’s a gloomy depiction of a bourgeois existence — and it shocked many people at the time because of its bleakness. And it still does. Then again, the final paragraph of the The Evenings is considered the best prose of Dutch 20th century literature:
Hij zoog de borst vol adem en stapte in bed. ‘Het is gezien,’ mompelde hij, ‘het is niet onopgemerkt gebleven.’ Hij strekte zich uit en viel in een diepe slaap.
I’m afraid I don’t have any translational skills but I’ll give it a try:
He took a deep breath and got into bed. “It was seen,” he muttered, “it hasn’t gone unnoticed.” He stretched out and fell into a deep sleep.
In 2001 Dick Matena converted The Evenings into an unabridged illustrated story for a Dutch newspaper, Het Parool. The graphic novel which was published in 2003-2004. As you can see it’s done in (indian?) ink; in different tones of grey instead of black and white pictures full of contrast. Almost sepia, giving it an ancient feeling ;) But I have no idea if the style fits 1940’s comics; anyone can comment on that?
Anyway, it looks quite sombre, matching the story. The characters’ features aren’t very sharp either. As far as I’m concerned the artwork doesn’t add anything to the narrative; actually I think I’d rather read the original book. One thing I did like though was that Frits Egters is about the same age as my father was at the time; so clothes, haircut, etc. are quite familiar from photo’s ;) But I didn’t feel any connection with the story, nor the personae. Of course maybe I’m not supposed to ;) But it should be fun to read, not a chore.
Which brings me to the reason I picked up this classic… My 2007 personal reading challenge consisted of reading all books on the shortlist for the election of the Best Dutch Book (ever). I skipped The Evenings because I thought I had already read it many years ago. Now I’m not too sure anymore… It might be that I just saw the movie? reading the ‘picture book’ seemed a good alternative. But now that I’ve finished part 1, I don’t feel like spending any more precious reading time on the following 3 volumes. Sorry!
Even worse: Dick Matena is a well-known ilustrator and I considered reading his version of Willem Elsschot’s 1933 classic Kaas (Cheese). But now that I’ve concluded I don’t particularly like Matena’s style I think I’ll pass. But you never know… Last year I wouldn’t have believed that I would be reading so many (ahem) graphic novels by now!
Other Bookish things
But graphic novels weren’t the only bookish thing grabbing my attention this week. I’ve also written a wrap-up post for the 2009 Classics challenge — finally. The one for last year’s What’s in a Name Challenge is still on my to-do list and in only a few days I will need to add another because the 3rd Japanese Literature Challenge ends next Saturday!
Now I need to leave it at this because I really should begin writing my review for The Housekeeper and the Professor. Discussion at the Japanese Literature Book Group starts tomorrow! But you might want to know what book I’m currently reading: The Rapture by Liz Jensen. It is GREAT!
Who doesn’t know this famous picture of a Migrant Mother of the American Dust Bowl? It could be the icon of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in the autumn of 2009; 60 years after its publication date (1939), which was also the year that my mother was born. It came to be my favourite read of 2009 — something I would never have expected!
Set during the Great Depression preceding World War II, the novel focuses on the Joad family, farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. Because of their hopeless situation they set out for ‘The Promised Land’ of California, along with thousands of other Okies in search of land, jobs and dignity.
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the grey lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. [p.108]
This quote vividly evokes the story of the east to west migration in the US during the Great Depression. The paragraph above is followed by an enumeration of places along the road and it strongly brought to mind the 1946 song that I came to know decades later, thanks to one of the best pop groups of my teenage years, Depeche Mode: Route 66.
The Grapes of Wrath was banned (and even burned) several times. Though I absolutely not agree with it, of course not — the very idea, I can understand see how that happened: there’s a lot of swearing, violence and carnal stuff in it, plus an apostate preacher, Jim Casy. I read the book in Banned Books Week — and what did I think of it?
Well, I had a hard time getting into it. The paperback has a small font on thin pages so it reveals itself to be quite a chunker when you open it for the first time. The spoken language needs a bit of getting used to. But my biggest problem was that the chapters alternate between the (interesting) story of the Joad family and some sort of epic story telling that I couldn’t figure out — and bored me a little at first. Was it the (ex-)preacher preaching? Sort of a ancient Greek choir commenting on events? An omnipresent character? Biblical, mythological? Eventually I decided it must be the oral tradition of history — I could picture the poor travelers meeting around a camp fire at night; neighbours and friends for just a short time.
And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. [p.259]
But after a while the story really got under my skin. It made a huge impression that still lasts, even after a few months. I believe it is a great truth that the less people own, the more they’re willing to share. That reminds me of a television program in Holland about hospitality ;)
The attitude of Western Americans was often repulsive.
Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and so miserable… They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas. [p.203]
It almost made me swear out loud.
But of course, those people were scared too…
I copied whole pages in my notebook because I wanted to remember them. Better buy a copy of my own eh? Since this one was a Random Act of Bookcrossing Kindness, sent to me by boekenxnl. I’ll pass it along as soon as I’ve finished writing this review!
Now, on a side note: I was wondering who made the cover of this 1970 Penguin Modern Classic edition. I couldn’t find it in the book details, nor anywhere on the web. What I coincidence that I went to an exhibition on Edward Hopper and his contemporaries in the Rotterdam Kunsthal, where I came face to face with a painting by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) that immediately reminded me of the cover image! Because of the style, and of its subject: Social Realism (or social-documentary). The exhibition note explained that the artist used to make a photo first, which he later developed into a graphic work.
I figured it would be very appropriate to use a work of art by Shahn as a book cover for The Grapes of Wrath, because during the Great Depression he traveled and documented the American south alongside photographers like (among others) Dorothea Lange, who made the picture of a Migrant Mother that you saw at the beginning of this post. What a great discovery to make!
You can guess how proud I was of myself — until I accidentally found out that the blurb on the back mentioned that “it is a detail of a poster by”… Ben Shahn. DÔH. Well, I would like to say in my own defense that I usually never read the back cover because I want to know as little as possible about a book in advance. And in the end I just forgot. But yes, I admit I must be the dumbest person in the whole wide universe. Still, it’s fun to have figured it out all by myself ;)
Except for Hopper’s painting Railroad Sunset the rest of the exhibition actually was a bit of a disappointment. An Edward Hopper expo is no Hopper expo when his most famous painting Nighthawks isn’t there. But of course that picture doesn’t belong to the Whitney Museum of American Art, the institution that put the show together with works out of its own collection.
Back to The Grapes of Wrath. A minor point of critique is that the women in the story are horribly subdue. The following quote doesn’t show that for a 100%, but it made me go BWAAAGH ;)
Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great if their men were whole. [p.7]
But I guess some ‘male dominance’ was normal in those times (& that place) and so Steinbeck is being realistic. But then he talks about Jule, who’s partly Native American:
Tom and Willie and Jule the half-breed sat on the edge of the dance floor and swung their feet. [p.327]
Each time Jule makes an appearance this ‘half-breed’ fact is mentioned. That irritated me — and I got the feeling it wasn’t because Steinbeck happened to be such a great observer, but maybe because that was how he approached Amerindians himself. Or am I terribly wrong??
Thirdly, the poor migrants were at times too good to be true. But these things aside: I am SO glad that I have read this classic!
Btw if you’re interested: I stumbled upon a (really) short article about one of the daughters of the Migrant Mother…
I am a cat. As yet I have no name. [p.5]
I started reading I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko dearu) during the 24 hour read-a-thon and finished part 1 on October 31st. I’m reading this classic from 1905-1906 for the Japanese Literature Read-along. I wish I had the edition shown on Wikipedia, because I absolutely love that cover! But the picture on my ‘complete edition’ resembles my own cat Juno, so I am happy with that as well :)
What do I think of the book so far? Unfortunately I read the preface first, so there wasn’t much to find out for myself :\ This way I knew beforehand that the first chapter had been written as a short story, to be published in the journal Hototogisu. Originally it was not meant to be a book at all! But one of the the magazine editors persuaded the author to expand it into a novel because of its success.
I’ll let the introduction introduce the story ;)
[..] though Sōseki’s total book is held together by the continuing theme of a nameless cat’s observations of upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji period, the essence of the book resides in the humor and sardonic truth of those various observations, not in the development of the story.
The preface also gave away that the voice of the cat gets more and more human. I recognized that in the following quote from the 3rd (and last) chapter of volume 1:
The more that humans show me sympathy, the more I am inclined to forget that I am a cat. Feeling that I am now closer to humans than to cats, the idea of rallying my own race in an effort to wrest supremacy from the bipeds no longer has the least appeal. [..] Moreover, I have developed, indeed evolved, to such an extent that there are now times when I think of myself as just another human in the human world.
Reading that, a relation to the song I Am a Kitten became apparent. Momus wrote the piece of music originally in French for the Japanese pop star Kahimi Karie. The booklet of his 20 Vodka Jellies cd even acknowledges that it owes something to this “excellent novel”.
The song is about a cat falling in love with a human being (= impossible love). I don’t think that’s going to happen in Natsume’s story, but you never know ;) Here’s Momus singing I Am a Kitten (in English), while you read along. We’ll save Kahimi’s performance for another time ;)
And though I’d love to be loved
The gods ordained it that
You were made a human being
And I turned out a cat
(I am a kitten)
Back to the novel. I’m not really sure what to think of it. Of course it’s interesting to read about Japanese intellectuals and their surroundings in early 20th century — seen through the eyes of a cat. But how realistic is it? And what is there to ‘learn’ about Japan it if I can’t determine that? Okay, I admit to not having a taste for satire. And yes, I’m embarrased to say so; it’s like confessing to not having a sense of humor — in other words being a sourpuss :\
Anywho. Aside from the above, I am not able to identify with the cat, even though it is portrayed lifelike (that is to say: the way we humans perceive feline characters). And this time it can’t be designated my shortcoming because in Barbara Gowdy’s book The White Bone I actually imagined I was the elephant Mud.
Am I not enjoying the read-along of I Am a Cat? Oh yes I am! :)
I really had to laugh about a scene where ‘the cat’ — I am going to baptize it Neko here and now — gets its jaw stuck in a rice cake. I transcribed part of it for a mini challenge in the 24 hour read-a-thon, but it actually goes on for several pages and it is very evocative.
I guess this novel, for me, is about cherishing specific quotes; I’ve jotted many down in my notebook. In my blogpost about the graphic novel Coraline I have already talked about reading synchronisity on the basis of some similar quotes. But I was also affected by a scene in which ‘Neko’ finds Rickshaw Blacky sunbathing in his garden. This part reminded me very much of our belated tomcat Jumbo (who was HUGE and named Jumbo because of that by the animal shelter when he was only a few weeks old). He was a shy guy btw, not some bully like the cat of the rickshaw owner ;)
[..] and there I saw an enormous cat fast asleep on a bed of withered chrysanthemums, which his weight had flattened down. [..] there he was, stretched out at full length and snoring loudly. I was amazed at the daring courage that permitted him, a tresspasser, to sleep so unconcernedly in someone else’s garden. He was a pure black cat. The sun of earliest afternoon was pouring its most brilliant rays upon him, and it seemed as invisible flames were blazing out from his glossy fur. He had a magnificent physique; the physique, one might say, of the Emperor of Catdom. [p.9-10]
In conclusion I just think the cat(s) in the story interest me, and not so much the storylines about the people. Yes, I am a cat person :)
For surely even humans will not flourish forever. I think it best to wait in patience for the Day of the Cats. [p.7]
Part 2 of I Am a Cat needs to be read (and reviewed) before December 15th and the final part in the middle of January 2010. To be continued…
Note: I had a hard time deciding whether I should write Natsume Sōseki or Sōseki Natsume. The Western way would be Sōseki Natsume, since Natsume is the writer’s last name. But the Japanese put their family names first. In the end I considered decisive that 1) in my museum profession author and creator names are usually documented in the way the person presents him-/herself publicly and 2) that is probably also why I know the author by the name Natsume Sōseki best myself.
During Dewey’s 24 hour Read-a-Thon I read Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline as a graphic novel (adapted by P. Craig Russell). Technically it might not have been the first graphic novel I’ve read, but it certainly was the first one I bought myself, knowing it to be one!
About 15 years ago, shortly after I had met Mr Gnoe, I read the Pulitzer Prize winning work by Art Spiegelman: Maus, a Survivor’s Tale — an autobiographical story about Jews (depicted as mouses) surviving the World War II Holocaust. At that time I also got acquainted with the (just as grim) comic books of Tardi. Both I did not consider to be graphic novels at the time, because the term seems to be in in vogue only since the last few years.
So what is a graphic novel exactly? Well, there’s no real consensus about that :) Some consider it to be a posh term for all kinds of comic books provided they’re bound in a durable format like printed books, others believe there’s a distinction in artistic quality (which of course is a subjective matter).
Neil Gaiman himself — yes, I will get back to Coraline in a short while — considers it to be nothing more than a marketing term, a sales category.
[..] there’s no meaningful difference. For some reason the term “big thick collected or original comic published in book form” has never really caught on, while “Graphic Novel” did.
Myself, I am still in doubt whether or not to distinguish graphic novels from ‘ordinary’ comics. It just doesn’t feel right to call the collected Best of Mutts (Patrick McDonnell), that I bought along with Coraline, a graphic novel as well — even though it is a beautiful hardcover ‘coffee table book‘. I think I would like to hold on to the idea that a graphic novel is a story or collection of short stories in comic format (a balanced combination of narrative art and dialog or explanatory text), that holds something more than plain, popular entertainment. Like: could it be a novel without the image art? Does the story have some sustenance? I know I’m walking on thin ice here ;)
Do you have an opinion about graphic novels?
Back to Coraline now. It’s the fantasy/horror story of a girl moving with her family to a huge house that’s divided into four apartments. Exploring the house, Coraline finds a door into an ‘other world’, where her ‘other mother and father’ live. These parents tempt her with things that are all better than at her real home, because they want her to stay.
Doesn’t that immediately make you think of Alice in Wonderland? It does even more when you read about the neighbours persisting in mispronouncing Coraline’s name as Caroline in the first pages (think Lewis Caroll). It’s been too long since I read about Alice’s adventures (I must have been a child of about 9), but it would be fun to compare the stories.
Another book Coraline reminded me of is the classic Japanese novel I was reading for the read-a-thon as well: I Am a Cat, by Natsume Sōseki (from 1905). It begins as follows:
“I am a cat. As yet I have no name.” (p.5)
And here’s when Coraline meets a cat at the new property (p.41):
And it explains to us on the same page:
“Now, you people have names because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”
Or, when Coraline first sees the cat on ‘the other side’ (p.39):
Cats naturally being wise, it has a theory about it on the next page (p.40):
“You people are spread all over the place. Cats on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”
Back to I Am a Cat:
“Cats are truly simple. If we want to eat, we eat; if we want to sleep, we sleep;” (p.26)
I guess the fact that Coraline reminded me of these classics helps in making it more of a reading experience than simple entertainment. Although it was also just plain fun to read Coraline ;)
Like Maus, the graphic adaptation of Coraline by Russell has won an important prize: the 2009 Eisner Award (an ‘Oscar’ for comics) in the category of Best Publication for T(w)eens. Er.. that’s not my age group! And since I’ve grown up I don’t really like reading YA or children’s books. But it didn’t bother me now ;) At least it’s obvious that a targeted audience of adults is not a condition for being called a graphic novel (as some argue).
Russell, who’s some sort of god in the graphic novel world, says about his adaptations:
“The appeal of an adaptation is in starting a piece secure that there’s literary worth in the source material. If it fails, I can’t blame it on that. I’ve always been fascinated by the challenge , the puzzle-solving challenge of taking a piece apart line by line and reassembling it into an entirely different art form.
[..] It’s the beautiful writing. It also helps that Neil has a huge following so I know all the effort I put into the work will actually be seen. I’ve done plenty of work that left me feeling I’d thrown it down a well. Doesn’t happen with Neil’s stories.”
I bought my comics for the read-a-thon following advice from veteran participants. Next to Coraline and The Best of Mutts I ended up with Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi. But during my 24 hours of reading I only got to read Coraline! Which indeed made a nice change of palate. And as you notice I’ve come to learn some things about the graphic novel world at the same time ;)
Now that I’ve crawled out of my familiar reading nook I might also try one of Gaiman’s actual fantasy books — next year. For the rest of 2009 there’s something else to consider: with my other graphic books on Mt. TBR I might join the Graphic Novels Challenge… I would only need to decide on two more before December 31st to make the minor level of six books. Why not reread Maus volumes I & II?
Yay, I have finished my first book! De pianoman, by Bernlef. I liked it, but as I said in my previous update post I didn’t get to concentrate as much I should :( I hope that will get better with my next read: I am a cat by Natsume Soseki. I need to review it for the Japanese readalong, so I’d better know what it’s about!
The Piano Man
The Piano Man is fiction based on a true story of a man washing ashore in Sheerness in 2005. Because of his taciturnity, the authorities couldn’t identify him for quite some time. Once identified as the German Andreas Grassl, he was put on a plane home.
The fictional Piano Man is a Dutchman named Thomas Boender, who prefers to keep silent because his upbringing in the northern part of my country never taught him to speak his mind very well. Like Andreas Grassl he’s lower-class and homosexual. Not being good with words, he is rather clever at playing the piano (taught to him by his school teacher). That’s why the English call him Piano Man. The book is about him ending up in Sheerness — and getting back home. Keeping all thoughts for themselves makes people heavy, talking makes you (feel) lighter.
Bernlef is fascinated by language. Even his pseudonym has something to do with it: he named himself after a 8th century, blind lyrical poet from Friesland (in the upper part of The Netherlands).
16:30 – 19:00
Currently reading: I am a cat (starting with the first chapter at page 3)
Progress since last update
Time read: 0 hrs 54 mins
Amount of pages: 44 pages
Books finished: 1 book (De pianoman)
Mini-challenges I participated in: 1 (Bart’s Title challenge)
Blogging time: hard to keep track of… So I won’t bother you with it anymore.