Friday, 30 January 2015

J-Lit Giants: 17 - Keigo Higashino

With January in Japan fast coming to an end, we just have time for one more writer to be inducted into the J-Lit Giants pantheon, and today's author is a more contemporary choice.  I'm not a huge fan of crime fiction, but Kim Forrester, curator of the Reading Matters blog, is, and in this piece she explains why Keigo Higashino deserves his place in our Hall of Fame :)

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If you think crime novels are generally formulaic whodunits, then you probably haven’t read Japanese writer Keigo Higashino.

Arguably Japan’s biggest selling crime novelist, Higashino does not follow the normal conventions of the genre. Like his Scandinavian counterparts, he tends to focus on the bigger picture: he’s less concerned with who did it, but how they did it, why they did it and whether they’ll get away with it. His fast-paced narratives, written in stripped back, practically anorexic prose, also include a dizzying number of twists and turns, so it becomes simply impossible to guess what is going to happen next.

Only last month, a major online bookstore in South Korea — where he is widely translated — named him as the year’s top writer based on volume of books sold and votes by readers. But in the English-speaking world he’s far less well known… though that is changing.

Higashino was born in Osaka on 4 February 1958 (he’ll celebrate his 57th birthday next month). He started writing novels in his spare time while working as an engineer at an automotive components manufacturer. According to Wikipedia, he quit his day job in 1985, after he won the annual Edogawa Rampo Award for his unpublished novel Hōkago (which has never been translated into English). He was just 27 — and a whole new career had opened up for him.

But it took about a decade for his novels to start garnering significant attention — and sales. After he won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1998 for his novel Naoko, every other novel since then has been a bestseller. When he won the coveted Naoki Prize in 2006 for The Devotion of Suspect X, he really hit the big time: as of February 2012, the book has sold 2.7 million copies in Japan alone. It was the first of his novels to be translated into English and it was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2012.

Higashino served as the 13th President of Mystery Writers of Japan from 2009 to 2013 — and kept churning out the stories. He’s incredibly prolific, penning up to two novels per year. He has more than 50 novels to his name, more than 10 short story collections and several children’s books — yet just four of his books have been translated into English.

He’s best known for his Detective Galileo series — which includes Devotion of Suspect X (translated in 2011), Salvation of a Saint (translated in 2012), Midsummer's Equation (to be translated in late 2015) and five short story collections (none of which have been translated) — and his Police Detective Kaga Series, of which only one (out of nine), Malice (translated in 2014), has been translated into English.

As for his influences, in 2011, he told the Wall Street Journal that he liked some Western writers, but “I am much more influenced by Japanese authors and so my work naturally has that Japanese sense of old-fashioned loyalty and concern for human feeling.” These influences include the classic Japanese crime writers Edogawa Rampo and Seicho Matsumoto. 

The same article asked if Higashino was the “next Stieg Larsson?” No doubt it was just an attention-grabbing headline, but the comparison is a reasonable enough one to make: both are best-selling crime novelists, both write in a language that is not English and both have had their work adapted for the big screen (The Devotion of Suspect X has been made into a cult film). But there’s one important difference: Higashino is alive and well —  and he continues to pen brilliant crime novels. It’s just a shame so few of them have been translated into English for us to enjoy.

So, where to start with Higashino's work?  Well, there are only four to choose from... 

1. Naoko (translated by Kerim Yasar, 2004) — The book that won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1998 (and the only one I haven’t read) is supposedly a surreal story about a man who discovers that this dead wife’s soul now resides in his teenage daughter’s body. Reviewers have described it as “quirky” and “profound”. 

2. The Devotion of Suspect X (translated by Alexander O. Smith, 2011) — The book that made him a star, this is one of the most ingenious crime novels you are ever likely to read. It’s about a maths teacher — “Suspect X” of the title — who goes to extraordinary lengths to cover up a murder. This is despite the fact that he is innocent of the crime in question. His motivation is nothing more than love — and an obsession with mathematical puzzles. 

3. Salvation of a Saint (translated by Alexander O. Smith, 2012) — This is a more straightforward police procedural, but it’s also a “locked room” mystery. It focuses on a puzzling crime in which a man is found dead in his empty apartment. He’s lying face down on the floor with a spilled cup of poisoned coffee next to him. But who put the poison in his drink? His devoted wife or his wife’s young assistant, with whom he’d been having an affair? 

4. Malice (translated by Alexander O. Smith, 2014)His latest novel to be translated into English, it tells the story of three men: two professional rivals, one of whom murders the other, and the police detective who investigates the crime. It’s another “locked room” mystery because the murder was carried out in in a locked office within a locked house, so how did the killer get inside? But as the investigation unfolds, it becomes a fast-paced cat-and-mouse game between the detective and his chief suspect, who both take it in turns to narrate their version of events.

The good news is that a new one in the Detective Galileo series — Midsummer's Equation — will be published in English later this year.

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Thanks for that Kim, a wonderful introduction to a very popular - and successful - writer.  Has anyone out there tried Higashino's work?  Are you as big a fan as Kim is?  As always, please let us know :)

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Readalong Two: 'The Sound of the Mountain' by Yasunari Kawabata

After trying a modern novel for our first group read, it's time to move on to something  a little more classic for the second one, and Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata is most certainly one of the big names in modern Japanese literature, with his seat in our own pantheon secure :)  The Sound of the Mountain is my favourite Kawabata work - I hope you all liked it too...

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I looked online to see what I could point you towards, but there isn't much freely available (at least not from legal sources...).  I did find a few interesting bits and pieces, though...

'The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket' (tr. unknown)

'The Pomegranate' (tr. Edward Seidensticker)

'Japan, the Beautiful and Myself' (tr. Edward Seidensticker)
 - Kawabata's Nobel Prize acceptance speech

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I trust you all enjoyed the book - here are a few questions I thought might interest you:

1) Is Shingo's lack of interference in his children's lives justified or lazy?
2) Why do you think Fusako is so angry with her father?
3) Is there a special connection between Shingo and Kikuko, or is it all in his mind?
4) Do you think Shingo and Yasuko have a good marriage?  Why (not)?
5) Why has Kawabata placed such an emphasis on Shingo's dreams?

Feel free to leave comments below, or on any of the reviews of the book - and speaking of reviews...  Please use the linky below to post links to your review of the novel!  As we know what the book is, just put your blog name in the first space and the link in the second.  Let's see how you found this one ;)

Monday, 26 January 2015

J-Lit Giants: 16 - Mori Ogai


While Natsume Soseki is often regarded as the first great modern Japanese writer, there was one author who preceded him, both in his writing and in his travels abroad.  Louis Bravos, a Melburnian Japanese-to-English translator, uses today's post to introduce a man who was a contemporary of, and an influence on, the great Soseki.  Read on to find out more...

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Mori Ogai was not the first Japanese writer-translator - since writing came from China, Japanese writers have always been translators - nor is he the most famous (that honour would go to Haruki Murakami), but along with Natsume Soseki, Mori played an important part in shifting the focus of Japanese literature, in line with the Meiji era policy of 脱亜入欧, a shift in Japanese foreign policy from Asia to Europe.

Mori Ogai was born Mori Rintaro in Tsuwano, in Iwami Province on February 17th, 1862. The eldest son of a family of army physicians, he carried on the family trade, learning medicine, Dutch and western philosophy. After the Meiji Restoration saw the abolition of the han system of feudal domains, Mori's family moved to Tokyo, where he began to learn German - the language of medicine at the time. After enlisting in the army as a surgeon, he was sent to Germany in 1884. Upon returning to Japan, he began to publish medical journals, and also started to show an interest in Japanese literature, publishing short stories, editing a literary journal and producing translations of European classics by authors including Goethe and Ibsen.

His literary work is described as "anti-realist", reflecting the emotional and spiritual rather than the actual. His early works, including The Dancing Girl and Seinen (The Young Men), bear a resemblance to the work of contemporary Natsume Soseki, with the added influence of Ogai's time in Germany and his reading of European classics. Many of his own literary works act as critical studies of his own translations, particularly in his early career. His later work veered more towards historical fiction, set in the 17th and 18th century, as well as some biography and criticism. Takasebune (The Boat on the Takase River), one of Mori's later works, tells the story of a boat carrying prisoners from Kyoto to Osaka for exile, and despite cold critical reception at the time due to its theme of euthanasia, it is now perhaps one of his most famous works. 

Mori's work in English translation is not easy to find - there are some stories in collections, and large libraries might have ancient copies of one or two of his novels, but if you can find them, they're a great companion to Natsume Soseki and give a great insight into Japan as it was opening up to the world. Here's my pick of the bunch:

1) The Dancing Girl, Mori's first published story, describing an affair between a Japanese man and a German dancer, is a sort of Madame Butterfly in reverse. The Japanese man, in Berlin studying, must choose between his career and his feelings for the dancer, who he has made pregnant.

2) Mori's most famous - or perhaps infamous - novel, Vita Sexualis, is an erotic tale of a philosopher coming to terms with his sexuality. Though banned almost immediately after its publication on grounds of obscenity, the novel actually doesn't describe any sex, instead casting a philosophical eye over Meiji Period moral struggles with sexuality.

3) The Wild Goose (occasionally translated as The Wild Geese), however, is Mori at his best, and Finlay Lloyd's beautiful edition of Meredith McKinney's new translation, published in 2014, allows the subtle nuances of the original to shine. The Wild Goose is a sort of Meiji Period Lost In Translation, where an old moneylender sets up house for his young mistress, who, feeling empty, lonely and rejected in her new world, looks for companionship in a young medical student about to leave for Germany.

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Another excellent introduction to a great Japanese writer, one who, once again, isn't quite as well known as he might be.  I've read a different translation of The Wild Geese, and after looking at Louis' piece, I also tried 'The Dancing Girl' (and enjoyed it!).  If anyone has any comments on these, or other, books, you know what to do - comments, please ;)

Friday, 23 January 2015

Golden Kin-Yōbi: 4 - Pushkin Press

Welcome to Golden Kin-Yōbi, our regular Friday giveaway where you can win some great J-Lit.  Why the name?  Well, as some of you may know, the first character used in Japanese when writing Friday means 'gold', and hopefully many of you will strike gold over the next few weeks :)

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It's Week Four of our giveaways, and today's is a bumper one.  The wonderful people over at Pushkin Press are providing five books as prizes, including worldwide postage, so you've got a great chance of being amongst the winners this time ;)

The first three prizes are from the series of books by Yasushi Inoue which Pushkin have recently brought out.  Beautifully colour-coded, we have Bullfight (red), a novella about an attempt to liven up post-war Osaka; Life of a Counterfeiter (yellow), three of Inoue's short stories; and The Hunting Gun (green), a story of lost love told in three letters, a classic of modern J-Lit.

In addition, to those three, we have two very different books on offer.  One is a children's book from the Pushkin Children's imprint, Pushkin's latest J-Lit release.  Akiyuki Nosaka's The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine is a collection of war-tinged stories suitable for older children (one I'll be reviewing soon).  The other is definitely *not* suitable for kids - in Ryu Murakami's From the Fatherland, with Love, a story of a North Korean invasion of Japan, there are a whole host of adult themes ;)  Please note that this prize will be the paperback edition, not the hardback one pictured.

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So, if you'd like to win one of these books, simply comment below, leaving your name, an e-mail address and the name of the book you'd like to win.  There's no need to follow me, either here, on Facebook or on Twitter (unless you want to, of course!) - anyone can enter, and everyone has an equal chance of winning :)

Entries will close at 8 p.m. (AEST) on Thursday, January the 29th extended to Saturday, the 31st of January (that's 9 a.m. on Thursday Sunday, London time), and the winners will be announced in the next Golden Kin-Yōbi post (the winners, naturally, will be chosen entirely randomly, one way or another).  So, what are you waiting for?  Get commenting, and good luck!

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And, of course, we need to announce the winners of last week's prizes! 


One copy of Ground Zero, Nagasaki goes to Rathi Dwi
The second copy goes to Carola

I will be in contact with the winners shortly - thanks again to Columbia University Press for providing some great prizes :)

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

J-Lit Giants: 15 - Fumiko Enchi


We're back with another J-Lit Giant, and today's post looks at a writer who, while not exactly unknown in the West, still hasn't got the readership she deserves.  The person attempting to change that is Carola, a Dutch blogger with a background in Japanese studies, whose work can be seen over at the brilliant years site.  Take it away, Carola ;)

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These days Fumiko Enchi (1905-1986) is perhaps the most well-known female author among the classics. Born in Tokyo, she was brought up with lessons in English, French and Chinese literature, and frequented the Kabuki theatre as a child. So it is no surprise that her first piece of writing was in fact a play, the one-act Furusato (Birthplace) in 1926. She continued to write plays in the Twenties, and they were positively received.

Enchi, however, did not start writing novels until after the birth of her daughter in 1930, and she was not having such an easy time then. Her first book, Sambun Ren’ai, appeared in 1936, but her novels did not receive the same attention as her plays. On top of that, she suffered from cancer and post-surgical complications and lost her possessions in an air raid in 1945. 

It wasn't until after the war that her works were received favourably. In 1953, she won the Women’s Literature Prize for her work Himoji Tsukihi (Starving Days). What is especially interesting about her work is that she embraces Japanese traditional values and borrows from the classics, but at the same time much of her work is surprisingly modern and feminist. It is the women who star in her books, and they are well-rounded characters, both psychological and sensitive, but also definitely in a sensual way.

Enchi continued to win prizes with her novels, the most impressive being the Order of Culture in 1985, awarded by Emperor Hirohito, just a year before Enchi died. 

Masks (1958) is perhaps Enchi’s best known work in the western world and the first to get translated into English. A widow's mother-in-law manipulates the relationship between the young woman and the two men in love with her. The mother-in-law is based on Lady Rokujo from the classical Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji). 

The Waiting Years (1949–1957) won Enchi the Noma Prize for Literature in 1957. A young woman, Tomo, is married to a government official. Soon she has to accept her husband taking a mistress and is even forced to pick him one... and then another, and another... 

A Tale of False Fortunes gives an alternative account of the classical Eiga Monogatari (Story of Splendour), which is believed to have been originally written by several authors over a period of nearly a hundred years, from 1028–1107.  During her career, Enchi regularly translated classics, such as Genji Monogatari, into Japanese, so this adaptation is definitely an interesting work.

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Many thanks to Carola for the great introduction to Enchi's life and works :)  I'd only previously tried a couple of short stories, but I recently read Masks and can definitely recommend it.  Hopefully, there'll be some more (re)translations appearing soon...

Has anyone out there tried any of these (or other) Enchi books?  If so, please share your views on her work in the comments area - we'd love to hear what you have to say :)