Japanese January


I started the year reading three Japanese novels in a row. Apart from the fact that the authors are Japonese, you would have to look very hard to find another common factor! In effect, they were three entirely different reading experiences.

  • Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
  • A Cat, a Man, and Two Women by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa

Kokoro had been on my wish list for a long time and it fell into my hands for Christmas. A Cat, a Man, and Two Women and Hotel Iris had both awaited their turn patiently on my bedside table for quite some time. (I read Kokoro in Spanish and the other two in English.)

Kokoro 心 | Natsume Sōseki

Impedimenta, 2020. Translated into Spanish by Yoko Ogihara and Fernando Cordobés.

“Kokoro” deals with the transition from the Japanese Meiji society to the modern era. Divided into three parts “Sensei and I,” “My Parents and I,” and “Sensei and His Testament,” the novel explores the themes of loneliness and isolation. In the first part we find the narrator attending university where he befriends an older man, known only as “Sensei,” who lives a largely reclusive life.

In the second part of the novel the narrator graduates from college and returns home to await the death of his father. The third part of the novel recounts a letter that the narrator receives from the “Sensei,” which describes the circumstances that caused his loss of faith in humanity and the guilt he feels over the death of a childhood friend which drives him to the reclusive life that he has led.

Considered a Japanese classic, Kokoro is a timeless story, beautifully narrated, about life, duty and human values. Both characters struggle, each in their own way. Whereas Sensai wrestles with (self-inflicted) guilt and redemption from incidents unfolded during his youth, the young (unnamed) narrator seeks to find his way through life. Due to the difference in age as well as in life experience, the characters adapt the roles of apprentice and master, student and mentor.

Kokoro means heart, mind, soul and spirit altogether. Read more here.

Although Sōseki brilliantly depicts a wide palette of emotions —guilt, jealousy, fear, ambition, passion…— the language remains subtle and elegant throughout. However, the subtlety filters the characters’ inner) battles in such an unusually efficient way that the reader expects confrontations to take place; actions to be taken. However, we wait in vain. Compelled to my role as a mere observer, I grew impatient with what felt like the characters’ passivity and lack of determination.

The Meiji era

No doubt, my frustration was the result of Sōseki’s writing skills (chapeau!) and his intention to enhance the underlying conflicts in the story. The Japanese society underwent a major modernisation during the Meiji era (1868-1912). As a result, important shifts take place, exposing intergenerational rifts. The old, rooted traditions and roles (of family, of women, of duty…) are questioned and defied. Consequently, values face a similar process, very much tangible in Kokoro. Whereas Sensei represents the old Japan —sense of honour, debt and responsibility—, the narrator gives voice to the impatient youth, wishing to break free. However, both poles need each other and their ideals must find a way to coexist. Hence the conflicts; the self versus the group, the individual versus family. freedom versus obligations.

Despite the wish to grab both characters by the shoulders and give them a good shake, Kokoro was a pleasant read. The underlying tone is melancholic, efficient in its deliberation. Kokoro gets under your skin with determined delicacy. Furthermore, I enjoyed the timeless moral disputes —aren’t they just what determines a good classic?

A Cat, a Man, and Two Women | Junichiro Tanizaki

Daunt Books, 2017. Translated into English by Paul McCarthy.

Shinako has been ousted from her marriage by her husband Shozo and his younger lover Fukuko. She’s lost everything: her home, status, and respectability. Yet the only thing she longs for is Lily, the elegant tortoiseshell cat she shared with her husband. As Shinako pleads for Lily’s return, Shozo’s reluctance to part with the cat reveals his true affections, and the lengths he’ll go to hold onto the one he loves most.

Even his lighter-hearted fictions… make us hold our breath, and the endings don’t let us quite exhale. | John Updike on Tanizaki

This little book is brilliantly written — and plotted. Not in vain is the cat mentioned at the very beginning of the title; Lily is undoubtedly the true main character and the center of the story. Moreover, she remains unaltered —independent and spoiled— granting the humans to display their poorly flattering traits. Whereas adultery, vengeance, envy, jealousy and pure malice are ever-present (human) ingredients on their behalf, they are all triggered by one common (feline) factor: Lily.

Feline Power

I’m not sure whether readers who have no experience from cats enjoy the novella in the same way as cat lovers do. Nevertheless, if someone ever doubted the effect that cats are able to evoke in humans, Lily will prove them wrong! In addition, the author shows deep understanding in cats’ behaviour and their interaction with humans. As a cat owner myself, I immediately recognised the pattern in Lily‘s manipulating acts!

A Cat, A Man, and Two Women is written with a huge dose of wit and humour —despite the self-centered characters. I sympathised with Shinako, the less selfish of the four (or five; Shozo’s mother plays an important role in the book too). For instance, her ingenuity when she plots against the rather pathetic figure of Shozo is admirable. Fukuku, the trophy wife, shows her true egocentric self from the very start and doesn’t evolve further. In other words, her evolution is not her own, but the one she triggers in her husband. On the other hand, Shozo, overspoilt since a child by his mother goes from pathetic to… more pathetic!

It’s hard to say whether Shinako expected to win her husband back with her strategy or if she merely wanted him to suffer. Whatever the reason behind her plot, she did create a rift between Shozo and his new wife. In addition, Shozo’s calculating mother loses authority and position in the household.

A Cat, A Man and Two Women is an unpretentious little book about human nature and how maleficent ambition never should be let inside a household. Tanizaki manages to exhibit the most foul sides of his characters in a humorous story, which is quite an achievement.

Hotel Iris | Yōko Ogawa

Harvill Secker, 2010. Translated into English by Stephen Snyder.

In a crumbling, seaside hotel on the coast of Japan, quiet, seventeen-year-old Mari works the front desk as her mother fusses over the off-season customers. When, one night, they are forced to eject a prostitute and a middle-aged man from his room, Mari finds herself drawn to the man’s voice, in what will become the first gesture of a long seduction.

The mysterious man lives quietly as a translator on an island off the coast. A widower, there are murmurs around town that he may have murdered his wife. Mari begins to visit the mysterious man at his island home, and he initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure. As Mari’s mother and the police begin to close in on the illicit affair, events move to a dramatic climax.

A mystery called Mari

Hotel Iris was an unsettling read that left a bad taste in my mouth. Whereas the male character is easily categorised as a misogynist and a psychopath, I wasn’t able to understand Mari’s surrender to him. Was she (unconsciously) trying to fill her deceased father’s gap? Was it the result of her non-loving, yet controlling mother’s ways with her? Or, finally, was it to somehow feel alive? Mari doesn’t go to school, has no friends and no life outside the hotel’s four walls. Maybe she just needed emotions —any kind of emotions— to stir her plain, boring everyday life.

Whatever the reason(s) behind Mari‘s attraction to the older man, her subordination in the violent, abusive scenes is beyond my comprehension. Despite the repulsion I felt while reading the novel, I couldn’t put the book down. Ogawa is skilful, very skilful, writing about darkness and provoking the reader to question your own reactions. Fascinating!

The descriptions of the seaside village throughout the shifting seasons are genuine and vivid. As a result, you can almost feel the smell from the fishpaste factory opposite the Hotel Iris. And when your clothes start to cling to your body, the humid Japanese summer heat has got under your skin, just as Ogawa intended. Bravo!

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