Tag Archives: World War 2

After Darkness (2014) – Christine PIPER

We have a winner! After last year’s non-starter, the judges of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award deigned to award this year’s prize to Christine Piper’s first novel, After Darkness. And with the recent changes to the way the award is administered, the day after it was announced, the book was available for purchase. And as someone who has a keen interest in the history between Japan and Australia, how could I say no?

Dr Ibaraki has come to Broome to escape his life in Japan, and for the first time in a long time, he feels like he truly belongs. But the Pacific War has arrived on his doorstep, and along with other Japanese residents of the city, he is forced into an internment camp thousands of kilometres away. Meeting up with other displaced Japanese, Ibaraki is forced to finally confront his past.

The narrative itself is split into three timeframes; the first is Ibaraki’s time in Japan, explaining why he moved to Australia; the second is his time in Broome as the doctor at the Japanese hospital; while the final is shows his time in the Loveday camp. The first two strands are fairly solid, though if you are in any way familiar with the history of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, the ‘twist’ of what Ibaraki is really working on in his lab in Tokyo will come as no surprise at all. Both are there, though, to serve a greater purpose: to show us that, time and time again, Ibaraki is wilfully blind to the situation around him.

A quick glance at Piper’s website shows that her PhD project involved researching first-hand stories of Japanese interns in Australian intern camps during the Pacific War. In particular, she looked at one camp in South Australia called Loveday. It is no surprise, then, that the bulk of this novel’s heft comes from that place and time. This section perfectly encapsulates a great many things about history and identity, and it is here that Piper’s skills as a writer come to the fore.

Ibaraki, of course, has no desire to go home. His wife has left him, and he has begun to build a life in Australia that is more than anything he could have imagined. And yet his first instinct is to side with his ‘own’ people—other Japanese nationals living itinerantly in Australia. It’s an interesting decision, particularly since establishment Japanese men have burned him once before, but it is also entirely understandable. His entire life up until this point has been an Ishiguro-esque attempt to ignore everything that goes on around him. Taught to have unblinking belief in his superiors and in the Japanese way, he cannot imagine a life outside the hierarchy. And yet his time in Broome, and in the camp, has forced him to reconsider: as he says, “What else, through my misguided loyalty, had I failed to see?”

Stories like After Darkness remind us that the multicultural history of Australia did not simply begin in the 1970s with the final abolition of the White Australia policy. This country has been engaging with Asia in deep and complex ways for decades, and this novel is a small, but important, reminder of one such episode.

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The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) – Tan Twan ENG

I read Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, and loved it. The evocation of Malaysia after the Second World War, and the repercussions of the Japanese Occupation, were pitched perfectly. So I was happy to see that he has (finally) released another novel – five years after his first. The hardcover edition from Myrmidon Books is beautiful, too, by the way, so if you’re thinking of reading it, check it out.

The first female judge of the Malaysian Supreme Court, Teoh Yun Ling, is retiring, though she seems unhappy about it. In an attempt to stave off an illness creeping into her mind, she begins to write her memoirs, explaining for herself as much as anyone else how she has come to be where she is. How she was rounded up into a concentration camp with her mother and sister during the Japanese Occupation. How she escaped. How she rebuilt her life as a lawyer for those wronged by the Japanese. And most importantly, how she fell in love with a Japanese gardener.

For anyone who has read The Gift of Rain, the territory covered in this second novel is nothing new. As with his previous novel, in which history was a backdrop that permeated the lives of its characters, Tan once again explores the ways in which the Japanese Occupation has shaped and affected not only the big picture politics and culture of Malaysia, but also the ways in which individuals have been influenced by living through the Occupation. What makes Tan’s take on this interesting is that he is keen to not paint all Japanese people as intrinsically evil, and all Malaysians as helpless victims. This is nowhere more apparent here than in the surprisingly complex relationship between Teoh Yun Ling and Nakamura Aritomo. The initial tension between them – for Yun Ling, Aritomo is the epitome of the suffering she endured as a child – is understandable, and had Tan continued in this vein, I would not have been surprised. But instead of taking the easy route, he asks bigger questions of his readers. What happens when you begin to not hate, and in fact, love, a member of a group of people who did such terrible things to you, the physical and metal scars remain with you to this day? Is it possible to find love and redemption with such people? Or can the past never be forgotten?

Tan seems optimistic in his own response to these questions. Yun Ling and Aritomo do fall in love, and they do have a fairly functional relationship, even though others may seem less approving. In that sense, I think he does see a way for reconciliation through forgiveness and discussion, rather than an never-ending, festering hatred of a culture and country that has moved on from its imperial days. Fortunately, Yun Ling is a complex character, and it takes time for her to let go of her memories of the past. It is this that is perhaps the novel’s greatest irony – in a desperate attempt to ensure her story is not forgotten – by others, or by herself – she has to come to terms with these memories that have shaped her, and examine them in a new light. It is not good enough for her to simply wallow in self-pity; she must instead find beauty in the life she has lived, even if it was not something she had planned.

Even though some character names don’t quite ring true for me, you can tell Tan has done a lot of research into Japanese culture. What interests me most is that he has taken two diametrically opposed forms of Japanese artistic expression – gardening and tattooing – and found a way to combine them. I think it’s safe to say no one in Japan would do this, and it’s nice to see outsiders finding ways to appropriate Japanese culture and find news ways to engage with them and reinterpret them. For a variety of reasons, tattoos are considered the mark of the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, and as such, it is, even today, very rare to see Japanese people with tattoos, particularly full body ones like the ones presented in this novel. I have Anglo friends (that is, people who could not possibly be members of the Japanese mafia) who have been denied entry into public baths in Japan for having a small tattoo on their ankle, such is the cultural connection. (Interesting language tidbit for anyone who cares: the word for tattoo in Japanese, as I was taught, is irezumi [刺青], though here, the word used is horimono [彫り物])

So there’s some kind of beautiful vulgarity in the idea that Aritomo’s garden, Yūgiri (夕霧), should become a kind of shakkei (借景), or borrowed scenery, to complete Yun Ling’s tattoo. It is the restrained that completes the vulgar; the two are intertwined in a way that, for Yun Ling, is inescapable. She has become the literal embodiment of Aritomo’s life’s work, a fact she was certainly unaware of when she agreed to be tattooed. It’s an interesting development, and one that is perhaps symbolic of Tan’s wider writing project – violence and beauty, vulgarity and refinement, binary opposites coming together in post-colonial Malaysia.

Before I finish up, a quick word on the structure of the novel. Perhaps in an attempts to evoke the sympathy of his readers for his main character, Tan jumps quickly and often without warning between several time periods throughout the novel. Just as Yun Ling’s ability to reconstruct her memories in a coherent and reasonable way becomes compromised by her illness, the reader, too, is forced to reconstruct her life without clues.

I apologise for this slightly biased review. There’s a lot more to this excellent novel than a discussion of Japanese aesthetics and culture, but since that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve picked up on for discussion. Malaysia itself gets a good look in, too, and so does South Africa, which is where Tan currently lives. The Garden of Evening Mists is a deeply complex novel that asks many questions of its readers about topics as varied as post-colonial politics to the best way to design a garden.

 

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The Buddha in the Attic (2011) – Julie OTSUKA

The first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic was printed in Granta 114 (a seriously excellent collection, by the way), and the second in Granta 115. At the time, I thought they were simply self contained short stories – beautiful short stories. When I discovered soon after that these were from a longer work, I was excited to read it. For some bizarre reason, it’s taken a while to hit Australian bookstores, but once it did, I read it almost in one afternoon.

Picture brides were Japanese women who went to America on the back of a promise. The promise of a better life, with a strapping young Japanese man to take care of them. A promise that is quickly broken. These women find themselves in a foreign land with men they don’t recognise, and with a culture that remains baffling. As the years go by, and they have families, the spectre of war looms ever closer, and their relationships are forced to undergo rapid changes. This is their story.

I think it’s fair to say that the first-person plural voice is not commonly used in contemporary English literature. It takes an author of great skill – and courage – to tackle a voice that is not first-person singular or third-person omniscient, and fortunately, Otsuka is both of these things. Her almost chorus like sentence and paragraph structures give the impression of no one individual story in this epic saga being any more important than another. These women, who have all been forced to start a journey from the same place, are, in many ways, given a stronger platform in their combined tale. With repetitive sentence fragments, a story begins to build – a story that highlights just as many differences as it does similarities. We hear stories of women who are willing to do anything to escape their lives in Japan. We hear stories of women who have been forced by their family into a marriage they don’t want. We hear stories of women who love their new husbands, and ones who run away at the first sight of danger. We hear stories of women having children, of their pain at not being able to get to a doctor in time, of their joy at finding an ally against their husband.

One of the running themes in all of these tales, though, is the us/them dichotomy that is felt by so many of these women. Us Japanese against them Americans. Most of these women don’t learn English – for a variety of reasons – and this simple fact, perhaps more than anything else, cuts them off from the rest of American society. They live in Japantown, surrounded by other Japanese speakers, or they live on farms, where they only have their husbands and their children for company. When they work as maids in the houses of rich white families, it is felt most sharply. There is a beautiful moment when one of the brides finds solace in an old Italian woman – neither can speak English – but there is no need. They are both strangers in this land, doomed never to find peace and quiet.

As with all immigrant stories, the second generation – those children born of immigrants in the new country – find themselves stuck between their family and their desire to fit in. While many of these women originally found their children allies in the world, their relationships quickly fracture as the children learn English, forget Japanese and are embarrassed by their parents. It’s a tale that’s been told many times before, though it takes on a new poignancy here in the hands of Otsuka, who draws out the mix of  shame, sadness and happiness these women feel for their children.

And then there is the last chapter. Otsuka shifts perspective, from the us to the them. The Americans have a chance to tell their side of the story, at least for a little while. The reaction of everyday Americans to the brutal removal of Japanese immigrants from their suburbs and neighbourhoods. Many of them are, at first, deeply saddened by this. Though many of them seem blissfully unaware of what has actually happened to these mysterious people that once populated their streets and corner shops, there is a vague sense of unease about the whole thing. As the war shifts gear, though, and the Japanese Empire becomes a more clear enemy, many people forget these feelings of sadness, and are replaced with a nationalism aimed at exclusion. They forget how much they actually liked the Japanese, and

Small, concise and perfectly-formed, there is nothing missing from this novel. No superfluous material, no word out of place – it is meticulous. And I don’t mean that as an insult. It is clear Otsuka cares deeply about both her subject matter and her language, which makes this a pleasure to read if you have a spare afternoon.

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The Third Reich (2010) – Roberto BOLAÑO

The danger with previously unpublished works being published posthumously is that there may well have been a good reason they weren’t published while the author was alive. Because of the insane amount of hype surrounding the cult of Roberto Bolaño after his death, any chance of new writings was always going to be pounced upon by both his publishers and fans, no matter the quality of the work.

Udo Berger comes to a small Spanish town at which he holidayed with his family as a child, with his girlfriend, Inga, for a relaxing summer holiday, as well as to work on his strategy papers. Udo is a gamer, and plays, amongst other things, a war-game called The Third Reich – though Inga seems more concerned with her tan than any kind of game. When another German couple checks in, though, Udo’s plans for a relaxing holiday are turned upside down.

Originally written in 1989, The Third Reich languished in a drawer somewhere in Bolaño’s house until some diligent researcher found it, and eventually had it published. That context is important to remember when we look at the work, because the Second World War, the Cold War, and the tensions this placed on Europe cast a surprisingly large shadow over a book that is ostensibly about board games.

It’s funny to think that such a devastating historical event such as the Second World War in Europe is now used as a kind of background for people’s entertainment. And not funny ha ha. This thought is made even more uncomfortable here, with a young German man seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is playing with recent history that ravaged Europe, and that his status as a German – whether fair or not – will influence what people think of his playing these games, reliving history that many Germans want to forget. Those small glimpses we get into the lives of other gamers, too, brings into the fore a world and culture that seems to meet every expectation a non-gamer might have of the world. These men are slightly dysfunctional outsiders, who spend their time wrapped up in fanzines and conventions about their favourite board games – there seems to be no sense of connection to reality.

As the face of this subculture, Udo seems almost autistic in some of his obsessions, and complete inability to read certain social situations. His lust for Frau Else, the German owner of the hotel in which he is staying, born out of a childhood obsession, borders on the obsessive, and his quest to find her husband and tell him that his wife has cheated on him is bizarre. Maybe this is just Bolaño feeding in to the late 80s gamer stereotype of young, slightly chubby, socially awkward men escaping real life into the worlds of their “silly games.” Cartainly, when Udo is faced with real life danger from people like the Wolf and the Lamb, and El Quemado, he doesn’t seem to quie know what to do with them.

This undercurrent of violence that permeates the novel is never acted upon by Bolaño – most of it remains off stage, forcing the reader to decide what happened, if anything at all. Ironically, it is not the Wolf and the Lamb – the two thug characters most likely, it would seem, to attack someone – from where this sense of unease comes. It is Charly, half of the other German couple, that becomes the symbol of repressed German violence in the novel. Obviously we can only construct his identity from the clues Udo himself gives us in his diary, but he comes off as a deeply unpleasant young man, and though this may make me sound like a terrible person, his eventual fate is not unexpected or particularly heart wrenching.

In the end, Udo is forced to consider and remember the crimes that were committed in the name of the German Reich, and not in a pleasant way. I’m glad the denouement happened the way it did, because it ties the rest of the novel, which tended to be a little rambling and disjointed, together very nicely, both plot-wise and thematically. The two important revelations in the final chapters make sense in the context of what we’ve already been told, and it really brings into focus these questions of post-war  memory and reparations that have been bubbling under the surface for most of the novel. Bolaño’s answers are not pretty, particularly if you are German, but perhaps there’s some optimism to be had in finally having it all out in a big brawl, and them being able to move on? Maybe not.

The Third Reich is, ironically, a lot better than some of Bolaño’s other earlier works, like The Skating Rink. But it never reaches the dizzying heights of, say, The Savage Detectives, or (I can only assume) 2666. This is one of the few times Bolaño writes outside of South America, and it’s a nice change of scenery, with an important, if somewhat obfuscated, engagement of ideas at its centre.

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The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay (2000) – Michael CHABON

I have a great deal of respect for the person Michael Chabon, born mainly out of the fact that he understands the importance of genre fiction, and the role it should play in more mainstream literary fiction. Also, he’s a fan of Doctor Who, which clearly makes him a person of discerning taste. I picked up Kavalier and Clay because it was his Pulitzer Prize winner, and because I needed a big book to take on holiday. It didn’t last the week.

It is 1939, and war is about to break out in Europe. Josef Kavalier has escaped Prague, and ended up in the bedroom of his American cousin, Sam Klayman. Both are trying to escape their lives – Joe, from the terrible state of his home, and Sam, from feelings he cannot quite describe. They pour their insecurities into the Escapist – a comic book that turns into a international phenomenon. But all good things must come to an end, and World War Two is marching ever closer.

Comic books are not just used for set decoration here, or simply as a way of pandering to a new kind of audience, though Chabon has a blinder of an idea in the Escapist. There’s a chapter explaining the entire origin story of him, and it’s one of the best pieces of writing you’re likely to find. Like all good superheroes (well, the ones I connect with), it’s the story of a simple man who has been wronged, and is simply looking for ways to right the wrongs of the world. Like Batman, the Escapist is not a superhero in the sense that he has special powers, rather more a glorified vigilante with a score to settle.

Chabon uses the idea of speculative fiction, and the escapes it can provide for people who feel trapped in their own humdrum lives, as a way of exploring these two characters’ deepest hopes and fears, of how they view themselves, and how others view them. Joe’s background in magic and escapology provide perhaps the perfect jumping off point for these ideas. Despite his having escaped the war, it is his constant struggle to get his brother, Thomas, over to America that provides his raison d’être. And so, in his comics, the Escapist is the man who can free anyone from any kind of tyranny. Of course, for Joe, that will almost always be the Nazi extermination of the Jews – his first attempt at a cover for the comic is the Escapist punching Hitler squarely on the jaw. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said for Joe’s motivations.

For a long time, Sam is a lot harder to work out. He seems like a typical New York kid, enthusiastic, excitable and clearly full of talent, though not for drawing. His imagination is something to marvel at, and the fact that he is able to come up with storyline upon storyline for the comic books his team writes is something to marvel at. Slowly, though, it becomes clear that there is a through line in all of these – every hero needs a sidekick, a plucky young man to help with the day to day life of being a caped crusader. Whether this is because of his repressed sexuality or some kind of deep seeded inferiority complex is never truly answered, though some not very nice people have a red hot go at portraying it as something rather immoral.

Unless you’re reading a Sarah Waters novel, it seems inevitable that gay relationships in historical fiction are doomed to fail. (I know, I’ve just linked you to TVtropes, and yes, you will be spending the next hour of your life surfing it). I don’t really think this is lazy writing on anyone’s behalf, but it has become such a cliche that it takes a good writer to make sure it doesn’t seem silly and tired. Fortunately, Chabon manages to just about get away with it, mainly because the pay off at the end of the novel is worth it. Sam’s relationship with Tracy is beautiful to watch unfold, and they really are an adorable couple. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the way in which it does is not fatal, but certainly final.

When Joe realises what Sam has given up, and why he has, it really highlights the love these two men have for each other. In a brotherly way, of course. In many ways, it’s difficult to decide which of the two men have sacrificed more in their lives. Joe has left his family behind in a war torn continent, but his own escaping to the war somehow balances it out. No matter what people say about sexuality not defining a person, Sam has given up his only path to happiness in order to fix the problem Joe has created. He denies his own desires for the sake of the woman and son Joe leaves behind in order to exact revenge on the faceless enemy that stole his brother. It’s all very tragic, and really, really depressing.

There’s even a little bit of comic book history, and though I’m not as well versed in it as, say, the history of television science fiction, I know enough to really appreciate that Chabon is clearly quite fond of the medium. Throughout the decades of the twentieth century, the Escapist is used by various people as a superhero of the time. Like all good ideas, he is constantly reinventable (yep, that’s definitely a word), and the forms he takes on are well thought out. The end of the novel highlights just how far the medium has come since those humble days in the 1930s: the book that Joe and Sam are working on is clearly symbolising the birth of the adult graphic novel, an artform that is still not viewed with the proper respect that it perhaps deserves.

As a final note, I did spend a lot of time as I was reading wishing I could read the adventures of the Escapist, because he just sounds so damn cool. And lo and behold, my wishes were answered! Chabon has worked with Dark Horse to bring the Escapist to the page. I’m off to go and check it out – I’m intrigued.

This is not a heavy or difficult read, despite its length. But it is excellent. Not “just” a story about superheroes, it is an insightful and intimate portrayal of two men dealing with their own shortcomings and failures, and finding ways to escape them. And if that’s not the most human thing you can do, I don’t know what is.

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Half Blood Blues (2011) – Esi EDUGYAN

With the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize looming, I’m still trying to work my way through the novels on the longlist that interest me. My sure-fire bet, The Stranger’s Child, didn’t even make the shortlist, which just goes to prove that the judges and I never see eye to eye. That’s fine – I’m not complaining – because even if I can never pick the winner, the longlisting of books I’ve never heard of before means I find new and exciting authors.

Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones, and Hiero Falk – three young black jazz musicians living in Berlin – have fled to Paris to escape the Third Reich, with the help of Delilah, a young American woman. As tends to be the case, however, her presence upsets the fine balance between the three young men, and when Hiero is disappeared from the streets one night, Sid realises he finally may have gone too far.

It is easy, I think, to forget that the Jews were not the only people hunted down and exterminated by the Nazi Party during their reign. Gypsies, disabled people, jazz musicians, gay people, black people – these groups were also rounded up and put into horrible concentration camps. Of course, the setting of the novel is not really the point – if you are looking for a deep and meaningful insight into what living black in Nazi Germany was like, this is not the place. Indeed, Sid and Chip are both American citizens, and Sid, able to pass as white, freely admits he and Chip have less trouble than Hiero, who is a half-black German citizen, a Mischling.

Betrayal and guilt are the overriding themes. Edugyan begins her story in 1939, and we are then yanked into 1992, where someone has invited Sid and Chip to talk about their memories of Hiero for a film. Sid has never mentioned what he did in Paris, and when accusations begin to fly at the screening of the documentary from Chip, he is at first angry, and feels betrayed. It is not until he confronts Chip about the ordeal, and agrees to journey to Poland to meet up with Hiero again for the first time in sixty years, that he begins to think that he shouldn’t be the one who feels upset about any kind of betrayal.

Betrayal is also at the heart of Sid’s relationship with Delilah. Her easy-breezy attitude to life, to music, and to her friendship with Louis Armstrong, has an instant affect on Sid, whose own insecurities about his musical abilities are a stumbling block to his initiating any kind of relationship. Eventually, though, he manages to overcome these, and the two sleep together. It soon becomes clear, though, that Hiero is also deeply enamoured with Delilah, and Sid’s already strong dislike of the kid grows and mutates into a kind of self-destructive jealously. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down very well with Delilah.

Sid is a deeply flawed, and therefore deeply believable, character. Never as good a musician as his two friends, he finds himself surrounded by people who mean well, but never give him the chance to fit into the jazz world. He knows his own limitations, too, and this influences his own growing resentment of  Hiero in particular, who is a kid wonder on the trumpet. Add to this the jealously he feels over Delilah’s actions towards Hiero, and Sid becomes almost unlikeable. And while he does become unlikeable, I also found him sympathetic, too. To a certain point, though. There are some things, particularly in Vichy France, that are unforgivable.

The closing scenes with Hiero and Sid ring true. Hiero, despite having lived through many, many horrors, still has a glimmer of the enthusiastic over-grown puppy feeling he had at the age of twenty. As Sid breaks the news to him, tells him that everything that happened is his fault, he simply cannot believe it. These two old men, separated for sixty years, nearing the end of their lives, have a very brief conversation about the past, and while Sid attempts to atone for his past sins, whether Hiero will let him is another matter.

Half Blood Blues uses its temporal and physical setting to great effect. By essentially locking her characters in an abandoned club for half the novel, Edugyan proves her worthiness to be on this year’s shortlist. This is a story about the relationships between men and women, about jazz, and about the decisions we make when under pressure, and the repercussions of these unwise decisions.

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The Makioka Sisters (1948) – Junichirō TANIZAKI

For someone who intends to do an honours degrees in minority Japanese literature, I have recently realised I am woefully poorly read when it comes to mainstream Japanese literature. As such, I am desperately trying to fix the problem. And when Vintage Classics put out a beautiful edition of Tanizaki for me to read – at only $12.95 – who am I to do anything but follow what must be fate?

The four Makioka sisters are the end of a line. A line of Osaka nobility, who have been famous for many generations. But it is the 1920s, and things in Japan are changing. The sisters are fading from the public eye, and dealing with their own problems. Yukiko, for example, is still not married, despite being past her prime. As war looms, the sisters’ lives will go through the ups and downs of what it means to be human.

People, sometime unfairly, I think, deride soap operas for having storylines that go on forever and ever, and deal with intense, character based situations that border on the melodramatic. In many ways, yes, I agree. But I also think soap operas, when done well, have the ability to tell the story of normal people over many years, and we can watch them grown and change just as we would our own family. And so it is in the best way possible that I must compare The Makioka Sisters to a well written soap opera – this is a novel that has very little plot to speak of, but at the same time, so much plot based around the everyday lives of four women in early 20th century Japan.

There’s quite a large cast of characters to get a grip on here, too. The four sisters are quite different in their character, and while Tsuruko, the oldest, has moved the main branch of the house to Tokyo, the three younger ones remain in Osaka to keep the family going. There is Sachiko, the second oldest, who is in charge of the Osaka branch, and is constantly worried about her younger sisters who, not necessarily on purpose, are doing nothing to help the family line. Yukiko, as previously mentioned, is having trouble finding a husband, despite the huge number of miai she attends; while Taeko is, despite being of noble blood, quite happy to strike out by herself and do jobs that require handiwork. Also, she gets around a bit.

I have to give a special mention to Taeko, because I do think she is the star of the novel. At the very least, she is my favourite sister. Her desire to break out of the societal mold she’s been placed in, juxtaposed with her understanding that her family must maintain appearances, is nicely played. While Yukiko’s story is the one that starts us off, and often grounds the narrative, I find Taeko’s sidesteps to be far more interesting, and indeed, where she is left at the end of the novel is, while heartbreaking, perfectly formed.

Tanizaki, though, manages to keep this large cast of characters separate and distinct, and even the small bit characters have more than passing characterisation. Itani, the woman who sets up a lot of the marriage proposals, is the kind of busybody, always chatty, chubby lady you’d expect to be a matchmaker (see Mulan for comparison). The Makioka husbands are, I imagine, both turned on and terrified of the power their wives hold – because these sisters do hold a lot of sway, despite their husbands being the ones getting all the cash.

I wanted also to make a special note of the large number of foreign characters in the novel, which surprised me no end. Much like Japan, old school Japanese literature tends to be very inward looking, so to portray Osaka as a city where foreigners live was quite nice to see. I particularly loved the German family who lives next door, though there is an entire incident where the Makioka sisters pack up and go to a Russian family’s house that is just so pitch perfect, you have to read it to believe it. Their utter confusion at a culture that isn’t their own is poignantly recounted by Tanizaki, and I can only imagine based on an experience of his own.

Written over five years, this is not a short novel. But it is eminently readable, no small thanks to the translation, no doubt. Despite being translated in the 50s (which means there are notes to inform the reader what the strange Japanese dish “sushi” is), it’s slightly archaic language adds to the atmosphere of the novel. Anything more modern would, I think, lost some of the period atmosphere. For anyone who has more than a passing interest in Japanese literature, read this, not Murakami. Even if you don’t have a passing interest in Japanese literature, this is a well-formed, surprisingly deep, character study of a family on the brink of dynastic change.

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Brideshead Revisited (1945) – Evelyn WAUGH

It’s been a while since I read Evelyn Waugh – though the first few novels I read were from his earlier period, when he was still writing satire about the decline of the English aristocracy. Brideshead Revisited, though, is a far more major work, yet it still touches on similar themes.

Charles Ryder comes to Oxford University from a middle class family, and meets the wildly flamboyant Sebastian Flyte. As he becomes more and more enamoured with Sebastian’s way of life, he is introduced to the Flyte family, a relationship that will shift and move over the next twenty years, and make sure that Charles’ life will be changed forever.

This is an exceptionally sad novel. Not in the sense that you’ll be crying all the way through it, but the fact that it is relentlessly depressing in its portrayal of English society of the time means that there is little to find in the way of humour or light comic relief. It is certainly, then, a departure from Waugh’s earlier works, which dealt with similar themes, but in a far more humourous manner. perhaps Waugh thought satirising the crumbling British Empire was no longer the way to go.

Instead, Sebastian’s family – the Marchmains – are portrayed as being at the end of their tether. It is as though they are living out their final days on planet Earth in some kind of bizarre stupor. Lady Marchmain is slowly dying, her husband having run away to Venice with another woman because their marriage simply didn’t work. The children aren’t much better – Brideshead, the eldest boy, is strangely distant and asexual, caring more about matchboxes than continuing the family line. And Sebastian himself is a drunk, a layabout, and probably more concerning to his family, a gay. This is very much only alluded to, but when he shacks up with an attractive German man, the allusions are less than subtle.

Charles, the representative of the middle class, the people about to inherit England, does not understand just how much disconnect can exist between himself and this family.  While he clearly fell hard for the romantic and attractive Sebastian, the more and more he learns about this life, the less he seems to want to participate in it.

Another of Waugh’s earlier occupations is in full swing here, too. Waugh’s own troubled history with religion – starting out as an Anglican, and later converting to Catholicism – has permeated into his literature, and his own views of the Catholic Church, are clearly presented here.  Having Charles as a non-Catholic (indeed, an atheist) provides a sounding board for the other characters – the Marchmain family are, to varying degrees, all Catholic – to try to explain their views on this way of life, and how it interacts with everyday English society.

I quite liked the first thrid or so of the novel, when Charles and Sebastian’s relationship dominates. Sebastian is clearly the novel’s best invention, and he is in turn both charming and terrifying. Charles’ desire to be his friend (or something more) is easy to understand – we all know people like him, who we think are absolutely fantastic, but seem to be far beyond us. The fact that Charles’ dreams come true, and he becomes friends is, of course, the beginning of the end of his dreams. He knows he can never truly be a part of this society, and his disillusionment forces him to leave England, and go travelling in far-flung places to improve his painting abilities.

Unfortunately, I think Brideshead Revisited loses something when Sebastian leaves the stage, and instead we are left with Charles, who just doesn’t appeal that much. He’s so insufferably beige that you can’t help but want to shake him and make him do something. Even at the end, when he divorces his wife to be with Sebastian’s sister – Julia – there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly exciting about him. In fact, he seems to treat his wife quite badly – he has run off to the jungles of South America to paint, leaving her to raise the children he barely knows. It’s no wonder she has an affair with a younger man and wants to run off with him.

There’s a sense of disappointment when you come up against a classic and it doesn’t fulfill you the way you think it should. Alas, I got this sense when reading Brideshead Revisited. I prefer the satirical nonsense of Waugh’s earlier works, where everything is hurtling towards the end, the wheels coming off, plates crashing around you. Instead, the slower pace of Brideshead Revisited is dull in comparison – though by no means boring. If that makes any sense at all.

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The Glass Room (2009) – Simon MAWER

Ah, accidently buying books. Is there anything greater? I picked this off the shelf at work, to see what it was like. I made the mistake of eating pizza for lunch while I did so, and spilled tomato on it. As such, I couldn’t put it back on the shelf. So I had to buy it. At least it’s been shortlisted for this year’s Booker, so it can’t be that bad. Right?

The Landauers are just married. To celebrate, they want to build the most modern, most exciting house they can. And when they succeed in this, they put a family in it. But, of course, this is Czechoslovakia in the 30s. And Mr Landauer is Jewish. The Nazis are on their way, and the only way to escape is to leave their dream home. A life in exile is not what they’d planned, but it’s what they will have to get used to.

Well, there you go. That’s not really the story of the novel, which is a bit of a shame. Well, it’s the plot of the beginning of the novel. And it’s quite good. I like the two Landauers – Liesel and Viktor – and their relationship. As with so many new marriages, they are very excited by each other, but as the children start arriving, Viktor’s eye begins to wander. To a lovely lady – Kata. His mistress soon becomes, by a curious twist of fate, the nanny to his children, and close friends with his wife. This interesting threesome lasts quite a long time, and the relationship between Liesel and Kata is probably the most interesting in the novel. Even though they know that both of them are sleeping with Viktor, they try not to talk about it. Liesel comes out of it a bit worse for wear, when it finally becomes clear that he does care more for Kata than his wife

Also interesting is Liesel’s other best friend, Hana. Another woman with a Jewish husband, it turns out she actually has a crush on Liesel herself. This could have been an excellent opportunity to do something, but alas, Mawer does nothing with it. It’s like he ran out of steam halfway through, then decided to put some more bits on at the end. Weird.

Oddly enough, it is Hana on which the rest of the novel is hung. Once the Landauers are forced to leave their house, with its eponymous Glass Room, Mawer chooses to follow the history of the room itself as the plot. Which is a bit unfortunate, because the Landauers are the most interesting part of this novel. Once they leave, the house is turned into a Nazi science laboratory – which, again, could have been far more interesting than it turned out to be. Hana seduces the lead scientist, which leads to some interesting scenes (even though the Glass Room is a living room, made out of concrete and glass, there’s a lot of sex that takes place there. Weird). After this brief stint as a lab, it becomes a hospice for children needing physiotherapy, and that’s just not very interesting, so I’m not going to get into it here.

I know I haven’t really said much about this book, but there’s not really very much to say. It’s not a bad book – far from it. It’s just boring. And by that, I mean that it’s all been done before. It’s easy to read, and somewhat diverting, but there are better books doing the same thing. Like The Zookeeper’s War, for example, which covers similar territories of people having affairs in war torn part of Europe in World War 2, but does it better. The Glass Room tries to skate along on the fact that the room is a ‘character’, but it’s not enough. The Landauers are the most interesting part of the book, and they barely appear in the second half. Which is just stupid. This is generic World War 2 historical fiction at its most bland, which is nice for some, but I’m really looking for something with a bit more oomph in my literature.

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The General of the Dead Army (1963) – Ismail KADARE

And so my slight obsession with Albanian literature continues. Well, I say Albanian – I really mean Ismail Kadare. I don’t know what it is about him that I keep coming back to, but his writing combined with the really pretty Vintage Classics covers of some of his novels just makes me go back for more.

An Italian general has been sent on a mission. He must go to Albania and collect the bones of all the fallen soldiers from the Second World War. Tagging along with him is a military priest and a local expert. Over the two years that it takes them to complete this mammoth task, all sorts of memories of the past begin to surface that many people have tried to forget for the last twenty years. Memories of Italian mistreatment of the Albanian population, and diaries of the deceased Italian soldiers provide a fascinating insight into what life is like in an occupied country – from both sides.

I love the central concept that this novel weaves itself around. I love the idea of someone going back to collect the bones of the dead (hence the title of the novel) and being forced to relive events that he is desperately trying to forget. I love that he is going to a country that was occupied by his own army not twenty years ago. I think this is a really clever way of writing a war novel, and I think what Kadare does best is to not blame either side for what went on. Or, at least, I didn’t read any blame. What makes this novel even better is that it is told from the Italian point of view.

Kadare could have quite easily have taken the Albanian side, and given us an Italian general who is narky and insensitive, but instead, he has given us a character who feels old, tired, frustrated with what he is doing and the way he is going about it. His attempts to befriend the Albanians, who are still (quite rightly) bitter about the war, are lovely to see from his side, and the stonewalling he gets from the other side is frustratingly predictable. But in a good way – this smaller token of reconciliation is no doubt meant to represent relations between the two countries, and to see Albania being portrayed as the people unwilling to move on is more interesting than the predictable inevitability of making Italy the bad guys. Albania itself is not characterised as a particularly nice place. Most of the descriptions of the landscape paint it as bleak and uninviting – especially since the novel focuses much of its time on the general doing his job in the winter, in mountains and backwaters that inspire dreariness and grayness.

For me, the best parts of the novel were the flashbacks to the war itself – the highlight of this being a diary of a deserter who lives out his life on an Albanian farm. There’s something so beautiful and elegiac about the whole thing, you just want to read it forever. And that, I think, is where the novel’s main weakness is. I would have much rather seen Kadare focus more on the flashbacks and diaries than the present day, mainly because I think his writing is much better in these sections. He brings some kind of balance and thought into what he is writing here, and it makes for some really unique war reading. Not that he condones what is going on – these diaries are far more personal than the political machinations of what was going on around them. Much like the general in the present day, Kadare chooses to focus on the personal rather than the national. There are some other really nice touches – the story of the whorehouse in the small Albanian village is perfectly pitched, as is the old woman at the wedding at the end. The German general, another man here to collect the bones of his dead, is another nice character, though it would have been nice to see him a bit more in the novel – he becomes vitally important at the end, though he is not set up as being so in the main body.

There is a reason Ismail Kadare was able to break out of the shudder-inducing genre of “world literature” and become a respected author in his own right, and this novel encapsulates it. His ability to paint characters who are placed in situations that are universal, and does not have to rely on making Albania, or its history, the backbone of every novel he writes, so that people read it to feel intelligent and well-read. Hopefully, people read this book because it is a very good novel, not just because “that guy’s from Albania”.

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