Tag Archives: philosophy

A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Face of Another (1964) – ABE Kōbō

This is the third attempt I’ve made at reading The Face of Another (a clunky translation, but I can’t think of a better one, so I should probably shut up). Years ago, I watched a film called The Woman of the Dunes, which is based on another Abe novel. It’s a great film, and you should watch it if you get a chance, but it’s also very long, not a lot happens, and really focuses on the internal psyche of its main character. Coincidentally, that last sentence could just as easily be applied here.

A scientist has been horribly scarred from a chemical accident at his lab. His face is left a mess of keloid scars, and has resorted to wearing bandages to cover the sight every time he leaves his house. But one day he wonders what it would be like if he wore a mask. With this in mind, he sets out to create the perfect mask, one he can use to interact with everyday people. As with all scientific experiments, though, it has a high chance of going very, very wrong.

Obviously the disconnect between the face and the interior is not an exclusively Japanese concern – Western postmodernists have been having a field day with it since the 1960s – but I think it’s certainly one of the main concerns of Japan. This is unsurprising, when you consider just how much of Japanese society is based on external appearance, on presenting a polite face to the rest of teh group in order to avoid causing meiwaku, or trouble, for other people. There exists a gap, then, between what you must present to the rest of the group, and what you really think, and this provides fertile ground for authors and philosophers to explore questions of identity, and how much the world around us shapes who we are, and how much we can repress.

I use the word “philosopher” carefully and deliberately here, because this is as much a philosophical musing as a novel. One of the time-honoured “good things” about the written word is that we get the chance to see inside the inner workings of characters, to try and get inside their minds to understand why they do what they do. Abe doesn’t disappoint in this respect. A large chunk of this novel is not about plot or character, but about the potential implications for society if he goes ahead with his plans for the mask. We start with a treatise on faces, and the four main face-shape type, and how each one sees the world differently, and is seen differently by the world. It takes our protagonist some time to decide what kind of face he wants to project to the rest of the world, musing on the pros and cons of each type. Unsurprisingly, he eventually chooses a rather aggressive type, one that fits in with his strangely aggressive way of thinking.

The actual creation of the masks is glossed over quite quickly, though that is not really the point of the novel, so it doesn’t really matter. Once he has the mask, the tone and focus shift, and we begin to explore what the protagonist can do with this new face. He starts small, but gradually works up his courage to go out into the wider world and interact with people using the mask. This culminates in his conducting an affair with his own wife, disguised with the mask, to see if she can notice. She can’t. But there’s a rather nice twist at the end of this tale, and it turns out that the wife knew all along – how could she not? For her, it is not just from his face that she knows who he is, but from a whole host of other reasons.

One of the central concerns of our protagonist is his ability to see and understand the suffering of minority groups, particularly those minority groups who are visible in their difference – black Americans, for example, and the Koreans who live in Japan. He is now able to understand what it means to be ostricised by society simply by what you like. As such, he seeks out company with people like him – he drinks in Korean bars; he is enthralled by a young woman who has been visibly been affected by the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima. Of course, this is problematic – for the masked man, he now has the option to become “normal” by using his disguise, negating any sympathetic feeling he may have for these people. He acknowledges as such, which in many ways, only serves to strengthen his point about the importance of appearance. There’s a nice sub-plot, too, if you can call it that, where the protagonist has a series of conversations with the mentally disabled daughter of his landlord, who can see he is the same person, even with his mask on.

This is not an adventure novel. Plot and character are seemingly secondary to Abe’s wider vision – his desire to explore the ways in which people interact, both with faces and in other ways, overtakes any kind of literary fireworks or touches that may be present. But it’s an interesting premise, and some of the hypotheticals posed by the work leave you wondering about the ways in which we all lead our lives.

Tagged , , ,

Forbidden Colours (1953) – Yukio MISHIMA

Mishima is one of the big names in post-war Japanese fiction. I’ve read him before, but was left cold, feeling that he tends more towards philosophy than literature, if that makes sense. But as a person, he continues to fascinate me – particularly the tension in his life between his hard right-wing views, and his sexuality. I’m also impressed that one of the great post-war novelists in Japan is gay, so finding one of his novels that deals with this head-on, I had to give it a go.

When an old writer, Shunsuké Hinoki, discovers the young girl he’s having an affair with at the beach with a beautiful young man, he is not angry. On the contrary, he sees this as an opportunity to destroy the lives of the women in his life who have wronged him. And so using the young man, Yuichi, he begins to plot his revenge. As with the best laid plans, however, things begin to go wrong.

Since reading this post, I’ve been trying to think more about how women are represented in fiction, both by women who write, and by men who write. It’s something of a slap to the face, then, to read a novel that seems to hate women so much. The essential philosophy behind Mishima’s work is that, because gay men have no need for women, they are simply objects to be hated. Shunsuké’s hatred of women, in particular, is deeply ingrained, and deeply unpleasant. This is a man who has been married three times, but in reality, his view of women is that they can only ever be mothers, and since that is not something he has any interest in, there is no point to their existence. Then, the conscious decision to come up with an elaborate plan to cause pain to those women who have wronged him by making them fall in love with a beautiful young gay man, is pretty harsh.

And once Shunsuké gets his hands on Yuichi, the whole thing just gets worse. Perhaps I’m just optimistic, but I don’t think Yuichi necessarily hated women before he met Shunsuké, who essentially moulds Yuichi into what he wished he was when he was 21. At first, he comes off as young and naive, though this seems to be more to do with the fact that he thinks he is the only one attracted to men in this way. Once he begins to immerse himself in the Tokyo gay scene, however, he realises that he is far from alone. Far more importantly, though, he discovers that he is beautiful. Once he realises the power of his own beauty, he is able to turn the tables on everyone around him, particularly Shunsuké. He begins to do things without consulting Shunsuké, and even though they spend much of the novel apart, their relationship is what opens and closes this tale. Because, of course, Shunsuké is in love with Yuichi, though can never bring himself to do anything about it, for fear of being looked upon as old and ugly, something he considers himself to be.

There is other evidence to suggest that Yuichi may have been deeply influenced by Shunsuké. There are moments, small ones granted, scattered throughout the novel that suggest he truly loves his wife. Yasuko tends towards the shy, retiring wallflower cliché, but seems nice enough. And while Yuichi marries her out of familial duty more than anything else, he does fight off a would-be attacker at one stage, and does seem to enjoy the occasional cuddle with his legal wife.

The woman that provides the most interest here, though, is Mrs Kaburagi, an older woman who is renowned for her extra-marital affairs. Her relationship with her husband is fascinating, and though they seem to have an acceptable marriage to the general public, their dysfunction at home is fascinating in its banality. Her decision to have these affairs is born out out of the fact that she hasn’t slept with her husband in decades – his secret is, in the context of the novel, not particularly unexpected, though I was still taken aback.

Many of the characters may be disgusting, but they make sense. They are well drawn, and while you don’t necessarily feel sorry for them, you do glimpse an insight into their lives, and ways of thinking. How much of Mishima is in Shunsuké will no doubt keep academics arguing for eternity, though there are clear differences. This is one of his earlier novels, so perhaps he was worried that he would end up like Shunsuké. He (Mishima) is clearly ill at ease with the entire gay scene/culture, and while I wouldn’t say it was anti-gay, it certainly doesn’t portray the life of a gay man as a bed of roses.

And yet, despite all of this relentless negativity, this is a highly readable, and fascinating work. You certainly don’t come out the other end without being emotionally drained. Mishima manages to keep the philosophy as integral to the plot and characters, making this a surprisingly cohesive text. This is the work of a genius, and while it will make you uncomfortable, you should definitely read it.

Tagged , , ,

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) – Yukio MISHIMA

So, this book has been sitting on my shelf for a stupidly long time. And I told myself I would actually read everything that has been lying around before I go wasting my money on new books. Which is sorely tempting, but I’m down to the last few on the shelf. I can do it! Also, I’m supposed to be studying right now – this is much more fun.

When our young narrator visits the Golden Temple with his father, a Buddhist priest, he is overwhelmed by its beauty, and spends many years of his life obsessing over it. Himself an acolyte (trainee priest), he moves to study at the Golden Temple after his father dies, and is expected to become the successor of the current temple leader. Life, however, gets in the way, and the young man instead finds himself obsessing over ideas of beauty and life, all of which will have a greater impact than anyone could imagine.

It’s a little hard to review this on the points on which people usually review novels. This book is just one big philosophical character study, and how philosophy gets in the way of real life. Or that’s what I got out of it anyway. The narrator, Mizoguchi, spends so much time thinking about the innateness (or otherwise) of beauty, he has no time to actually think for himself. He is just swayed by people around him and, to be totally honest, strikes me as a bit of a wet blanket. His inability to think for himself is clearly delineated with his relationship with two characters – Tsurukawa and Kashiwagi. While Tsurukawa is his childhood friend, the one with whom he has a little fun, and doesn’t muse too heavily on the big things, once he gets to university, Mizoguchi’s friendship with Kashiwagi, a bitter, twisted young man with clubfeet, turns him into what he eventually becomes – a criminal. Kashiwagi’s manipulative and twisted ways of getting people to do things for him are perhaps code for the liberal movement in Japan – Mishima was certainly not particularly liberal in any of his views.

So, do I judge it on the philosophy, then? Probably not – more because I’m not in any position to judge any kind of philosophy. Most of it makes me fall asleep, and I’m going to be honest here, I did get very bored every time Kashiwagi opened his mouth to make some sweeping statement about the philosophy of life and beauty, which lasted several pages. To be fair, though, some of the ideas about beauty, and the insane logic that Mizoguchi uses to get to his final position, is pretty interesting, and as backstory for the inner machinations of one character, it works really well. Which, I suppose, in the end, it what this book is really about.

Mishima based this novel on an event that actually occured in 1950 – someone did, in fact, go and burn down Kinkaku-ji. Though, it has been rebuilt today. And I guess that’s what Mishima was trying to do – work out for himself, as well as everyone else, why on earth anyone would even consider burning down this vital part of Japanese history and culture. He succeeds on this front, and provides an interesting profile of someone who clearly thinks too much, and uses this weird logic to get to a stage that most people wouldn’t even dream of. It does feel like some kind of biography, as though someone is writing this cathartic confession of why they did what they did.  As a novel, though, it tends to drag – though, oddly enough, the middle is where it picks up, and the second half is much better – and the plot is a bit tacked on. I would read Mishima again, so that’s something, I suppose.

Tagged , , ,

The Pages (2008) – Murray BAIL

The combination of a birthday and a new book by an author who you love is always good. Especially since I didn’t know that Murray Bail had finally written another novel. My bad. So, does it live up to Murray Bail’s excellent? And more importantly, was it a good birthday present?

Erica Hazelhurst is a philosopher working at Sydney University, and has been asked to go out west to investigate the personal papers of Wesley Antill, whose will asked that they published as a philosophy, on the advice of his siblings. With her friend Sophie, a psychoanalyst, they travel to the farm on which he lived, where his two siblings – sister Lindsey, and brother Roger – are waiting to give Erica the lowdown on their recently deceased brother. As Erica starts to investigate the pages of Wesley’s philosophy, everything around her starts to change.

To be fair, not a lot happens in this book. At all. It starts off with some excellent promise, with Erica and Sophie introduced to us as they drive out west, in a typically excellent Bail way. Unfortunately, though, neither of them are very strong characters, instead (to use a painting metaphor) painted with kind of broad strokes that don’t really tell us that much about them. Erica doesn’t talk that much, and Sophie talks a little. Both prefer to listen to other people, and while Lindsey is a bit of a talker, Roger is the strong but silent type that just sits down and watches the landscape.

The more interesting parts of the novel are contained in Wesley’s flashbacks, in alternating chapters, to his time in Sydney and Europe, continuing Bail’s interest in Australians overseas, as in his first novel, Homesickness. His experiences with philosophy, and how it affects and changes him are interesting, with Bail preferring to ponder what philosophy does to someone, rather than what philosophy has to say about life itself. His time in Europe meanders around, until the very end (by which stage, I was wondering how on earth the book could possibly end, considering I had so few pages to do, and no sort of conclusion in sight), when the whole thing falls into place.

The best thing about this novel is, of course, its language. Once again, Bail shows himself to be a master of language and description, and he is in his element here when talking about the landscape out west of Sydney, and even some parts of Sydney itself are excellent. The Europe parts, not so much, except maybe some of the parts in London, a highly unphilosophical town.

To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by The Pages. It is a short little thing that tries to talk about philosophy in an interesting and unusual way, but it is just too short and light to be very good at that. For me, a story like this needs to be either a short story, or a massive, sprawling novel. Instead, it kind of meanders around its characters, not really allowing them to be very much (the three women in particular), and kind of leaving you feeling a bit flat.

Tagged , , ,