Japanese & Chinese

GARDEN BY YUICHI YOKOYAMA

Unknown. He works at the Post Office. I’m here to pick up a package that could not be delivered to my home. ‘I haven’t seen you for a while,’ he says. I used to order more packages than I do now. ‘I don’t buy as many books these days,’ I say. Not all my packages contain books but it’s easier to allow him to think that they do. He hands me my book-shaped package.

Andreea. We are talking about architecture and geometry. I speak with authority, although I am not especially knowledgeable about such things. It is possible, in fact, that I have directed the conversation towards these subjects purely in order to be able to discuss the book I am reading, which, conveniently, I have in my bag. I take the book from my bag and place it on the table. I open it at random. She peers over the two page spread. I shift my chair closer to hers. She appears to be interested. She points at one of the pages. The characters have caught her eye. At first glance one would say that they are dressed in strange and flamboyant outfits, like professional wrestlers. Upon closer inspection, however, some of the characters, perhaps most of them, do not appear to be human. I put the book away, so as to avoid spilling beer on it.

Ballal. I am outside smoking a cigarette. He is puffing on an e-cigarette. We have been talking about The Lonely Doll for approximately ten minutes. I have shown him a number of the book’s photographs on my phone. He likes me to tell him about the unusual books that I have read, of which The Lonely Doll was the most recent. There is a brief period of silence. I check the time. We must return to work in approximately five minutes. ‘At the moment,’ I say, eventually, ‘I am reading this thing about a bunch of people who break into a garden.’ I immediately regret this statement. We return to work early.

Rebecca. She looks confused. Or bored. I would like to show her the drawings, but I did not bring the book with me. ‘It is not an ordinary garden,’ I say. I am aware that this is not normal or advisable post-intercourse conversation. ‘Almost everything within it is man-made, non-organic; yet many of these structures, objects, and machines resemble the natural world.’ It is likely that I am saying these things in an attempt to avoid any uncomfortable post-sex sharing of feelings or physical closeness. ‘A waterfall of balls, a paper mountain, a river of photographs.’ In short, I do not want to cuddle.

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Mother. [on the phone] ‘…There are some natural objects in the garden – such as the boulders – but these have been arranged for a specific effect. Everything within the garden has been arranged for effect. The garden as a whole has been carefully designed, but it is not clear why, for what purpose. In fact, nothing about the garden is explained. Who designed it? Who built it? None of your questions are answered. I’m enjoying it. The book, I mean. It’s like walking around a modern art space, a gallery, a big one; or something like that. Or like an abandoned amusement park. Or, more accurately, an amusement park that gives the appearance of being abandoned. I talk a lot of shit, mum…’

Myself. The behaviour of the characters is mechanical. They move forward as if propelled, rather than of their own free will. Or something. I talk a lot of shit. If they – the characters – see a ladder they climb it; if they encounter a door they go through it. Their behaviour gives the impression of being one part of a larger mechanism; of being, I should say, a small but essential part of the overall design, of the garden itself. I was put in the mind of the Mouse Trap game, in which they  – the characters – would be the ball, of course.

Unknown. They live next door. We are in the elevator. We are heading for the second floor. Therefore, it will be a short journey. Strictly speaking, they do not live ‘next door,’ but on the same floor as me. We are travelling upwards, from the ground floor. ‘It’s funnier than it sounds,’ I find the time to say. ‘The style is clinical, geometric; and that sounds dull, perhaps.’ They smile in unison. I am pretty sure they are stoned. This is the first conversation we have had, even though they moved in approximately six months ago. ‘The funny looking characters,’ I say, ‘and how they appear to multiply as the book progresses.’ The landing smells almost constantly of weed now. ‘The exhibits – if you want to call them that – become more outlandish, bigger and more dramatic, too. I don’t know the technical term for it; I am sure there is a technical term for it…’ They are both still smiling. ‘…how the ‘camera’ pans out, if you know what I mean. In the beginning, the images are close ups, or something; and then, later, there is a, uh, definite panning out, so to speak, to reveal grander exhibits, mountains and such; and the people, they get smaller, further away. Or something.’

You. I now realise that I did not successfully explain to the neighbours how, in what way, the book is funny. What I said to them, I now realise, was not amusing. If I had my time again, or more time, I would say that what seems to be a small group of people request to enter the garden. They are refused and so break in. Then, as the story progresses, you notice that there are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of them running around this huge, absurd, and very dangerous, place. This made me laugh. Especially as they have chosen to be there, to do this; for no rational reason, or no reason at all. Which is to say that, in conclusion, the sheer lunacy of the whole thing strikes you, after a while.

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FRACTION BY SHINTARO KAGO

Have you ever wondered if what I write here is true? If the face I present to the public is genuine? Isn’t it possible that everything I appear to reveal about myself and my life is fiction? It could be the case, for example, that I am not English, nor even a man. There have been many occasions that I have been solicited for a meeting through this website, and one of these women – for they are almost always women – began to stalk me. She moved to my city, and for what? For a phantom, perhaps. Whatever she thought she knew about me she had garnered from here, from my writing. The connection that she imagined we had was based on an illusion or at least an idea in her own head, rather than any living person. There is an assumption, a kind of naive trust or blind faith, that what is written in the first person, in a context known for being factual, can be taken on face value. The public are, for want of a better word, gullible, especially when experience has conditioned them to have certain expectations. It would be easy, therefore, for me to manipulate them, to manipulate you.

“I give up on ero guro! I will write a story without nudity, without murders, without guts hanging out, without scat, S&M, or torture scenes!”

Shintaro Kago’s Fraction manga is, at least in part, a murder mystery involving a serial killer called The Slicing Devil and a potential copycat. It seems, in the early stages, that the author/artist is paying homage to Edogawa Rampo and the like. Certainly he is working within the ero guro – erotic grotesque – style and genre, with which he, and Rampo too, is primarily associated. This means that there are a number of gruesome images, one of which adorns the cover, and some that are fairly explicit. I won’t focus too much on Kago’s art, as you can check it out for yourself, but there is a pleasing, and appropriate, realism and sophistication to it. The aforementioned cover image is particularly striking, what with the way that the eyes appear to be making contact with your own, despite the top of the girl’s head having been sliced off. In any case, the mystery at the centre of the story is not the identity of the serial killer; that is revealed almost immediately. What Kago does instead is very clever: he makes his murderer the pursuing detective.

Whilst in Uzumaki the characters were barely one dimensional, those in Fraction are at least a little more well rounded. The serial killer, for example, believes that his actions are just, that he in fact embodies justice. Kago gives you some idea of his personal history also, explaining that he is motivated to murder as a kind of payback for his brother’s suicide. This brother, whom he also talks to in his moments of doubt or weakness, killed himself because of a woman. The Slicing Devil, therefore, focuses on female victims, cutting them in half to reflect the way that his brother was dismembered by a train when he threw himself on the tracks. There are, of course, no impressive psychological insights here; it’s all a bit pulpy and ridiculous; but it does flesh out the story. There is less a sense of the characters sleepwalking through the book than I have found in other manga; they have emotions, motivations and meaningful conversations and interactions.

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When the copycat killings start The Slicing Devil is understandably perturbed. Indeed, he amusingly lambasts his rival’s ‘sick needs’ and, as previously suggested, begins to investigate. In other words, he becomes more concerned with catching, or unmasking, the copycat than he does with his own, self-styled, righteous mission. This too is somewhat amusing. As this story progresses, Kago increasingly seeks to bamboozle the reader by implying that all may not be as it seems. It could be, for example, that his serial killer is not actually a killer after all, rather that he is simply a man so traumatised by his brother’s death that he is having a psychotic breakdown, that he is, therefore, imagining or hallucinating the murders or at least his part in them. Certainly two people whose deaths he witnesses later turn up alive. It is also hinted that the brother might not be dead after all, and he may be one or both of the killers. Finally, it is possible that The Slicing Devil is both the killer and the copycat, and as such is actually investigating himself.

So far I have perhaps made Fraction sound something like a comic book version of the film Memento, and that isn’t an entirely inappropriate comparison. However, The Slicing Devil is only one of the novel’s two main sections or stories. The second is called The Manga Artist and features Kago himself, mostly in conversation with a publisher. I must admit that initially I rolled my eyes, having a particular dislike of authors appearing in their own work, but I quickly found that I enjoyed this part of Fraction immensely. What makes The Manga Artist worthwhile, and so stimulating, is not how it provides the answers to the book’s central mystery, or at least helps to tie all the threads together, but how Kago intelligently discusses the nature, limitations and possibilities of manga, both for him personally and as as art form. In the beginning, Kago states that he should move away from ero guro towards something more commercially viable. A manga artist must, of course, make his living, and drawing guts and blood, rape and murder, is not the quickest, or most certain, route to success. Moreover, he acknowledges that while violence is fun to draw there isn’t a lot else to it, indicating that it isn’t intellectually engaging enough for him.

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The central theme of The Manga Artist, and Fraction as a whole, is narrative manipulation, which is, by Kago’s definition, when an author tricks, or manipulates, the reader, rather than the characters. He admits that this is much easier with words or film, because in the former anything can be suggested without visual proof and in the latter there are things such as lighting, effects and fluid motion. Manga, however, is necessarily static and one is limited to a few boxes per page. Kago does, in any case, give some examples of how narrative manipulation in manga might be achieved, with my favourite being the idea that a group of images within a frame can look like certain, identifiable things, but without the frame they are revealed to be something else [i.e. a monster]. He also discusses how the audience accept the images within a graphic novel on face value, because their expectation is that they are being given the whole story, that they aren’t being tricked. What Kago does in The Manga Artist is cast doubt; he makes you question your assumptions, your ideas, your eyes, and ultimately how you interact with the world.

UZUMAKI BY JUNJI ITO

Words brought me here. Or, I should say, my desire to avoid them. Except that they are, of course, unavoidable. I feel them like a heavy weight that bears down upon my head, such that every crude sound my lips make is painful to me. The knitting-circle nattering of my mind is even worse. And this? What I am doing now? This is the third wall that completes my triangular prison. My run down, but secure prison. I don’t want to write, but words come, regardless. Painful and inadequate words; but if not this, then the gurgle or the drone. I sometimes wonder if the only solution is death, but death is, I fear, a canny bastard. How can one even contemplate or summon it without words? My weariness astonishes me.

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I tried to hide behind my eyes. To pass the time staring mindlessly at pictures. To feel without words. Yet I ultimately realised that I can only process and understand images through the filter of language.

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Uzumaki was part of this failed experiment. I had always searched for myself in books, but my aim this time was to escape, to escape my own narrative, my words, the words that not only define me but are, in fact, all that I am. However, the opposite occurred. I found myself in Junji Ito’s world, in his city contaminated by spirals. I understood the paranoia and the obsession of the locals. They see the spiral everywhere, in the shell of the snail, in the cochlea of the ear, in the twist of the hair, in the swirl of water and the drift of smoke.

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The book is full of grotesque images of the kind one would find in something like The Exorcist or Evil Dead. One episode, involving the reinsertion of a baby into its mother’s womb, and the drilling for blood by mosquito women, was particularly, and memorably, gruesome and unnerving. Yet part of what makes the book so impressive is that Ito’s horror works on two levels. There is the physical horror, whereby the body is manipulated, such that, for example, people are turned into snails and then often eaten; and there is also the psychological horror, the sense that, in the early stages at least, what is happening might be no more than ordinary human madness. In fact, even the most obvious examples of physical horror have a psychological element. The mosquitos, for example, with their endless buzzing, and the fear that they will penetrate the ear. There is, moreover, the spiral itself, and how Ito manages to transform this innocuous shape or pattern into something sinister, much like the way that Hitchcock did with birds.

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With the emphasis being on the visual, it is natural that the story, and the characters, are underdeveloped. The plot is episodic and it never really goes anywhere, except that the horror increases in intensity and gore. The ending is also unsatisfying, not so much because it doesn’t truly resolve anything, but because it suggests a love element that isn’t really there in the rest of the story.

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It is said of many horror films that they are morality tales. It is the bullies, the promiscuous, etc, that often make up the body count. The same is true of Uzumaki. Or, certainly, Ito at times appeared to want to make his story karmic in that way, with the bad people getting their comeuppance. Towards the middle of the book, he focusses on those who seek attention, both from the opposite sex and from their peers. One such episode ushers in Azami, Uzumaki‘s most celebrated character, who has a scar on her head that is said to make her irresistible to men. However, Ito doesn’t follow through on this idea and even if he had it isn’t sophisticated enough to make it a reason to pick up the book.

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Uzumaki is stunning in places, is worthy of the praise it has had, and the regard in which it is held, but not for anything that you would associate with conventional literature. Moreover, although my experiment failed, and it did not resolve any of my issues, or provide any answers, for the respite that it gave me, I am grateful.

BEAST IN THE SHADOWS BY EDOGAWA RAMPO

I’ve written about this before. My troubled relationship with reality. My mania for narratives. My madness. My doubt. I doubt everything. For every event I could, and quite often do, create multiple stories or explanations. My need to confront the truth of the world means, ironically, that the truth is inaccessible to me. That is if it could be said to exist at all. The truth, I mean. Or maybe not inaccessible, but unidentifiable. The truth  – if it exists at all, if it isn’t a meaningless concept – is simply one possibility amongst many, all of which have equal standing, all of which are equally persuasive. I can work the facets of every case, every event, no matter how banal or dramatic, into a series of believable, logical theories. I doubt everything and therefore I am capable of convincing myself of anything. My mind is hyperactive, oppressive. It attaches itself to things like the Kraken does a ship. I didn’t want to write about this again. I’m wary of boring you all; yet Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo has made this necessary.

“I regret my proclivity to reasoning and fantasy, but regret though I might it is not enough. I feel like walking, searching Japan – no, every corner of the earth – in a lifelong pilgrimage to discover the whereabouts of Hirata Ichiro-Oe Shundai, even though I know it might be pointless.”

As published by Kurodahan Press, Beast in the Shadows is teamed with the more famous, yet seemingly less well-thought of, certainly judging by the reviews I read, The Black Lizard. That story, by all accounts, is a bit of pulp nonsense featuring a femme fatale master criminal – a description that, I must admit, appeals to me greatly – while the novel under review here – although it too has its moments of nonsense and does feature a woman who might not be what she seems – is a more serious, cerebral affair. I don’t know much about Edogawa Rampo, whose real name was Hirai Taro, but his pseudonym, which was chosen as a homage to Poe [say Edogawa Rampo quickly, preferably out loud], displays not only a kind of playfulness, but also suggests a keen interest in, almost reverence for, the major writers working within the genres that he did himself. I mention this because Beast in the Shadows read, at times, like a homage itself to the golden age of crime fiction, and also partly as an essay on what crime fiction is or could be.

The novel is narrated by a writer of detective novels and involves a search for another, the reclusive Oe Shundai. Much is made by Rampo, via his narrator, of the differences between the work of the two men. ‘There are two types of detective novelist,’ is how the story begins. One of these types is what Rampo calls ‘the criminal sort.’ These are people who are interested mostly in the perpetrator, their cruel psychology and gruesome acts. The other is ‘the detective type,’ who is ‘indifferent to the criminal’s psychology’ and concerns himself with ‘the intellectual process of detection.’ The narrator, and the author himself, are the latter, while Shundai is the former. It is clear then that Rampo was making a judgement. He was, at least indirectly, nailing his colours to the mast regarding what he considered to be the superior kind of crime fiction. Indeed, the pages of Shundai’s novels are [disparagingly] said to be full of ‘uncommon suspicions, secrecy, and cruelty’; there is, we’re told, a ‘strange ghastliness’ pervading them.

Yet the cutting critique reveals more than Rampo’s ideas in relation to, and his feelings towards, the crime genre and the different approaches to it. Shundai is the more successful of the two writers, and one can’t help but see in the narrator’s remarks an intense professional jealousy. At one point he calls his rival a man who ‘lived the criminal life with the same passion a brutal killer feels when he commits murder.’ He doesn’t stop at attacking his work either. He is described as an obese, unattractive man who, rumour has it, spends all day and night in bed. He’s a ‘vengeful devil’ and ‘poisonous spider.’ It’s worth noting that when discussing himself he states that he is in ‘no way a bad person’, that, in fact, there are ‘few as virtuous’ as he is. During the early stages of the story it might strike one that not only is the narrator biased, and therefore his words are not to be taken on face value, but also that he is perhaps a leading candidate as a suspect. Indeed, it is usually the case that anyone who insists upon their own goodness so vehemently has something to hide.

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The likely bias of the narrator is, however, only one aspect of an overall sense of uncertainty and unreliability, of confusion and doubt. The basic plot of the novel is that a woman, with whom the narrator becomes involved, is being stalked and threatened by Shundai. Many of the supposed facts of the case – such as the prior relationship between Shizuko and Shundai, and their less than amicable break up – are unproven, are simply one person’s word or interpretation of events. Indeed, rumours and hearsay dominate the story. Nothing is concrete; everything is unstable. No one, for example, has ever met or even really seen Shundai, apart from Shizuko, and that was many years ago [if she is to be believed]. The one occasion he is said to be present in the novel happens at night and he – if it is him, not some vagrant – is dressed as a clown. Moreover, the person who is reporting the sighting admits to being a ‘little drunk’ at the time.

As a consequence of his absence, because we don’t know who Shundai really is, because he isn’t a fixed character, he could in fact be anyone: the narrator, the taxi driver, the journalist, Shizuko’s husband, or even Shizuko herself. I wrote earlier that Beast in the Shadows is a kind of homage to golden age crime fiction, but what sets it apart, what makes more than a flimsy bit of nostalgia, what makes it worth reading, is that, unlike the work of Agatha Christie, for example, there are in Rampo’s novel no answers, there is no resolution. The narrator – who one comes to trust, rightly or wrongly, a little more as the story unfolds – puts together one theory, which is plausible, which one believes, until, of course, he rubbishes it, finds a flaw in it, albeit not a fatal flaw, and then comes up with another. He does this multiple times. He doubts everything, and consequently finds himself able to believe anything, to convince himself of anything. The goal is, of course, to uncover the truth, but the truth – if it exists at all – does not standup and confidently announce itself. It is triksy, supple, and swift on its feet.

THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES BY KOBO ABE

One of my favourite topics of conversation is the relationship between man and the natural world. We are, where nature is concerned, both lovers and fighters, protectors and conquerers, but the mountain, the desert, or whatever, is, amusingly, entirely indifferent to us. The natural world cares not a fig for man and his intentions and desires. Yet this does not prevent us from being almost completely at its mercy; we are helpless in the face of the big wave, the punishing sun, the labyrinthian forest…the deluge, the drought…the snowstorm, the earthquake.

Despite being the indoor type, there have been a few times that I have been exposed to this power. For example, I was once caught out in a rainstorm, which came with a force I was unaccustomed to and unprepared for. The rain beat down; it cudgeled me. Within seconds my entire body was soaking wet, so that touching myself was like immersing my hand in a cold river. I could have hailed a taxi, but I had quickly descended into a state close to madness. I took the rain to be my enemy, to be something I had to overcome. I cursed the sky under my breath; I cursed a God I don’t believe in. And I plodded on, in shoes that now had the consistency, and protective capacity, of cardboard. My hair fell into my eyes, grasped at my face. My glasses were useless. I couldn’t see. One downpour and I had stopped being able to function; I had been brought to my knees.

All of which puts me in mind of Kobo Abe’s claustrophobic classic The Woman in the Dunes. The novel begins with a kind of preface concerning the disappearance of Jumpei, an ordinary man, a teacher, who, we’re told, having a keen interest in the natural world, had set out one August day in order to study insects in a sandy region of Japan, and had not returned. A few theories are floated – another woman? Suicide? – but we soon find out that he has, in a sense, been kidnapped, that he has been tricked into staying in a house at the bottom of what is essentially a large, unstable hole in the ground.

“What in heaven’s name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature’s mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man’s understanding?”

The layman perception of sand, or this layman anyway, is that it is relatively hostile to life. Indeed, Jumpei – who is, if not an authority on the subject, at least fairly knowledgeable – acknowledges that is an ‘unfavourable environment’ in which only certain, especially adaptable, creatures, such as flies, can thrive. So, from the earliest stages of the novel, even before the teacher is captured, one is left in no doubt that it is not compatible with man. In fact, Abe, impressively borrowing from the horror genre, makes it seem almost sinister. At one point Jumpei sits down for a cigarette, and the sand, the ever mobile sand, starts to encroach, to cover his trousers, to almost devour him like a malevolent, hungry beast.

However, it is when he finds himself in the hole, and is denied almost all manmade comforts, that he is forced into a true, dire confrontation with the substance, with, essentially, the natural world. It is interesting, in this regard, that Jumpei is a teacher, a pedagogue, because one generally sees them as logical and assured. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Abe chose to pit such a man against something – sand – that cannot, of course, be reasoned with. Moreover, numerous times the sand does not conform to Jumpei’s expectations, suggesting that it cannot be predicted or worked out either.

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Generally speaking, I avoid descriptions, certainly in list form, of situations, important action or plot, but in this instance I believe it is necessary to fully understand the teacher’s brutal relationship with such apparently innocuous ‘stuff.’ Jumpei finds that it sticks to his face, to his body; it inflames his eyes; it gets into his mouth, and a ‘brownish scum’ oozes from the corners of his lips; and when he pulls his packet of cigarettes from his pocket there is sand there too. It gets, without exaggeration, everywhere, and it is not, as noted, friendly. Even the house, it is said, is being rotted by the sand, so that it unceasingly pours through the roof. In one of the novel’s most absurd, and funny, scenes Jumpei eats his food while the woman holds an umbrella over his head. Meanwhile, there is always the threat of a fatal avalanche or sandslide.

In this way, The Woman in the Dunes is significantly different from the work of Kafka, or certainly his two major novels, to which it is frequently compared. Kafka’s protagonists are oppressed by man; they are thrown into absurd situations and try to get answers, try to make headway, but find that other people, in their irrationality, ignorance or stupidity, prevent them from doing so; they are symbolically, not literally trapped. You see something of this in Abe’s work, for Jumpei is forced to remain in the hole by the villagers, despite his protestations, but their behaviour is not irrational, it is done, perhaps unfeelingly, but for a very specific, logical, reason. Therefore, Dunes actually has more in common with Fowles’ The Collector, or with films such as The Human Centipede or the more recent Room. Moreover, although there is snow in The Castle, it does not act as K.’s oppressor, he does not enter [willingly or otherwise] into battle with it.

“The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.”

I have not, so far, much concerned myself with the woman of the title. I imagine that you have guessed already that she lives in the house at the bottom of the hole, that it is her home. There was, for me, something amusing about this set-up. Not only is Jumpei kidnapped, and forced to live and work in a sandy hell, he is supplied with what is essentially a wife, one not of his own choosing. For anyone who suffers from intimacy, or commitment, issues this will no doubt cause a few shudders. The woman is referred to by the villagers as ‘granny,’ even though she apparently looks around thirty, one would assume as a way of suggesting that the environment has taken a toll on her, and as a way of making Jumpei’s situation seem even more grim [one thing being locked up with a sexpot, another with a grandmother] and to emphasise her lack of sexual appeal.

The woman is, moreover, consistently submissive. One wonders if this is a tactic she employs in order to disarm the teacher, and keep him calm, in the same way that one might freeze in the face of an agitated animal. Yet, as the novel progresses, it struck me that it is more suggestive of her status as a victim. One tends to immediately sympathise with Jumpei because he has been taken out of his ‘natural’ environment, he has more obviously lost something, been denied something i.e. his freedom. But I came to view the tragedy of the novel to be the woman’s, not his. She is resigned to her fate, to living in such awful conditions; she doesn’t desire anything, it seems, except company, if not from a man then from a radio or a mirror, at least. She, and indeed all the villagers, are, in a sense, social outcasts, they are Japan’s poor, forgotten and abandoned. There was, and perhaps still is, a caste system in the country, and one might see the villagers as representative of the lowest order, called Burakumin.

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Numerous times throughout the novel Abe points out that sand is never stationary, in other words it is free, which is ironic because Jumpei is not, of course. It is hardly a surprise that freedom is the central theme of the book, but it extends beyond the kidnapping. First of all, Jumpei’s holiday, his going to the dunes, is clearly a form of escape. It is something that he does in order to take a break from his unsatisfying existence. So, in essence, he swaps one form of slavery, one unfree mode of living, for another. Moreover, to be imprisoned is, without question, unpleasant, but it is more unpleasant, one would imagine, if your ‘cellmate’ cannot, or will not, acknowledge that you, and she, are actually in prison. I thought that was a clever, subtle twist.

Yet what is most important, most moving, is what Abe has to say about the nature of freedom, about what it consists of. Throughout the book Jumpei is looking for ways to get out, to return to the surface, and he also, at times, refuses to work, to clear away the sand. However, by the end of the novel, he discovers water, or a way of extracting water from the sand, and this discovery delights and stimulates him, to such an extent that he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay and work on it. Therefore, the ultimate message of The Woman in the Dunes seems to be that freedom is not about being able to go where you want to go, it is to be free from repetitive action, from mind-numbing work. To live, to be free, is to be fulfilled; it is hope, it is meaningful preoccupation. Which is, all told, a lovely sentiment.

The pictures in this review are stills taken from the 1964 film adaption of the book, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

HOUSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES BY YASUNARI KAWABATA

Recently, I have found myself daydreaming about my past partners, specifically the most intimate moments; not for masturbatory purposes, nor because I long to go back and be with those girls, but because I find the openness, the opportunity that was afforded me in those moments, extraordinary. That someone would let me, would want me to caress their bare skin, or kiss their thigh, still stuns me. Then it occurs to me, while wandering through these pointless daydreams, that someday the skin I once caressed will be shrivelled and sagging and old, and I am forced to acknowledge to myself that my own will be too, and that the desire to plant those types of kisses will seem ridiculous, if it even exists within me at all; and that likewise, the desire to be kissed by me will exist in fewer and fewer women.

In House of the Sleeping Beauties Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata explores many of these same feelings, focussing on memory, death, old age, eroticism, innocence etc. Eguchi, a sixty-seven year old man, arrives at a house, that is something like a brothel, where one can pay so as to be allowed to sleep beside a young woman. And by sleep we mean sleep. The girls have been put under before you enter the room, and will not wake no matter what you do. Yet visitors must not engage in any ‘funny stuff,’ such as putting a finger in a girl’s mouth. It is only by behaving yourself that you will become a trusted customer. One of these trusted customers is Kega, who introduced Eguchi to the place, and who he describes as being so old that he is ‘no longer a man.’ It is not made explicit in the text but it is clear that what he means by this, at least in part, is that he can no longer have sex, and so he is of course no threat to the girls in the house, he is no threat to any woman anywhere.

“A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, ‘the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned.”

Eguchi, although advanced in years, is not quite in the same situation; he is shocked by how beautiful the first girl is, and that shock, you could say, is the stirring of desire, a sign of life, of vitality. Moreover, he wants to violently rouse her, indicating that he isn’t ready yet to give up on life, to settle for a living toy, and get his kicks only in his mind. As is often the case with Kawabata’s work, the natural world could be said to further illuminate the author’s themes and mirror the main character’s emotional and mental state. Once inside the room Eguchi notes that the wind is bringing the sound of approaching winter, and winter is of course the final season of the year, the one that we would most associate with death, with barrenness, with unhappiness. The old man also hears the sound of crashing waves, which, again, suggests life and vitality, and even rage.

Tellingly, Kega confesses to Eguchi that it is only when sleeping beside one of the girls that he feels alive, which hints at the special allure of the house. The girls are not simply there to provide a passive kind of companionship. That could be got in any number of ways. The girls act as a reminder, they ferry the old men back to a time when they were in reality going to bed beside young women or at least when there was the possibility of doing so; they make the men feel young again, helping them to forget that they are eyeballing death…because who can think about the end when there is a beautiful, naked young woman in bed with you? Bearing in mind the emotional and physical state of these men, it is also important that the girls themselves are non-threatening; if they are not awake they cannot judge, even silently, and there can be no awkward conversation, no expectations, and no obvious, embarrassing generational gap. It is only when they are asleep that the fantasy can be maintained.

Baron Raimond von Stillfried - Sleeping Japanese Woman 1870

Had Eguchi been a Kega, had his experience of the house been as entirely positive, the story would not be as interesting as it is. Certainly in the beginning, far from finding peace in the situation, he feels disquieted by it, as indicated by the poem he recites to himself, which references drowned corpses. Moreover, one of the women is referred to as a ‘phantom.’ This could be understood as a reference to her white, unblemished skin, but the real significance of this comparison is in the girls being, like the men themselves, somewhere between life and death. Sleep, which is often called the cousin of death, is a strange intermediary stage between the two states of being, having much in common with both. The sleeping beauties are, in a way, like corporeal, touchable memories or fantasies; they are malleable, supple; they can be manipulated into being anything [imaginatively, not literally]. Sex dolls work in much the same way, in that anything can be projected onto them.

Yet, as with all great literature, it is possible to see more in the story than the specific situation Kawabata describes. Making my way through it for the second time I was put in mind of Jeffrey Dahmer, who claimed that he zombified his victims so that they wouldn’t run away or refuse him. One could, therefore, interpret House of the Sleeping Beauties as a comment on human neediness, a neediness that isn’t limited to the elderly. Also, more could be made of what I was discussing above, in relation to sex dolls. It is becoming increasingly the case that men [and women too perhaps] don’t want and cannot handle real people; what they want is something perfect, something visually clean and pure, something always obliging. You need only look at the popularity of the dead-eyed, plastic princesses of porn; these women always look great, are never unavailable, and, crucially, do not ask anything from you. In contrast, reality is icky, it is disappointing; real people disagree with you sometimes, they have their own desires and demands.

It has become a cliché to describe Kawabata’s prose as Haiku-like, which, as with many sound bites and blurb-worthy comments, is nonsense. However, his style is economical and unfussy, with the writer preferring short evocative sentences and, for the most part, avoiding metaphors and similes. This goes some way to explaining why his work seems clean and graceful, despite the often unpleasant content. Yet it is also worth noting that with House of the Sleeping Beauties Kawabata’s touch is not as light as in his most well known novels, Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, with a greater emphasis on psychologically probing his characters and situations. Indeed, numerous times during my reading I had noted down an idea or interpretation, only for the writer to himself voice that idea a few pages later. This is perhaps why the story appealed so strongly to Yukio Mishima, who thought it one of Kawabata’s best, if not the best of all. In fact, there is a rumour, which I don’t take seriously, that Mishima himself may have written it. In any case, none of this is meant as a criticism. This is, without question, one of the top-tier novellas, as beautifully dreamy, and moving and perfect as Casares’ The Invention of Morel and Turgenev’s First Love.

House of the Sleeping Beauties usually comes packaged with two other stories, One Arm and Of Birds and Beasts, which are much shorter. Both are fine, but I did not feel compelled to write about either of them.

SILENCE BY SHUSAKU ENDO

I’m not a religious man, although I wish that I was. I’ve said before, elsewhere, that believing in God would, I think, relieve or put an end to a lot of my anxiety. Much of the time I feel awfully lost, and ashamed of my own weakness, my own humanity. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t simply self-loathing; I’m ashamed of the rest of you too. I look around myself and everything seems so brutal and meaningless, and yet to live with even a smidgen of happiness you have to be able to imbue life with meaning. The idea that all this is a trial, something to endure for a while on the road to a greater reward, would be comforting for me. But unfortunately I cannot accept that.

Bearing my atheism in mind, it is easy to see why Shusako Endo’s Silence might alienate me, as it is concerned with the nature of faith, with spreading the word of God, and Christian martyrdom. I am interested in these things, of course, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that my interest was strong enough to make reading a novel such as this worthwhile. Yet while it is certainly the case that Silence will resonate most with someone for whom these things play a role in their everyday life, the novel, as evidenced by how highly-thought of it is, has a wide appeal, it transcends its specific subject and concerns. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most significant, in my opinion, certainly in terms of my own enjoyment, is that the author injected both pace and tension into his narrative by borrowing from the mystery-thriller genre.

“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

The text invites you to mull over many theological and philosophical questions, but it a different kind of question that gives the novel momentum: what happened to Father Ferreira? Ferreira is a well-respected priest, a missionary, who sailed to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed, in order to help and support oppressed Japanese Christians. Rumour has it, however, that he apostatised under torture. Due to a scarcity of reports, and dismissing those relating to apostasy, two young priests, former students of Ferreira’s, travel to Japan in order to find out the truth. So on the most basic level Silence is an investigation, a search for a missing person.

Moreover, the two men know that to be a Christian priest in Japan in the 1600’s is extremely dangerous, that they are, in effect, entering enemy territory. As you would expect, then, there is a lot of anxiety and paranoia; secret hiding places are created, people are eyed suspiciously, etc. One of these people is Kichijiro, a Japanese who helps the priests to enter the country and claims to be able to put them in contact with local Christians. When Kichijiro first appears in the novel he is drunk, and his personality and behaviour is consistently described in negative terms. He is, we’re told, an idler; he is cunning; he is a coward. There is, not surprisingly, a general uneasiness amongst the priests in relation to him, a feeling that he may one day sell them out, may denounce them to the Japanese authorities. Indeed, he is clearly set up to be a Judas figure.

However, these things are not, of course, the heart of the novel. This, as noted, involves a series of theological/philosophical issues and questions, the most important of which pertains to the title. The silence that Endo is referring to is God’s. One of the oldest, and most popular, criticisms of God is that if he exists, and if he is all powerful and all good, why does he not intervene to prevent or lessen suffering or at least reveal himself to those who are suffering? His silence, it is argued, suggests ambivalence, it gives the impression that he does not care. So, when the poor and wretched Japanese are being tortured for their beliefs, one of the priests, Sebastião Rodrigues, wonders how it can be that God does not want to show them some solidarity or empathy; he feels as though he has, in a sense, turned his back on them, and it makes him uncomfortable, to the extent that his own faith wavers somewhat.

“It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

I must admit that I found all this slightly odd, especially considering that Endo was himself a Christian and ought, therefore, to understand the nature of faith [as would a priest!]. What I mean by this is that a vocal God would make faith itself meaningless. What is powerful about faith is that it exists without consistent and conclusive proof of God’s existence; the important thing is to retain a belief in him and his teachings in the face of his silence, because, let’s face it, anyone can do that if he drops in for regular chats; in order words, it’s hard to doubt the creator of the universe when he is in direct contact with you.

Faith also plays a part in one of the novel’s other major themes, which is apostasy. As previously mentioned, that father Ferreira is said to have apostatised under torture shocks his former students, who refuse to believe it. Therefore, apostasy, i.e. turning your back on your religion, is clearly seen as something shameful, even if one is driven to it by being subjected to intense pain. Faith is necessary in a situation like this, because our natural instinct is to avoid pain. One would need something to make enduring it possible or at least seem worthwhile, and that is a commitment to God, and a belief that negative experiences are a test, and that one’s reward for passing it will come later. Without a strong belief in God allowing oneself to be killed or tortured, rather than apostatise, would be madness.

ChristianMartyrsOfNagasaki

[The Christian martyrs of Nagasaki. 17th-century Japanese painting]

What is notable about Endo’s take on apostasy is that he acknowledges that faith alone is not enough to justify suffering. While one might take it upon oneself, one might accept one’s own fate, it is a different situation to be faced with the suffering of others. Rodrigues, who narrates part of the novel, and serves as the central character throughout, is given an ultimatum, which is ‘apostatise or others will be tortured and ultimately murdered.’ Initially, he is unsure how to approach this issue, how to deal with the responsibility or resolve his dilemma. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal his decision. However, I would myself argue that God is understanding, that he is not a tyrant, and therefore a sin such as apostasy would be forgiven in certain circumstances. One must bear in mind that most ordinary people would forgive someone who ‘does wrong’ while being tortured or does so in an effort to prevent the torture of others; and so if God is less understanding and sympathetic than man, one must ask oneself if he is actually worth following anyway.

There is, of course, more that can be written about all this, but a book review is not the place for an in-depth theological discussion. I do want, however, to touch upon one other thing before concluding, which is the role of the missionary. For me, the most fascinating, the most engaging and original, aspect of Endo’s novel is in relation to those who go to foreign countries in order to spread their religion. I’m no expert, but as far as I know, converting others is an important part of Christianity; and this makes sense because if you believe that your religion is the right one, then it is one’s duty, as a human being, to attempt to make others see the error of their ways. To not do so would be, in a sense, to condemn them. However, what if your religion is not good for them, or if it is incompatible with their culture? This is what the local authorities think, that Christianity simply cannot take root in Japan. Even Rodrigues and Ferreira are not convinced that the natives understand the religion, or the Christian God, in the way that they ought to, that they think of him as a man, a powerful human being. This is something that I had never considered before, that, with cultural and language barriers, bringing your religion to another nation is almost impossible. It is like a complex form of Chinese whispers, whereby one can recognise the original message when it reaches its destination, but something essential is missing. Is spreading the word not, therefore, pointless? Certainly, it seems horribly cruel to encourage the natives to suffer for this confused form of Christianity.

Much of what I have written so far has not given an indication as to how I feel about Endo’s novel. I must admit that I found it dreadfully disappointing. Thematically, if one has never engaged with these issues, Silence might strike you as profound. Yet having studied the philosophy of religion I was familiar with most of the book’s ideas, and therefore did not find it especially rewarding. More importantly, the writing is simply not very good; in fact at times it is woeful. On this, not only are Endo’s metaphors obvious and clichéd, but he keeps repeating them. For example, Kichijiro is described as being like a cowering dog multiple times. This could be a translation issue – and there are, in fact, Endo novels that are not as poorly written – but, alas, I cannot prove that. In any case, there are other problems that can only be laid at the feet of the author, including an overemphasis on the parallels between Rodrigues and Jesus. All of this meant that my overriding impression of the book was of one that is laboured and unsophisticated.