28 July 2011

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories (Kōno Taeko)

Kōno Taeko, 85 years old, must be the grand dame of Japanese letters. Her outputs were praised, most deservedly, by writers like Ōe Kenzaburo ("At once the most carnally direct and the most lucidly intelligent woman writing in Japan.") and Endo Shusaku ("Kōno Taeko is the female writer I most admire among all the Japanese authors. Her unsparing gaze penetrates the depths of human nature; and she sets forth what she finds there with absolute precision."). The blurbs came from the back page of Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, a collection of ten short stories, all translated by Lucy North (except for the last, translated by Lucy Lower), and published in 1996 by New Directions. All the stories were originally written in the 1960s (1961-1969) and concerned women and their unstable or uncertain marital relationships. Kōno's genre of writing was classified as transgressive fiction owing to her use of elements of sadomasochism and aberrant behavior. The stories were often open-ended, which are really the best kind of stories; and they were propelled by ordinary details made to seem odd and entirely new, as if the outcome of the story was dictated by the way the characters think through these once-familiar details. In each story, the main character was either a middle-aged female (an obsessive, or on the way to becoming one) or a couple in a strained relationship. The story's telling will unravel a relationship or spell a kind of doom for the woman (wife or female partner). The writer was deconstructing the story through strange deployment of metaphors and symbols circling around a tragedy waiting in the wings or already hinted at even before the story started. For Kōno, it's either the "shock value" of stories was revealed behind the scenes (all the more shocking and unsettling for being untold) or the partial or incomplete shock was displayed in full in all its gross profundity, in front of a well-lit stage (all the more shocking for being brazen). The intelligence of the "shock" stories derived from their ability to transgress the boundaries of narrative convention and to achieve unpredictability beyond the mechanical relationship between the sexes. We were somehow given a restrained ending when we were perhaps expecting something explosive, or we were treated to something nauseating when we were bracing for a tame plot development. The uncertain feeling was perhaps summarized by this paradoxical passage from the first story, "Night Journey":

   Fukuko realized that she'd been in a particular mood for some time now, a mood that would keep her walking beside Murao into the night, walking on and on until they became the perpetrators - or the victims - of some unpredictable crime.

That "particular mood" hovered in every story in Toddler-Hunting, a mood that either implicated the reader as the guilty party or rendered him a hapless victim of the story. A seemingly harmless mood that suddenly turned into a murky plot, twisting along a maze of menace and sick psyche. The reader of Kōno will relish the gradual shifts of focus in a story's limited duration, the bombs being dropped very slowly but surely, the monomaniacal tendencies of narrators faced with their own dissembling, and the exploration of the issues of femininity and sexuality: motherhood, infertility, marriage, family ties, and fidelity in relationships.

Kōno's intelligence as a novelist was recognized in her country where she was a multi-awarded writer. However, with only a single collection of hers appearing so far in English, she was certainly under-translated and under-appreciated. Her transgressive short stories, superior in many respects to the ones put out by Murakami Haruki, deserve to be assimilated and widely talked about. They are fleeting stories that leave lasting aftereffects, very like the afterglow of sparklers in "Full Tide":

   The children set about lighting their sparklers. Each time she brought a flame to the tip of one, the girl's fingers would tremble slightly. She had to be careful: she could never tell exactly where the first sparks would shoot out. Then the darkness suddenly would be ablaze, and transfixed, she would be in another world. The sparkler would make fiery, spitting sounds, fizzling away before her eyes. In those few seconds, though, she knew the sparkler was living for all it was worth - fiercely, keenly, in a beautiful world of color and light. Even when everything became dark and still once more, the girl would be sure that she still saw something there, glowing and fizzling away.

The internal combustion in a Kōno story was lighted by the same inner explosions, the darkness and its recesses uncovered for a brief moment by blazing fireworks. The sparklers' glow never receded without being indelibly imprinted in a child's imagination.

For a sample of a Kōno story, here is a full story that recently appeared in TWO LINES Online of Center for the Art of Translation:

"An Odd Owner", translated by Goro Takano

06 July 2011

Reading diary: 2nd quarter 2011

A list of what I read in the second quarter of the year. This brings me to a total 25 books read since January - much less than the 38 books I read in the same period last year.

Marxism and Literary Criticism by Terry Eagleton (review)

I picked it up as it's a short book. It's an academic survey of the topic's basic concepts. Some interesting arguments in it even though the author mentioned a lot of Marxist critics and books I'm not familiar with.

Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo
translated by Margaret Jull Costa (review)

Entertaining whodunit, with more than passing references to Borges (a major character here), Poe, and Lovecraft.

My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated by Arunava Sinha (review)

Four men, strangers to each other, were stranded on a train. They met a young couple who appeared very much in love. This led to them reflecting about love and sharing stories with each other. Each of the stories that followed was beautiful. They were all simple tales, but together they form a subtle whole.

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Murakami Haruki
translated by Philip Gabriel (review)

Love story. A boy fell in love with a girl. Many years later, when the man was already married, they met again. I usually hate Murakami's stories. But this was one of his good efforts. There's a surprising depth in his characterization.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (review; reading guide)

My second read of this posthumous epic-length book consisting of 5 discrete parts. Bolaño left instructions before his death for the five parts to be published one at a time, but his literary executor and family decided to put out a single book. There's a panoply of stories, and stories within stories, in 2666. At the center of it is the real-life murders and rapes of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The lasting impression I take of the book is its exploration of serious stuff - violence, cruelty, intolerance. Technically, the writing is inventive, swimming in many registers. It is atmospheric and replete with mystery, symbols, metaphors, and forceful scenes. Its best quality is perhaps the creation of a convincing atmosphere of lurking evil. How evil operates through time and how a portrait of it can be investigated in literary terms in many ways, in many realms - culture, economy, politics, ethics.

Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell (review)

A well written novella about love tested by years of physical separation. It reminds me of Henry James in the depiction of inner passions and conflicts, but with a more fast paced and electric prose.

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (quasi-review)

An entertaining graphic-epic. The ancient world is shaken by the appearance of a monster with a pure evil heart. Everybody cowers in fear. Thankfully, a hero appears, bent on ridding the world of monsters. The fight scenes are eye-popping, the energy as pure as electricity, the testosterone filled to the brim. There is probably a hint of comedy in the translator's language, the hyperbolic humor shooting like skyrockets.

Underground by Murakami Haruki,
translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel (review)

A book of terrorism reportage. It tells of what happened in the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995. Five men, members of the religious cult called Aum Shinrikyo, punctured sarin nerve gas in plastic bags using the sharpened tips of their umbrellas. The poison gas released killed a dozen people injured hundreds. Nine months after the incident, the novelist Haruki Murakami began to interview the victims in order to understand what actually happened. The book followed the template of Murakami's fiction: the story of ordinary men and women thrust in an abnormal situation. The narrative has two self-contained parts, divided into short sections focusing on one person and his part in the gas attack. The accumulation of the stories portrayed a kind of hell, a nightmare experienced in broad daylight, underground.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (review)

Pulitzer Prize winner that didn't pull me in. It was good and funny in parts but did not make a wondrous whole. Homeboy Díaz disappoints after his promising debut collection Drown. However sketchy some of the pieces in Drown are - my favorite is the last story, "Negocios", which is also the longest - they are linked together in a subtle way, almost allowing the stories to coalesce into a novel. Unlike Oscar Wao, the less overreaching Drown is truer in its depiction of the mental and physical hardships of the Dominican immigrants in the US and of the familias they left behind in the country. 

The Old Capital by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by J Martin Holman (review)

Chieko, a young woman, was in search of her identity. She was a foundling, left behind by her true parents when still a baby. Her adoptive parents treated her like their own, but her broken connection from her biological parents seemed to weigh on her more and more. It was as if there was something lacking in her, a part of her nature that was also reflected in her seeming disconnect from and yearning for the natural world. Kawabata writes in a sequence of haikus. Reading it is like meditating on beauty and man's broken relationship with nature.

The Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry,
translated by Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor (review)

The three core texts of Ubu form a trilogy of sorts. They are the best of satires; their comedies are without let-up. Pa Ubu is an amoral character, "crappy creature". In the first play, he and Ma Ubu, his equally base partner, usurped the throne of the king of Poland. As new king, he pursued acts of cruelty and greed, satisfying all his base appetites. When Ubu Rex was originally performed in Paris in 1896, the utterance of the first word of the play (Merdre) provoked a riot of its audience which lasted for 15 minutes. Read it to find out why.

What's in store for July?

I've finished two books, Wisława Szymborska's Poems New and Collected and W G Sebald's Austerlitz. I've started Rizal's El Filibusterismo and Marías's Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell for the Your Face Tomorrow Group Read, led by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos). I'm due for a book of nonfiction (literary criticism or science), more poetry from the infinity of riches The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (a long excerpt from the introduction can be read here), and a Shakespeare play.

04 July 2011

Austerlitz (W G Sebald)

The story of Austerlitz is told in the voice of an unnamed narrator. Its setting constantly changes from one European country to the next. Its themes appear to be the same ones Max Sebald tackled in his other works of fiction: memory, melancholy, ghosts, the Holocaust. It shares a lot of obsessions and motifs with his other books (e.g., constant travel and detailed descriptions of architecture of buildings and railway stations). The style is in his trademark style. Long paragraphs contain long sinuous sentences. Uncaptioned photographs accompany the text. A difference with the other novels is that Austerlitz is one long sustained story of a troubled life. By Sebald's exacting standards, this is a conventional novel, but it's no less enchanting. And still, like his other novels, the text is built up of fragments of travel, biography, memoir, and natural history. At the time it was published, before his untimely demise in 2001, it already represents a distillation of his strengths as a writer. It displays all his strengths as a consistently sublime writer and proves to be an astonishing variation of his earlier fiction.

The gleam of gold and silver on the huge, half-obscured mirrors on the wall facing the windows was not yet entirely extinguished before a subterranean twilight filled the waiting-room, where a few travellers sat far apart, silent and motionless. Like the creatures in the Nocturama, which had included a striking number of dwarf species - tiny fennec foxes, springhares, hamsters - the railway passengers seemed to me somehow miniaturized, whether by the unusual height of the ceiling or because of the gathering dusk, and it was this, I suppose, which prompted the passing thought, nonsensical in itself, that they were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo.

The story opened up with an unsettling image of the Nocturama. The eyes of recluse philosophers were juxtaposed beside the eyes of animals. The narrator and Austerlitz were presented as solitary characters and the people surrounding them are also depicted as distant figures, like ghosts. People and objects were described as foreshortened or miniaturized. This physical aberration was implied as a kind of consequence of historical or natural events. Physically humans shrank in size when they get old, but there's a kind of length contraction that Sebald described that was somehow related to an accelerated passage of time. One may think of the principle of physics, specifically the length contraction described by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.

I have to admit I found it hard to get into the rhythm of this book. I abandoned it after a few pages the first time I tried to read it 3 years ago. I thought "boring" was written all over it. There's something suffocating in reading the early passages. It must be the quality of the translation and/or the darker aspects of the book. It would require a specific mental state to tolerate Sebald's assault on the psyche. The deliberate lack of paragraphing didn't help ease the feeling of helplessness and oppressiveness. Some blocks of text are encased in a creepy, menacing, breathless, and ghostly atmosphere; they require lungfuls of air to get through. Here's a passage, plucked out of a longer one, telling of entering a passage in an old building structure.

Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrated over the years, shrunken - and now, in writing this, I do remember that such [an] idea occurred to me at the time - as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness. I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier.

The novel seemed to be creating narrative momentum and tension through the same connect-the-dots approach he deployed in his hybrid fiction, as exemplified by the image of Sir Thomas Browne's quincunx in The Rings of Saturn. The narrative building blocks of the novel relied on streams of memories and digressions, with temporal and narrative shifts announcing sharp transitions. What's brilliant about it was the seamless integration of otherwise disparate ideas. A brilliant example was Austerlitz's discussion of the casement torture chambers, which led to his reflection on Jean Améry's torture (cf. the essay in On the Natural History of Destruction), and then to a passage in Simon Claude's memoir Le Jardin des Plantes which described that torture. That memoir contained a profile of a certain Gastone Novelli who was also tortured and later had some dealings with a Brazilian tribe, documenting their language: "[Novelli] adopted [the tribe's] customs, and to the best of his ability compiled a dictionary of their language, consisting almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations of intonation and emphasis ..." Later, Novelli became a painter and incorporated the letter A in his pictures, tracing them out closely together and on top of each other, "rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream".


Like this visual painting, the progression of ideas in Austerlitz, based on the selected facts of the novelist's reading of writers and thinkers, were "crowding closely together and above one another". Just like the quincunx, the novel was becoming a network of stories tied together by the novelist's sensibility. The drawn-out scream was like the anguished expression of tortured individuals.

For more on Novelli's painting, these two articles are recommended:

Vertigo blog: "Sebald, Simon, Novelli and the Long-Drawn-Out Scream"

The Silo: "Gastone Novelli" by Raphael Rubinstein

The recurring phrase "_____ told me, said Austerlitz" in the book was too conspicuous. It represented a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) narrative attribution wherein the recounting was filtered and shaped by distant memories. In an essay, "Terrible Rain: W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and the bombing of Europe" (2003), the English novelist Geoff Dyer traced this mannerism to Thomas Bernhard:

It was from Bernhard that Sebald derived his inverse telescoping of reported speech ("I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz") whereby the narrative recedes in the act of progressing. The comic obsessiveness and neurosis common to many of Sebald's characters are like a sedated version of the raging frenzy into which Bernhard's narrators habitually drive themselves. The influence was most explicit in Austerlitz, whose long pages of unparagraphed meanderings even look like Bernhard's.

Specifically, the influence came from Bernhard's Old Masters. Dyer expanded on this essay and described the "inverse telescoping" narrative device by Sebald - from "W.G. Sebald, Bombing, and Thomas Bernhard," in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011), quoted in Conversational Reading - as emphasized below.

It is possible that the similarities between the two appear more striking in the English translations than in the German originals, but it was, surely, from Bernhard that Sebald derived the inverse telescoping whereby the reliability of the narrative recedes and diminishes the more incessantly it is vouched for. “You concealed your shock very well, I said to the Englishman, Reger said to me,” writes Atzbacher, the narrator of Bernhard’s Old Masters. “I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz,” writes the narrator of Sebald’s Austerlitz.

I don't totally buy Dyer's explanation of the narrative receding and diminishing the more repeatedly it is vouched for. It seemed Sebald was constantly using the double attributive phrase to convey a sense of reliance on memory rather than on undermining it. Memories were like ghosts haunting the characters. The transfer of memory through telling and retelling was the only way to exorcize the ghosts. They may not always be clear, objective, and 100% accurate, but the insistence on attribution strengthened the narration from memory and brought out to the light of day what was otherwise receding from the background. Sebald himself called this a periscope, instead of an inverse telescope (yes, there was a difference!). His last interview (KCRW interview, December 2001) bore this out:

What he [Bernhard] achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others so he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative so you're always sure that what he tells you is related at one remove, at two removes, at two or three. And that appeals to me very much.... Bernhard single-handedly, I think, invented a new form of narrating which appealed to me from the start.

The periscopic form of narration only tells what is heard from others. In this way, perhaps, the question of reliability was minimized and the role of memory to give witness, in the face of selective or total amnesia, whether voluntary or involuntary, was justified.