28 May 2012

Snow Country (Kawabata Yasunari)

Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Vintage International, 1996)

Set in the perennially snow-cold region of western mainland of Japan, Snow Country features one of the coldest characters in fiction. Shimamura is a wealthy Tokyo-based gentleman who from time to time visits a mountain hot spring and his geisha lover Komako. He only appreciates the beauty of nature and culture (music and the art of Chijimi weaving), and his carefree aristocratic attitude cannot conceal his insensitivity to other people’s emotions. However much Komako expressed her deep feelings for him, Shimamura does not reciprocate. As the story progresses, Shimamura’s snow-like passivity and Komako’s fiery love intensify.

The novel is an evocation of “inexpressible beauty” and passionate human nature. This is achieved through an ecological aesthetic that relies on a powerful sense of place and culture. Kawabata Yasunari describes landscapes and gestures with the pithy ruthlessness of a haiku poet, imbuing words with lyricism and care. The insidious cold is effectively evoked through the inhabitants’ clothes (mountain trousers), skin (reddened and cracked), and comportment. The ecological and cultural values are woven into the fabric of the prose.

   It was clear, from the familiar way she had talked to the station master the evening before and from the way she wore “mountain trousers,” that she was a native of this snow country, but the bold pattern of her obi, half visible over the trousers, made the rough russet and black stripes of the latter seem fresh and cheerful, and for the same reason the long sleeves of her woolen kimono took on a certain voluptuous charm. The trousers, split just below the knees, filled out toward the hips, and the heavy cotton, for all its natural stiffness, was somehow supple and gentle.

Culture and arts seem to embody the harsh cold environment. As with his later novel The Old Capital, Kawabata appears to be delineating the relationships between man and woman and nature. Harmony with nature is the desirable objective; love is most desired. The way the samisen string instrument sounds, the powerful way of playing it, can be dictated by a clear sky over snow.

“The tone is different on a day like this.” The tone had been as rich and vibrant as her remark suggested. The air was different. There were no theater walls, there was no audience, there was none of the city dust. The notes went out crystalline into the clean winter morning, to sound on the far, snowy peaks.
   Practicing alone, not aware herself of what was happening, perhaps, but with all the wideness of nature in this mountain valley for her companion, she had come quite as a part of nature to take on this special power. Her very loneliness beat down sorrow and fostered a wild strength of will.

Kawabata’s writing is a delicate balance between expressing overwhelming beauty and containing it. The novel suggests that both the purity of art and the ability to master one's self can be derived from and conditioned by nature. One's destructive feelings, however, get in the way of fully achieving the harmony between human beings and nature. Although Shimamura's coldness does not hinder him from appreciating the traditional arts of weaving and samisen music playing, his disengagement from other people and his shallow intellectual curiosity are probably sufficient causes for his "estrangement" from nature.

In this novel in which the souls of the characters seem to be blanketed in snow, love is unrequited. “Do you understand how I feel? ... If you understand, then tell me. Tell me, if you see how I feel”, Komako at one point implores Shimamura. The question reveals the gulf between two different persons.

RELATED POST: The Old Capital (Kawabata Yasunari)

13 May 2012

Woman in the Dunes (directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi)

Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi
Written by Abé Kobo based on his novel
2 hours, 27 minutes; with English subtitles

The story is about Niki Jumpei (played by Okada Eiji), a teacher who made a field trip to a desert near the sea. He collects insect specimens. As an amateur entomologist, he is determined to discover an unrecorded beetle that would make his name. Trying to find lodgings for the night, he is helped by men of the village to descend a sand pit leading to a hut using a rope ladder. A woman living below (the "woman in the dunes", Kishida Kyōko) will take him in for the night. When he wakes up in the morning, however, he finds the rope ladder is removed. He realizes that he is trapped. Against his will, he is held down there to help the woman clear away the accumulating sand that continually threatens to bury the village.

Sand is the element that propels the novelist Abé Kobo's story, and the film captures its tactile physicality. The sense of place is grainy, and the black and white photography enhances all the textures. Of sand on skin, sand on hair strand, sand mixed with beads of sweat, wind carving the face of sand cliffs, sand percolating in the air. The close ups of the two characters' perspiring faces and bodies show the gray grains of sand sticking on the open pores of their skin. Outside the hut, the landscape is suffused with flowing sand, falling sand, sliding sand. The very sand is alive. It gets in your eyes.

The effect of this textural treatment of sand--together with the subtle imagery of light and shadows and the desert heat and a lack of moisture--is a sensual battle and ballet of desires and wills. There is an erotic component to Jumpei's seemingly futile attempts to escape the sand pit.

As opposed to Kafka's portrait of a man seeking employment under an unavailing power structure in The Castle, Abé and Teshigahara's depiction of a man's imprisonment into work itself, into slavery, for the sole purpose of daily shoveling away sand, is seen as an existentialist predicament of modern man. Both K. and Jumpei, however, do initially resist their fates and work toward changing their contrasting "employment status". If anything, Jumpei's extreme situation shares more with Josef K. in The Trial who one day finds himself guilty of an unknown and unknowable offense. This is apparent in a passage in the book where Jumpei reflected on his fate.

   This entire nightmare could not be happening. It was too outlandish. Was it permissible to snare, exactly like a mouse or an insect, a man who had his certificate of medical insurance, someone who had paid his taxes, who was employed, and whose family records were in order? He could not believe it. Perhaps there was some mistake; it was bound to be a mistake. There was nothing to do but assume that it was a mistake.

As a Castle employee tells K. with ironic certainty: No errors occur, and even if an error does occur, ... who can finally say that it is an error. As with any fertile allegorical story, Woman in the Dunes dramatizes a situation that can be read in many ways. Jumpei's entrapment can be seen as a spiritual imprisonment. In context, the novel is published in 1962 and is set in 1955, ten years after the atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the events that led to the surrender of Japan in the world war.

As works of this period, the novel and film are grounded in postwar anxiety. The threat of a destructive war and nuclear event still hangs in the air. This is not referenced verbally in the film, but in the novel it is directly alluded to. Apart from the titles of articles in a newspaper, such as "Ingredient in Onions Found Effective in Treatment of Radiation Injuries", a reference to the war is given in conversation between the two characters.

   "But I have taken walks," she said abruptly in her monotonous, withdrawn voice. "Really, they used to make me walk a lot. Until I came here. I used to carry a baby around for a long time. I was really tired out with all the walking.
   Yes, he remembered, when everything was in ruins some ten years ago [1945], everybody desperately wanted not to have to walk. And now, were they glutted with this freedom from walking? he wondered.

The woman here, who is unnamed throughout both film and novel, is presented as a victim of war. Homeless, she must have wandered around after escaping from air bombings until she finds this seaside community. When the character of the woman was introduced for the first time, she is called "old hag" by the village men (from the subtitles; in the book, translated by E. Dale Saunders, she was referred to as "Granny") but she is actually a young woman, about thirty years of age. Perhaps her wartime experiences has aged her. Maybe she has been living in the desert sand, still in the front lines of destruction, since time immemorial.

Sand, its oppression, can be thought of as symbol of time or eternity (as in sands of time). Its dynamic processes are powerful, destructive, and beautiful. In the book, Jumpei equates unsympathetic sand with death, the "beauty of death", "a rejection of the stationary state",

... a world where existence was a series of states. The beauty of sand ... belonged to death. It was the beauty of death that ran through the magnificence of its ruins and its great power of destruction.

The imagery of the natural destruction wrought by sand is not that different from the destruction wrought by wars. Both lead to peoples being left homeless and destitute. The sand pit, therefore, can also be seen as a bomb shelter where people take cover in order to survive the air raids. The apparent conflict is between the meaninglessness of resistance and the discovery of meaning out of an extreme environmental situation.

For all its stifling and suffocating set up, the hopeful ending of Woman in the Dunes can be seen as a response to Rousseau's proposition of a universal social contract. Man is born free, and everywhere finds himself enchained. Living in an inhospitable environment, under parched conditions, sentenced into a lifetime of manual labor, man's resilience is tested to its outer limits. Jumpei is in denial of his innate punishment. He is answerable to the general will of the people (the villagers) and his acknowledgement of it can lead to his redemption.

Though K., Josef K., and Jumpei shared the seeming futility of life experience, the latter's slow acceptance of his absurd condition through the repetition of activities and the discovery of new aspects of desert living that are robust for scientific investigation, his curiosity for knowledge signal a renewal of life in the face of perpetual destruction.

Teshigahara's film adaptation is faithful to Abé's science fiction. Human nature is presented with a savage precision, as with the scene where the masked villagers gathered round the sand pit to witness Jumpei's temptation and his consequent psychological undoing. The accompanying ritualistic beats of drum heighten the primitive voyeurism.

The technical aspect of Teshigahara's direction is excellent. But beyond the production values, the film is to be credited for bringing out through tactile images Abé's novelistic use of illusion and perspective. Perspective or point of view as a way of looking at the scheme of things, a way of recognizing one's place in the world. Illusion as the image we think we see. At the end of the film, after numerous failures to escape the sand pit, Jumpei has seen through the illusion and has gained a deeper perspective of his enchained state of being. This perspective is illustrated in the novel through the image of a Möbius strip, a continuous band of twisted paper where front and back is indistinguishable.

He was still in the hole, but it seemed as if he were already outside. Turning around, he could see the whole scene. You can't really judge a mosaic if you don't look at it from a distance. If you really get close to it you don't get away from one detail only to get caught in another. Perhaps what he had been seeing up until now was not the sand but grains of sand.

In the movie, the thinking and penetrating gaze of actor Okada Eiji, his fierce meditation on the immensity of the sand dunes, as if looking from a farther distance and within a bigger desert picture, gives him a novelistic perspective of his state of nature. He is both outside and inside the pit. He is both free and enslaved at the same time. His duty now is to live and rethink his own morbid diagnosis of his condition. He will study the emergent properties of sand. Sand is its own paradigm shift.

My viewing of this Japanese film, with popcorn, is due to two events: the World Cinema Series 2012 by Caroline and Foreign Film Festival by Richard.

12 May 2012

A poem by Axel Pinpin

Meeting Place

     For Mrs. Editha Burgos

The place that you promised was a confused direction
and a warm occasion. Sometimes a downpour
and oftentimes an artificial cannon-rain
that you never ever wished for or asked for.

To walk around was punishment, to search in a thousand
pairs of feet that all look alike and familiar with
the places you came from and went home to: slums,
factories, picket lines, schools, and countrysides.

Often my gaze pierced, penetrated the
red cloths and the nibs of exclamation points.
You might be among them, one of those who contained
their anguish in closed fists directed at the barricades.

My feet had grown calloused; as did my throat from shouting,
greeting. My hair had stood on end
from terror, each time the echoes of the beats of
flags and fists were advancing, advocating.

It seemed you were begrudged from my embraces
or even from the certainty that you're alive.
This might be the final destination of my search
after stations, camps, morgues, and graves.

Though I failed and was lost in finding the place you promised,
I arrived at the strongholds at the head of your march.
At long last! I glimpsed the towering cry of Freedom! --
In the red cloths harboring your missing face.

July 25, 2007


"Tagpuan", from Tugmaang Matatabil, translated from Filipino.

Axel Pinpin, a former political prisoner, is the author of three poetry collections. His latest is Lover's Lane from BlackPen Publishing.

09 May 2012

Vila-Matas's lecture novel

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean (New Directions, 2011)

I told him I was preparing a three-day lecture in which I was ironically reviewing the years I spent in Paris. "And you talk about me the whole time?" he said, "Well, yeah," I replied, "but mainly about irony, about Paris, about Hemingway, about Marguerite Duras, and about how I wrote my first book." Another silence. "So, it's a lecture that's something like an autobiography of bohemia and your years of literary apprenticeship in Paris," he said all of a sudden. "Well, yeah," I answered, "though I didn't really learn that much."

While it was not hard to dislike the character of the novelist Elizabeth Costello, Enrique Vila-Matas’s first person narrator in Never Any End to Paris was very easy to befriend. The narrative point of view was significant. Had Coetzee allowed Costello to tell her adventures in her own voice, the ironic touch would have been lost. Readers would most likely end up not only disliking but resenting her, alienated by her egotistical knowingness. Had Vila-Matas used a detached third person to tell his Spanish protagonist’s literary education while living as a budding writer in the Paris of mid-seventies, the intimacy with the reader would have been harder to establish.

Framed as a three-day lecture by a novelist looking back on his days of youth, Never Any End to Paris directly referenced the earnest writer Hemingway and prominently featured Marguerite Duras who was the young apprentice's landlady. By his candid reminiscences, the boundaries between lecture and novel, and between fiction and memoir, not only blurred but dissolved into each other. Vila-Matas's lecture novel was also a species of the memoir. How it panned out that way was a pleasure, and a privilege, to observe.

Like Costello, the narrator had his own tense moment with the audience, as when, instead of giving his take on irony, he instead read a full story by Hemingway and solicited his audience's interpretations of it. But Coetzee's telling was essentially humorless; any detectable humor in it was of the caustic kind. In contrast, the humor of Vila-Matas was light and buoyant. Unrestrained laughter was to accompany its reading.

With the help of accommodating, if weird, mentors, the young writer was completing a first novel called The Lettered Assassin, a book that would cause the death of everyone who read it. (Vila-Matas actually wrote one called La asesina ilustrada (The Enlightened Assassin) which was his second book.) Upon learning of the book's malicious premise, Marguerite Duras could only comment that "killing the reader, apart from absurd, was quite impossible, unless, for example, a swift and sharp poisoned arrow were to fly out of the book directly into the heart of the unsuspecting reader." But Marguerite was able to impart a cryptic (to the narrator) suggestion on how to achieve his murderous objective, and later she also gave some guidelines (thirteen) on how to actually write it. Unintentionally or not, this lecture novel was also a creative writing workshop.

The novel's unstructured portrait of Parisian art and literary scene, through the young writer's ubiquitous involvement in the city's cultural life, was sui generis. The reader was witness, often with a smile and a wink, to the stereotypes of a frustrated writer that the narrator was consciously acting out. His failures were endearing, even his pretensions, like his ceaseless namedropping and his hanging out in cafés affecting the look of an intellectual immersed in lofty thoughts while holding a book. And the scenes crackled loudly. There was, for example, the unforgettable scene of our young writer’s very physical and hair-raising meeting with Georges Perec – a literal face-to-face encounter with the latter’s shaggy facial appendage.

(And there was again that familiar phrase by Cervantes – which I’m now suspecting was used a lot of times in Spanish novels – quoted without quotes. In this book, translator Anne McLean, who also happened to be the translator of Javier Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis, rendered it as: "Some people read everything they see, even newspaper pages blowing down the street." [89])

In this novel of delightful literary encounters, Paris never ends because its memories linger in the minds of writers like Vila-Matas who spent their formative years navigating a city of luminous lights. Reading it was like having a drink with a friend. An amiable time lasting the whole night and in which there was never any end to banter and good talk.

Never Any End to Paris is finalist to the 2012 Best Translation Book Award.

Related posts: Enrique Vila-Matas at Bifurcaria bifurcata

07 May 2012

Coetzee's lecture novel

Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee (Viking Penguin, 2003)

The lecture as a species of the novel? And this academic invasion works? I've read two novels of this kind. One was Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee, constructed out of its novelist character's lectures which were, in large part, transcribed verbatim in the text. Some sections of the lectures were paraphrased, other "extraneous" writings or events in the book were merely glossed over, dismissed with a stylistic flourish. Here's the omniscient narrator, right before Elizabeth Costello's delivering a lecture on the subject of realism.

   The presentation scene itself we skip. It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction. Breaking into the dream draws attention to the constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist illusion. However, unless certain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon. The skips are not part of the text, they are part of the performance.

This was from the first lecture, entitled "What is Realism?" It already pointed to the lecture novel as a form of performance. The omission of supposedly insufferable parts was the rule ("There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip.") Skip, skip, skip. The reader was delivered from unnecessary scenes. He should be thankful for this consideration on the part of the narrator. And Costello, for her forthright behavior, despite her unstable and opinionated nature. And Coetzee, for keeping everything to the interesting minimum.

Let us invert the sense. How about the novel as a species of academic lecture? Or is it the same thing as the first? Let's skip to the second lecture, where Costello was aboard a cruise ship giving a talk about "The Novel in Africa". After her lecture, she had a debate with someone with whom she had a bit of a "history". They were arguing about the "living voice" in the African novel, its oral nature. Her position: the novel was not a performance.

The novel was never intended to be the script of a performance. From the beginning the novel had made a virtue of not depending on being performed. You can't have both live performance and cheap, handy distribution. It's the one or the other.

I'm not sure what she'll think of audiobooks. But skipping ahead to the third lecture, a two-part talk on "The Lives of Animals", the novelist Costello was up to some provocative argumentation. (This double lecture first appeared as a self-contained book, with commentaries from four scholars, in 1999. A few years ago I read an edition that was without the commentaries.) In her argument against animal cruelty (and also: in Coetzee's argument against animal cruelty, via fiction), Costello brought in a metaphoric leap of condemnation.

   Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, live-stock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

Despite the hardened position, the speech had room for self-deprecation. She basically spoke her mind because such "philosophical language", which at the same time was literary language, was "available" to her. And so she resorted to it:

But the fact is, if you had wanted someone to come here and discriminate for you between mortal and immortal souls, or between rights and duties, you would have called in a philosopher, not a person whose sole claim to your attention is to have written stories about made-up people.

The last few words defined the surface work of a novelist, Costello's and Coetzee's. Perhaps the greatest qualities of Coetzee as a writer, and that of his alter-ego, are two-fold: sympathy and compassion. The first is prerequisite to the second. Costello later spoke of the deeper, human, role the novelist could embody.

[T]here is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination. If you want proof, consider the following. Some years ago I wrote a book called The House on Eccles Street. To write that book I had to think my way into the existence of Marion Bloom. Either I succeeded or I did not. If I did not, I cannot imagine why you invited me here today. In any event, the point is, Marion Bloom never existed. Marion Bloom was a figment of James Joyce's imagination. If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.   

Skirting around (and yes, skipping) the main argument of Costello here, the fact is, The House on Eccles Street never existed. "Costello's Marion Bloom" never existed. It was a figment of Costello's imagination just as Costello herself was in Coetzee's. Creating the persona of Costello in this novel of lectures probably arose, in part, from the novelist's need to put distance between his radical views and that of his protagonist. He was always cross-examining the controversial contents of his character's speech, through Costello's detractors and devil's advocates, even if he obviously shared and believed in them. By his creation he produced and structured a layer of inquiry wherein the novelist adopted the very fictional methods of his character, and so demonstrated the capacity of fiction to augment the imagination and enlarge the spirit.

Costello, as character, was both likeable and unlikeable. Mostly she was unlikeable. But her intelligent and realistic representation was more than enough for her vitality of ideas and sympathetic imagination to leap off the page. To skip from fictional design and enter the reader's universe of ideas.

The second lecture novel I read after Coetzee's was Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas. In it, the character was delivering a lecture on the subject of irony. Pure fun. Maybe I'll write something on it.