Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Novels of Nippon

After I returned from Japan a few weeks ago, I immediately embarked on a reading course of Japanese novels. I realize that this might sound backwards, but it tends to be my MO whenever I take a trip: travel first, then read up on the destination. Aside from resulting in me asking my (usually patient) travel companion tons of questions that could have been easily answered with a little pre-vacation research--e.g. Why does that pagoda have golden horns? How come Kyoto's temples are all on the city outskirts? What do people mean when they say "Tokyo dialect"?--I find that my interest post-trip is so piqued that I end up learning and reading much more than I would have otherwise. Plus, lots of fresh reading material is a wonderful salve for the jet-lagged-induced crankiness that inevitably follows landing back at home.
Such was the case on this latest journey to Kansai. I've actually accumulated a fair number of Japanese novels over the years, but other than a couple by Mishima Yukio, hadn't read any of them. That all changed in the week between Christmas and New Year's, when I plowed through a veritable greatest hits of Japan's best twentieth century writers. First up, two by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose work I greatly enjoy, but whose Japan-based novels I'd never read: An Artist of the Floating World, and A Pale View of Hills. The former in particular was written in the enigmatic, almost suspenseful style that Ishiguro exhibited in When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go, and the latter had such a creepy, confusing final chapter that I subsequently went online to see if I'd misread it (apparently, this is not uncommon).
Next, I enjoyed the languorous, stately prose of Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, which read almost like a 19th century English novel, but with the foreboding signposts of the 20th (Japan's Invasion of Manchuria, German neighbor children singing Deutschland uber alles, etc). Coincidentally, I gave my mother the movie for Christmas, and especially look forward to seeing it now.
And finally, I headed back to Mishima Yukio with his The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, largely because we visited Kinkaku-ji when in Kyoto, and the novel is a fictitious sketch of the monk who burned it down in 1950. The book is disturbing, to say the least, and reminded me of Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll leave my description at that.
I took a short break to read Michael Ondaatje's latest, but am about to start Yasunari Kawabata's novel Snow Country. And I suppose at some point I'll finally read some Haruki Murakami...but after his lucid, makes-me-want-to-lace-up-my-shoes-and-hit-the-trails What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, surely his other books will be a letdown, right?

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