Book review: 『蹴りたい背中』 by Risa Wataya (綿矢りさ)

Introduction

Title: 『蹴りたい背中』 (けりたいせなか)
Author: Risa WATAYA (綿矢りさ)
Published by 河出文庫
183 pages

This is Risa Wataya’s second and best known novel who won her the Akutagawa Prize at the age of 19.

Review

My previous experience with Risa Wataya’s books has not been exciting. I read 『勝手にふるえてろ』in translation but remember not being impressed by it. More recently, I read 『私をくいとめて』 in Japanese and, similarly, did not find it very interesting.

Consequently, and even though it won the Akutagawa Prize, I was not expecting to love 『蹴りたい背中』. It was thus a pleasant surprise to discover that it has much more vivacity than the other two books I read, and I enjoyed it enough.

What I loved the most in the book is how the two protagonists are true loners who don’t fit in their environment. What they do is weird for the society, but not in the cool way of being eccentric and breaking social conventions, more in a pathetic and helpless sort of way that makes them authentic.

I feel like I have read tons of stories where the protagonists are supposedly marginalised persons who do not have friends and do not fit in society. But of course, they still manage to make friends in the course of the story, and you realise that they are actually very easy people to be with. So why were they loners in the first place? It looks like the author wants to give their characters the romantic aura that goes with solitude without wanting to make them unattractive characters.

On the contrary, I loved the complexity of Hatsu’s personality and how Risa Wataya stays faithful to her characters all along. They don’t suddenly become agreeable, plain and mainstream characters just because they met the right person. In 『蹴りたい背中』, the main protagonists certainly haven’t met the right person in each other and this encounter does not suddenly change their personality. They just have to deal with each other while still being themselves, and this hard-to-define relationship is what made the story truly interesting to me.

The structure of the book and how the story evolves share some similarities with 『私をくいとめて』, but it has much more energy, depth and audacity. In comparison, 『私をくいとめて』 looks like a pale, grown-up copy of 『蹴りたい背中』.

So overall, I enjoyed 『蹴りたい背中』 much more than I thought I would. Reading this book did not make me want to throw myself in another Risa Wataya’s book though, so I guess that my general feeling concerning this author has not changed much: I can see why people love her books, but it is not for me.

Book review: 『JR上野駅公園口』 by Miri Yu

Introduction

Title: 『JR上野駅公園口』 (うえのえきこうえんぐち)
Author: Miri YU (柳美里)
Published by 河出文庫

Miri Yu has won the Akutagawa Prize for 『家族シネマ』.

First published in 2014, 『JR上野駅公園口』 has been translated into English in 2019 by Morgan Giles under the title Tokyo Ueno Station. The translation is published by Tilted Axis Press (UK) and Penguin Random House (US).

The novel had been translated into French by Sophie Rèfle in 2015 (Sortie parc, gare d’Ueno, Actes Sud).

Review

It is always a little awkward to say that you don’t like a widely praised book, but 『JR上野駅公園口』 is not a book that I enjoyed reading. I can see why people praise it, and yes I also found some of the book’s topics fascinating, but the way it is written prevented me from loving the story or even feel very involved in the protagonist’s fate.

I bought this book because of the many positive reviews it received when the English translation came out. The general impression I had after reading some reviews was that the book would mainly be about the situation of homeless people in Ueno Park, the life of the protagonist Kazu who worked on construction sites for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, disparities between rich and poor and historical moments of post-war Japan.

All these topics are present in the novel of course, but the book is also much more than that, it is a very complex novel that cannot be reduced to a list of topics. The author’s narrative choices and writing style certainly give the book a lot of depth, but it also kept me away from the story all along.

Only part of the novel is about the concrete situation of homeless people in Ueno park, and while these parts were powerful and fascinating, it is not the main topic of the book. Similarly, episodes of Kazu’s past are not exactly what reviews, or even the summary of the book, had made me hoping for. Kazu has worked as a labourer to build the facilities for the Olympics. I was very interested in this aspect of Kazu’s life and would have loved to learn more about this experience. But flash-backs on Kazu’s past do not really develop on these topics. For example, there is a long passage describing Buddhist funeral rites, and it is when I reached this point that I realised that this book was not what I expected.

Apart from this, there are aspects of the book that did not work for me. There are some explanatory passages that are quite lengthy and very dry. To put it simply, Kazu remembers one character having explained some historical facts to him, and the novel suddenly enters a kind of Wikipedia mode. I am always enthusiastic when authors adds historical elements in their novel, but surely there are better ways to integrate them than giving a character a long monologue that is not related to the story. As it is, it looks like an artificial addition made by the author, not something that would be linked to the story, the narrator or the characters.

More generally speaking, I could not sympathise with or feel much emotion for the protagonist. This is strange because Kazu is the kind of character that I usually easily feel close to in novels. I guess that having to go through many passages that I cannot describe otherwise than tiring to read, dragged me away from the story and from the protagonist.

To conclude, I loved the idea behind the book and I found that the structure of the book had a lot of potential. I just don’t like how it was made in the end.

With so many people loving this book, I am clearly in the minority of readers for whom it did not work. If you are interested in reading 『JR上野駅公園口』, I recommend the translation by Morgan Giles which is excellent and well written. I personally found the Japanese quite tiring to read, and I ended up reading the Japanese and the translation in parallel (I talked more about it in my wrap up of July).

Book review: 『愛がなんだ』by Mitsuyo Kakuta

Introduction

Title: 『愛がなんだ』(あいがなんだ)
Author: Mitsuyo KAKUTA (角田 光代)
Published by 角川文庫
218 pages

Mitsuyo Kakuta has written an impressive amount of books, including novels, essays, translations and children’s books. She won the Naoki Prize in 2004 for her novel 『対岸の彼女』, translated into English by Wayne P. Lammers under the title Woman on the Other Shore.

『愛がなんだ』was first published in 2003 and adapted into a film in 2019 (director: Rikiya Imaizumi).

Review

Teruko is in love with Mamoru and always makes herself available for him, even if this means cancelling other activities with friends or absent herself from work.

I immediately loved Teruko and felt an immediate sympathy for her. Rather than identifying myself with the protagonist, I felt like a friend of her and really wanted to bump into the story and tell her to stop acting like she was!

I enjoyed the story and I found that the depiction of Teruko was very well done. However, I would have liked the novel better if it had gone into a more profound study of character to understand why Teruko feels and acts like she does. Obviously, the topic of the novel is to ask the question “what is love?”, but I personally don’t think that Teruko’s behaviour has anything to do with “love”, I think it is more something linked to what she is, what she experienced, her childhood, her relationship with her parents, and so on. As it is, I felt a little weary of Teruko’s behaviour in the end because the novel did not explained why she would like act like that.

But the novel remained a pleasant read until the end and at times triggered strong emotions in me (I really ended up hating Mamoru). I enjoyed reading it, but I also suspect that it might not be the best novel by this author. I will try to read the Naoki prize winner 『対岸の彼女』 one of these days.

I plan on watching the movie too, here is the trailer:

Book review: 『錦繡』by Teru Miyamoto

Introduction

Title: 『錦繡』(きんしゅう)
Author: Teru MIYAMOTO 宮本輝
Published by 新潮文庫
270 pages

First published in 1982, 『錦繡』is certainly one of Teru Miyamoto’s most popular novels. It was translated into English by Roger K. Thomas under the title Kinshu: Autumn Brocade, and into French, Le Brocart, by Maria Grey.

Review

『錦繡』 is an epistolary novel (only composed of letters). Aki and Yasuaki were once a married couple. They meet by chance, ten years after their divorce and start to exchange letters.

『錦繡』belongs to these books that I loved so much, it is difficult to talk about them. Apart from “you must read it”, I don’t seem to find anything to say.

I cannot remember the last time a novel affected me so much. I kept thinking about the story and the characters even when I was not reading the book. I identified easily with the characters, and I was emotionally involved in the story right from the beginning. Some letters were so full of emotions, it often took me a while to go back to my real life after I had close the book.

This is a short novel, but there are some long descriptions and almost no dialogues. However, it was not as difficult to read as I expected, and it does not belong to the books that I find challenging in terms of Japanese level. Being able to read『錦繡』in Japanese is extremely rewarding to me. I had a look at the French translation (1994) (you can read the first pages on the publisher’s website), and I personally don’t like how it is written in French. I am glad that I can read Teru Miyamoto in Japanese.

I heartily recommend 『錦繡』, I cannot imagine someone reading and not loving this book. If you are not sure whether your Japanese level allows you to read this novel in Japanese, you could read in parallel: use the English translation to help you understand the text, while still enjoying the original version in Japanese.

Book review: 『私をくいとめて』by Risa Wataya

Introduction

Title: 『私をくいとめて』(わたしをくいとめて)
Author: Risa WATAYA (綿矢りさ)
Published by 朝日文庫

I am not very familiar with Risa Wataya’s work. I have read 『勝手にふるえてろ』 in translation before I started learning Japanese, and it did not leave a strong impression on me (I could not even tell you what is happening in the novel). I also tried to read her most famous novel 『蹴りたい背中』(Akutagawa prize), but it was too difficult to read in Japanese at the time.

Review

In 『私をくいとめて』, we follow the daily life and thoughts of Mitsuko who is in her early thirties and single.

This is a short novel of 242 pages, so I never really thought of not finishing it, but I did not really like it either. The idea of a 33-year-old single woman as protagonist was appealing to me because I thought that maybe, there would be social elements in the novel (choosing one’s own path vs social conventions). It is not the case, however, and the story mainly focuses on Mitsuko’s internal life and thoughts.

What I disliked in this novel is that it felt like reading an autobiographical writing. If this book was an non fictional account of the author’s thoughts and life, I would be okay with it, but I would certainly not have bought it. However, given that this is a novel, I expect a little more in terms of plot and character development. I would say that none were satisfactory in 『私をくいとめて』. The story does become interesting towards the end, but it also does not seem to lead anywhere. I never felt like there is a constructed plot behind the story. As for the character development, the protagonist does have an interesting personality, but the story is entirely focused on her and the other characters are not really interesting (apart maybe, from Mitsuko’s colleague).

There are interesting things in this book however, like the thoughts on solitude and what the protagonist dares or not to do alone (like going to cafes or restaurants). But again, I could not help but have the feeling that the author was talking about her own experience rather than building a fictional setting and fictional characters.

I think that in the end, it comes down to whether or not you like this kind of novels and Risa Wataya’s writing style. I can see why some people love it, and I guess that it is easy to identify with the protagonist and share her thoughts.

I will certainly try again to read 『蹴りたい背中』one of these days because I have the book on my shelf and because it won the Akutagawa Prize. But I think that Risa Wataya’s novels are just not the kind of novels that I enjoy reading…

Book review: 『草花たちの静かな誓い』by Teru Miyamoto

Introduction

Title: 『草花たちの静かな誓い』(くさばなたちの しずかな ちかい)
Author: Teru MIYAMOTO 宮本輝
Published by 集英社文庫
464 pages

Teru Miyamoto is an author of literary fiction who won the Akutagawa Prize in 1978 for his novel 『螢川』. Some of his works are translated into English and French.『草花たちの静かな誓い』was published by 集英社 in 2016 and the 文庫 edition came out this year (2020).

Review

I haven’t read much literary fiction in Japanese, but 『草花たちの静かな誓い』is definitely one of my favourite books in this area. I loved the characters and the story, but what I enjoyed the most is the realism of the setting, the precision of the descriptions and how well Teru Miyamoto has pictured the atmosphere of the Californian coast.

The story takes place in Rancho Palos Verdes, a place where rich people build expensive houses with spacious gardens and a view on the ocean. To be honest, I had never heard of Palos Verdes before reading this book, so it was very interesting to learn about this place through the perspective of a Japanese protagonist.

The author presents a californian way of life to a Japanese readership who might not be familiar to it. Our protagonist describes everything and points out details that are different from Japanese customs and habits. There is an emphasis, for example, on the cosmopolitan nature of the population. As such, reading 『草花たちの静かな誓い』 felt very different from reading a novel set in the United States but written by an American author.

While the descriptions allow the reader to have a clear vision of where the story takes place, they also give the novel a slow beginning. However, as soon as the plot starts to unfold, the novel becomes really engrossing. I read the first 100 pages very slowly, but then, I could not put the book down.

To sum up, I would say that 『草花たちの静かな誓い』has two layers. It is a novel on Palos Verdes and depicts the slow-paced lifestyle in this luxurious coastal city. But at the same time, it develops an engrossing plot that reads like a mystery novel. I would even say that the plot was more interesting than many other mystery novels I have read.

This is the first book I read by Teru Miyamoto, but he is now one of my favourite Japanese authors. You will certainly see other reviews appearing on this blog! I plan on reading his earlier writings, especially 『螢川』.

Book review: 『ノルウェイの森』by Haruki Murakami

Introduction

Title: 『ノルウェイの森』
Author: Haruki Murakami 村上春樹
Published by 講談社文庫

I don’t know much about Haruki Murakami’s books and this is the first of his novels that I read. Before that I had only read short stories in translation. I know that Norwegian Wood is the novel that made Murakami so popular, so I thought it would be a good idea to start with it.

Review

To be honest, I don’t think that 『ノルウェイの森』was a book for me. Reading it allowed me to understand why Haruki Murakami is so popular, and I understand why so many people love this novel. But it is just not the kind of books that I enjoy reading.

I think that there are different ways to read this novel. It is a love story, a coming of age novel, a story on depression, the picture of Japanese youth in the late 1960s… and because it allows different interpretations, Norwegian Wood is a great book. My own vision of the story and the characters kept changing during a single read. To me, this is the kind of book that is worth re-reading at different periods of one’s life.

The problem is that I was not particularly drawn to the story, and I could not feel enough sympathy for the female characters who surround our protagonist Watanabe. Because neither the plot nor the characters succeeded in really triggering my interest, I ended up focusing on Watanabe, our narrator, and read Norwegian Wood as a kind of character study.

The story is told from the first person perspective. With a first-person narration, I would expect to have some introspection, to have a privileged relation with the character/narrator and have a direct access to his thoughts and emotions.

But our narrator Watanabe never tells us what he thinks or how he feels. Even when unsettling things happen, he does not confide in the reader. It is as if the narrator was talking about another character, whose thoughts he could not access and had to deduce from his behaviour. It bothered me a lot in the beginning, and then I realised that it was maybe intended, that the adult Watanabe, whom we meet briefly at the beginning of the novel, was indeed looking at his younger self as an outsider.

The more I studied Watanabe’s character, the more obvious it became to me that he has a conflicting personality. There is a “spoiler” section at the end of this book review where I develop on Watanabe’s personality. You can read it if you have already read the book and are interested in knowing my interpretation of the novel.

Japanese level

『ノルウェイの森』is very easy to read. I used to think that Keigo Higashino was the easiest author I had read in Japanese, but I must say that Haruki Murakami is easier. I talk a little more about this is my reading journal of February.

In any case, I would definitely say that 『ノルウェイの森』is a good reading material for any N2 learners or even aspiring N2 if you are motivated and like Murakami. As I said in my reading journal, I also think that you can tackle this novel sooner if you work with the translation.

Reading Challenge

One of my reading challenges is now completed!

My goal in reading 『ノルウェイの森』was to determine whether I like Haruki Murakami or not. I have only read some of his short stories before, and I have always felt a little anxious to not be able to grasp what makes his writings so special for many.

After reading 『ノルウェイの森』, I still don’t know whether I like Haruki Murakami or not. On the one hand, I didn’t really like the story nor the characters, but on the the other hand, I found the conflicting personality of Watanabe very interesting.

I heard people say that 『ノルウェイの森』was not the most representative work of Murakami, so maybe I will try another one of his works later…

Spoilers – Watanabe’s personality

To me, Watanabe has a conflicting personality, struggling between what he wants to be and what he really is.

The aspiring Jay Gatsby – Naoko

Naoko: どうしてだかはわからないけど、自分が深い森の中で迷っているような気になるの(…)一人ぼっちで寒くて、そして暗くって、誰も助けに来てくれなくて。

Watanabe aspires to be a new Jay Gatsby and pictures himself consumed by his love for Naoko (Daisy), while unconsciously taking pleasure in their impossibility to be together because it feeds his fiction. I think that this is the reason why he never tells Midori about Naoko and lets her believe that he is in love with a rich married woman. This makes him closer to Jay Gatsby and suits his fantasy better than the real depressive Naoko in her mental institution.

Watanabe is so wrapped up in his narcissistic identification with Gatsby that he is incapable to see the others for who they are. Either they serve the image he wants to have of himself (Naoko), or they don’t (Midori). In any case, he never tries to understand the other characters’ pain or distress, he just does not seem to care about others’ feelings.

As a result, he fails to understand that Naoko is a real character already deep into depression. He is strangely detached every time she breaks down in tears, and when Reiko sends him alarming news of Naoko’s state, he hardly reacts. Even though Naoko tells him how exclusive her relation with Kizuki was, he just does not understand (or does not care about) Naoko’s distress now that Kizuki is dead. Maybe he sees Kizuki as a Tom Buchanan?

As a result of his self-centered fiction and indifference for others, he tells Naoko about Midori in his letters. At that point, Naoko has already confided in him and committed herself to him. Isolated and far from solid social bounds, struggling to recover from Kizuki’s loss, knowing that Watanabe is hanging out with another girl must have been unsettling.

When Watanabe leaves his dormitory and moves in an apartment, his identification with Gatsby must have been strong and, similarly to Gatsby trying to attract Daisy in his newly purchased mansion, he repeatedly asks Naoko to come and live with him in his apartment, thus showing that he does not understand her at all. Once again, he does not see Naoko for herself, but as the female protagonist of his self-centered story.

After Naoko’s death, Watanabe’s fiction finally explodes when Reiko tells him about Naoko’s last days. Watanabe must have been shocked to learn that Naoko was planning to move in with Reiko, not him, and that she has burned his letters. For the first time, he is forced to see the real Naoko and realise that it does not fit the image he had built of her. If he had known this earlier, he would maybe have spared himself his one-month solitary travel.

The lonely Watanabe – Midori

Midori: でも私、淋しいのよ。ものすごく淋しいの。(…)これまでの二十年間の人生で、私ただの一度もわがままきいてもらったことないのよ。

Under his identification with Gatsby and his aspiring self, there is the real Watanabe, and these two personalities (the real one and the fictional one) are in conflict.

The real Watanabe is a dull, passive character, who has nothing interesting to say apart from making fun of his roommate, never takes any initiative and just follows the others. But most of all, he cannot bear the solitude and has to use Midori to fill the emptiness of his spare time.

His attitude towards Midori follows the fluctuations of his two personalities: the aspiring Gatsby and the real Watanabe. First he longs for the inaccessible Naoko, but soon, waiting becomes too long and boring for him, and he hangs out with Midori. When he moves in his apartment, he becomes Jay Gatsby again, asks Naoko to come live with him and completely shuts Midori out of his life. When it becomes clear that Naoko is not responding to his letters, he tries to make up with Midori because he cannot bear to spend the beautiful days of Spring alone. When Naoko dies, he abandons Midori once again to wallow in his pain, doing what heroes of literature do.

It looks like Naoko has seen through Watanabe and given up on him in the end, but Midori does not seem able to do so. She might be outgoing and lively, but she desperately needs someone to take care of her. So much, that she clings to Watanabe, even though he only half commits himself to her.

While Watanabe constantly follows Midori in all her fantasies, thus encouraging her to want more from him, he appears surprised or reproachful when she asks for it and always feigns to not understand when she expresses her love for him.

I find the night he spends at her home to be representative of their relationship: reluctantly agreed to, but only half given. Midori states very clearly what she wants: for just once in her life, she wants to be spoiled by someone. She wants to fall asleep with a Watanabe whispering sweet things to her, wake up with him, have breakfast with him and go to school together. Watanabe reluctantly accepts, fulfills half of Midori’s request and leaves at dawn, before she wakes up. Of course, it does not cross his mind that Midori might have felt miserable to wake up alone.

The passive Watanabe – Nagasawa

Nagasawa: ワタナベも俺と同じように本質的には自分のことにしか興味が持てない人間なんだよ。(…) ただこの男の場合自分でそれがまだきちんと認識されていないものだから、迷ったり傷ついたりするんだ。

It is hard to understand what the ambitious Nagasawa finds in the indolent Watanabe, but because they share the same love for literature, it seems that Nagasawa is the character who understands Watanabe the best.

Watanabe’s real personality is desperately far away from his aspiring literary counterpart. He pictures himself looking at the “green light” like Jay Gatsby, but he does not have dreams or goals of his own, he only borrows others’. Contrary to Gatsby, he has achieved nothing, he has not succeeded in changing his condition. He is not the “great” Watanabe. He is just the dull and passive boy following the others.

One of Watanabe’s characteristics is his incapacity to refuse anything. No matter what is asked of him, he always says いいよ or いいですよ. He is okay to listen to Reiko’s story of her mental breakdown even though he has just met her. He is okay to watch porno films with Midori as well as nursing her dying father, whom he never met before, and spend the whole day at the hospital.

One day, when Watanabe spends the evening with his friend Nagasawa and Nagasawa’s girlfriend Hatsumi, Watanabe says that he does not particularly enjoy sleeping with girls in love hotels. When Hatsumi asks him why he does it anyway, Nagasawa answers for his friend 俺が誘うからだよ, thus stating what I think is the most profound truth about Watanabe.

But far from acknowledging the truth of this statement, Watanabe eventually betrays his friend by encouraging Hatsumi to leave him. He criticises Nagasawa for constantly cheating on Hatsumi and thinks that she deserves better. He does not seem to realise that he is doing the same thing to Naoko and that his condemning his friend is only laughable.

Sincere love – Reiko

Reiko: 私自身の中にあったいちばん大事なものはもうとっくの昔に死んでしまっていて、私はただその記憶に従って行動しているにすぎないのよ。

Watanabe’s love for Naoko and Midori were just different ways to fulfill his egoistic needs: his love for Naoko served his identification with Jay Gatsby while his love for Midori relieved him from his loneliness.

In the end, his relation with Reiko may be the less narcissistic, and the more sincere one, even though he ignores her for a long time because she does not fit in any pattern.

When he visits Naoko in the institution, he becomes the confident of Reiko’s story. When he leaves, Reiko asks if she could receive letters from him from time to time. His answer? いいですよ。書きます、喜んで. But we know that he didn’t write to her after that: in his letters to Naoko, he asks her to greet Reiko for him, implying that he never writes to her directly.

Reiko said several times how much Naoko and herself enjoy Watanabe’s letters, so I think she meant it when she asked for his letters. Later, she asks explicitly and several times if he can write her letters. He complies eventually, but only at a time when Naoko does not write back anymore and Reiko becomes his only interlocutor anyway.

When Naoko dies, he never bothers to ask Reiko how she is, even though she was much closer to Naoko that he ever was and must have a hard time coping with her death.

But during their last meeting, Watanabe seems to finally get closer to Reiko. At the end, when Reiko suggests that they sleep together, I half expected him to say いいですよ, but he surprised me by answering 僕も同じこと考えてたんです, which tends to convince me that Reiko is the only female character he actually pays attention to.

A coming of age novel? – Storm Trooper

Watanabe: 僕は僕なりに誠実に生きてきたつもりだし、誰に対しても嘘はつきませんでした。誰かを傷つけたりしないようにずっと注意してきました。

Watanabe writes this to Reiko towards the end of the novel.

One of the first things we learn about Watanabe is how he makes fun of his roommate 突撃隊, or Storm Trooper, in the English translation by Jay Rubin. While it is obvious that Storm Trooper has problems of his own (it’s enough to look at his obsessive behaviour), Watanabe makes jokes about him, and he soon becomes the laughing stock of the whole dormitory. This attitude is all the more disgusting because Storm Trooper trusts Watanabe.

Watanabe says that he does not feel good about mocking his roommate “正直言って彼を笑い話のたねにするのはあまり気持の良いものではなかった。”, but he still continues to make fun of him, never really wondering how Storm Trooper felt about it. When he disappears, Watanabe does not express concern that it may be linked to the atmosphere in the dormitory. He only misses him because, without Storm Trooper, he does not have anything funny to tell the girls anymore.

And at the end of the novel, we see Watanabe writing to Reiko that he has always been careful not to hurt anyone…

Norwegian Wood is often classified as a “Bildungsroman”, but the more I think of it, the more I find that it is the opposite. Watanabe didn’t grow, he didn’t change, and he is still lying to himself at the end.

When he turns 20 and thinks of himself as an adult, he asks for Reiko’s advice because he loves two girls at the same time and does not know what to do about it.

By wanting too much to be the hero of another novel, Watanabe has missed the opportunity to grow in his own story. He failed in passing from youth to adulthood, to become mature and to achieve his “coming of age”. He does not evolve during this 600 pages novel, just following the others, lacking a path of his own to follow. He is like an empty page that others can fill with their own stories. When they all are gone, he finds himself completely lost: 僕は今どこにいるのだ?The end echoes the very beginning of the novel when our 37-year-old Watanabe says in English “I only felt lonely, you know”.

This is my interpretation of Norwegian Wood‘s ambiguous narrator, and I am sure that other readers have other interpretations or have read the book completely differently. As I said before, I think that Murakami’s novel can be read in different ways, and maybe I will see things differently if I were to re-read it!

Book review: 『下町やぶさか診療所』by Yo IKENAGA

About the book

Title: 『下町やぶさか診療所』(したまち やぶさか しんりょうじょ)
Author: Yo IKENAGA (池永陽)
Published by 集英社文庫

I bought this book in Japan, partly because I loved the cover, partly because I wanted to read something else than mystery novels.

Setting

Rintaro MANO, alias “大先生”, is working as a doctor in Asakusa, Tokyo. His prices are cheap, and it is no secret that people come to him to talk about their problems in life rather than to get a medical consultation.

We meet Rintaro’s patients and friends, and share their lives and fate through 7 short chapters of around 50 pages each.

Review

First of all, I loved this book, and I would easily recommend 『下町やぶさか診療所』. However, even though the doctor’s office is a central place in the novel, I don’t think you can call this novel a medical fiction. Rintaro does little more than applying his stethoscope to his patients’s chest. It is true that most of the stories show how people deal with diseases, but it is more about their daily life and moral choices than about the disease itself or medical treatments.

I think that the choice of a doctor as the main character is mainly a pretext to tell the stories of the patients who come to Rintaro’s clinic. This structure reminds me of another novel I have read in Japanese: 『向田理髪店』by Hideo OKUDA (review here). The clinic, as well as the barber’s shop, is a place where people of the neighborhood come to complain about their life and problems.

But while『向田理髪店』 was a heartwarming, light and funny novel, 『下町やぶさか診療所』is… the opposite. The novel deals with heavy topics, difficult choices and is at times very sad. But the author is a great story teller, I loved the characters right away and felt involved in their story.

As for the Japanese level, I found this novel surprisingly easy to read. I was bracing myself for complicated descriptions and an avalanche of medical terms, but there was none of these. The novel is mainly based on dialogues, which makes it really easy to read, there are not a lot of characters and almost no descriptions.

When I write about the books I have read in 2019 at the end of the year, I know for sure that 『下町やぶさか診療所』will figure among my favourite books.

Book Review: 『ボクたちはみんな大人になれなかった』by Moegara

Presentation of the book

The novel 『ボクたちはみんな大人になれなっかた』was first written by Moegara (燃え殻) on the website Cakes. It was published on June 30th, 2017, by Shincho bunko with modifications compared to the original version.
When it came out, this short novel of 162 pages became a best-seller in Japan.

「一枚の絵で人生が変わったという人間や、一冊の本で人生が決まったという人間を今までボクはどこかで軽蔑していた。だけど、彼女と出会ったこの日、ボクは止まっていた自分の人生の秒針がカチカチカチと動き出したことを確信した。」

『ボクたちはみんな大人になれなっかた』 , p.40

In the first pages of『ボクたちはみんな大人になれなっかた 』, the narrator sees the name of the girl he loved some 20 years ago appear on Facebook. Seeing this name brings back memories, from the day he met her to the last day he saw her. Through a recollection of scenes and moments, we glance at the Tokyo of the ’90s.

Review

I liked this novel, but I found it difficult to read for a non-Japanese.

First, the novel is mainly composed of scenes and does not follow a traditional narrative pattern. There is a chronological progression but no real plot. I felt that it required an effort to follow the author, and this added to the difficulty of reading in Japanese.

Secondly, the novel creates an atmosphere rather than describing places. As I see it, the aim of the novel is not to show you what the Tokyo of the ’90s was like. It shows the experience that the author had of it. If you have a similar experience, this novel will certainly resonate with you from beginning to finish. But if not (different generation, different country), it might be difficult to picture some of the scenes described.

For example, Moegara often mentions songs that were popular at the time. It is one thing to recall having heard the same music when you were 20, but it is another thing to google it while reading the book and listen to it on YouTube for the first time.

In an interview with Shigesato ITOI, Moegara said that he always gave the same answer to the question: why did you write this novel? His answer was
「90年代の空気みたいなものを一つの本に閉じ込めたかったんです 」. This answer makes everybody happy, it does not need further explanations, and it is the kind of answer people want to hear. But the real reason why Moegara wrote his book is different. He just wanted to write certain scenes, a particular moment, a particular feeling. Not to convey something, but because he enjoyed writing these scenes.

As a result, I felt that the novel did not really care about the reader. It tells its story and does not expect you to sympathise with it… but many people did and, maybe I did too, to some extent.

While I had difficulties picturing certain scenes and found some passages difficult to read, this novel made me want to read more about this particular time that followed the collapse of the economic bubble. I also liked Moegara’s writing. I don’t often extract quotes from novels, but my copy of the book is full of tags marking striking or beautiful passages and sentences. I also liked the story and I would very much like to see a film adaptation of this novel! I don’t know if it will happen, but I feel that this story on the screen would be very appealing.

Book Review: 『コンビニ人間』by Sayaka MURATA

I bought 『コンビニ人間』by Sayaka MURATA (村田沙耶香) on an impulse in October and finished it before having time to write about it in my Wednesday “currently reading” section. In the meanwhile, I read an excellent review of 『コンビニ人間』(Japanese version) by Kazen from Always Doing.

『コンビニ人間』 is a short novel of 160 pages that won its author the Akutagawa prize.

The book

“人間はさー、仕事か、家族か、どちらかで社会に所属するのが義務なんだよ。” (p66)

In a society that constantly throws this kind of reminder to your face, how are you supposed to find your place when, at 36, you have neither one nor the other? Through the story of its protagonist Keiko FURUKURA,『コンビニ人間』describes the struggles of those who are “not normal” and won’t fit in the society either because they cannot or they don’t want to.

“あ、私、異物になっている” (p.84)

At 36, Keiko is still doing the job she started 18 years ago, like many other students, in a convenience store. Sayaka MURATA describes perfectly well the unpleasant situations a woman will have to face if she cannot justify her existence either by her work or her family. When she meets a bitter, disagreeable man who likes to complain and who is in his way equally unfit for society, they will organise themselves to confront the social imperatives.

But Keiko is not unhappy in the convenience store where she works, on the contrary! Wearing the uniform erases people’s age, sex and nationality, it puts everybody on the same level. In the store, they are all employees, and every single task required through the day allows Keiko to exist in the society, to play her role.

We come now to another aspect of the book that made me love it so much: the convenience store itself. I read with avidity all the descriptions about it, the work that is required, the importance of greeting the clients with a loud “welcome”, the several little things employees have to keep in mind during the course of the day… all of this to increase the sales and for the comfort of the clients, two facets that go hand in hand in a fascinating way. (I later learnt that Sayaka MURATA herself works in a convenience store, no wonder the depiction of it is so vivid!)

My feelings

To me, the story was well worth reading only for the convenience store atmosphere it conveys. Next time I travel to Japan, I must watch around myself when I enter a convenience store, instead of just heading to the things I want to buy!

“この世界は異物を認めない” (p.89)

But of course, this is not the main focus of the book and what connected me the most to this story is how the author underlines the obligation to justify, to explain yourself as long as you don’t belong to any acceptable patterns.

On the one hand, I think that this is something any reader can relate to, even if you don’t live in Japan. Group pressure, social standards exist everywhere I guess, and societies tend to demand justification to those who step outside the pre-defined routes. On the other hand, this book is about Japanese society, and we learn its rules the hard way, that is, through Keiko’s eyes. It shows a world where one’s life goal is not the search for personal happiness and self-fulfilment but a marathon to complete the challenges the society forces on you (getting a good job, getting married, having children). Achieving it gives you the right to judge the ones who failed…

Conclusion

ダウンロード

『コンビニ人間』, 村田沙耶香, 文春文庫

Though it is very short (161 pages), 『コンビニ人間』is incredibly full of elements and gave me a lot to think about. I felt that, with its two very different protagonists, the story forces the readers to reflect upon their own criteria. While we are afraid of being judged by society, aren’t we also prompt to judge those who don’t fit our own definition of “normality”? This and other thoughts accompanied me long after I closed the book. It is without a doubt one of my favourite books of the year and I heartily recommend it!