The Silent Cry (Kenzaburo Oe)
Kenzaburo Oe is the next Japanese writer that I am trying to make my way through after the Murakamis (Haruki and Ryu) and Natsume Soseki. And once again, with “The Silent Cry”, Oe shows that he is a writer not afraid to dig into the personal in his works, again looking at the impact of child born with a handicap.
Mitsu, an interpreter and translator, and his wife Natsumi have a child born with a disability. As such, Natsumi turns to alcohol and the child is placed in an institution. When his rebellious younger brother Takashi returns from the US, they pack up and leave Tokyo to return to the small village in the valleys of Shikoku to start a new life. Isolated due to a harsh winter, the return causes tensions between the two brothers and the married couple, as Takashi wants to return to the dangerous spirit of the family and village’s past.
As with “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness”, Oe looks at troubling aspects of nationalist spirit in a small village. Locals trying to create trouble for foreign influences with violent acts that ultimately benefit no one. Looking to the past for inspiration, rather than learning from history is a concern from the volatile post-war years. Mitsu wants nothing to do with it, but Takashi is obsessed in heading for inevitable demise.
This is a concern perhaps still relevant today, as growing nationalism worldwide, though maybe not to the same extent. Oe again weaves sinister intensions into his characters, perhaps driven by madness. He doesn’t have the same comedic human condition of Soseki, the nostalgia of Haruki Murakami nor the “extreme” Japan of Ryu Murakami. But despite his very personal starting points, Oe’s work is very much a political look at Japan in the post-war years and the difficulty of change.
- Days to read: 14
- Days per book: 14.6
Turbulence (David Szalay)
I’ve finally gotten round to reading something by the Canadian-British-Hungarian who spells “Szalai” different to what’s normal. This is very much a travel book, starting and ending at Gatwick Airport via Budapest, which I have done on several occasions.
I’m going to pluck a random number out of the air and say “ten.” This is ten short stories about flights which have one degree of separation, as people pass on the baton to the next character for their little story to be told, as we gradually make our way around the world via Spain, Senegal, Brazil, Canada, the US, Hong Kong, India, Qatar, Hungary and back to Britain. Did I miss any? No? So it was ten. Oh, I forgot Vietnam, and that second Indian stopover
As the title suggests, each life has some sort of turbulence – largely emotional – that they have to deal with: whether the death of a son, witnessing a crash, marriage difficulties and domestic abuse. Being that this is a relatively short book covering a number of characters and stories, we are only introduced to a snippet of each scenario, but Szalay does a decent enough job to get enough across in a short few pages to keep you interested. And if you’re bored, they’ll be another flight coming in a few pages anyway.
But as I said, this is a travel book in the sense that it is a light read to take on a short trip as you will polish it off fairly quickly and be briefly entertained, rather than fully immersed. More “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” than “7 Years in Tibet”. But definitely enough to give Mr Szalay another try.
- Days to read: 4
- Days per book: 14.6
Sweet Bean Paste (Durian Sukegawa)
I bought this for my wife, along with the Blu-Ray of Naomi Kawase’s adaptation, and, of course, a couple of red bean paste dorayaki, as a sort of romantic night-in mega pack in an attempt to make it seem like I’m that sort of husband.
As the name suggests, this is a somewhat sweet tale of Sentaro, a hard-up dorayaki shop manager who, after some convincing, employs the elderly Tokue to help out on account of her exceptional bean paste (that’s not a euphemism). But there’s one thing that continues to bother Sentaro, and why he didn’t employ her in the first place: her hands are covered in the marks of Hansen’s Disease A.K.A. leprosy.
Word gets round, and soon makes its way to the shop’s owner, who makes Sentaro’s life harder than he already needs it to be; and this is the crux of Sukegawa’s story. This is more a story about perceptions of those with illness, or indeed anything that goes against the norm, in Japan. Sentaro, while gaining sympathy for Tokue – a woman who has spent essentially her whole life in an institution – is initially weary of her appearance, and is quite happy to shun her. It’s only on learning how he can benefit from her that he takes her in. Despite the success her bean paste brings the shop, the owner is more concerned about public image than profits, and her being there will eventually lead to business declining.
Sentaro, a former convict, is also a man who will put many Japanese off, and is stuck in the role paying off his debts to his boss, inherited from her late husband. He will struggle to get work anywhere else and his boss knows this. They are also joined by Wakana: a customer; and a troubled and seemingly not-too-popular teen.
The life learnings from Tokue are not a huge revelation, and so you might not learn too much about how to live your life from reading this. But it sheds light on the issue of acceptance of people with pasts that would see them institutionalised. Sentaro and Tokue are not bad people, more victims of circumstance, but the stigma will always remain for them in trying to move on with their lives.
There are some mildly awkward moments in the story in Sentaro and Wakana’s researching Hansen’s Disease, but also leads to the possibility of an age where greater access to information might lead to less ignorance. But until society at large makes the effort to learn, age-old problems will continue and persist to hold people back.
- Days to read: 7
- Days per book: 14.5
How to Live (Simon Munnery)
Simon Munnery is “as close as comedy gets to being art.” And this shit artist is one of my favourite stand-ups, being that, as his character The League Against Tedium might say, “I am more intellectual than yooow.”
“How to Live” is a collection of his best self-contained stand-up one-liners in what is a baffling collection of silliness, wit and security guard jokes. About seventy of them. Munnery has the brilliant ability to be tremendously silly while highly intellectual, as a man who had the best A-Level results in the country when sitting them (I heard), but chose to put those smarts to comedy, rather than something useful.
I quickly went through this as a toilet book, over about three visits, with the number of days to read informing you as to my regularity. It’s actually quite difficult to evacuate one’s bowels when you’re laughing so, and that is the sort of praise any writer yearns for.
- Days to read: 4
- Days per book: 14.5