Tag Archives: japanese literature

Hotel Iris: Yoko Ogawa

In Yoko Ogawa’s novel, The Hotel Iris, run by a mother-and-daughter team, is a third-rate hotel in a dull seaside town. The mother manages the shabby hotel which has been in the family for over 100 years with a rod of iron and more than a streak of mercenary nastiness. Daughter Mari, upon the death of her grandfather, was forced to leave school and begin working at the hotel. With long hours and the nonstop demands of the hotel guests, Mari is almost a slave to her domineering mother.

The Iris came into being when my great-grandfather fixed up an old inn and turned it into a hotel. That was more than a hundred years ago, In that part of town, a restaurant or hotel was either supposed to have an ocean view or to be right on the beach. The Iris didn’t qualify on either count: it took more than half an hour to walk to the sea, and only two of the rooms had views. The rest looked out over the fish-processing plant. 

Hotel Iris

There are corners of darkness in Mari’s life: a kleptomaniac cleaner who can be blackmailed, the excruciating death of her grandfather whose agonising groans heard by the guests were explained as caused by cats “in heat,” and a pedophile sculptor who “nearly raped” her. There’s no life beyond the hotel for Mari, so perhaps that partially explains why she’s fascinated when a scene occurs at the hotel involving a prostitute and a male guest “past middle age, on the verge of being old.” There’s something about his voice, “giving an order,” which strikes her as beautiful, and the ugly scene provides Mari with a memory she can’t get out of her head. Months later, she spots the man again, follows him, and they strike up a relationship. …

The man, a widower, who later becomes known as ‘the translator’ translates commercial material for a living, and is translating a Russian meganovel in his spare time. He lives alone on an island, and it’s rumoured that he murdered his wife. The translator represents many things to Mari: perhaps he’s a father figure, perhaps the air of mystery which surrounds him intrigues her, perhaps his tenderness towards Mari fills a need, but whatever the reasons behind the attraction, before long the translator and Mari, who sneaks away from the hotel with various excuses, engage in a relationship that begins with a little B&D and then morphs into the very dangerous territory of S&M.

For those interested, there are some B&D/S&M details here, and while the story is told through Mari’s eyes, the details are precise but not overly salacious. The hours Mari and the translator spend together are catalogued so that it’s easy for the reader to see a steady progression of pain and humiliation told with almost clinical care. What’s so interesting here is that while Mari is definitely under the spell of the translator, she never loses sight of his aging body, the wrinkles, the sagging, and his ears “no more than a limp sliver of dark flesh.”

This is a deeply disturbing, yet fascinating novella about obsession and a twisted relationship that, with its escalating violence, can only end one way. It’s fascinating that Mari, who at 17 could be in the power seat here, instead abdicates that power to a much older man on the teetering point of frailty. And yet…  does Mari abdicate that power or does she subtly remain in control?

For readers and animal lovers: a warning about the fate of an unfortunate mouse who inadvertently becomes a witness to one of the more unpleasant scenes between Mari and the translator.

Translated by Stephen Snyder

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Inheritance from Mother: Minae Mizumura

“You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties.”

The Japanese novel Inheritance from Mother from Minae Mizumura examines shifting Japanese culture and society through a double lens: middle-aged Mitsuki Katsura’s troubled relationship with her aging, infirm mother Noriko and Mitsuki’s increasingly difficult marriage to her remote, academic husband, Tetsuo.

Inheritance from mother

Inheritance from Mother opens with the death of Noriko, but don’t expect grief from either of her daughters. They are relieved that their mother, following a long illness, is finally dead, and in Mitsuki’s case, her mother’s death means she’s finally ‘free’ from a heavy burden. In the year before her death, Noriko had the second of two bad falls, the latest fall left her in a wheelchair, and from there it was a “private, exclusive nursing home” called (somewhat cruelly) Golden Years. She lived there briefly before contracting pneumonia which eventually led to her death. And here is how the novel opens shortly after the death of Noriko with both sisters feeling “liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical-keen and palpable.”

“So how much do we get back from Golden?”

Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. “Around seventeen million yen.”

17 M yen converts to around $154,000 or close to 121,000 pounds. So divide that between the two middle-aged sisters, and it’s a not-too-shabby sum. But given the title of the book, Inheritance from Mother, we’re not just looking at the money these women inherit from their mother; we’re looking at a lot of other less tangible things including grief (a lack of), and a burden of emotional baggage.

Inheritance from Mother was serialised in a Japanese newspaper from 2010-2011, so keep this in mind when you pick up the book. This is not a tight, terse plot, but a leisurely exploration of Japanese society, class, mothers and daughters, aging, and death and dying in an age when the medical community can prolong life. This is a society where daughters take care of mothers or in the case of sons, caregiving of the elderly “fell to the wife of the firstborn son.” 

The first section of the book goes back in time and includes the family’s history, so we see a post WWII Japan with its strict class system and its worship of Western culture. We see the less favoured daughter, Mitsuki, whose grandmother was a geisha, living in Paris, where she met her husband.  In middle age, Mitsuki is an underemployed part-time lecturer who’s passed up translating opportunities in order to support Tetsuo’s standard of living. Bouncing between Noriko’s neurotic demands, Mitsuki doesn’t have time to confront Tetsuo’s infidelities or their failing marriage, and while he’s on a sabbatical in Vietnam, Mituski remains in Japan to care for her mother.

Wisely, the author does not dwell on Noriko’s slow decline but instead uses the illness and death to springboard into how these characters find themselves at these points in their lives.  On one level, this is a story about three generations of women with two generations making marital decisions that impacted their children. Mitsuki’s grandmother, the former geisha  “in her long life experienced everything from virtual slavery to luxury and pomp to gritty poverty and more,” so perhaps that explains why Mitsuki’s mother, Noriko, had such a love of luxury and expensive tastes. Mitsuki, Noriko and Noriko’s mother always carry the shining, yet elusive example of the wealthier branch of the family as an intellectual ideal. We see glimpses of Mitsuki’s father who was “warehoused” when he became ill, and his wife refused to care for him–a decision that still haunts Mitsuki and fuels her determination that her mother will receive adequate care.

Readers who come to this novel will have their own opinions about Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother. Noriko, who was already using a cane, fell for the second time when she picked up sheets from the dry cleaner, and for this reader, Mitsuki seemed unnecessarily harsh. (As an aside: the mother in the Isabelle Huppert film, Things to Come was equally impossible, but was managed much better). There’s not an ounce of sentimentality here, so with a total lack of grief or anguish, there are times when Mitsuki wishes her mother would just die, and not for humanitarian reasons. While reading Part I, I realised that Mitsuki has made her mother a receptacle for her own unhappiness, and it’s inevitable that once her mother dies, Mitsuki will no longer be able to avoid some unpleasant truths.

Once she had her mother squared away, she would sit down and think about what to do with her marriage.

In Part II, following the death of Noriko, Mitsuki, now with time on her hands, must confront some ugly truths about her own life. The situation with her needy mother has caused Mitsuki to delay making decisions, but now she no longer has any excuse to ignore her husband’s infidelities and his ongoing, serious affair. Mitsuki travels to a hotel to rest and recuperate and meets a man who mourns the loss of his wife deeply. This grief is something that eludes Mitsuki, and we are left with the question of whether or not grief, which is another form of inheritance, is something we should regret not having.

One minor quibble: there’s a subplot which involves guests at the hotel that pushed credibility and seemed unnecessary–even if it served to underscore mortality. The novel’s form allows the author to take some leisurely, circuitous paths during the story, so the plot echoes back to the 19th century Victorian form more than anything else. For the reader who is willing to take the time, Inheritance from Mother is a rich, rewarding read, a look at an ever-changing Japan, but also a look at the eternally difficult relationships between mothers-and-daughters.

Review copy

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

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The Gate by Natsume Soseki

“He happened to glance up beyond the eaves and noticed the bamboo leaves gathered densely atop the bamboo stalks, like the stubble on a monk’s close-cropped head. As the leaves luxuriated in the autumn sunlight they drooped down heavily in silent clusters, not a single one stirring.”

When Tony announced Japanese Literature reading month, January in Japan, I decided to join in. I think I’ve read one Japanese novel in my lifetime, which, when I thought about it started to feel pathetic. So now I’ve read two. And even though that now with one move I’ve doubled my Japanese reading bank, somehow it doesn’t feel as though I’ve made much of a leap. My unfamiliarity with Japanese literature came back to haunt me on just about every page of my chosen book, The Gate by Natsume Soseki: the history, the customs, the terms, but one thing was constant. Yes, the universality of bad human behavior. Hey, I’ve read Balzac; I know when people are being bad.

the gateThe Gate written by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is a very simple story, and it’s beautifully written with a very calm style that matches the novel’s content. Published in 1910, The Gate is the story of Sosuke and his wife Oyone, a Tokyo couple who live in modest circumstances. Sosuke and Oyone are childless, and we’re not far into the novel when we learn that Sosuke must assume care of his younger brother, Koroku. While a great deal of the novel is spent on the day-to-day routines of life, underneath the calm conversations, there’s a matter of contention between Sosuke and his aunt. Sosuke’s father died leaving a house, his possessions, and some antiques. Since Sosuke was not living in Tokyo at the time, he turned over all financial matters to his uncle–a man known for his financial fecklessness….

The very helpful introduction from Pico Iyer goes a long way in explaining Japanese customs. For example, “the individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away.” It’s all about “conflict avoidance,” and we see that repeatedly in the novel. With my western sensibility, I’ll admit to a certain frustration to this approach. I couldn’t understand why on earth, anyone in their right mind would turn over any financial responsibilities to an uncle who has a history of business disasters, and then I also felt frustration about Sosuke’s failure to confront his relatives about his remaining inheritance. I kept hoping that Sosuke would go over to his aunt and uncle’s house and kick some bottoms But Sosuke is a study in avoidance, and apparently his skill at adroitly finding excuses not to confront his relatives even annoys his brother:

Koroku was privately of the opinion that all this dithering stemmed from an inborn flaw in his brother’s character.

Poor Koruku. He depends on the inheritance if he wants to attend university. So with that quote in mind, while I know that Japanese life is all about “conflict avoidance” it would seem that Sosuke has taken this to  whole new level: subject avoidance.

The issue of a missing or misspent inheritance is not the only incident that troubles the tranquility of Sosuke and Oyone’s life. There’s also a robbery committed against their landlord–a remote figure at first who turns out to be a very colourful character, an antique screen that may or may not be valuable, and there’s also an ex-husband who may awkwardly reappear. But all of these issues are mere ripples on the surface of life–no drama, no hysteria, no arguments or fights, and instead the emphasis is on the daily routine, trips to the bathhouse  accompanied by Sunday liberation. I loved these scenes of Tokyo life that show Sosuke spends his Sundays as he tries to pack in so much into just a few precious hours of freedom:

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work–the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “nonaka-san, over here, please….”

We see the sights and colours of the city through Sosuke’s eyes, and there’s a sense of wonderment marred by the realities of economics and a rather pleasant lack of materialism:

That time in his life when he could not pass a bookstore without wanting to go in, and once inside to buy something, now belonged to the distant past. True, one English-language volume in the center of the window with a particularly fine binding and entitles History of Gambling fairly leaped out at him with its disctinctiveness, but that was all. Smiling to himself, he hurried across the street, where he stopped for a second time, to peek inside a watchmaker’s. On display were numerous gold watches, watch chains, and the like, which again he regarded as so many pretty-coloured, well-formed objects without the slightest desire to make any purchase. Nevertheless, he examined all the price tags dangling there from silk threads, comparing this item and that, and came away surprised at how cheap the gold watches were.

The introduction makes the point that this author’s protagonists are the “masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the Scrivener.” This is definitely true of Sosuke–a man who finds that he may have to face a past that he’s studiously avoided. Translated by William F Sibley.

Review copy

 Finally a question for readers and Tony: can anyone recommend any Japanese CRIME novels?

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Filed under Fiction, Soseki Natsume