I’ve long been fascinated by Japan, partly because it’s so very different from my own country and partly because it seems to me to be a place of contradictions – on the one hand a set of very traditional, sometimes ancient values and beliefs, on the other an ultra-modern, throwaway urban culture. Or at least that’s how it seems to an outsider like me. Here then, are five Japanese novels I’ve enjoyed, all with links to reviews on this blog.
Inevitably, given the popularity of Haruki Murakami’s books and that I’m a fan, I’ve included a novel by him. I’ve plumped for A Wild Sheep Chase, the first Murakami I read in which a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive is pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark after pinching an image from a postcard sent by a friend to illustrate some copy. The sheep has been spotted in the photograph by a shady character called ‘The Boss’ who has threatened our unnamed narrator with some very nasty consequences if he fails to track it down. Things become increasingly surreal as the narrator fixes the sheep in his sights on a trail that leads him from Tokyo to the snowy peaks of Hokkaido where he comes face to face with his quarry. There’s a good deal more to it than that but this is a book impossible to encapsulate in just a few words which is part of its charm. I read it with increasingly delighted astonishment. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd.
Anyone who’s read Murakami will have noticed the frequent occurrence of cats in his fiction. I wonder if he read my next choice, Takashi Hiraide’s elegantly understated The Guest Cat narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house set in a rambling garden. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home and lead a quiet life, interrupted by visits from their neighbours’ recently adopted cat. Soon Chibi is coming and going has she pleases welcomed by this couple whose fragile connection to each other and the world has been intensified by her presence until they must move. Hiraide’s prose is often beautiful and a little melancholic. The glimpses into Japanese life are fascinating, further illuminated by a helpful set of translator’s notes from Eric Selland at the back of the book. Short but not slight, it’s a thoughtful rather lovely novella.
Hiraide’s lonely couple might have found solace with Hiromi Kawakami’s cast of eccentric characters in one of my favourite novels of recent years, The Nakano Thrift Shop, narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As Hitomi and Takeo stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister cheers them on from the sidelines. Kawakami’s four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this delightful novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for.
Shops and socially awkward characters seem to be becoming secondary themes in this post, both shared by Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich in which our unnamed narrator, on the brink of adolescence, becomes obsessed with a taciturn young woman with enormous eyes who works in his local supermarket. When he hears his classmates ridiculing her, he stops his daily purchases, puzzled by their description of her as a freak, until his friend Tutti persuades him to pay one more visit before he misses the chance of seeing Ms Ice Sandwich ever again. Child narrators are extraordinarily tricky to pull off but Kawakami does it beautifully in this funny, touching story. Our endearingly thoughtful narrator spends a good deal of his time in a state of puzzlement at the behaviour of other people, his befuddlement neatly balanced by the mature, clear-eyed Tutti who ultimately saves the day. Kawakami’s brief novella ends poignantly but on a pleasing note of hope for both of them.
Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a fable-like novella about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay off his debts and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue offers to work for next to nothing, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed but soon sales soar and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems. All seems well until rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – spread. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this engaging tale.
I’m always on the lookout for suggestions – any Japanese novels you’d like to recommend?
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