Tag Archives: Japan

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (transl. Jen Calleja): To the north

Cover imageThis is the third novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist. The other two are Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, which didn’t make it onto the shortlist, and Olga Tokarczuk’s quirky Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which did alongside The Pine Islands. One of the things I like about the prize is the joint credit given to the translator who often seems to be overlooked, even by publishers. Why not include their name on the cover? If it were not for Jen Calleja this monolingual wouldn’t have read Marion Poschmann’s novella which would be a shame. It follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth.

When Gilbert wakes from his dream, he’s affronted by Mathilda’s unfaithfulness, brooding on it all day and unconvinced by her denials. He heads to the airport, boarding the first plane that will take him far away and finds himself in Japan. He wanders the streets of Tokyo, sure that Mathilda’s failure to contact him proves the reality of her infidelity, eventually falling into conversation with a young man bent on finding a romantic suicide site. Gilbert is irritated by Yosa’s wan behaviour which reminds him of his students but takes it upon himself to deflect him from his mission, agreeing to visit a celebrated roof with its supposed view of Mount Fuji and the suicide forest where they inadvertently spend the night, before persuading the young man to accompany him to the pine islands of Matsushima, following Bashõ’s journey. They’re whisked along the poet’s route in high-speed trains, stopping here and there, composing haikus at Gilbert’s insistence. While Gilbert attempts to quash his annoyance, composing letters to Mathilda in his head and indulging in philosophical musings, Yosa seems to be fading away.

Poschmann’s novella is both playful and poignant. Gilbert cuts a comic figure with his pomposity and his research into the role of beards in the movies, ridiculous even to him, but he’s unable to shake off his concern for the young man who accompanies him, despite a constant and growing sense of irritation. Poschmann weaves references to Bashõ lightly through her narrative, her descriptions of the Japanese landscape providing a lyrically beautiful backdrop to this journey which becomes as much philosophical as physical. The novella ends on a hopeful note for Gilbert who may well have found what he was looking for even if it’s not quite what he expected.

The Gun Room by Georgina Harding: The inescapable shadow of war

Cover imageI’ve been an admirer of Georgina Harding’s writing since reading  her debut with its poetically beautiful descriptive passages. Each of her four novels is very different from the other although three share the theme of the aftermath of war. Set in 1616 The Solitude of Thomas Cave took us to the Arctic where one man elects to leave the whaling ship that brought him there and stay for a year. The Spy Game leapt forward to 1961 with a little girl piecing together an explanation for herself about her mother’s disappearance. The Painter of Silence has 1950s Romania as its backdrop where a man, both deaf and mute, discovers a connection with a young nurse that helps him unlock his past. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars.

Jonathan Ashe has managed to hitch a ride in a helicopter but what was to be merely a chance to see what the country looks like turns into something else when the pilot spots a village under fire. Jonathan sees a young woman, her body splayed on the ground with a stomach wound clearly visible. Then he thinks he sees a soldier shoot her in the head. By the time they land, the action is over. Jonathan photographs a soldier sitting, stunned, then finds the young woman dead, shot in the head. He returns to the soldier, still in the same position oblivious of Jonathan’s presence, and takes the emblematic photograph that will appear on the front of a magazine changing both their lives. Deeply disturbed by what he’s seen, Jonathan turns his back on a career in war photography that had only just begun, taking himself off to Japan in an attempt to lose himself in its foreignness. He takes photographs endlessly – the daily changing view from his apartment window, milling passengers at metro stations – an outsider constantly observing. When he runs out of money he turns to teaching English, meeting Kumiko at the language school and falling in love with her, until a chance encounter brings him face to face with what happened in Vietnam. Running through Jonathan’s story are the reverberations of another war in which both his father and Kumiko’s grandfather fought.

Impossible for those who’ve seen Don McCullin’s striking image Shell Shocked Soldier not to see it as the starting point for this beautifully expressed, impressionistic but powerful novel. Harding hangs her narrative on the framework of the photographs Jonathan selects for his first exhibition interspersing it with memories which illuminate and slowly reveal his life and character. Over it all hangs the shadow of war and its aftermath for those who have witnessed or taken part in it. There’s a quiet elegance about Harding’s writing which vividly conveys Jonathan’s need for anonymity in an attempt to escape the inescapable: the horror of what both he – and his father before him – have seen. The moral ambiguity of war photography is also explored: ‘He has seen, or possibly he has done, whatever it was that put that look into his eyes. Is it necessary that he did it, or was seeing enough? Perhaps seeing is guilt in itself?’ thinks Jonathan when contemplating the photograph of the soldier and, by implication, his own role. It’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as much to admire.

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: What Ally and Tom did next

Cover imageSarah Moss’s excellent Bodies of Light appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine earlier this year. Signs for Lost Children is its sequel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses.

The novel opens with Ally and Tom very much in love. Ally knows that Tom must fulfil his six-month assignment in Japan but dreads a separation made longer by both the voyage and a lucrative commission to seek out Japanese artefacts for a local collector. Ally takes up her post at the Truro asylum, insulted and spurned by the nurses who want no truck with a female doctor, particularly one who thinks that kindness and empathy will help the inmates rather than the rough often brutal treatment they dispense. Lonely, still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s cajoling, judgemental demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall where she is made a surprising offer. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, opening himself to what had at first seemed its strange customs and forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. As the six months come to an end he can hardly bear to leave, no longer longing for home or for Ally, the wife he hardly remembers after such a short time together. These two must find a way back to each other, or lead separate lives.

Moss demonstrates the same eye for a striking phrase in Signs for Lost Children as she did in Bodies of Light: one of the Truro inmates displays ‘breasts flat as empty socks’; Tom’s guide is ‘somehow clothed in self-possession’ despite his nakedness in the communal baths. Her descriptions of the Japanese netsuke Tom buys are exquisite. There are many references to Bodies of Light but so subtly done that they act as little memory joggers for those of us who’ve read it, effortlessly filling out the details of Ally’s troubled early life for those who haven’t. It’s a book which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time: What is madness? How does it come about and how should we recognise and treat it? It also has profound points to make about human behaviour and morality: ‘Our labour and our moral worth are not the same thing, for what price kindness?’ thinks Ally of her mother who ceaselessly works for the poor but shows neither affection nor concern for her own daughter, dismissing her ‘nervous complaints’ as self-indulgence. Tom’s and Ally’s stories are told in separate alternating narratives – both equally engrossing – delicately intermeshed by the couple’s longing for each other and the gradual fading of that yearning. It’s a beautifully executed novel, every bit as good as Bodies of Light.

I still haven’t got around to Night Waking in which May, Ally’s sister, first made her appearance in a collection of letters found two hundred years after her death. May trained as a nurse, taking up a position on the Hebridean island of Colsay where she hoped to introduce modern midwifery practices but as readers of Bodies of Light will know, she was also determined to escape her puritanical mother and live life on her own terms. Another book which came to mind while reading Signs for Lost Children is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, a history of the treatment of mental illness in women. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing read at times but complements Ally’s experience well for those who’d like to learn more.

Just one more thing to say in what has become a rather long and rambling post: Hats off to the jacket designers. Just as the original cover for Bodies of Light fitted Ally’s father’s arts and crafts work beautifully, so this one is a lovely echo of Tom’s Japanese experience. It’s a thing of delicate beauty.