Staying Home Binge Reading

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and I’m glad to do my social duty to stay home and binge read.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been reading mysteries from various countries. From the UK, Julian Symons’s The Colour of Murder, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient, to the US, John Grisham’s Camino Island, and my first Mary Higgins Clark All by Myself, Alone, which reads like an American version of Death on the Nile. And now getting through Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary, which is a sort of psycho-mystery.

But thanks to Japanese Literature Challenge 13 over at Bellezza’s, I’m introduced to Japanese mysteries. I started with Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s (芥川 龍之介) classic short stories “Rashomon” and “In A Grove”, posted here. After that, I’ve been intrigued by the novels written by the prolific Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾). Beginning with Malice, I’ve since binge read five of his mysteries.

There are ten books in the Detective Kaga series but only two have been translated into English: Malice and Newcomer, which I’ve reviewed in a previous post.

From the Detective Galileo series, there are 8 books from which three have been translated, The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint, and A Midsummer’s Equation. I devoured these in the past few weeks. Not everyone of them is a 4-Ripple rating, but this one definitely deserves it.

The Devotion of Suspect X

 

The Devotion of Suspect X book cover


(Winner of the 2005 Naoki Prize for Best Novel in Japan, and also winner of both the Edogawa Rampo Prize and the Mystery Writers of Japan Prize for Best Mystery. The English translation was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2012.)

From the start, the reader is eyewitness to a murder. We know who committed the crime, the murder weapon, the motive, and the actual scene. It happens in the home of single mother Yasuko and daughter Misato. The victim is Yasuko’s ex-husband, a menace in her life. A neighbour, Ishigami, is in his adjacent apartment unit at the time. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase––in Higashino’s leisurely pace––of the police and the suspect and possible accomplice.

Detective Galileo is the nickname the Tokyo Police Department had given Manabu Yukawa, Assistant Professor of Physics at Imperial University. Yukawa is a college friend of Detective Kusanagi and someone whom Kusanagi seeks when he needs to bounce off ideas or just shoot the breeze, an actual phrase from the English translation, curious to know the original Japanese idiom.

Higashino’s novels are like bookish tourism. His story, characters and settings make movie images in my mind of what everyday Japanese life is like. Here in this case, the murder weapon is the electrical cord from a kotatsu. What’s a kotatsu? I wondered, so was happy to divert to some Googling on that. Do go and find out if you’re interested. Lively pictures I did find and a new discovery of a common item in a Japanese home.

Back to the book. The physics professor Yukawa is logical. He analyses and deducts with a clear mind. Funny that the real detective, his friend Kusanagi is often driven by presumptions and impulses. The two make an odd couple in this series. However, it’s in the suspect Ishigami, a high school math teacher, that Yukawa finds his match. From the case, Yukawa reunites with his university classmate Ishigami whom he has not seen since graduation. Yukawa remembers him as a rare genius, someone whom he respects with heartfelt affinity.

When an amateur attempts to conceal something, the more complex he makes his camouflage, the deeper the grave he digs for himself.  But not so a genius.  The genius does something far simpler, yet something no normal person would even dream of, the last thing a normal person would think of doing.  And from this simplicity, immense complexity is created.

It’s Yukawa, the physics professor who finally figures out the mind of the genius, a conjecture he’d wish wasn’t true, for pathos can overwhelm a rational mind. And that’s a parallel to depict Ishigami. For him, something rare had sprouted within: when love and devotion are factored into an equation, it could lead to the most extraordinary scenario.

With an intriguing plot and unexpected development in the final revealing, Higashino captures the emotions and humanity of his characters in a way that’s nothing short of profound. The story idea Higashino has created here is most unique and original, just reflects the ingenuity of the mind of the writer.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

JLC13

 

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, Translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander. Minotaur Books, New York, 2011. 298 pages

 

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‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Thanks to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, I’m introduced to the popular Japanese mystery writer and multiple book award winner Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾), and get to meet the amiable character he created, Detective Kyoichiro Kaga.

Higashino has written two main series of mysteries, one with Detective Kaga, the other Detective Galileo. There are also stand-alone novels. Almost twenty of his books have been turned into movies and TV series in Japan.

I’ve read Malice, and now Newcomer, and become a fan of both Higashino and Detective Kaga. Malice deals with the murder of an author and a possible suspect who’s also a writer; I was drawn to the story right away. However, I find Newcomer even more interesting. Higashino is the accidental tour guide leading his readers to the main roads and side streets of Japanese society.

Newcomer

First off, how do I describe Detective Kaga? Who can I compare him with? As clever as Hercule Poirot, but too sloppily dressed, so, no. As relentless as Harry Bosch, but much gentler and friendlier, so, no. Right, he’s more like Columbo, a young Japanese Columbo, casual in manners, friendly to all, but a gadfly to some. And I did catch him saying, “just one more thing…”

Above all, his very humane way of doing his job is admirable. Here’s a detective with heart. Kaga isn’t only concerned with finding the culprit, but in his own words: “my job as a detective should go beyond that. People who’ve been traumatized by a crime are victims, too. Finding ways to comfort them is also part of my job.” For walking that extra mile, he has made friends but also made himself a nuisance to some, especially those who have reasons to evade him.

The Newcomer in this book refers to Kaga himself, who has just been transferred to the Nihonbashi precinct in Tokyo, a demotion from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Homicide Division, something to do with his ‘inappropriate emotional involvement’, an issue that only highlights who Kaga is like. Higashino has dropped a hint for me to find out more from his other books of the Kaga series about what that ’emotional involvement’ is all about. Unfortunately, only Malice and Newcomer have been translated into English in this ten-book series.

Here in Newcomer, a woman newly divorced has been murdered. Kaga not only needs to find the perpetrator of the crime but has to familiarize himself with his new precinct of work, the social geography of the community. We see him following clues to a rice cracker shop, a restaurant, a clock shop and its owner’s dog walking routine, a pastry shop, a theatre company, and a traditional Japanese handcrafts shop. All interesting places to which Higashino leads us to observe the livelihood and human interactions within.

One issue I have with this book, however, is that Higashino introduces a new character close to the end and reveals the denouement with totally new information. Having said that, I’m fascinated by how he weaves together the strands and casually revealing the human tapestry of his society.

I use both the hardcopy and the audiobook, whenever is more convenient. They complement each other perfectly.

 

JLC13

 

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Newcomer by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray. Minotaur Books, New York. Translation copyright, 2018, 342 pages. Audiobook by MacMillan Audio, narrated by P. J. Ochlan, 2018.

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Other Japanese Literature Challenge posts:

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

In participation of Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Bellezza.

Rashomon and Other Stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介 1892 – 1927) was an acclaimed early 20th Century Japanese author of the modernist style. Prolific in his short life, Akutagawa had written more than a hundred short stories upon his death by suicide at age 35. He is cited as “The Father of Japanese Short Stories”. The prestigious Akutagawa Prize established in 1935 was named after him to reward the best work of fiction by a new author. Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe and crime fiction writer Seichō Matsumoto are among the past winners.

Even though written in the early decades of the 20th century, the six stories compiled in this collection are surprisingly modern in their relevance. Further, despite the author’s gloomy outlook, a few of these stories are sprinkled with a touch of lively humour. The collection shows Akutagawa as an incisive depicter of the human condition and an astute observer of the human psyche.

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Here are the stories:

In A Grove –– This story and the next are adapted into the renown film Rashomon (羅生門 1950) directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa (黑澤明 1910 – 1998). The body of a murdered samurai is found in the forest by a woodcutter. His wife has been raped. What has truly happened, however, can’t be determined as the witnesses all tell very different stories. They are the woodcutter, a beggar, a priest, the wife, and the dead husband speaking through a spirit. Akutagawa presents the multiplicity of subjective point-of-views retrieved from memory. Can objective truth ever be found?

Rashomon –– “The Rashōmon” is the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was constructed in the year 789. When this story takes place, the gate is dilapidated and has become the hideout for thieves and robbers, what more, corpses are left there unclaimed. A servant who has just been let go is standing under the gate waiting for a break in the pouring rain. With no employment now, he struggles with the moral dilemma of becoming a thief or face the consequence of poverty, starving to death. What Akutagawa depicts after this is a dark reality of survival. Kudos to Kurosawa, he turns a chilling story into a film with a hopeful ending.

Yam Gruel –– Reads like a cautionary tale about the satiation of desire, but with whimsical touches and acerbic humour. Goi, a plain-looking samurai suffering from low self-esteem is the laughing stock of everyone, but he learns to live with the ridicules he faces everyday. Goi has one longing, the delicious yam gruel which his boss treats the samurais once a year. What follows is like a dream come true. He’s led to a long distance away on horseback by his boss to a place where he can have limitless yam gruel. But the result isn’t as he has expected. Why, when you have unlimited supply of what you desire, they will soon upset your appetite. Be careful what you wish for.

The Martyr ––  Christianity had a substantial influence in Japan during the 16th Century. With The Martyr, Akutagawa spins a tale about a boy named Lorenzo who is adopted by the Jesuits. Time passes and as he emerges into manhood, Lorenzo is wrongly accused of getting a village girl pregnant, resulting in his exile away from society. Later in a moment of crisis, Lorenzo’s real character prompts him to act by offering the ultimate sacrifice.

Kesa and Morito –– An early version of the popular genre we have now, psychological murder mystery as told by different narrators, again, multiplicity of POVs. The substance and motive for the crime is similar to “In A Grove”, adultery, love, hate, and lust, two internal monologues revealing Akutagawa’s grasp of the darkness lodged in the human soul.

The Dragon –– An ingenious take on fake news. Here’s the post the priest Hanazō makes up to play a trick on his colleagues, sticking a message board by the pond, it can well be a tweet today: “On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond.” Retweets follow. Words soon spread, first local people then out to the whole province and finally to other provinces. So on March third, a humongous crowd gathers by the pond waiting to see the dragon king rise up. Here’s what Hanazō learns afterwards: if you have enough likes and followers, what’s fake will become true. Even when you confess you made it all up to begin with, nobody will believe you.

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Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Translated by Takashi Kojima. Tuttle Publishing, Singapore, 1952.

 

JLC13

 

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My previous Japanese Literature Challenge posts:

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

The first ‘Snow Country’ in the title refers to the 1968 Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s (川端 康成 1899-1972) seminal novel Snow Country (雪鄉); the second refers to Arti’s neck of the woods here north of the 49th parallel in mid December.

Written in the 1930’s through to the 1940’s, Snow Country was later translated into English and published in 1956.  It is probably Kawabata’s most well-known work.  Translator Edward G. Seidensticker had been credited for leading Kawabata’s work to the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1968, a first for a Japanese writer.

The haiku-like simplicity so pervasive in the book is most apt for the Season. Firstly, its meditative descriptions and imagery offer a respite in the midst of our frantic pace.  And secondly, it points to certain relevance during this Christmas time, which I find surprising.

Translator Seidensticker writes in the introduction that the haiku is a juxtaposition of incongruous terms, such as motion and stillness. Within such contradictions sparks “a sudden awareness of beauty.”  Relax in the following poetic imageries:

They came out of the cedar grove, where the quiet seemed to fall in chilly drops.

or this:

[Her voice] seemed to come back like an echo of distilled love.

or this:

The field of white flowers on red stems was quietness itself.

Or savor the interplay of light and shadow, which evokes the poignancy of decayed beauty. This could well be the summing up of the human condition in Kawabata’s novel.

The sky was clouding over.  Mountains still in the sunlight stood out against shadowed mountains.  The play of light and shade changed from moment to moment, sketching a chilly landscape.  Presently the ski grounds too were in shadow.  Below the window Shimamura could see little needles of frost like ising-glass among the withered chrysanthemums, though water was still dripping from the snow on the roof.

The protagonist Shimamura, ‘who lived a life of idleness’ from inherited wealth, would leave his wife and children in Tokyo and go alone to the snow country every year, the mountain region of central Japan, to meet Komako, a young geisha at a hot spring village.  The love affair between the two is starkly off-balanced.  Despite her work in the pleasure quarters, entertaining parties of men, Komako is deeply devoted to Shimamura. Like her meager dwelling in the shabbiness of all, her room is spotlessly clean: “I want to be as clean and neat as the place will let me…”

Sadly, Komako realizes it is but a doomed unrequited love that she has invested in.  Shimamura too is aware of his own coldness.  Even though he is drawn back to Komako by making these trips to the snow country, he feels no obligation at all:

All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her.

Of course, it could well be guilt and a sense of moral ground, albeit his loyalty to his wife and children rarely comes to mind.

Shimamura does not understand the purity Komako seeks in her love for him, and her desire not to be treated as a geisha.  And that is why his nonchalant statement hits Komako so hard. In the climatic scene of the story, he utters, though not without affection: “You are a good woman.”

Instead of taking his words as an endearment, Komako is deeply hurt. Despite having to work as a geisha due to her circumstance, thus selling herself as an outcast, she longs to be removed from her predicament and be transported to a new life. Shimamura’s repeated words “You are a good woman” fall upon her like the gavel of final judgement laden with biting sarcasm.

Kawabata’s characters cry out for redemption, to be delivered from their precarious state. Komako is seeking saving grace in Shimamura, and desperately hoping for a way out of the “indefinable air of loneliness” shrouding her.  But her search is in vain for the man is incapable of love:

He was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love; and yet the woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin.  He pitied her, and he pitied himself.

Shimamura knows deep down that he needs cleansing as much as or even more than Komako.

The snow country of Japan is also the land of the Chijimi.  It is an old folk art of weaving where a certain kind of long grass is cut and treated, finally transformed into pure white thread.  The whole process of spinning, weaving, washing and bleaching is done in the snow.  As the saying goes, “There is Chijimi linen because there is snow.”  After the linen is made into kimonos, people still send them back to the mountain regions to have the maidens who made them rebleach them each year.  And this is where the universal appeal of snow as a metaphor for purity and cleansing so powerfully depicted by Kawabata, as Shimamura ponders:

The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.

When I came to this description towards the end of the book, a starkly similar image conjured up in my mind:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”              —- Isaiah 1:18

And like the doomed ending of their love affair, death comes as a certainty to all, insects or humans alike.  Shimamura has observed how a moth “fell like a leaf from a tree… dragonflies bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.”  The poetic descriptions do not make death any more appealing.  Kawabata uses insects as a metaphor for the frailty of life and the chilling finality awaiting:

Each day, as the autumn grew colder, insects died on the floor of his room.  Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again.  A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed.  It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons.  Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers were trembling in the struggle to live.

It is pure serendipity that I picked up this book to read at this time of the year.  The Christmas story too has also cast a vivid interplay between darkness and light.  I was reminded of this reference:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”            — Isaiah 9:2

There is reason to rejoice, for the Able Deliverer had come… He too had lived a life of paradoxes and contradictions: born to die, life through death, strength through weakness.  And beneath the surface of jollity of the Season and the superficial exchanges of good will, there lies deep and quiet, the source of joy and inner fulfillment, and Life’s ultimate triumph over death.

I heard a small voice echo as I treaded on the snowy path alone in my snow country.

It said: “For this reason I came.”

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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Published by Vintage International, 1996. 175 pages.

This concludes my final entry to meet Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4 before the end of 2010.

My other JLC posts:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe