Review of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital

The Old Capital

Yasunari Kawabata

Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1988

ISBN: 978-4-8053-0972-8

VI + 164 pp.

Translated by J. Martin Holman

The title of this book refers to Kyoto, which is indeed a former capital of Japan and the site for the action of this quite (characteristically Japanese) slim novel. I am not sure whether, in the original language, this title could be taken to have a Bourdieuesque element in that it focuses so much on the cultural capital of Japanese society. Culture includes not just women’s clothes and food, although it is often thought to do so and these are both much in evidence here but, also, the social relations embedded in work and in the practices of production and the class structure and its dialectical relationship with language and forms of behaviour. These elements underlie a superficially simple story of a young woman who discovers she was a foundling and has a twin sister whom she is able to befriend. Yet it is the simplicity of the story and the language with which it is described that reveals why Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

The narrative is centred on dutiful Chieko, the daughter of a man with a modest business dealing in women’s clothes. Change is coming to Kyoto and her father is wrestling with ways to incorporate the bold new visions of Paul Klee into the traditional methods of making the obi and matching it to the kimono. Nevertheless, the pace of traditional life continues and is marked by the orderly arrival of the various celebrations and rituals of public life. However, the harmony and unity on which many such rituals are based seem to be breaking down:

“Large benches were lined up along a path in the cherry grove, and there was a great commotion of people drinking and singing in a boisterous crowd. Some old country women were dancing gaily, while the drunken men lay asleep, snoring. Some of the men even rolled off the benches (p.46).”

It is not necessary to say that it is the spread of transportation infrastructure that links agricultural places of production and urban centres of consumption to the benefit of both, that has brought about this sordid scene in which decent forms of behaviour have become imperilled. All the representations of the old capital remain in place but they are occasional punctured by some reminder that the world has been moving on and disruptions are emerging.

Chieko was given to believe that her parents had, in effect, kidnapped her from her natural parents but later it was revealed that she was left outside the shop one night. Further, it appears that she has a twin sister but this was problematic for everyone. I did not know what the issue is with twins but a brief article on the Time website (content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,770452,10.html) which includes the following: “… Japanese mothers believe that to bear more than one child at a time is a bestial act, frequently try to hide multiple births by separate registry of offspring, even by infanticide.” So, ashamed at having borne twins, Chieko’s parents abandoned her and kept with them Naeko, to live in the countryside in what it subsequently appears is rather difficult rural poverty. Of course, the action then goes on to focus on Chieko’s desire to meet and establish a relationship with her sister and the latter’s reluctance to cross the social and class barriers that have grown up between them. This is all managed with a simplicity of language that is characteristic of Japanese literature. The translator, J. Martin Holman, has done a good job in keeping out of the way of the text and not making it sound too American. He notes, in a brief foreword, that at least some of the text written in a Kyoto dialect that has not made it into this version of the text. To have done so would have required, presumably, footnotes or other interruptions which some readers dislike. Alas, therefore, some nuances of the original language may have been lost.

This is an engrossing work that repays careful attention to the small, ephemeral details of daily life and the ways in which they have an impact on people in different stations of life. The author himself is famous or infamous for his mysterious death – he was found in a gas-filled room in such a way as to suggest suicide or, less likely, having become the victim of an unusual accident. An ambiguous act conducted in silence is a very typical way of considering Japanese society as described by its best literature.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

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Review of Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek

The Big Midweek: Life inside The Fall

Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski

Pontefract: Route, 201?

ISBN: 978-1901927-65-8

448 pp.

I have been listening to The Fall, off and on, for more than 40 years and I own dozens of their LPs. From the very beginning (Dragnet was the first LP I bought and it remains probably my favourite, perhaps in part for that reason), a Fall record meant two principal things, the occasionally manic mysterious ranting from frontperson Mark E. Smith and the bass playing of Steve Hanley. Around these two central characters, a variety of others floated around, making more or less of a contribution on the way – the group has always had a constantly rotating membership, owing in no small measure to the abusive and exploitative Smith, as it has now emerged. Hanley left the group during one of the periods when I was not listening much to music and, as I have picked things up again, I have been acquiring albums not necessarily in chronological order. Although some of the new ones are OK, they really cannot compete with earlier work – I know that is always dispiriting to read and it may be influenced by nostalgia and hatred and fear of all change (I don’t like the new pound coin) but I think it may be because, as I have learned from this remarkable account of life as a member of the band, the rapid decline of MES. Where once his lyrics were dense, difficult to understand and often challenging, over time they have tended to become abusive and intolerant and his penchant, on stage, of turning off the amplifiers of band members who have been irritating him indicates a measure of contempt not just for the audience but for the music itself. As I write this, news came through earlier today that a series of shows in America has been rescheduled as Smith has been hospitalised and cannot possibly travel anywhere. Given the nature of his lifestyle over an extended period of time, it would not be surprising if he fails to make old bones.

In this memoir, Hanley and co-author Olivia Piekarski describe the bass-player’s life with The Fall in all of its plethora of emotions, ranging from the exhilaration of actually playing on stage to the boredom of travelling on tour and taking in, along the way, celebrations of friendship and creativity to the bitterness of being betrayed. Here he is on life while gigging:

“We’ll pack up after a gig, drive all night and most of the day, get to the next venue, unpack, set up, play and repeat the whole process, snatching the odd hour or so of sleep on the way to the next place. I’ll nod off looking at the back of [drummer] Karl’s head and get jolted awake by a pothole minutes or hours later, still looking at the back of Karl’s head (p.108).”

However, “These are the places you learn your craft. How to make one riff sound good for a quarter of an hour.”

For extended perods, the band is poor and Hanley is obliged to make ends meet by doing shifts in his dad’s pie shop and having to put up with abuse about how he was going to be a legendary rock star from various family members who, being Irish, are very familiar with the profanely sarcastic mode of discourse. When brushes with good fortune do occasionally arrive (often with the assistance and support of the late, great John Peel), they are quickly shunned, frequently through Smith’s wilful refusal to make the music as good as it could be – it is evident throughout the book that he has little interest in the music itself. After all, he once infamously declared that ‘if it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s The Fall.’

Further, when good times beckon, the spoils are not equitably distributed. Under the influence of a good woman (his quondam wife Brix), Smith splashes out after a tour of the USA and subsequent interest from a record company:

“The deal goes through and it’s good enough for Mark to buy a BMW, only Brix has to drive it because he doesn’t like driving. He is never sober enough for a start, plus he’s not into the idea of authorities like the DVLA knowing who he is and where he lives (p.196).”

This introduces another of the themes constantly running through the book: the drinking. Smith is drunk at the beginning of the book and remains so for the next 440 pages. There are some drugs but it is the drink that really matters as it both keeps people going through difficult conditions and, also, inspires the acts of lunacy and destructiveness which keeps the band from achieving what it might have done. Hanley himself admits to a problem with it but this, it seems, is bound up with the experience of creating and performing music. For people who have not ever seen The Fall play live, there is not much of a performative element to any particular gig, unless it is Smith and his increasing desire to destroy the sound balance or provoke a fight with a disaffected band member. Instead, it is all about the rhythm and the experience.

Fair-minded and likeable throughout, Handley is a friendly and credible narrator and it comes as quite a shock finally to reach the inevitable ending: “… one thing’s certain, I’m never going to play bass with The Fall again (p.440).”

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

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The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick

London: Penguin, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-241-96809-3

249 pp.

It is fifteen years after the conclusion of World War II and the world has been conquered by the Axis powers. Since the USA decided to adopt an isolationist policy, the Soviet Union and Western Europe were conquered by the Nazis, who thereby developed the technology that enabled them to defeat the Americans, together with their Japanese allies. While the Germans occupy the eastern half of the USA, the Japanese have taken over the western portion. The Nazis are not satisfied with this victory, since they have also drained the Mediterranean Sea in order to have additional agricultural land, launched the genocide of the continent of Africa and started sending rocket ships to Mars. Further endeavours are also taking place and those who remain in defeated countries quite reasonably fear for the future.

In Japan-occupied USA, the situation is somewhat different. The Japanese take all the leading positions in society, of course but they need the Americans to keep things running, carrying the sedan chairs, cooking the noodles, working the shops and massage parlours and so forth. The new overlords have become fascinated with articles of Americana and seek to view with each other to find the most authentic pieces possible. They portray an obvious Occidentalist (i.e. anti-orientalist) approach to the Americans that is one of the most interesting aspects of this book. Within this society, the Americans must find ways of making a living without causing trouble and hope that the Germans do not come – their murderous ethnic psychoses threaten just about everybody. People’s responses are, of course, diverse and there is some hint of dissent. Most notably, this comes in the form of the book The Grasshopper, which has been written by the eponymous Man in the High Castle. Can life continue or will the Nazis extinguish what is left of any spark of freedom (luckily, it could not possibly happen here, could it)?

This novel has recently been recreated as a television series, although I have not seen it. When I heard about the recreation, it inspired me to think that this would turn out to be a rather different kind of book than it has turned out to be. There is a bit of action along the way and gunplay takes place before the conclusion but this is not the main focus of the book. Instead, it is a fascinating consideration of how people react to adversity. The characterisation is vivid and most of the dialogue does its job in terms of helping to promote the willing suspension of disbelief.

Books which are claimed to be alternative histories can be problematic in that they adopt a rightist perspective that sees one person or one event making a decisive difference which then causes effects that spiral outwards and change everything that they encounter. That there is a wish fulfilment element to this can also be unfortunate. Dick avoids these issues through deeper investigation of history than can usually be expected from popular fiction but, then, he has demonstrated this in a number of other works, some of which have also found their way on to the screen. Here again he has proven himself to have been one of the most interesting voices of his generation – of course, even he did not have the imagination to suggest that one day the American people would elect a president who would have welcomed the Nazis.

Review of Alice Munro’s Open Secrets

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Open Secrets

Alice Munro

New York, NY: Vintage International, 1994

ISBN: 978-0-679-75562-3

294 pp.

Alice Munro is one of several winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature with whose work I had been unfamiliar. It is impossible to read everything, especially when I have to spend a lot of time reading stuff for work. So, on a visit to the San Min bookshop, the local Taipei bookshop, I decided the time had come to find out something about her work – there were several collections available and, not really knowing which was which, I chose this one slightly at random.

Open Secrets consists of eight quite lengthy short stories which range across space and time but which are, nevertheless, interlinked through the interactions between various recurrent characters. The most startling aspect of her work here is the way in which a story will begin, typically as the description of how a particular life or relationship develops but then the point of view abruptly shifts to a different but related character to take the story to the next stage. This enables Munro to provide multiple perspectives on the world she is describing and this is very effective.

The style itself is not overly reliant on fireworks. The first story begins this way:

“In the dining room of the Commercial Hotel, Louisa opened the letter that had arrived that day from overseas. She ate steak and potatoes, her usual meal, and drank a glass of wine. There were a few travellers in the room, and the dentist who ate there every night because he was a widower. He had shown an interest in her in the beginning but had told her he had never before seen a woman touch wine or spirits (p.3).”

This is a world of bourgeois manners in which escape or transformation is tantalisingly close but cannot ever be fully achieved. Perhaps that is a little harsh because some characters do achieve a measure of happiness (or at least the avoidance of unhappiness) and are able to move from place to place. The final story, for example, Vandals, includes a reasonably satisfactory relationship between an Englishman who left for the USA after the war and then established a successful career as a taxidermist and a woman who had previously drifted about the world somewhat like a ghost. Along the way, there are some minor satisfactions to be had. Overall, though, these are escapes from the boredom of everyday life. These are fended off with the creation of routines and schedules of actions to navigate everyday life. For example, in The Albanian Virgin:

“I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt that as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true skin. Sitting at the desk, I made a cup of coffee or of thin red soup last an hour, clasping my hands around the cup while there was still any warmth to be got from it. I read, but without purpose or involvement (p.106).”

Finding the significance in a moment of apparent mundanity is one of the points of short fiction and Munro proves herself to be both proficient and unexpected in her art. Her stories are long enough that characters find their actions have not only consequences but second order effects that resonate long into the future. These are stories and characters that linger in the memory and have the stamp of authenticity. I will be looking forward to discovering more of her work.

 

Review of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie

New York, NY: Orbit Books, 2014

ISBN: 9780316246620

It is not surprising that this book is a multiple award winner (e.g. the 2014 Hugo and Nebula novel prizes, among others) because it is an astonishing vision of a distant human future. The central figure, Breq, was once the artificial intelligence powering a giant spaceship. The complexity of operations that giant spaceships are obliged to manage requires numerous semi-autonomous mobile units and, for these, it is convenient to use the dead or, at least, the permanently sequestered. Humanity is engaged with a colonial project involves invading and conquering planets that are vexatiously rebellious. To crush the morale of the rebels, prisoners are taken and imprisoned in the holds of ships and then used as meat puppets by fractions of the ship’s mind for face-to-face conversations. This is both horrifying and apparently successful as a policy.

However, where such power is available, inevitably there will be conflict and Breq has suffered as a result. Where once she was thousands of individuals all directly linked to the central intelligence, now she is just one body and somewhat frustrated as a result. However, she is not without resources and her superior intellect has provided her with the means to obtain as much money as she needs to accomplish her goals of investigation and revenge. Still she must face the problems that all individuals face in going from place to pace and organizing transport and logistics. Along the way, she takes company with a drug-addled space cadet named Seivander who may have played a role in the central event of her life – the moment when she changed from being the Justice of Taen to becoming One-Esk – that is, the destruction of the greater part of her existence and the integrity of her memory of that event. The unlikely couple pursue the quest of understanding that is going to occupy several novels.

In addition to the science fiction background of aliens, space travel and surviving in harsh environments, this book is concerned with identity and reality. To what extent can we, as people, be assured that our existence is as we perceive it to be or do we edit and re-edit the narrative of our life to account for changes that we did not predict (which is slightly reminiscent of the guy who lives with the cat called The Lord)? What is the relationship between mind, body and consciousness? The development of these ideas is not very sophisticated so far but this may change in future episodes. However, it is quite enjoyable to find a science fiction novel in which not only does the dialogue convince but the characters have a means of development. One of the recommendations on the back cover likens the author to Iain M. Banks and this is a useful comparison. Like Banks, she can bring the almost inconceivable into fictional reality and combines humanity with acts of extraordinary wickedness. All in all, then, a terrific book and I look forward to the next episode.

Review of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End

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Death’s End

Cixin Liu

London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2016

ISBN: 9781784971649

604 pp.

Translated by Ken Liu

Death’s End is the final part of Cixin Liu’s extraordinary trilogy that began with The Three Body Problem and continued with The Dark Forest. There are some spoilers in this review of these earlier books.

Humanity was challenged by the Trisolarans, whose fleet of seemingly all-powerful spaceships are inexorably speeding through the night towards earth. Advanced technology meant that a Trisolaran presence already existed and it was able to prevent humanity making any new scientific breakthroughs. To keep the alien enemies at bay, those few individuals chosen to lead the defence of their people make public the desperate danger of the Dark Forest – any species that demonstrates the ability to travel in space and allows its location to be broadcast will be destroyed by unknown aliens. It may take some time for the final strike to be made and it may be possible to make some preparations but it does appear that resistance is, ultimately, futile.

This is the situation at the beginning of Death’s End – a tense stand-off with the Trisolarans over an enormous expanse of space. One person has been designated as the Swordholder and he is the one responsible for triggering the death of the enemy’s home planet if their ships stray beyond the agreed limits. However, the Swordholder is just one person and he cannot live forever – he spends his entire life staring at the wall on which the Trisolaran ships are portrayed being ready to pull the trigger at any moment and knowing that his every moment is under scrutiny from afar. Would the next Swordholder prove to be as steadfast?

It is in this way that Cixin Liu injects humanity into the larger philosophical issues in which he seems to be so interested. This involves the comparison between what appears to be required and what the individual can provide. Of course, some part of what constitutes the individual human character depends on the experiences that person has undergone and, hence, it is necessary to show some parts of that experience. This is a slightly roundabout way of saying that this is primarily a science fiction novel of ideas in which human characters are required to tell the story but who are, otherwise, not of much interest. Readers interested in character development, insightful dialogue and so forth are likely to be somewhat disappointed. To some extent, this might be an artefact of translating Chinese into English – Ken Liu does a fine job in providing a lucid, readable text but there are so many cultural and social intonations which are difficult to get across without intrusive footnotes or other explanations that some of that content has had to be omitted. This is something of a pity but it is the action that grips on the macro-level rather than what is going to happen to individuals on the micro-level.

In fact, the initial deadlock is quite quickly resolved and the book goes on in several subsequent sections to investigate additional phases of the story. It is not giving much away to say that the narrative graduates towards the far future and includes some startling observations about the universe – not the least is the source of all the dark matter and dark energy that constitutes the cosmos but what about which we know so little. Despite this, the sense of awe and wonder that readers might have does not fade. There are still plenty of mysteries to consider.

As a trilogy, these books represent an extraordinary journey from the initially fairly small-scale issue of the nature of a bizarre and somewhat threatening video game to the conclusion so far away. While the books do hold together in a sufficiently coherent way, it is tempting to think that the author worked on the series one step at a time and did not, necessarily, have the full vision in his mind as he wrote. If this is the case, then it does not really matter since people write in different ways and the best-laid plans gang aft agley, after all. Besides which, there are such things as editors to take care of any inconsistencies and infelicities. This is terrific stuff.

Review of Anne Rice’s Of Love and Evil

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Of Love and Evil: The Songs of the Seraphim

Anne Rice

London: Arrow Books, 2011

ISBN: 9780099556985

176 pp.

In the first book of this series, Angel Time, which I have not read but which seems to be perfectly well summarised in this one, Toby O’Dare has been plucked from his life of government assassin, a soulless terrorist, by a real life angel named Malchiah. The angel sees a better future for Toby, saving lives rather than taking them and things seem to have worked out pretty well for both of them. At the beginning of this book, Toby is in the presence of angels: “I felt love around me in this vast and seamless realm of sound and light. I felt intimately and completely known. I felt beloved and held and part of all I saw and heard. And yet I knew I deserved nothing of it, nothing. And something akin to sadness swept me up and mingled my very essence with the voices who sang, because the voices were singing of me (p.3).”

It is easy to have some sympathy with this point of view: why has Toby, of all people, been given this opportunity? Are there no more or less virtuous people who might have had the chance? Are there to be no punishments for vice and no rewards for virtue? The answer to this, I am going to suggest, is Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. In this Buddhist tradition, enlightenment (i.e. the freeing of the self from attachments to the unlasting things of the universe) can arrive instantaneously as if by a lightning bolt for the mind that is ready to receive it. This is the reason why, in the various versions of the Ramayana, demons and monsters and all kinds of ne’er-do-wells are able to achieve enlightenment while the good guys remain chained to their appetites. Perhaps, then, Toby has the opportunity for a form of spiritual greatness that is beyond the ken of the rest of us, at least for the time being. Such an interpretation would appear to coincide with her vampire books, particularly the later ones. The first, Interview with a Vampire, was a jolly romp with vivid characters and occasional bouts of fast-paced action. Yet as the series continued (and I started to lose interest in it), the books increasingly became involved with the supposedly superior ability of some great souls to be able to suffer and love and suffer again. That Anne Rice then went on to write books about Jesus rather reinforced my idea that her authorial sensibility had disappeared somewhere the sun does not shine.

However, when I saw this little book available at a moment when I wanted to buy and read something quite like it, all misgivings disappeared and I was ready to give her another go. Thankfully, the being in the bosom of the angels thing soon disappears and Toby is dispatched to an Italy of the Renaissance period in which the presence of a dybbuk or golem is suspected. Toby’s task is to find out what is going on and make things better. He will receive some angelic assistance along the way but the angels are not God and so not omnipresent or, indeed, all-knowing. Fortunately, Toby is able to communicate with the local people and can soon get on with his job.

This is quite a nice set-up for a series of books that could be moved in various directories (and probably would transfer nicely to the screen) and do not require that much effort on behalf of the author – in a concluding note, she observes that she used Wikipedia for much of her research. I will be interested to see if any more of these come along or whether she has turned her attention elsewhere.