Thursday, September 07, 2006

My Friendly Guides to Japanese Literature

And talking as we were of Japanese authors ...

The other day Swifty pointed the way to a very interesting piece written by his friend Justin taking issue with Kyoko Mori's list of essential Japanese reads in Justin's alternative list is here.

Now I'm happy to admit areas of ignorance, and Japanese literature is a big one. I resolved to do something about that some time back, but somehow haven't yet got round to it. (More effort needed here, girl!)

Cue a story:

Just after the Litfest I had dinner at House of Sunda with my friends from the Japan Foundation and the guest writer they had brought to the festival, haiku master Kyoji Kobayashi.

The reason for the dinner? It was a hastily arranged affair (organised by Lorna Tee who was working with me) intended in some small way to make amends for Mr. Kobayashi's name being left out of the official programme booklet and the very real hurt and embarassment it had caused. Ouch ouch and ouch again.

Apology is taking responsibility. Hospitality smooths over hurts.

Paul Bailey was also taking a couple of extra days in KL (wanting to recover from jetlag acquired flying from the UK, before he had to fly back to the the UK again!) and was holed up in his room at the Renaissance beavering away on his next novel. I was scared that he was feeling lonely and invited him along as well.

Paul is a great supporter of literature in translation and a jury member for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award, and I was most impressed - and clearly so was Mr. Kobayashi, by how much he knew about Japanese literature.

Dinner at first a little formal but as the wine bottles emptied, Kobayashi who’d hitherto spoken through an interpreter (a beautiful and very gracious lady who has lived in Malaysia for many years) began to launch out into perfectly serviceable English. I asked both writers to write down a list of titles I must read, and then the conversation fairly flowed.

Those are the names and titles Paul finally scribbled down for me in my notebook (picture above) with Kobayashi's approval:
Soseki Natsume
Tanizaki - Some Prefer Nettles
Kawabata - Snow Country, The Master of Go, The Other Side of the Mountain
To my disappointment the list did not include Haruki Murukami. When I asked how he was regarded in Japan, there was an eloquent silence ...


The Great Swifty said...

YES! So I'm not alone when it comes to indifference towards Murakami!

Though I enjoyed Norwegian Woods (due to its lack of pretentiousness and some sort of emotional depth with the story), I rather have Banana Yoshimoto's The Kitchen (it's subtle, yet... sweet at the same time, ah...).

Anyway, thanks for the link, I've read Tanizaki's The Key and Naomi, and have Soseki Natsume's Bot-chan (a birthday present from Justin). Haven't read the latter though. Am currently reading Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.

Sufian said...

With Murakami , one book is enough, i suppose. A shame my favouritest writer Takeshi Kaiko is not included. And of course I should also mention Naoya Shiga, the so-called God of Japanese Short Stories, Hikaru Okuizumi (The Stones Cry Out) whom I think is really good, Edogardo Rampo, the edgar allen poe of Japan (check out his name!), Kanehara Hitomi (Snakes and Earrings), the barely legal chick who won the Akutagawa, Kobo Abe, who really is the king of weird japanese fiction...

lil ms d said...


agree with the gentlemen above. murakami is ok, but if you want fine japanese literature, go for the older writers. my favourite is kawabata; i go back to him all the time. abe, endo - fab.

i've also read fiction by japanese women writers (pre 1980s) and you'll find them surreal, sensual and sad too.

we should open up a japanese lit book club or something :)

sympozium said...

Snow Country is quite good. There's a new edition of The Master of Go out, available at Kino, but at RM49 a bit pricey. Haven't seen the back pages to check if they've retained the diagrams of the 'go' moves in the game described in the book (my Tuttle edition has them).

bibliobibuli said...

i should have added - how murakami is regarded in literary/academic circles ... he's sure popular enough

i like "hardboiled wonderland' very much amd enjoyed "the elephant vanishes". "west of the border, south of the sun" was pretty weak though

i love banana yashimoto's "kitchen" and i'd like to read more of her work

glad you found the suggestions interesting swifty. and thanks again for telling me about justin's post. i'm learning!

sufian - thanks for even more suggestions! i should compile everything in to one list!

bibliobibuli said...

dina - many thanks for adding even more interesting suggestions. the japanese have an incredibly rich literary culture.

sympozium - goodness, now i'll have to go buy it!

sympozium said...

Eji Yoshikawa's "Musashi" is a good read - a fictionalised account of Miyamoto Musashi, considered the greatest swordsman of Japan. But only for martial-arts enthusiasts, I think.

Let's not forget the great-great-great grandgranny of them all: The Tale of Genji :-))) Never met anyone who's ever finished reading it!

And nearer, Thai lit? Botan's "Letters From Thailand" is quite readable...

Spot said...

There's a Murakami promo at Borders. Buy 3 get the lower priced one free. Almost all the titles referred to in the comments are there.

In a bid to get more literate, I thought of getting them. But remembering that a lot of his stories are similar to Etgar Keret's in terms of that Twin-Peaks-is-just-under-the-skin-of-reality magic-meets-mundane theme, I decided to pass. Three of them might be a wee bit much. :)

Ted Mahsun said...

I love Kawabata's Master of Go. Other Japanese authors, especially older ones, I find frightfully boring.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, Sharon

Coincidently, I am reading Kawabata's 'Thousand Cranes'. It's my first by the author and I'm finding it very different from anything I've read before, but then again, that could be because (and I am truly embarrassed to admit this)I have read little or nothing by Japanese writers. This post is going to help me put a list of book suggestions together so that I can get myself sone nice Japanese reads.

bibliobibuli said...

many thanks for suggestions and for adding to the list

sympozium - thanks for recommending the thai book particularly

spot - thanks for the heads up on the murakami - i'm still a fan and plan to read more.

ted - i saw 'the master of go' when i was in times just a few minutes ago and bought it.

lotus reads - i think i also will put a list together ... and maybe there are other lists i should compile based on contributions from readers. theses suggerstions make me so happy.

christine said...

I'm a big fan of Haruki Murakami. I've read all his books (except Underground)and am now reading his latest, a collection of short stories, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

With his writing, it's always about how it makes me feel. And I like the feeling. I'm addicted to it.

I've tried Junichiro Tanizaki (still learning to enjoy his work), Ryu Murakami (a little bizarre for me), Kanehara Hitomi (love Snakes and Earrings in a weird way), Banana Yoshimoto (lightweight in my opinion)...

I actually don't mind knowing or understanding why people dislike Haruki Murakami's books. It's a good study of the subjectivity of literature :)

The Great Swifty said...

Christine: Well... you can check out this negative review of Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes by my friend, Justin.

I didn't like Kanehara's Snake And Earrings either (finished the book in one sitting, haha).

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I'm trying to find a book by a Japanese author. I think it's called Rajamond (or something very similar), but I can't seem to find it. It's a sort of legal-esque type read involving a crime and the differing story told by several eye witnesses, each making himself look very good. Does anyone know what I'm talking about?