But then it was down to business. Since we'd found it hard to get multiple copies of any one Japanese novel without a few weeks wait, we had decided to do things differently. We could each choose any novel by a Japanese author to discuss. Our discussion gave us an idea of the range and diversity of Japanese fiction from traditional classics to contemporary popular fare.
Muntaj, Shashi and Naho had all gone for Snakes and Earrings, Hitomi Kanahera's award winning debut novel. The nineteen year old protagonist is into body-piercing, sado-masochistic sex, and appears to have no purpose in life. "Aren't the parents worried?" as Muntaj. Apart from parental concerns, all three readers felt the book was well-written and well-translated.
Alison had read Yukio Mishima's Forbidden Colours, which she described as a thought-provoking, semi-autobiographical novel about how we all become fools in the face of beauty. Sham had read Mishima's After the Banquet which she described as "more political".
Of course, no discussion of Mishima could be complete without getting on to his gruesome, politically motivated suicide, which Naho said had made her unwilling to read his books. And then of course conversation wandered onto the subject of Japanese suicides in general (30,000 last year).
Out by Natsuo Kirino met with Kaykay's approval, being sufficiently "dark and macabre" for his taste. But, he added, there isn't a single male with a redeeming feature in sight! Out won Japan's grand prix for crime fiction and was a finalist for the Edgar Award in 1997.
Uma also went for popular fiction and chose Strangers by Taichi Yamada, a ghost story with "a great plot" but which read rather like a screenplay.
Renata had Kuniko Mukoda's The Name of the Flower, a collection of short stories a which she said was "short, concise, but told you a lot about Japanese women's lives" while Joanne had enjoyed Banana Yoshimoto's Goodbye Tsugumi.
Animah, a long-time fan of Japanese fiction, said that is she had to pick a favourite it would be The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanazaki, a book about four sisters in which, she said "nothing happens, but I couldn't but it down because the characters were so real".
And my choice? Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata, chosen simply because it has been sitting on my TBR shelf for years and might never be read! I found the novella intriguing - centered on the tea ceremony, it is a passionate story about a young man who finds himself caught between his late father's ex-mistresses. One is scheming and evil, the other (20 years older) becomes his own lover. I enjoyed the way that there is a polite surface to all the interactions, with so much smouldering beneath and a great deal more implied. Naho has read it in Japanese and reckons that it must have been a difficult book to translate. Nevertheless, the prose is elegant and restrained, and some of the descriptions reminded me of haiku. (Sham read The Master of Go by the same author, but did not find it as accessible as her other choice.)
So all of us went away with a list of other Japanese novels we now know we'd love to read and a wider knowledge of just what's out there. And this very different way of conducting our monthly meeting turned out very well for us, and I think will have another themed evening sometime.
Incidentally, I've had a few emails from people asking if they can join our group. We actually have an optimum number of members and the group dynamics are just right. (It's taken us quite a while to get to this point.) But I would say to you, go ahead and form a group of your own because it is a great way of making friends and motivates you to read books you normally wouldn't have touched. Perhaps I should write a bit more about the hows of forming such a group in another post?