[Wrap Up Post] 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge

Di awal-awal mengikuti Japanese Literature Reading Challenge awal tahun ini, saya sangat bersemangat. Saya sudah tahu harus membaca apa karena saya punya “timbunan” buku-buku fiksi/sastra Jepang di rumah yang belum dibaca. Selain itu, di perpustakaan yang sering saya kunjungi juga banyak terdapat buku-buku sastra Jepang. Terutama, yang membuat saya bersemangat luar biasa adalah hadiah voucher buku yang dijanjikan si penyelenggara.

Sebagai #rakyatmiskin, tentu saja saya langsung ngeces melihat nominal hadiahnya. Tetapi, apa mau dikata, seiring berjalannya tahun 2016, semangat saya luntur sedikit demi sedikit. Mungkin karena saya tiba-tiba suka baca Agatha Christie, mungkin karena saya jadi lebih sibuk belajar bahasa Spanyol, atau mungkin karena saya merasa harus segera membaca dan menyelesaikan novel The Black Book-nya Orhan Pamuk (yang sampai sekarang belum selesai juga). Atau, bisa jadi, karena saya sudah agak-agak eneg saking seringnya saya membaca novel-novel Jepang. Intinya, merasa butuh istirahat sejenak dari karya sastra Jepang. Jadi, jika awalnya saya sangat getol mengejar poin dengan berharap bisa membaca buku-buku karya sastra Jepang sebanyak mungkin, akhirnya justru hanya membaca dan meresensi beberapa buku saja. Ini dia daftarnya:
1. The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

2. Rashomon: A Story Collection – Akutagawa Ryunosuke

3. Beauty and Sadness – Yasunari Kawabata

4. Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories – Seirai Yūichi

5. Revenge – Yōko Ogawa

6. 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

7. All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe

8. Botchan – Natsume Sōseki

Nah, itu dia buku-buku sastra Jepang yang “berhasil” saya lahap dan resensi tahun ini (tautan akan membawa kalian ke resensi saya). Yah, walaupun total hanya delapan buku (dan poinnya entah berapa, terserah si penyelenggara yang menghitung, hehehe), saya tetap berharap saya bisa menang tantangan ini. Jadi pemenang kedua juga nggak apa-apa, yang penting dapat voucher buku. Ya biar bisa beli buku baru lah, hehehe. Soalnya kalau nggak dapat gratisan, saya nggak bakalan bisa beli buku baru. Maklum, lagi kere.
Eits, walaupun tahun ini saya membaca karya sastra Jepang hanya demi mengikuti tantangan dan dapat hadiah, tidak berarti saya tidak mau lagi membaca karya sastra Jepang ke depannya. Tantangan tahun ini justru menjadi pembuka mata bagi saya karena ternyata, selain Haruki Murakami yang suka ajaib nulis bukunya, dan Yasunari Kawabata yang setelah saya baca dua bukunya pun tetap saja menurut saya tulisan beliau tidak ada istimewanya, ada banyak karya sastra Jepang lain yang bagus dan menarik. Jadi sangat ingin mencari dan membaca lebih jauh.

Bagaimana dengan kalian? Seberapa banyak buku karya sastra Jepang yang kalian baca tahun ini?

fiction, review


2009 Indonesian edition’s cover

People anywhere in the world these days would not want to be told what is right and what is wrong, or to have some literary works showing the moral standards they deem old-fashioned pushed under their nose. But just in case you forget how this world somehow works and how to be true to yourselves, the Japanese classic Botchan by the prominent, highly praised author Natsume Sōseki might be the tool to remind you of the way. First published in 1906, this Indonesian edition firstly appeared in 2009 with the same title, the humorous book is one of Sōseki’s notable works that brings to the reader not only a good (though not strong enough) story, but also a character that is so honest and appealing.

Botchan, actually a term of endearment for the son of an employer in Japanese, is our leading character and narrator. The story begins with him telling the reader of his grim childhood as an unwanted child: deemed useless by his father, unloved by his mother, cheated constantly by his older brother. But lucky him, his devoted servant Kiyo loves him so much and often spoils him. As the story moves forward, we’ll see Botchan loses both of his parents and his brother sells everything they have, giving him his share of 600 yen which he then uses to enroll in a school of physics and study mathematics. After graduation, he accepts an offer to teach math in a small town’s middle school in Shikoku Island. It is there, subsequently, that he gets to see a wider world than he ever saw before and experience the unpleasant life of a rural area. Aside from a bunch of naughty, troublesome students—which is not unpredictable for a teacher to handle—Botchan has to face a failed education system which is so far away from educative, and an unwise principal who always seems to humiliate him. Worse still, he has to deal with two deceitful teachers, whom he calls the Red Shirt and the Clown, trying always to discredit him and play him off against another teacher.

“Kalau orang jujur tidak bisa menang

di dunia ini, siapa lagi yang bisa?”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan gets through it all with his steadfast honesty, outspokenness, and unwavering stand on justice. It is this character which is the main attraction of the book, not really the story. Throughout the narrative, Sōseki looks like he wants to make Botchan’s characterization stick out above any other aspect so that the reader can see what he means to show us: that a good character, no matter what we think about right or wrong, is all that we have to navigate this rotten world. Botchan is not an embodiment of high moral principles or an angel, since he has some flaws—impatient, emotional, hot-blooded—which shows that he is just a human being like any other. But his keeping a tight grip on honesty and justice at least teaches us how having integrity is something worthwhile and that’s what we should do, not littering this old, tired world with our evil deed.

“Kalau dipikir-pikir, sebagian besar masyarakat malah

mendorongmu bertindak jahat. Mereka seolah percaya

tanpanya, kau tidak akan bisa sukses dalam kehidupan.

Pada kesempatan-kesempatan yang langka, ketika me-

reka melihat seseorang yang berbicara terus terang &

jujur, mereka meremehkannya dan menyebutnya hijau,

tidak lebih daripada anak-anak.”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan is an engrossing story, such a page-turner. From the beginning to the end, the book appears to intend to drown the reader without mercy into its depth of narrative. It really has something about it that drags you along so that you’ll forget everything but everything in it, particularly the character aspect. The thing that I found lacking is its untidy storyline from which Sōseki often brings out sudden conflicts, of which solutions seem unclear until much later, and out-of-the-blue statements about the characters—for example, when Botchan suddenly says he has huge respect for Koga, the English teacher. But these few flaws are made up for by the humor scattered in many places. You’d think a novel about honesty and justice would feel or at least sound so serious, but this one is not. You’d either giggle or laugh, no less. Some of you will perhaps even read it as a satire criticizing the world and how rotten it is, especially looking at the way Botchan innocently narrates his story and speaks out his mind. This feature is helped very much by the fast pace and the nice flow of the plot. I have to admit the mess of it is pretty annoying, but during my reading I couldn’t help but feel like I was lost in the flow, reading on and on without wanting to stop, even though I knew my eyes had already been weary and watery.

All things considered, Botchan by Natsume Sōseki is one of my best reads so far this year, and definitely one of the best Japanese literary works I’ve read to this day. And thanks to Indah Santi Pratidina for translating it from whatever language it is so I could have fun reading it. It’s a recommended fiction work for you who have forgotten how to say the truth.

Rating: 4/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

All She Was Worth

Indonesian edition’s cover

“Case solved” is always what people would expect from a crime novel. But, what if it doesn’t work that way? All She Was Worth, a work of Japanese crime fiction by Miyuki Miyabe, provides us with an alternative. Taking a different route from others in the same genre, the book combines the thing that you call “whodunit” with “whydunit” to form a twisted narrative which will take you to nowhere near a solution. Forget about the not-so-extraordinary premise, at the end of the game you will only find yourselves asking, “Will the culprit ever give up?”

Set in the early 90s’ Japan, the story starts when Shunsuke Honma, a detective on leave upon getting injured on his last duty, gets a visit from his wife’s cousin’s son, Jun Kurisaka. The young banker never cares about the Honmas, he doesn’t even come up when his aunt dies, so it’s only obvious that now he comes with a problem: his fiancée has gone missing. Honma is told that they are about to get married, but suddenly, after an argument over making a credit card, she disappeared. There’s no telling whether Shoko Sekine, the girl in question, is being kidnapped or not, but Honma has a suspicion that she ran away for fear of being found out on something. True enough, the first investigation step Honma takes leads him to the fact that Sekine has been declared bankrupt in the court for her inability to pay her debts. The thing is, Kurisaka knows nothing about this, not because Sekine never tells him, but because the girl who is his fiancée never knows that she has been bankrupt. How could it be? What actually happens? The winding path of further investigation brings Honma to a confusing discovery that the Shoko Sekine Kurisaka thinks he knows is not the real Shoko Sekine. So, who is she? Why is it that she seems to be someone who is not her?

All She Was Worth is not a mystery novel in which everything is kept secret till the last page. Somehow the questions of who and why dunit have been solved at the last 1/3 of the book. The novel itself is not actually about mystery, on the whole. It’s about crime, and whether the perpetrator will do it again, just to save her life. So anyone looking for a conventional crime fiction book with usual features and plot will definitely be disappointed. There is a thrill, of course, and it steadily lasts till the end. But the thrill itself is not something readers would usually expect from this kind of book. It’s not a thrill of suspense, it’s a thrill of tracking and investigating. As unusual as it is, though, All She Was Worth doesn’t have an out-of-this-world idea, what with the murder case and stolen identity and all. That’s said, there is a message buried deep under the narrative. It’s something to ponder about: how we live in consumerism, greed, stifling credit system, deceitful capitalism, and how people tend to imagine their dreams and happiness come true in the form of worldly goods. Our endless desire for more has turned us into mentally weak people and plunged us into deep hole of debts. And the next thing we know, we start to kill each other in cold blood.

What makes All She Was Worth a fascinating, enjoyable read is how meticulous Miyabe is in arranging every detail so that they develop into a sturdy body of plot. And it’s a tricky one. At first, I found myself baffling as to why Miyabe woud reveal “everything” just after the first investigation she makes Honma do. But then the storyline brought me to further discovery and more shocking facts, even more and more questions for me to try to find out the answers. There are more twists and turns than you’d think and, strangely enough, they won’t make you scratch your head during your reading. You could say that Miyabe is very careful with the way she lays her tricks and sets the pace into a fast, steady one. What’s more interesting is that Miyabe weaves together every detail and fact found at every step of investigation into a vivid character of the culprit. At the end of the story, we will be able to see clearly what kind of person she is, although not quite clearly what she will do, or what will happen to her, next. Every aspect of the novel is well constructed and carefully written. And Miyabe doesn’t try to waste our time with too much drama or too long explanation of each characterization. She cleverly elaborates every character through their actions, ways of thinking, and brief dialogues without being too much about it.

Overall, All She Was Worth is a work of crime fiction I’d expect to be, or at least the kind I’d prefer to read, case solved or not. Not too much drama, compact, exciting, and enjoyable. The thing that becomes my complaint here is the translation. Not that it’s bad or something. It’s just, in my opinion, there are some translated sentences that are not carefully considered, and thus become quite literal in their meanings. But that’s not really a problem, though, because it’s not so bad that it will ruin your reading. It’s still a crime novel I will undoubtedly recommend to anyone fond of the genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

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Indonesian edition’s covers

Truth is stranger than fiction. Or so they say. 1Q84 is a work in which Haruki Murakami proves to us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but it could be stranger than anything. Divided into three parts, the big chunk of a book leads the reader into a world of impossible possibilities, rather “irrational” belief, and unimaginable-yet-feel-so-real events. Here, the atmosphere is so different from that of Norwegian Wood I remember, but Murakami still keeps his peculiar nature of storytelling.

The story begins with Aomame, a woman with an obviously weird name, being on her way to accomplish a deadly mission dropped in her lap. Sitting in the taxi taking her to her fatal destination, stuck and bored in heavy traffic, Aomame cannot do anything but listen to the music played on the radio inside the car: Sinfonietta by Janácěk. She has no idea as to how she can know that it is Sinfonietta by Janácěk, she just knows. It’s already weird enough that the taxi is such a fancy car and has such a luxurious radio playing such music, so the fact that she can recognize the music she hears then and there almost misses her attention. Weirder than that though is the fact that, in the middle of the traffic jam, the taxi driver suggests her to get off the vehicle and take the emergency stairway down to the National Highway 246. She knows, with no doubt, that there is no such emergency stairway.

On the other hand, Tengo Kawana, a young math teacher with no bright future but secretly keeping a strong desire to be a novelist, is faced with an impossible offer: ghostwriting a novel for a young debut author. This is a very good opportunity for him, says Komatsu, the editor of the book in question, to sharpen his writing talent and ability before he can publish his own work. Tengo feels reluctant, at first, because he knows it’s a crime, morally if not legally. But there is something about the book, Air Chrysalis, that attracts him the way no other books ever do. There is something about the story, which is a form of fantasy tale, that pulls him into a state of wonderful amazement and forces him to say yes to the ambitious editor. Not only that, the entire narrative of Air Chrysalis also pulls him into a world that is not here. A world that is similar to the one he is living in but just not the same in any ways. And, unfortunately, a world he has to rewrite to make it a perfect tale to read.

As the story progresses, both Aomame and Tengo find themselves immersed in that world, doing unconsciously what the “other force” seems to make them to do and fighting it at the same time. They also, in their own ways, find the fact that they never cease to feel in love with each other and still want each other even years after their last time in class together. But in the world of 1Q84, a strange world with two moons and Little People, they cannot be together without sacrificing one of themselves. Aomame knows this, and she’s willing to do anything to have the slightest chance to meet Tengo again. Even if she has to fight the Little People and face the possibility of losing her own life.

1Q84 can be classified as metafiction. Murakami seems to keep reminding the reader that this is fiction about fiction, about something unreal happening out of our usual world. Even the characters are aware of it. To make it a successful work of this kind, Murakami would even painstakingly divide the plot into layered subplots where the characters realize their existence in the shifting world as the storyline moves on. Thankfully, the reader need not painstakingly track the path since the entire plot is so easy to follow. It’s like the characters directly talk to us while they are experiencing chapter by chapter of their unbelievable lives. What makes the narrative a little bit lacking here is the pace, which has different speed in each part and makes the reader quite exhausted at the end of the book. This is where Murakami fails to keep his story as a neat, maintained piece. The pace is, I’d rather say, unstable: enjoyable at first, too fast at the second part, and then too slow to swallow all the explanations at the end. It’s almost as if being a big chunk is entirely pointless, while the book has actually so much to say.

What might keep the reader’s interest in the whole story is probably the characters. They are very well written, strongly described. Each characterization is so powerful it stays in our mind, especially that of Aomame. I’m not sure if Murakami is being a feminist here, but he describes her as strong, decisive, resolute, overall better than the well-built-but-meek Tengo. But I won’t judge him unfairly here, because I, too, find myself in him: his unwillingness to be tied to anyone or anything, his love for writing, his determination to get the answers for all the questions he has about his past, his fondness for living in the simple way he likes. However opposite their characters are, I could feel that they really are made for each other, hence the attraction to be together.

To some extent, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a great novel. I enjoyed most of it, despite the weakness in the run of the story and some irrational scenes. It’s a wonderful work where Murakami succeeds in convincing us that the unreal is also real, that realities could blend together with imaginations, that truth, once again, can be stranger than fiction. Than anything, even.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

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It’s odd. It rings with mystery. And it’s palpably horrific. Revenge by Yōko Ogawa does not only present to us eleven dark tales, as it is stated on the second page of the book, but also something beyond any reader’s imagination. It’s not a collection of crime stories with bloody scenes of people dying at the hands of serial killers, nor of horror ones with ghosts flying here and there. Yet it has an air of creepiness and ability to keep us holding on tight to our guts throughout every piece. If anything, Revenge is a work of literary art which explores humans’ deepest minds and darkest hearts, something that will shock readers with what people could do beyond this life.

The short story collection contains eleven pieces of writing, all of which are dark and dreadful, in every sense of the word. Their dreadfulness comes in various forms: from a mother who never forgets to buy her dead little son a strawberry short-cake every year for his birthday, to an old landlady who grows carrots looking like a man’s hand, to a young woman with a heart growing outside her body, to a strange woman who claims to be a writer and accuses other people of stealing her works but, in fact, she doesn’t seem to write anything. But those are not all. In Fruit Juice, a teenage girl, who is apparently the illegitimate daughter of a prominent politician, tries to dampen her sadness by eating kiwis stored away in an abandoned post office to her heart’s content. She is a very quiet girl that when you ask her questions she will only say a word for the answer. She’s someone who keeps everything to herself, until, one day, after she meets her biological father, she cannot take it any longer and take it out on the kiwis she finds with her friend.

Jumping to Lab Coats, story number five on the list, we will meet a normal-looking secretary working at a university hospital, who is actually the secret lover of a doctor doing a residency there. But we will no longer think she is normal once the narrative unfolds the fact that she has murdered said doctor only for breaking his promise. What makes the story even scarier, though, is that her fellow secretary, upon knowing first hand about the murder, does not think that she is a cold-hearted killer. The fellow secretary keeps holding the idea that she is lovely and nice and flawless. However, that’s not the strangest story of all, if you ask me. Poison Plants, the last piece of the contents, tells the tale of a very old woman who seems to have interest in a young boy she is giving scholarship to. It doesn’t seem odd, of course, until the boy stops seeing her again and returns all of her money. That’s when she looks like she’s losing both her mind and sense of direction, wandering to a far away field beyond her home and finding her own dead body in a refrigerator.

As character-driven as it might seem, Revenge also has each of its peculiar ideas and their elaborations in the form of horrendous plots contributing to its twistedness. Yōko Ogawa has succeeded in handling them all with great care and precision. All the three components seem to work together under Ogawa’s firm command to trick the reader’s mind into believing that the stories they produce are something usual and that the world the characters inhabit is just the ordinary one we are living in, while, at the same time, they themselves are secretly not entities coming from this very world. It is their imposing effect they leave behind which then brings this realization to the reader right after they finish each story on the list, an effect where they will finally see that those stories are impossibly odd and hair-raising. Despite being stand-alone pieces, in addition, all of the short stories in Revenge appear to be intertwined to each other, becoming so by certain elements in the narratives which are hidden away from the reader’s eyes. If you’re not careful enough or you don’t have sharp enough sense you will miss them and wonder what possibly connect the eleven tales. The trick is so clever that I would call Ogawa a true genius in creating and presenting a work of art. The pace of every plot is also steadily maintained, readers won’t feel that one particular story is too long to read even if it really is a long one. And there is not so much as a hole in every plot, either. They are all whole and neat. And the best thing about all the stories in this collection is they are not only open-ended, but also open to any interpretation. Readers can interpret them any way they like because the meanings are not clear nor determined, but vague and broad. That’s what makes Revenge not a collection of horror stories, it’s something different, it’s afloat on the sea of our imagination.

I would undoubtedly call Revenge by Yōko Ogawa a great work of fiction, almost perfect even, if only it’s not too creepy to read at night. Really. All the components are very meticulously worked on: the ideas, the writing style, the language, the atmosphere, the characterizations, the narratives, the final executions, everything. It you want to read something “out of this world”, then I suggest you to try this book.

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories

I’ve come to realize recently that Japanese literature is not all about cryptic narratives. They can be so simple and true to life without, of course, losing their ability to arise questions in our minds once the reading is over and done with. Thanks to Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories by Seirai Yūichi. Originally published in 2006, and later in English in 2015, this collection of six medium-sized stories will surely enchant any reader with its remarkable narratives, extraordinarily human characters, and profound after-reading impression.

Set in modern-day Nagasaki, the book presents the reader with tales longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. They all bear one-word titles referring to animals and inanimate objects: Nails, Stone, Insects, Honey, Shells, and Birds. Those six are not one-in-a-million kind of stories, but they can be said to be very unusual, something that we rarely encounter in the realm of fiction. All of them bring up the subject of the painful aftermath of the atom bombing in Nagasaki by the Americans in 1945, depicting the resultant appalling conditions under which the victims have to live, and of the Christian persecution back in the days when the religion was outlawed in Japan and the believers were burned alive at stakes. Some stories, like Nails and Shells, talk more about this issue, questioning how faithful people can be, comparing it to and wrapping it up in tales about a man’s belief in something which is so strong that we would call him insane. In numbers entitled Stone and Honey, the issue is so far away from religious one, or atom bombing for that matter, for both topics are used only as the background of the stories. They are, however, the most engrossing stories of all, describing humans and their secret desire, the worldly physical temptation they cannot avoid and won’t even try to fight, the unpredictable course of life and its uncertain end. As for the other two, Insects and Birds, the writer specifically tells the reader of the lives of victims after the atom bombing, picturing the hardships and misery they have to deal with, also all the sadness and trauma that never seem to cease to haunt them.

Of all the characters making appearance in Ground Zero, I think Adam Yamamori in Stone is the most unforgettable one. Partly described as an idiot and childish, Yamamori is also an ordinary grown-up man who is craving to have a wife and a family, and, of course, to have sex. His innocence and romanticism make him a complex character any reader should be careful to comprehend. Another character that managed to leave a quite lasting impression on me is Mihoko, the center figure of the story Honey. Readers with common way of thinking might see her as a loose, horrible married woman, but her complicated life and incomprehensible mind have encouraged her to fulfill her sudden lascivious urge. She may not be a likeable female character, but I think she is very brave and unpretentious. There is one more special character whose impression stayed longer in my mind. It’s Mitsuko, one of the atom bombing victims in the story Insects. It’s not her life after the war that made me interested, though, it’s her female jealousy and restlessness. I felt that those feelings are only natural and that I was very much related to her. I couldn’t help thinking that half of her character is also half of my own character.

The best thing about Ground Zero is absolutely Seirai’s wonderful style of narrative writing. It drags us all the way down the twists and turns of the plot without mercy, only to see no end to it. Cliffhanger is not something new, but the open endings concocted by Seirai here won’t even make us feel like they are cliffhanging, except for that of Insects, I guess. All the six plots are made ever so cleverly that I didn’t really mind the out-of-order storylines because they are very neat and vivid. Seirai seems to unfold every single story little by little without forcing the pace into going fast nor slow, so that readers can make sense of every single detail gradually and understand every single character thoroughly. I can say that Seirai Yūichi is a truly great writer, at least after reading this amazing work. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the “Japanese atmosphere” I usually did when I read Japanese literature. Ground Zero felt so Western. So American, in fact. Maybe it was the translation. I wouldn’t say I had a problem with it, it just looked like the translator did not only transfer the language into English, but also the atmosphere into a Western one.

All in all, I loved Seirai Yūichi’s Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories. It wasn’t the first time I read a book by an author I barely know and instantly fell in love with it, but this work is so special to me. It helped me recognize the “other side” of Japanese literature that is so surreally human.

Rating: 4/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

Beauty and Sadness

Indonesian edition’s cover

What’s so beautiful about an incurable past? What’s so sad about an unforgettable old love? Nothing, I guess, unless it involves an act of revenge. This is what’s being implied, if not displayed, in Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness. Firstly appeared in English in 1975, and much later in Indonesian translation in 2003, this novel seems to elaborate the two words its title bears into a tale of an enduring feeling of love and the danger of pain it carries.

Beauty and Sadness talks about the consequence of an affair between an innocent 15-year-old girl, Ueno Otoko, and a much older married man, Oki Toshio. The dead-end relationship must come to an end, eventually: Oki gets back to his wife and son, while Otoko loses her baby girl and has to stay at a mental hospital to mend her wound. But this is not the beginning of the story, since it all starts when Oki decides to listen to the New Year’s bell in Kyoto and invite Otoko to join him. The decision might seem so sudden, but he has pondered over it for quite a long time. The memories of Otoko and the story of their love that he’s left behind twenty four years ago drive him to go and meet her again. Only the meeting is not something Otoko wishes to have, for it opens the door to her sufferings, wound, and bitterness she’s barely managed to bear for so many years. What’s worse, it is in that New Year celebration that Oki has a chance to meet Keiko, Otoko’s beautiful young pupil who has a fierce grudge against him for what he has done to Otoko in the past. The plot then brings us readers to Keiko’s merciless action of taking revenge on him for the sake of her love for Otoko.

For some readers, or even perhaps for the writer himself, Oki and Otoko might be the central characters of the novel. It is a story about them, after all. But, to my thinking, it is Keiko who is the motor of the entire narrative. Described as stunningly beautiful, stubborn, unstable, vengeful and dangerous, it is her existence that brings about the whole story, that drives the plot and ends it with another misery. Oki’s character seems only to appear to provide the reader with a premise, and to show what an unfaithful man usually does: cheating on his wife, sleeping with another woman, not having the heart to leave his family, leaving his secret lover instead, going back to his family, and then cheating on his wife again. It is as if his existence and wandering thoughts do not have much significance for the run of the story. As for Otoko, her character is a pitiful sight, if I may say so. Vulnerable at her teen age, she becomes a tougher and yet a weaker person as she grows older. Her forever love for Oki and the memories of their time together indeed have made her strong to go through a hard life for years, but, on the other hand, it is also her weakness: loving too much a man who can get back to his wife when it suits him and get involve with her pupil without even thinking twice.

The most outstanding and riveting feature of the novel Beauty and Sadness is definitely its prose style. The language is so beautiful and elegant that I couldn’t resist it, though rather poorly translated and edited. Each sentence has beautiful sadness and saddening beauty in it, and so does every dialogue, which strongly radiates the characterization of each person. The beauty of Kawabata’s writing blends so well with the practicality projected by his narration that it doesn’t give the impression of being too poetic. Even the conversations felt very real to me. What becomes the problem is the way the book introduces us to the story and how its plot is being organized. First, why would Oki keep on thinking about Otoko for years and invite her to listen to the New Year’s bell together if, at the end, she will only be always a memory and he goes sleeping with another woman? And why would even he and Otoko meet in such an “unnatural” arrangement? Second, the plot appears to be awkwardly organized. As a general rule, a book would have an introduction-conflict-ending kind of storyline, but that is not the case with Beauty and Sadness. It’s not that I wouldn’t appreciate a flashback, nor would I hate a cliffhanger. It’s just I felt like I was riding a roller coaster of a book. When I was supposed to prepare myself to enter the realm of the narrative, I was shocked by the bitterness of Oki’s and Otoko’s past. When I was ready to face the conflict, I was presented with a long explanation of said past and of every characterization. When I was about to close the book in peace, I had to see a continuing conflict. It was really grueling and frustrating. But perhaps that’s the strength of this book anyway, despite being quite unbearable.

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like Beauty and Sadness as a whole, but, during my reading, I felt hindered to like it very much. Yasunari Kawabata truly has it in him to produce beautiful prose, but this book has many flaws that it made me sad.

Rating: 3/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

Rashomon: A Story Collection

2015 Indonesian edition’s cover

Sometimes a book would make us feel that we have every right to laugh loudly at the world, and Rashomon: A Story Collection by Akutagawa Ryunosuke is one of the rare gems that has such an effect on us. Consisting of six short stories and a novella, this particular Indonesian edition presents us with not only unique structures and out-of-this-world ideas, but also deep meanings that force us to question our being and everything we hold.

This edition of Rashomon may not have the same list as the one published outside Indonesia. Here, the (short) story collection contains Rashomon; In a Grove; Kappa; Yam Gruel; The Spider’s Thread; The Dog, Shiro; and The Nose. These stories may or may not be the best of Akutagawa, who’s nicknamed the best Japanese short story writer, but at least to me they are ones of those which could have my eyes wide open in shock and awe at the same time, making me both depressed and laugh out loud, at myself in particular and people in common. My most favorite story is definitely Kappa, which is actually a separate novella but lucky me the editor had decided to include it in this book. The 17-part short novel tells the story of a man who is lost in a fog and falls into the land of Kappas (animals of Japanese mythology), being taken care of and eventually living in that strange world. During his stay, he learns Kappa’s language, way of life, religion and befriends Kappas from every profession imaginable. Though living the way humans do, Kappas hold very different values than those of humans, especially those held by the Japanese society. Their faith is Modernism, or the religion of Life, and they worship the God of Life; it’s women, rather than men, who take up the sexual chase; they are naked everywhere they go; their government is secretly controlled by a woman despite the obvious reign of men; what they call art is utter rubbish and the censorship done by the authorities is a harsh one. As we follow all these things through the eyes of the fallen man, we might wonder if the story is actually mocking human beings with all that they hold.

The other story that managed to hold my full attention is In a Grove, a short story about a man who dies in a bamboo grove and whose wife is nowhere to be found. I completely marvel at how Akutagawa organizes the structure so that the story has several (un)convincing points of view, from which we can see it and make our own judgment on the tragic event. Each point of view is so subjective that it borders on being unbelievable. Even after reading the last viewpoint of the story, as convincing as it might seem, we would feel the character with that point of view is only talking nonsense. So now, who’s right and who’s wrong? The Spider’s Thread and The Dog, Shiro are pretty interesting, too. It’s about committing sins and doing something to make up for it. It’s funny to see how the results can differ considerably between a man and a dog. But if you think those two stories are already thought-provoking enough, maybe you should try and read Yam Gruel or The Nose. Both of them tugged at my heartstrings mostly. It’s not that they’re sad, tragic stories. In fact, the tone is quite playful. Each talks about a man who has a very strong desire to have something, and eventually gets it. Behind the giggle-eliciting narratives, though, both actually challenge us to think long and hard: will we be happier after getting what we want? What’s so unfortunate, in my opinion, is that the title story, Rashomon, didn’t leave a strong impression on me. It is a great story, and I’m sure most people think it is the best work of Akutagawa, but how the ending goes left me cold. The idea is about how humans can be pulled between their good and bad sides of being, and how they cope with it in a time of disaster where any wrongdoing can be justified. It’s just that Akutagawa doesn’t elaborate the mental struggle more at the last scene.

I have to admit, it was the first time I had a try at reading Akutagawa Ryunosuke, but every single piece in this edition of Rashomon story collection has instantly won my heart. I was, and still am, so fascinated by his one-in-a-million ideas and the way he delivers them to the reader. It’s as if he is truly the best writer ever and there is no one like him. Some of the plots he creates here may be just as straight as any, rendering us thinking that they are only “another short story”, but the execution of the finales often makes us gape in disbelief. Perhaps In a Grove is the only short story with the most unusual structure and the best execution in this collection, but that doesn’t stop me from loving stories like Kappa, The Spider’s Thread, and The Nose, which managed to keep me lost in thought. Rashomon has a surprising ending, as well, but it comes out so sudden that, during my finishing it, I felt a little bit uncomfortable as it is pretty elaborate at the beginning.

Overall, all the tales filling Rashomon: A Story Collection can be said to be (almost) perfect. Akutagawa seems to try to invite us readers to think about the good and the bad of the world, about where the border of our subjectivity end, about the isms we hold dearly, about our wants and desires, about sincerity. He plays mainly in the psychological area, one that might have been explored so often by other writers, classic or contemporary. But, to me, he has a unique way of arising questions in our mind about ourselves and the way we view this world in general.

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

The Housekeeper and the Professor

newest Vintage edition’s cover

When we talk about Yoko Ogawa—that is, her works in English translation that have come to our radar—we might be forcefully reminded of her signature narrative, which is typically eerie and subtly atmospheric. And we might expect the same thing when we have The Housekeeper and the Professor in our hands, a 2003 novella which was first published in English in 2009. But you might be fooled, as much as I have been, once you read the very first page and fall into its rhythm. You’ll still encounter some mysteries, which are embedded in its tight plot, but mostly you’ll find it sweet and tender.

An unnamed housekeeper, who also serves as the narrator of the book, unsuspectingly takes a new job where she has to serve a 60-year-old mathematician at his shabby cottage. Nine housekeepers have already come and gone before her and none of them could bear the burden that comes with the job description. The housekeeper doesn’t find anything odd nor difficult in her daily duties, except for one thing: the professor’s memory only lasts for 80 minutes. The car accident he had in 1975 has cost him all of his memories he gains after that particular year. Every morning, when she comes for work, the housekeeper has to reintroduce herself and the professor will always restart their introduction with the same question involving numbers. As the time goes by, however, the housekeeper becomes more and more curious about mathematics and fascinated by the professor. The bond between them becomes stronger and stronger, more than just a bond between an employer and an employee, but it’s never a romantic one. Say it’s full of compassion, but it’s more mysterious than anything and cannot be explained through words nor formulas. Unfortunately, their moment together is unlike numbers which have no limits.

Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor has sweet and tender vibes radiated throughout its narrative, kept neatly at almost every spot of the plot. We can strongly sense them in the professor’s pure love for children, in his forever fascination with numbers, in his inexplicable relationship with the housekeeper, even in the peace he feels every time he solves mathematical problems or when he is watching the housekeeper cooking. Those sweetness and tenderness also emanate from the funny scenes, which often come out unexpectedly. Besides the two qualities, though, there is also an air of mystery, especially in the way the professor connects and communicates with the housekeeper. As strong as their bond might be, it’s not something that we can call romantic, or passionate. It’s sincere, yes, and scattered with jealousy on the housekeeper’s part sometimes. But it is not a simple love, it is more than you might think it is. And I think that is what this book is all about. It’s about love that is so unusual, as tricky and complex as mathematical formulas and all the numbers they produce.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a short novel which relies heavily on its compact yet engrossing narrative, armed with a puzzle not only of numbers but also of words. The steady pace of the plot renders it very much enjoyable to read, although at the last 1/3 part of the book it feels a little bit too fast. That doesn’t matter, though, because all the mysteries there are arranged ever so neatly and revealed with so much care. Reading this book was like going on a smooth ride on a pleasant day, all nice and fun. If there was anything that’s ruining my joyful ride at times, it was the character of the sister-in-law and the reason she extracts herself from the professor’s life. At some point in the book, the housekeeper ponders whether it can be the way the sister-in-law keeps their “special bond” intact, but I still can’t see why it should be that way. Other obstacle coming to my way was all those numbers, mathematical theories and formulas talked about by the professor along the book. I have to admit, I am so dull at mathematics, and having to face all those things was almost like a pain in the neck to me. It was so unbearable that sometimes I had to skip the parts when the professor or the housekeeper starts to do their calculations.

All the hindrances aside, I still think The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is an enjoyable, fabulous novella. It triggered my smile and made me teary-eyed at the end, not because it is tragic but because it is what the end should naturally be.

Rating: 4/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.