Archive for January, 2021

The Ruined Map

January 27, 2021

The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe (written in 1967 and translated into English by E Dale Saunders in 1969, and now published by Penguin Modern Classics) belongs to one of my favourite sub-genres: literary crime fiction. By this I don’t mean what occurs when a literary writer such as John Banville writes a detective novel, but books which take the genre as a starting point only to manipulate and subvert it, producing something both familiar and disconcertingly different. In Abe’s case, he takes many of the elements of hardboiled detective fiction and develops them into something which seems to follow the same road but never arrive at the expected destination. In the words of his client, whose missing husband is the object of his investigation:

“Talk that reverses itself, where top becomes bottom, as you’re listening to it.”

The hunt for the missing husband is immediately made difficult by a lack of any evidence to go on:

“There must be something, something more concrete, like who you want me to tail, where you want me to look.”

The Ruined Map, however, is a novel were solidity is largely absent. Even the wife proves impossible to pin down, “a woman whose face vanished with a ripple of the curtains as if by sleight of hand.” In their many conversations, she provides little to help the narrator, and her story often changes: at first her husband had put his car in the garage; later she reveals he had sold it. The few clues which exist are classics of the genre but, as the detective explains using the map analogy which permeates the novel:

“With only a matchbox and a photograph to go on, it’s like trying to find a house that has no number.”

Other clues will include a newspaper clipping with a personal ad and some nude photographs – all, as we might expect from the novel, taken from the back. The matchbox takes the narrator to a café, though even here the evidence is ambiguous – showing that the husband is neither a regular nor someone who has only been there once. Here he ‘coincidentally’ meets the wife’s brother, who is paying for his investigation and promises him the husband’s diary (he never receives it). At a second ‘coincidental’ meeting the brother-in-law confesses that he is not entirely an innocent party, being there to ‘shakedown’ the business the detective is looking into:

“There was something extraordinary about his casually announcing on our second meeting, without batting an eye, that he was engaged in blackmail.”

The business is one that sells gas, which was also the business that the husband was in. As the city expands people initially get their gas from canisters before mains gas arrives, creating tension between the different suppliers. In this newer part of town, maps are unreliable: “the relative position of the streets appeared to be quite different.” This is only one of the maps mentioned in the novel; the narrator also ask a colleague of the husband to draw a map of a rendezvous he had on the day he went missing, which he later describes as “pretty hard to follow.” But maps also have a more symbolic meaning, as when the wife tells the detective that her brother believes:

“…a single map for life is all your need.”

The novel also raises doubts over whether the detective’s quest is just, one witness asking:

“Why does the world take it for granted that there’s a right to pursue people?”

Another comments: “…there’s more to life than just pursuing. Sometimes it’s more important to shield.” The detective himself also has doubts – not just over whether the wife actually wants he husband found – but as to what extent he is pursuing the husband and to what extent he is searching for himself:

“Perhaps I had the feeling that the husband I was investigating and I were fused.”

Later, he begins to see the husband’s disappearance as an escape:

“Was this world so unbearable that one had to go on eternally escaping until one could put up with such a life?”

The Ruined Map is a novel suffused with such existential angst. The world is portrayed as a bitter place, largely through frequent references to the cold wind which blows through the city. Life is seen as soulless and functional – the city is a “human filing cabinet with its endless filing card apartments.” It is this that eventually the detective feels the husband has tried to escape from, “he had tried to run from the filing cabinets of life.” Not unexpectedly, the husband is never found, but there is discovery of a sort. For those who want to brave the outer limits of detective fiction, The Ruined Map is an excellent place to begin.

Breasts and Eggs

January 22, 2021

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, as surely everyone must now know by now, is in two parts, the first of which was originally published in 2008 (with an excerpt, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, appearing in English in 2012 – worth reading as the dialogue is rendered in a Mancunian accent). Now the longer novel has been translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, though how far a single translator is responsible for each part seems to be unclear. The reason all of this might matter, is that the two parts are quite dissimilar: in length (the second is more than double the length of the first), in tone, and in style. In the first part the narrator, Natsuko, is visited by her sister, Makiko, and her twelve-year-old daughter, Midoriko. At the time of the visit Makiko is considering having her breasts surgically enhanced. In the second part, set ten years later, Natsuko has published a book but is struggling to write a second, and is reflecting on the possibility of having a child without a partner.

Makiko is a single mother, just as her own mother was. Natsuko’s father left suddenly when she was seven – “One day, when I came home from school, he wasn’t there” – and the three of them move in with a friend of her mother’s, Komi. Unfortunately her mother dies of breast cancer when Natsuko is thirteen, and Komi follows two years later, an effect to some extent of the poverty they have lived in all their lives. Natsuko and Makiko have to survive themselves:

“One thing I remember is lying to the factory about my age every vacation, spring, summer and winter, all three years of middle school.”

Now, though, they are quite different individuals. Makiko lives in Tokyo and works in a bookshop; Makiko works in a bar and is excited to arrive in the big city on a visit with her daughter. She, like her mother, is worn down with poverty:

“She wasn’t even forty, but if she told you, ‘I just turned fifty-three,’ you’d wish her happy birthday. She didn’t look older. She literally looked old.”

She is also going through a difficult time with Midoriko who has refused to speak to her for six months for reasons her mother cannot fathom and Midoriko will not explain. Midoroko’s voice enters the narrative via a journal she is keeping which focuses on her entry into adolescence:

“Once I start getting my period ever month, until it stops, blood is going to come out of my body. It’s terrifying. I can’t do anything to stop it from happening, though.”

Makiko has come to Tokyo for a consultation regarding her breast surgery. Rather than talk about why she wants the surgery, she demonstrates her new-found expertise on the subject to Natsuko at length, telling her about the pros and cons of different methods. Natsuko is ambivalent about her sister’s intentions:

“There were lots of other things she could have talked about, and all of them took precedence over the implants.”

When they visit baths, Makiko looks at the breasts of the other women and talks about a time she bleached her nipples so they would look paler. As a hostess in a bar, Makiko’s looks are important to her employment, and, as Natsuko points out, “if Makiko had any other choice, she wouldn’t work nights at the bar or leave Midoriko alone.” In this sense, the first part of the novel is as much about poverty as it is about the pressures on women to prioritise their physical attractiveness.

Book Two also looks at the pressures applied to women, in particular those related to marriage and children. Ten years later, Natsuko has published a successful book of short stories and is working on a novel. Her personal life is conventionally less successful. Her last relationship ended because she has no interest in sex:

“I wanted us to build a life together. But sex with him was not something I needed – not something I wanted.”

She does, however, become interested in having a child by artificial insemination using a sperm donor, a debate which takes place throughout this section of the novel. It begins when she attends a talk by Aizawa who discovered as an adult that his father was not his biological father:

“Donor conception goes beyond pregnancy and childbirth. It impacts the child for their entire life.”

In approaching the topic from his point of view initially, Kawakami makes clear her intention to explore the issue from all angles. Natsuko’s personal journey becomes a thorough examination of the pros and cons of having a child via sperm donation conducted either through characters with a personal involvement – like Aizawa and, later, a sperm donor she arranges to meet – or through characters who offer their opinion on the topic. This is perhaps one reason why the second part felt, at times, less successful, as so much of it gave the impression of the author discussing the issue through the mouths of her characters. More subtly, the fact that these characters are now middle class, unlike the working class characters of the first part, can make the dialogue seem less lively and more like a debate as they offer their views on Natsuko’s dilemma. This is not to say that whether to have a child or not is all that Natsuko thinks about; running in parallel are her struggles to ‘give birth’ to her novel.

Breasts and Eggs is particularly powerful in the way Natsuko is provoked to think about her body in both sections. When she tries to picture her sister’s breasts she finds that she can’t:

“Which I suppose is only natural because it’s not like I can picture my own breasts, even though they’re stuck to me.”

Similarly in the second part, wondering whether she would be able to have sex with Aizawa, she reflects:

“Of course it had changed as I’d grown, but I’d had my vagina my entire life.”

In other words, Kawakami is prepared to tackle her themes on a physical level, as the novel’s title demonstrates. Breasts and Eggs is not a perfect novel but it deserves the praise it has received for its exposure of anxieties around appearance and childbearing, though for me the first part was more entertaining than the second.

The Finishing School

January 17, 2021

It seems appropriate that Spark should return, in her final novel, to the setting of her most successful: a school. Not only are there over forty years between the writing of the two novels, but, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie set in the 1930s, and The Finishing School (we assume) in the contemporaneous 2000s, there are some noticeable differences. Jean Brodie, for all her faults, was famously dedicated to her pupils; Rowland and his wife Nina, who run the finishing school of College Sunrise, are more concerned with making sure they break even, and that Rowland is allowed the opportunity to write his novel:

“Both Nina and Rowland aimed principally at affording Rowland the time and space and other opportunities to complete his novel, while passing their lives pleasantly.”

Of course, Brodie too was a ‘novelist’ of sorts, attempting to write her pupils’ lives. The novel becomes a battleground between her and her most devoted student, Sandy, just as The Finishing School develops into a conflict between Rowland and Chris, a young man who has come to the school to finish his own novel.

From the beginning we can see that their relationship is strained; Rowland, far from mentoring Chris, is jealous of the apparent ease with which he writes, and advises him to scrap everything he has written immediately after reading it:

“A faint twinge of that jealousy which was to mastermind Rowland’s coming months, growing in intensity small hour by hour, seized Rowland as he looked.”

Chris, on the other hand, is confidence personified. “He felt affectionate towards Rowland,” we are told, “almost protective.” His novel concerns Mary Queen of Scots, but he has little interest in historical accuracy:

“He was quite capable of making history work for him, his plot, his characters.”

Spark, of course, has little time for hubris. When Chris contemplates “the non-noticing faculties of people” it is an unheeded warning that his own faculties for noticing are not as acute as he thinks. To Chris, it is simply “a game he is playing with Rowland” – Rowland searches his room for the novel; Chris hides it in another pupil’s room. His arrogance extends to his writing. When Rowland asks him if his characters have a life of their own, he replies:

“Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it.”

With the focus of Chris’ novel being the murder of Rizzio – a violent act of jealousy – it seems the scene is set for a dramatic conclusion, as Rowland comments:

“I could kill him…But would that be enough.”

Meanwhile Rowland’s marriage is suffering:

“As an act of will, she gave Rowland her full sympathy but she knew it contained a built-in time limit.”

Spark is particularly funny when it comes to marital argument: Nina intends to confront Rowland about the fact that she is increasingly having to run the school herself but begins with an accusation that he is attracted to one of the pupils. She does, however, suggest that Rowland “write about Chris and get him off your chest,” a suggestion Rowland is only too happy to accede to:

“It will eventually be a life study of a real person, Chris.”

It is perhaps at this point that the power balance between Rowland and Chris begins to turn, as it becomes clear that Chris needs Rowland’s jealousy in order to write.

Amid all this there are the smaller stories of the other pupils (there are only eight in the school) and staff which decorate the novel like tiny jewels. Opal’s father is bankrupt (and under arrest) but the school decides that the right thing to do is to keep her on. Tilly is intent on a career in journalism despite her severe dyslexia. Mary’s dream is to open a shop which sells ceramics and scarves. Meanwhile Nina teaches them such useful skills as how to eat a plover’s egg, and how to confuse an elephant should it chase you. Though Chris and Rowland are at the novel’s centre, Spark does not forget her other characters, exhibiting them in style in a wonderful set piece when the school holds a fashion show (with Chris, of course, as the master of ceremonies).

Spark masterminds the increasing tension towards the novel’s conclusion with her usual aplomb. Rowland returns to the school after burying his father, relieved that at least his father’s death took his mind of Chris. “Maybe you need another death,” Chris tells him, “to get over your obsession. A more important one.” There is a sense that Chris is attempting to control Rowland as if he were one of his characters. Naturally, when any character in Spark feels they are in control, it is a sign they are about to lose it.

The Finishing School is a fitting end to Spark’s career as a novelist. It is difficult to believe anything other than that the title was predestined, and that its final line, the transfiguration of the ordinary voice of a weather presenter, carries its own playful implication:

“As we go through this evening and into the night…”


January 12, 2021

Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) bears some resemblance to her earlier Convenience Store Woman: its narrator, Natsuki, feels different even as a child, and rejects the idea of ‘fitting in’ as she grows older. However, her sense of alienation takes on a far more literal meaning. At a young age she comes to believe that her favourite soft toy is from another planet:

“Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from the planet Popinpopobia.”

Soon this is linked in her mind with the only other important relationship in her life, with her cousin Yuu, whom she sees every year when the extended family meet at Akishina. Yuu tells her:

“Every time I come here for Oban, I’m always secretly looking for the spaceship that will come and take me home.”

Both children are treated badly within their families. “That child is hopeless,” Natsuki’s mother tells everyone, “She can’t do anything properly.” Yuu’s mother is equally cruel, as he explains to Natsuki:

“Mitsuko’s a bit crazy, and when she gets angry she always says she’ll throw me out of the house.”

It’s not difficult to see why both children might retreat into a world of imagination, and why they might promise to marry when they are older. Natsuki’s alienation is further exacerbated when she is abused by a teacher, Mr Igasaki:

“His hand came up inside the hem of my shirt and rubbed my back directly on my skin.”

Her mother is, of course, dismissive of Natsuki’s attempts to tell her of her fears – “I can’t believe you’re making out your teacher’s a pervert just because he told you off.” (In fact, even when she tells her sister and a friend when she is older they attempt to place the blame with her). The abuse escalates to fellatio, Murata highlighting Natsuki’s distress when she tells Yuu “my mouth was destroyed recently.” It is this, and the fact that her family are intending to holiday elsewhere, which compels Natsuki to ask Yuu to have sex with her even though they are still children:

“Before my body stops being mine, I really want to be physically married to you too.”

The parents’ reaction to discovering them together is placed in direct contrast to their refusal to believe Natsuki’s claims about her teacher. From that point on, Natsuki lives almost as a prisoner (“Even after I went to college and got a job, I was not allowed to leave home”) but she is still allowed ‘extra lessons’. It is at this point that the novel takes the first of a number of strange turns as Natsuki follows Piyyut’s instructions and goes to Mr Igasaki’s house one night:

“Hurry. Hurry! If the Wicked Witch kills you, it’ll bring about the end of the world. Only your magical powers can prevent that.”

As with Convenience Store Women, Earthlings explores the idea of what it is to be normal in a society where conformity is very important. As Natsuki sees it, “I was still expected to become a component for the Factory.” Increasingly she feels that she too must be an alien:

“So all I can do is keep my head down and pretend to live as an Earthling.”

To this end she enters into a marriage of convenience; her and her husband, Tomoya, live largely separate lives, but by being married they appease their families and friends. Like Natsuki, Tomoya has an aversion to sex. In fact he goes further and says:

“Deep down everyone hates work and sex, you know. They’re just hypnotised into thinking they’re great.”

When Tomoya loses his job, he asks that they go to Akishina – Natsuki has told him about her holidays there as a child – where Yuu is now living. Though Yuu, too, has found it difficult to settle into adult life, he tells Natsuki, “As an adult you have to squarely face up to problems.” No amount of persuasion, however, will convince Natsuki and Tomoya that they are wrong.

What makes Earthlings such a powerful and genuinely unsettling novels is the way it takes its premise – Natsuki’s premise – to its uncompromising conclusion. Her position is extreme but also plausible: life as a Factory with people nothing more than parts. It also accurately highlights the hypocrisy of what is accepted and what is condemned: Natsuki’s sexual abuse is ignored but her failure to become pregnant is seen as a fault. Readers generally sympathise with society’s rebels and, by the novel’s end we have been inside Natsuki’s head for so long – and we have so many reasons to sympathise with her – that it is difficult for the reader not to feel complicit. Despite this, it is unlikely anything will prepare you for the final chapters. While Convenience Store Woman may be a ‘better’ novel, Earthlings is, in many ways, a more effective one.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon

January 6, 2021

The final book in my missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 long list is Jose Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon, originally published in 1989, and the fifth of his novels to be translated into English (by Giovanni Pontiero) in 1996. The novel tells the story of a proof-reader, Raimundo Silva, who inserts a deliberate inaccuracy into the history book of the title, a ‘not’ which reverses the assertion that the Portuguese were helped by the Crusaders in the retaking of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. Strangely, Silva has no real idea why he does this:

“No one would be happier than I to find a satisfactory explanation.”

It is thirteen days before the publishers discover the ‘mistake’, an unwelcome professional discovery that leads to a more welcome personal one as Silva meets Maria Sara who has been placed in charge of the proof reading department. At first Silva is only aware that “the woman had not taken her eyes off him” during the course of his reprimand but the meeting will lead to a late flowering of love for a man who had given up hope of any such thing:

“I’m in my fifties, he says, who is going to love me at my age, or who am I going to love…”

The novel is, at heart, a love story, but one where love is pursued through The History of the Siege of Lisbon as Maria brings Silva the single uncorrected copy and suggests “you yourself should write a history of the siege of Lisbon in which the crusaders do not help the Portuguese.” Silva’s ability to do this has already been highlighted to the reader in an opening section which we assume is from The History until we are told:

“In his book the historian gave no such description.”

This introduces another theme of the novel, that of the uncertain border between historical fact and imaginative recreation. Silva must decide why the crusaders may not have helped the Portuguese:

“What that motive might have been, we must now investigate, if we are to give the slightest credibility and verisimilitude to this new account.”

Saramago also playfully applies these rules to his own work:

“Anyone concerned with logic mush be asking himself how it is conceivable that during all this time Raimundo Silva has not given anther thought to the humiliating scene in the director’s office, why it has never been mentioned for the sake of giving some coherence to a character and verisimilitude to events.”

As Saramago points out, the history is to Silva what the novel is to Saramago – “we are not dealing here with cinema or theatre, or even with life.” And so the two stories progress hand in hand, both overlapping, as at times we find Silva walking in the twelve century streets of his imagination, or jarringly juxtaposed, as when our experience of battle preparations is interrupted by a telephone ringing.

The siege of Lisbon becomes not only the siege of the Moorish city but, tongue in cheek, Silva’s seduction of Maria. On the day he decides to phone her he “awoke with a clear idea as to how the troops should finally be deployed on the ground for the assault, including certain strategic details of his own making.” And when he says, “Before I engaged in this battle, I was a simple proof-reader…” he is referring as much to the relationship as the siege. But there is also romance in evidence which Saramago demonstrates through the use of roses. The first time Silva delivers proofs to Maria she is wearing a white rose:

“Raimundo Silva, without meditating or premeditating, detached as he was from the act and its consequences, gently touched the white rose with two fingers…”

Later he sends her two roses, while keeping two himself, and also makes her a promise:

“No one should be able to give less than they have given before, roses shouldn’t appear today and a wilderness tomorrow. There won’t be any wilderness.”

In the history he is writing he incorporates a character to represent himself, and soon they too are in love.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is both a novel of history and of love, but, above all, it celebrates the inexplicable. Silva cannot explain why he inserts ‘not’ into the proof; nor can he explain why he caresses Maria’s rose. It is perhaps a warning against definitive interpretations:

“The relationship between what we call cause and what we subsequently describe as effect is not always linear and explicit.”

With its long, leisurely sentences and frequent digressions, it may test the patience of some readers, but with Saramago the journey is more important than the destination. The second Nobel Prize winner on a long list which includes a number of writers who are automatically assigned the adjective ‘great’, choosing a winner for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 will be far from easy.

Lolly Willowes

January 2, 2021

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel, Lolly Willowes, begins disguised as a conventional novel, but eventually blossoms into something very strange and unexpected, not unlike the title character herself. As the novel opens, Lolly (properly Laura, the nickname being one of a number of ways in which the family infantilise her) is staying with her brother, Henry, and his wife, Caroline, who think of her as “a gentle creature and the little girls love her.” Their only concern is that “she would need to make haste if she were going to find a husband before she was thirty.” Lolly, on the other hand, seems little interested in marriage:

“But her upbringing had only furthered a temperamental indifference to the need of getting married.”

She puts paid to a final suitor by commenting, “If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be…” At the same time, we understand she is not entirely contented with her current life, as she sits each evening opposite her sister-in-law, reduced to embroidery by the knowledge that Caroline’s sewing (and indeed her aptitude in any domestic skill) is superior to her own:

“She had actually a sensation that she were stitching herself into a piece of embroidery with a good deal of background.”

The unconventional thought or phrase hidden in the conventional narrative, we soon discover, is Townsend Warner’s forte:

“Then the house, emptied of another day, creaked once or twice, and fell into repose, its silence and security barred up within it like a kind of moral family plate.”

Even on holiday, Lolly cannot find the freedom she is longing for:

“She would have liked to go by herself for long walks inland and find strange herbs, but she was too useful to be allowed to stray.”

The desire to collect herbs, and an earlier mention of her interest in “rural pharmacopoeia” when she still lived with her father, are among the few clues of what is to come. The war, and then influenza (fever so often being a signifier of change in Victorian novels) leave Lolly disappointed that her life remains the same, until she inquires as to the origin of a bunch of chrysanthemums she buys one day when she feels particularly oppressed:

“As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree.”

When she discovers they are from Great Mop, a village in the Chilterns, she immediately decides that she will leave London and live there. When she returns home to tell her family the news:

“She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged from a twenty-year slumber, to find them almost unrecognisable.”

Her brother is, of course, dismissive, but her determination ensures that in the novel’s second part, we learn of her first year in Great Mop. Only now does she understand “for the first time how miserable she had been,” and Townsend Warner characterises the landscape itself as welcoming:

“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves around her like the fingers of a hand.”

Still, she cannot entirely escape her family, particularly when her nephew Titus decides that he too will move to Great Mop as it is the perfect place to write the book he has been planning. She objects to the ease with which he settles, to his claim that “she is just the same,” and to the way he disturbs her walks:

“She thought the woods saw her with him and drew back scornfully.”

In desperation, she cries out, “Is there no help?” and, in the novel’s second unexpected turn, enters into a pact with the Devil. Soon she has her own familiar (a cat she names Vinegar) and has been invited to her first witches’ Sabbath. Townsend Warner prevents the novel descending into silliness with a combination of the wit and seriousness she has shown throughout. This is a novel which is often wickedly funny. Lolly, for example, finds the witches’ Sabbath less enjoyable than she had hoped:

“Even as a witch, it seemed, she was doomed to social failure…”

Its darkness can be seen when, at the same Sabbath, a man whom Lolly is convinced is Satan approaches her in a mask:

“With a fine tongue like a serpent’s, he licked her right cheek.”

It later transpires that the man is a “brilliant young author” who has sold his soul to the Devil “on the condition that once a week he should be without doubt the most important person at a party.” The ultimate joke is that only Satan can help Lolly escape from the suffocatingly conventional life and character her family insist in imposing on her:

“It had pleased Satan to come to her aid. Considering carefully, she did not see who else would have done so.”

Lolly Willowes is a novel which balances great naturalism (in both her portrait of life in London and of the countryside) with the strange and unexpected, both in its language and in its plot. It is full of wonderful turns of phrase and witty descriptions. (My favourite is perhaps Caroline’s rationale for her exquisitely folded clothes: “We have our example… The grave-clothes were folded in the tomb.”) In many ways it is like Lolly herself: bursting with a life that finally cannot be repressed. Penguin Classics are releasing the rest of her novels this year and I, for one, cannot wait to read them.