In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.
Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.
But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.
Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).
It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):
“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”
I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?
I will admit I knew nothing about Natsume Soseki’s classic Sanshiro when I bought it. I’d seen Soseki’s name at the library, but that’s about it. I bought this book, which is an early 20th century Japanese coming-of-age story, and read it because Haruki Murakami did the new introduction for the Penguin edition. It’s been a while since I’ve read a new Murakami book and I missed him. 1Q84 is probably going to take a long time to translate so I have to settle for introductions and essays and things. Or learn to read Japanese (a project which is proceeding slowly if at all).
Murakami’s draw to this book was more than just his name though. See, he has this history of preferring Western literature. In the books/essays about him that I’ve read he talked about not really caring about Japanese literature. So this introduction of a Japanese literary classic meant it must be something special. Or he’s changed his opinion in his old age. Whatever.
The book is about a young man, Sanshiro, who comes from the country to go to university in Tokyo. It’s Meiji-era Tokyo so there are streetcars and such, but people are still wearing kimonos and the trains are far from bullet-like. Sanshiro basically wanders around to his classes and falls in love with a woman and gets embroiled in his friend’s schemes. The floatingness of the protagonist did remind me of Norwegian Wood, and would have even if the comparison hadn’t been made in the introduction, I think.
It’s a good book. I enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’m rushing off to press into everyone’s hands. Just a quiet sitting under an elm tree watching a pond kind of book.
I’ve been reading 2666 but because it’s divided into five parts, I’ve been breaking it up with other (lighter) books in between. (I owe you teeming handfuls a review of American Gods; it’s coming.) Right now I’m reading The City and the City and I just love it. It’s about a crime that happens in a city where there’s another city right there sharing the same streets but they’re in different countries and in each city you aren’t allowed to see (or interact with) the things that are happening in the other. Things aren’t invisible; you are not allowed to see them. If you look at someone/thing in the other city too closely you’ve broken the rules and the all-powerful group that deals with Breaches comes and takes you away. Possibly to kill you, but I’m not done the book yet (I’ll review it for reals when I am).
This organization, Breach, is so powerful they could act with utter impunity, but if it’s not an emergency they have to follow the rules and be asked to handle things. I like this common idea of powerful entities having rules to follow. Vampires can’t cross running water. Police need a warrant. Breach must be asked. But. I don’t care about the little guy breaking the rules. In fact, I expect it, and get sort of sad when the powerless person doesn’t try doing something other than follow the rules. I’m having a weird time with how few people agitate against Breach in The City and the City. There are some, but I keep on wanting to shout at everyone, “You can see things! You shouldn’t have to unsee them!” But it’s a book and the characters (thus far) are well enmeshed in their setting.
A lot of fiction I read deals with the individual and celebrates the individual, especially in the face of power. For example, there’s an article I linked to a long time back about Murakami always wanting to be on the side of the egg not the wall, and you know how I feel about Murakami stories. Yesterday I watched a National Film Board movie from the 60’s called “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.” He was all young and bright-eyed. In one bit Pierre Berton is trying to get young Leonard Cohen to say what he stands for, what great idea drives him, what issue burns in his soul. And Leonard Cohen says, “No idea; I just check if I’m in a state of grace.” His companion explains that Leonard Cohen is talking about the task of the individual to live one’s own life, but Leonard Cohen is sort of dismissive. I like that.
Of course, it’s easy to “identify” with the powerless when you’re a white guy with a beard and a Mac.
I picked up David Mitchell’s number9dream from the library last week, solely because we didn’t have The Cloud Atlas in. “Japan?” I said upon picking this one up, “Sure I’ll give it a shot.”
The thing I’ve been telling everyone about it is how British it feels, despite being about a young Japanese man from the countryside going to Tokyo to find the father he never met. It’s mostly just the turns of phrase Eiji (the main character and narrator) uses to describe things. The occasional word from the English countryside is a little jarring. At first I thought this was going to annoy me to no end, but as it went on it became kind of a translation artifact. It almost made it feel more Japanese because of the obviousness of the filter. I wonder how it is when translated into Japanese?
The thing that really made the book for me was the shifting styles in each part. There’s the story of Eiji Miyake trying to find his father, but each section has different sort of dreams. Panopticon is filled with wish-fulfillment action movie daydreams (and are perfect for making the book grab you and knock you a little off-kilter). Lost Property is all flashbacks and remembering. Video Games is mediated escape from reality. Et cetera. So structurally/stylistically: great.
The story itself works, though the quest itself isn’t the main thing. At least not for me. There are unrealistic things that happen. There are Yakuza; I won’t deny that. There is a bit of a sense of the writer stringing the protagonist along in service of the structure of the book. But whatever. I was happy to take the ride. It took me through some of the same headspace that a Haruki Murakami novel does (there is a discarded Murakami novel as a tiny bit of set-dressing in one of the chapters and I am sure Mitchell was conscious of the comparison) which is a place I like to be.
I don’t know if it’s a really good book or not. Maybe it’s culturally imperialistic or ethnocentric or one of those other very bad things of me to think that some young white guy can write a good novel about Japan. Maybe I only like it because it’s the kind of Murakami pastiche my China book might turn into. I know I liked it though.
I have a new author whose everything she’s ever written I feel the need to amass: Yoko Tawada. I picked up her book The Bridegroom was a Dog at the library used book sale several weeks ago but only just got around to reading it. I’d never heard of her and didn’t really know what to expect. What I got was awesomeness.
The book is three long stories, unrelated to each other. The title story is about an odd woman who runs a cram school. When a man shows up to live with her and clean her house and go wandering about at night she doesn’t know what to do except try to take in one of her students (the one on whose notebook all the other students wipe their snot). A mother recognizes the man as the husband of a woman in a neighbouring town and weird stuff happens.
The second story has a young woman arriving in a foreign city as a mail-order bride who never sees her husband but goes to school where they teach her about taking baths and she pulls the ears off of squid and dreams of her husband every night giving her more money and pouring ink in her ear. She explains to the doctor that her husband is a novelist. That’s why there’s ink in her ear.
And the third story is about a journalist taking a train ride through a Swiss mountain and decidedly not going to sunny Italy.
The tone for each of these stories is Murakami weird but with things happening right on top of each other. They seem unstructured rambles but work so well. Evidently Tawada writes in both Japanese and German (though this book was translated solely from Japanese). I cannot wait to find more of these things out there.
I like Gao Xingjian’s work. His book of essays The Case for Literature isn’t a writing book like Reading Like a Writer was; it’s a book about his experience of literature and the importance it is to him and to language. He’s a writer who is trying to create art with language and I don’t know why his point of view was so much more resonant with me than Francine Prose’s. That’s not true. His was more interesting because he takes that view that there should be no schools of thought in art. No isms. He is doing his own thing. (Which reminds me of the Murakami speech about being on the side of the egg not the wall.)
The fact that a bunch of these essays are talking about translation make it even more interesting. I hate that so many of my favourite writers are only accessible to me through translation (which may be why I’m an “ideas” person instead of a “sentences” person in what I appreciate in writing, since it’s impossible to know how exact the words actually are in so many of my favourite books). But yes, Gao Xingjian talking about how Soul Mountain is about a shift in pronoun usage gave me chills, and I’m starting to go back and re-read that one now.
Okay, I admit, I read the occasional book on writing. How to be a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead passed through my hands at the library a few days ago and looked intriguing, so I requested it myself. Ariel Gore has a zine ethic she brings to the thing which you don’t always see in these kinds of books. Talking about how self-publishing doesn’t equal vanity publishing and all that kind of stuff. There are interviews with a bunch of interesting people (including a fake interview with Haruki Murakami because he doesn’t really do interviews any more) including Ursula K LeGuin and Margaret Cho. Not life-changing, but reading one of these books every once in a while is good for me.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is Haruki Murakami’s latest English book. Translated from the Japanese I mean. He doesn’t write books in English. It’s a memoir about running. I don’t run, and probably won’t take up the sport just because of this book. But I do write a bit sort of, and I enjoyed the book most when he talked about the issues in long distance running as they apply to writing. Mostly though I just like the Murakami voice and would read anything written in it. I wonder what his translations of English stories read like in Japanese.
So I have worked. It’s really pretty simple since they won’t give me the “difficult” areas like childrens’ books to reshelve for a couple of weeks. The thing that I loved about it is how quickly the time went. Actually having a trolley full of books that you’re putting away is beautiful. You just find things until you’re done, and then when you are done, there are more books to do it again.
This is really the same thing as what you do as a journalist. You reorganize information so it’s where people can find it. You put it away. You’re sweeping and letting your mind wander. Who knew library cookbooks were so popular? You’re shovelling snow. Y’know, cultural snow.