Fullmetal Alchemist is example of another of my forays into the teen manga realm, and it’s pretty good. It’s about two brothers who are alchemists, who broke the rules and had their bodies transformed when they were trying to bring their mother back to life. Now they’re vagabonds, sort of under state employ. The stories in this volume included them busting up a religious charlatan, restoring justice to a mining town where the prices were exceedingly high and fighting a bunch of hostage-takers on a train. It’s all pretty fun steampunkish adventure, and I can see how the characters would be good to follow through umpteen volumes. I’m not as big a fan of it as Planetes, but I can see why people like it.
Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite is a collection of novellas about Americans interacting with India. They come off badly in each one. In one, there’s a couple who’re at a resort practically hiding from “the real India.” They’re oblivious to such a degree that they didn’t realize there was a town near the resort where they’re being pampered, until their sexual peccadilloes get them all caught up in it. Another story is about an American businessman who gets caught up in debauchery in Bombay. He pays for sex with a young girl and then takes a different underage girl as his slum mistress. All while accumulating kudos from all his colleagues back in Boston who didn’t have the guts to go to India. The third story is about a female university student who’s off backpacking. She goes to an ashram in Bangalore and gets a job doing accent training for Home Depot call centres. And then she gets raped.
So yes, none of the stories are really happy. And all of them see people searching for some kind of Indian liberation and getting fucked over by sex. The third one was my favourite, because of the injustice of the whole thing (the girl gets blamed for being raped), and how she responds.
It was interesting because Theroux mentions writing these stories in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, so I could see how he was pulling characters and settings from the trains he’d ridden. His description of how Indian men tend to be a little pedantic and addicted to explanation struck a chord with me. These characters were definitely people I’d seen in my travels.
The second Yoko Tawada book I’ve read, Where Europe Begins, didn’t leave me with quite the same “Holy fuck! I can’t believe this thing exists!” feeling that I got from The Bridegroom Was a Dog. Natural really. There were expectations now. So there were some bits I didn’t like so much but others that were great. It’s another book of shortish pieces, some of them translated from Japanese, some from German. I couldn’t tell which was which just from reading them, which probably speaks to the good work of the translators.
The most important part of the book (for me) was the title story. It’s about the narrator travelling the Trans-Siberian railway to Moscow. What got me about it was the admission of the narrator that parts of the story were written before she’d ever gone to Russia. “I like to have the story of a trip planned out so I can quote from it when I inevitably run out of words in the middle of my travels” (not an exact quote – grumble grumble returned my library book too soon – but that was the sentiment). And she also says that her diary was written long after the fact. Her notebooks just sat there mute during the travels. And the narrator doesn’t make the facile statement about not writing because she’s busy experiencing life or whatever; she can’t write on the train because the words all disappear. All words everywhere. For her. The story ends with her collapsed in a Moscow train station square while alphabets try to orient her, but she can’t deal with any of it. Because she’s in the centre of Europe.
Being disoriented and bewildered are common states for Tawada characters, which probably explains my attraction. I’ve been trying to read this W.G. Sebald book which has similar themes, but it drowns in detail of a more prosaic kind. His world is bewildering because of the most mundane bits of life which he treats as special, while Tawada is making the bizarre feel mundane.
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.