Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
U.S. publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9780307593313
Released: October 2011
Original release: 2009-2010

Despite my deep interest in Japanese literature, I have somewhat surprisingly never read any of Haruki Murakami’s works until his most recent novel 1Q84. 1Q84 was originally published in Japan in three volumes, the first two in 2009 and the final volume in 2010. Already an international bestseller and nominated for a Man Asian Literary Prize, the publication of the single volume English-language edition was probably one of the most anticipated releases in the United States for 2011. I find it very strange, although I’m sure there are very good reasons for it, but two different translators worked on 1Q84: Jay Rubin translated the first two books and Philip Gabriel translated the third. 1Q84 was the November 2011 selection for the Japanese Literature Book Group which is why I finally got around to reading something by the world-renowned Murakami.

Tokyo, 1984. Aomame is a popular fitness and martial arts instructor at the gym where she works. She’s also an occasional assassin, able to send a man to the other side quickly and silently while making the death appear to be natural. But Aomame begins to suspect something isn’t quite right with her world when after her latest job she realizes that she seems to be missing memories. Elsewhere in the city, Tengo, a math teacher at a cram school and an aspiring author, has been somewhat reluctantly roped into ghostwriting a short novel called Air Chrysalis for a new writers competition. He doesn’t expect anything good to come from the scheme, but he still feels compelled to rewrite the story. But even Tengo couldn’t anticipate just how much trouble his acquiescence will cause for all those involved in the subterfuge.

For most of the novel, 1Q84 is told in chapters alternating between Aomame and Tengo’s perspectives. At first their stories seem completely unrelated but as the novel progresses the deep connection between the two is slowly revealed. However, I simply didn’t feel the inescapable draw that is supposed to exist between Tango and Aomame and that is supposed to be one of the driving forces behind 1Q84. Nevertheless, I did like the general structure of the novel and the use of repeated keywords, phrases, and cultural references that tie everything closer and closer together. I loved how what the characters initially believe to be fictional elements steadily encroach upon their realities. The change in the translator for the third book is noticeable but fortunately isn’t too jarring. The style might be slightly different, but it was a decent breaking point since a third perspective is also introduced in the final volume.

Air Chrysalis is described as a work that fascinates and delights just as much as it confuse and perplexes. In may ways, those words could just as easily be applied to 1Q84. The novel is wondrously peculiar. Even so, I found parts of 1Q84 to be extremely frustrating. For one, I’m not entirely convinced it needed to be as long as it was. While I appreciated the incorporation of musical and literary touchstones, Murakami has a habit of going off on tangents that aren’t always obviously justified. Characters frequently rehash plot points that have already been well established without bringing anything new to the story. Conversations tended to be incredibly cryptic or esoteric. And as the novel approaches its end, time becomes less linear, disorienting, and out of sync. While this had the potential to be effective, it didn’t quite work for me. I am glad I read 1Q84, there were parts of it I really enjoyed, but I do get the feeling it’s probably not the best place to start reading Murakami.


Author: Natsume Sōseki
Translator: Meredith McKinney
U.S. publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780143106036
Released: February 2010
Original release: 1914

Natsume Sōseki’s last completed novel Kokoro has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read ever since Penguin Classics published the most recent English translation by Meredith McKinney in 2010. So, I was very glad when Kokoro was selected for the September/October 2011 Japanese Literature Book Group. As far as I have been able to determine, there have been at least two other English translations of the novel: one in 1941 by Ineko Kondo and one in 1957 by Edwin McClellan. Kokoro was originally released in Japan in 1914 and is considered by many to be Sōseki’s masterpiece. Sōseki is well respected as a modern Japanese novelist and many of his works have been translated and published in English. Despite this, and despite having his earlier novel Sanshirō sitting on my shelf waiting to be read as well, Kokoro is the first of his books that I have read.

The meeting between a young student and the man he would come to call Sensei happened more by chance than anything else, but their developing relationship became extremely important to both of them. The student is still inexperienced in life and is genuinely earnest while Sensei is significantly more world-weary. He has a melancholic air about him, something that even his wife fails at being able to explain. The student is utterly fascinated by the enigmatic Sensei and wonders at the past he keeps hidden. Sensei himself is unexpectedly drawn to the student, perhaps hoping that he can help the younger man avoid some of the mistakes he made in his own life, or perhaps it’s just that he’s finally found someone that he can trust with the guilt that he has carried alone all these years.

Kokoro is told in three parts. The first two parts, “Sensei and I” and “My Parents and I,” are narrated by the unnamed student while the third part, “Sensei’s Testament,” takes the form of a lengthy letter written by Sensei, who also remains unnamed throughout the book, to the student. According to McKinney, “Sensei’s Testament” was initially written as a standalone work; it certainly can easily be read as such. However, although they read significantly differently because of the change in narrators, I greatly appreciated the inclusion of the first two parts of the novel. Seeing Sensei through the eyes of the student, who is more or less enraptured by him, allows the readers a chance to become even more invested in and curious about the man, mirroring the student’s own feelings. Even though Sensei tries to keep some distance between himself and the student, and even though the student actually knows very little about him, their relationship is a very intimate one without being sexual.

I enjoyed Kokoro immensely and am not at all surprised that it is called his masterpiece. I’ve not read any of his other works to be able to say so myself, but I am confident in saying that Kokoro is a remarkable piece of literature. I’ve also not read any of the other English translations of Kokoro to be able to compare, but I found McKinney’s translation to be unobtrusive and it reads very nicely. Even though Kokoro was written in Japan in 1914, the themes that it deals with—love, trust, betrayal, and guilt—are pertinent regardless of time and place. While it captures the spirit of the dying Meiji era, it is still a potent story today. Although the narrative can feel somewhat forced at times, the characterization of the two unnamed protagonists is exceedingly well done. They see a little bit of themselves in each other, and I saw a little bit of myself, too.

Thousand Cranes

Author: Yasunari Kawabata
Illustrator: Fumi Komatsu

Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9780679762652
Released: November 1996
Original release: 1952

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese author to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His novel Thousand Cranes was among the three works cited as part of the award, the other two being Snow Country and The Old Capital. Although until now I have never read anything by Kawabata, I was familiar with his name. Not just because he won a Nobel Prize, but because he was a close friend of Yukio Mishima, who was my introduction to Japanese literature. Like Mishima, Kawabata also took his own life in 1972, albeit in a much less dramatic and much less public fashion. Thousand Cranes was originally published in Japan in 1952. The novel was first translated into English in 1958 by Edward G. Seidensticker and includes chapter illustrations by Fumi Komatsu. Thousand Cranes was selected for the August 2011 Japanese Literature Book Group, making it the first work by Kawabata that I’ve read.

After both his parents die, Kikuji finds himself living alone with only the maid in his family’s large household. Kurimoto, who once briefly had an affair with his father, takes it upon herself to set up nice marriage for Kikuji. In doing so, she invites him to attend a tea ceremony in order to introduce him to the Inamura’s daughter Yukiko. Although he has his reservations, Kikuji agrees to go. While he is there, he not only meets Yukiko, who he is charmed by, but also the widowed Ota and her daughter. This was something that Kurimoto did not intend to happen. Ota was the long-time mistress of Kikuji’s father, making her Kurimoto’s rival. The unexpected meeting between Ota and Kikuji, and their subsequent liaisons, has unanticipated consequence for everyone that is involved.

On its surface, Thousand Cranes is a simple story. But despite how it may first appear, it is highly complicated by human emotions and desire. It may seem reserved, but by paying close attention, the reader will notice a subtle, underlying intensity to the tale. The characters are much the same way—their generally calm and deliberate outward demeanors obscure their turbulent internal passions. They all greatly affect each other by their actions and by their inaction. The presence of Kikuji’s father, even after his death, is nearly overwhelming. This is especially true for Kikuji himself, but even the women he is involved with in one way or another find their lives and individual circumstances closely entangled. None of them can really completely escape the influence of Kikuji’s father. Honestly, it would be hopeless for them to try not to be. It does give rise to some rather unfortunate situations.

Reading Thousand Cranes, Kawabata’s skill as an author was readily apparent to me. It’s not a very long novel, well under two hundred pages, and so every phrase and moment must count. But even though Kawabata is able to achieve this with seeming ease and even though Thousand Cranes is a beautifully rendered piece, the story still seems to end rather abruptly. Some passing familiarity with Japanese tea ceremony will be useful for someone who wants to read Thousand Cranes, but it is not absolutely necessary to enjoy the novel. The influence of the tea ceremony on Thousand Cranes is undeniable. The symbolism found in the tea ceremony is incorporated into Thousand Cranes and is then expanded on. While a reader with a basic understanding of Japanese tea ceremony will probably get more out of the novel, Kawabata brings out the elements particularly important to the story. If Thousand Craned is at all representative of Kawabata’s novels, I suspect I will enjoy his other work.

The Woman in the Dunes

Author: Kōbō Abe
Illustrator: Machi Abe

Translator: E. Dale Saunders
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9780679733782
Released: April 1991
Original release: 1962

The Woman in the Dunes, originally published in Japan in 1962, is probably the most well-known work by Kōbō Abe available in English. One of the reasons for this is the film by the same name released in 1964, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara with a screenplay that was also written by Abe. The first English translation of the novel The Woman in the Dunes, which included line illustrations by the artist Machi Abe (who also happens to be Kōbō Abe’s wife), was published in 1964 by Knopf. The paperback published by Vintage International (an imprint of Knopf),  the edition currently in print, was first released in 1991. E. Dale Saunders has served as the translator for several of Abe’s works, including The Woman in the Dunes. Although I was aware of both the film and the novel, I hadn’t watched or read either of them until the novel was selected for the June 2011 Japanese Literature Book Group. In fact, I hadn’t previously read any of Abe’s works, so was happy to have an excuse to change that.

One August, Jumpei Niki, schoolteacher and amateur entomologist, disappears. None of his colleagues know exactly where he went to collect his beetles, but he was expected to return. Jumpei’s desire as an insect collector was to discover a new species or variant, a goal that brought him to a secluded village nestled among the sand dunes along the coast. The village and its people seem a little strange, but he doesn’t realize the trouble he’s in until it’s too late. He asks to stay the night and is brought to a widow’s household that is nearly swallowed by the sand. Jumpei readily climbs down into the pit, grateful for the villages courtesy, only to find that the ladder has been removed when he tries to leave in the morning. He has three choices: join the widow and dig sand for the rest of his life to survive, try to escape, which no one has been able to do, or die.

It would be fairly easy if not obvious to read The Woman in the Dunes symbolically or as a metaphor. However, since I wasn’t feeling particularly clever while reading The Woman in the Dunes, I approached the novel more literally. Even doing so, I still found the story to be quite compelling. Admittedly, it is also very strange. But it is fascinating to watch Jumpei deal with the odd situation he finds himself in and slowly change because of it. While some of his circumstances are hardly believable, the setting that Abe has created is presented very realistically. Life in the village, while not completely explained to either the reader or Jumpei, seems to have been thoroughly thought through. In some ways, I found The Woman in the Dunes to be vaguely reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” as both works are about societies with deeply entrenched and somewhat menacing traditions.

What left the biggest impression on me from The Woman in the Dunes was the sand itself. Abe’s portrayal and description of it is extremely evocative; the sand could almost be considered its own character. It is beautiful, powerful, uncaring, and dangerous. Frankly, after reading The Woman in the Dunes, I’m somewhat terrified of sand. Jumpei’s relationship with it begins with admiration, crosses through fear and hatred, eventually evolving into something akin to dependency. It wears him down not only physically, but mentally as well. The sand becomes central to his though processes and is the most important thing in his life. The results of this are chilling and is what made The Woman in the Dunes such an effective novel for me.