Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami

The Briefcase
by Hiromi Kawakami (translated from Japanese by Allison Powell)
Counterpoint, 2012 (originally published in 2001)
176 pages

"But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru was always there, along with the usual crowd of familiar faces. And I never really acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same kind of complicated life as I was."

I've wanted to read this book for years, but I didn't realize it was actually released on this side of the pond with a different title and I've been spending a lot of time waiting for the book Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami to make it over here. Turns out it's been released for a couple of years in North America as The Briefcase. Either title is apt. Glad I finally found it.

Of course, as is always the case with books that one waits ages for, I'm not sure this one quite lived up to the hype in my head. I think part of that was the translation, which didn't seem quite as... lyrical as I'd hoped and expected, but a little more workmanlike. Which is fine, and may reflect the style of the original writing, but wasn't exactly what I was hoping for when someone compared this to one of my all-time favourite books, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa - the only things in common I see between the two is that they are by contemporary female Japanese authors, and feature a female first person narrator.

The Briefcase is, however, as advertised by its UK title, strange, and once I was rolling with it there was a lot to like about it. Tsukiko, our narrator, is a Japanese salarywoman - we never hear exactly what it is that she does - she is single, she is idiosyncratic, she is emotionally detached, and she knows it. She struggles to connect and yet she's not really all that interested in connecting. She drifts around but she's not really interested in putting down roots. She's inexperienced, emotionally and in most other ways, but she's not really interested in getting experience, other than because she thinks she probably should.

It is also a love story; Tsukiko meets the man she thinks of as Sensei, a retired high school teacher, at the local bar, where she often spends her evenings. It might complicate things that he used to be her high school teacher, but they are both well beyond those days (Tsukiko is in her late thirties, Sensei in his seventies), and didn't much like each other back then if they thought about each other at all. It is Tsukiko who finally breaches the gap between them, who declares herself, much to her own chagrin and even surprise. They are both terribly awkward and somewhat wounded, though Sensei doesn't appear to let either of those things bother him at all.

If anything, this is a study of loneliness and quiet, and the difficulty of connecting with others in the world. It's not depressing, is the interesting thing, or sad. It is melancholy and contemplative, but it's also a little bit funny at points, and it celebrates certain aspects of life - food, mostly, and the brief, transitive connections we do manage to make. Tsukiko is frustrating as a narrator, but she's frustrating in a believable way, and she's interesting, despite the fact that she herself would certainly deny that characterization. The reader hopes for the best for her, even as we realize that she's probably going to sabotage herself. It might not be serious sabotage; but it will be a sort of sabotage that always leads her back to her dreary, lonely status quo. There is something strangely poignant in that.

In the end, I don't quite know whether to recommend this or not. It has stuck with me, since I finished reading it months ago (took notes! hooray!) and I found it a relatively quick read. There's not much plot (always okay by me) and the character development is... elliptical, might be the best word, though Tsukiko's character is strong and unique. The language is workmanlike. But it's unusual, and a little haunting, and probably worth a read if you're interested in contemporary Japanese fiction.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

All Men Are Liars by Alberto Manguel

All Men Are Liars
by Alberto Manguel
Riverhead Books, 2012 (originally published in Spanish in 2008)
224 pages

Well, it's been months since I finished this book. Luckily I took good notes.

Originally published in Spanish, this is a novel in five distinct parts. An investigative journalist, Teradillos, is trying to get to the bottom of the story of a famous literary figure by the name of Alejandro Bevilacqua, an ex-pat Argentine who died under mysterious circumstances in Madrid. The first person interviewed is Alberto Manguel himself (in case anyone is curious, Bevilacqua is indeed a fictional character). Manguel tries to distance himself from Bevilacqua, whose body was found under Manguel's balcony when Manguel was out of the country, but is not very successful at it. The second part is told from the perspective of Bevilacqua's lover, the third from a character Bevilacqua spent time in an Argentine prison with, the fourth from another person in Bevilacqua's past, and the fifth and shortest from Teradillos himself.

Hmm. My notes begin: "I am too stupid for this book" which is an interesting statement. Let's dissect it a bit.

This is indeed literary fiction, and I don't read a lot of that. What's more, it's interesting and ambitious literary fiction that winds, maze-like, around itself. It doesn't take itself too seriously but it is serious. I haven't read widely enough to be able to follow all the perambulations and permutations, and I'm only just familiar enough with Latin American history to understand a little of what is happening. This is a novel about Argentina under a dictator, a novel about disappearances and corruption, exiles and torturers - even at a remove, being set as it is in Spain and France thirty years on from the events so central to the tale. What's more, it's about the ordinary faces each of these things have, about the banal people behind the atrocities, about the banal people who get caught up in them. And how those ordinary, seemingly boring people, can be fascinating in and of themselves.

It's also about how we tell stories about ourselves and others, and sometimes we know that we're crafting fictions and sometimes we're blissfully unaware of it, but we are nothing but our stories either way. It helps our case if we are in control of our own stories - the author and wordsmith in the third section, the man who was a prisoner with Bevilacqua, presents the most coherent and convincing tale of all of them, and yet because of the structure of the novel we're aware that it is just a story, even as we fully believe it.

In short, I'm not sure I am in fact too stupid for this book. I think I did pretty well with it, for all my inferiority complex about reading literary fiction. And I enjoyed it, too. Something I did do, though, was spoiled it a bit for myself, which was objectively stupid - don't read ahead in this book if you can help it. And even if you can't. Part of the enjoyment of it is letting it unfold slowly, letting the mystery slowly solve itself. I learned a fact too early by seeing something quite a bit further along in the story than I was myself, and I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I'd let it unfurl in the way Manguel meant for it to unfurl.

My notes on the first two sections are incredibly detailed, and then I read the third and got totally swept up in it such that I didn't bother taking notes, but it's the section I remember most vividly. 'Apologia,' the first, is told from Manguel's own "perspective" and while we learn the basic details of Bevilacqua's life through him, we also gain an incredible amount of insight into the character Manguel has created of himself - that he is a little self-indulgent, a little delusional, not entirely in touch with his own feelings. He repeats multiple times that he was not fond of Bevilacqua, that Bevilacqua foisted himself on Manguel as an unwanted guest; but one suspects Manguel was more fond of Bevilacqua than lets on even to himself.

The second section, 'Much Ado About Nothing,' is an about face. Manguel is a liar and a sad sack, full of himself and totally useless, generally. Andrea, the narrator of this section, is at least as delusional as Manguel, and less self-aware; she's a narcissist. Everything that matters, matters on her terms. She was Bevilacqua's lover, but it's clear to the reader that she was in love with her own idea of the man, not the man himself. The Bevilacqua she discusses is a very different one from the man Manguel tells us about - the two are almost irreconcilable, but because of Andrea's inability to countenance that anything beyond her own version of events and people might have merit, we give more credence to Manguel's version despite the fact that Andrea was objectively closer to Bevilacqua.

There's more to say about Andrea, but I can't without major spoilers. Suffice to say that even though she's not a terribly subtle character, there are some subtle ways in which Manguel (the author) reveals her to us. This story, though technically about Bevilacqua, tells us more about the people around him than about he himself.

The third section, as I say, is the most self-aware and the best-written, and the quality of the writing leads us to believe it almost unconditionally even though we know these are personal accounts by people with vested interests. We remain objectively aware that we are reading a story, one person's version of events, but we cannot help but lend this particular person weight because of the way he tells his story. There's quite a lot to be said for this.

The fourth section was where things fell down for me a bit, told as it was from beyond the grave. It explained a lot of things that were left as mysteries in the first three sections, and while it was... fine? I would have been okay if those things were left unexplained, or ... explained in a more subtle way, like the rest of the story had been up to this point. This section felt kind of heavy-handed, unlike the earlier portions. It was well-done for what it was, but I wasn't sure it fit.

The fifth section, Teradillos' own, was a satisfying, solid ending, but there's not too much else to say about it beyond that.

Do I recommend this book? I certainly read it quickly and I enjoyed it. What's more, I think I have enjoyed thinking about it even more than reading it. I don't think it's absolutely brilliant but it was engaging and thought-provoking, and it's hard to ask too much more from a book. For fans of historical fiction, Latin American fiction, and literary fiction especially, but even if you're none of the above, this is an easy read to help you stretch out of your comfort zones.