Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination

25 08 2014

Going by my brief experience with Japanese literature, which can be put down to lot of strangeness, eeriness,196150 mystery, and intrigue, I expected heavy doses of the distinct flavor from The Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I expected to be completely blown off, to encounter the unexpected which would leave me shaken and/or dumbfounded. I can’t say I was disappointed, but rather pleasantly surprised. These are classic stories by the father of Japanese mystery – Edogawa Rampo (Taro Hirai) way back from 1950s. Besides enjoying the very clever and original plots of these stories, I was glad to realize that there was little of the illogical and unexplainable eeriness, which, in my opinion, usually add only to the complexity and somehow seem very artificial crafted only for the purpose of bewitching the reader. Forgive me, if I am over-generalizing things here. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m speaking honestly out of my meager exposure to the popular Japanese literature.

These tales are simple and yet captivating. True that these psychological mysteries have their share of eccentricity with a tinge of perversion and body-shuddering turn of events, but I must say, it’s not really bad. Or, maybe my tolerance level is a bit high given my  considerable reading history. 😛 While each one of them is chilling,  a couple of tales, which have truly struck me as brilliant are: The Red Chamber and The Human Chair.

On a related note:

Of late, I find myself disturbed by some of the stuff in popular fiction. We have all read and/or listened to a lot of stories throughout our lives. There are some, which half a century earlier would have been a novelty and stirred our interest. The very same ones are stale now, and barely get our attention. Many of those things have become predictable. So now, in an attempt to invent new things to keep up audience’s interest, some people feel compelled to come up with bizarre and very unnatural stuff – extreme violence, gory, perversion, incest and what not. It seems to be easier compared to sticking to simple things and yet innovative enough to make them unpredictable. But the easiest way is not always the right way.

I don’t deny that the “dark” has always existed. But I believe that it should not be exposed to unsuspecting humanity at large. Again, I’m not generalizing things. There is good stuff too. My point is that it makes me sad when such negative things gain popularity and are widely available.

Rashomon and Other Stories

25 05 2011

This is a collection of six stories written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and translated by Takashi Kojima. These stories were written in the beginning of the twentieth century. The author is considered to have a significant place in the modern Japanese literature.

The six stories are each strikingly different and fabulous. “Rashomon”  was the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. With the decline of the West Kyoto, the gate fell into bad repair, and became a hideout for thieves and a place for abandoning unclaimed corpses. The story is about how a samurai who just lost his job prefers to thieve to starvation against his initial reservations.

“In the Grove” is the story of the killing of a samurai through the conflicting testimony of witnesses, including the spirit of the murdered man. “Yam-Gruel” is a story about a lowly official, who has forever been humiliated by everyone, whose only desire in life is to have his fill of special dish – Yam-Gruel; how this desire has made him go very far; and what happened when he actually had his wish fulfilled.

“The Martyr” is about a boy who follows Jesus in practice and sacrifices his life in the process.  “Kesa and Morito” is a complex, seemingly conflicting lines of thought of two secret lovers. Finally, “The Dragon” is a fable about a priest who invents a lie with the malicious intent to make fools of everyone as a sort of revenge.

This short book is truly a rewarding read.

Sputnik Sweetheart

19 01 2011

I think I’ve said a lot before about how difficult it is for me to put in words the exact sensations that various things entice in me. I like many books and each has a distinct affect on me, to which I always struggle to give a name or sometimes even try to describe.

This is my first Haruki Murakami novel and it just swept me off the floor. Reading it was pure ecstasy and I thoroughly enjoyed my brief affair with it. I just can’t explain how or what I exactly felt but I can compare the intensity with what I experienced for Fritzgerald’s Jazz Stories, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day or Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief.

The lead characters in this novel were hopeless loners and voracious readers. The characters were so intriguing that I read about them with eyes wide open in amazement. Murakami’s powerful prose had me spellbound and I surprised myself at my reaction. It’s as if my thoughts adorned new wings and I was transported to a new dimension altogether. Everything seemed too good to be true. And then I encountered something I’d been anticipating all along – the “eeriness factor”. Every Japanese work I’ve read so far had something spooky in it and this book didn’t prove otherwise. The novel turned creepy right from the point of Miu’s story and it ended abruptly or so it seemed to me. Not that this has ruined my initial sentiments but I usually feel uncomfortable around inexplicable things and unanswered questions.

There was not a dull moment while reading this book unlike many other good books and every time I resumed reading it, I felt overpowered by its magnetism.

I look forward to read more of Murakami.

Woman in the Dunes

22 12 2009

The twentieth century Japanese classic “Woman in the Dunes” by Kobe Abe (translated into English by E. Dale Saunders) is my latest read. I can only say that it is so strange. I shouldn’t have expected anything less, given the fact that it is a Japanese work. To the extent of my association with Japanese literature or art, I encountered more than a hint of mystery and strangeness.

In this novel, an entomologist goes on an expedition to find a rare beetle among sand dunes and gets illegally detained by the nearby townspeople. The houses in that town are built in pits, at a far lower than the sea level. The house in which he was detained is inside a 60 ft pit. Sand permeates everything there – the food, water, skin, throat, everything. Sand collects on the roof and around the house which needs to be cleared on a daily basis, lest the wood rots, the house breaks down, or the sand buries the living. The people usually work all night and rest during the day, in order to protect themselves from the burning sand. In that house lives a lone woman and our protagonist is meant to help her with the work.

I felt it scary that one can get detained against one’s will in some strange place and that too in such inhabitable circumstances. The question that kept coming back to me as I read through the slave work they had to undergo is that – why live in such a place? I’m not sure of the demographics of the town in question, but I guess it’s a few hundred. Instead of fighting against the nature why can’t they leave and live elsewhere. May be things are not that simple but the description of life in that sand pit made me wonder that nothing is worth it.

When I learnt that this is not an isolated incident and that the townspeople have abducted many others before and continue to do it without remorse, I was filled with uneasiness and frustration (reflecting the protagonist’s). And the fact that none has ever managed to escape sent a chill down my spine. I’m sure the entomologist felt quite dreadful.

The townspeople seem to think that their position justifies their actions. With little help from the authorities and government, they seem to take things in their own hands and they are not touched by any moral implications. As to the legality, the chance of their deeds being discovered is very rare – given their remote location and the facts the imprisoned never manages to escape.

Nevertheless, our guy schemes and tries various plans to escape. At first he tries to work at the sand pit, but it soon becomes evident that it’s impossible to get any fruitful result in that way. Later he tries by refusing to share the work. And his non-cooperation is soon brought to end by withholding water and other supplies. At some point, he manages to climb to the top of the pit and even manages to go as far as the village gates, but only to be found and brought back in humiliation by the townspeople. Amidst all of it, he develops a habit of being with the woman and they maintain a relationship which is inevitable.

At the end of the novel, he does get an opportunity to slip by, but he chooses to await another opportunity.

At some point during his scheming for escape, he reflects in frustration that “A beggar for three days, always a beggar.” It is ironical that how he ended up in the end.

No one knows what happened to the missing entomologist (who is also a school teacher) and when 7 years pass by without any news of him, the court declares him as missing – he is wiped out from the external world.

The book’s very remarkable, both in its story and the narration. But to be frank I failed to get the accurate sense of some of the theories and reflective/introspective thoughts of the protagonist at various points in the story. Hmm…