Behind The Station – Arno Camenisch (translated by Donal McLaughlin)

behindStation

Earlier in the week I reviewed Swiss writer Arno Camenisch’s “The Alp”, the first part of his “alpine” trilogy that was released in English in 2014. The second part “Behind The Station” was also published by Dalkey Archive in 2015 and three years later the final installment in the trilogy “Last Last Orders” is about to hit the shelves.

Unlike the third person distant prose of “The Alp”, where the four main characters are the nameless dairyman, swineherd, farmhand and cowherd, this book follows the actions of a pair of young brothers in the alpine village, using the personal narrative of one of the young children.

Like the first instalment, “Behind The Station” was originally written in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German, and this work has a number of references throughout to the Romansh language, our protagonist not understanding German.

We take a short cut. After the highest pylon, the smallest, we lift the bar and jump down into the deep snow. The man in the chair lift behind us goes crazy. He waves his hands, shouts and curses in German, but we don’t understand that here. Here, we understand only Romansh, and not always that either. (p77)

There are also recurring images from instalment one, a crucifix with a hand missing, a radio with a bent aerial, have these items made their way from the alpine farms into the village or are they coincidentally similar? This use of imagery allows the short work to have a broader reach than simply the story of young boys growing up in a village.

My father asks have we fed the bunny rabbits. We say we’ll feed the bunnies in a minute, just need to do something first. My father says, we need to clean the hutch out again soon too. We nod. My father looks strict and shows us his finger. On his finger is white paint. He’s wearing overalls. His overalls are white with splashes of paint. My father’s a painter. On his shoes are splashes of paint. He’s got soap for that that we’re not allowed to use. Hands off, my father says, it’s poisonous, not for the likes of you. Drink that ad you’ll end up with a hole in your stomach. We don’t want holes in our stomachs so we keep our hands off. (p8-9)

It is through this simple, subtle, gentle language that the small village’s introspection comes to the fore. And we see this tiny community through the innocent eyes of a child;

Place on record, my brother says. By the time we’re through the whole village, we’ve counted twenty-five houses, eight hay barns, one car garage, one motorbike garage, the station with the post office, two fountains with the year on them, Nonno’s workshop and storeroom, a phone box, Mena’s kiosk, and four refuse containers. When we reach the other end, we go through the village again, counting the people who live in the village. We can’t count Marionna from the village shop who doesn’t live in the village and not Toni Maissen either who stands at the counter in the station but doesn’t live in the village either. There are forty-one or forty-two residents. We don’t know whether Bollock Tini is one person or two. We need to find out. There are three restaurants in the village, the Crusch Alva where Silvana lives, the station restaurant at the centre, which is closed, and the Helvezia. The Helvezia is my aunt’s. There’s Marionna’s village shop, Gion Bi’s Usego store, Giacasep’s screws shop, the bakery and the hairdresser’s. (p18)

Whilst “The Alp” presented the events of a single summer, high in the mountains with cows, sheep, pigs and goats, this book occurs over a single winter where the day to day activities, like riding a bike or shovelling snow are the main motivators. However, it is not through the actual physical events that the richness of this work is revealed. Using the innocent eyes of youth the book highlights prospects for the future, although similar to “The Alp” where a lament for loss of a simple lifestyle and language is subtle, here is comes more to the fore.

We also have the social implications of living in a small village, the provincial politics and the hierarchy and influence of the various players:

The band is practicing marching. They’re practicing for Sunday and are standing in uniform on the village street. The flag bearer’s at the front and right behind him is Pieder, the conductor. He has a proper conductor’s baton with a cork handle. As soon as he swings the baton and says march, they all begin to move in the direction of the Helvezia and start playing. The musicians are wearing beautiful uniforms. The trousers are dark green with an orange stripe at the side, the jackets are orange with golden button and dark green brushes on the shoulders. The musicians don’t have hats, not even Pieder, who would’ve had the nicest hat with huge white feathers. It’s not as if we’re Indians, Gion Baretta said, we’re not putting the hats on. No one wanted to put the uniforms on either, no one likes them, we almost have to wear them though if the artist from the next village has already paid for them, cost a fortune after all, he says to my aunt. He’d offered to pay for the uniforms if he also got to choose them so of course everyone agreed, saying, he’s a nice guy, it won’t be that bad, and now we’ve this disgrace on our hands. He’ll not be involved very much longer though, and once he’s kicked the bucket we’ll go back to our beautiful old uniforms, with the caps too, that is, the works; the way it should be. (p60)

This section showing how the innocent eyes of the child sees the uniforms as beautiful, but through internal influences moves to “disgrace” with the old now being “beautiful”. Progress and the resistance of such, always bubbling along quietly in delicate ways.

Another subtle work from Arno Camenisch, peeling back more layers of a remote area on our planet, similar to “The Alp” we have another short contemplative book, expertly capturing the isolation and remoteness of the region and its inhabitants, a grand sweeping canvas where the offered picture is only a snippet of the grander image. This work being another piece of the bigger puzzle, through two books we have the workers and now the children, next up the drinkers!!! I can’t wait for the final installment.

Advertisements

The Alp – Arno Camenisch (translated by Donal McLaughlin)

theAlp

“The Alp”, published by Dalkey Archive in 2014, is the first part of Arno Camenisch’s “alpine” trilogy, with part two, “Behind The Station” being published in 2015 and the final instalment “Last Last Orders” due for release in the coming months.

Originally written in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German, this is a very short novel, set in the Swiss Alps, on a single property, in the Surselva District, one of the few regions that is mainly Romansh speaking.

Surselva_Trun

By Adrian Michael (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The book is set over a single summer;

Shoulder to shoulder, peak after peak rises, marking a border, as if – on the other side of this great border – there was nothing else. (p39)

Isolated, our main protagonists are unnamed, they are simply known as the dairyman, swineherd, farmhand and cowherd. They live in the alpine region over summer with a number of other named characters coming into and out of their sphere. The book is written in distant factual detached prose, but it is through these small factual vignettes and anecdotes that the characters slowly become human;

The sun gradually warms the humid, clear air and the last scraps of white cloud vanish. The swineherd removes the cowpats from the yard with the manure shovel and tips them into the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow has a handle missing and its flat tire squeaks. (p14)

Through these seemingly detached vignettes, a whole canvas of rural life, slowly being encroached upon by the tourist industry, comes into view. The four simple lives are juxtaposed against this outside world;

The sun casts the shadow of the photographer from tourist information onto the dirty slabs outside the hut. The flies buzz around his fisherman’s hat. The hut door opens and in the doorway stands the dairyman in his flowery herdsman’s shirt, with his red cheeks and red socks and red laces in his boots. His boots are shining with milking grease. The magnificent head of hair beneath his decorated hat is dripping. He wipes his hand on the seat of his trousers and offers it to the photographer with the camera bags around his neck, and a tripod. With a well-aimed kick, the dairyman chases the goat down from the wooden bench with the engraved plaque outside the hut, then calls the farmhand. The farmhand appears in the doorway with the cheese knife in his hand. His hands are full so he can’t come, he says, and the two herders are off somewhere. The two herders, in their overalls, are lying on their stomachs on the hill above the hut and can hear the dairyman running around the hut and cowshed, cursing them, while alongside the tripod, now set up, complete with camera, its fat lens focused on the mountain backdrop, the photographer unfolds the tourist information leaflet on alpine costumes. (p16-17)

The hints of nostalgia, as the area moves from dairy, and cheese production, pig and sheep farming, to tourism, are kept to slight references; “They have it good these days.”

Through the simple factual paragraphs, that may not even be linear, the reader becomes slowly immersed in their isolated world, outside of dairy work, swine or sheep keeping, is there anything else? This stark prose brings to the fore this isolation, and the seemingly insignificant events slowly build a character study of uneducated men, simple labourers, their loneliness and seclusion. Are these forgotten, insignificant people, individuals merely eking out an existence?

It is the contemplative prose that enriches this book and gives the landscape a much broader perspective than simply using a word count. The expansiveness of the valley, the ruggedness of the Alps, the remoteness being captured through the meditative use of language.

The four main characters, due to their lowly positions have been reduced to functions, not even having names and at times, especially early in the work, they are indistinguishable, however, slowly we see moments of tenderness, humility and humanity shining through the bravado and brutality. Finding an old discarded book and contemplative reading, or lying in meadows observing the clouds, as a reader you do not know what these men are thinking but you do know that their characters are more complex than the simple functions they perform.

Swiss writer Arno Camenisch, apparently writes in both German and Romansh and it would be intriguing to know how much of this work is in each language, is the modern encroaching upon the traditional in the presentation of this work? Not simply through changes where tourism is taking over the traditional lifestyle but the German language slowly infiltrating the region. The Census of 2000 showing that of the 21,231 residents of the Surselva District, 59.4% speak Romansh and 34.5% German.

A short contemplative book, which expertly captures the isolation and remoteness of the region and its inhabitants, a grand sweeping canvas where the offered picture is only a snippet of the grander image. A work that sets up further exploration of the area in the later titles, the second, “Behind The Station” I will look at here in the coming days.

Leg Over Leg (Volume One)- Ahmad Fāris Al-Shidyāq (translated by Humphrey Davies)

LEgOverLeg

The Arabic “Ulysses” according to the collated lists I published here late last year. This is an interesting inclusion on that list as it was published in 1855, therefore it pre-dates Joyce’s masterpiece by at least 63 years (using the serialised publication on “Ulysses” as the comparison date). This is the period when Dickens began serialising “Little Dorrit”, when William Makepeace Thackeray’s “The Newcomes” appears, and when Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden” is published. I cite these examples as Ahmad Fāris Al-Shidyāq’s “Leg Over Leg” is a work that leaps decades ahead of its time in both style and subject matter.

The extensive, and insightful, Foreword by Rebecca C. Johnson advises us that “Al-Shidyāq’s body of work – seen as a whole – is equally difficult to categorize neatly. Most frequently, al-Shidyāq is seen as a modernizer, a renovator of Arabic letters who “had little regard for literary tradition” and who instead looked to Europe for literary modes that would replace those discredited indigenous ones.” (p xviii) As well as stating “Leg over Leg can be seen as a portrait in miniature of Arabic literary modernity, if we understand that modernity as it has been more recently described in scholarship: a contested category marked by self-interrogation and a “constant reworking of the meaning of community” through language, created not by being imported from the West, but through interaction with Europe.” (pg x-xi)

I’ve committed myself to writing a book that would be a repository for every idea that appealed to me, relevant or irrelevant, for it seemed to me that what was irrelevant to me might be relevant to someone else, and vice-versa. (p155)

This is a difficult book to review, made up of al-Shidyāq’s tales, although the main protagonist is named Fāriyāq, the autobiographical parallels are hard to ignore, the narrative plot is thin, however the literary riches are plentiful.

Using a raft of literary devices, it is a reader’s delight. Frequently referring to the act of writing the book, our protagonist is a scribe, as a reader you are immersed in the experience;

…anyone reading the book is asked to turn the pages slowly and focus closely in order to uncover the hidden meanings conveyed through jokes and the other excellent features that have been placed within its separate chapters. Another of the book’s excellent qualities is that, when it mentions something, it says everything there is to say about it, while also taking into consideration every aspect of any similar words. (from “An Introduction by the Publisher of This Book” p 17)

Opening with an exultation of the book as well as a defence of its contents, the physical object and its creation are never far away from the reader’s gaze. Using poetry, the book opens with a seven-page Proem, and rhyming prose;

Were I, though, to describe him in the Frankish way, I’d say he was a donkey son of a donkey, born of a she-ass all of whose ancestors were donkeys. His color tended toward the black and his hair felt like thorns when you touched his back; his ears were cropped and listless, his legs stiff, his coat starting to fall, and he was toothless; wide-mouthed, slack-lipped, and with buttocks splayed, not to mention that he sniffed at she-asses’ pee, rolled on the ground, smeared his dung everywhere and sprayed. The stick on him had no effect, nor did rebuke, when he disobeyed and he never moved unless he sensed food, be it only darnel. No trace of animal nature would he show until a she-ass he espied; then you’d see him frisk and gambol, show vigor and pull the bridle to one side, so that he often overturned his load or sent it askew; and another peculiarity he had too, which was that, rarely though his molars were put to work, everywhere he defecated and incessantly over hill and dale he flatulated, making him seem yet more ill-fated. He’d been rasied in lands where there was an abundance of cabbage, radish, rape, turnip, and cauliflower, as there is in certain foreign parts, and was therefore accustomed from his youth to producing farts, and this condition had only grown worse as he’d grown older. Thus any who walked behind him had, perforce, to hold his nose and keep saying “How coarse!” In any case, whichever of the two descriptive modes you choose, of all the pains of the journey and its injuries, keeping company with this beast was by no means the least. (p119-121)

In Chapter 10 we advised of the difficulty of using rhyming prose;

Rhymed prose is to the writer as a wooden leg to the walker. I must be careful therefore not to rest all my weight on it every time I go for a stroll down the highways of literary expression lest its vagaries end up cramping my style or it toss me into a pothole from which I cannot crawl. Indeed, it seems to me that the difficulties of rhymed prose are greater than those of poetry, for the requirements regarding linking and correspondence set for lines of verse are fewer than those for the periods of rhymed prose. In rhymed prose, the rhyme often leads the writer from his original path to a place he would never have wanted to reach had he not been subjected to its constraints. Here our aim is to weave our story in a way acceptable to every reader. (p149)

Puns, word plays and exploration of word’s inner meanings are littered throughout, the immersive experience forcing you to change your reading style. We have a four page paragraph listing numerous synonyms for the vagina and the penis, al-Shidyāq then telling us;

In addition, I have imposed on the reader the condition that he not skip any of the “synonymous” words in this book of mine, many though they be (for it may happen that, on a single road, a herd of fifty words, all with the same meaning, or with two meanings that are close, may pass him by). If he cannot commit to this, I cannot permit his to peruse it and will not offer him my congratulations if he does so. I have to admit that I cannot support the idead that all “synonyms” have the same meaning, or they would have called them “equi-nyms”. (p47)

An example of the puns at play; – “doing business with whatever capital (and assets)”, the translation coming from “The head of the money and its tail” here the author is playing with the literal meaning of the Arabic expression meaning “financial capital”.

Translator Humphrey Davies must be given enormous credit for his work on this book, with extensive lists of synonyms and near synonyms, the rhyming prose, the puns, it would have been no easy task to capture these in English. In fact, this book was shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award, losing out to Ottilie Muzlet’s translation of László Krasznahorkai’s “Seiobo There Below”.

Containing scathing attacks on the atrocities and morals of the church and their treatment of the writer’s brother, the autobiographical references often come to the fore, and this is where the extensive Foreword mentioned before becomes a very useful tool. My edition of the book is presented in both the original Arabic, alongside the English translation, and would surely be a scholar of Arabic literature’s dream.

A book that has been described as “unclassifiable”, it follows a similar path to Don Quixote, with seemingly random tales appearing throughout Fāriyāq’s journeys, it also reminded me of Lawrence Sterne’s “Tristram’s Shandy”, however rightfully this is a unique book, a literary tour-de-force, a journey into another culture which is highly instructive and educational, here’s hoping the other three volumes are of a similar quality.

Slipping – John Toomey

Slipping

Today another short review of another short book.

Whilst I do keep tabs on numerous literary awards, I must admit I had not heard of the Rubery Book Prize, an annual international award given to writers either self-published or published by independent presses. In 2017 the Fiction Award was won by John Toomey for his novel “Slipping”, published by the independent press Dalkey Archive, and it was through Dalkey’s news updates that I heard of the award and the winning novel.

This is not a spoiler alert, what I’m revealing here is replicated on the back cover, and within the first chapter. This is a book with a simple premise, Albert Jackson, a highly regarded teacher, murders his wife and being sentenced to the local psychiatric hospital he enlists the services of Charlie Vaughan, a young fiction writer, to help him present his side of the story. The novel is not simply presented as Charlie’s journey or struggles in writing Albert’s story, it also consists of Albert’s notes, Charlie’s interviews with witnesses, family members and Charlie’s meetings with Albert’s psychiatrist, Novak.

However it is not the simple narrative premise where this novel’s riches lie, it is a work that plays on the usual motivations and explanations found in the crime genre, and delves into the mind of a man who has become sick of his day to day existence:

People disgust me. To be honest. I long to be alone, away from them and their social pleasantries. Away from etiquette, as if anybody even knows what that means these days. Small talk, as I said, has always been a source of irritation to me but in recent times I’ve come to utterly detest it. To the extent that I almost fear it. Fear I might throttle somebody, or drop into a whimpering ball right there on the street, in abject exasperation at life’s triviality. I have contrived a number of ways to avoid meeting certain people on the street. I plan departures in advance of arrival. I anticipate and prepare for my exits – appointments, work, emergencies, illnesses. You name it I’ve used it. (p17-18)

Masterly constructed the book switches between writer Charlie’s impressions;

…we can never entirely absolve ourselves of first impressions, astute or petty; it is the tiny prejudices and proclivities formed in as long as it takes to say hello that condemn us to tragedy. (p4)

And the musings of an unreliable narrator, Albert – here a lecture about “The Great Gatsby”;

‘And then we get the sting in the tail – the unreliable narrator. Just as we arrive at our safe conclusion, we ask ourselves – Can we trust the story we’ve been told? The narrator is compromised. Does this change the conclusion or bolster it? Who can say? You can, my scholars. Make an argument, take part. Assume your views. Go forth and criticise!’ (p29-30)

And then we have the role of you the reader, as a writer the more Charlie understands, and the more information he uncovers, the more complicit in the crime he becomes, you then begin to question your voyeuristic role as a reader…

In facilitating Jackson and his story, surely I had aligned myself with the wrong camp. As well as which, for me there was still something missing from his assorted statements. And it haunted my impression of him. Told me I was wrong to talk with him. The emotional hollow, the thin precision, the soulless control. What essence of him could be redeemed if the deadpan brutality of his murderous account proved as faithful as Novak had suggested it was? (p104)

There is the added layer of the role of a fiction writer;

But the novel’s a different beast entirely; pliable; capable of shifting and rolling with the fluctuations of the human heart, of clinging to the coattails of otherwise elusive patterns of the mind. It has range, human capacity, like nothing else. (p109)

As I am not generally a reader of crime fiction it is difficult to rate this book as part of that specific genre, however it is an economical and well-constructed book, a lighter read that filled in a gap whilst I was having a break from James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Whilst an easy read there are a few criticism’s I would like to highlight, the female characters are “victims” (obviously Albert’s wife) and it is not just the dead wife who is not explored in a lot of depth, in the case of the other two female “players” their roles in Albert’s life are explored however their motivations are not detailed in any way and they are merely play things for the male characters, our writer included.  As a light distracting read this novel is entertaining, whilst being unsettling and very readable, John Toomey has taken a simple tale and added several devices to hook you in, although some may be overblown (Albert referring to his wife as still being alive, pointing out the use of 3rd person narration are just two glaring examples) the overall effect is an enjoyable escape from some of the more detailed literary fiction I generally approach.

What To Do – Pablo Katchadjian (translated by Priscilla Posada)

What-to-Do1

French Decadent writer Leon Bloy, Saint Isidore’s “Etymologiae” from the Middle Ages, Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”, Blazac, Paul the Apostle, Paul the Anchorite…. The first twenty-one pages of this novel contain the lot, and then some.

This work consists of fifty chapters, each relaying a similar story, presented to us by an unnamed narrator, journeys about himself and his friend Alberto, their situations constantly morphing through numerous philosophical situations.

The novel uses sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing as prime motivators for decisions. These decisions leading our narrator and Alberto into a labyrinth of possibilities;

I’m with Alberto and we’re trying to talk to a man without eyes about our surroundings, although it’s very hard to identify the objects. This lasts for a hile until we’re suddenly in front of a mirror that reflects us in a horrifying way: Alberto is a mummy and my head is growing. (p91)

An absurd, surrealist story that piles layers upon layers, although using the same milestones, (a university lecture hall, eight hundred drinkers, an old woman, an island where everything can be found, a broom, and more) the outcomes are always shifting:

…the old woman doesn’t need a rational structure to understand us and that this is what does us so much good: we feel understood. (p25)

Do not expect to be understood.

Given our narrator and Alberto are university lecturers, the philosophical debate is always simmering below a shimmering, surreal surface. The discussions on Leon Bloy centre on his “Le Desespere”, and the sections where vivid detail of teeth extraction are presented as an inordinate desire for self-abasement and mortification. Or discussions about Origen’s voluntary castration, or Ilya Kabakov’s relationship with “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, as a reader you are never far away from a treatise on mortality.

I’m furious and indignant because Alberto won’t stop talking about Borges in front of our students at the English university, who are enraptured with all the talk of mirrors, labyrinths, and doubles. Alberto isn’t into these subjects, but knows they’re good for captivating English students. Not only am I annoyed that he’s talking about these things, but also that I, despite being knowledgeable, about this subject, can’t do what Alberto does because I refuse to talk about these things. I try to interrupt him by talking about Bloy, but the students scowl, they motion with their hands, they throw old rags and rocks at me… (p21)

Although confusing and bizarre, well-read people who approach this book will find a smorgasbord of literary and philosophical material to keep them amused and entertained for hours;

I’m with Alberto and we’re at an airport explaining a new relationship that we invented between John Donne and Lawrence of Arabia to an old woman. (p11)

The numerous references include Simone Weil and a mathematical quote, this hints that there is a mathematical edge to this book, does it contain a hidden message, are there structures contained within the text, a la oulipo, that I simply missed? Maybe these stuctures/codes/enigmas are not possible in a translation? Maybe they are there and I had no idea of the riddles, puzzles contained, maybe it is simply a game?

Doing my best to avoid spoilers, the use of our primary senses to make sense of our existence and the daily choices we make, the ending, explaining the multitude of decisions we are confronted with, nicely wraps up a playful and enjoyable excursion. Does it solve the enigma? That’s up to you, the reader, to decide… If your exposure to Argentine writing has been through the pen of César Aira, and you’ve enjoyed his “avant-garde” forays, then Pablo Katchadjian is another writer you should hunt down.

As an aside – there are a few proofreading errors: “Alberto and I are on on a still ship.” (p93), and formatting issues “”Firstthere’ssilence;thenonlyapplauseandshouts” (p94), something I’ve come to expect from Dalkey Archive, given their massive output. It is a pity they couldn’t spend just a little longer fixing these sort of production problems.

 

The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Alisa Freedman)

ScarletGang

My post on “A World of Ulysses” was quite popular, generating a few social media comments, and garnering a higher than usual number of views. Today I look at the “Japanese Ulysses”, as identified by Joshua Cohen, Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” (translated by Alisa Freedman), Cohen advising us:

This lurid novel, teeming with teen prostitutes and slumming littérateurs, earned its author the prize that eluded Joyce, the Nobel. Originally published in a daily newspaper—surely one of the strangest serializations ever—Kawabata’s monster is a manic crawl through the dingy Asakusa: Tokyo’s red-light district.

I can assure you this novel does share something with Joyce’s work, it is a difficult read.

The “Foreword” by Donald Richie advises that Kawabata was part of a group labelled the “New Perception School”. His “ambition was to view every incident of the human condition through new eyes….one of the tenets of the new aesthetic movement, modernism.”

The first thirty-seven chapters of the novel originally appeared as a serialization in the Tokyo Asahi newspaper between 20 December 1929 and 16 February 1930, at the bottom of the first page. From September 1930 chapters 38 through 51 appeared under the title “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” in Reconstruction (Kaizō, volume 12, number 9), with Chapters 52 through 61 appearing as “The Red Sash Society” in New Currents (Shinchō, volume 27, number 9). This format leads to a repetition, especially in the first 37 chapters, where the “action” is repeated to emphasise the crucial narrative beacons to new readers. In later chapters the narrative flow smooths out and therefore becomes a little more readable.

In a nutshell the story is about the region of Tokyo where the bawdy revues sit alongside the homeless, the young girls of Asakusa who have been tricked into prostitution, and the shady dealings of the inhabitants of this region.

The Scarlet Gang uses votive stickers, but they do it in a way all their own. It’s not that they are curious enough to want to learn that the practice of using votive stickers was begun by Emperor Kazan, who stuck them on all the places of worship he visited, and that stickers were even designed by ukiyoe artists like Utagawa Toyokuni. Also, they don’t believe in the efficacy enough to go around slapping them on shrines and temples just for that reason. I’ll give you an example. One day that little tyke Boat Tokikō (his father is a boatman on the Ōkawa, so he is called Boat Tokikō) said to me: You know the Five Story Pagoda?
– The one at the Sensō Temple?
– Yep. On the third story counting from the top or the bottom on the corner near the Nio Gate, there’s this ridge-end tile sticking out. It’s got a monkey’s face on it, and its eyeballs are all gold. Well I want to stick my sticker flat on the monkey’s face.
So just like that, under the cover of night, they stick their Scarlet Troupe votive stickers at truly inappropriate locations. For example, the middle of the three big paper lanterns at the Nio Gate entrance to the Sensō Temple, or on the black-lacquered bottom of that lantern from Irifune-chō, or the horns of the cow statue in the grounds of the Ushijima Shrine over in Mukōjima. (p6)

As you can see, from this short quote, the dialogue is presented as though you are listening in on a conversation, the different speakers delineated by em dashes, in this example it is a reportage of a conversation, however in other sections you are only glimpsing part of the conversation. To understand who is speaking is very difficult, and at time to know what they are speaking about is even more cryptic.

Unlike other works by Kawabata, this appears as an experimentation, the future winner of the Nobel Prize, honing his craft with different styles, methods of creating, reportage. However the imagery remains vivid, the themes, where sexual undertones float aplenty, are forming in the young writer’s mind.

A young woman in a red dress is pounding the piano in the entryway. The bright red stands out against the black of the piano, and the white of her legs, bare from knees down to feet, is young, fresh. The entryway isn’t much wider than a wooden sandal is long, and from where I stand, just outside, it seems as though I can reach in and give that black ribbon around her waist a tug. This ribbon is the only decoration, but because the dress is sleeveless with a low neckline, it’s something like an evening gown. No, even here at home she’s wearing something for the stage – a dance costume? Traces of white powder cling to the nape of her neck, and above it her hair is cropped close as a boy’s. (p10)

We follow this girl, Yumiko, she does fade from view only to return later, and the sexual references continue, for example where she is on a boat with a “customer” Kawabata advises us “And Yumiko polishes the glass globe, her head lowered, cheeks flushed, lost in thought” (p70).

All the seediness of Asakusa bubbles in the background, as our novelist wanders the streets and parks at night, relaying to us his observations;

Right under your nose, you can find lady bums dressed as men. You just laugh them off. But a man dressed as a woman, face thick with white powder, elaborate Japanese-style wig, all decked out in red, slipping off with another man into the dark alleys behind the temple – this sends chills up your spine like you’ve just seen a peculiar lizard or something. (p51)

The horror of child prostitution is also peppered throughout, young girls from the country taking work, during the Depression, and being tricked into prostitution;

It’s not so surprising that the little girl who rode the holy horse in the May Sanja Shrine festival already now in June has to sell her body to support her family. (p128)

Although a cast of 100’s move in and out of view, it is the seediness, the lure of the erotic, and the area of Asakawa that is the focus here:

Asakusa is Tokyo’s heart…
Asakusa is a human market…
The words of that popular writer Soeda Azenb
ō: Asakusa is Asakusa for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive…The masses converge on it, constantly. Their Asakusa is a foundry in which all the old models are regularly melted down to be cast into new ones. (p30)

A work that is a dichotomy of styles, the writing is influenced by the modernism of the West, the revues are snippets of the West, but there is a lament for the loss of Japanese culture;

For example, dear reader, have you listened to manzai lately? Manzai used to be funny. But in 1929, because the manzai people have been pushed by the “modern”, by that wild reckless nonsense straight from America, they have become pathetic clowns in both senses of the word. (p93)

There are historical laments too, a section set just after the massive earthquake of 1923 where Asakusa was flattened. And as you can see in the above quote, the direct address to you, “the reader”, occur frequently, as does the theme of Kawabata writing this book:

I tossed around the idea of writing a long, strange novel. And, dear reader, in these pages, after ten years, I have finally begun to do that. (p133)

This edition contains a very useful Foreword and Afterword by Don Ritchie as well as a Translator’s Preface, where the difficulty of translating the slang and references to Japanese culture and literature are explained, as well as an extensive Glossary and Selected Bibliography, greatly assisting academics, and the University of California Press should be congratulated for bringing this little known work into print.

A difficult read given the dialogue style, the lack of character development, and the subject matter, this is a curio in Kawabata’s work, one where he is experimenting with styles and the modernist, as well as serialized approach. It is a worthwhile addition to the world listing of Ulysses, and it is an interesting addition for readers who have enjoyed his more famous works such as “Snow Country”, “The Sound of the Mountain” and “The House of the Sleeping Beauties”, however I would not recommend starting your 1968 Nobel Prize winning journey with this book.

A World of Ulysses?

Ulysses

As regular visitors here would know, I love a list, it gives me some structure, helps with what to read next. I recently came across an article by author Joshua Cohen, written in 2010, for the 106th anniversary of Bloomsday, in which he identified “12 novels that have been described, whether by critics or the authors themselves, as the Ulyssi of their respective cultures.”

What a great reading list, twelve Ulysses from various nations:

The Russian Ulysses Petersburg By Andrei Bely 1913

The British Ulysses Mrs. Dalloway By Virginia Woolf 1925

The German Ulysses Berlin Alexanderplatz By Alfred Döblin 1929

The Japanese Ulysses The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa By Yasunari Kawabata 1930

The Hungarian Ulysses Prae By Miklós Szentkuthy 1934

The Indian Ulysses All About H. Hatterr By G.V. Desani 1948

The Argentine Ulysses Adán Buenosayres By Leopoldo Marechal 1948

The Turkish Ulysses A Mind at Peace By Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar 1949

The Welsh Ulysses Under Milk Wood By Dylan Thomas 1954

The Brazilian Ulysses The Devil to Pay in the Backlands By João Guimarães Rosa 1956

The Israeli Ulysses Past Continuous By Yaakov Shabtai 1977

The Spanish Ulysses Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel By Julián Ríos 1983

From there Nathan “NR” at Goodreads has extended the list to include a further fourteen titles:

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson

Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade

Die Tutoren by Bora Ćosić

Leg Over Leg (all four volumes) by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq

Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi

The Bloodworth Orphans: A Novel by Leon Forrest

Rama and the Dragon by Edwar al-Kharrat

Belarmino and Apolonio by Ramón Pérez de Ayala

Dessen Sprache Du Nicht Verstehst: Roman by Marianne Fritz

The Disconnecte d by Oğuz Atay

Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

La Medusa by Vanessa Place

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa

Divine Days by Leon Forrest

It was my reading of The Disconnecte d by Oğuz Atay which alerted me to these lists and then I went on to read the first volume of Luis Goytisolo’s four volume “Antagony” which was compared to Joyce’s work by Mario Vargas Llosa, this got me thinking that a longer world journey of national Ulysses could well be undertaken (of course not back to back!!!)

Amazingly I own eleven of these titles, counting Leg Over Leg as one title even though it is four books, therefore I think a little Christmas reading is in order (along with a serious attempt at getting through another 100 pages of Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”).

Instead of hunting down the various lists each time I go to choose my next read, I thought it prudent to capture it here. Of course, if anybody has any further references to novels which have been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses then please leave a comment, I’d love to extend the list!!!

UPDATE

Two new suggested titles that have been highlighted to me via social media (I’ll keep adding as titles become known):

The Scottish Ulysses – “Lanark” by Alasdair Grey

“Women and Men” by Joseph McElroy “Big. Difficult. Masterpiece” I’ve been told.