Good Reading : Febuary 2009
categorical 1 Endo’s atypical identity as a Japanese Catholic. In a nation where less than 1 per cent of the population is Christian, Endo keenly felt the stigma of holding different religious views from his compatriots. Silence, set in 1638, focuses on a time in Japanese history when persecuted Christians were driven underground by the Tokugawa shogunate. The Christians, who had rebelled against the harsh local rule, were expected to deny their faith by trampling on images of Jesus. Those who refused were sentenced to a painfully slow and humiliating death. Endo looks at these events through the eyes of his protagonist, a fictional Jesuit missionary called Rodrigues. While he initially passes judgement on the apostate Christians, Rodrigues develops empathy for them through shared suffering. Moral anguish is also present in the work of Kenzaburo Oe, who became the second Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize. Oe’s The Silent Cry garnered him the 1967 Tanizaki Award (interestingly, he shared the 1967 award with Kobo Abe, who was awarded for his novel Friends). The Silent Cry is the story of two brothers, Mitsu and Takashi, who return to their ancestral home in the dense isolated woods of Shikoku. Mitsu, the elder, is a reclusive academic struggling with two recent events – a friend’s suicide and the birth of his own mentally disabled son. The moral dilemma caused by the latter is a recurring motif in Oe’s work, whose first child was born with a brain hernia. In The Silent Cry, Mitsu has institutionalised his son but is conflicted by the decision. Takashi confronts his own guilt over an incestuous relationship with their sister, who has since killed herself. Attempting to redeem himself, Takashi launches into a protest against a foreign property developer whose business activities have eroded the local culture. As the tale progresses, more family secrets are revealed, culminating in a third suicide. Unlike Oe, who pays careful attention to storyline, Ryu Murakami revels in chaotic prose that is essentially plotless. Murakami’s Akutagawa Award-winning entry Almost Transparent Blue catapulted him to fame in 1976. The story centres on a small group of friends living in a town dominated by an American air force base. Overwhelmed by life’s monotony, the friends indulge their appetite for hallucinogenic drugs, group sex and violence. On its release, the book caused uproar. While some readers reacted with disgust, others thrilled at Murakami’s move away from the introspection of his predecessors, calling his work the harbinger of a new era in Japanese fiction. Almost Transparent Blue presents an alternative view of modern Japan where obligations to family and society are ignored in favour of ‘hanging out’ with friends. Ultimately, though, the enjoyment of this kind of escapism proves hollow, and the resulting lawlessness only deepens the misery. ‘But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much.’ So writes Haruki Murakami in his 1987 blockbuster Norwegian Wood. Although Murakami had previously won the Tanizaki Award, the publication of Norwegian Wood exposed him to harsh criticism by Japan’s literati. Toru, the novel’s main character, is a university student living through the turbulent 1960s. Disillusioned with the protest movement, he becomes involved with two different women – beautiful but disturbed Naoko, and upbeat Midori. Toru is utterly captivated by Naoko, but her deep sadness ends in suicide and he is left to pursue his relationship with Midori. The tale struck a chord with Japanese EYES ON THE PRIZES Here’s some background to three of Japan’s biggest literary prizes Akutagawa Award This is generally considered to be Japan’s most prestigious and sought-after literary award. It was created in 1935 by Kikuchi Kan, the founding editor of the magazine Bungei Shunju, to honour the memory of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a greatly esteemed writer who had committed suicide in 1927. Yomiuri Award The newspaper company Yomiuri Shinbun established this prize in 1948. There are now six categories: novels, plays, essays and travel journals, criticism and biography, poetry, and academic studies and translation. Winners receive a commemorative inkstone and a cash award of 1 million yen (approx. $16 000 AUD). Tanizaki Award This prize recognises an exemplary literary work. It was established in 1965 by the Chuo Koronsha publishing company to honour the writer Junichiro Tanizaki. The prize consists of a trophy and 1 million yen (approx. $16 000 AUD). FEBRUARY 2009 i goodreading 27 readers, selling four million copies and making Murakami a literary superstar. Despite the popularity, however, Norwegian Wood was met with mixed reviews in Japan. Murakami’s experience reflects the tension between a writer’s credibility and commercial success, something Japan’s newest literary sensation has also faced. Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings won the 2003 Akutagawa Award. The work stunned readers across the country for its graphic depictions of self-harm, drug use and nonchalant sex among Japanese youth. Kanehara’s protagonist, Lui, is far more concerned with body alteration and boyfriends than institutions like the family, school and companies. According to some, like New York Times correspondent Norimitsu Onishi, these bastions of traditional society have failed the new generation and left them with an overwhelming despair and cynicism. As Kanehara writes in Snakes and Earrings, ‘I can’t believe in anything. I can’t feel anything. I can feel really alive only during the moments when I feel pain.’ Snakes and Earrings is a totem for directionless youth in contemporary Japan. Like them, Lui expects nothing from traditional society and so absolves herself from traditional obligations. In true rebel style, she flaunts her taste for tattoos, drugs, alcohol and sadomasochistic sex. The book has sold a million copies and brought Kanehara notoriety. But who will be Japan’s ‘Next Big Thing’? In a country where schoolgirls write bestsellers on their mobile phones, the biggest surprise could be just around the corner.
December January 2009