Thursday, June 30, 2011

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

She was born with dissipation in her veins. It was fated that she'd turn out this way, despite your attempts to rescue her. -Naomi, 199

Now do you see how frightening I can be? -Naomi, 231

I've been on an Asian literature kick lately, due in large part to the East and Southeast Asia Challenge. I checked out a copy of Please Look After Mom and after that, I'll probably branch out for a bit.

Naomi (or Chijin no Ai, A Fool's Love, in Japanese) couldn't be more different from The Makioka Sisters, which makes sense, since they were written at different points in Tanizaki's life and focus on dramatically different subject matter. While The Makioka Sisters was written in the 1940's and focuses on the daily life of an affluent Osakan family in decline, Naomi was written in 1924 and focuses a modern girl in Tokyo. Tanizaki was more progressive in the 1920's, to the point that Naomi, which was a newspaper serialization, was actually pulled from Osaka's Morning News due to controversy over the portrayal of Western style dancing.

The plot of Naomi is relatively straightforward. It seems influenced by The Tale of Genji (an older man attempts to groom a young woman into a perfect wife) and a precursor to Lolita (older man suffers for his obsession with younger woman). Joji, the narrator, meets Naomi when she's 15 and he's 28. She's a hostess at a cafe, the daughter of a family who runs a brothel. In her mother's own words, "We were going to make the child a geisha...but she wasn't interested, and so we were obliged to send her to the cafe. We couldn't just let her go on playing."

Joji is an engineer who lives frugally and enjoys a good reputation at work. In fact, he's known as a gentleman, though he dismisses this by saying "Still a country bumpkin at her, I was awkward with people and had no friends of the opposite sex, which is no doubt what made me a 'gentleman.'" Taking all of this into account, his interest in Naomi, due most to her Western-sounding name and her "Eurasian" features), shouldn't be that surprising.

Joji rejects the idea of a traditional marriage, both because of the complicated nature of Japanese marriage negotiations and because he rejects the trappings of traditional married life. In his words:

The best approach would be to bring a girl like Naomi into my home and patiently watch her grow. Later, if I liked what I saw, I could take her for my wife. This would be quite enough; I wasn't interested in marrying a rich man's daughter or a fine, educated sort of woman.

And so, with the consent of Naomi's family, he brings her to life with him, provides her with English and piano lessons, buys her clothes, and overall takes the steps needed to turn Naomi into the perfect modern wife. Of course, it comes as no surprise that things don't work out according to plan and the Joji suffers for it.

Joji should be an utterly despicable character and, despite the fact that the entire story is told from his point of view, in fact doesn't come off as a particularly sympathetic character. However, neither does Naomi. In spite of everything, Joji comes of as less predatory and more misguided. There's a sense of immaturity and social awkwardness and that, rather than a progressive view, seems to explain his rejection of a traditional marriage. Naomi quickly becomes spoiled and lazy in her new situation and Joji, despite seeing Naomi's negative traits very early, goes along with the everything despite realizing very quickly that Naomi spending more than he earns and that their "fairy-tale house" is quickly become a nightmare, with half-eaten food and dirty underwear everywhere.

The most interesting part of the story, to me, is Joji's lack of self-awareness. His problems with Naomi might have occurred because trying to change another person and turn her into your ideal never works out. However, his attempts to turn Naomi into the perfect sophisticated and respectable wife might have failed because he isn't the urbane gentleman he thinks he is. Naomi easily deceives him not because of some extraordinary power over his, as he wants to believe, but because Joji has already deceived himself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jia: A Novel of North Korea by Hyejin Kim

A lump of anger burst in my chest. My parents had broken the rules, but what did they do that was so bad? - Jia by Hyejin Kim

I was a little sick this weekend, which was bad news in a lot of ways (I missed a Darjeeling tea tasting I was really looking forward to and, well, I was sick which is never a good thing), but on the plus side, I got a lot of reading done. In addition to finishing Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I also read Jia: A Novel of North Korea.

This is another book I picked up because of the East and Southeast Asia Challenge and since this is my third country, it actually means I've met the bare bones criteria for the challenge. I plan to continue with it, though. I actually have my eye on Please Look After Mom for South Korea.

Jia is the story of the daughter of a girl who born outside a North Korean mountain prison where her grandparents and sister were sent after her father was imprisoned for his criticism of the government. Her paternal grandparents smuggle her out in an attempt to reunite her with her maternal grandparents. Jia's mother was a famous traditional dancer and her paternal grandfather was a high-ranking army official. Jia grows up in an orphanage in Pyonyang and becomes a successful dancer herself, taking part in the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students. Unfortunately, despite her talent, her family's status as a member of the reactionary class not only limits her ability to advance, but also her freedom.

I can't help but compare and contrast Jia to The Vagrants. Both take explore similar societies and show the problems faced by the average person in the societies. The Vagrants was a much grittier read and the brutality and hopelessness were always at the forefront. In contrast, Jia was set, for the most part, in a more affluent part of society. Though the influence of the government was always very clear and though the brutality and poverty are just as horrifying (if not more), it seems to exist between a thin veneer of prosperity and normalcy.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of the novel (worse than the torture of prisoners, the disease and poverty face by the beggar children called the kkot-jebi or "flower swallows," and the trafficking of women) is the fact that many North Koreans flee to China. That's right. The lives of North Koreans are so horrible that they consider life as an illegal immigrant in China to be a step up.

As with The Vagrants, Jia is well-written and absolutely worth reading, but also utterly wrenching. For my sanity, I plan to avoid novels about communist governments with long histories of human rights violations for the near future, regardless of how worthwhile they are.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl makes the third book I've read by Yiyun Li and her second collection of short stores. I picked up The Vagrant after seeing a blog entry about it and then I read A Thousand Years of Good Prayers because several people mentioned that Yiyun Li's real talent was in short stories.

After reading Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I fully agree. The Vagrants was a powerful novel and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wanted to gain more insight into that particular aspect of China, but I had a hard time relating to most of the characters and I felt that the narrative tended to wander a bit. The story was still powerful in spite of that, but I think to truly appreciate Yiyun Li's genius (and genius isn't an exaggeration, given that she was named a 2010 MacArthur Fellow), one needs to read her short stories.

The stories in this collection are fairly diverse. Here's the description from Li's website:

In the title story “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” a professor introduces her middle-aged son to a favorite student, unaware of the student’s true affections. In “A Man Like Him,” a lifelong bachelor finds kinship with a man who is wrongly accused of an indiscretion. In “The Proprietress,” a reporter from Shanghai travels to a small town to write an article about the local prison, only to discover a far more intriguing story involving a shopkeeper who offers refuge to the wives and children of inmates. In “House Fire,” a young man who suspects his father of sleeping with the young man’s wife seeks the help of a detective agency run by a group of feisty old women.

Most, if not all, the stories deal with isolation and the human desire to make connections, especially since the desire for connection is frequently one-sided in her stories. For instance, in "Souvenir" (the shortest story at six pages), a widowed man tries to connect to a young woman who wants to be left alone for a personal errand. In "Kindness," several people try to make a connection to the main character who seems utterly oblivious to their attempts. These attempts aren't always unsuccessful, though even when a connection is successfully made, as in "A Man Like Him" or "Prison," it somehow seems unsatisfying.

There's also a sense of regression in several of the stories...or at least an inability to move forward. In "Kindness," at the age of 41, the main character still lives in the apartment in which she was raised. The main character in "Number Three, Garden Road, is in a similar situation. In "Prison," the main character returns to China from the U.S. in order to find a surrogate mother to carry a child following the tragic loss of her own daughter. In spite of this, there's also an awareness of the inability to go back. For example, when the main character of "Prison" suggests moving back to China, her husbands tells her "It's like a game of chess. You can't undo a move."

I also like (and recommend) Gold Boy, Emerald Girl for the same reason I liked The Vagrants. The majority of the work takes place in modern China, so the reader gains more insight into the life of a modern Chinese citizen, though the lives are much less brutal than The Vagrants.

I'm not a huge fan of short stories, mainly because I generally find myself wanting more. A couple of stories left me unsatisfied, or at least curious as to what happened after the story. However, most of the stories were like a perfect snapshot of someone's life. I'm absolutely looking forward to seeing more of Yiyun Li's stories (and I hope she chooses short stories over another novel) and I plan to give more short stories a chance after this.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanazaki

This novel has been on my "To Read" (or, more accurately, "To Finish") list for over a year. I picked it up sometime last year and started it, but unfortunately life got in the way and then I mislaid my copy. I recently found a copy at the library and decided to finish it.

To me, the novel is best described as Jane Austen writing in World War II Japan. The novel is set mostly in Osaka and features the Makioka family, a once-prosperous merchant family that is slowly declining. There are four Makioka sisters: Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko, in order of age. Both Tsuruko and Sachiko have married and their husbands were adopted into the Maikoka family. Tsuruko's husband, Tatsuo, is the head of the main house. Though the two youngest daughters should live in the main house, most of their time is spent in the branch house with Sachiko and her husband, Teinosuke. Part of this is due to friction between the youngest daughters and Tatsuo. Yukiko is also extremely fond of Sachiko's daughter, Etsuko, while Taeko is fond of the freedom she is allowed in the branch house, including the ability to make dolls and earn her living.

More than anything, the novel reads like a collection of scenes from domestic life. However, if there is an actual plot, it would most likely be the family's efforts to find a husband for Yukiko, who is already thirty. Their efforts to find a husband for Yukiko have been thwarted both by Yukiko's extreme shyness and the family's difficulty in accepting their current position and their refusal to allow Yukiko to marry a man that doesn't meet their criteria.

Throughout the novel, the sisters not only struggle with their changing positions in life, but also the changes of the world around them. The novel is set between 1936 and 1941, so the world is in a state of flux, due to both social and political events. The sisters all deal with those changes in their own way.

Tsuruko seems to be the most adaptable and the least attached to her past. When her husband is transferred to Tokyo, they leave the family's home in Osaka and take a much smaller home in Tokyo. They seem to be liberated by moving away from Osaka, where they are well-known and where they feel they must keep up appearances. This causes certain friction between Tsuruko and her younger sisters, especially when she tries to demand that the two youngest sisters live in the main house in Tokyo, in accordance with tradition, despite lacking room for them. It also causes problems when the family feels that Tatsuo and Tsuruko are economizing too much in regards to the family.

Sachiko isn't as adaptable as Tsuruko, or at least doesn't have a motive try to adapt. She embraces certain aspects of modern life, but she is overall a traditional Japanese woman. Interestingly enough, she and Teinosuke spend the most time trying to find a husband for Yukiko, despite the fact that the responsibility should fall to the main house.

Yukiko seems to cling the most to the old ways in both dress and mannerisms. She rarely wears Western clothes and her extreme shyness, due to her very sheltered upbringing, puts off several prospective husbands. The original title of the novel is Sasameyuki or Light Snow, and Yukiko's name uses the same character for Yuki. This, combined with the focus of the novel on her marriage attempts, seems to indicated that Yukiko is the main character of the novel, despite the fact that the reader seldom sees the events from her perspective. When reading the novel, Yukiko seems extremely detached to most events and the reader gets the impression that everything would be better if Yukiko were just left alone to live her life.

Taeko is much more modern, both in dress and behavior. As the youngest, she not only remembers the glory days of the family less, but she also has little memory of her mother, who died shortly after her birth. She made the newspaper (and inadvertently dragged Yukiko into them, due to a misprint) because she eloped with the son of another prominent Osaka family. She's focused on owning her way and embracing modern ideals (though she also is interested in tradition Japanese culture) and her behavior not only causes consternation to the family, but may interfere with Yukiko's miai (formal meetings between two prospective marriage partners).

Overall, I loved the novel. It was long and it took me a long time to get through it, despite being a fairly fast reader. I suppose one of the reasons might have been the fact that there were so many foreign concepts, not just because the novel was set in Japan, but also because it took place in Osaka and a lot of the language and culture was Osaka specific. For instance, Taeko, as the youngest daughter, is referred to as Koi-an.

The characters fascinated me, as did their struggles to find their place in a world that most of them seemed ill-equipped for. The Makioka women were raised in a sheltered and privileged environment and taught skills such as calligraphy and traditional dance that would have served them well in previous generations. They were also raised, for the most part, to be retiring, and all of them (except for Taeko) seem to struggle with that for the whole story. The two older sisters find themselves unable to reply to letters they receive, while Yukiko's inability to even talk to potential husbands is almost comical.

Finding a husband for Yukiko is the driving force of the entire story and it also helps to show exactly how poorly the Makioka family generally, and Yukiko specifically, is adapting to the new world. In previous years, she had several proposals even as the Makioka family was declining, yet because her older sisters were unable to accept their new position, they were too choosy and rejected them. Now, the family's standards have relaxed significantly, but they still won't accept the new prospects. This, in turn, places Taeko in a holding pattern and helps contribute to the problems she experiences later.

There's also a significant amount of illness in the book, both real and imagined. In the opening pages of the book, the reader finds that Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko are so obsessed with beriberi that they keep syringes full of vitamin B in the house and routinely inject each other. Yukiko's close relationship with Etsuko is partially attributed to the fact that Etsuko was frequently ill and Sachiko was so frail that she was unable to properly nurse her daughter through illnesses without getting sick herself that Yukiko stepped in.

Despite being somewhat ridiculous in clinging to the past at certain points, I found the characters relatable, especially Sachiko and Yukiko. Since most of the story was told from Sachiko's point of view and focused on Yukiko, it makes sense that they were the most sympathetic. The world that Tanizaki described was a very idyllic one and I found it very easy to get lost in, to the point that I was as frustrated at certain characters for ruining it as the sisters were. I regretted the end of the novel, not just because it felt like it left so much of the story untold, but because I would have loved to spend more time in that world. Seeing the novel end was bittersweet also because I knew what would happen in Japan in the coming years and I wanted to see the characters spared that fate.

The novel was also made into a movie which is also available at the library. I plan to pick it up soon to see how the story translated. Based on some of the descriptions in the book, it should be visually impressive.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2011 Challenges

Chinese Literature Challenge

Runs: February 3, 2011 to January 23, 2012

Requirements: Read at least one Chinese book and write a review.

Current Level: Merchant (1-3 books)

1. The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

2. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

East and SouthEast Asia Challenge

Runs: January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2011

Requirements: Read at least three books from three different countries.

1. China - The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

2. Japan - The Makioka Sisters

3. North Korea - Jia: A Novel of North Korea

4. China - Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

5. Japan - Naomi

6. South Korea - Please Look After Mom

7. Japan - Quicksand

Japanese Literature Challenge 5

Runs: June 1, 2011 to January 30, 2012

Requirements: Read at least one book.

1. The Makioka Sisters

2. Naomi

3. Quicksand

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

I discovered this book after reading Bibliojunkie's review. Even though her review was hardly a glowing recommendation of the book, I decided to see if it was available at the library. It was. I don't usually seek out books on Communist China. The last one I read was February Flowers by Fan Wu and that took place in present day China and politics mostly took a backseat there. The plot sounded intriguing, though, so I took a chance.

The Vagrants is set in Muddy River, a fictional Chinese town, in 1979. It opens with the denunciation and execution of a counterrevolutionary, Gu Shan. The novel follows the lives of several people, including Gu Shan's parents; Kai, a former classmate of Gu Shan's; Nini, a younger girl both with a congenital deformity; Baishi, a nineteen-year-old outcast described in the book's summary as "a sinister idler;" a young boy, Tong, and his dog, Ear; and the Huas, an old couple who had been beggars and had taken in abandoned infant girls.

Gu Shan's denunciation is brutal. Before she is brought before the crowd, her kidneys are removed to be transplanted to a senior party official and her vocal chords are cut to prevent her from shouting slogans. The atmosphere is festive and the reader is introduced to Tong when his class attends the denunciation and he dreams of joining the Young Pioneers and admires a fifth-grader from his school who speaks at Gu Shan's denunciation.

The public reaction to Gu Shan's execution, however, is mixed. Kai, a radio announcer married to the son of a local party official and whose husband played a significant role in Gu Shan's execution, has doubts about the execution. The reaction isn't because Gu Shan wasn't guilty of the charges made against her. She did express doubts about Mao's philosophy. Her first doubts were expressed in a letter to her boyfriend. Her boyfriend turned the letter over to party officials. Because of it, he was able to join the army, despite coming from a family of landowners, and Gu Shan was sentenced to ten year in prison. Later, she expressed further doubts in her diary and she tried again and sentence to death. However, despite her doubts, she hardly fought against the Communist government. In fact, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the events of the Cultural Revolution. She joined the Red Guards, denouncing her own parents and kicking the pregnant Nini's mother in the stomach, resulting in Nini's birth defects. The outrage over Gu Shan's execution is not due to sympathy for Gu Shan, but an overall discontent with the entire government. In fact, many of the events in The Vagrants take place because the local party officials are uncertain how to proceed due to confusion over a Democracy Wall in Beijing.

The narrative unfolds through the eyes of many different characters. The characters range from sympathetic (Kai, Teacher Gu, Gu Shan's father), sympathetic if disturbing (Tong, Nini) to downright disturbing (Baishi). I'm not sure that any of the characters were particularly likable, but I think that was probably the point, and the strength, of the book.

I found a Wall Street Journal interview with Yunyi Li. In it, she described her experiences in the re-education Army and how her seventeen year old squad leader forced her to submit a "propaganda-ish article" weekly to clean the pigsty:
I wish I'd acted rebellious and cleaned the pig sty, but I did not want to clean the pigsty, so I would write for her. I didn't pursue my idealism because I did not want to clean the pigsty. We all compromised.

This meshes with my overall impression of the book. For the most part, the characters in the book didn't even reach the point of considering whether to rebel or clean the pigsty. Life was so hard and there was so little room for compassion that the amount of casual cruelty and the lack of compassion was staggering. There were a few instances of animal cruelty in this book and, with the exception of Tong's feelings for Ear, there seemed to be little to no empathy for living things. The amount of fear and deprivation that most citizens of Muddy River suffered on a daily basis left them with little room to consider the suffering of other humans, much less that of animals. (There were, of course, a few noteworthy examples to the contrary, such as workers "accidentally" dropping coal for Nini to take home.)

At the end, it's hard to figure out how to explain my feelings toward The Vagrants. I didn't enjoy reading in, in that nothing about the novel was a pleasant experience. I didn't like it and I certainly wouldn't want to reread it again. And if I took anything away from the novel, it was that I'm very, very glad that I don't live in post-Mao China...not that I wanted to before this.

Still, it's a fairly powerful work. I didn't come away with a new perspective because of the book and I wasn't able to form an attachment to any of the characters, so their eventual fates weren't particularly moving. At the same time, though, Li does a wonderful job of helping the reader to understand where the characters are coming from and, since she presents them without judgment, there were times when I found myself not as horrified as I should be at some of the characters decisions. For instance, Baishi and Nini were both unlikable characters and the idea of nineteen-year-old Baishi pursuing twelve-year-old Nini for want of a better option (and Nini manipulating Baishi for similar reasons) should have been utterly repugnant, but given the atmosphere and the lack of options for both, I occasionally found myself thinking "Would it really be that bad?"

The Vagrants doesn't really cover any new ground in Communist China and it's downright depressing, but I still think it's worth reading, if only because it's so well-written and offers an interesting perspective.