It is exceptionally daunting task writing of and about the Japanese skill in writing. It is like commenting on the batting skills of Sir Donald Bradman when you've just joined the high school cricket team.
So you understand why this piece is all about gut, instinct, heart, emotion, those sorts of things. Things that you perhaps will only be able to qualify if you set about doing what I intend to do here.
Writing about Japanese literary genius. It is a humbling place.
I have learnt that evil can be beautiful. That hate must be given a long leash. That love can be ugly. This genius of the Japanese mind finds release in the printed word.
I find the Japanese have made the common, the unembellished, startlingly gorgeous, bordering divine.
But then "evil" is too strong a word for what contemporary Japanese authors work with. They don't pen evil, they pen the fallible, the human heart, they write of its innocent horrors in all its glory, in all its blasphemy and then they make it sublime. Poetic.
The create splendour out of the unnoticeables, reforge them so carefully that they are forced to take centre stage in the story. There are no heroes. The women are ethereal, of course.
In each and every character that both the Murakamis (Haruki and Ryū, strangely bonded by both their name and their ideas of realism) weave, for instance, there is a creeping touch of the careless, the silent individual, his unassuming vice, the callous beauty of an uninspiring mind. We see them every day, you and I, in our own subcultures and identities and we fail them. We fail to see the brilliance they exude in their mediocrity. I find the Japanese have made the common, the unembellished, startlingly gorgeous, bordering divine. I do not wish to be ridiculed here by commenting on the mad genius of Haruki Murakami. Reading him is a privilege.
Take food, for instance, a subject of deep meditative importance for every Japanese writer; you will be convinced that you are watching the shiitake mushrooms boil in the Ramen, you swear you can smell the jasmine tea being soaked onto the page, feel the thin sheen of the finely sliced fish that is being sauced and flipped over by the protagonist, you can hear the gravy pour onto the flattened rice, sense the squid being squeezed on the frying pan, and you can taste the delicate sweetness of the anpan buns being served by the murderer.
That's where they take you. Right onto the perfectly crafted wooden foldable table. You sit staring at it, tasting off it.
And then they get gruesome. Every single element on that plate will remind you somehow of the vast canvas of malice, of discontent that will greet you on every successive page... from the stickiness of the rice, the sour taste of the fish sauce to the red squelching of the tomato into the gravy... everything will connect the dots of the human heart and its pitless darkness.
Their ideas of sin and the grieving human soul are so refined, so steeped in honesty that hell may have issues dealing with the complexities unfolding here...
Try Natsuo Kirino in Out... she is the uncrowned queen of crime being both grisly and preposterous in her storytelling. And yet. Queen she stays.
When you read a Keigo Higashino, you start eyeing your neighbour with much more curiosity. That happened to me. He toys with your idea of love, lust, stalking, hate, faith, ability at mathematics, unflinching, giving devotion... he leaves you blinking with sadness and wiping at those tears that form when you fall in love with the wrong side.
Did I mention, they don't take sides? O, these clever, clever authors. That's the test really. Whose side is the audience on anyway? There is no bad killer, there are no good rapists... who are these people? Why did I ever pick up this book? Why can't I put it down? Don't worry, you haven't been had.
For those who find the profound philosophy and surrealism of Japanese literature a tad bothersome and crave the art that Manga is famous for, I recommend Sanctuary, written by Sho Fumimura, and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. This story takes you to new highs and lows of modern Japan... from the Diet to dangerous mafia to delinquents and depressive childhoods. It brings a wonderfully unsurreal and universally acceptable idea of masala into Japanese storytelling. Unpretentious, Sanctuary is as Bollywood as Japan can get without losing its pristine identity. It's a splendid read to cuddle up with on a sunny afternoon.
Coming back to my old romance with the contemporary Japanese authors, I will be painting a very shallow landscape if I do not mention just how much justice they can do to concepts like sin. They can make the Vatican historians shrivel. It is indeed a good thing no Japanese ever considered rewriting Dante's Inferno. Their ideas of sin and the grieving human soul are so refined, so steeped in honesty that hell may have issues dealing with the complexities unfolding here... Yoko Ogawa in Revenge, for example, weaves a tale of manmade horrors and local myths and urban legends with unending simplicity. Her Diving Pool is my next.
Sanctuary is as Bollywood as Japan can get without losing its pristine identity.
There are some books that bother you long after you have finished reading them... that happened to me in tenth grade after I finished my first Ayn Rand. Clearly I was transformed and hated the world and I wanted to change everything, right that very instant. Sure.
That's what Keigo Higashino's Journey under the Midnight Sun does to you. Makes you wish the damn book would not affect you after you put it down and walk away... but it does. It irritates you, it doesn't close those infernal loops, those questions that your mind throws at you in rapid fire succession, but you still want to read it from the authors pen alone... and that satisfaction he won't give!
Dammit. He just won't tell you what you wish to hear... he leaves you and he doesn't care how badly you need to flatline. He gives you the story of two lovers. Deal with it Romeo. And that is what you call reductionist. Truly reductionist. It's so much gentleness and pain and hate and trauma and death and murder and disgust and disappointment and filth and beauty and sex... but it's just a simple raw love story in the end. Like I said, I am dealing with it.
I have never been to Japan. I regret not knowing their language. But I do believe that I have come to know them, slowly, deeply, simply, at a molecular level. Know them in their everydayness, in their subjective boredoms, in their banalities and their excesses, their unchecked tenacity to excel, their liberating need to perfect the perfect...I am glimpsing a universe here, a mind boggling realm of stars which delve into the deepest notions of goodness and kindness and evil and hate.
And the first page is where it all begins. Every. single. time. Never forget that!
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