Friday, July 19, 2013

Tattoos, Denny's and other Japanese literary symbols

Last week I wrote ad nauseum of my forthcoming trip to Japan. In order to prepare for said trip (and also because I'm super excited) I've been reading all kinds of Japanese literature to get my head in the game as it were. Here are some of my favorites thus far:

Kenneth Roxroth's 100 Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, in addition to Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu's poetry compiled in The Ink Dark Moon are some of the most beautifully selected words placed in a deliberate arrangement ever. I wish I could describe to you how beautiful enigmatic it is all at the same time, reading these are like feeling you're made of glass and slowing filling with curls of smoke. I can't do them justice, just read them all.

If we're going to talk about epic literature from Japan I'd be remiss in not including Tale of Genji. One of the first novels in the world, written by a LADY, it really is the coolest thing ever. But I've never finished it. I'm SORRY! Gosh.

What I have finished are some of the best modernist novels ever. Natsume Soseki could teach Raymond Carver a thing or two about deeply psychological interiority belied by understated language. The Gate is an amazing, slim novel in which the main character and his wife live childless in an idyllic picket fence house. But that's about as peaceful as it gets. The main character hates his job. The couple are spurned by their families as they married without consent, and suddenly his wife's reckless little brother squeezes the strained couple for help on top of it all. So taught, so beautiful, suuuch a good book.

Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes is unmissable, and Yukio Mishima's short stories in the collected Death in Midsummer are among my favorite reads of all time. His characters have amazing strength and fatal flaws and you'll need to read each story several times for the feeling that there's a detail in one word (or absence of one) that casts everything in a new light. I also recently finished Junichiro Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales ... one story in particular, "The Tattooer" has left quite the indelible mark on me (pun fully intended). This man is an expert tattooer and only tattoos on people when he's inspired, and he finds ultimate inspiration in a beautiful maiden walking down the street. Convinced she is a demonic scroll come incarnate he is gripped with the need to tattoo her, and as she consents the art embellishing her back begins to imbue her with magnificent power. KAPOW!

For a more contemporary Japan (the one I'll actually be in) there is the incomparable Murakami. Thus far I've only read After Dark, to be honest it's a little daunting to decide where to go from there. After Dark is amazing. It's set in Tokyo around midnight and follows all the different sorts of people that only come out at night, in addition to a young runaway who may or may not be related to a rebooted magical Sleeping Beauty dozing in the literal center of the novel. But as I said, Murakami's got sprawling epics and copious short stories. I know I'll love them all but how to decide?! Maybe I'll take 1Q84 on my 16 hour plane flight? I might be able to bang it out...

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