Japanese fiction touches on universal themes

Staying In


Book review
Bríd Conroy

‘The way of harmonious spirit’ is an English translation of Aikido, a Japanese martial art, which I have had the privilege to experience in the past. In this art form, when the ‘tori’ movement technique is attacked by the ‘uke’ technique, the ‘tori’ seeks to harmonise with the energy of the ‘uke’ and in so doing, neutralise the attack, without harming oneself or the attacker. It is a wonderful philosophy for life but not so easy to do, either on the mat in a martial arts exercise or in real life.
In my fascination with all things Japanese, my first book this week is by the author Mieko Kawakami, entitled ‘Heaven’. The English translation been published recently by Europa Editions. Kawakami has won numerous literary awards in Japan.  
This story is set in 1991 and is narrated by a young 14-year-old boy nicknamed Eyes, who is being bullied at school. He befriends a girl named Kojima in his class. They do not acknowledge each other at school, however. They exchange secret notes only in class. She too is being bullied.
The story of Eyes’ bullying experience is so real it is painful to read at times and brings up strong emotions, such as anger. I found myself shouting at the pages – “fight back, fight back!” Yet in a way I felt this was not the story at all.
Kawakami challenges us to confront what makes the bullied and the bully into what they are and what they do. Also, we are challenged to look at how we judge them both and maybe see that all is not as it seems, not as simple as it seems. I am reminded of my Aikido when Eyes confronts one of the bullies in an unexpected encounter. Is the way of harmony possible?
Although set in 1991 and in Japan, I had the feeling it could have been set in any place or any time and the story would have been as affecting in its universal messaging.
My second book is a modern classic first published in 1956: ‘Snow Country’, by Nobel Prize for Literature-winning author Yasunari Kawabata.
As a reader, we don’t really know the decade in which the story is set, and not knowing creates the magical scenery of the book. There is no modern technology in the story, but there is skiing in the ‘snow country’, where Shimamura, the main character, travels to by train from his normal place of abode, Tokyo. It is a short novel by page count, yet it feels like every word has been perfectly curated for the story, demanding the full attention of the reader.
A mere five paragraphs into the opening scene and I am there with Shimamura on the train as it pulls into the station as ‘the earth lay white under the night sky’. He meets Komako, who has become a geisha in the village. We watch as their love develops but struggles to find a place within the confines and seclusion of Komako’s rural life.
Deep philosophical thinking runs through the story at times, especially as Shimamura struggles with what he refers to as ‘wasted effort’ in life. We have a sense too of some things being ‘lost in translation’ – for example, ‘If man had a tough, hairy hide like a bear, his world would be different indeed’ – but no matter, the book is beautiful nonetheless.

‘Snow Country’ is the Tertulia Bookclub choice of the month. The bookclub meets once a month on a Sunday afternoon in Tertulia Bookshop at Westport Quay.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.