Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 274 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a brilliant mix of The Diary of Anne Frank meets George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and it also shares similar themes with Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, too.

And yet for all that, this is a wholly original dystopian novel like no other.

As Madeleine Thein writes in her review, published in the Guardian in 2019, it is a “rare work of patient and courageous vision” and one that “can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination”.

Written in deceptively simple yet hypnotic prose, there’s a dream-like quality to the text, yet the subject matter is quite nightmarish.

Isolated island life

Set on an island in a vaguely familiar dystopian future, residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects, including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars as if they never existed. This forgetting is enforced by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police. Those who disobey, or who are unable to forget, are rounded up and “disappeared”.

The story is narrated by an unnamed writer who is working on a novel about a woman who takes typing lessons in a disused lighthouse. Excerpts of this novel (which are published within the novel) show the power of books and writing to preserve the past unless, of course, they are made to disappear, too.

The book’s editor, the kindly R, is one of those unfortunate people who can’t forget what he is supposed to forget and he’s running the risk of being forcefully made to disappear. The writer makes a bold decision to take him away from his pregnant wife and hide him in her house in a makeshift room hidden under the floorboards. She enlists one of her most trusted friends, an elderly man she’s known since childhood, to help her set up the room so it’s functional and soundproof, and together they smuggle R into hiding.

It’s an astonishing risk to take. For R, living in such cramped conditions, with no access to daylight and separated from his wife and child, there is little to occupy his time — except to edit the book.

It was better for him, too, to have work to do. The healthiest way of living in the secret room was to wake in the morning thinking about the things that had to be done during the day; then, at night before going to bed, to check that everything had been accomplished, whether satisfactorily or not. Moreover, the morning agenda needed to be as concrete as possible, and the tasks ideally involved some sort of reward, no matter how small. Finally, the day’s worked needed to tire him out in both body and spirit.

Jeopardy comes in many forms over the course of the novel. R’s hiding place is under constant threat of exposure, while a clandestine love affair increases the danger. Rare objects, including a harmonica, are discovered in the writer’s home and while she does not understand their use, it’s clear that just having them in her possession puts her in peril. Meanwhile, more and more objects are consigned to history by the Memory Police, including books and libraries, seemingly at random, creating chaos, confusion and instability.

Echoes of the past

First published in the author’s native Japan in 1994, The Memory Police was translated into English last year and was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

It’s a brilliant treatise on totalitarianism, loss and control, about the ways in which humans often obliterate all that is good in the world, and the resilience of ordinary people to survive against the odds. It can also be seen as an allegory on growing old and dying. Indeed, there’s a lot to unpick in this relatively short but powerful novel, which is told with grace and flair.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but recognise elements of human history we would probably rather forget — the constant hunt for food reminiscent of the North Korean regime; the rounding up of people for being different has echoes of Nazi Germany; the constant rewriting of history is very Orwellian; even R’s new life in hiding could be seen as a bit like living in Covid-19 lockdown — so perhaps the book’s overriding message is the importance to remember bad things in order not to repeat them in the future.

I definitely want to read this one again. Expect to see this on my top 10 at the end of the year. Yes, it really is that good.

This is my 4th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 5th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa

The-housekeeper-and-the-professor

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 180 pages; 2010. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

After working my way through a slew of dark novels, how wonderful to pick up Yoko Ogawa‘s The Housekeeper and the Professor — published under the title The Gift of Numbers in some territories — which proved to be a rather charming read.

A housekeeper and her client

First published in Japan in 2003 but set in the early 1990s, the book traces the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes. This means that every morning when she arrives on his doorstep to begin her shift, she must introduce herself, because he cannot remember who she is.

“What’s your shoe size?”
This was the Professor’s first question, once I had announced myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is one ironclad rule in my profession, it’s that you always give the employer what he wants; and so I told him.
“Twenty-four centimetres.”
“There’s a sturdy number,” he said. “It’s the factorial of four.”
He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and was silent for a moment.
“What’s a factorial?” I asked at last. I felt I should try to find out a bit more, since it seemed to be connected to his interest in my shoe size.
“The product of all the natural numbers from one to four is twenty-four,” he said, without opening his eyes. “What’s your telephone number?”
He nodded, as if deeply impressed. “That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.”
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why my phone number was so interesting, but his enthusiasm seemed genuine. And he wasn’t showing off: he struck me as straightforward and modest. It nearly convinced me that there was something special about my phone number, and that I was somehow special for having it.

Initially, the housekeeper is slightly wary of the Professor — she is the ninth housekeeper he has had in a very short space of time — but it doesn’t take long for them to develop a good working relationship. Their conversations mainly turn around numbers, because they “were his way of reaching out to the world”.

Later she is  given permission for her 10-year-old son to come to the Professor’s house after school. The Professor dubs him Root after the square root sign — “a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers” — and helps him with his homework.

A love of mathematics

The narrator’s quiet, understated voice draws you in as she begins to understand that the Professor sees numbers as a source of comfort. Over time, she, too, develops a love of numbers.

In school, I had hated math so much that the mere sight of the textbook made me feel ill. But the things the Professor taught me seemed to find their way effortlessly into my brain — not because I was an employee anxious to please her employer but because he was such a gifted teacher.

Not a great deal happens — this isn’t an action-packed book with a fast-moving plot — but it’s such an endearing story that it’s difficult not to be moved by its simplicity and its quiet little moments of triumph, joy and sadness. Its tinged with nostalgia and melancholia, but is never depressing or “heavy”.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel about finding order in a world of chaos. It’s a wonderfully refreshing look at making connections with people in a way that defies the usual societal conventions and is written in eloquent prose dotted with theorems and equations, which read like poetry.

Despite the fact the trio — an uneducated single mother, a young boy and a learned man with a head injury — seem to have nothing in common, a shared love of baseball brings them together (thanks to all the statistics related to batting averages, home runs and so on). Without them even realising, they form a kind of family based on mutual respect, trust and friendship. And I loved spending time with them.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Yoko Ogawa

‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A couple of years ago I read Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris, a strangely beguiling and disturbing novel about an unhealthy relationship between a young woman and an older man.

Her latest book, Revenge, is just as beguiling and just as disturbing. It is published in the UK tomorrow (January 31), but it was first published in her native Japan in 1998 — I’m glad I wasn’t holding my breath for the English translation! I do, however, think it was worth the wait.

Eleven dark tales

But first, let’s get one thing clear. Revenge is not a novel but a series of interlinked short stories. The tag line on the frontispiece of my proof edition describes them as “Eleven dark tales” — and that’s exactly what they are.

I should probably point out that I am not a massive fan of short stories, in the sense that I don’t tend
to seek them out, yet whenever I read a short story collection — and I’ve read several over the past few years — I tend to enjoy them very much. I don’t quite understand my own prejudice, especially when I pick up a collection as exquisite as this one and revel in each and every story. I then wonder why I don’t read more of the genre.

But Revenge is not your average collection of disparate stories sandwiched together under the same binding. There are recurring motifs and images throughout, and characters move from one tale to another, which gives some semblance of a narrative thread, but mostly these tales work by what they do inside your head. I’m not sure I can explain it very well, but reading this book is a bit like experiencing a rather lucid dream punctuated by a recurring sense of déjà vu.

For instance, in one story there is mention of an abandoned post office filled with kiwi fruit. In another story you come to find out how those kiwi fruit came to be stored in the building and who put them there. In a later story someone eats a kiwi fruit.

It’s the same with strawberry shortcake. In the opening story a woman enters a bakery to buy a strawberry shortcake to mark her late son’s birthday, something she’s been doing ever since his death more than a decade earlier. In another story, a character eats a strawberry shortcake. Further into the book, the bakery is mentioned several times.

A book filled with lightbulb moments

The effect of reading this book is this: you end up holding a million images in your head and when you recognise the links — between characters, settings and themes — it’s like a lightbulb going off. I had to stop myself from saying “a-ha!” every 10 or so pages as various aspects slotted into place.

It’s not gimmicky though. In fact, Ogawa writes in such a lovely, poetic, mesmerising (and entirely understated) way I found myself being lulled into an almost hypnotic state as I read this.

That said, there are some gruesome images in this book and many of the characters behave in cruel and often inexplicable ways. There’s even a macabre murder, something that caught me completely by surprise and was all the more effective for having shocked me so unexpectedly.

Loss and alienation

As ever with contemporary Japanese fiction, the text is pervaded by an aching sense of loss and alienation. People behave oddly towards one another and there are huge gaps in understanding between the old and young, men and women. (I have to note that many of the stories are written in the first person and the gender of the narrator is not always clear — I was often surprised to discover that midway through the story someone I thought was male was female, and vice versa.)

I suspect fans of Japanese fiction, and Yoko Ogawa in particular, will enjoy this collection very much, but anyone fascinated by writing — the act of doing it, the creative aspects of it, the nuts and bolts of it — will love the way Revenge constantly exposes the illusion of fiction. More please.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa

Hotel-Iris

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 164 pages; 2011. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When it comes to Japanese fiction the number of authors I have read could be counted on just one hand. I know my sample is not statistically significant, but I’ve found Japanese fiction hugely enjoyable. I have particularly appreciated the simple but elegant prose style and the sometimes dark and eerie subject matter. I’m not sure if that’s a distinctively Japanese trademark, but it seems like every Japanese novel I’ve read has married the beautiful with the terrifying.

Enter Yoko Ogawa‘s latest novel Hotel Iris. This slim book is both strange and lovely. I ate it up on a lovely sunny afternoon, sitting by a pond in Richmond Park. The pleasant and pretty location in which I read it was such a contrast to the occasionally ugly content of the novel.

In the story we meet 17-year-old Mari, who is under the thumb of her overbearing mother. Together they run a hotel on the Japanese coast, although Mari mainly works the front desk and runs errands.

Late one evening there’s a scene in the hotel. A screaming woman is thrown out of Room 202 and lies on the floor hurling abuse at a man who is still inside the room.

Her insults stopped for a moment, but then a pillow flew out of the room, hitting her square in the face, and the screaming started all over again. The pillow lay on the landing, smeared with lipstick. Roused by the noise, a few guests had now gathered in the hall in their pajamas. My mother appeared from our apartment in the back.

“You pervert! Creep! You’re not fit for a cat in heat.” The prostitute’s voice, ragged and hoarse with tears, dissolved into coughs and sobs as one object after another came flying out of the room: a hanger, a crumpled bra, the missing high heel, a handbag.

Both the woman, and her male companion, are ejected from the hotel. But a few days later, when Mari spies the man buying toothpaste at a housewares shop, she inexplicably decides to follow him. He knows he is being followed and confronts her. Then, in a weird twist, the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. It’s unlikely, because the man is 50 years her senior and he’s not exactly normal. Not only is he prone to unexpected rages, he has a few sexual quirks that seem almost psychopathic.

But it’s that very danger which attracts Mari. She’s so young, inexperienced and naive, she seems blissfully unaware of the jeopardy awaiting her. As the relationship becomes more and more dependent, and Mari enters a darker and more twisted world, you wish her mother, usually so controlling, would step in and sort things out. But her mother seems blind to Mari’s cover — that her time spent with the man is spent caring for an elderly woman.

And yet, despite the illicit and sexually deviant nature of their affair, there’s something almost tender and touching about it too. That Ogawa manages to convey that without going into extravagant detail is an achievement in itself.

Ogawa is very good at scene setting, too, conveying the noise, clamour and heat of a Japanese seaside resort in just a few short sentences.

The tide was out, and the seawall was half exposed, a jagged edge against the calm surface of the sea. Some children had scrambled up to the highest point and were jumping into the water one after the other. White spray billowed up each time one of them hit the surface, but I was too far away to hear the splash. The shorebirds, as if imitating the children, plunged into the sea in search of fish.

But what I like most about Hotel Iris is the restrained style of the narrative. Everything is held perfectly in check. And yet it brims with tension. Will Mari be okay? Will her boyfriend turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

This is the kind of novel that left me with a strange after taste, but it’s also one that makes me want to explore more of this fascinating author’s work.