Taichi Yamada: Strangers – Ijin-tachi to no Natsu (1987)

A disconcerting, yet deeply satisfying novel: a wonderful study of grief and isolation, a moving expression of our longing for things we have lost and are unable to have again.

I’ve read about Strangers last year on Novroz’ blog (here is the review) and wanted to read it ever since. It’s a ghost story and as such a perfect choice for Carl’s R.I.P. challenge. But it is also so much more than just a ghost story. It’s a truly wonderful book with a haunting atmosphere, a melancholy depiction of solitude and loneliness with a surprisingly creepy ending.

I often think that the problem some people have with ghost stories is that they take them literally and if they do not believe in the possibility of an afterlife, they do not want to read them. But ghost stories can also be read as purely symbolical. Loneliness, longing and grief can affect a person deeply. Lonely children often start to talk with imaginary friends and also older people can start to talk to themselves which is actually rather a conversation with someone who is not present than a discussion with oneself.

I used to live in a huge apartment building for a while and remember that it could feel strange being awake at night when everyone else was obviously sleeping. All the lights were turned off, there were no noises. Coming home at night and seeing the building from afar, like a big ocean liner, with all the lights on, was also quite special.

Strangers starts in a building just like that. A huge apartment building on Tokyo’s noisy Route 8 where constant traffic keeps you awake and the density of the exhaust fumes forbids the opening of the windows. Most of the apartments are offices. Harada, a fortysomething TV script writer, has stranded here after his divorce. At first he can hardly sleep. The traffic noise is overpowering but after a few weeks he gets used to it. One night, despite the noise outside, he feels an intense loneliness. It seems as if he was the only person in this big building.  He finds out that there is only one other person, a woman, staying at the house at night. Everyone else leaves the place and lives somewhere else.

One night the woman, Kei, knocks on his door and wants to drink a bottle of champagne with Harada but he refuses. He regrets it and invites her a few days later. She is a beautiful woman but with a terrible burn mark where her breasts should be. While they start dating, Harada visits Asakusa, the downtown district in which he used to live with his parents. His parents died when he was very young. He never returned to the place but all of a sudden something attracts him magically. Many of the houses have been destroyed and replaced by modern ugly buildings. While walking around Harada meets a man who looks exactly like his dead father at the time of his death. He follows him to his house and there is his mother, she too is still young and looking exactly like she did before she died.

Harada knows that he shouldn’t return to see his parents but he cannot help himself. He has to go back again and again. His friends start to tell him that he is looking bad. Kei wants him to stop seeing them. He can’t and we understand why.

Something closely akin to the wonderful sense of security I’d felt at such times as a child had descended on me that night in Asakusa. I coul recall no such moments in all the years since my parents had died.

Yamada managed to write a ghost story that is at the same time an eerie tale and a realistic portrayal of loneliness, grief and the search for a meaning in life. Harada is at a turning point in his life. He has a hard time finding jobs, his wife got most of his money after the divorce, his son doesn’t want to see him, most women are not interested in a man like him. Falling in love with Kei seems not so much a choice as inevitable. They are both scarred in different ways. Meeting his dead parents is what infuses his days with meaning and warmth until he starts to pay a prize for it.

What did it amount to, anyway, this life I led? Busying myself with random tasks that popped up one after another, enjoying the moments of excitement each little sir brought before it receded into the distance, yet accumulating no lasting store of wisdom from any of it.

Strangers is an excellent ghost story and a melancholic depiction of the loneliness that living in a big city like Tokyo can bring. I really loved this book. I could hardly put it down and at the same time I didn’t want it to end.

Literature and War Readalong May Wrap up: The Sea and Poison

Shusaku Endo’s novel The Sea and Poison proved to be a challenging read which is also reflected in the fact that some reviews will still be posted. I will of course link to them once they are done. For the time being you can always read Novroz’ review which complements my own very well.

For the time being thanks a lot for those who already participated. I know that the idea of reading about vivisection held some readers back but it isn’t a graphic book at all. Nevertheless it is a depressing book that seems to center on two major themes, one of which hospitals and their staff, the other war crimes.

What depressed me was the description of the hospital and the doctors. My late mother spent more time in hospitals than outside, so I have had my fair share of contact with doctors and most of them were not like Suguro but rather like Toda or Hashimoto. Doctors in hospitals that is. I’d like to emphasize this. Doctors who stay in hospitals after having been interns follow another agenda. A hospital in many cases isn’t much different from a Corporate Company. It’s all about results and money and hierarchy. What I didn’t know at the time of my reading is the fact that Endo suffered all his life. He was very ill, had tuberculosis and some of the treatments described in the novel in great detail were treatments he had to undergo regularly. For anyone interested in this background here is an interesting analysis.

Thanks to Kevin who did some research and added them in his comments, it became clear that the book was based on facts and that there had indeed been American POW on whom they performed vivisections. Here is the link he added to the comments section.

This leads us to the biggest problem of this book, as Kevin and Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) pointed out and which was probably the base for my doubting the incident. Why did Endo chose to describe the vivisection as if it had been performed under anesthesia when it is apparently well-known, that like in Germany, the vivisections were performed without the prisoners being anesthetized? I have no answer to this question and don’t want to start speculating.

Does anyone have an idea?

Shusaku Endo: The Sea and Poison aka Umi to dokuyaku (1958) Literature and War Readalong May

Against the backdrop of World War II, Japanese writer Endo ( Scandal ) explores the nature of morality. In this novel, originally published in Japan in 1958, the author examines the inner lives of three characters in the central drama, a grisly vivisection of an American prisoner of war, in an attempt to understand what conscience, or lack of conscience, allowed them to participate in such an atrocity.

The Sea and Poison is the first novel in this readalong that truly upset me. It’s an excellent book but so depressing and bleak, it reminded me of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony which was so far one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. I was afraid that the part on the vivisection might be too graphic but Endo is far to subtle a writer to be too explicit. The horror lies somewhere else.

The Sea and Poison is divided in three parts plus a prologue. Each part is told from another point of view, part 2 from different points of view. It is set during WWII in a hospital outside of the city of Fukuoka. Before we even hear about the planned vivisection on American prisoners of war we get to see the doctors at work. What we see is highly depressing. They do not seem guided by the love of their fellow human beings but purely because they are careerists and love power. Seldom have I read such an utterly negative depiction of doctors. This is best shown in the way they treat poor patients. They are unfriendly and heartless, whether they die or not, it doesn’t matter. It seems as if they did try to excuse this with the war as Suguro thinks:

No doubt it was a time when everybody was on the way out. If a man didn’t breathe his last in the hospital, he might well die that night in an air raid.

The central story is the vivisection which isn’t described in great detail. What is at the core is the study of the people who take part in it. “The old man”, chief surgeon Dr. Hashimoto and Dr. Asai are in charge. Dr. Toda and Dr. Suguro, two young interns, will assist, and two nurses will help as well. We do not hear much about Hashimoto’s motivations or only what Toda explains to Suguro:

“Doctors aren’t saints. They want to be successful. They want to become full professors. And when they want to try out new techniques, they don’t limit their experiments to monkeys and dogs. Suguro, this is the world and you ought to take a closer look at it. “

However we get to know Toda, the nurse and Suguro’s motivations and their stories. What is important is to underline that they could have refused. All three of them were asked whether they were willing to particpate and none of them refused.

Suguro is the only one with a conscience, still he accepts because the proposal comes at a moment of utter disillusionment. He has lost a patient and has seen how “The Old Man” lied about a patient he lost. He sees how many people are killed in air raids, how hopeless it is to help. When he is asked he doesn’t really say yes but he can’t refuse. Only at the last moment does he back off and doesn’t want to touch the patient.

The nurse has a complicated and sad life story. It seems as if there is nothing in this world for her anymore after her personal tragedy. It looks as if she was thinking “If I am miserable, why shouldn’t the others be?”

And Toda? Toda is a being without any feelings. Since his early childhood he is aware that he doesn’t care about other people, that he cannot connect. He has no empathy, no compassion. Occasionally he wonders if there is something wrong with him but at the end of the day he thinks that most people are like him.

I would like to ask you. Aren’t you too, deep down, unmoved by the death and sufferings of others? Aren’t we brothers under the skin perhaps? Haven’t you, too, lived your life up to now without excessive self-recrimination and shame? And then someday doesn’t there stir in you, too, the thought that you are a bit strange?

The questions the novel poses are manyfold and extremely interesting. One could ask whether those who do not directly kill the prisoners are as guilty as those who kill them. Is Suguro who can’t say no and watches but doesn’t touch the patient less guilty than the chief surgeon who performs the surgery?

And what about the chief surgeon? He is a man who is responsible for the death of many people. He performs a surgery and it goes wrong. He makes mistakes, people die. Is he less guilty of those deaths than of those of the American prisoners?

The type of questions this novel poses are the same that were asked in Germany after the war as well. Were those who watched and let things happen less guilty than those who took an active part? This made me think of Macbeth. Who is guiltier? Macbeth who did the killing or Lady Macbeth who had the idea?

I know it is said that this novel explores individual responsibility in wartime. I’m sure that is an important topic but I think two other things were far more important. I think this book criticises doctors and health care professionals in general, showing them as too keen on success and power, as heartless and inhuman. And it also wants to illustrate that people are selfish and mean.

I cannot say I “liked” this book but I did find it extremely thought-provoking, the writing is captivating and the character studies interesting.

I’m really looking forward to read what you thought of it.

Please read also what others wrote:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Gary (The Parrish Lantern)


Novroz (Polychrome Interest)


The Sea and Poison was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Primo Levi’s If This is a Man aka Se questo è un uomo. Discussion starts on Friday June 24, 2011 .

Literature and War Readalong May 27 2011: The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo

Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison is the first WWII novel of the Literature and War Readalong. The first time I read about this book was on Parrish’s blog (here is his review). Its topic is very unpleasant. Endo focuses on the theme of morality, exploring it through the central story of the vivisection of an American prisoner of war by three Japanese surgeons.
I just discovered that there is a movie based on the book that can be watched on YouTube. I did attach the first part as a teaser.

Although it might be an unpleasant topic I’m looking forward to read my first Endo. Since it is a very short book, only 160 pages, I hope some of you will be in the mood to read along but I would understand if the topic isn’t to everybody’s liking.

Should someone want to watch the movie instead and review it, that would be great as well and I would link the review.

Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart (2001) aka Sputoniku no koibito (1999)

The narrator, a teacher, is in love with the beguiling, odd Sumire. As his best friend, she is not adverse to phoning at three or four in the morning to ask a pointless question or share a strange thought. Sumire, though, is in love with a beautiful, older woman, Miu, who does not, can not, return her affections. Longing for Sumire, K (that is all we are told by way of a name) finds some comfort in a purely sexual relationship with the mother of one of his pupils. But the consolation is slight. K is unhappy. Miu and Sumire, now working together, take a business trip to a Greek Island. Something happens, he is not told what, and so K travels to Greece to see what help he can offer.

Sputnik Sweetheart was my second Haruki Murakami. The first one I read was South of the Border, West of the Sun which I liked a lot but I was told many times that it wasn’t a typical Murakami.

It was a strange experience to read Sputnik Sweetheart but not because of the book, I didn’t think it was all that weird but my reactions to it were weird as it reminded me of a lot of other books I have read before. Instead of enjoying it my mind started to rush around like a hungry little monkey looking for food and trying to solve the riddles of the 1001 allusions. If I hadn’t been so busy doing this, I would have enjoyed it much more while reading it but looking back on it I think it is a marvelous book. Unusual, original and fascinating. And furthermore, having finished it, I saw that what happened to me, this mad chasing of “clues”, is probably not completely unintentional. I think the author is well aware of our European triggers and pulls them one by one.

I read quite a few reviews who stated that it wasn’t easy to describe what the book is all about. I don’t think that’s true. It’s a pretty straightforward story and you can summarize it in a few sentences. The problem is that wouldn’t do the book any justice as plot line is not Murakami’s main concern.

K, an elementary school teacher, is madly in love with Sumire, a strange, intelligent, loner type girl who wants to become an author. Sumire however falls for Miu, a married woman and 18 years her senior. They meet at a wedding reception and due to a misunderstanding related to the writer Jack Kerouac, Sumire’s favourite author of the month, Sumire calls Miu Sputnik Sweetheart.

Ever since that day Sumire’s private name for Miu was Sputnik Sweetheart. She loved the sound of it. It made her think of Laika, the dog. The man-made satellite streaking soundlessly across the blackness of outer space. The dark, lustrous eyes of the dog gazing out of the tiny window. In the infinite loneliness of space, what could Laika possibly be looking at?

Sensing that a change is needed in Sumire’s life, Miu offers her a job. Part of this job is a trip to Europe. The two women travel from France to Italy and from there to Greece and there Sumire disappears. Miu asks K to come to Greece and help her look for Sumire. He travels to Greece but the whole adventure proves to be futile.That is the story in a nutshell.

The central theme of this novel is loss. In many different forms. And getting lost and being lost, and losing as well as never reaching what we want. The people in this little universe that is Sputnik Sweetheart all chase something. Most of them love someone who loves someone else. They feel trapped and isolated like little satellites circling aimlessly through space.

So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that is stolen from us – that is snatched right out of our hands – even if we are left completely changed people with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. We draw ever nearer to our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness.

They also chase dreams that seem unreachable. Sumire who wants to become a writer, can’t write a real novel, Miu who wanted to become a pianist had to give up the piano.

And there are the side stories of lost animals. Sumire had  a little tortoise-shell cat that climbs a tree and is never seen again. K had a little dog, his only childhood friend, whom he loses too. And there are the black cats. Since I am an owner of black cats I could relate to this very well. Many of Murakami’s novels are populated by black felines.

K’s and Sumire’s love and friendship is a very beautiful one. They are both loners and bookish people who talk endlessly on the phone. It is sad that Sumire does absolutely not feel attracted to K. Despite the attraction Sumire’s feels for Miu, K is her true love.

I have read a few newspaper articles that came out at the time of the publication of Sputnik Sweetheart in Germany and quite a lot of them stated that Murakami wasn’t really a Japanese author because there are endless references to European culture. It is true, that this is surprising. In this novel, he enumerates many European composers like Mozart and Brahms, and also European performers. Apart from one book, Soseki’s novel Sanshiro, every book, movie or city that is mentioned is European.

Does the fact that a Japanese author cites so many European things make him less of a Japanese writer? I absolutely don’t think so and believe that on the very contrary,  this is a typically Japanese novel. The excellent evocation of futility of beauty for one thing, but then also the mix of genres (adventure story, ghost story, detective and love story) and the quoting of books. And quoting is only one thing, there is also a subtle intertextuality. Does K not remind us of the K in Kafka’s book? And the Doppelgänger motif is reminiscent of a lot of German literature.

Maybe we have to study modern Japanese paintings to be able to get Murakami.

Be it as it may, I’m extremely glad I read this book and am looking forward to the next one.

As a little visual impression of Murakami’s books I attached another Murakami’s work.

Both paintings are by Takashi Murakami.

This was my first Murakami for the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge. Other reviews of this and other Murakami novels can be found there.