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.

Takashi Atoda: The Square Persimmon and Other Stories (1991) Magical Japanese Short Stories

The Square Persimmon and Other Stories is an introduction to one of Japan’s most popular and versatile writers of fiction. In these eleven stories, Takashi Atoda examines universal themes – first love, lost love, change, fate – thriugh unmistakably Japanese eyes. The dreamlike quality of some stories invites the reader to draw his own conclusions in the denouement. Yet, in each one, Atoda brings to bear his precise style and his own unique vision, by turns mysterious, romantic, darkly humourus, and even bizarre.

I found this truly magical short story collection thanks to Novroz’ review of the book. She made it sound so appealing, I absolutely had to read it. I couldn’t agree with her more, The Square Persimmon is a wonderful short story collection, enchanting, haunting and mysterious… Very, very special.

I have never reviewed a short story collection and it is a bit hard. Summarize the individual stories? Summarize the whole book? Short stories are often so much richer than novels, to do them justice isn’t an easy task. To describe these is even more difficult as they are so mysterious. To try to capture their essence is almost like describing scent.

I think the most intense reading experience is one that connects you to your own soul, that triggers something in you and lingers. Atoda’s stories even made me dream at night. I almost entered an altered state of consciousness while reading them. He managed to touch the part in me where memories lie buried and dreams have their origin. This doesn’t happen very often. They made me remember things I thought I had forgotten and sort of intensified everything. The best parts of his stories are like those rare dreams that we dream during our lifetime, in which we want to stay forever. The mood, the atmosphere and the feelings will stay with us for a long time.

Apart from two of the stories, they are all very Japanese. They describe Japanese customs, food, places, philosophy, esthetics, sensitivity, and history.  One recurring element is the use of flashbacks. The people in these stories encounter something that makes them remember someone or a place that is long gone, maybe dead. Another wonderful element is the description of the seasons. The cherry blossoms in spring, the leaves in autumn. They are meant to remind us of our perishability. The description of beauty’s utter fragility is another element. Each story has additionally a twist and a mostly surprising ending.

The stories are all melancholic and often sad. The protagonists look back on something that has passed. At the present moment none of the characters is really happy, they look back on lost happiness. Nevertheless the interactions that take place in the present are touching and intense, the people in the stories reveal themselves to those they talk to.

To give you an example I will just pick two of my favourite stories.

In Paper Doll a man walks by a house in which he used to live as a child. It’s a beautifully elegant house. He had completely forgotten about this house, his childhood and a special friend – a girl – he had when he was a little boy. His life is not a particularly happy one. Like many of the characters in the stories he isn’t well off, struggles to make a living, doesn’t have a lot of joy. After he has discovered the house, he walks by daily and remembers more and more of those days long gone. His memories are like a treasure, they transform his dull days and fill him with an intense joy and happiness.

The Honey Flower also evokes a memory. A man remembers a summer he spent in the country during the war in 1944. The horrors of war are masterfully blended with the memory of the little boy and his little beautiful girlfriend. The children met in secret to drink nectar out of giant white blossoms that grow on a tree.

Atoda has written 40 short story collections. The Square Persimmon is meant as an introduction to his work. The stories have been chosen by his translator. The aim was to show what a versatile writer he is. His writing is extremely varied, at times lyrical or melancholic, absurd or full of black humor. In her foreword his translator, Millicent M. Horton, mentions the Proustian quality of some of his stories. This is high praise but I would say it is more than deserved.