Monday, December 10, 2018

Kitchen (& Moonlight Shadow) – The Heartbreaking Grief of Guileless, Idiosyncratic Women


When was it I realized that, on this truly dark and solitary path we all walk, the only way we can light is our own? Although I was raised with love, I was always lonely.

“The place I like best in the world is the kitchen”, declares young Mikage, the central character in the poignant and minimalist novella ‘Kitchen’ (originally published in 1988) by Banana Yoshimoto. Orphaned since childhood, 24-year-old Mikage Sakurai was brought up by her grandmother, who also has recently passed away. Withdrawn and alienated, the young woman finds warmth in the corners of kitchen. Mikage’s lingering sadness is dispelled by the hums of a refrigerator or by just glimpsing into a busy kitchen from the bus. Soon after grandma’s death, Mikage is befriended by Yuichi Tanabe, a college student who knew the grandmother, since she often visited the flower shop Yuichi worked part-time. Now Mikage is invited to live with Yuichi and his chirpy transsexual mother Eriko (used to be the father). The Tanabes’ well-stocked and maintained kitchen, the enormous living-room sofa, and their ‘strange cheerfulness’ somehow fill the vacuum in Mikage’s existence.

Banana Yoshimoto was only 24 when Kitchen got published in Japan and she burst onto the Western scene after English translation in 1993 (by Megan Backus). Kitchen and the other comparatively shorter novella (integrated into the book) Moonlight Shadow deal with themes of loss, longing, grief, and companionship. The subjects of both these novellas are weirdly intriguing young women, faced with tough task of mourning for their loved ones. Apart from metaphorical treatment of kitchen, cooking, and food (which is apparent in Kitchen), what I found interesting in both the novellas is the tone of lightness and slow transcendence despite the grim subject matter. Yoshimoto finds beauty in the transitory phases of life and the feelings of melancholia never turns outright sentimental. She portrays the emotions evoked by the death of loved ones without ever getting over emotional (courtesy of Yoshimoto’s compact, haiku-like prose).

Mikage once again goes through the emotions of loss when one day Yuichi phones her to tell about Eriko’s senseless murder. The rest of the story charts the elusive relationship and burgeoning love between Mikage and Yuichi as they console each other (often through gastronomic delights). In Moonlight Shadow, young Satsuki is left inconsolable after the death of her 20-year-old boyfriend Hitoshi (in an accident). Occasionally, she shares her grief with Hitoshi’s younger brother Hiiragi, who has lost his girlfriend Yumiko in the same accident. They both work together to bring some resolution to their sadness and suffering. Adding further to the quirky quotient is Satsuki’s encounter with a mysterious woman named Urara. Although both the novellas seem like a cliched tales of wounded souls healing each other, the book’s appeal lies in the author’s tight description and understated tone. The stories deftly present the difficulties in confronting the emotions of grief without offering any superficial remedies (marked by the beguiling open-ended denouements).  

Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow pretty much evokes modern Tokyo and the lives of young Japanese, where traditional Japanese meals like tofu are preferred over Kentucky Fried Chicken. Futons and Kimonos don’t make an appearance. Moreover, Yoshimoto doesn’t equate Mikage’s love for kitchen with womanliness or gender identity. She sees the happiness and peace emanating from kitchen as a source of Mikage’s independence and way to cope with the emotional chaos. As I mentioned, Yoshimoto’s delicate characterizations (I loved how Eriko was portrayed) and prose has the power to gently push readers towards an epiphany or to its robust underlying philosophy. These stories are about lonely people in a very hectic society, yet there remains ample space for love, endearment, and happiness. “We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated, we make dinner, we eat, and we sleep. Everyone we love is dying. Still, to cease living is unacceptable”, Mikage soulfully ruminates and certainly we can’t deny the truth in her concise thoughts.  

Monday, December 3, 2018

Silence of the Grave – A Taut, Lean, and Endlessly Fascinating Crime Fiction

A boy is celebrating his birthday at his home situated in the outskirts of Reykjavik., Iceland While the adults and children are immersed in the atmosphere of jubilation, one bored adult guest (a medical student) watches a baby playing with a toy. The toy now gnawed by the toddler turns out to be a piece of bone from human rib. This leads to discovery of human bones freshly dug up by a new building site. The bones have rested there for at least half a century, and clearly the victim has met his/her fate in a gruesome manner. Thus begins the uniformly bleak crime fiction Silence of the Grave by renowned Icelandic author and the creator of Inspector Erlendur series, Arnaldur Indridason, .

Silence of the Grave (originally published in 2001) was the fourth in Erlendur series (featuring the gloomy yet dogged 50-something-detective) and second to be translated to English (by Bernard Scudder). Arnaldur Indridason is easily one of the best Scandinavian thriller writers. Crime authors often get tangled in weaving complex plot twists and resonating characters that they miss out in rooting their stories with themes that are exclusive to the landscape and culture. Crime fiction got be in some way a grim literary tourism, reflecting political, social, and historical truths, the ones which doesn’t get mentioned in the glitzy tourist ideas. Most of the crime novelists brilliantly build-up the tension, throwing in macabre details regarding killer’s M.O. or setting up the perfect red herrings, but eventually there would be nothing to take away from the novel; immediately after savoring the final twist everything starts to fade away. Indridason’s books are most gripping because he reveals hidden cultures and skillfully balances between social criticism and genre chills (similar in tone to Martin Beck novels by Swedish Marxist husband-and-wife authors Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall).

Like many novelists and film-makers, Arnaldur Indridason has broken out of the home market and had gone international by paying attention to the local. His novels have regularly picked up literary awards, including Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger. Considering the lower-crime rates in Iceland, murder there is treated as an anomaly. There are no serial-killers testing police force’ intelligence, no race against time, and hence the author doesn’t have to constantly build menace to keep us on the edge. However, I find Indridason’s social realist crime tales very compelling because it focuses on the darker and sadder dimensions of human condition.

Arnaldur Indridason

Indridason's protagonist Erlendur Sveinsson is a divorced loner and a tenacious pursuer of death. In his spare time, he likes reading Icelandic Sagas and stories about disappearance, partly because of losing his younger brother in a storm when Erlendur was just 10. His grown-up daughter Eva Lind suffers from drug habit. Erlendur blames himself for turning his back on his children after the divorce. While Eva frequently meets her father, at least to shout at him, Erlendur’s son Sindri Snaer, who suffers from alcoholic abuse, is far more estranged. In Silence of the Grave, as soon as the human bones are dug up Erlendur reaches the scene and sensibly seeks the help of an archaeologist to unearth the skeleton without damage. The process, however, unfolds over days and even the skeleton’s gender identity takes time to confirm. But once Erlendur’s eyes falls on the redcurrant bushes on the hill, closer to the mysterious grave site, his intuition starts kicking-in. He orders his reliable side-kicks – Detective Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli – to painstakingly investigate the history of that particular place.

‘Silence of the Grave’ alternates between investigation and chronicling the life of a woman (mother of three children), who painfully endures brutal physical and psychological abuse inflicted by her husband. Through the story of domestic violence, Indridason also touches on Icelandic reality during World War II. As the skeleton gets excavated bit by bit, the woman’s miserable circumstances slowly unfold.
Indridason’s books are more or less study of family life at its bleakest. Scarred childhood, abusive fathers, gentrification, Iceland’s legacy of colonization, the nation’s affluent capitalist modern society are some of the constant elements the author gets back to. The crime in Erlendur series are treated as a way to explore Iceland that’s changing. Although spare in terms of style, the narrative’s brilliance lies in its authentic, subtly-sketched characters. The whodunit quotient never turns us into voyeurs but simply provides space to share the characters’ difficult reality. Moreover, the boundaries of good and evil often get blurred that we, on few occasions, come to empathize for perpetrators despite their crime. Ten books are usually considered as limit for such detective series. Then, the themes and characters would get re-hashed, making not even half the impact of previous novels. Indridason’s last three novels in Erlendur series (including his latest ‘Strange Shores’) show such effects of wear and tear. Nevertheless, the first three English translated works of Indridason – Jar City, Silence of the Grave, and Voices – are just the perfect crime sagas to get acquainted with the bleak atmospherics of a small, cold country. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Piercing – A Gripping Portrait of Bone-Deep Psychological Wound

“….That's when he hit her, when he saw how scared she was. He couldn't bear it that she was frightened and asking for help. Asking for help is wrong. Because there isn't any such thing as help in this world.”

Ryu Murakami, often referred to as the ‘other Murakami’, is the author of terse, unembellished, and radical novels that forthrightly takes us on a guided tour into Tokyo’s seedy underbelly, filled to the brim with kinky sex, drugs, sadomasochism, and other decadent tendencies. His characters are psychologically troubled and carry the trauma of childhood abuse. In fact, by making us envision his provocative, shocking visions, the author laceratingly explores the underlying depravity of resolutely narcissistic and materialistic metropolitan existence. Ryu Murakami gained international popularity after the release of Takeshi Miike’s Audition (based on the author’s 1997 novel), although he had been making waves in modern Japanese literature ever since his debut novel Almost Transparent Blue in 1976 (which won the prestigious Akutagwa Prize). However, Miike’s skillful adaptation provided us a bewitching glimpse into the novelists’ unfiltered and deeply troubled world (‘Audition’ is clearly one of the best Japanese psychological horror feature although it’s far different from typical J-horrors like Ringu, Ju-On, etc).

From mid-2000s, Ryu Murakami’s novels have been translated into English (mostly by Ralph McCarthy). Piercing was published in Japan in 1994 and translated to English in 2007. It was considered to be the first of Murakami’s trilogy of novels (followed by In the Miso Soup and Audition) to share the themes of child abuse, disillusion, cycle of violence, and profound alienation. Kawashima Masayuki is one of the two central characters in Piercing. When the story begins Kawashima, the family man, is at the darkened bedroom and staring at his sleeping infant daughter, not out of love but with anxiety as he self-assures himself that he won’t stab the baby with the ice-pick, which he has just retrieved from his pocket. The insomniac Kawashima has been performing this bizarre ritual for some days, while his cooking-expert wife is sound asleep.

Kawashima occupies a good salaried position of graphic designer and is happily married to Yoko. But he finds himself awake at night, standing near his 4-month daughter Rie’s crib, holding a penlight on one hand and ice-pick on the other, and thinking, “I would never stab that baby with an ice-pick, would I?” The guy is deeply rattled by the urge to commit a horrific act of violence. Hence in order to deflect the deep-seated fear of stabbing at a vulnerable baby with a common kitchen-tool, Kawashima looks for a possible ‘cure’: to relish the pleasure of killing somebody else using an ice-pick. Moreover, Kawashima is worried about his compulsion for violence because he was involved with a gruesome incident when he was 17. He has stabbed a stripper 19 years his senior, with whom he lived for two years. Although the stripper never pressed any charges against him, the memory of his unsavory action still haunts Kawashima.
Of course, Kawashima’s urge to inflict pain and find solace through violence is due to the persistent cruelty he faced during his childhood and teenage years. His volatile alter-ego is the result of beatings served by his mother and the time he spent at the ‘home for at-risk children’. Once Kawashima decides on the particular course of action (to stab someone else), he comes up with a perfect murder plan. He considers that a prostitute would be the right victim. Nevertheless, when Sanada Chiaki, an almost doll-like S&M-girl-for-hire, meets Kawashima the meticulously detailed murder plan begins to evaporate. Chiaki is a victim of child sexual abuse, afflicted by nagging voices and suicidal tendencies.  What follows is an unusual interior journey.

Christopher Abbott & Mia Wasikowska play the novel's central characters in the American movie adaptation (by Nicolas Pesce)

Unlike Murakami’s other novels, Tokyo nightlife doesn’t play a predominant role in Piercing. That may be because the schizophrenic characters’ angst and loneliness weren’t the direct result of constrained urban space. But as usual the author gradually draws us into his claustrophobic, stomach-churning world with agile, razor-sharp prose. Murakami relentlessly examines the residual damage from childhood traumas in a very viscerally disturbing manner. However, he often playfully turns our attention from the dismal reality with comedy of mix-ups and misinterpretations. The frenetic pace and constant intrigue allows Murakami to keep on building a pressure which also kind of distracts our focus from certain thin psychologization of childhood abuse. The ending, although is muted, remains compelling and gets beneath the skin. Altogether, Piercing is a short and tense psychological thriller which sears its way into the psyche of two damaged souls.   


Monday, November 19, 2018

Last Days – A Mercurial and Mesmerizing Metaphysical Mystery

Says here”, he said, “missing a hand. I’d say that’s an understatement, wouldn’t you, Kline? How’d you lose your hand?”

I let someone cut it off,” said Kline.

“Now why would a man go and do a thing like that?”

That’s one of the many unanswerable questions strewn throughout Brian Evenson’s madcap literary horror Last Days (published in 2009), whose simple and straightforward prose is infused with apocalyptic tension and grotesque humor. Last Days follows former undercover cop Kline as he wades through ocean of uncertainty that begins with his hand getting chopped off by a ‘gentleman with a cleaver’. Kline self-cauterizes the wound and then shoots the ‘gentleman’ between his eyes. While Kline is caught under depression, thinking about retirement and the missing limb, a couple of low-level cultists start badgering Kline in order to recruit him for a job. In fact, Kline is chosen by the cult because of him losing an appendage and the audacious thing he did immediately after. After weeks of repeated phone calls, the cultists forcibly take Kline out of his apartment to meet the limbless top-tier saints of ‘The Brotherhood of Mutilation’.

Last Days draws a lot from hard-boiled detective genre, proving to be a twisted descendant of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. At the same time, Evenson’s minimalist and precise writing style elegantly disperses a tone of suggestive horror, pushing his readers to be deeply entrenched within his elusive reality. This damn funny as well as terrifying spiritual journey of a condemned man is my first Evenson novel, which I would definitely say redefines the horizons of horror literature. Brian Evenson was a devoted follower of Mormonism, who taught literature at the Mormon church-owned Brigham Young University till his publication of Altmann’s Tongue: Stories and a Novella (in 1994). Given the choice between writing and religion, Evenson chose the former, and ever since has discharged his mesmerizingly symbolic dark fiction to wreak havoc on the senseless self-sacrifice and blind obedience that bookends organized religion.

Novelist Peter Straub in his introduction of Last Days (better read after finishing the novel) describes it as a ‘novel made of two novellas joined at the hip, where they share a common seam’. The first part ‘The Brotherhood of Mutilation’ was originally published in 2003. The 2nd part ‘Last Days’ is an extension of the 2003 novella, taking up the extremities and weirdness of the 1st part to whole new levels. Once inside the cult’s campus Kline encounters its absurdly horrific dogma: amputations as the path to reach God (not just meta-physical shedding). The supreme leader of the brotherhood is just reduced to a torso, whose eyes are gouged, ears slashed off, and tongue partly severed. Kline is kidnapped to the place to investigate the murder of this alleged saint. But the limbless guy may not actually be dead and Kline might be recruited for some other sinister purpose by the hierarchy of multiple amputees.   

Brian Evenson

Last Days was addictive enough for me to read in a single sitting. But it is also unflichingly dark (bucket loads of blood and mutilations) and frustratingly obscure at times, which wouldn’t suit for readers expecting a more conventional mystery/horror narrative. The genre make-up (PI in search of answers) serves as a good hook to draw in the reader. But very soon, Evenson trades suspense and formal plot for parade of compelling allegorical notions, associated with religious abuse and apostasy. The author writes with a taut, impassioned voice (he calls it, ‘writing with an ethical blankness’). He doesn’t detail the atmosphere or inner conflict with flowery prose. This brings in a sense of narrow perspective (a suffocating reality), which diffuses great intensity to the proceedings.  What starts as a detective novel teeters on brink of uncertainties as our anti-hero keeps contemplating the loathsome things in the world and within him. Moreover, the foremost conflict in Last Days is the one that happens between his ever-changing consciousness and his perception of collapsing reality. And for all its visceral and repetitive violent actions, Evenson eventually constructs quite a few ‘big’ questions. Altogether, Last Days is a profoundly polemical and multilayered work on the unspeakable uncertainties in human life.