Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2011
Hotel Iris, The Diving Pool, The House-Keeper and the Professor, all by Yoko Ogawa.
This is the order in which I read these books last year. I want to wax, but I won’t; I’m sure it’s all been said. For me it’s not so much the plot or the arc or the ending (and maybe they even have deficiencies, though the details are fuzzy now), but the writing which stands out. Let me just focus on three ways in which the writing is memorable. First, she is able through simple, spare prose to show character and build tension – there is a real precision, and the words carry beguiling weight – and in a way I don’t think I’ve encountered. Second, she goes into some dark places and back again matter-of-factly, effortlessly, and virtually without any obvious elevation of language, or change in tone or style, and without relying on shock value to create impact. Third, and this was the biggie for me in terms thinking about my 2011 year: her writing had extremely few Japanese references, and seemed in places at pains to avoid them, yet still had a Japanese feel. It made me think that all was not lost for me. I could base a story in Japan, or at least I could try - my ignorance of Japan was no excuse not to.
I intended to read the first two again this year, but that has not happened even though I did take out Hotel Iris on inter-loan. (Unfortunately, unlike almost all the other books cited in this journal, I did not record the publishers and dates for the versions that I read), but as I recall, they are all translated by Stephen Snyder, and were all originally published many years earlier in Japan. Her novels seem to have made it into many other languages much sooner than they have into English, and even now the large bulk of her work seems unavailable in English. Upsides, however, include: the anticipation if you are a fan (as I am); and that, if the translation is by the same Snyder, it will be worth the wait. I thought often as I read, picking up on the sounds and rhythms in the text, how extraordinary it was that I was reading a translation, and not the original.
Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking, by Michael Booth (Jonathan Cape, 2009).
This book should not have been bought, but it was. This is how it happened. My house was sold, and I had finally moved out. Some of the last things to go were the books, which were now spread across Auckland safe with friends, the ones with whom I still had credit. It had been touch and go, with several carloads shifted late on the eve of settlement. Some boxes had to be negotiated, although it was more often a statement of condition than a true negotiation I faced. They would tell me: ‘I can take four boxes provided I can also take – and I’ve already made room – the complete OED.’ Or (rummaging): ‘I’m happy with what you’ve got here, but please no sports books, or biographies, sorry.’
I resolved not to buy any more books. Auckland’s library was now a Super library after all, and besides, I would be up in the air for a while, and needed to travel (and live) light. It was my last week in Auckland and I was camped on the Shore, in the Brown’s Bay lounge of a friend who was also shifting house, and where the furniture and appliances were disappearing on a daily basis. Returning from the laundromat one morning I noticed some discount books being hawked from a warehouse, and so I stopped. I’ll just have a look. It was there I came across Michael Booth’s book: a Japanese connection, a bit of a travelogue, plus cooking, lots of little chapters, a glossary of Japanese words, and brand new having been recently written. How much – five bucks? Done. So much for my resolution.
But I’m pleased I have it with me now. I have read it, or most of it, by means of random scanning. It is very funny, and exceptionally well crafted in places. The chapter that has stayed with me the most is near the end: ‘The Restaurant at the End of My Universe’ in which the author is invited to attend, with a select small group, a meal at Mibu, a restaurant described as the best in Japan. It is a marvellous revelation. I am not surprised Mibu has reduced famous French chefs to tears. And not for the reason you might think. It did me, too. And I wasn’t there.