Monday, November 27, 2017

The Stones Cry Out, by Hikaru Okuizumi

Harvest/Harcourt, 1999
originally published as Ishi no Raireki, 1993
translated by James Westerhoven
138 pp


"They would all die in this dark cave. They were dead already." 

Another random choice and another winner -- my lucky streak continues.  I'm sure that one of these days I'll go to my shelves, pick a book completely arbitrarily and find one that not's so hot, but for now, the good luck continues.

The author of this book won Japan's prestigious Akutagwa Prize for this novel, and after reading it, I can see why.  Its short 138-page length might tempt people into thinking it's an easy, breezy read, but really, it is anything but.  In this short space, as the review blurb from The Detroit Free Press says, the author has managed to
 "create the most vivid of fictional realms, the inner world of an Everyman battered by the cruel and seemingly random hand of fate..." 
and has effectively "magnified" the horror of this "Everyman's" story in "the quietness of its telling."  If I could organize words around my thoughts like this reviewer, I would be saying the same thing.

The Stones Cry Out recounts the story of Tsuyoshi Manase, who, as we learn at the outset had become a "fanatic collector of stones."  Before realizing what would become his passion,  Manase had been a soldier during World War II, and had found himself wandering through the jungle before finding a remote cave in Northern Leyte.   When we first meet Manase, we are told that he remembers very little about his experiences in that cave or about how he came to find himself in a POW camp after having been captured.  After a year and a half Manase was repatriated and had started on the road to becoming a successful businessman, during which time his "recollections of war began to fade."   He began to view his war memories as a " brief glance into a dark hole through a window."  But what he does not forget  is a terrible fear of isolation, and more importantly,  the words once spoken by a lance corporal who had been in the cave with him, telling Manase that the "tiny pebble you pick up during a walk is a cross-section of a drama that began some five billion years ago." What stuck with Manase was what the lance corporal had said next:
"That little pebble is a condensed history of the universe that keeps the eternal cycle of matter locked in its ephemeral form." 
 It will be these words, which "lodged themselves in his heart," that will drive Manase to begin collecting stones.  As the years go by he marries, becomes very successful and has two sons; however, he finds himself becoming more isolated and more detached from his wife and children because of his passion for collecting. He also begins to find himself in situations that sort of trigger nightmares and memories and in this way, we learn little by little what actually happened to him in that cave.  When tragedy strikes his family, Manase will have to come to terms with the fact that not only does the darkness of his own personal trauma often return "like phantoms to the surface of his memory" but that it also has the potential to be passed on to take root in the physical  present, sort of infecting all of those around him in different ways.   Consider this idea in human terms and it makes for one hell of tragic story.

 Obviously I'm just sort of outlining basic plot here,  but what happens in The Stones Cry Out is best experienced rather than simply read about. This book moves well beyond simply plot to explore how memories of trauma are never really "frozen" or "locked," but rather like the crystals in the rocks that Manase studies so intently, seem to have  "an inner urge to grow," even though the "urge had been forcibly repressed by some sort of magic keeping them locked inside this narrow space."   The question is this: "if that spell was somehow broken, would not the minerals burst into movement?"  How that plays out I won't reveal, but if ever there was a book to read that highlights the human psychological costs of war, it's this one.

It's a sad but beautiful book and one I recommend.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hallucinating Foucault, by Patricia Duncker

Ecco, 1996
173 pp


I chose Hallucinating Foucault completely at random as part of an effort to read books that have been sitting on my shelves for years untouched, gathering dust and making me feel guilty for ignoring them.As it turns out,  I've picked a good one yet again.  To be honest, it's rare that I come across an author's first novel that is so polished that it's hard to believe it's a debut, but that is definitely the case here.  While not a huge fan of the ending which I found slightly overwrought, the rest of the book blew me out of the water, and these days, it takes a LOT for that to happen.

The unnamed narrator in this story is working on his doctorate at Cambridge, studying the life of French author Paul Michel, "the wild boy of his generation."  Along with his works, the narrator worked to "build" an image of his subject, a man who was, as he says "beautiful. And he was homosexual," a fact that he "insisted" on bringing up in all interviews he'd ever given. In one of these interviews, when asked which other writer "had influenced him the most," Michel had immediately answered Foucault.  There were, as we are told, several "uncanny links," between Paul Michel and Michel Foucault including the fact that they were  "both preoccupied with marginal, muted voices," and both were "captivated by the grotesque, the bizarre, the demonic."  Both also also "explored similar themes: death, sexuality, crime, madness..." (31).  While their styles were different, at the core of the works of both men (Foucault's philosophy and Paul Michel's fiction) stood "the revolutionary project of thinking differently."    All of this is background to the real story here, which begins with the narrator  falling for another student he calls only "The Germanist," a young woman studying Schiller who, as our narrator discovers, also seems to have an interest in Paul Michel.  After a while she finds an article that reveals the current whereabouts of Paul Michel, currently within "the white prison walls of a psychiatric unit" in France.  The Germanist challenges our narrator to go to France to find Michel, and he goes to do just that. And this is the point at which where the story actually begins; as it progresses, we discover that Hallucinating Foucault starts becoming less of the quest tale I thought it was going to be and much more of a space for exploring relationships, the most important being that between a writer and his readers. At its heart lies a love story, and that's about all I'll give away here.

 It's all so very nicely done, and as I said earlier, I was floored when I discovered that Hallucinating Foucault was the author's first book.  And not to worry -- it's not necessary to be familiar with Foucault's work to read this book; Duncker does  a fine job of bringing out some of Foucault's main themes here (madness, sexuality, the nature of truth)  and they flow sort of effortlessly throughout the text.    I won't kid you -- it's a challenging read that requires thought, and it grows in intensity as we come down to the ending, but it is so worth it.  My advice: spend time savoring this one, although in my case, I never wanted to put it down once I'd started.  One more thing: this book is definitely not one for those who constantly swim in the mainstream.

If this is an example of the books I've been neglecting over the years, I can't wait to get to the others. Seriously, this one is off the charts good.

Monday, November 13, 2017

an October random read: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

Penguin, 1977
originally published 1938
247 pp


"It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature." -- 198

Between the back-cover blurb of my old Penguin edition shown here that reads
"Pinkie, a boy gangster in the pre-war Brighton underworld, is a Catholic dedicated to evil and damnation. In a dark setting of double-crossing and razor slashes, his ambitions and hatreds are horribly fulfilled...until Ida determines to convict him of murder. But Pinkie, on the run from her pursuing fury, becomes even more dangerous..."
and the first line of the novel,
"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him"
I was all set to dive in to what I fully expected to be a crime novel, but as things turned out, Brighton Rock became something entirely unexpected. To label this book as a "thriller" is to do it a grave injustice -- while there are certainly murders and other violent acts throughout the story, this book goes far beyond the reach of a crime novel and deep into complex existential and metaphysical zones.

As far as the crime aspect goes, in Greene's Brighton, violence is just an ordinary fact of life; here the focus is on the competition between gangs over who will end up with the greater part of the protection racket now that the gang boss Kite has been killed.  It's the death of Kite (from A Gun for Sale, which I haven't yet read) that leaves Fred Hale with a target on his back; evidently he'd sold out Kite to the rival gang headed by Colleoni, causing him to be murdered.  Now young Pinkie Brown, a sociopathic seventeen year old,  sets out to avenge Kite's death since 
"... when Kite had died in the waiting room at St. Pancras, it had been as if a father had died, leaving him an inheritance it was his duty never to leave for strange acres." (130)
By killing Hale and thus taking revenge for Kite's death, he sets out to prove himself to the older members of the gang, setting himself up as the new Kite ("He had inherited even the mannerisms, the bitten thumb nail, the soft drinks") ready to stand up to Colleoni and his gang.   Hale's death is put down to natural causes, so basically Pinkie and his gang have gotten away with it, but there is a big loose end that needs to be taken care of.  Hale had been in Brighton drumming up newspaper sales as Kolley Kibber (based on the real-life Lobby Lud), leaving cards all around town. After his death, Pinkie insisted that the cards be distributed so that it would look as though Hale/Kibber had been on his regular route, and at a cafe, one of Pinkie's men is noticed dropping off the card by Rose, a young waitress who could, if questioned,  easily testify that the man who left the card was not the dead man.  Pinkie decides to take care of the situation himself by courting Rose and getting her to tell him if anyone comes asking.  But Pinkie hasn't counted on Ida, a woman with whom a very frightened Fred had spent his last moments before disappearing and ending up dead.  Having read about his death, Ida is determined to find out what really happened to him, and refuses to quit until she has the answers she seeks.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown, 1947 -- from The New York Times

This beginning sets up what definitely sounds like a crime thriller, and in truth, considering what was going on in British crime fiction at the time, Brighton Rock was something entirely different in the genre.  However,  there is much more here than just crime.   What follows on the heels of that one loose end turns  into multiple problems (and creates other loose ends that must also be tied up) for Pinkie, whose own existential angst deepens and becomes more apparent,  more desperate as the story progresses.  If read solely as a crime novel, the reader misses out on the depth of the metaphysical dimension Greene has constructed, which I feel  is absolutely critical to understanding these three characters, Pinkie, Rose, and Ida, and their relation to the interplay of good and evil that dominates this book. Other thematic issues arise as well, including innocence, damnation and salvation, so thinking of this book merely as a crime thriller sort of undermines its deeper brilliance. And while  I can't really give Brighton Rock the justice it's due either, I will say that these characters haunted me for a very, very long time after finishing the book, making it one I will never, ever forget.