This is a story a cynic or skeptic wouldn’t think is possible. A Somali man in jail reads Anna Karenina and it changes his life. The man doesn’t read it strictly speaking, but hears in tapped out in a type of Morse code from an adjacent doctor cellmate and he deciphers it. And it is the features of Tolstoy’s writing–the shift in perspective of several scenes; his portrayal of the trapped circumstances of the Russian noblewoman–that wrest a pulsing empathy from this man. He regains faith in his wife and direction in his life. There is a wonderful circle of relations here between the man, the doctor, the wife, Tolstoy, and “Anna Karenina.”
Both Atsushi Nakajima and Haruki Murakami are taught in Japanese high schools. Nakajima is the kind of author that is loved in Japan, but not praised by the Western press and are often ignored outside of Japan if translated at all. You may think it’s because of the subject matter. Instead of liberal protagonists living in post-War Japan, Nakajima goes back to historic and mythic China.
While the text in Japanese is in an elaborate masculine style with an extensive use of Chinese characters, in translation the text is more accessible. Despite the intricate style, Nakajima does not presume a cultural background, but sits at a juncture between East and West. This intertextuality is evident when critters in a bizarre short story promulgate Western philosophies. But this is true also with Nakajima’s orientation: Nakajima is concerned with elemental existential questions and doesn’t seem to operate solely within his cultural milieu nor see his culture as a box or barrier in his quest.
The most famous work “Sangetsuki,” or “The Moon over the Mountain,” is a strange tale of a government official who wants to be a poet. His desire, so intense, turns him into a tiger that stalks the mountain country. Some tales with the excessive listing of battles, provinces, leader names, war stratagems, court drama, and battles course with the martial vigor. When he turned historical, Nakajima paid closer attention to facts, but the emotion of his work reflects the time it was written, which is during the brutality of the Japanese occupation of a fractured China during World War II. While this may bear scrutiny of complicity, his best work is when he focuses on the human relationships or individuals trying to make sense of the world and themselves.
The best story is “The Disciple,” a historical tale about Confucius and his disciple Zilu. This story, because of that open intertextuality, expresses the teacher-student tradition common knowledge for those in the Eastern (and Greek) tradition into English. Ironically but truly, Nakajima shows that moral education is not about adhering to strictures, the grasping of the intellect, or performance in the field, but it is a form of love.
Book Review: 7.5/10: Nakajima’s best work are classics of modern world literature
One Hundred Years of Solitude starts with what Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember as he faces the firing squad–“that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That beginning sentence clues us in to the strategy of the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bold and telling details are presented to frame the passions, play, sadness, quarrels, wonders, and conflict of daily life. By design, inevitably these episodes circle back and illuminate those details. Discovering ice was the happiest moment of his life. He fought wars upon wars out of arrogance and to spare him from the crippling solitude that afflicted him and the whole Buendia family. As he faces the guns, he thinks of that time when he was free from solitude in whatever form. On “that distant afternoon” the family learns of the death of Melquiades, a gypsy who introduced their landlocked town to the wonders of the wider world.
If the Colonel before the firing squad is an event at the center of the novel, Melquiades and his parchments encircle and preside over the novel as a whole. All this was inlaid in just the first sentence.
The novel is a chronicle of the rise and fall of the Buendias, a family who led a pack of trailblazers to a new territory inland and founded a town Macando, nestled in the swampy rainforest somewhere in South America, which flourishes for a while. In addition to the foreshadowing details, the progeny of the first in line, Jose Arcadio Buendia and Ursula, have names of the previous generations. The progeny exhibit similar patterns as their namesakes, as if those names clued us in to a selfish gene that had to manifest itself. Much has been made about this novel’s magical realism.
Before reading this novel, I was initially wary of it. However, it works because ghosts of family members that live in the house, a girl rising up to Heaven, rain for more than four years, and flying carpets of the gypsies, don’t draw attention to themselves as different from given facts and because this magic isn’t uniformly good or bad. This magic seems to be an expression of desires through time that had been percolating in the minds of the characters-letting them loose into the natural world adds texture.
One Hundred’s story has military campaigns, adventures, colonial exploitation and extermination and a devastating, revolting picture of decay and oblivion. But any of these isolated would not amount to much but for how Garcia Marquez marshals all these details of the family’s daily life. He spins these through the reader’s mind until the incantatory, blazing end when the saga wraps onto itself-the details and stories illuminating each other become one–and the axle of the wheel of time collapses.
Book Review: 9/10: Fabulous, rich, wonderful trip into the magic and terror of daily life