Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

The Current Reading List

Posted in Books,Fiction,Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the February 3rd, 2012

Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860). One of my current reading projects is to catch up on Turgenev, whose work was enormously influential on Meiji Japan. This novel, for example, is cited repeatedly in Tayama Katai’s “Futon” (1907), a landmark in modern Japanese fiction. I can see the attraction On the Eve held for Japanese writers: the bold and beautiful heroine Elena, the lamentations over the weakness of Russian men (the hero is a foreigner, a dashing Bulgarian nationalist eager to die for his country), and the wry social commentary that dots the narrative. The story ends rather mysteriously, though there is a suggestion of hope in the air, as the work’s title suggests. I read the classic Constance Garnett translation, first published in the 1890s: it’s probably the same version that Tayama Katai knew.

Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World (1916). Tagore’s another writer I’m catching up with, in part because I’m interested in reading him alongside his contemporary, Natsume Soseki. This one contains many Soseki-like themes: multiple narrating voices, a love triangle in which two men compete for the same woman, disputes over family property accompanied by fears of treachery and theft, with all of this personal drama played out against a social field of dramatic change and discontinuity. Tagore’s understanding of the double-edged erotics of nationalist passion is prescient: here, the desire for fraternity can shift registers in an instant to become bloodthirsty rage. The translation (by the author’s nephew, with close attention from Tagore himself) feels creaky in places, but that might say more about my limitations as a reader of Bengali fiction than it does about Tagore’s talents as a novelist. If you’re interested in this book, by the way, you should catch “Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore,” a fine exhibit of Tagore’s visual art from the 1920s and 30s, on now at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 15, 2012.

Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn (2010). My father died in late 2010; this was the last book he read. Frustrated for years by a brain injury that impaired his memory and mobility, Dad had a hard time following complicated narratives, but this epic novel of the Vietnam War cut straight through the cognitive fog to reawaken the passionate reader in my father. He devoured this repeatedly in the last months of his life and it was all he wanted to talk about. Dad had a lifelong connection to the military stretching from the late 1950s, when he enlisted as a teenager in the Minnesota National Guard and then the U.S. Army, to his retirement from the Veterans Administration in the late 1990s, where he counseled ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD. In other words, he’d lived his life alongside the sort of people depicted in the novel, even though Dad never served in Vietnam. I’m about halfway through the book now. In some ways a conventional war narrative (we accompany a heterogeneous group of soldiers through a series of increasingly dangerous missions, each member of the band representing a different socioeconomic, ethnic, and regional type), it is a gripping narrative, its impact aided by the knowledge that it is based on the author’s own experiences in the war.

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