Book Review: The Strange Library by Murakami Haruki

The Strange Library (ふしぎな図書館: fushigi na toshokan) is a short story by Murakami Haruki.

The Japanese version was published  with  illustrations by Maki Sasaki in 2008. The story is based on a former different version (図書館奇談 toshokan kidan) published in the short story collection カンガルー日和 (kangaruu hiyori. Good weather for kangaroos) of 1986.

The Strange Library is told  from the perspective of a shy little boy who loves to read. On his way back from school it pops into his mind to borrow some history books from the local library.  Starting the moment he enters the building everything turns out very strange. First he is directed to room No. 107 in the basement where he never had been before and meets an odd librarian, who seems to inhabit this dusted dark area for ages.

The boy asks him politely for the book titles. The old man mumbles and rumbles on his way to a hidden archive in the back of the library.  When he returns with the books, he tells the boy, that it is forbidden to take them home. He has to stay and read them in a separate study room.  Now the boy is slightly scared by the man, and the thought of staying here any longer makes him feel uncomfortable, but he is also feeling obliged to go to the reading area and make no fuss about it.

Intimidated he follows the old weird man further downstairs through a labyrinth. Finally reaching the room the boy sits down to read. After a short while the sheepman arrives on the scene. He then tells him, that the boy is being held hostage. A wild and spooky story unfolds with an unforeseen twist at the end.

In this early work Murakami  makes use of surreal story telling, for which he is known as a bestseller author. The book is pretty short, but along with many illustrations it is an entertaining read. For students with intermediate language skills the Japanese version is relatively easy to understand.

Translations are available in many languages. I have seen the English and German versions of the book. The illustrations are very different from the Japanese version.

ふしぎな図書館 by 村上春樹. Illustrated by 佐々木木マキ。2008.



Book Review: The Thief

Nakamura Fuminori 中村 文則 born in 1977 in Tôkai is an author of several novels. His book The Thief (掏摸), published in 2009, won the famous Ôe Kenzaburô Prize in 2010 and was highly praised by the International press.

The Thief is a psychological thriller of a pickpocket in modern Tokyo. Nishimura is a loner living  in the big city with no family or social ties whatsoever. On his trips through crowded streets and the underground, he skillfully reaches out into the pockets of his fellow men. He has a strict moral compass: his victims are mainly wealthy gentlemen and using violence is not an option.

One gets to know his tricks in detail and soon learns about his criminal past, which unfolds to the reader in the ongoing story.

Written from the perspective of the thief Nishimura, we learn about his thoughts and actions. As the story evolves he is getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Mainly because of his entanglement with a violent mobster boss. It was taking my breath away, when I read how Nishmura was threatened into his actions by mobsters and it seems there is no exit for him.

But being under pressure from the mob is not his only problem. His life changes in unforeseen ways. One day on his daily pickpocket tours in Tôkyô he watches a poorly performance of a cranky woman and her little son, both shoplifting for groceries. Showing empathy for the boy Nishimura rescues them from being caught by the clerks, which is the beginning of a bittersweet friendship. On a closer look one can consider the boy as a younger version of Nishimura. The book is exciting and philosophical. I enjoyed reading it.

中村 文則: 掏摸, 2009. Nakamura Fuminori: The Thief, 2012.

Book Review: The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô

ruinedmap“The City — a bounded infinity. A labyrinth where you are never lost. Your private map where every block bears exactly the same number. Even if you lose your way, you cannot go wrong” – Abe Kôbô (1924-1993).

The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô is a very mysterious detective story. It’s setting is in 1967 in a big Japanese city like Tokyo.

Nemuro Hiroshi, age 34, is missing for half a year. His wife has hired a detective after the police could not find him. There are no hints of her husband’s whereabouts, only a matchbox of the Camilla coffeehouse.
The husband had left no notice, but disappeared in the landscape of the big city. He should have been on a business meeting, but his wife does not know any specifics about it.

The detective has no clue whatsoever. His investigation gets stuck and wherever he is turning to, there is no answer. Even the wife is no help, but has obviously a drinking problem. So there are many scenes, when the detective is sitting with her in her dining room looking at a blinding yellow curtain, watching her drinking one beer after another. The case becomes so annoying to the detective after a while: He then himself mistrusts his client, doubting if there even is a real case. But then, there is also her mysterious brother or is he her lover? He is the only person, who seems to have some kind of information about Nemuro Hiroshi.

On the other hand investigations at the company are fruitful: a co-worker of the husband hands over a hand-drawn map, which the missing man could have used for his last appointment in duty of the company. After that encounter the detective meets also the brother of the missing person’s wife. From now on the story gets into a wild ride, where the brother ends up dead, but Nemuro Hiroshi is still missing without a trace.

The atmosphere of the story is Kafkaesque and during reading I somehow lost the track. I could not lay the book down, because I wanted to know the end. I realized in the latter half of the story, that  everything dissolves  in the end without a logical solution.  I cannot say, that I enjoyed the reading fully through the book, but Abe Kôbô kept me interested finishing my reading.

Abe Kôbô is a well-known author in Japan. He was a main representative of the literary avant-garde in the 60’s of the 20th century. He wrote many books using surreal content structure and elements on the basis of his philosophical thoughts. Often it is not easy to read. One of his most famous works is Woman in the Dunes, but The Box Man and The Face of Another is also noteworthy.

安部 公房. 燃えつきた地図. 1967. Abe Kôbô: The Ruined Map. 1967. Translated by E. Dale Saunders.

Book Review: Thirst for Love

6725882“To ask for nothing means that one has lost one’s freedom to choose or reject. Once having decided that, one has no choice but to drink anything — even sea water…”

Thirst for Love is a novel written by Mishima Yukio 三島 由紀夫 (1925-1970) in 1950. A story about a young emotionally disturbed  Japanese woman.

One year after the death of her husband Etsuko moves into the house of her father-in-law and lives with him as a couple. No one of her relatives understands her motifs being the wife of the old patriarch, who is also playing around with her. Yet on the outside she seems happy, but inside she has blocked all feelings and has become a shallow being.

At home the strange couple is accompanied by a maid and a servant, who are responsible for the housework and gardening. Living by her daily routine Etsuko gets to know the servant better. After a while she is finding herself addicted to his attention. In order to manipulate him to like her, Etsuko buys him two pairs of socks in blue and brown color. The whole situation of choosing, buying the present and  giving it to the young man, is very painful for Etsuko and in the end leaves her behind feeling ashamed. But this is not stopping her from seeking after his love. Suddenly she has to realize, that the servant and the maid are having an affair and the maid is pregnant. Etsuko’s jealousy is now driving her crazy and she is seeking for revenge.

Mishima is a literary genius. He describes Etsuko as a suffering woman cut from her feelings. The reader knows her inner reflections, because the story is told from her perspective. Yet I do not think that Mishima has empathy for her. He is knowing the dynamic of the relationships and his narration is lively and beautiful. He is a good observer. Sure Etsuko has a pre-history and roots for her tragic fate, but that is not in the focus of this novel. Mishima portrays a woman with no love in her life and that is a very sad story. He draws a picture of an emotional disturbing fate.

It took me some time to finish the book. I somehow find it hard to read, but I wanted to know, if the main character could change or if there would be something in Etsuko’s life, that brings joy to her. The end is surprising, but comprehensible and therefore follows the logic of the story.

三島 由紀夫. 愛の渇き (ai no kawaki), 1950. Mishima Yukio. Thirst for Love. Translated by Alfred H. Marks, 1969.

Book Review: Geisha in Rivalry

nagai_kafu Geisha in Rivalry was  published in 1918. The Japanese title is Udekurabe 腕くらべ, which literally means competition. 

Nagai Kafû 永井 荷風 (1879-1959)  is a very famous author in Japan of the first half of the 20th century. He spent many years in the United States and Europe. He studied French and was influenced by especially Émile Zola (1840-1902) in his early works. Later on Nagai turned more to Japanese themes and is known for his romantic inspired novels focusing on traditional Japanese settings in Late Edo and Meiji Japan.

Geisha in Rivalry is a book in which Nagai brings back the nostalgic atmosphere of the late Meiji Era. He seeks for the reminiscences of the old tradition with a melancholic undertone but is even critical in some ways. His narration is very lively and colorful.

Being a geisha is giving Komayo a hard time. After her husband had died she moves from the countryside back to Tokyo and takes up again her former profession as a geisha. She now lives in the Shimbashi quarter, the heart of the demimonde. She had been away for six years — Can she survive?

Back on the scene of the amusement quarter, nothing has changed, but she is older now, and although she knows the business well the competition is very tough. Most of the other geishas are not friends but mean rivals. They are described as mean, shallow and money driven women.

Komayo falls in love with a famous actor. The romance seems perfect for her and she dreams of marriage. Suddenly she aknowledges, that her handsome lover is playing around with her. And she is a victim of a terrible intrigue initiated by a jealous geisha.

This sounds like a romance novel, but it is worth reading because of the detailed and skilled narration. It is giving you insights into the sociocultural background of the amusement quarters of that time. Interestingly also because Nagai himself lived in a geisha house himself. He gives a lively description of manners, fashion design, dress code and pictures multiple people of the floating world.

The Japanese text of Udekurabe is available on

永井 荷風. 腕くらべ, 1918. Nagai Kafû: Geisha in Rivalry, translated by Kurt Meissner, 1963.

Book Review: After Dark by Murakami Haruki

13640447“It’s true, though: time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night.”

After Dark is a short novel by Murakami Haruki published in 2004.

The story is told from an alternating perspective, scenes are changing movie like, the story is written in a screenplay style.

What happens? It is not clear.

Things belong to the darkness. Everything happens during one single night.

The intro scene is playing in a diner restaurant. Mari, a Japanese girl is sitting alone at a table reading a book. Other single customers are around with their laptops, cellphones, some guests are just staring.

The door opens. A woman comes in, looking around, then walking straight towards Mari and picking her up. You do not know why.

Then the scene changes to a love hotel, where a Chinese prostitute was hurt by a customer, who had fled the building. Mari was the only person available to help interpreting from Chinese to Japanese, therefore she was chosen. So Mari and the hotel staff eventually could help the girl escape the situation.

Murakami introduces a parallel nightmarish story about Mari’s sister Eri. She is sleeping and at the same time awake. Eri had realized that she is trapped in a room with no doors, and she is trying to escape this situation by sleeping. “… let me get to sleep again! she pleads. If only I could fall sound asleep and wake up in my old reality! This is the one way Eri can now imagine escaping from the room.”

Back from the love hotel incident Mari meets a boy named Takahashi at the diner. And covered by the night, they begin to talk about their lives and inner feelings, Takahashi reveals he had an affair with Eri some time ago. And Mari is worried about her own relationship with Eri, which became very difficult lately. As the two sisters are very different they became estranged from each other. Their lives are so contrary, there is little tolerance for each other, therefore a huge gap is all there is left – they are not talking to each other anymore. Mari is hurt, but there seems no way out for her, because she cannot reach Eri anymore.

Mari is talking with Takahashi about Eri and slightly things begin to change. In the end there is hope for a small path to Eri.

Some parts of the story are kafkaesk. The scenes are loosely knit together and told from alternating perspectives. Murakami walks us from a lonely diner table, through the dark aisles of a love hotel, into a nightmarish situation of a closed room, then back to the diner. And now talking to each other, getting to know each other’s secrets and inner feelings, maybe something lightens up as it becomes morning again.

You do not know exactly. And you do not have to. It is in between two days. Things change. That is After Dark.

村上 春樹. アフターダーク, 2004. After Dark by Murakami Haruki. translated by Jay Rubin, 2007.

Book Review: Diary of a Mad Old Man

1021207The old master of Japanese fiction Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886- 1965) wrote his Diary of a Mad Old Man 瘋癲老人日記 in 1961.

It is very strange. And I cannot say, if I really liked it. It is one of these books, you just cannot put down and wonder, why you are still reading it.

Tanizaki describes the physical and psychological downfall of an old man in his seventies. Utsugi is physically ill with high blood pressure and pain in his hands. In addition to that his neck is aching and he has to cure himself by lying down on a hard wooden block head upside down wearing a corset temporarily. In his diary he is describing all his thoughts about his illnesses, how he cures it, which medication he needs and spares no details.

As you read through his accounts of daily routine soon his beautiful daughter-in-law appears on the scene. She was a dancer in her former life and is characterized as a type of modern Japanese girl, which appeared in the 20’s of the last century. A mix of an elegant woman with a certain bitchiness. Tanizaki makes a reference to Naomi – A fool’s love. His famous book about a femme fatale.

The old man hangs around in the house with nothing to do and becomes fascinated by Satsuko. And she uses her attractiveness in a selfish way — she lets the old man play around and pay for her taste of luxuries.

The other family members: the old man’s wive and Utsugi’s son, which is Satsuko’s husband, are described as shallow characters only appearing on the sideline. As they are going their own ways, they look away and do not seem to notice the strange relationship. In the shadow of Utsugi’s physical illness the old man uses tricks to get near his daughter- in-law and shows more irrational behaviors as the story evolves.

When Satsuko shows up with a huge diamond ring on her finger – a cat eye, worth a family house, the question arises on the wife’s side, why the old man makes such an expensive present for his daughter-in-law. Asked about that, Utsugi speaks about further plans of building a swimming pool in the garden for her as well. His obsession bears no limit. Towards the end of the book he worships Satsuko as a divine being by modulating her footprints into a sculpture with reference to buddha’s holy stone feet.

I do not think the Diary of a Mad Old Man is a must read, although it is one of the Japanese modern classics. The book is short with 180 pages, but the story has some length especially when Tanizaki describes the daily medication and treatments.The story is told from the first person’s perspective of Utsugi. Some viewpoints of his doctor and his nurse are added in the last 20 pages.

What makes the book so special is an underlying ironical melody. The old man’s inner dialogue is so embarrassing and self-revealing, but sometimes even funny. I often laughed about the madness of this old man. On the other hand the story has a bitter taste and that raises mixed feelings. It is not an easy read, but sure gives you something to think about.

There are similarities with one of his earlier works. Like in The Key Tanizaki uses diary style and talks about funny experiments in the bedroom. All in all it is a book about obsession and strange characters. And taken as that it is a delightful and special read.

Tanizaki Jun’ichirô: Futen Rôjin Nikki, 瘋癲老人日記 1961. Diary of a Mad Old Man. Translated by Howard Hibbett, 1965. Also made into a film by Keigo Kimura, 1962.

Book Review: The Hare With Amber Eyes

thehareThe Hare with Amber Eyes is beautifully written and takes the reader on a journey  through a family history of  nearly 200 years.

The author Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist, tells the story of the Ephrussi, his family, who had been a very wealthy and well-known European Jewish banking dynasty.

The story’s central theme is the rise and fall of the Ephrussi, symbolized by a collection of netsuke 根付, ivory or wooden miniature sculptures from Japan. The collection of 264 of these tiny objects were passed down as inheritance through five generations of the Ephrussi from 1871 until today and took station in Odessa, Paris, Vienna, London and Tokyo throughout their journey.

The story starts with reflections about art history and the author’s quest for his family history. The first chapters can be seen more as an essay about Western art and Japonism than a personal story, because only few details of his family history are certain. Reading through the first passages of theoretical thoughts is rewarding, because  you gain insights of both art and his family history. When the story evolves more personally, it becomes very emotional. The beginning is not easy to read, but the more you read, the more his personal story carves out.

In search of his family roots Edmund de Waal creates a personal atmosphere by visiting the places, where his family members once had lived. The chapters draw you into his search and into the live of his family. De Waal develops a very moving history of about 200 years.  It is a very fascinating book, a moving family history.

Edmund de Waal: The Hare with Amber Eyes. 2010.

Book Review: Men Without Women by Murakami Haruki

murakamiMen without Women 女のいない男たち came out 2014 shortly after Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

The book consists of  a collection of six short stories: Drive My Car, Yesterday, Body without Organs, Scheherazade, Kino and Men without Women.

All of them except Men Without Women have been published in Japanese magazines before. Yesterday has been translated by Phillip Gabriel and was published in the New Yorker in June 2014, Scheherazade in October 2014 and has been translated by Ted Goossen. It was published as well in the February issue of the magazine Monkey.

The German issue Von Männern, die keine Frauen haben includes  恋するザムザ Samsa in Love, also translated by Ted Goosen published in the New Yorker of October 2013. So the story Men without Women is truly the only new story in this book.

The stories are fine, a good mixture and therefore a good read. If you like to read short stories of Murakami Haruki you will not be disappointed.The stories are gathered around love sickness and loneliness. All from the perspective of men. And no wonder you will find similarities to his major works. My personal favorites of  this collection are Scheherazade and Drive my Car.

I recommend the book to people, who are collectors of Murakami Haruki’s books and to those, who want to read all of his writings or to readers, who haven’t read much of the author before.

The book is not fully available in English yet, but in German, Korean and Chinese. Maybe you give the original a try.

村上 春樹. 女のいない男たち. 2014.

Book Review: All She Was Worth by Miyabe Miyuki

allshewasworthMiyabe Miyuki 宮部みゆき, born in 1960, is a popular female author in Japan. She writes mainly mysteries, crime novels, science fiction, and fantasy novels. Many of her works have been translated into English, French, German and other languages. Her books have also been made into films many times. Her work Brave Story was also made into a manga and  into a popular video game.

In 1993 she won the Yamamoto Shûgorô Prize 山本周五郎賞 for her book All She was Worth.

It is a detective story playing mainly in Tokyo. A woman named Shoko Sekine disappears suddenly. Her fiancé is desperately seeking her without finding a trace. Finally he turns to his uncle Honma, who is working as a private detective. Honma finds out, that Shoko was not her real name. Another woman had stolen her identity and taken over her life. Probably the real Shoko Sekine had been murdered. Who was the real Shoko Sekine? And what are the reasons for the identity theft?

The story is placed in Japan of the late 1980’s and 90’s. Young urban life and consumer debt had its fatal effects on a young woman. The underlying theme of the novel is the modern Japanese consumerism. The author sees herein a reason why normal people are getting caught in a debt spiral very easily. The main character Shoko had the habit of buying things and luxury she could not afford. This was getting out of control by heavy use of credit cards and the cash card system and in the end it what was driving her into the net of loan sharks. Consequently she even made steps into the underworld of Tokyo’s water business, into the red light district.

Chapter after chapter you will get more information about the life of Shoko Sekine, who is missing and about the woman, who stole her identity. About her reasons and how she managed to become another person and slip into a new life. But why would another woman buy her cracked identity? The motif is mysterious.

Miyabe Miyuki is very critical about the modern consumerism and its addictive influence it has on some people and in the end costs their life. The storytelling is not morally, but very reasonable and comprehensible. Miyabe’s key question is, how is it possible, that normal people get deep into debts and into the struggle with loan sharks. Hunted by them and see no way out?

The thrill of the story is lasting until the very end. The first half it is a real page-turner, then it slows down, when it comes to the solution. The detective unravels the mystery step by step, as Honma interviews the neighbors, colleagues, school friends and room-mates. It is a difficult puzzle with many pieces. Although the book has some length in the end, I would recommend it as a good read about modern Japan.

Miyabe Miyuki:  Kasha 火車. 1992. All She Was Worth. 1999.Translated by Alfred Birnbaum.