Murakami’s third novel continues the story of the Rat, a character that featured in the first and second novel. The Rat is once again not the main character, more a catalyst for the exploration of mystery the unnamed narrator is sent on. Apart from the Rat I don’t think anyone is named in the novel. Even the narrator’s girlfriend is just talked about as she etc.
As always Murakami heads down avenues of thought that on the surface seem commonplace but with just enough twist to make the tale seem surreal. I always come away from a Murakami book with more questions than answers and perhaps that’s another reason why I love them. They don’t explain everything. Life is mostly an unresolved wander to death and Murakami seems to reflect that in his writing.
This novel seems to be the beginning of his interest (obsession?) with religion and cults. Having read some of his later novels I can now see the germinating seeds of thought in this novel. The story flowed easily as good tales of travel and mystery do, possibly making this a good place to start if you want to explore the other horizons found in Murakami’s work. Also even though it is the third in the Rat trilogy you don’t need to have read the first two to follow this story.
Occupied City is a short novel, but it's not an easy one. Ostensibly, it is about the poisoning of the staff of a Tokyo bank. Twelve people die.
In reality, the novel is about war and its aftermath; research into chemical weapons, war crimes and what happens when the rules change. Through a series of 12 first person narratives - many of them very fractured - we see different facets of the murder investigation, the weapons research and the world of gangsters. A common theme is the need to adapt or die.
The structure of the novel matches a traditional Japanese ghost story game where narrators sit around a circle of candles. As each concludes a ghost story, he or she extinguishes a candle. The room gets darker, the atmosphere gets heavier, until in the end there is darkness. But in this novel, it is not the stories that are ghosts - it is their narrators.
Some of the stories are lucid and take the narrative forward - although with 12 narrators covering common ground, there is an element of repetition. Other narrators, though, are in the depths of madness and serve to create atmosphere. As with other David Peace novels, the repetition is not confined to the plot; many of the narrators repeat mantra like phrases over and over again. It is intense.
David Peace doesn't provide easy answers. This is not a whodunnit where the culprit is unmasked in the last scene. One man, Sadamichi Hirasawa, an artist, is destined to be convicted of the poisoning despite clear evidence in both the real world and in the Dark Gate of stories that he could not be the killer. We do eventually meet the killer but his identity remains an enigma. In a sense, it doesn't matter. We know what he is, even if we never know the name on his birth certificate.
This is not a novel where things join up. Things touch, they overlap, they diverge, but there is no single answer. We see a city that was secure in its reverence for the Emperor, justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect him, brought to its knees, occupied by foreign powers and those who were most diligent in their support for the Emperor are now those who are held up to be the worst war criminals. Unless, of course, they can remain hidden in the shadows. The powers of the state - and the powers of the occupiers - are focused on creating a mutually acceptable outcome. They manipulate, distort and treat individuals as expendable.
As living people, the twelve victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as ghosts seeking justice, again, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Occupied City is a difficult read but a very satisfying one. It towers over the its predecessor in an apparent trilogy, the somewhat lacklustre Tokyo Year Zero. In fact, it is so radically different in style and content that most readers would probably not place them in the same set at all.
Tokyo is a really complex, intriguing novel.
We meet Ben Monroe, an American academic who moved to Japan via London after his marriage collapsed. He has a thing about death cults. We meet his daughter Mazzy, nearly 16, who is coming out to stay with him as she spends a reluctant semester at an international school in Tokyo whilst her mother, Lydia, stays back in the States and worries about radiation from Fukushima. And we meet Koji, the man who sat next to Mazzy on the plane and seems to like her – perhaps a bit too much.
The star of the show is the sense of place. Hogg evokes a perfect image of Japan. The strange mix of seaminess and sterility; the perfect but soulless nightclubs and bars; the contrast between the wholesome ryokans and the anonymity of the capsule hotels and love hotels. The food and drink feel authentic; the weather, the stations, the alleyways. It’s so accurate you can almost touch it.
The story itself involves Ben spending too much time searching for a mythological woman (a hostess he met on a previous trip to Japan) whilst spending too little time looking out for a real woman (his daughter, who appears to be in great peril). Bad call… The story poses questions about how far a separated man should feel beholden to his former family and how far he should be getting on with the rest of his life. Nicholas Hogg avoids giving an answer to this – we just know that Ben hasn’t got the balance quite right.
In any case, even if Ben is right to put distance between himself and his past life, he lacks a viable game plan for the future. Spending big money on crazy whims, is no way forward. Ben displays the detachment from reality of the worst kind of ex-pat; he behaves as though rules and societal expectations apply only when he wants them to; his actions may have immediate consequences, but as soon as he gets back to his apartment the slate is wiped clean and he can start the next day afresh. Basically, Ben is on one long, indefinite holiday.
The pacing is superb. As the novel builds – and it’s not a long novel – the sense of menace and peril ratchets up. The reader starts to see hidden monsters lurking in the shadows. And the zipping of the narrative from Ben’s first person to Mazzy’s third person – and the occasional viewpoint of Koji keeps a pacy feel.
If there is one reservation, it is the final sections when things go very surreal. For a novel that has felt very real and open, it is a bit jarring. It is explained in subsequent epilogues, but it didn’t feel authentic when being read. It may have been a bit of artifice to bring the novel to a rapid end without having to unfold events in a step by step sequence – which overall is merciful (nothing worse than the tension of a good psychological novel being lost by faithful adherence to the timeline of the denouement). And, in fairness, the handling of the ending is memorable…
Nicholas Hogg really is a first rate writer – engaging, lucid and original, but never showy. Each of his three novels is quite different, but all of equally high quality. Bring on the next one…
Hotel Iris is not the best hotel. Located in a seaside resort that appeals mainly to the domestic market, good hotels are close to the beach or have great views. Sadly, Hotel Iris doesn't.
Mari lives at the hotel. Her mother owns it; her father, grandfather and grandmother are all dead. Mari's mother treats her as a skivvy, working longer hours and for fewer thanks than the actual staff maid. Mari is young, naïve and lonely. So when she runs into a translator who offers her companionship, she jumps at the chance even though she knows he has a dark side...
This short novel is carefully written to generate an atmosphere of seediness, decay and menace. We know that Mari is exposing herself to great risk, yet she embraces it as a viable alternative to her hopeless existence at the hotel. It's a difficult balance to strike, but Mari manages to avoid the role of helpless victim; she has a feistiness and determination to get what she wants. Insofar as she is a victim, she is a completely willing one.
One might safely assume that Yoko Ogawa's parents have long since passed because there are some scenes you wouldn't want your mother to read, especially if you had written them yourself. They are intimate and they are graphic. But they contrast with scenes of great tenderness and affection. Hotel Iris is not straightforward; it creates complex people that you never fully know. It is a novel as much about what is not said as what is written down on the page.
As well as the characterisation and story, Ogawa has a great ability to create images and scenes with very few words. The reader stands with Mari and the translator on the ferry, feeling the salt spray in the air; the reader knows the layout of the translator's house; sees the peeling paint in the hotel. The economy with words means the pace never slows, but neither does the novel feel rushed. And when it comes, the ending is ambiguous and most unsettling. It suits the novel perfectly.
Hotel Iris is a quirky, haunting addition to extensive canon of Japanese weirdness. Unreservedly recommended (except to my mother).
Confessions is a lurid, gothic, stylised shocker.
Yuko Moriguchi is a school teacher, announcing her retirement to her class on the last day of term. She sermonises on the differences between good teachers in films who are able to drop their lesson plans to focus on the problems of the one recalcitrant student, whereas she feels that teachers should concentrate on the able and willing students. She theorises about HIV and AIDS, the topic of the book the class was supposed to read. She is wry, sarcastic and bitter. Oh, and she mentions that part of her reason for wanting to leave the teaching profession is that her daughter was murdered and the culprits are sitting in the classroom. But because the juvenile justice system is toothless, she has her own plans for revenge.
The narrative baton is then passed on to four other characters, each taking a different form (letter, diary, website, etc.), each telling us what we already know but seen through a different lens, and each taking the story that little bit further. And what a sordid little tale it is.
Confessions does not set out to be realistic, although some of the themes of teenage alienation, ambitious parents, popularity and so on are faithfully depicted. But the plot and narrative voices are very melodramatic and absolutely engrossing. Retelling the story so many times without it becoming stale or repetitive is no mean feat. The pacing is perfect and the characterisation, for all the luridness, feels right. The whole piece is a rollercoaster of emotions as we first feel sympathy for characters, then that sympathy turns into revulsion, and then back to sympathy again. Or vice versa.
The novel is short and the reader is left wanting more – always a good sign. It's a quick and easy read, but the ideas at its heart are really disturbing. This is Japanese Noir at its peak.