Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Restaurant of Love Regained

You can hear me discussing The Restaurant of Love Regained and other literary matters on today's Open Book on BBC Radio 4.

The Restaurant of Love Regained is a debut novel by 37-year-old Ito Ogawa that was published three years ago in Japan and is just being released this month in English in a translation by David Karashima. The book has sold over 800,000 copies in Japan so it will be interesting to see how it fares over here.

It's the story of a 25-year-old girl who comes back to her city flat one day and discovers that her Indian boyfriend has disappeared, taking with him all the couple's possessions. Her dream of their having their own restaurant one day is in tatters and, distraught and penniless, she heads back to her home village in the countryside that she ran away from ten years earlier. There, traumatized and unable to speak, she makes an uneasy peace with her estranged mother and decides to set up her own makeshift restaurant, preparing wholesome home-made food to order for just one person or group at a time.

It's an account of someone who has lost everything starting over again and getting back to basics - rediscovering the wonder of nature and the home town she had left behind. Through the craft of cookery and the intimacy of serving food, the heroine begins building and re-building a host of new and old relationships. Her restaurant provides emotional therapy not just for herself, but to everyone in the village - from a stray rabbit to a lonely spinster - and ultimately is the means of reconciliation between mother and daughter.

The central idea is how love and affection can be transmitted through food and how joyous it is to make people happy through serving people dishes oozing in natural flavours. It's a rejection of some of the evils of modern life - the breakdown of families, the fast food culture, the obsession with profit and en masse uniformity - and a return to the provincial, the family, local flavours and simple pleasures.

The author Ito Ogawa (pictured right) is a lady of many talents.
As well as writing adult fiction, she has written books for children and is also a member of a musical group Fairlife for whom she writes lyrics.

The book is not something I would have usually read: I devoured it while simultaneously scrutinizing Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy and its lightness of touch and easy readability could not have been in greater contrast to the dense prose and heavy philosophizing of Mishima. I did however find a lot of interest in it and both watched the film of the book and listened to the Fairlife musical album associated with it.

There's no doubt that the novel has struck a chord with Japanese female readers in particular, who can readily empathize with a central character for whom life had not gone as she would have wished. On one level, the book connects to recent bestselling fiction in the West such as Joanne Harris' Chocolat and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love in the common theme of rediscovering oneself and finding love through food. However the book is also very much a part of the strong tradition of popular Japanese female writing by authors such as Banana Yoshimoto and Amy Yamada.

The book is indeed a symbol of the power of Japan's female readership. A few years ago, the bestselling book in Japan was called The Dignity of the State and was a very nationalistic male polemic, warning against the dangers of Westernization and calling for a return to samurai values. But the following year this was trumped by a book called The Dignity of a Woman, which sold 3 million copies, and appealed to the huge female reader market. The appeal of that book was to offer advice on how a Japanese woman should conduct herself in the modern age and suggested a fairly traditional agenda of conducting oneself with decorum.

The Restaurant of Love Regained also falls into this category of post-feminist Japanese writing. It is feminist to the extent that the heroine has the independence to fend for herself and set up her own restaurant; but it is also traditional in its appeal to time-honoured Japanese values - and a woman's place is still in the kitchen! The heroine actively rejects the apparently sexually liberated lifestyle of her mother and feels kinship instead with her grandmother - indeed she goes through life with her talisman of a rice bran miso pot passed down from her grandmother.

The appeal of the book is instant and universal - we all dream of having time to cook - but I also read this novel as an interesting metaphor for modern Japan itself. On the surface everything seems cosmopolitan and international: the heroine has been living with an Indian guy and worked in a Turkish restaurant and picked up recipes for Iranian pomegranate curry. But then she takes all this experience back, along with her grandma's traditional miso pot, to a profoundly Japanese setting - her little restaurant in the countryside and starts making international cuisine there. So it is very typical of the Japanese way of managing to absorb influences from around the world and yet, by keeping its core values, transforms them into something distinctively Japanese. The world is enfolded into Japan and is then seen through the microscopic. In the dishes concocted in a provincial Japanese restaurant, we can taste Indian aromas, dreams of Turkish mosques and fantasize about Iranian plains.

The one additional thing I might say is in relation to the heroine's rather 'hands-on' (and occasionally excruciating) manner of sourcing and preparing meat, which manages to be distinctively Japanese in its ability to be delicate, aesthetic and brutal all at the same time. There is something quintessentially Shinto-Buddhist in the perception even of meat preparation as a sacred rite, representing the transfer of nourishing life force.

There is also an accomplished children's fable enfolded into this novel - the story of the owl who hoots twelve times at exactly midnight every night and is the unchanging, comforting guardian of the heroine is a clever metaphor for the hidden wisdom of a parent looking out for a child (albeit in an occasionally irritating way) - and is really a children's story threaded into the text of this simple, but often quite profound book.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Displaced Nation

I was alerted yesterday to a great blog on Soseki's ex-pat experience in London on the website The Displaced Nation which you can read here:

It's really gratifying when you come across thoughtful blogs like this and are reminded just how many inquisitive readers there are out there.

It can sometimes be a somewhat dis-spiriting experience to realize that six years after The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London was published, it is still lucky if it breaks into the top million (!) of 'best-selling' books on American Amazon and that not a single review has been posted on that site. (Actually, there is one review, but it relates to the abysmal, botched translation of the 'Tower of London' story from twenty years ago). Jay Rubin, the translator of Soseki and Murakami, remarked to me a few years back that a book on Soseki on London was a very odd way to relaunch Soseki as it would only appeal to a narrow British audience and I often fear he has been proved right. No matter that the story of Soseki in London is of incredible importance to the whole surge of masterpieces that would pour forth from Soseki's pen after returning to Japan. Whisper it quietly, but it is Soseki's nervous breakdown in London that is the defining moment of twentieth century literature and the Sosekian literary revolution starts there. Sadly however, it seems that American readers in particular just don't 'get it'.

But then, just when you think that you might as well be talking to yourself, up pops a blog or two, seemingly out of nowhere, that shows you that there are fantastically insightful people out there. Given the narrow interests of the review pages in the Western press, you can only really conclude that the future of diverse, original comment lies in the blogosphere. In this context, I must extend a belated thanks to those people who have posted some great blogs on some of the recent Soseki books.

Thanks very much to you all. My only further request can be that some brave soul actually posts a decent review on American Amazon!

By the way, also worthy of note is this very cute film on Youtube touching on Soseki and 'The Tower of London' by promising talent Ai Nishiyama:

And one final thing: I am now on Twitter (@DamianFlanagan), so please come on board and follow me there.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Alas, My Beloved Tohoku

As is the way of these things, the world media circus seems to have now moved on from Japan despite the fact that the aftershocks, the accumulation of radiation, and the humanitarian relief issues remain. Perhaps time then to take stock of a few aspects of the now one-month-old disaster.

The first thing I wish to say is that my heart sears at the thought of it being the Tohoku (North-East) of all regions that had to suffer this.

I have travelled to every one of Japan's 47 prefectures, but I love the area of Tohoku more than any other. The first time I went to Japan, when I was 19, I had 11 weeks to explore the country and spent the first few weeks dashing about with a Japan Rail Pass in hand on trains from Tokyo to Kyoto and from Niigata to Sapporo. But somehow, there seemed something superficial about this trek from one urban centre to another. From the train windows I gazed hypnotically for hours at the rural landscapes outside. It occurred to me that this was was where Japan's greatest secrets were to be found and that I could never reach them while dashing through the country on Bullet Trains.

So, somewhere outside Morioka, right in the centre of the Tohoku region, I decided to get off the train and just start walking. I resolved that all I would do now for the next two months was walk and walk and walk. For friends who know me now as someone who, in Woody Allen-fashion, views the countryside as somewhere desirable to make a day trip but no more, they might be surprised to learn that in my 19th year, I spent an entire summer rambling the wilds of Tohoku, climbing all the highest peaks, exploring remote peninsulas, circumnavigating volcanic lakes. I stayed at the cheapest hostels and ryokan, lived off a diet of rice and raisin bread, lost an enormous amount of weight. My sole companions were books such as Shusaku Endo's Silence, histories of Japan and teach-yourself Kanji books.

There is nowhere quite like Tohoku. In subsequent years I hitchhiked around Shikoku, went on driving tours around Kyushu, travelled to remote islands in the Japan Sea, flew to Okinawa. But nowhere quite matched that first summer. Once, I had spent two days walking down the 'axe-head' of the Shimokita Peninsula at the very northern reach of Tohoku. It was stupendously beautiful and remote. I hardly met a soul on my two days on the road, singing loudly as I walked. My resting place was a little village in a cove, which I came upon late at night in search of the only minshuku (family home cum lodging house) in town. In those days it seemed as though you could always take chances on these kinds of things and something would turn up.

Tohoku was always a place that represented 'the other': a paradoxical place of adventure and yet safety, a place of turning-in-on-oneself and spiritual retreat. It was ever so. In the seventeenth century when Basho set out on his Narrow Road to the Deep North, he was of course Tohoku bound. In the twelfth century, it was Tohoku to which the legendary figures Yoshitsune and Benkei fled from strife in war-torn Kyoto. The narrow road north seemed to lead to the very heart of Japan itself. When, in the Second World War, it was feared that the library of Natsume Soseki, preserved in Tokyo, would be destroyed by air raids, his disciple Komiya Toyotaka brought the books to Sendai for safekeeping.

Tohoku was Japan's inner sanctum. And the reasons for this were steeped in both history and geography. Not only is Tohoku most rugged region, but it is also the area where the original occupants of Japan were gradually pushed back by continental invaders in the first millennium. There are pockets of Tohoku where shamanistic rituals survive and where Buddhism is still a foreign, imported faith. If you dig deep enough in Japan, Tohoku is what you come to.

We all have places of the mind that are our spiritual retreats. Sometimes we might seldom visit them, but nevertheless that does not dim their importance. Their significance is not so much as a physical, day-to-day locale, but rather as a symbolic place of mental retreat and homecoming, somewhere that we are all intending to come back to, somewhere where our ashes might be scattered.

For me, such a place is Tohoku, though it has been many years now since my foot has trod its turf. For the last twenty years I have always been dreaming of having just one summer like that of my 19th year in Tohoku, of walking the road again with nothing but a shoulder bag and map, of re-climbing those mountains, of walking once more those coastlines. Always though, there were too many work pressures, deadlines to meet, and young children to look after.

It is perhaps absurd to say so in the face of such tangible human misery, but the devastation in Tohoku affects me in a way slightly different to all the media hype. I feel as though the place of my most cherished memories, my mental retreat has come under attack.

Tohoku is assuredly part of Japan and a part of the Japanese economy. But it is also part of the world, with resonances across the globe not immediately apparent from any simple categorization. Selfishly, I will always believe it to be my Tohoku and it is for this reason, and a thousand others, that I wish it a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Catastrophe in Japan

On Monday morning I took a call from the London Evening Standard asking me if I would like to pen a few words in reaction to the devastating earthquake and catastrophic tsunami. Beyond the obvious misery of human loss and the usual palaver about 'economic impact', my thoughts turned to how this terrible event will shape the future psyche of the Japanese nation:

There is of course a lot more to be said on this subject and tonight I expanded on it a little in an interview on the BBC's World News Today.

Longer musings on the disaster will follow shortly, but for the moment my heartfelt condolences to all those affected by the tragedy. My own memories of being caught in the devastation of Kobe in 1995 have been brought all too vividly back to mind.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Three Cornered World

Yesterday in the post arrived a couple of copies of the new edition of The Three Cornered World and very pretty it looks too. It's the fourth book from Peter Owen (apart from my own on Soseki in London) for which I've contributed a chunky introduction, and this one has the added bonus of an afterword by me analysing all the calligraphy for the entire series. (Is my analysis getting too Freudian? I describe the frontispiece calligraphy for Kokoro as 'surging spermatozoa (that) tail back into a receiving 'feminine' character'. Yikes, hope I'm not the only one seeing testosterone there.)

It really is a great honour to introduce a masterpiece like The Three Cornered World (TCW) to a new generation of readers. It's not just one of the great Japanese books, it's one of the supreme masterpieces of the twentieth century. And good to know I'm in good company thinking that. One of the most fascinating aspects of the story of TCW is the way it was beloved by Glenn Gould (1932-82), that fascinating, maverick, musical genius.

Gould came across TCW quite by accident. He never visited Japan; indeed due to his dislike of flying, after his retirement from concert playing in his early thirties, he never left North America. In 1967 he was taking a vacation in Nova Scotia from his home in Toronto, when he was approached in the club car of the train by a professor of chemistry called William Foley, a great admirer of Gould's work. The two men fell into conversation and it seems that Foley mentioned to Gould (pictured left) a
wonderful book he had just read called The Three Cornered World. When the time came to part, the world's most famous pianist presented Foley with his recording of Beethoven's Emperor concerto. Foley later returned the favour by sending Gould a copy of TCW. (There's a very nice equivalence here between a Beethoven musical masterpiece being exchanged for a Soseki literary masterpiece, a kind of Parnassian Swap Shop.)

It is pretty much impossible to overestimate the impact the book had on Gould. (Indeed two books by the Japanese critic Yokota Shoichiro are devoted purely to the subject of Gould and TCW). Not only did TCW become Gould's all-time favourite book, but he was obsessed with it for the last fifteen years of his life. As well as buying all Soseki's other books in translation, he ended up owning four copies of TCW (including, incredibly, two in Japanese); he read out the entire novel over the phone to his closest friend Jessie Greいg; he recorded a slightly condensed version of the first chapter for a nationwide Canadian radio show; and he compiled 37 pages of his own notes on the book. He was it seems preparing to write his own adaptation of the novel for a radio play that was to be called Shioda's Daughter before a cruel stroke brought his life to a premature end. Famously, when he died there were only two books at his bedside: The Bible and The Three Cornered World.

You can, amongst many other intriguing subjects related to this amazing novel, read more about the extraordinary story of this colllision between musical and literary geniuses in the new edition of The Three Cornered World.

A quick note too about Alan Turney, the translator of TCW. In one of my very first blogs, back in 2006, I mentioned my sadness about hearing of his death. The whole story of how, back in 1964, Turney, at age 26, only 6 years after starting to learn Japanese, managed to produce this inspired translation of a dauntingly difficult text, is thrilling. I never had the pleasure of meeting Turney, but he was one of those pioneers whose efforts and achievements - and whose subsequent lack of recognition - was something I always felt keenly.

The year before he died, Turney sent me a warm letter having read my book about Soseki in London. The new critical introduction is dedicated to his memory. It's very, very overdue, but I finally think that with this new edition this enduring masterpiece will now start to get the recognition it deserves. Mark my words: The Three Cornered World is about to be born anew.