A friend of mine told me he had heard of someone who was making an attempt to read one novel from each country in the world. This sounded like a pretty fun project, but of course my first instinct was to ask “so which novel was picked for Japan?”
The answer to this question was Hiromi Kawakami’s “Manazuru”, published in 2009 in Japanese and translated to English in 2010.
The novel’s title revers to a small coastal city in the Kanto region (Shinagawa prefecture), which has only around 8,000 people. Kei, the book’s main character, is a woman whose husband Rei has been missing for some time. She on occasion has the feeling that she is being followed by someone or something, and is mysteriously drawn to Manazuru, which seems to have some inexplicable connection with her lost husband.
I’ll avoid discussing the details of the storyline as to not ruin the suspense and mystery, and just say that I really enjoyed this book’s dream-like, surrealistic atmosphere, which was interspersed with scenes from everyday life. Certain parts reminded me of classic movies including Inception, What Dreams May Come, and The Sixth Sense.
I typically have a hard time imaging scenes of a novel like this, but for whatever reason I found the descriptions just detailed enough (with being overbearing) for invoking the sights, sounds, feelings, and smells experienced by the main character. Certain parts of the novel (I almost wrote movie here) were very memorable and I feel they will stay in my mind for quite some time. Within the category of Japanese novels I’ve read (either in English or Japanese), this is definitely in the top ten, possibly five.
As part of my long-term effort to improve my Japanese reading skills and appreciation for Japan’s literature, I chose to read this novel in the original Japanese. Though I consider reading Japanese texts one of my stronger points (with conversation being somewhat weaker), it still took considerable effort to make it through this book to the end. Unless you are quite comfortable with reading in Japanese (with something like at least 3-5 years of experience) I’d say it’s probably best to stick with the English version.
One of the challenging things is the way dialog or a character’s thoughts is sometimes threaded throughout a paragraph. Topics can change mid-paragraph, and since subjects are frequently often omitted in Japanese it makes it even harder to follow. Some of the dialog uses proper demarkation with the traditional 「」quotation marks, but some is just floating out there in a a sentence. Here is a example (page 205):
Typically I would expect something like the following.
Sometimes the quotation marks are used but と omitted, sometimes not. You can get used to this after some time, but it takes extra effort to follow what is going on.
There were also some expressions I had never seen before, like 「noun + ~だのに」 (I had thought only 〜なのに was correct, but 〜だのに appears to be a more classical expression).
The average level of the vocabulary isn’t that bad, but there was usually a few words per page I didn’t know or hadn’t seen in some time. A few examples: 峻別（しゅんべつ）, 祠 (ほこら）、蕊（しべ）, 悪阻（おそ）, 古希（こき) 、倦む（うむ）, 辟易（へきえき）, 鬢（びん）, 漲る（みなぎる). I’d be very surprised (and impressed) if any self-study of Japanese knew of all these words’ readings and meanings. Furigana coverage was so-so for unusual characters but a few times I was clueless on a Kanji and had to resort to radical lookup. Having said that, if you don’t know at least a few thousand common characters you’ll find yourself constantly looking up Kanji.
Though typically Japanese found in literature is quite different from what an average person would speak on the street, there is a quite bit of daily life dialog in this book which may help you learn a few phrases to use in conversation.
All in all, I highly recommend this book as a work of serious Japanese literature, whether you choose the English or Japanese version. At times I felt it was a masterpiece, and others was disappointed, but without a doubt it is a very worthy read. In fact, this book is on my list of books to re-read 5 or 10 years from now when I can hopefully read at a faster pace, and read even deeper into the meanings of the various story elements. After all, it’s the type of story that you can easily miss things the first time around.
Oddly enough, I was disappointed to hear this book had already been translated to English, having dreamed of how much fun it would be to do it myself (: