Japanese novel review: “Desert: A Campus Life” (砂漠) by ”Kotaro Isaka” (伊坂幸太郎)

By | November 9, 2020

With the majority of both my job and hobby life involving computer screens and keyboards, I like to try and set aside some time away from technology, or at least screens. Calligraphy is a fun hobby that I’ve recently picked up, although I still use digital reference materials frequently. But audiobooks are great because they can be enjoyed in a bedroom in the dark, or during a pleasant walk in the park.

Unfortunately, despite the massive amount of Japanese audio narrations available on Youtube (many for works whose rights have expired), the audiobook scene is still somewhat lacking for full-length novels. Audiobook.jp is one of the best sites in this area, which I reviewed two years ago here. One nice thing about that site is that you can listen to previews, which give you a good idea for the content and difficulty level, something that isn’t always easy to infer from the marketing description.

When I decided to get a new audiobook it didn’t take very long to stumble upon one by Kotaro Isaka (伊坂幸太郎), who is not only a pretty big modern Japanese author but also one who I’ve already read two works of (reviewed here and here), both of which were enjoyable in their own way. The audiobook was titled “Desert” (砂漠), and cost only around 1000 Yen (~10 USD) for over 15 hours of audio. The subtitle “A Campus Life” is printed on the cover (in English) on some versions, but I don’t think it’s a formal part of the title.

This book chronicles the lives of a handful of college students across a few years of time. The story is comprised of a series of threads that intersect in various ways. There is one about spoon-bending, one about a certain comical criminal, and another about Mahjong (the Chinese traditional tile-based game). There are also some lesser events that connect the characters and make them seem more real. Action does take up a few parts of the book, but the majority is conversations between the characters. The conversations feel like real everyday conversations, but are structured so they generally have some connection to one of the threads so you aren’t just listening to random idle chat. Having said that, I felt the pacing in a few areas was a bit slow and had me wishing for more action and a more linear storyline.

In the end, the story threads are brought together in a pretty entertaining way, although I’ll have to admit this book is more about the journey than the destination. Throughout the book some themes come up that I’ve seen in other of Isaka’s works, such as responsibility, justice, and strange phenomena.

One of my least favorite parts of the book was the aforementioned Mahjong scenes. They take up a fairly big chunk of the book (or at least felt like it), and get somewhat deep into strategy and gameplay mechanics, using an array of special terms that I didn’t know and didn’t want to stop and learn Mahjong just to understand those scenes better. In the end, I was able to infer just enough to figure out how the scenes relate to the overall story. At some point I even considered stopping listening due to the Mahjong content (plus the slow pacing), but in the second part of the book there was a significant lessening of this element and higher frequency of more interesting topics. For the record I have nothing against Mahjong––in fact I love games and would like to learn Mahjong someday when I have people to play with––it’s just that I wasn’t expecting the game to be this tightly integrated in the book.

The narration is done by Kaoru Watanabe (渡部薫), who does a superb job of acting out the voice for the various characters. Listening to all the things he does to distinguish each character is truly amazing, even given that Japanese audio narrators are generally pretty well trained.

For Japanese learners, I would say that on average the language in this book is intermediate, meaning you should be able to get through it if you have (roughly) at least two or three years of study. Despite a variety of situations, there aren’t many special domain words, and the high ratio of conversation to description in the book makes it easy to follow, plus Watanabe’s excellent voice acting clarifying who is saying what. “Desert” has its share of cultural references and literary language (words you probably wouldn’t use yourself in daily life), but either they were easy to figure out, not too impactful to ignore, or I didn’t mind looking them up. Personally, the fact I had read two of the author’s books made this a pretty easy listen (though I guess over two decades of studying Japanese didn’t hurt), and it was nice to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the story without looking up every other word––except for the dreaded Mahjong parts (:

I did notice that my understanding was highest when I was taking a leisurely walk and able to focus on the audio, whereas if I tried to multitask (say, in the car) my comprehension dropped drastically, especially for understanding how characters and events interrelate. I also felt like I was able to better associate with the characters when I was concentrating. So while perhaps this is common sense to a certain extent, I would definitely put yourself in an environment where you can dedicate most of your attention to listening.

Regardless of your Japanese ability, I consider this audiobook gold mine of cultural and linguistic knowledge that nearly all Japanese students should try listening to at some point. Even if you don’t understand all of the story, just hearing the pronunciations of various words and expressions by a native speaker is very valuable. As I was listening, at one point I got the feeling that this book would be one of those things that would be good to send out on a space probe, or bury deep in the ground, since it captures so much about Japanese culture and language in one place. (I wanted to say “Rosetta Stone”, but then realized that doesn’t quite fit since there is only one language, but you get the idea.)

The fact that this book is also available in print form is another reason it is great for Japanese learners, since you can look up any words or phrases you didn’t catch by ear. Although to be fair that would apply to nearly any audio book.

Despite my issues with the Mahjong and pacing, I think it’s pretty impressive how Isaka wove everything together, and the references section at the end attests to how he even did field research for a few areas. He’s not my favorite Japanese author, but his witty, down-to-earth, and lucid writing style helps to explain why he is such a popular author in Japan now.

Unfortunately there is no English translation for this book; in fact, it appears that only one of his books has been translated into English, “Remote Control”, and this was nearly ten years ago. I guess it didn’t sell well enough to warrant publishers interest in more translations of his work.

By the way, my friend Yeti of Shosetsu Ninja reviewed this same audiobook nearly two years ago here, where he gives a bit more detail about the main characters.

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