A few weeks ago when I was browsing through the Kinokuniya Japanese Bookstore in Beaverton, I came across the novel 首里の馬 (“The Horse of Shuri”) by 高山 羽根子 (Takayama Haneko), which was advertised as a Akutagawa Award winner, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Japan. I liked the surreal cover and the book was relatively short (under 200 pages), so I decided to give it a chance. This author has a few other award-winning prior works, but I hadn’t read them, so this was my first experience with Takayama Haneko.
I’m not quite sure how to get into this review, but I’ll start by saying this one of those books that midway I was frequently thinking “What is this book really about?” and “Why did this book win an Akutagawa Award”. Unfortunately, while the elements of the plot did fit together in the end, I was still left with an empty feeling.
It’s hard to describe much of the story without giving away key information, but I’ll just say that the main character is a woman living in Okinawa who generally keeps to herself, and has both a unusual job as well as an unusual hobby. The hobby involves a special library of sorts that categories various pieces of information and objects from the past, and she helps to organize and tag those things. Her job is a bit stranger, but I won’t give that away since for me it was one of the highlights of the book, at least in terms of creative elements.
One of the reasons this book felt empty to me is that, while it does exposit some interesting ideas (in particular about the nature of information and history), the plot was just too slow paced for my liking. Furthermore, I felt the main character was very stoic, or should I say robotic, in that in most of the book I didn’t feel much in terms of emotion from her. Because of this combination of drawbacks, it was hard for me to really care about what would happen next.
While, looking back, I feel objectively there wasn’t really that much going on in much of the book, I think the fact the difficulty of the Japanese made the plot feel even slower. It’s not uncommon to only have fairly long paragraphs in this book, and the sentences themselves are quite wordy, at least judged from their length. In all fairness, the prose was well written and perhaps rather than “wordy” it would be better to call the style “literary”, but I tend to enjoy such a style when either the visual descriptions are artistically done, or the events themselves are intriguing. With a few exceptions, the prose in this book was neither. The literary style seemed more about accuracy than evoking a range of emotions in the reader––and yes, this does seem like a purposeful choice by the author, especially given the theme of information.
Besides the grammar and words themselves, there were some interesting philosophical concepts in this book, but while those were enjoyable to a degree, understanding them sometimes required re-reading a sentence two or three times over. I don’t think it’s fair to me to judge a book negatively just because of my Japanese skill (and I am not), but at least I can say with confidence that I wouldn’t recommend this to most students, unless you are at a pretty high level (say at least 3-4 years of intensive studying).
Another reason the book felt extra long was because I knew the page count was relatively low from the beginning, and hence expected it to go by fast. But when I got bogged down on page after page, I almost wished I didn’t know the page count from the get go. I’m sure there are books that were 300+ that I read in a shorter period of time or that felt shorter than this book.
If I try to imagine a native Japanese reader that is able to get through this book quickly in a day or two, surely the book would be more pleasurable. But I still think while the creative elements introduced in the first half of the story were brought together skillfully, I wished the author would have taken things in different directions. I guess there were certain things I felt were important (like the nature of the strange job I alluded to above) that the author thought were mere backstory. I was always turned off by the literary technique of using exposition (basically telling instead of showing) in the end of the book, as if a way to patch up things that might not have made sense with the events themselves. “Ningen”, which I recently reviewed, also had a similar problem.
Besides the low page count and Akutagawa Award, there was a third thing that contributed to my high expectations, and hence my eventual disappointment: something I read on the marketing band on the book. Not only did the marketing blurb give away part of the story that wasn’t spelled out until halfway through, it also turned out that the element in question was actually much less important than the blurb suggested. In other words, I felt deceived by the marketing. I feel justified to give a minor spoiler here (jump to the next paragraph if you are super sensitive about spoilers), but despite what you might hear this book really shouldn’t be categorized as science fiction. I think the cover (which shows a picture of various objects floating around in outer space), also contributed to my misunderstanding of this as a SF novel.
Thinking more about why this book won such a prestigious award, the only other thing I can think of is that the story does have some strong connections to real-world history, especially in terms of Okinawa. But while I found some of this information interesting, overall I felt it was a distraction from the story. I wish the author would have either made a stronger focus on history, or removed most of those parts.
This book also reminds me of “Nimrod”, a book that I reviewed last year that is similarly strong on ideas but weak on execution. However in that book’s case I felt the events were a bit more unusual, and there was more going on.
Having said all that, I was still glad to have read this book, and––just like in high school English class––sometimes it can be educational to finish a book even if you don’t end up enjoying it very much. In the end, perhaps this book was a little too “literary” for my tastes.
But I will still keep my eye out for more books by Takayama, not just upcoming ones but maybe I’ll check out one of her existing books.