Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

May 15, 2015

Woman Running in the Mountains

Woman Running in the Mountains by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt (Pantheon Books, 1991)

She was a full six months pregnant by the time her mother noticed. Her mother at once launched into an endless stream of angry questions, demanding to know why hadn't she gotten an abortion, how had it happened, who was the man, did she want his child because she loved him, was he a married man, did he know, did she plan to bring it up herself, did she think she knew how, was she doing this to get back at her parents, did she have such a grudge against her father, did she realize what this would do to her life, and just what was the big idea?

The consistency with which Tsushima Yūko plumbed the stories of single women dealing with pregnancy and motherhood is impressive. The women in her narratives face debilitating domestic situations. As in this novel where Takiko Okada found herself constrained to bring out a child in a society where her kind is being discriminated against. Even her pregnancy does not deter her father from physically assaulting her several times.

But Tsushima's Takiko does not belong to the traditional mold of feminist heroines. Her protagonists start out as uncaring of their lot in life. The shift in their disposition is very slow in coming. The process of discovery and recognition is a slow burning of indifference and reflection. Takiko doesn't or can't particularly think far ahead of her situation. She can be profoundly apathetic. And she can be ruthlessly pragmatic. They are, at best, passive resisters of life.

When they'd told her at dawn, "It's a healthy baby boy," they must have been talking about her child. But she could also have dreamed those words. She was in no hurry to find out. Whether what she'd given birth to was alive or dead, and what it might be like if it was alive, need not concern her right now. Takiko couldn't help being profoundly relieved to find that her own body seemed to have come through safely. As long as she, at least, could live that would be enough. She couldn't let anything happen to her because of this, not when it had turned out to be such a simple thing.

Little by little, Takiko starts to acknowledge her motherhood. She enrolls her son in a baby home and actively participates in recording and reading the baby's progress in a journal.

Mon., Jan 1 (cloudy)
 7:15   Formula (200 cc).
10:10  Playing on his own.
11:00  Pumpkin puree (small amount).
           Formula (200 cc).
11:50  Started crying.
12:10  Bed.
 1:00   Woke up and started crying.
 1:30   Juice (120 cc).
 3:00   Formula (200 cc).
 4:30   Very bad temper.
 5:30   Bed.
 6:00   Started to howl.
 6:20   Gave him a crust to suck.
 7:30   Formula (200 cc).
 9:00   Started to cry.
 9:30   Bath.
 9:45  Juice (120 cc)

The long stretches of this journal in the book are puzzling and yet somehow illuminating. The writing is accessible, with flashes of engaging haiku-like lyricism, yet the ideas are modernist and complex. This novel mystifies through suggestiveness and avoids being too subtle. Her naturalistic writing in this book is beyond subtle. It can even veer toward comedy of the dark kind.

Takiko closed her eyes and relaxed. The bed was slow to warm up. The snow outside had given the room an icy chill, the first real cold of the winter. In the living room the kerosene heater would still be burning with a bluish flame. There might well be an earthquake in the night, or one of the men [her father and drinking companions] might knock it over with his foot and start a fire. But so what if there was a fire? Since Atsushi [her brother] would no doubt rescue their mother, at worst those three men would burn to death, and she and Akira [her baby] as well if she didn't wake up; and the house would burn down. That was the worst that could happen, and it wouldn't be any great loss. If she turned the heater off the three men might freeze to death in this drafty house. Seeing as how they were such old friends, born in the same town, that might not be such a bad way to go. But if everyone were calmly to wake up tomorrow morning without having burned or frozen to death, that wouldn't be a bad thing either.

In this novel published in Japan in 1980 and in her first, Child of Fortune (1978) and in The Shooting Galler and Other Stories, Tsushima has mapped out the subterranean consciousness of women responding to difficulties in their lives in their own singular ways, responding to the shifting societal and economic forces in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s.

The choices Takiko made, for better or worse, are hers alone. This is what ultimately defines her and how she came to achieve her sense of self.

She didn't regret it, nor did she think she ought to go down on her knees and apologize to her mother. This wasn't something that an apology would solve. It wasn't something that allowed regrets and second tries. All she could do was go on giving Akira his bottle and watching her parents, her brother, and her self, without regrets. There was nothing else she could do: this was the conclusion she inevitable reached. She had given birth to a baby that no one had wanted her to have, a birth to which she alone had consented. Regrets were not permitted.

Takiko's passivity ("All she could do ...")  belies the power she gained from acknowledging and accepting the repercussions of her decisions. Takiko herself is a complex portrait of a society coming slow to a liberal mindset. This is reflected in the three-part structure of the book, mirroring the various changes in her employment status as she constantly changes jobs to support her baby. The structure follows Takiko's gradual recovery of her self-worth, in her own eyes and in the eyes of the reader. Suffice it to say that the third act of the book involves a literal mountain and a man that opens her eyes to wider horizons. The mountain as an elevated destination. The ideal place to reconcile inner with outer conflicts. From which she would descend with a newer purpose.

With thanks to the translator Geraldine Harcourt for a copy of the book and for sharing her translation of a very insightful kaisetsu (commentary) by Tomoyuki Hoshino which appeared as an afterword in the novel's 2006 paperback edition in Japanese.

May 9, 2015

The Deleted World

The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer, tr. Robin Robertson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

I close my eyes.
There is a silent world,
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled over the border.


The last lines of Tomas Tranströmer's poem "Midwinter" closed the collection The Deleted World. It ended with an eerie image of the silent world and the dead being trafficked through a crack. The poems themselves offered a silent procession of images and left the reader with an atmosphere of foreboding. The world was not the only thing deleted, but words were seemingly redacted to produce extremely short poems. What's left were bare traces of ideas and a profound sense of incompleteness. Even crowding faces—of houses or the couple, it was not exactly clear—was cancelled. The landscape was as if annulled.

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowd in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.

—"The Couple"

Whole poems themselves were seemingly deleted. The reader was treated to only 15 short pieces, in a book that ran for mere 37 pages, half of which were devoted to the original poems in Swedish facing the English versions of Robin Robertson. The criminally sparse selection of poems terminated a lot of potential richness from Tranströmer's oeuvre. It was a rather short introduction to the poet, though it in some ways gave an impression that the selection was representative of the poet's 11 books of poetry. Because the poems were short, the lines were short, the book was short, image subtraction and language condensation were the order of the day.

Tranströmer was a poet of compression. He could write poems using language, yet without using words. The poet confessed that he was "sick of those who come with words."

From March 1979

Sick of those who come with words, words but no language,
I make my way to the snow-covered island.

Wilderness has no words. The unwritten pages
stretch out in all directions.

I come across this line of deer-slots in the snow: a language,
language without words.

The wordless natural world described everything for him. Language was derived from the essential meaning of silence. The utterance of words—mere superfluous words—would disturb the balance of nature. The Nobel laureate had the luxury to repudiate the wordiness of modern society as he was a deleter of the inessential. He was a tranströmer of words.

May 1, 2015

Monosyllabic snails

In an essay in Campo Santo (2003), a posthumous collection of prose writings, W. G. Sebald provided a critical review of From the Diary of a Snail (1974) by Günter Grass. The critique in "Constructs of Mourning: Günter Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer" was consistent to Sebald's championing of factual context in fiction, instead of unsupported imagination, to deal with episodes of the war and war bombings.

Grass died less than a month ago at the age of 87. One read his many obituaries and found there a coverage of a literary life that inevitably highlighted, that never failed to mention, the novelist's controversial revelation of serving in the Waffen SS at age 17. The admission came very late in his life, recounted in the autobiographical work Peeling the Onion (2006). For some this has tainted the legacy of a novelist who had been seen as a leading voice or conscience of a generation.

Why did it take so long for him to share this information. He wrote in his memoir: “What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it.”

In Sebald's essay, published way back in 1983, a detection and analysis of this tendency was already apparent. The insight into a writer's internal anguish was spot on.

From time to time a sense of fraternity in a common cause spreads among the generation of "quadragenarians" who hope for a new political dawn and who, Grass thinks, "seem to be trying to compensate by overproduction for the reduced achievement of a few decimated war years." The reader almost feels that the author finds absolution for what still irks him about the German past, although he knows himself innocent of it, in his practical commitment to a better German political system, and that only in active politics and the hectic taste of traveling—identified by [Heinrich] Böll in his Frankfurt Lectures as a particularly German form of desperation—can he keep a little way ahead of those resolute, monosyllabic snails Guilt and Shame. [emphasis supplied]

Sebald provided the source for the monosyllabic snails in a footnote.

In Tagebuch einer Schnecke (From the Diary of a Snail), Grass tells his children: "It's true: you're innocent. I, too, born almost late enough, am held to be free from guilt. Only if I wanted to forget, if you were unwilling to learn how it slowly happened, only then might words of one syllable catch up with us: words like guilt and shame; they, too, resolute snails, impossible to stop" (p. 13; Eng., p. 13). The most notable feature of this passage is the less than convincing logic of the last couple of lines.

His negative assessment in that last sentence, in the light of Grass's revelation, took on a double-edged meaning. There was hindsight in that sentence. A leveling of the insurmountable burden of guilt progressing into the field with a pace as slow and as laborious as a snail's.

Campo Santo was translated by Anthea Bell, From the Diary of a Snail was translated by Ralph Manheim, and Peeling the Onion was translated by Michael Henry Heim.

April 30, 2015

Two paintings by Caravaggio in Saint John's Co-Cathedral

I visited the island state of Malta during the last week of March to attend a meeting on biosphere reserves organized by UNESCO and the national committees of Jeju and Menorca Biosphere Reserves. On the third day of the conference, we had a chance to cross over by ferry to Gozo Island until lunchtime, and later, to go around the capital city of Valletta.

At St. John's Co-Cathedral (there are two cathedrals named St. John) one looks up with awe at ceiling paintings forming a mosaic of Biblical themes. Surely, these frescoes are divinely inspired.

At the right side, one enters a door opening to a small room whose centerpiece is a large Caravaggio. "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist" (1608) depicts the anticlimactic yet still riveting moment when the prophet's head was about to be cut and put on a plate to be offered to Salome. This painting, the largest canvas ever painted by the master, is a fine piece of chiaroscuro. The combined gestures of the participants even after the murder of a man can produce a vertiginous sensation or asphyxia on the viewer. The horrified fascination of the two men looking out the window at the right was evident not from their faces but from the bent angles of their upper bodies. The commanding finger of the bearded man pointing down to the plate where the head will be exhibited was a menacing figure of authority if only because of the leisurely pose of his legs and his (hidden) left arm on his waist. The young lady at the left already stooped so low, bending in advance to receive the head. The old lady with hands on faces antedating Edvard Munch's The Scream by close to 300 years.

This is only one among numerous painted decapitations that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) produced in his short, chaotic life, notable not only for the size of the canvas, but for the painter's signature writ from the blood that flowed from Saint John's slit head. The artist's statement cries out loud here. Art not only as a vehicle for self-immolation, the fictional insertion of the destroyed self, but also the supreme sacrifice of death (however metaphoric) in the service of some personal, and hence, political, vision of apocalypse. The death of man at the hands of another is a subject worth dying for in literal blood.

Another much smaller painting, also by Caravaggio, is placed at the opposite side of the room. Saint Jerome Writing shows the heroic figure of an old man writing on a desk. The man's demeanor, his emaciated body, and the skull on the table, convey an intimation of mortality and death.

A recently unearthed earlier Caravaggio painting, this time of Saint Augustine, shows the same motifs of concentrated gaze, writing, skull, and a dark background. The saints, writing in repose or bled to death by a sword, have captured for the painter the intensity of feelings, of the immediacy of life and the nearness of death.

January 30, 2015


Pesoa by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles (Balangay Books, 2014)

The spelling of the title was not wrong. Pesoa, as in Ernando. A letter subtracted was a new word gained. The poet Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles was a connoisseur of found meanings. His latest collection featured what was called "blackout poetry" or "poetry of subtraction" or "erasures" or "redaction poetry." Portions of a text were redacted, leaving out words or phrases that formed new contexts and new reading experiences. An altered book.


The text in this case was a book by the late playwright Rene O. Villanueva's memoir of childhood called Personal: Mga Sanaysay sa Lupalop ng Gunita (Personal: Essays in the Territory of Memory). Villanueva traced a portrait of a young man developing his artistic sensibilities. Arguelles traced the portrait of a self discovering his other selves, his heteronyms.


The ghost of the Portuguese poet haunted the spaces between words. But Pessoa and I might as well be Borges and I. We did not know which of the two – the poet or his persona (or even the persona of his persona) – wrote the page. And which of the two was imploring the other.

Hindi ako nakasisiguro
kung nakakasulat siya
at nakakabasa. Habang
kaharap ko siya,
nakakaharap ko rin ang
aking sarili: na kung
bakit hinding-hindi ko

[I am not certain
if she can read
or write. While
facing her,
I also face
my self: whom I wonder
why I never ever

The poet's (or her persona's) existential crisis led to an attempt to excavate her one true self from the confusion of words in the text. The forcefully imposed words (only) served to reinforce the quest for the poetic identity.

Matay ko mang tingnan ang sarili ko sa salamin, hindi ko makita yung nakikita
ko sa hindi ako. Hirap na hirap akong magpakuha ng retrato. Hindi ko makikita
sa retrato ang ako sa retrato. Iniaangat ko ang mukha na parang lumang mukha.

[However much I gaze at myself in the mirror, I do not see what I see
in what's not me. I find it so hard to get my picture taken. I will not discover
in the photo the I in the photo. I turn my face up as if it's an old face.]

Her confusion leads to a profusion of selves. Many selves. The crisis was not resolved until she embraced her multiplicity.

Sa kabuuan, palinga-linga ang mata
ko kung saan-saan. Minsan, wala
namang kadahi-dahilan. Sa kauna-
unahang pagkakataon, natuklasan
kong iba sa sarili ko ang pinag-
uusapang ako. Hindi lamang ako.
Marami ako.

[In sum, my eyes wander
around. Sometimes, for
no reason at all. For the very
first time, I found out
that the I they talk about was
not me. Not only me.
I am manifold.]


The "I" was legion and determined. The self was the many true selves. The poetic persona was liberated by her mystical self. She was who she was.

Marami ang ako o hindi ako. At kulang ang sarili.
Pero ako, ako! Siyempre hindi ako lang ako. Maya-
maya, ipagpapatuloy ko ang paghakbang, tatawirin
ang labirinto, maglalakad.

[The I and not-I was manifold. And the self was lacking.
But I, I! Of course I am not merely I. Later,
I shall continue my journey, cross
the labyrinth, and walk.]


Day by day, according to the poet, her list of selves was getting longer and longer. She lost her way into the words. Her world was deleted, captioned. Yet she endured.

The process of redaction was here accepted without question. What emerged from the disappearing words was not a character but a multitude of characters, of selves. The erasure expanded the coverage of identity to embrace other characterizations, other labyrinthine ways of expressing one's selves.

The reader, however, could only see the clean and clear lines of the poetry, not the physical evidence of erasure, of blacked out words. It was all to be taken on faith. The product was shown but not the process. The short short poems were set out in clean, wide margins. The self must be evident.


What is a review but an abstraction of reading, a subtraction of the author's intents? And is not the translation of erasures another set of erasures?

* Translations are mine. I used the feminine gender in the translation although the gender of Tagalog pronouns (panghalip) is indeterminate or neutral. This is to highlight the distance that separates the male poet from his creation, the writer from his heteronym.

With thanks to K.D. for a copy of the book.