Book Review: Inheritance from Mother, by Minae Mizumura

Inheritance from Mother is a two-part novel: Part I is almost entirely a flashback, describing protagonist Mitsuki’s mother’s prolonged decline and intercutting scenes of their relationship; Part II takes place at a resort hotel, where Mitsuki has gone to figure out what to do about her unhappy marriage (and it also contains many flashbacks). Part II was more pleasant for me to read, since I like hotel settings and internal dialogue in which characters figure out what to do.

The latter part contains one of the best portraits of relationship disappointment I’ve ever read:

As she sang, she felt enveloped in the peculiar bliss of singing – the sense that, at least for that fleeting moment, the world is in harmony.

She was halfway through the first verse when Tetsuo quietly left her side and walked slowly off to the pier.

The ship’s whistle sobbing, a flutter of cherry petals.’ She sang on alone, watching his figure grow smaller.

Why?

That was the first ‘why’ of her married life.

She herself was fond of hearing others sing at the chansonnier. Her past boyfriends had enjoyed hearing her sing. And Tetsuo was her husband – shouldn’t he listen gladly? This precise thoughts had not come to her at the time, but she had felt a voiceless cry tear through her, like an echo from the bottom of a deep well. (275-276)

Like Haruki Murakami, Mizumura includes copious references to Western music and literature, yet she also, without becoming nativist or reactionary, expresses resentment at the general degradation and sense of trauma that has accompanied Westernization.

Of course, culture flows both ways, and for every Mizumura character reading Madame Bovary, there is a Westerner like me reading Mizumura. On the subject of world literature, it seems to me that Japanese writers best capture the essence of modern bourgeois life: culturally amalgamated, materialist, and reflective, if not spiritual. Perhaps I am reading different literatures in search of different facets of the human experience in time. If Japanese novels are the best representations of the present, it is in European (especially Hungarian) literature that I find the most homesick remembrances of the past. American literature is where I turn for liberating visions of the future – which seem, ironically, to have been most vivid in the past.

(Maybe this last observation explains why I set my great American novel in seventeenth-century China.) At any rate, I will enjoy reading all of Mizumura’s books.

No! Speed Racer, No!

A quarter cup of non-decaffeinated coffee has unlocked repressed memories of watching Speed Racer as a five-year old, which I always found extremely scary and confusing. The contrast between Speed’s cute family life and the appalling evil and danger to which he subjected himself was just so bizarre and impossible to assimilate that it has troubled me ever since.  Watching it on after-school TV, which suggested normalcy, was a real mind-fucker, too.

Now I am hysterical.

I rant: “If you’re a professional car racer, you can’t just kill the other drivers!”

I invent ironic dialogue: “So long, Pops, Trixie, Spritle. I’ve signed up for a race through an active volcano. If I win, I’ll bring home a big trophy, and we’ll go someplace nice for dinner. If I lose, I’ll be burned to a crisp in molten lava, along with twenty other people.”

And, of course, I take to YouTube, finding the show’s opening credit. I watch it over and over, really freaking out. Check out the boyish grin at 0:28 and nonchalant murder at 0:40.

Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.

The Last Eatery in Japan

This is the last photo I took in Japan. I turned around and snapped a picture of the FaSoLa Cafe, just before going through Gate ?? at Narita Airport, down the jetway, and onto my plane.

There is something fascinating about the FaSoLa. You experience Japan as an apparently endless succession of restaurants, cafes, bistros, snack bars, patisseries, and ice cream stands — but actually it isn’t endless, and the little cafe at Narita (the FaSoLa, in this case), just yards from your gate, is the Last Station. Here you can park your carry-on bag and sit down at a clean table for one last aloe-laden grape drink and yakisoba, while the last few minutes of Japanese television you are apt to see for a while provides the backdrop. Then, you wipe your mouth, take your tray to the collection counter, make sure the table is tidy for the next guest — and leave a spiritual imprint of yourself there, while picking up a little memory in return. You walk just a few steps, through the gate, down the jetway, and through the main hatch.

The next time you walk through it, as you deplane, the FaSoLa won’t be there anymore. It will have transformed into a bank of Burger Kings, Jamba Juices, and Quiznos.’ You’ll be in America, as if you never left — except for the little bit of yourself that you gave to the FaSoLa and the little bit of it that you brought with you.

Japan Journal: How to Bathe in an Onsen (Hot Springs Bath)

Here are a few pearls of wisdom concerning hot springs bathing in Japan.

  1. Know Before You Go. Try to distinguish between a mere communal bathhouse (OHURO) and a true hot springs bath (ONSEN). The latter, of course, will require access to a volcanic vent of some kind; but most towns with onsen will advertise them heavily, for they are a huge part of the tourist industry.
  2. Learn the Rules of the House. Onsen can be complicated. The larger establishments will have a small locker at the entrance, in which you store your shoes. Put in your 100 yen (which is usually returned when you leave) and take your key. Then, check your shoe locker key when you buy your entrance ticket and get your main locker key, which will usually be on a wristband (cause you gonna be nekkid in a minute, with no pocket to put it in). You will also need to know what amenities (like soap and shampoo) the house has available, either for free or for purchase; if they are not provided, you will have to bring them. Most experienced bathers invest in plastic baskets for their soap, shampoo, and towels. If they live in an onsen town like Hakodate (where I am now), they keep their baskets in their cars, enabling them to bathe on a whim, without having to return home for supplies (or for bathing). At any rate, when you enter the locker room, find your locker and put everything in it but your locker key. Smaller onsen might have wicker baskets instead of lockers, in which case, you might feel more comfortable leaving your wallet in the car or at home. Some bathers carry a washcloth into the bath area proper, to employ as a fig leaf, but you can go in buck nekkid, with nothing but the locker key around your wrist, and no one will call you daffy.
  3. The Washing. As most Americans know, in Japan, you don’t wash in the tub; you wash before getting in the tub. At an onsen, you do your washing while seated on a little stool at a washing station, which includes a hand-held shower head and a larger spigot for filling a little plastic or wooden bucket, also provided. The washing stations are in a row, before a long mirror. You will have to sit your ass down on the little stool, which is about six inches off the ground. Americans, unaccustomed to squatting, may find the action difficult; and Americans also tend to be more portly than the average Japanese, in which case they will find their bellies on their laps – or their laps on their bellies. Anyway, in this rather unnatural posture, you will wash yourself. You may use the hand-held shower sprayer, or you may fill your little bucket with water and dump it over yourself. You usually can control the water temperature, but many of the “on” levers are time-sensitive and will shut the water off after a few seconds, sometimes leaving you with a face full of soapsuds. This mode of washing is not as efficient as an American shower. You will find it especially challenging, whether you are portly or not – I should say no matter how portly you are – to wash and rinse your nether parts, while sitting on the stool. You may want to get back to your feet to do it, but rising again will require some exertion and will result in your standing nekkid next to another man, with his head about waist-high. Therefore, you will probably just have to discover some way to get the water down there while seated. The hand-held nozzle will do the trick, if you are aggressive with it, but you will have to get over your self-consciousness (if you still have any, that is) and forget how it looks. Warning: Some of the larger establishments might have one or two American-style showers in the room, and you will be tempted to sneak into one of these and get your washing done much faster; but these showers are for rinsing off the onsen water when you’re all done. If you use soap in there, you may get a talking to (by a nekkid man), as I did once, supposedly because you will have created a slip hazard with your soap but really because it’s not fair for you to shampoo and wash efficiently while no one else can. You must conform to the custom of the house, even if it means lathering and rinsing your bum, one cheek at a time, while doing a gyrating lap dance with a water jet, sitting on a low plastic stool with a hole in the middle of it.
  4. The Soaking. Now that you’re squeaky clean, you’re ready for the onsen proper. All onsen will have at least one indoor pool, and most will also have an outdoor pool. If there is more than one indoor pool, they probably contain water of different temperatures, usually medium, scalding, and boiling. There may also be a special, “herbal” pool featuring a treatment du jour such as aloe, lavender, chamomile, and so on; and some bathhouses include a pool of cold water, for polar bears. Go ahead and try as many as there are (except the polar bear water). The hotter baths you will only be able to stand for a minute or so. Note that when you move while immersed, you will get burned. This is because your body is cooling the water; so when you move your leg, for example, you are moving it out of cooler water and into the real soup. Stay in each pool until you are miserable, and then move to the next one. When you feel that your chest has turned into a pot roast, it’s time to step outside.
  5. The Air. Here is where your experience will turn delightful. The outdoor pool, if there is one, will be situated on a terrace or in an enclosed garden-like area. By all means, take an additional soak in the outdoor pool, but your objective, after your body temperature is maxed out, will be to get out of the water (take it easy as you climb out, or you might faint) and to find a nice place to sit down, where you won’t be disturbed. It may be a rock (which will leave an interesting pattern on your tooshie) or a lawn chair (the plastic will feel icky at first contact – splash some onsen water on it first) or a flat tree stump. Your body will be so hot that the season won’t matter; you can stay out in the open, even in winter. I myself enjoy winter bathing for the unique experience of hanging out nekkid in the falling snow, with the public address playing atmospheric music-box sounds, and ice forming in my hair. Even in summer, though, the air feels marvelous (it will always be cooler than what you’ve just been in), and if the sulfur of the onsen has done its work, your lungs will have opened, cleared, and expanded to such a degree that every deep inhalation will seem to fill your whole body, your whole world, your whole soul. You will lose your anchor to the earth and expect to float off the ground. If you are in a truly exquisite onsen, the outdoor pool will have been designed with a dreamlike view. A few hours ago, I was perched on a rock next to the outdoor pool at the Isaribikan, hollowed out and euphoric, gazing across at Mount Hakodate, all sparkling at night, while squid boats bearing isaribi (the bright squid-attracting lights that give the Isaribikan its name) rounded Cape Tachimachi and formed a dotted line across the water (just like in the photo, except that I’m a man and I was out of the water). My skin was tingling, as it dried in the caressing breeze.
  6. The Rinse. The light, unlocked feeling will stay with you, even after you remember yourself and sense that it’s time to go to rejoin your family or friends. You will need to rinse the sulfur water off, back at a washing station or in the shower, if there is one. As you do so, you may wish to try one last sensual experiment: Use the plastic or wooden bucket to douse yourself with cool water. It sure feels nice running through your hair and down your back. Then, dry off, get dressed, and go home feeling like a million bucks.
  7. Answers to Questions You May Be Afraid to Ask. Many Americans fantasize about uninhibited exotics and assume that coed bathing is common in Japan. It isn’t. About 99% of Japanese onsen, every one I’ve visited, are segregated by sex. If you happen to find a KONYOKU (coed onsen), it will probably be empty or filled with elderly people who, presumably, aren’t the reason you want to go. If you want to get nekkid with your significant other (of the opposite sex), you can try a family (KAZOKU) onsen, but you will find it about as romantic as an ordinary bathroom, which is pretty much what it is. I’m also not sure if groups of unrelated people would be allowed into a family onsen. There is one other thing you may try (besides going someplace really sleazy, in which case, I can provide no insight): At some of the outdoor onsen, the male and female pools are separated only by a partition; it may be possible, if no one else is around, to lean out beyond the partition and give your friend(s) on the other side a little peep show.
  8. One More Thing. Until recently, tattoos in Japan would mark a man as a gangster and a woman as a prostitute. Attitudes concerning tattoos are changing, but many onsen may still bar your entry, if you have one. Once, however, I was at a large onsen, toward closing time, and suddenly, about twenty men with full-back tattoos came in all at once. I suppose that that particular onsen had made some kind of deal with the yakuza, allowing their members to get in for a few minutes before the end of business. So there I was, standing nekkid in the shower, surrounded by twenty gangsters. In the event, I didn’t look at them, and they didn’t look at me. It was as though there were a nekkid gentlemen’s agreement.