I hate my brain…

Month: December, 2011

Akira Yoshimura, “On Parole”

I realised that a book should be reviewed fresh. I finished it on the 25th December but my memory of its details has already started to fade. Hence, I thought that we should fold the Christmas laziness neatly and store it in the drawer until the next year and get cracking with the review.

Try as I might, I could not find a comprehensive biography of Yoshimura. Well, maybe apart from the rudimentary information that he was born in 1927, received the Yomiuri Prize and was a president of the Japanese Writers’ Union. It would be interesting to find out a bit more on the background of a writer whose books are such a good and peculiar read. Having gone through “One Man’s Justice” and anxiously moved through “Shipwrecks,” I was quite happy to see “On Parole” in the post one day so I could see if it lives up to the quality of his other two, much-revered novels. And I must say it did not disappoint!

“On Parole” is a story of Shiro Kikutani, an ex-Japanese teacher who was given the life sentence after committing a murder. The act, whose details we are not given away until about one-third of the book, was murdering his adulterous wife and her lover, before moving on to burning the lover’s house with his mother in it. The story begins with his conditional release for good behavior.

This is the moment we start accompanying Kikutani in his journey through much-changed Japan he hasn’t seen the true picture of for fifteen years. We experience his awe with great concrete skyscrapers, ticket machines in train stations, love hotels in Tokyo. Despite his crime, we get to know Kikutani as a righteous man who through gratitude to his parole officer, Kiyoura, feels obliged to try his utmost best and assimilate within the new reality he was released into. He is offered a position in a chicken farm which he accepts and where he fulfills all his duties diligently. We see him through the process of getting an apartment and dealing with all the peculiarities of it. One cannot help but notice that prisoners released after a long time seem to be in a similar sort of predicament to children, who having lost their secure day-to-day routine of waking-up and bedtimes, meals and spare-time activities, are thrown into an increasingly complex reality with a mounting number of duties, oversaw by the parole officers as their parents/supervisors. Even a prosaic thing like an automatic umbrella elicits a vivid reaction in Igarashi, Kikutani’s fellow inmate released at the same time:

The woman behind the counter pushed a button on the handle, and the umbrella unfolded in front of them. Igarashi’s eyes danced, and he laughed out loud like a small child.

As paroled ex-convicts they are required by law to meet their supervisor twice a month for a casual but detailed chat providing the account of all their doings from the preceding two weeks. Another testimony of this is provided in the part where Kikutani is encouraged by Yoshimura to leave the halfway house (where all parolees are put and which serves as sort of a buffer zone between the prison and the real world) and find an apartment of his own. As much as Kikutani trusts his parole supervisor as someone with a large baggage of experience on the matter of dealing with convicts, he is insistent on staying in the nearest proximity of the halfway house instead of moving somewhere farther away to gain a bit more independence. This seems to illustrate how strong are the relationships of the parolees with their supervisors who act as parents, guardians introducing the newcomer to the world to the real life context.

Kikutani’s story seems to be composed of two parts, the above being one of them. The other, and more important one, is the reason why the entire story happens in the first place. We witness how Kikutani struggles with forgetting the fact that he actually took somebody’s life. The entire re-assimilation into the society serves the role of a therapy, not only of becoming a law-abiding citizen again, but also to break free from the perception of himself as a murderer. This is the aspect of the story that binds the entire plot together. We are guided through the obstacles of his professional and personal life but truly it is his effort that his past remains hidden which he most focuses on, of which we see numerous examples:

– I just wanted to ask you before I start there: does the boss know that I killed someone?

– Of course he knows. I didn’t go into details, and he didn’t ask, but I did tell him that there were extenuating circumstances.

– Do you think he’ll tell other people who work there about me?

or

– Did he know that I just got out of prison?

– Probably, almost certainly. I’m sure what sort of place I run. But if there’s one thing you can say for this realtor, he’s tight-lipped. He won’t say a word to the landlord or the manager. Otherwise, I wouldn’t use him.

As brutal as his crime is, Yoshimura never judges Kikutani, does not evaluate his deed. All that is done through the eyes of the character himself, reminiscing about the event. Whether it’s work, interaction with others, or a simple stroll through the city, initially everything brings the memories of that night. Yoshimura is very scrupulous in describing the process of reintroducing Kikutani back into the society, being very particular with describing his thoughts, fears and desires. Just like “Shipwrecks” and “One Man’s Justice”, here too the author managed to create a psychologically plausible transition of the protagonist from the constrained, gray world of metal bars into the (relatively) free existence in a modern metropolis. The reader feels along with Kikutani, experiences his anxiety, his surprise when a woman leaving a love hotel in downtown Tokio strikingly resembles his wife, his panic when a co-worker asks him about his private life, his pleasure from successfully looking after his pet fish.

Fundamentally, the novel is a story of grief and repentance.  The descriptions of Kikutani at work, moving to his new apartment, shopping, feeding his fish provide the background for what is really the core of the story. At the beginning of the book and in several further points we learn that the primary condition for a man to be paroled is to truly regret committed actions so that one’s re-socialisation can be successful. Kikutani tries his best, just and righteous as he is, to enter the society again, worthy of being able to call himself a citizen. He puts a lot of effort into pulling his life together and reinstating all its elements so that his existence is as complete as possible. However, we learn how hard it is for a man who robbed another of his life to move on, and how much discipline is required to break free from the real self.

Thanks for reading and as a newbie reviewer I would like to encourage you to comment, provide your thoughts and criticisms. Thanks a lot! 🙂

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Green is the new stupid

I certainly don’t see this clip enjoy Al Gore’s film did…

Merry Christmas…

…and a Happy New Year to all my followers, WordPressers, Twitterers, Oliver Sacks, Charles Darwin, the Japanese (I’ll come one day, finally…), my wife and anybody else! Lots of love! 😉

The tale of the Protester

I was quite surprised to see the cover of the Person Of The Year TIME with the face of an angry masked gu… wom… person whose name is simply The Protester. It seems like the concept of a guy throwing stones and yelling anti-establishment slogans has entered the mainstream awareness for a moment. I have recently collided with a guy on one of well-known drumming forums regarding the authenticity of the propositions people coming into the streets seem to be standing for. His arguments were that those guys, sitting out in Wall St, disrupting traffic are in reality kids from the so-called good homes, for whom protesting is a break from “the four year university party.” My reply was fundamentally that whoever they are, it’s them who have managed to gain mainstream media’s attention to the injustice which has been taking place in Wall St, in the American government and around the globe for quite some time, undercover, away from people’s attention, fueled by corporate and lobbyist money. As the thread was unrelated to drumming it was eventually closed but you can get yourself familiarised with the details of the exchange here.

As it happens, when something gets a lot of attention it becomes a part of the folklore, common popular awareness, and soon people talk. Just like Lady Gaga, hated by some, loved to no end by others, she’s impossible to pass without eliciting SOME sort of reaction. Similarly, the Occupy movement has risen to the status of a collective celebrity, derided or glorified. Evidently, 2011 was abundant in popular uprisings, from the Middle East, to Greece, to London and to many cities across the States. And while media portrayal of the middle eastern countries looks, and indeed is, very dramatic, to which viewers around the world respond with compassion, it seems that protesters in London and the US are quickly being labeled as spoiled kids with too much time on their hands. I would say the people’s response is proportional to the injustice they experience hence we don’t (yet) see tanks rolling down Piccadilly. Yet…

Subsequently to the London riots in August I saw an article in The Independent saying that the parents of those who looted the streets would lose their benefits, and in some cases even face eviction. Being a highly developed social aesthete (Google confirms that apparently such a word exists), in all my enthusiasm I hurried to share that news with my workmate who pitifully looked at me with an ironic smirk on his face saying “You sure it’s the people who deserve punishment?” And in spite of being an avid political sceptic, in all my ignorance I was reminded what truly is the issue. I think it was Stalin who once said that idiots are easiest to govern. I’d only like to add that idiots divided into small groups of seemingly conflicting interests are even easier to manage. Imagine a government composed of two (in some countries even more) parties which proclaim two distinct methods of making its citizens happy and violently attacking the other group’s ideas. Now imagine primary and secondary schools with very low standards and expectations towards their students, programs like “No Kid Left Behind”, universities with extortionate tuition fees whose prospective students have to take credits to “stimulate the economy.” And finally imagine an army of undereducated, consumptionist, gullible ants tossed around in the ‘rat race’ they call a career, lost in the midst of the competition for the best house, the best car, the best phone, etc… Welcome to the reality. We are the children of (for the lack of a better word) the system, and whoever thinks that people have the free will to do as they please better have pretty big balls.

I am by no means saying that protesting for ever and ever is the way to go, as it is  a means rather that the ends, a mid-station. Just read that the London Occupy branch stationing at the St. Paul’s Cathedral decided to disperse on their own accord. It remains to wonder what will happen now, if the entire thing will die down and the entire dust-cloud of noble ideas settles, because without those who in some way disrupt the every day order, put a crack on the society’s own reflection in the mirror created with the inexhaustible aid of the media, we will just issue an uspoken consent to the usual walloping by means of increased taxed under the agenda of “recession and responsible spending”, limiting personal liberties, for which see HERE and HERE (out of many more), as well as limited access to health care and education, among others.

All I am saying is that it takes more than one concealed face on the cover of a magazine. It takes millions of faces like that, but unobscured, authentic, angry heads full of ideas, wisdom and intelligence, which should come together, above all the artificial conflicts and divisions imposed and sustained cross the history. At some point it will become necessary to prove that ‘power to the people’ amounts to far more than a slogan for a mobile network, that it is the every-day man and woman who are the catalyst of change. Look behind you, it’s been done before…

“One Man’s Justice” and “Shipwrecks” by Akira Yoshimura

The therapy is ongoing…

Just finished reading “Shipwrecks“, which I liked. A lot, even. Yoshimura’s style perfectly reflects austerity of lives of the people who are in the foreground of the novel. Without anchoring us in time or space, apart from giving out a hint that the village may be situated somewhere in the south of Shikoku, we get to know the people as leading simple, religious lives, filling their days with working less-than-generous soil and fishing. Almost every event takes place thanks to, for, through, against, and because of “gods.” Decency and composure brings happy life and prompt reincarnation, while the opposite sentences the soul for eternal banishment.

Everything revolves around the laborious every day life of the villagers and their one desire – so that fate sends them O-fune-sama. These are ships, unfortunate enough to have found themselves in the middle of a storm and desperately seeking shore to save themselves and the cargo. The villagers, being fully aware of sailors’ mind-frame while at uneasy sea, light fire under cauldrons whose role, supposedly, is to extract salt from sea water but in reality act as a lure for the crew to direct the ship right at the off-shore coral reef. Once that happens, the ship is looted and the crew’s lives taken away. Grim as it may be, O-fune-sama’s appearance is time of great joy and festivity for villagers as the cargo takes them far away from the prospect of certain starvation. However, as it turns out, not every stranded ship brings the ever-coveted salvation.

One Man’s Justice” in turn, takes place in more contemporary times, subsequently to Japan’s capitulation.  Takuya, a middle-ranked officer from the imperial air force is on the run due to being involved in the execution of a crew of one among many American bombers taking part in the bombardments of Japan.  Having been relieved from duty, he finds out that all soldiers suspected of involvement in executions are sought by the American and Japanese police to stand trial and face possible death penalty. The book is a very geographically detailed record of Takuya’s journey around Japan seeking shelter. He visits his comrades from the army who initially are very hospitable but due to food shortages and poverty soon become quite hesitant towards the prospect of having another mouth to feed. Throughout the entire story he’s being tossed between two conflicting thoughts, of giving in and accepting that beheading two American pilots was fundamentally a crime and remaining a fugitive whose act was a loyal and patriotic thing to do. Traveling across the country Takuya also has to face difficult reality, whereby Japanese girls not only do not contempt American soldiers for their deeds, but openly flirt with them in the public eye. Also, we see how the nation’s perception of those involved in the executions is changed with the aid of the media, from deeming them national heroes to condemning them as murderers who should be given the death sentence.

To me, the first thing which strikes me how both stories are structured. Yoshimura first presents the protagonists in a not very favorable light, to later on, with the provision of some historical background, justify the actions and explain that in reality there was no other choice, along the pattern of “one man’s poison is another man’s cure.” The villagers in “Shipwrecks” did loot the ships and kill people but that was determined by their will to survive, whereas Takuya, being fundamentally a murderer, became one by taking vengeance on those who invaded his land and killed his people.

While “One Man’s Justice” is closer to a ‘conventional’ narrative in third-person,  “Shipwrecks” looks more like a tale or a parable. The entire action is very linear, with no side-plots, full of descriptions of the nature surrounding the village, spanning across three years when the protagonist’s father is away for his indentured service. It reminds the reader of a cautionary tale, where the bad karma always comes back to the wrong-doers, however justified their actions are.

I reckon that both these stories will appeal to readers who are after some non-pretentious reading, with no blazing-fast and dramatic twists-and-turns. In turn, these are full of deep emotional explorations of the protagonists’ psyche in search for rationalisations of their actions. Yoshimura is great at discerningly describing state of minds, and instead of making his plotline overly complex, he focuses on giving us realistic and moving reasons why people are sometimes forced to do frightening things.

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SONG OF THE DAY: Zu – Obsidian

Cancer scare works miracles!

I’m having my ultrasound today. Second one this year. The death of your mother preceded by two weeks of suffering makes you look after your health like never before… I would have never suspected it should I was not experiencing it. Every headache, every constipation, every stomachache, you ascribe to a tumorous mutant cosily living off you somewhere in your intestines. Even saw a psychologist regarding that but after the appointment which looked more like a chat with the granny who wishes you well I decided I’m clever and well-read enough to tackle my problems myself.

So I started looking after myself. Conscientiously preparing ginger tea, enough to be able to have one cup a day, took up jogging. This was particularly amazing for me. After trying some running only on an indoors treadmill and persuading myself that I was too heavy and unfit to start it, one day I just thought that I should get running shoes and just… start. And I’ve been running ever since. First a shorter route, for about 25 minutes, and then the longer one 5 m/8 km, every second day. And the advice I got from a friend of mine, an avid runner, was three-fold:

  1. Never listen to your excuses. If this is your scheduled running day just go out and run.
  2. Never stop. You may slow down but don’t stop.
  3. Have SOME water before, and only SOME right after. Not too much or it’ll bloat you and make you want to pee.

This, however simple, turned out to be invaluable. I have also started eating much better, although this had been going on since a bit earlier. No bread, just Ryvitas, a lot of veggies and fruit, a lot of grain-based fibre-rich products, porridge, natural yogurt instead of the flavored one. One advice I heard from a nutritionist/personal trainer somewhere in the enchanting land of Youtube was “everything that’s advertised is bad for you” and although I feel through the skin it may be a bit of a long-shot, there is something to it. Later I moved on to structuring my diet, having a slightly bigger (but not heavy) breakfast, a snack 3 hours later, light lunch, a snack, and possibly something very light like a salad or a porridge in the early evening. More often but less, is the key gals and lads!

The effect? From 97 kg (213 lbs) at the beginning of Oct down to 90 kg (198 lbs) today. And I was surprised how easy that was. No supplements, no powdered miracles, no Acai berries. Just good food and DISCIPLINE! Up yours, cancer!

Now I’m off to the hospital to find out I have a malignant brain tumor… Kidding 😛

Seeing Voices

Wow, I’m reading books! Jesus, still can’t believe it myself… Probably in the period of the past two months I read more than in the preceding year O_o Well, maybe except for when I was studying. Read Martel’s “Life of Pi”, Yoshimura’s “One Man’s Justice”, Sacks’ “Seeing Voices”, and now reading another one by Yoshimura – “Shipwrecks.” The mere fact that I got round to writing this, right now, is kinda weird. But I can consider it a part of my long-term ongoing therapy called “Starting and Doing Shit Matters, Even Though It’s Been Done Before and Probably You Won’t Change The Course of The World.” Catchy…

So yeah, I liked “One Man’s Justice” quite a bit. Maybe for its no-nonsense, unpretentious style and a bit of austerity. Japanese-style. “Shipwrecks” seems to be even slower and scantier in action, but not in content. It’s actually an interesting story taking place in a small Japanese coastal village several centuries back, where people experience hardship and have sell themselves for long-term bonds working away from their families for a lump sum of money. However, their discovery, in time turned into an official sacred tradition, was that lighting night-time bonfires on the beach lures cargo ships seeking shelter, unbeknownst to them that the bottoms of their ships are about to be ripped open by the coral reefs. Occasions like that are times of great celebration for the villagers as the loot from the ships consists of articles like money, valuables, food, and large quantities of mere wood which is possible to be turned into tools or furniture. Basically, the story is about a boy named Isaku coming to terms with the entire situation. Grim but quite fascinating.

Enjoy!

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