2012 Books in Translation Other Prizes

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

The ThiefWinner of the 2010 Kenzaburo Oe Prize

Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

Five words from the blurb: pickpocket, strangers, past, tangle, escape

The Thief is a short, engaging book about a pickpocket who targets rich people on the streets of Tokyo. It vividly captures the roller-coaster of emotion that the pickpocket goes through as he searches for a victim and then skillfully relieves them of their wallet.

I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body. I felt like I was standing in a void, as though with the countless intersecting lines of vision of all those people, not one was directed at me. Maintaining the fragile contact between my fingers and the wallet, I sandwiched it in the folded newspaper.

Very little actually happens in this short book. The plot is quite simple and revolves around the return of someone from the pickpocket’s past.

The writing quality was excellent and I was gripped to the story throughout, but on reaching the end I was slightly disappointed. Everything was too brief for me and, although I liked the ambiguous ending, a lot of the power was lost due to the subtlety of the writing.  The use of symbolism and other literary devices meant that this book will reveal more on a second reading, but I found the number of unanswered questions a little frustrating.

This isn’t a crime novel in the traditional sense, but instead uses members of the criminal underworld to explore issues of loneliness and belonging. It is a lot more conventional than many Japanese crime novels and actually shares many similarities with last year’s Booker shortlistee, The Lighthouse

The Thief is a well structured piece of observational literature, but it isn’t for anyone who likes everything to be tied up nicely at the end. Recommended to those who enjoy shorter stories that require a bit of thought to fully appreciate them.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It’s sparsely written, just like its narrator, and it’s rather beautiful. Chasing Bawa

While the crime elements are all neatly in place in this book, it works on a deeper level as well, touching on the notions of psychological and social isolation,  as well as the machinations of power and fate. The Crime Segments

This is a powerful, powerful novel. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time… Dolce Bellezza

To find more Japanese literature reviews head over to Tony’s January in Japan blog.

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Autofiction by Hitomi Kanehara

Autofiction Translated from the Japanese by David James Karashima

Five words from the blurb: love, disturbed, woman, sinister, meaning

I love Japanese fiction and so snapped up this book when I saw it in my local library. The title refers to the practice of writing fictional autobiographies and so it is hard not to think about how much of this book has been experienced by the author. I’m hoping that Rin and Shin, the couple described in this book, are entirely fictional and that the meta-fictional elements are clever plot devices rather than descriptions of real events.

Rin is deeply in love with her husband, but she is paranoid that something will destroy their happiness. On the way home from their honeymoon she begins to suspect that her husband is flirting with a flight attendant. Her thoughts quickly escalate until she is certain her blissful life is over. The book then travels backwards in time, revealing the reasons for her overactive imagination.

I often imagine that people are trying to kill me. And by doing so, I can turn every day into a fight for survival. Nobody has a time or place where they are free from the danger of death. People forget that. People live their lives with the basic assumption that they will still be alive the day after. I can’t live like that. A plane might come crashing into me at any moment and kill me. A truck might smash into me or I might suffer a heart attack, a stroke or even a subarachnoid haemorrhage. So I’m always standing face to face with the prospect of imminent death.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I found the first and last chapters to be totally engrossing. It was fascinating to see inside Rin’s disturbed mind and by the end I understood why she had these feelings.

The central chapters were less appealing. I found her meandering thoughts difficult to engage with and felt that whole sections added nothing to the reading experience.

The writing was easy to read and, unlike a lot of similar Japanese fiction, wasn’t unnecessarily dark or scary. Some scenes could be described as emotionally disturbing, but there wasn’t any gore or graphic violence.

This is a short book, but it is an interesting addition to the field of literature that looks into the paranoid mind.

Recommended to fans of Japanese literature.


Have you read anything written by Hitomi Kanehara?

Is her debut novel, Snakes and Earrings, similar to this?

Books in Translation Thriller Uncategorized

The Devotion of Suspect X – Keigo Higashino

The Devotion Of Suspect X 

Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander

Five words from the blurb: Tokyo, ex-husband, shattered, Police, genius

I hadn’t heard of this book until one of my sister’s friends recommended it to me, but I love Japanese thrillers and so decided to give it a try. I’m pleased that I bought a copy because I’ll be recommending this intelligent thriller to everyone.

The Devotion of Suspect X begins with a woman murdering her ex-husband with the help of her daughter. Their neighbour hears the crime and offers to help dispose of the body, beginning a gripping narrative that centres on the question: Will they get away with it?

The premise is very similar to Out by Natsuo Kirino (my favourite thriller), but The Devotion of Suspect X is a much lighter novel. It is quicker and easier to read and doesn’t contain the same level of violence or dark emotion. For this reason I’d recommend it to those trying Japanese fiction for the first time.

The plotting in this book is perfect. There are no unnecessary scenes and the pace is relentlessly intriguing throughout. The main battle of wits is between the neighbour, a maths genius, and a friend of the police officer who happens to be a physics genius. I admit that this scenario is unlikely to occur, but I didn’t care because it led to one of the cleverest series of twists I’ve come across.

The characters were all well formed, with interesting flaws. I didn’t develop an emotional attachment to any of them, but this ended up being a positive as I found myself rooting for both sides equally. This is quite unusual in a police procedural as I normally find myself less interested in one of the plot threads.

The Devotion of Suspect X is a perfect thriller. It isn’t particularly deep or meaningful, but it is endlessly entertaining. I can see why it sold 2 million copies in Japan and I hope that word-of-mouth spreads it around the world.

Highly recommended.


2010 Books in Translation

The Housekeeper and The Professor – Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Five words from the blurb: maths, memory, affection, riddles, past

People have raved about The Housekeeper and The Professor ever since its release last year, but although I enjoyed reading it I wasn’t bowled over in the way most other readers have been.

The book centres on a maths professor with a short-term memory only eighty minutes long. He vividly remembers events from his past, but all new information is quickly forgotten. This means that the professor never recognises his housekeeper and she must reintroduce herself each morning. Despite this fact she becomes enchanted by him. He shows her the beauty of numbers and forms a strong bond with her son.

This is a beautiful little book, but I think its main charm is the way that it introduces a love for mathematics.

I ran my fingers over the lines of the formula, a long chain of numbers and symbols that flowed from one page to the next. As I followed the chain, link by link, the room faded and I found myself in a dark, silent place of numbers. But I felt no fear, certain in the knowledge that the Professor would guide me toward eternal, unchangeable truths.

The professor introduces prime numbers, perfect numbers, amicable numbers and many other basic mathematical concepts. The problem was that I was already aware of most of them and so they didn’t produce the magical sense of wonder that they have clearly induced in others.

The writing was simple and engaging, but it wasn’t as emotional as I was expecting. The overall feeling was one of tenderness and I think this is the type of book that you should read if you are in the mood something gentle and heartwarming.

If you can’t imagine enjoying a novel containing mathematics then I urge you to give this book a try, but if you already have a love of numbers it may be a bit too basic.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Characters, themes and a gently developing plot are perfectly blended. Fleur Fisher in her World

I would never have believed that mathematics could be so seamlessly woven into fiction that I hardly questioned its presence there. Erin Reads

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a very quiet, very subtle book. At the same time, it’s a page-turner, a book you just don’t want to put down. How often do you come across books like this? su [shu]

2009 Science Fiction

Paprika – Yasutaka Tsutsui

 Translated from the Japanese by Andrew Driver

I bought this book because I saw the following phrase on the cover:

A Japanese master to be ranked alongside Haruki Murakami

I hadn’t heard of the author, but I’m afraid I have no self control when I see the word Murakami – I just have to see if it is anywhere near as good as books like Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I’m really pleased with my impulse buy – Paprika is as weird as anything Murakami has written!

Paprika is a science fiction novel, originally published in Japan in 1993. The book focuses on a group of scientists who have invented a machine which allows them to enter the dreams of others. The team use their invention to treat mentally ill patients, particularly those with schizophrenia. Everything goes wrong when one of the devices goes missing and is used as a weapon to turn people insane.

This book is very strange! Much of it is set within peoples’ dreams where anything can happen:

Atsuko was trying hard to vanquish the demons of sleep. “It’s just like a dream. A dream. No. This is a dream.”
Yes, I’m sure it is. ” The reporter suddenly sprouted a cow’s head, which flopped down low in front of her. The weight brought her to her senses with a sharp intake of breath, but the cow’s slobber still hung from her mouth. “Do excuse me. I’ve only eaten one helping of rice porridge this morning.” And she slurped the slobber back into her mouth.

Unfortunately most of the people have violent or sexual dreams and so scenes like the one above are quite rare. The tone is kept light so I didn’t find the book disturbing, but I know this sort of thing isn’t for everyone!

The plot was gripping throughout, but it wasn’t as thought provoking as I’d have liked. The book seemed to focus on the battles between good and evil instead of how much our dreams tell us about ourselves and to what extent we can be manipulated through unconscious thought.

I loved the way Japanese mythology was prevalent throughout this book and the fact that  you could never predict what was going to happen next.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading bizarre Japanese fiction.

Have you read any of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s other books?


The Japanese Literature Challenge IV

I love Japanese Literature and so enjoy browsing the reviews on the Japanese Literature Challenge site.

Bellezza has done a fantastic job promoting Japanese fiction and now that my Booker reading is coming to an end I’ll be spending more time reading books in translation.

I don’t think I’ll be able to read that many Japanese books before the challenge ends on January 30th, 2011, but I hope to complete these three:


Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Strangers by Taichi Yamada

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Have you read any of these books?

Which other Japanese books do you recommend I read?