Tag Archive | Asia

The Taste of Apples – Huang Chun-ming

The Taste of Apples

 

It has been months since I put my pen to paper. Words keep struggling against my emotions, the range of my imagination jammed up in literary reflections. As I sat with an open book in my lap, Huang Chun-ming’s characters gazing right back into my face, I pondered on the thought of how human survival becomes magnified when human condition thrives at the lowest rung of the societal ladder. Marginalised people, forgotten lives overlooked by the socioeconomic indicators, suffering at the hands of their affluent counterparts and their stories steeped in inherent universality, hesitant in finding an ardent voice to uncover the social process of basic human survival conflicted in a world of contradiction and confliction.

 

“ Ah-cang , the next time you come home, try to bring a fish back with you. It’s not easy getting a saltwater fish up here on the mountain. Bring a big one if you can.”

 

The cooked bonito wrapped in taro leaf swayed heartlessly into fragmented happy endings. The saltwater fish fairly symbolizes the temporary victories harboured by a child on a threshold of youth, only to mercilessly fade into a vague far-fetched desire bearing harsh realities of trust and resentment. Self-doubt, a sense of personal inadequacies creeps through the rickety windows of paranoia. A yearned escape from loneliness and fatigue seeks a satisfying reprieve in an infant’s smile. A loving father on a verge of a mental breakdown dons his “sandwich-man” costume for he has always been his son’s ‘big doll’ “Oh! I’m Ah-long’s big doll, his big doll!!”

 

Trepidations over birth control and poverty find a respite in the scaly outlines of ringworms patterned on infected bodies. Minor events captured in everyday subsistence become majorly momentous in these impoverished lives. The currency of luck shines in most dreadful ordeals. A looming tragedy compensating a family’s fortune, an unforeseen affluence now a commonplace in penurious existence is filled with a surge of anxiety and guilt over bewildering kismet. The sour taste of the apples devoured with a demure crunch was sweetened with every bite as the thought of a luxury unknown heightened with the chorus of noisy munching.

 

“Principles I’ve held on to tenaciously for many years and that have formed my unique personality and temperament – are they to be cast aside now? Then why have them in the first place? It wouldn’t seem like the real me without them. “

 

Caught up in an ambivalent world of mangled moralities, a mask of pleasantries worn to handle two onerous affairs makes a young office employee question the value of adhered ideologies and the inevitability of primary survival. The wounds of a tragic Japanese-Chinese history (1930s) conflicted with the provisional role of a “pimp” to entertain visiting Japanese businessmen , a quest to move from the bitter past resulting in artful linguistic diplomacy and friendly sayonora/zaijian greetings in a rapidly changing societal mores.

 

“Memories of the past are always fond ones and this was especially true for these men in their twilight years; only their past instilled a sense of pride.”

 

With the advent of modernisation and Pedi cabs, the aging men of a rural village, the gong-beaters of a quaint town, migrant workers and the unaltered rural landscapes, all caught between the old and new are propelled into a state of hopelessness, a feeling of invisibility blending into the inability to adapt to change. The present seem to be crumbling into prospects of an innovative future overshadowing humble heritages and traditionalistic customs. Amid the peals of laughter, the drowning of an old cat demarcated the irreversible modernisation and a tale of stubbornness of a man and his rebellion. A world of absurdities and turmoil is formed when two-sign painters get entangled in the web of technology and media in metropolitan culture. The beats of Han Qinzai’s gong succumbing to the monopoly of pedicabs, a desperate man holding onto the last crumbs of his fading fortune seeks salvage in ghost stories and a group of vagrants for a momentary boost of a dignified life. For, when fortune goes missing from one’s life, all a man has left are the remains of his reputation, a final refuge to belong somewhere in this societal structure. The concept of losses and gains and a lackadaisical attitude spun chronicles of two pressure cooker salesmen in a little coastal town. The thin line between faith and deception quivering between courage and cowardice hurls unforeseen folds of events wrecking illusions of perfection. The disfigurement of harsh reality lay bare underneath Xiaoqi’s cap signalling underlying societal metaphors.

 

..………. I figure that the hardest compromise to strike would be with myself, for if I put a side my principles, what would I have left?

 

Huang Chun-ming’s short stories penned in circa 1960-70s, exclusively focuses on the intricacies of the then thriving Taiwanese society; its rural folk being the crucial element. The so-called “ordinary folk”( a term I detest to use, for these very people exhibit extraordinary grit of survival), societal rejects who are witnesses to a hostile socio-economic milieu, coping with effects of illiteracy , debilitating poverty , migration to urban cities, adherence to conformist dogmas , muddled self-worth , modernisation and callousness of urban life. Human existence at its most detrimental stage. Nevertheless, what is remarkable about these engaging stories is the array of characters that come alive through the subtle yet sincere prose narrating their unique tales, their robust presence felt throughout numerous incidents spanning across their lives from the countryside to the metropolitan cities. Huang neither pities his characters nor want his readers to do the same. In the despair of an obsolete existence what is desperately searched is wisdom and dignity, a need to be acknowledged and cherished in a world where remorse overpowers elation, where the reservations of the past are carried in a shaky present, dreaming of an uncertain future and all a basic survival needs is a true sense of humanity.

 

 

4/5 ****

Wind and Stone – Masaaki Tachihara

Wind and Stone

 

 

“You are a stone”, said Kase, smoking a cigarette after they had made love.
“I think you are the stone”, replies Mizue without opening her eyes.
“No, I’m more like the wind. I could never be a stone.”

Rapt in wonder the stone deliberates the lightness of the wind. The subtle windy caress arouses a sense of vitality. The stone sewed up in permanence yearns for an escape from its prosaic settings, rousing at the existence of the wind. The imminent chaos blowing over the passage of the wind, gusts through the tranquil garden calling forth nature’s dualistic predicament – transience and permanence. What is it to feel ‘truly cleansed’? To feel alive – the very sentiment entranced by the proverbial elan vital, sprouts an iota of change in the dormant despair of mediocrity. The brevity of the nascent bud awakens the lush green foliage; the manifestation of change erupting a sense of vitality from the tree. The blossoming flower harmonizes the impression of liveliness in the perceptive observer trying to escape the mundane, its echoic gratification consoling the depths of desolation.

Gardens, they say, are the chief marker of time. The rhythmic seasonal cycles alter the landscapes replacing the new with the old. In the yearly cycle of change and continuity, the garden in some mysterious ways fleeting from its mediocrity, matches the rhythms of nature with the flow of time.

“For me”, he then said quietly, “building a garden is a struggle against mediocrity.”

Yusaku Kase’s meticulously crafted garden seeps in irony delineating the tranquil exterior and the internal chaos of both, its creator and its owners. The freedom of aesthetics colliding with burdens of morality forms a limitless extension of human emotions haunted by the kinks of change and consistency. The perpetual ‘struggle against mediocrity’ is the potential dilemma, prevalent in this Tachihara narration. The escape from the mundane animates an invisible force enabling the characters (of this book) to seek out their freedom hidden in a dark lonely place.

In every small, closed world, there is the same quality of complacency and exclusiveness.

Prolonged periods of peace often give rise to stagnation. Peace and Stagnation are not precisely opposites, but, one is desirable while the other is deplored. (The I Ching or Book of Changes ). The need to be loved, to feel desired, overrides the substance of ecstasy, the aspiration of self-indulgence stems from the psychological stagnation fixed in the fears of abandonment. The realization of inner desolation elevated the suffering within the defined portrayal of the four individuals tangled in perturbed relationships, each facing the obvious anxiety of being ‘detached from life’. The garden takes a life of its own demarcating each phase of turmoil and harmony of a man-made landscape scattered in a balanced histories and an imbalanced future of a heart’s non-conformists desires.

Again she had the fleeting feeling that the stones were Kase’s eyes watching her…………Still, Mizue could not help feeling they were composed of invisible colours and empty spaces. She did not know what to make of this feeling. What was this invisible colour?

Mizue , a daughter ,a wife, mother and a lover ; the life-roles confronted Mizue with the dilemma of moral conventions, abandonment and a ‘thirst for love’ ; seeking a sense of vitality to feel alive and “completely cleansed”. Similar to Kase, Mizue struggles against herself. Her significance in an evolving sphere called life. Tachihara puts forth a simmering question, whether we are detached from the universality of nature? The man-made garden meshing with the language of the wild, precisely marking metamorphosing milieu influencing the imbedded stones and yet the timelessness of the stone remain unchanged. An entity on its own, the ever transforming garden, becomes the pathway to ruination. In Tachihara’s subtle narrative symbolisms, Mizue resembles the immutable stone, wondering is a strong gust of wind could uproot her from the prosaic settings, and, Kase, the nomad wind pursuing for a sanctuary which could restrict its flow and purify the turmoil within.

Can ‘lust’ purify ‘lust’, if it takes one beyond the tussle of commonplace? Is ‘love’ an immutable factor among capricious lust or a mere matter of self-indulgence of inner thirst that needs to find self-fulfilment, a sense of wholesomeness? Change and consistency are not reciprocally absolute in the flow of time. Is then in the monochromatic array of transience and permanence, the struggle against mediocrity will seek the exact shade of the invisible colour, everlastingly? The hue that defines monotony.

 

4/5****

Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers – Kang Sok-Kyong, Kim Chi-won, Oh Jung-hee

Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers

Women writers. Women penning the trials and tribulations of being a woman. The pen and ink bidding farewell to the prevailing apprehensions. The spoken language of an individual narrowed by gender hierarchy labouring in relative anonymity, women write, knocking down the heavily guarded patriarchal gates of a traditional society , the defining emergence diminishing the glaring divide of public from domestic life, where men reigned the former and women the latter. How does one designate the essence of being a woman? How does one quote a chapter and verse from the consequential book of womanhood? Women who have conventionally been beheld as someone’s daughter, someone’s wife and someone’s mother; their own individual identity lapsing into being a mere legal signature on few sheets of paper. How does one then define the constitution of Korean women? Or can you? Women who are as diverse as the land itself spanning through generations, cultural edifications and numerous personal and societal evolutions seeking an autonomy to their existence in an overwhelming patriarchal world. How does one ever answer the unwelcomed question of signifying the autonomy of womanhood? The patriarchal advocacy of literature, the very notion of belles- lettres being the prime avocation of cultural gentlemen, the adversities of gender discrepancies shadowing the laboured efforts of women writers derides the valid declaration of talent having no gender whatsoever. The contemporary Korean women writers (three of whom being mentioned in this book) bring forth an notable insight to the strenuous effort of their emergence from a society profoundly influenced by the Confucian precepts, finally breaking out from their obscurities. The undying spirit of their penned narrative, the meticulous characterization, accomplish a sophisticated sensory faculty of symbolism sketching the evolution of Korean women in a rapidly modernized world


“……to accept our own lives, and without such thoughts to make us feel good, how could we live? We women were facing up to life with our bodies as our only asset. We may now have smelled like roses, but we got to learn all about life and freedom in our way…..”

The picturesque forsythias blooming on a palace walls, the beauty of scenic spring stretching on a wall calendar in a clinic testing venereal diseases befits the stark revelation of a social world where days and dreams brim with the futility of a traumatic past and the aspirations of striving for a dignified existence. Kang Sŏk-kyŏng allegorizes the social status of prostitutes surviving on the U.S. military base in Korea, to a drifting isolated island, a temporary home destined to subsist in loneliness of abandonment. The slight flicker of hope within melancholia is the hallmark of their lives which struggle to find a haven of freedom and integrity. In the endless fight for human dignity, their bodies become the sole measure of self-defence, a path to their freedom however despicable. The marginal women thriving on the societal periphery seek comfort among their ilk, the labelling of “leftovers” a crude irony, in a world where men carry the burden and the badge of brutal enforcers. The rebellion and restraints to freedom, personal choices of women shackled by archaic ethos stretches afar from the Korean peninsula into the male-dominance of the Western world, applying universality factor to the predicament of women sexuality condemned to abhorrence. “But if two women see eye to eye, there’s no law that says they can’t live together,” said Toma.” So what if they’re lesbians? People live the way they want to. And so what if we’re whore? Except for worrying about money, it’s great living around the base. No husband to treat us rough, no kids to worry us, no one interfering with us.”

The controversial subject of a woman’s body becoming the weapon for her emancipation edges on the possibility of emotional vulnerabilities and inconspicuous rebellion. Kim Chi-wŏn dwells in to unchartered territories where the society as a whole becomes the source of shame for a woman. The collective chauvinism that safeguards the sanctimonious matrimonial institution rests upon the humiliation of women. The marital sacrosanctity ruthlessly abused under the assumed patriarchate prerogative. Kim Chi-wŏn is scrupulous in rendering the dual state of relationship between a man and a woman , raising a similar yet different issue concerning the life of a Korean woman immigrant in U.S. The quest for a resourceful independence gives Yun-ja a possibility of a certain beginning, a marriage based purely on monetary and legal convenience. The probability and improbability of a ‘real marriage’ immerses in reflections of a financial arrangement, age and divorce. The disconnect of a woman and the society is evident in the final libertine declaration.


“Longing for something to sustain and steady her, the woman nevertheless tended to to doubt the permanence of everything. Do flowers last more than ten day? And floods that look like they’ll sweep the world away are gone in a couple days, aren’t they? But her relief that the world was transitory was tempered by the painful realization that society expected marriage to be the most harmonious of human relationships.”

Transience becomes the most fitting lifeline to despondency. Kim Chi-wŏn is scrupulous in rendering the dual state of relationship between a man and a woman. The nightly mellow lullaby sung a mother is marred by domestic brutality, estrangement and resentment. A clandestine corner in the house tries the patience of a battered wife, the harmony of matrimony crumbling into ashes floating on the cold ghostly waters of a pond nearby. The central themes of hopelessness and self-restraint fade away, yet the predictability of self-reliance is still muddled in impermeable monocracy.


“Like a foolish girl you’re trying to find beyond the world. If you’d only given in a little, you wouldn’t have had to go around butting up against the world; you wouldn’t have had to spill your blood. You would have found that the springtime of life isn’t a chain; it’s a pair of wings.”

The self-restraint of rebellion originating from the conventional mores once again twirls the idea of freedom although being the sweet nectar in a claustrophobic milieu; it is the dawn of justice that brings the sweetest aroma in an acrid life. The fortunate franchise of youth caught amid Marxist ideas and democratic upheaval plunges into an abyss of alienation and confusion. The structural sanctity of filial piety bruised by blatant hypocrisy and customary subordination questions the cogency of an inherited male-dominated hierarchy. The pursuit for individuality resulting in either enforced submission or absolute abandonment; agony being the sole companion of nothingness. As a daughter, is trapped between familial obligations and self-exploration, the youthfulness of a sibling risking the madness of a powerless chaotic soul, the maze of confusion unable to find a sheltered room in the woods. Kang Sŏk-kyŏng once again underlines the crucial adherence factor of meritocracy that stamps its social legitimacy of becoming a societal shrine with its ignorance, narcissistic enforcements and submissive gender protocols.

Alienation is seen as one of the strongest denominator in lives of these female characters perpetually trapped in the polarities of modern and conformist worlds. O Chŏng-hŭi in her literary explorations reveals the torments of estrangement when engulfed with the bleakness of death and impermanence. The stories spun a convoluted web of conflict and acquiescence where choices are imaginary. An evening game is vacated for a pleasurable night with a young lover. The women preoccupied by the melodies of a young mother reminiscence her harried past detached from her present apathy. The daily father-daughter card game echoes the whispers of a mother losing her sanity over the loss of her child, a father waiting for his son and a possible infanticide. O Chŏng-hŭi adroitly frames a sequential persecution in an episodic narrative. The vagueness of death seeps into the comprehensibility of life. The grave stones symbolise the quandary of two women, the former seeking a grave plots for her and her husband and the latter contemplating the rationality of her husband’s dubious absence. The words of farewell scatter the memories of physical departure and vacuousness of physical existence.

Talent has no gender. Creativity does not go picking and choosing its master appropriated on the grammatical gender system dais. Literature has no single definition. The vexing question then arises as to why women are the only ones to be bestowed by such an endearing privilege of their entirety being abbreviated through the myopic primal gender regulations? Sarcasm or anxiety of the patriarchy? These stories of Korean women penned by three remarkable women writers encompassing multifaceted thematic nitty gritty of prostitution, youth, death, generational gap, bigotry, sexuality, love and much more, travel beyond the said geographical panorama depicting the notion of universality, broadening the thematic accessibilities of the female characters chronicling their own future detached from their status as someone’s mother, wife or daughter. In the current ongoing global scenario where women’s rights are easily bargained, a coming of an age story not cracking down on the deliberations of a quintessential teen male, but, a disquieting collage of a young girl matured beyond her naïve years, life impressions swirling around the nauseating chaos of sex, death and poverty in the war ravaged Seoul district bylanes of Chinatown ,call for a response of literary stimuli to view beyond the charcoal coated faces in the classic Bildungsroman ,an empathetic astute listener to the stories of women acutely ingrained in Korean culture ; the innocence of childhood stepping on the onset of womanhood culminating in the pragmatic…“My menstrual flow had begun.”

 

4/5 ♥♥♥♥

Quicksand – Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

Quicksand

 

What is to be a fool? What is to play the fool, bewitched into becoming a mere cat’s paw used to draw amorous carnality from the flames of passion? What is to feel powerless, ridiculed in love when appreciation veils subtle humiliation, to be a clay pigeon in the game of love? What is the sine qua non of love? Wherein, the human universals of shame and humiliation circumvent the existent perplexity of self-justification. Dubious emotions casting shadows creating a vivid portrait of a hypersensitive inner-world sheathed in the depths by humility of love and arrogance of lust. The immoralities of an imagination seducing the moralities of human nature. What is it to sense an illicit love that has yet to take a definite form, looming in the heart of sheer lust?


….And even of if it was wrong to be secretly in love with another man, what was so bad about being in love with a woman, someone of my own sex?”….

 

Tanizaki brings forth an enticing work of fiction steeped in delirious pathology of eroticism and psychological obscurities in the quest for an obsessive longing. The lesbian affair mutually affecting Mitsuko and more so Sonoko, prevails with the conquest of sexual pleasures; supple bodies become a constructive and destructive force of subliminal mind, insatiable for sensuous stimuli.

The torrid liaison sexually and emotionally manipulates Sonoko and Mitsuko invading along the lives of Watanuki and Kotaro, distressing and disrupting the very inadequacies of individualistic disposition. Tanizaki explores the ambiguities of love and marriage delineating the fervid mystification of the sinister bend ingrained in the core of human nature. The sensual arc centring eroticism tainted by hysteria bypasses the aspects of perversion sketching out human frailty encompassing the aesthetics of Mitsuko’s virtuous beauty. The need to ‘cling onto love’ culminates in mortification with the ‘pretence to love’, bona fide revelations still lingering in a rigid state of denial. Watanuki’s sexual impotency masked within his embolden physical dishonesty stands in contrast to Kotaro’s sexually potent yet impassioned libido curdling tangible neurotic regression of complex relationships changing the entire course of basic psychosomatic make-up of human physicality. Profoundly intertwined in the web of envy, violence, adultery, malice, animosity and other ensuing emotional incitements, the four keyed up protagonists ravenously cling onto the vanity of love; Mitsuko becoming the core link in the catastrophic game of love and eroticism , the two men and Sonoko mere pawns of manipulation. Love, an intoxicating blend of lust and devotion, serene yet unstable when disturbed by surplus stress equates to the quicksand phenomenon, a static human fallibility sinking in the deep well of chaotic pith.


So I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand, and although I said to myself I had to escape, by this time, I was helpless. I knew I was being used by Mitsuko and that all the while she was calling me her dear sister she was actually making a fool of me.

 

Tanizaki’s exploration of women thriving in naturalistic societal milieu, women whose lives are confined to the workings of their inner-self, is subtle yet provocative. Tanizaki perceives the external human equation as an artistic portrait wherein the bare truth lies buried in its shadowy depths, abstracted from the customary kaleidoscopic visible exterior. The female characters be it Sonoko or Mitsuko are sexual aggressors; the unrestrained sexual needs clashing with the emotional displacement are emphasized by jaded manipulative passions stimulated by forlorn hearts. The brattish demeanour fading in the virginal splendour of supple chaste body; sex being the prime tangible deriving force of commotion. Being a frequent Tanizaki reader, the literary configuration is structured with a definite beginning and an end; the journey in between either fascinating or mundane transforms imagination into impending authenticity; the enabled truth which is not ethical but psychological. The masked flaws of a virtuous beauty self-contained in a manipulative world fixated on force rein. The Japanese titular connotation “Manji” symbolizing the four pronged Buddhist Swastika, epitomize four harmonious lovers immersed in the whirling force of passion, fantasizing the certitude of love.

…..I kept pretending to be confident of her love…..

 

 

3/5 ♥♥♥

Radish: (China Penguin Special) – Mo Yan

Radish: China Penguin Special

 

The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

The chorus of a bare back fills the barren land,
Dew laden leaves recite lore of a superhuman,
The blistered belly nestled near a dimly lit fire,
Bare-chested and barefooted, he was detached,
Crisp voice descending in silence, apathy his attire,
In waves of a lush reverie, a respite he seeks,
Nature’s feeble lullaby, in harshness of his life.

The auburn ducks snicker, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!
The auburn ducks snicker, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!

Witnesses the fertile soil, long miseries of a boy,
Bears the purple sweet potatoes, the pinch of hunger,
Crouched between tossed radishes, a fallen fingernail,
The guilt of theft, abandoned in the burning coals,
In tongues of fires, melancholic arias prevail,
The old blacksmith’s song pushing chords of joy,
Resting on the anvil, the golden radish, radiates,
Mysteries of life scattered in slivers of faith.

The vegetable patch whisper,” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The vegetable patch whisper,” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

Agriculture without its irrigation, a motherless child,
A mother’s breast with no milk, a deadly fright,
Hundreds of labourers toil, chisels hastens,
The allegorical mother claiming loyal lives,
In the obscure womb lie the Commune’s whims,
Opened floodgates dragging the human plight,

The cold white stones hum, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The cold white stones hum, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

In glory of socialism, the man eats,
In glory of socialism, the man marches,
In glory of socialism, the man barters,
Human virtue, an imperfect bastard child,
Immorality surges, in human sacrifices,
In glory of socialism, the graves reek,
In glory of socialism, mankind gets bartered.

Ardently Mo Yan pens, ” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
Ardently Mo Yan pens, ” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

A mason, a woman and a blacksmith,
Lust of love indebted to the fallen irises,
Hungered the red jacket, the scent of a crimson scarf
Youthful love, caressing kisses, hearts writhe,
In a meadowlark call, the secret alarms,
Bleeding love redeemed in a sunlit radish.

The two bloody gouges scream, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The two bloody gouges scream, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

Swan-like, he stretched his neck, standing,
The hem of his coat touching the wiry thighs,
Like a fat-headed catfish on feet, he strolled,
On the banks of the river, golden rainbow afloat,
Desires of a sunlit radish, sown in hazy sighs,
The falling rays of the autumn sun, verbalize,
A doleful tale of a fragile heart in a benumbed abode.

The golden radish chimes, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!
The golden radish chimes, “Hei-hai !! Hei-hai!!

Only if,
He had the warmth of a mother’s breast
Love had not perished in the black earth,
Had not the radish lie hid in the river mists
Had not the hammer been his inheritance,
Had not humanity sprout callous tentacles,
Had humanity sheltered his naked fears,
Had childhood walked the a euphoric path,
The rustling leaves wiping the trickling tears

The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai !! Hei-hai!!”
The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai !! Hei-hai!!”

4/5 ****

The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa – Yasunari Kawabata

The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa

 

Beggars are people too……Crazy people are women too……” Fallen women” were once naïve young girls……Men who indulge in ‘flesh trade’ aren’t called “fallen men”……As I scribble these words, my pen comes to a grinding halt. The notebook laid there crammed with the vestiges of my thoughts. The flux of my words was at the mercy of an inaccessible sheet of paper. No matter where landing stage of the wordy compositions deviates, words always appear to be imperfect when expressing the inexpressible. The voyeur within me now precedes Kawabata’s voyeuristic world attempting to comprehend human incidents through an impartial lens, the accomplices to my silence aiding to unearth the truth veiled in the allusive reflection of the transient beauty. The unassuming moon silently floating on the water mirrors the unreal within the real; the reflections on the windows ceasing to exist upon a whiff of wind, the window opening into a bargained emptiness. A tiny drop of water is competent to epitomize the reflection of the moon and the window oblivious to its crystalline pictorial pushes forward committing perjury. Life is a mingled yarn of all things echoic and nonechoic , pure and impure, sincerity and deceit ; the vitality of a perishable life holding onto the wispy filaments of pure longing. The world of nothingness steadily awakens with the melodious sound of the bells of the Senso Temple, the rhythmic choreographed long legs tapping to the blues of the jazz, the murmur of the piano from the dimly lit geisha house, the chatter of the rickshaw pullers, the tranquility of the Sumida River colliding with the exhilaration of the Casino Foiles ; the fragrance of the camellia oil soothing the incoherence of the streets of Asakusa.

“Asakusa is Asakusa is for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive…….”(Azenbō Soeda)

Akin to the many and various algae proliferating on a summer’s day stretching put a lush emerald carpet over the stagnant waters of the Gourd Pond, Asakusa comes alive with the vibrant hustle and bustle on the streets. The lyrical verses of Soeda resonates the wonders of Asakusa. A home for the homeless, a love for the loveless, a source of food for the famished; a world of leftovers of leftovers. Asakusa, a melting pot to amalgamating all races and classes equating to any thriving city on the face of this earth and yet, Asakusa finds distinctiveness in the allure of its design. How or rather who creates the infrastructure of a city? How are places resurrected from their own ruins? People nurture the land and the land in turns fashions the prevailing communities. Among the elderly delinquents of time, Asakusa was a “young punk”. It exudes an energetic charm seeking the genuine vitality of life, positivity through the purity of wild. Asakusa was a lost piece found through its very own people.

Kawabata generates a fascinating dais for Asakusa as a “human market”, attracting all and sundry from hobos , prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, geishas, shop girls, flappers, vagabonds, artists and the entire artistic shenanigans rough plays where the ornate dressings rooms of the “ero-queens” are as amusing as the man feeding wheat crackers to the carp in the pool while munching on few of from the pack.“But essentially Asakusa is like a specimen in the Bug House …… something completely different from today’s world, like a remote island or some African village led by a chief , a whole net of time-honored codes over it”

Originally published as a miscellaneous series in news dailies, the Asakusa chronicles finds it titular derivations in the wanderings of the Scarlet Gang. The self-christened theatrical group – The Scarlet Troupe publicized their hope of performing something spectacular in the kitschy votive stickers plastered all over the vacant walls in the city. Over the years, embarrassed by this modernist work of his, Kawabata once had said, “All I did was walk. I never became acquainted with any of the young delinquents. I never addressed a word to the vagrants either….. but I took notes…”. A young man with a baggage of just a pen and a notebook wayfaring through the heart of Tokyo in the aftermath of the 1923 The Great Kanto Earthquake investigated lonesome demimonde lives existing on the societal periphery. Kawabata being a silent flâneur preserves a certain sense of objectivity and distancing in his reportage, and yet ironically the acute perceptions are cryptic evaluation in their abstractions. The trajectory of the narrative rocks back and forth amid three distinct articulations accompanied by multifaceted active and passive vocalizations. Kawabata takes the reader along with him through the alleys of Asakusa. Kawabata devotedly address ….”Dear Reader….just take a walk along the alleys…”…..”Dear Reader…..as you knows”……” …..” what would you do if you were in their place……”……. The subtle prod eventually turns the reader into a loyal companion to the narrator. The “I” of the reader dissolving in the “I” of the narrator.

With its evenly matched pictorial illustrations denoting the aspects of materialistically cultural grandeur capturing one of Tokyo’s fascinating socio-cultural era of history and social relationships; this book registers a certain ‘pop-fic’ ambience . Nevertheless, Kawabata the literary master that he is stays true to his art, astutely conveying the philosophical totality of mono no aware allying the quintessence of transience beauty with the subsequent sadness. The melodrama budding within the printed pages leaps through the loops of subtle humour, economic recession, resistance to convention and the idea of love mingled with eroticism and vengeful crudity encumbered with the emptiness of longing. The dregs of Asakusa. But as long as she can still run, she’s still a woman. Because most of the bums are no longer human enough to run………… The weathered folks no longer talk. They live amid the hustle and bustle of the commercial district without saying a word. The malleable “taste of the backstreets” was sexy and absurd. The impish labyrinth of Asakusa is an inconclusive world of nothingness, but it is not nihilistic.

“When I’m with a man, I’m always sizing myself up- weighing the part of me that wants to become a woman against the part of me that is afraid to. Then I fell miserable and even more lonely” The yen for fulfilling the ideals of womanly dwells within the fragile beauty of Yumiko and Oharu. Yumiko’s desire to be viewed as a man pulsates through the memories of her being the fateful “daughter of the earthquake”; the vengeance of the kittenish arsenic kiss sailing on the Sumida River. Umekichi’s confessions of love residing the idea of love on the lips of a middle-aged woman. The radiance of red and purple sashes blending in the fated hues of the “fallen women”. The transparency of Ochiyo’s lunacy contrasting the rouge of the Okin on the bank. The emptiness offalseness of the varied protagonists is forged ahead surviving the customs of their incompleteness.

 
Asakusa had perhaps been for him (Kawabata) as it was for me – a place that allowed anonymity, freedom, where life flowed on no matter what, where you could pick up pleasure, and where small rooms with paper flowers were rented by the hour. ( Donald Richie , Afterword)

Wading through an interminable picturesque lattice of memories and dewy-eyed faces ; the rawness of dreams drifting though an endless ebb and flow of desires and pleasures strewn with snippets and snapshots floating in a stoic air , this chronicled narrative resembles a fragmented puzzle. And, you find yourself plucking these coquettishly naïve and seductively sinister wanderings, assembling it piece by piece into a significant portrait, an art illuminated in its own abstraction by its own peculiarities. Richie’s accuracy in his noteworthy inferences about Asakusa being a pathway of anonymity to an uninterrupted freedom resonates in the sensory perceptions captured amongst the echoes of “dear reader”. The human flow aggressive in survival and passionate in expression pulsates throughout my cerebral silence bringing Asakusa alive within the spiritless walls of my room; an absurd persuasion enticing me to seize the floating moon amid the nimble watery ripples. The yearning to obtain the unobtainable. The need to discover the sincerity and beauty in the depths of nothingness. Luminescent in the aureate sun, the urge to grab the ephemeral beauty of a piece of glass before it being engulfed by the shadows of the passing day; is how Kawabata’s Asakusa chronicles captivates me. And, I certainly do not need a new notebook for my words as my thoughts are no longer at the mercy of neither the pen nor the paper.

4/5 ****

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

The Vegetarian

 

“…. I went on and came to a tree. The tree told me that one could not talk here because human beings do not understand feelings. I went on, I was sorry to part with the tree because the tree understood me.” – ( The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky)

Abstinence – The passage of self-denial, the resolve of sheer restraint; where does it all begin and where will it eventually end? The steady shedding of birthing desires, the restriction of outwardly impulses marred by internal nightmares, slowly culminating into a growing silence. Silence – the sin of resilience or a rickety salvation from a venomous psychotic turmoil or a falsified symbol of complacency? Complacency , it’s obeisance revered, it’s rebellion sued. The superficiality of an acquired complacency steeped in the will of ignorance, the façade of normalcy shamelessly taking refuge in someone else’s mediocrity. A sense of superiority acquired by the bullish masking of your own imperfections within the blemished veil of others. Power- The artillery of dominance menacing the societal hierarchy, becoming a fateful pawn in haunting gender games separating individual and the community. The woes of patriarchy are magnified by the cultural power play of resilience and rebellion. The loneliness of the body, an individual, muddled in the patriarchal conformism embodying the egotism of a person’s disposed ignorance to the needs of others. The entrapment of individuals within their own individualities; the legitimacy of a human disseminating in societal iniquity. The possibility of violence and the impossibility of beauty thriving in the chaotic mesh of human feelings; abstinence being the only respite to an existing nirvana.

Yeong-hye’s proclamation of being a vegetarian triggered a distressful cycle of abuse and self-annihilation. The status of women in a patriarchal society is marred with agonizing conflicts. The aching desire to maintain normalcy in a gingerly structured survival balancing the hierarchical constitution burgeons with a sense of superiority and the thriving of a submissive spouse. The thought of quitting the existing conflicts, the surreal yearning to sprout from the earth, the undertaken path of abstinence frees the body from the vicissitudes of the mind. The radical spirit of a woman powerless in a world enveloping values that demands a bona fide conformity, endures the burden of her choices being ruthlessly interpreted on a communal dais.

“This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated.”

The entrapped melanocytes claim their dermal existence in a patterned bluish-gray birthmark. The ugliness of the Mongolian Mark disproves the beautiful distinctiveness of the melanocytes condemning the presence of the dermal cells that are different in their formation. The psychedelic floral patterns painted on Yeong-hye’s naked body bury the unsightliness of the Mongolian Mark in the alluring work of art. The beauty of the art evoking a repulsive guilt of carnal desire. Art is escapism. Sex, the beaten path to escape into a fantasy. The worlds of art and sex collide merging the flesh and identities, faceless humans, the body becoming distinct, free-moving into a whole new entity. The ultimate nullification of personality and identity. The intensity of the emotions clashing over the quandary of body over mind wrapped up in surrealism of unrestricted art. Free-will convulsing within the bounds of insanity, drives the notion of sexual freedom to the edge of a carnal conundrum.

“ Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his impulses?”

When the fear of losing everything overrides the self-assured convictions deterring a restrictive conscious encompassing unrestrictive art, freedom becomes a luxury. The discomforting anxiety burdens the agony of self-realization. The notion of an ‘absolute freedom’, an untainted freedom beyond the realms of self-examinations trapped between the battles between normality v/s animalistic fervour and morality v/s immorality. The impulses of self–obliteration hovering over Yeong-ho.

Identity becomes a farcical metaphor floating in its own singularity. The human body is torn between its own language and the language imposed by others. The individual and the community segregated by the former’s quest to explore the terrains of freedom confronting the limitations of the society; the sum and substance of ‘identity’ collapsing within an individual. Han Kang is meticulous in layering the intricacies of mainstream Korean Society laminating the cultural fringes in the dual domains of “social-self” and “solitary-self”. The concept of freedom and identity carved in harmony with the workings of societal dogmas rather than those of an individual is tactfully highlighted through the firm notion that people are somehow in debt of the socio-cultural benevolence. The menacing arcs of gender, food, sexual liberation, sexual violence, abuse, mental maladies and suicide dismantles the values of personal freedom with asphyxiating constraints. Thus, the fatalities of individualities misplaced in the struggles, societal responsibilities and imposed taboos; the denied personhood exiled in the feelings of displacement.

“Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called ‘a person’, but then wasn’t exactly some feral creature either – more like a mysterious being with qualities of both”

Personal identity becomes highly subjective in this three-tier narrative. Each of Han Kang’s focal characters struggle amid the legitimacy of their personhood. Be it In-hye, who has this incredible ability to adapt to any dire circumstances with staunch endurance, binding up her wounds with an ingrained smothering stability. Yeong-ho , who weighed down by his own battles of moral obligations and self-depravity. Lastly, Yeong-hye’s husband who exemplifies the nitty-gritty of a patriarchal society. But, the greatest irony of the identity clash stems in the portrayal of Kim Yeong-hye. Despite Yeong-hye being the pivotal common thread throughout the audacious narratives, fails to take the centre-stage. Her personhood becomes secondary forging its way around and through her, in the course of her emaciated life. Yeong-hye is steadily pushed in the background. Her own individuation clings on the opinionated strings of the people around her.

“ Look , sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands……they delve down into the earth. Endlessly,endlessly…….yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide……..”

Respect – Who deserves the core of its sentiment? The oppressed body that uproots itself from the surface of the human race or the resilient body that submerges under an ocean of emptiness to survive among the human race? Or then, is it the inescapable individual existing within the two claustrophobic bodily milieus, who is the rightful beneficiary of the justified reverence? The predominant existentialism theme encircling this literary reserve, probes the legitimacy of human existence in the state of chaos amplifying the very core of human nature. The individual remains incomprehensible; the significance of kith and kin disseminating in a ruthless abandonment. Unlike the black bird soaring the blue skies, the earthly bound tree runs short of absolute freedom. A tree may stand solitary on the mountain top, sturdy on the fertile ground, still, its roots run deep, firmly rooted into the earth below. Akin to a tree rooted in its earthly codes, an individual is forever rooted into the societal dogmas. An individual is far from being truly free, the cost of an absolute freedom paid through self-annihilation. The supreme exemption from the morally reprehensible decoding of the totality of being attained in the final uprooting of a human being from the society. Is then, the path of abstinence a bane or a boon? At the risk of bizarre insanity devoid of a definite beginning or an end, is then the onset of abstinence a daring last resort to establish identity? And, how farther can a person keep running, far into the deep darkness before crashing into his/her own fractured soul?

4/5 ****