Monday, October 27, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - II

Once I was stationed in Japan and leaving the Army camp on pass most weekends, I was able to pick up enough Japanese to function with phrases like: "Where is the . . .toilet . . . train station . . . bus stop?" "I would like . . . a coffee . . . a beer . . . a check." "How much is it?" "How do you say this in Japanese"? (pointing to an object). Asking for directions to the train station in acceptable Japanese sometimes meant of course that the answer came back in rapid and incomprehensible Japanese. So I learned the phrase "Do you speak English?"

But while learning useful phrases was not hard, written Japanese seemed impossible. I was told that while Japan has something like a 99-percent plus literacy rate, the written language is so difficult that school children cannot read an ordinary newspaper or a magazine until middle school.

Written Japanese uses hiragana, katakana, kanji, and occasionally the alpahbet. The hiragana and katakana characters represent sounds. Hiragana is used for verb endings, grammatical markers (like English prepositions), and certain common words. Katakana is used these days for foreign words and for emphasis. Kanji are the originally Chinese characters that may be used for their meaning or their sound (or both). So the word "Japan" can be written four ways: にっぽん、ニッポン、日本,  and Nippon.

I wanted to learn to sound out hiragana because train station signs, which included the name of the station, the last station, and the next station, were in hiragana. If I could read that the train was stopped at しもあかつか and the next station was なります, I would know to be ready to get off.

The letters across the top show the sounds, so the characters in the second column from the right are pronounced ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.
The hiragana and katakana syllabaries each have 46 characters. The chart above illustrates the hiragana. One Saturday afternoon, I took the train from camp into Tokyo, parked myself in a favorite coffee shop where I could sit all afternoon for the price of a single cup of coffee, made up flash cards, and spent more than four hours memorizing. Because these only represent sounds, and because characters are similar (め、ぬ、れ、ね、わ、ろ、る) it was not easy, but by the end of the day I could read and write almost all 46 characters.

Once I could, I began sounding out everything I could read. Being able to sound the hiragana out did not mean I could understand the words, but it was a start. And on the way back to Ikebukuro Station, I spotted a bus poster advertising 味の素. I could not of course understand the two kanji characters, but beside them were small hiragana (called furigana) that gave the pronunciation—あじ の もと, or "Ajinomoto," the brand of monosodium glutamate, a word I did understand. I can still vividly recall the shock of recognition, the sense that it was possible to grasp what had been incomprehensible. What a rush of delight!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Haruki Murakami's evasive fiction

Haruki Murakami, perhaps the contemporary Japanese novelist best-known to Western readers, has a short story, "Scheherazade," in the October 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. It begins (in Ted Goossen's translation), "Each time they had sex, she told Habara a strange and gripping story afterward."

Habara, 31, seems to be under house arrest or internal exile in a provincial Japanese city. The woman with whom he has sex is 35, "a full-time housewife with two children in elementary school (though she was also a registered nurse and was apparently called in for the occasional job)." It's not clear whether bringing Habara groceries twice a week and servicing him sexually is part of the job. Nor do we learn her name. Habara calls her Scheherazade because she tells him stories that always break off before the end, as does Murakami's own story here (another reason for my frustration).

We don't know why Habara is stuck in the house. He watches DVDs and reads all day—no newspapers, no internet, no television, and presumably no radio. We know nothing about his earlier life, his family, even his feelings for the woman. "Scheherazade" takes place entirely within the house, giving a claustrophobic feeling.

On The New Yorker's website, Deborah Treisman says, "If Scheherazade is a lamprey eel, dependent on other creatures for her survival, Habara refers to himself as a desert island, isolated and self-sufficient. Do you see him that way? Could he survive with no human contact?"

Murakami responds, "Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a 'desert island.' Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story."

The reaction of this reader however is a feeling of being cheated. It seems to me that an irrevocable turning point in a life is a story and to evade it is to evade the artist's responsibility to say something meaningful about the world. Treisman asks, "These two characters’ lives intersect seemingly at random—or at the whim of some unnamed person. What made you think of throwing them together in this situation?"

Murakimi responds, "I occasionally think that, in our heart of hearts, we all may be seeking situations like this one—where our free will doesn’t apply and (almost) everything is determined by someone else, where each day must be lived according to the conditions that someone else has laid down. There are people who may already be living that sort of life, to a greater or lesser extent, without even knowing it." In fact, as a volunteer teacher in prisons, I've met hundreds of people who must live each day according to conditions that someone else has laid down. For most of them, it's not a lot of fun or very interesting.

I did not believe for a moment that Habara or his "Scheherazade" embodied anything "real." I thought the situation was interesting (I thought it was a writer's wet dream: be alone to read, watch DVDs, write, and have a complaint woman provide the groceries and regular sex without any responsibility), and I thought the story Scheherazade tells about a youthful infatuation interesting, but (and this may well be my lack of imagination and bias) I found the story irritating and ultimately meaningless.

Adventures in Japanese - I

A Kyoto yakitori chef prepares a meal.
I have been engaged in (interested in? consumed by?) the Japanese language for a long time. Although I doubt I will ever return to Japan, I continue to meet weekly with a Japanese conversation partner and continue to learn slowly, slowly the characters with a goal of eventually being able to read a magazine or newspaper. I will never be fluent. I cannot, for example, understand a news broadcast. But my spoken Japanese is good enough to function as a traveler in Japan.

Because I have been learning and using Japanese for a long time, and because I find the language so interesting, I plan to write about Japanese and some of my experiences with it in a series of periodic blog entries, this being the first. I hope that if you have observations or questions, you will take a moment to comment.

Like many Western visitors to Japan, I was disoriented when I got off a troop ship in Yokohama harbor years ago and discovered that, while Japanese shops, posters, and billboards were a riot of writing, I was entirely illiterate. I might also have been deaf and dumb because everything I heard was only noise. On the one hand, it seemed impossible to learn enough to, as a friend said, "exchange ideas." On the other, Japan is filled with children who have learned the language, so it cannot be impossible.

Indeed, I learned almost immediately how to say "hello," "thank you," and "how much?" As a GI, I didn't need much more; the Japanese I came in contact with spoke (some) English. While the Japanese education system requires several years of English study (and did so right through WWII)—and I have a story about English instruction in a moment—in my experience, few Japanese are comfortable in English and appreciate the foreigner who has bothered to learn some of their language. The Japanese are not, generally, language snobs unless or until you gain native fluency, which will never be my dilemma.

The story: One time in the 1950s was on a train somewhere in the countryside. At a stop, a group of schoolboys and their teacher came into the car. I was an American in civilian clothes, fairly unusual at that time and place. The boys crowded around me and dragged their teacher over to sit across from me. He was clearly embarrassed by what the boys insisted. Because I spoke virtually no Japanese, I could not help him much. Finally, by consulting the pocket dictionary I always carried and the dictionary he had in his brief case, were able to establish that (a) he was the boys' English teacher, and (b) I was the first person he had ever met for whom English was his native language.

While I know that the level of English-language instruction in Japan has improved dramatically in the last 50 years, I also know that for many Japanese English is a trial and a burden. An American who is able to speak some Japanese, even poorly, therefore has an enormous advantage in gaining access to the "real" Japan, whatever that is.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What one guy learned exiling himself in, of all places, Kalamazoo

Ordinarily, I do not care for stories about alcoholics (they tend to follow the same pattern) or about writers (as I writer myself, I don't find their challenges very interesting), which means I tend to have even less sympathy for stories about alcoholic writers. Exile on Kalamazoo Street by Michael Loyd Gray is an exception.

It is the story of Bryce Carter, a 51-year-old novelist with a drinking problem. He's been successful enough to have published three novels and sell one for a screenplay that brought in enough money he could buy a small house in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's taught creative writing in college. When he found himself going down for the third time in the Whiskey River, he exiled himself in the house, resolving not to step one foot outside the door until . . . well, maybe never. His sister who lives in town buys his groceries and delivers them and, at his request, captures a black cat that becomes Black Kitty, Bryce's constant companion.

Because he is always home, Bryce is a sitting duck (fish in a barrel?) for visitors. These include a former drinking buddy who does his best to push Bryce off the wagon, a Presbyterian minister who would like to save Bryce's eternal soul, a 23-year-old former student who has an adorable shaved vulva, a former academic colleague, and, eventually, two Hollywood flunkies dispatched to nudge Bryce into writing a screenplay based on his third novel—which is by his account "a self-indulgent mess by a self-indulgent drunk . . . a 500-page leviathan that lurches finally into incoherence about a man searching for his soul." (Exile on Kalamazoo Street is 151 pages and while somewhat self-referential and somewhat self-indulgent, it is neither incoherent nor a mess.)

The novel begins with a chapter of Bryce sliding enthusiastically into Whiskey River in a local bar, but Gray writes without apology or explanation. Good! The rest of the novel covers the months Bryce spends in exile with Black Kitty and his interactions with his visitors. His sister has sicced the minister on him: "But I couldn't be angry with Janis, my younger and only sister, a dutiful mother, freshly divorced, who believed unflinchingly in the magic the church might wield on wounded people as surely as I doubted it. Janis was an onward marching Christian soldier. But she just wanted the best for me."

Bryce is a writer, but he does not write in his exile. For one thing, he is still recovering from his third novel. Speaking about it to the minister, he says, "Many critics said there's no story at all, Reverend. I recall my agent telling me that if it sold, it would because there wasn't another book quite like it. Turns out that's a good reason why no other books are quite like it." Much later, after he's been hired to write the screenplay, "I thought of the irony of being tasked to write a film about a man with the ability to travel the world [he's won the lottery] searching for some eternal truth. I thought of truth as just a word and a good idea, but something that did not really exist. There were actions and reactions, statments and replies, but there was little that could be called truth."

And yet. And yet. I believe Exile on Kalamazoo Street is filled with truths large and small. That, and Gray's dialogue, descriptions, and the opinions he attributes to Bryce make the book delightful. Unlike the typical alcoholic memoir ("How I overcome terrific odds to overcome my drinking), this novel is a fascinating fictional account of one man's experience of internal exile. I was willing to believe every word of it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Here's an intriguing puzzle set in Victorian London

Because I am creating fiction myself, I tend to read novels two ways simultaneously. I read for the story, and I read to see how the author does it. Because I am currently writing a mystery, I was interested in Anne Perry's Blood on the Water, my first exposure to her work.

Blood on the Water is Perry's nineteenth Victorian-era novel to feature William Monk, commander of the Thames River Police. (She has another 27-novel Victorian mystery series featuring a married couple plus five WWI novels and 12 Christmas novels; she's a prolific lady.) Readers of the series have followed Monk, his wife Hester (formerly a nurse during the Crimean War), and Scuff, an orphaned mudlark they took in. While it is not necessary to have read the first eighteen novels in the series to enjoy Blood on the Water, I believe the experience would be richer and more enjoyable.

The novel starts with a bang, literally. On page 2, Monk and one of his officers are on the Thames at twilight watching a pleasure boat filled with party-goers returning from an excursion when "there was a shattering roar and a great gout of flame leaped from the bow. Debris shot high into the air and the column of light seared Monk's eyes. Instinctively he ducked as the shock wave struck, and pieces of wood and metal pelted into the water around him and Orme with deafening splashes...."

So there's your mystery. Who would blow up a pleasure boat killing almost 200 innocent passengers? Why would someone do such a thing? And while this is a case for the River Police, higher authorities immediately give it to the Metropolitan London police who, in fairly short order (the British press is in full cry, demanding results) identify the perpetrator, try him (we see the trial), and condemn him to death. But we're only halfway through the book. I'm not going to say more about the story because I don't want to spoil it for potential readers. I will say that it held my interest to the last page as Monk and friends worked to uphold British justice.

Which is a theme throughout the book: The idea that justice is possible, that the system is not corrupt, that British barristers and solicitors hold themselves to an ideal of equity—because if they don't and the people do not trust the law and its administrators, civilization is not possible.

Perry tells her story from the limited third person point of view, so we are with Monk on the water rescuing survivors of the blast, with Hester doing her own investigations into the event, and with Oliver Rathbone, a disbarred lawyer and apparently a significant character in earlier books. (One of the series writer's problems: How much do you have to repeat for new readers; how much should you refer back to earlier cases? Enough, I guess, to remind faithful readers of the earlier books and to help new readers understand context, not enough to bore faithful or new readers.)

As someone who knows nothing about English courts except what he's seen on television, Perry's descriptions of the—you will excuse the expression—thrust and parry between prosecution and defense barristers seemed convincing. She is also particularly good a using characters' reactions to other people and to events to convey mood and feeling. Here for example is Hester looking at the jurors:

"From her place in the gallery, Hester could see that many of them had now lost all certainty as to who was lying, mistaken, or driven by motives one could only guess at. Looking at them, studying their faces, she could see that this was not a situation that sat well with them. There were unanswered questions regarding the first trial. How could so many mistakes have been made, and then compounded? It was anxiety she saw, and rising fear. They glanced at one another and then away again hastily. They moved minutely as if unable to find a comfortable position...."

If you would like to spend some time watching Monk and his friends work out an intriguing puzzle, try Blood on the Water.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Worried about the culture? So is Clarence Page

Clarence Page has been a columnist for The Chicago Tribune since 1984. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1989. Cultural Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change, Selected Columns 1984-2014 is just what the title says it is: a collection of Page's newspaper columns organized by topic and by date within a topic.

Page is black and has been accused of being a conservative by liberals and of being a liberal by conservatives. Based on what I read in these columns, however, I don't think either label will stick. Rather, Page as a good journalist uses facts to make observations and to draw conclusions. One might argue with his conclusions (I didn't), but the 172 columns here are thoroughly grounded in reality. Page is not a mouthpiece for one ideology or another.

In describing his approach, Page says, "I try to set my moral compass to what's best for America's families, not what's best for a particular political party or interest group. My perspective hasn't changed much, but the world has. I've always portrayed myself as a good Midwestern, middle-of-the-road voice for the sensible center. I am amused when people paint me as a hard-core liberal or hard-core conservative, based on the same column!" I suspect he is less amused when whites call him a racist for criticizing a "white" ideas and blacks call him an Uncle Tom for criticizing a black figure.

The scope of the chapters is exceptionally wide: Breaking News; Gaffes, Goofs and Gotchas (reducing political discourse to jumping on one careless statement); Weaponized Umbrage; Bill Cosby's Culture War; Political Language Arts; Diversity Anxiety; Profiling: The Acceptable Prejudice; Giants Worth Remembering (among them Justice Marshall, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Coretta Scott King, and more); Crime and Cures; Prison Pipelines, Reversing the Flow; Obama World vs. Palin Nation; Tea Party Cultural Wars; How the Party of Lincoln Lost People of Color; Black Conservatives Offer Remedies, Too; Big Ideas: A Pursuit of Whatever Works; Marriage Slips Out of Style; Wooing Women's Votes.

Page says, "I write about racial issues more often than most white columnists do"—which is one reason why this book is so valuable to this white, middle-class reviewer. "But when I write about climate change, mortgage defaults, student loans, the obesity epidemic, the future of public education, are those racial issue? Maybe not on the surface, but my experience informs my awareness of how differently those issues play out in white communities compared to communities of color."

For example, Page writes about a 1996 speech Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan gave to a gathering of black journalists where he said, "White folks did not hire you to really represent what black people are really thinking, and you don't really tell them what you think because you are too afraid. A scared-to-death Negro is a slave, you slave writers, slave media people." Page says not everyone was impressed. Many were annoyed that Farrakhan would "stereotype black journalists as broadly, ignorantly and destructively as any white editor ever has. Nowhere in the Farrakhan journalism lecture was there a word said about the possibility that one could maybe sometimes disagree with Louis Farrakhan and still be black."

Because the columns stretch from 1984 to 2014, many by necessity reflect history in the making and are valuable to remind readers of old battles, some won, some continuing still. My only quibble with the book is the lack of follow-up. Occasionally I'd like to know what finally happened. How did the situation turn out?

Nevertheless, Cultural Worrier is a stimulating and interesting collection by a careful and thoughtful commentator on American life, black and white.