Friday, January 31, 2014

Learning Japanese

I started learning conversational Japanese yesterday. Met Chisato, recommended by PB, at Panera Bread and looked at basic traveler's phrases. Pronunciation is not difficult. Memorization will take some effort.

I've been dipping into Buson's haikus for a month or two now. I do love the warmth and immediacy of his poetry. He makes me want to be a haiku poet. Never had that feeling when reading Basho and Issa. But it's hard to write haiku when the heart is in a state of agitation.

Bought Zen Landscape at the New Museum bookstore. Allen S. Weiss writes with genuine feeling about Japanese dry gardens, tea ceremony and ceramics. Wabi-sabi. Mono no aware. An aesthetics of simplicity, asymmetry, use value, old age and the seasons.

I'm really looking forward to our trip to Japan in August. I will launch the Japanese translation of The Pillow Book in Tokyo. GH and I are also thinking of visiting Kyoto, and a hot spring town between the two big cities.

Chikatetsu wa doko desu ka?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Yeng Pway Ngon's Poems of Rebellion

I must confess that I don't know any Singapore poetry written in languages other than English. Alvin Pang and Goh Beng Choo perform a signal service for me and others like me by translating Yeng Pway Ngon, an important poet who writes in Chinese. Born in 1947, Yeng has written not only poetry, but also essays, fiction, plays and literary criticism, 24 volumes so far. He was the editor and publisher of two literary magazines, Teahouse in the 1980s and Encounter in the 1990s. He has had a long and distinguished literary career. In 2003 he received Singapore's Cultural Medallion for Literature.

The pamphlet I bought from Books Actually last summer offers a selection of his early poems, published between 1967 and 1970. It is intended to be the first part of a series of translations of Yeng's poetry. Titled Poems 1 [Rebellion], the work is very much that of a young man, as he agonizes over his place in the world and lashes out at careerism and consumerism.

Steeped in the Anglo-American poetic tradition, I hear in these poems echoes of T. S. Eliot. The opening poem "Aria" begins with the image of a rose garden and goes on to describe how "the heart of each afternoon is thick with weeds." The second poem "Cafe," with its depiction of ennui, deploys a refrain similar to the one in "Prufrock," and urban images that resemble those in "Preludes." The third and longest poem is titled, in an allusion to the most famous image in "Prufrock," "On the Operating Table." And yes, it refers to a wasteland. These are poems of a young poet absorbing and finding a use for his poetic influences.

I hear a more original voice emerging in the next poem "Telephone Booth." Comparing the public telephone to a woman, the poem is witty and sexy. It develops the comparison in non-obvious ways, before reaping the rewards of directness.


all she does is fool around with chewing gum
standing between mirrors
calling her own name
falling in love with shifting colours on glass surfaces

still for her sake you lift the receiver
stroke her face
stick your piece of nickel into her

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Roberto Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives"

Just finished reading The Savage Detectives this afternoon, and loved it for the poignant depiction of the loss of youthful hopes. The formal ambition is also thoroughly admirable. The first and third parts are written by a young visceral realist novitiate Juan Garcia Madero in the form of diary entires. The second, and largest part, consists of the stories of about 50 people whose lives crossed with those of the founders of visceral realism, Ulises Lima (based on Bolaño's friend Mario Santiago) and Arturo Belano (Bolaño's alter ego). Written as if they are being interviewed, these stories show how impossible it is to pin down who the poets are; everyone has a different take on them. The parallel in the detective plot lies in the quixotic search by Lima and Belano for the stridentist poet Cesárea Tinajero, the mother of visceral realism.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Haruki Murakami's "Underground"

I'm planning to visit Japan in August and so when I found Haruki Murakami's work of journalism Underground at Kramerbooks in D.C., I bought it immediately, for who can resist a book subtitled "The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche"?

The first, and bigger, part of the book consists of interviews with the victims of the gas attacks, and the family of those who died. These interviews are ordered according to the subway lines on which the Aum attack on March 20, 1995, a Monday, took place. Dissatisfied with the presentation by the Japanese media of a collective image of "the innocent Japanese sufferer," Murakami wanted to discover and document the actual people behind the label of victims, to recognize that each person had, as he puts it, "a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas." Most interesting, and moving, are the interviews of the subway staff who had to respond to the emergency. Their interviews are suffused with pain, guilt, horror, self-justification, and, above all, bewilderment over unanswerable what-if questions.

Part Two of the book consists of interviews with former and present members of the Aum sect, though not with the attackers who were imprisoned or still on trial at the writing of the book. Most members interviewed have struggled with the meaning and purpose of life since young, while feeling alienated from the conformism and competition that they saw around them. They report their strong sense of relief when they became a renunciate and pledged themselves to follow Asahara, the leader of the sect, unconditionally. Even after the gas attack, they hold on to the idea that there is some good in the sect's teaching, and some try to locate a point in time when the organization went wrong.

Intriguing detail, from Akio Namimura's interview: when the police took him in for questioning, for being an Aum member, they asked him to trample on a photo of Shoko Asahara to prove that he had renounced his faith, "like it was in the Edo period when they made the Japanese Christians renounce their faith by stepping on a drawing of Jesus," Namimura comments.

In an essay that concludes Part One, Murakami reflects on what actually happened in the Tokyo Subway on that fateful day. Thinking about how Aum members actively sought to be controlled by Asahara, he wrote some perspicacious remarks about narrative:

If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self. Humans, however, can't live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systematic rationality) with which you surround yourself; they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others. 
Now a narrative is a story, not logic, not ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. Just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. "Storyteller" and at the same time "character." It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.

Aum members, however, gave up the complications and confusions of their own narrative and accepted the simplified, junky, and cobbled-together narrative put out by Asahara. Murakami, however, turns the knife further and deeper, by asking the reader:

Haven't you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and had taken on a "narrative" in return? Haven't we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of "insanity"? Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else's vision that could sooner or later turn into nightmare?