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There’s perhaps no greater challenge to one’s sense of self than travelling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. This experience is so instantly disorientating and isolating that you’re forced back into a state of infantilism struggling to communicate what you mean with those around you. It also provokes self-reflection making you consider assumptions about the meaning of culture and language. Whenever I’ve spent time in a foreign country I’ve felt simultaneously energised with curiosity and very vulnerable as I pondered these issues. This experience is powerfully conveyed in Iwaki Kei’s novella “Farewell, My Orange”. The story primarily focuses on the experience of two women who move to Australia: Salimah from Nigeria and Sayuri from Japan. They meet in an English language class. Gradually they form a bond amidst their different feelings of estrangement and establish a more robust sense of independence. It’s a poignant tale of friendship that considers the ways in which meaning is filtered through language.

Having left Nigeria with her family under strained circumstances, Salimah’s husband abruptly leaves her. Suddenly she’s the sole provider for her two sons so finds work in the meat department of a grocery store. Along with this enormous responsibility, she takes steps to learn English. Accounts of her experience are interspersed with letters that Sayuri writes to a teacher back in her native Japan. She moved to Australia because of her husband’s work and although she was an advanced student in her native country, she’s forced to enrol in a basic English class to learn the language. When tragedy strikes she must reckon with the direction she wants her life to take. Fascinatingly, the beginning of Salimah and Sayuri’s friendship starts before they can even communicate with each other. Their connection is formed not so much through speaking to each other but an awareness of each other – through gestures and presence. I think this is so interesting because it highlights how our sense of other people is mostly formed from observation rather than what people directly say to us.  

Sayuri’s accounts written in letter form are more naturally self-reflective as she ponders the various ways living somewhere that she doesn’t speak the language is disorientating and sharpens her senses. She observes how “While one lives in a foreign country, language's main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one's fight with the world. You can't fight without a weapon.” It’s curious how language is something that feels second-nature to us most of the time but when we don’t have the right words we’re left defenceless and unable to express our needs. This applies to both basic physical needs and emotions whose subtlety can become completely lost when we can only gesture or speak in broad terms. Therefore, the connection between Salimah, Sayuri and other individuals in their class is formed more from an intuitive understanding of each other’s needs as women and mothers in a country that is foreign to all of them.

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Although so many things about the environment and culture are different for Salimah, the one consistency she clings to is the colour of the setting sun which was the same in Nigeria. It’s really poignant how Kei describes Salimah’s story as the meaning of home slowly shifts for her and this change allows a more expansive potential to grow in ways she never considered before. It’s also shown how expression through language is both communal and highly individual: “the cultivation of the written word, the language that sustains thought, is an individual matter, a thing that endlessly changes as it's propagated inside each person's head.” We instinctively revise what we want to say and write in our minds before putting it out into the world. This is done as we reach for the right words which will better express our feelings and ideas. These women’s stories capture this sense in an absolutely fascinating way and I was greatly moved by their journeys.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIwaki Kei
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Something about reading my first novel by Mishima now at the age of 36 makes me think I would have appreciated him more if I read him in my early 20s. His writing is without a doubt very sophisticated and eloquent, but there is something about the philosophical digressions he goes on which feel much like an ardent university student making fanciful speeches where he’s trying to sound impressive. There are a lot of interesting points and it’s very well crafted, but I don’t think this is a book that flows as gracefully as a novel that is merely showing you what life is made of. I hasten to add that there is a meaningful story here amidst the sometimes fervent tangents. It’s basically a novel about three characters. Noboru is a precocious 13 year-old who discovers a hidden spy-hole into his mother’s bedroom. His mother Fusako is a widow with a successful business with some high profile clients who takes on a sailor lover. This sailor is Ryuji, a solitary man with a strict code of values who breaks from his life at sea after embarking on this affair with Fusako. The novel switches focus between these characters and tells a tale about sexual discovery, aging and becoming disillusioned with idealized notions about life.

Noboru’s complex adolescent state is described beautifully. He’s locked in his bedroom each night by his mother. His discovery of a hole between his bedroom and his mother’s gives him a way to extract revenge on Fusako by invading her privacy. It also yields contemplative thoughts on identity as Fuasako looks at herself in a mirror when she thinks she’s alone. Noboru has a burgeoning understanding of a new kind of world as he witnesses his mother’s love affair with the sailor whom he looked up to when he first met him. Apart from notions about a kind of Oedipus complex that this suggests, it forces Noboru to contemplate his epistemological position on life. Noboru longs to sail on ships himself but he “found himself in the strange predicament all sailors share: essentially he belonged neither to the land nor to the sea. Possibly a man who hates the land should dwell on shore forever. Alienation and the long voyages at sea will compel him once again to dream of it, torment him with the absurdity of longing for something that he loathes.” When presented with a solitary/exploratory life or a domesticated/fixed life, he surmises that the preferable option is the liminal space between the two. Isn’t this typical - for young men particularly? Both Ryuji and Noboru want to have it both ways: the security of having a home and the freedom to pursue limitless other possibilities. 

Ryuji finds himself at a challenging cross-road in his life. He’s prided himself at working hard on his own, separate from the other sailors on his ship and building up substantial savings by not spending his money on frivolous things. However, he does spend money to lose his virginity with a prostitute in one scene where he hilariously images the thick mast of a ship while having sex with her. This suggests latent homosexual impulses which I can’t help reading into the story considering Mishima’s own homosexuality. But this isn’t something the author pursues because he remarks somewhat dismissively that “His sexual desires too, the more so because they were physical, he apprehended as pure abstraction; lusts which time had relegated to memory remained only as glistening essences, like salt crystallized at the surface of a compound.” I’m guessing the question of whether sexual desire is driven more towards men or women is too specific to fit into the grander statements about life that Mishima wants to make in this novel. Because Ryuji reflects that “I’ve never done much, but I’ve lived my whole life thinking of myself as the only real man” he sees himself separate from the human race or as a kind of embodiment of pure existence. The real challenge comes when he finds he wants to change course and that now “The things he had rejected were now rejecting him.”

It’s interesting the path Fusako’s journey takes, but she doesn’t feel as well developed as the boy and man. I was struck by a hilarious observation by Yoriko, one of  Fusako’s famous female clients, where she considers “A prerequisite of any marriage… was an investigation by a private detective agency.” Rather than this spying presenting a complication in the relationship it’s affirmed as a great idea and carried out in a way that leaves everyone satisfied. This is a curious plot point which feels like it could have yielded a different kind of dramatic story, but it doesn’t go down that route. Overall, it seemed to me that the course of the story leaves Fusako behind. Although she’s a successful independent business woman she doesn't develop as a character. She simply comes to represent an anchor for Ryuji’s unmoored existence.

One of the most fascinating things about this novel is the adolescent gang that Noboru hangs out with. They are like something out of a Donna Tartt novel waxing philosophically about the sacred way life should be lived and methods for dangerously putting the world right when irregularities occur. They take the story down a dramatic path. Their actions inspire notions about the cyclical savage nature of life and how earnest passions can be ultimately squandered. I’m sure many of the subtler symbolic meanings of this novel were lost on me. I did enjoy the story and many of the thought-provoking statements the author makes. In the future I intend to read more of Mishima's work - especially with the beautiful red & white covers that Vintage came out with for all his novels. I was entertained and engaged by this novel, but not totally swept away by Mishima’s sea-faring notions about existence.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYukio Mishima
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During the long flight from London to Tokyo, I was grateful to have a novel that was fairly simply written but emotionally engaging. ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ has an easily digestible style of writing and structure. However, it has a meaning which subtly builds over the course of the story. Narrated from the point of view of a single mother and professional cleaner, the Housekeeper tells her story of working for a man she only refers to as the Professor. She and her son (who the Professor dubs Root because his head is shaped like the square root symbol) develop a close bond with the Professor. He is an ingenious mathematician but suffers from an illness where he loses all recent memory every eighty minutes. This developed after he received a head injury in a car accident at the age of forty seven. As such he wears a suit every day which is covered in notes to remind him about his condition and who the Housekeeper and her son are. He gives this mother and son an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics. In turn, the Housekeeper develops a deeper engagement/relationship with other people and the world around her.

I really appreciate fiction which sensitively depicts working class life. The Housekeeper has worked diligently her whole life because she needs to make ends meet. She’s a single mother who gets no assistance from the boy’s father or her mother who rejected her. The fact that she doesn’t use her own name and lets herself only be referred to as the Housekeeper is a clue to what little importance she attributes to herself. Nevertheless, she takes pride in what she does and through engaging with mathematics finds a value in how she fits into the equation of the world. Where most people of humble origin might find connection with a higher existence through religion, she uses the guidance of the Professor to see how mathematics connects her with something greater: “I felt no fear, certain in the knowledge that the Professor would guide me toward eternal, unchangeable truths.”

The order and structure to the world which mathematics gives is a lifeline for the Professor whose immediate world is so insubstantial because he can’t remember and hold onto it. The personal truth of his daily existence must be maddeningly tragic as he can form no connection with what he’s experienced day to day since he was forty seven. Rather than taking faith in anything transitory he places it in what he refers to as the eternal as he says to the Housekeeper here: “Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.” There is a power found in numerical equations which is fixed in a way our own fleeting existence is not. The Professor’s condition highlights how everyone’s experience of reality is subjective, but there is an underlying structure which is comfortingly constant.

Baseball card for a player that has a deep significance for the Professor

Baseball card for a player that has a deep significance for the Professor

What really struck me was the meaningful way Ogawa presents how we relate to memories. The Professor is kept by his Sister-in-law who wants virtually nothing to do with him. She lives in another part of the property and hires an endless stream of housekeepers to see to the professor’s daily needs. The Housekeeper finds it difficult to emotionally deal with the fact that the close bond she feels for the Professor can’t be reciprocated because she must be reintroduced to him every eighty minutes. But conversely the Sister-in-law is suspended in the Professor’s immediate memory. She states: “You see, my brother-in-law can never remember you, but he can never forget me.” Both women are complexly trapped in their relationship with the Professor because of their place or lack of place in his memories.

This is a very sophisticated and beautifully executed story which made me care about mathematical equations more than I ever thought I could. I didn’t find it completely satisfying as there were some strands of the narrative and mysteries about the Professor’s behaviour which weren’t resolved. But perhaps it is better that my questions about his back story and relationship with the Sister-in-law go unanswered so I can imaginatively fill it in. It’s a novel of subtle power and a touching tribute to kinds of beauty which aren't immediately apparent.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYoko Ogawa
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