Simply messing around in books: Rolin and Kawakami

 

Ratty-and-Mole-in-Boat-with-Dragonfly

Jean Rolin: The Explosion Of The Radiator Hose

(translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie)

Imagine a laid-back Heart of Darkness with Mistah Kurtz replaced by a series of bloodthirsty Congolese leaders and the narrator a somewhat worldweary Frenchman with a taste for Proust. Cut the rather soppy ending to Heart of Darkness too.  This is a very clever, funny, serious book, a mock travel-tale that takes on some of the gravitas and moody beauty of Conrad’s work, but with a super-cool narrator. It pays homage not only to Conrad and Proust, but also to that great moocher Sebald.  Perhaps Rolin really did transport a beaten-up old Audi via cargo ship from France to Kinshasa as a favour to a Congolese friend; certainly he did spend his teenage years as a diplomat’s son in the Congo and witnessed the bloody coming and going of various despots.   He’s a wry, slippery character with a nice throwaway line:

a man whose appearance and conversation radiated that pervasive aura of pessimism with regard to human nature so often observed in his fellow Belgians (73)

and a gift for the cut-through summary:

The isolated settlements through with we passed all gave the same impression of decrepitude and feverish activity, as if each one was living in the expectation of something or someone that would never come (29)

It’s a short book (162 pages) but it takes you a long way. A real treat.

 

 

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Hiromi Kawakami: Strange Weather in Tokyo

(Translated by Allison Markin Powell)

13 million people live in Tokyo and many probably have lives like Tsukiko. In her late thirties she lives alone, has an office job that does not lead to any congenial friends, visits her parents rarely, and spends most evenings drinking sake in her local bar.She seems to be drifting through life.

One evening in a bar she sits next to an elderly man. Almost simultaneously they both order, ‘Salted shallots, fried lotus root and tuna with fermented soybeans.’
She recognizes him as her Japanese teacher from high school, although she can’t remember his name, and just calls him Sensei. He remembers her name and even her year of birth. From then on they frequently run into each other and after the third time Tsukiko finds:

We both seemed to be the type of person who liked to stop in every so often at the local bar….we had a similar rhythm, or temperament. Despite the age difference of more than thirty years, I felt more at ease with him than with friends my own age.

Tsukiko can’t see it but Sensei is engaged in life and passionately interested in many things. Where she would say she knew nothing about plants, or trees or poetry he is always ready to explain, to try to enlarge her understanding.

He is though something of a comic figure, or he could be if he were not so strong and competent. They go with some acquaintances on a mushroom hunt. Sensei wears his tweed suit and leather shoes and carries his briefcase on this expedition.They begin the ascent:

At the foot of the mountain, the autumn foliage had yet to change but up here most of the leave were tinged red or yellow. The air was cool and pleasant, but I had broken into sweat, due to the fact I never exercised. Sensei, however, appeared quite relaxed, carrying his briefcase lightly in one hand.
‘Sensei, do you do a lot of mountain climbing?’
‘Tsukiko, this is not what one calls mountain climbing.’

A strange little tale (176 pages)of two unlikely people falling together through loneliness, attraction, and a great love of sake. And at the end Tsukiko is able to quote some lines that Sensei has taught her

In loneliness I have drifted this long way, alone.
My torn and shabby robe could not keep out the cold.
And tonight the sky was so clear
it made my heart ache all the more.

 

Image: http://rrm.co.uk/explore/wind-in-the-willows

2 thoughts on “Simply messing around in books: Rolin and Kawakami

  1. Delighted to see your review of Strange Weather, a quiet, contemplative read, beautifully written. It was my very first attempt at a write-up, a guest post on another blogger’s site as I’d agreed to read and summarise the various books longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize at the time.

    I seem to hit it off with Japanese fiction in this vein: Yoko Ogawa, Kawabata and Inoue to name but a few. There’s another Kawakami translation due out soon, The Nakano Thrift Shop.

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