A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Masks by Fumiko Enchi (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

In Masks, Enchi explores an intense and passionate relationship between two women – a mother-in-law and her widowed daughter-in-law, as viewed by two men who are rivals in the affection of the younger woman. It is an extremely intriguing novel, a tense psychological drama in which motives are questionable and actions open to interpretation.

The basic premise of the story is quite simple. Yasuko, the daughter in law, is recently widowed. Her husband, Mieko’s son Akio, was killed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji in a sudden avalanche. Ibuki is married with a small child, but desires Yasuko who is a student in his class. His friend Mikamē, a doctor, wishes to marry Yasuko. The story follows the men’s relationships with Yasuko and the enigmatic Mieko with whom Yasuko has a strangely disturbing relationship.

This is a story which heavily relies on the concepts of ‘masks’. In the early part of the novel Yasuko, Mieko, Mikamē and Ibuki visit a Nō master (Nō is a form of Japanese theatre, highly stylised and noted for its use of masks) who is displaying some old costumes and masks from his theatre days. Here they encounter various masks including two in particular which are highly relevant both to the two ladies and the rest of the story:

‘The mask’s forehead and cheeks were well rounded; the suggestion of a smile hovered around the eyes, their lids curved and drooping, and the lips, half parted to reveal a glimpse of teeth. By some extraordinary artistry in the carving of the mask, that smile could change mysteriously into a look of weeping.

“This is Magojirō. A young woman, like Ko-omote, but one with greater femininity and the fully developed charms of someone older, a young woman at the peak of her beauty. When you know the masks as well as we do, they come to seem like the faces of real women. And this, of all the masks handed down in our family, is the one I love best.” He handed the Magojirō mask carefully to Yasuko.

“But I’ll show you another mask that I couldn’t love if I wanted to, one that won’t even let me near, one that makes me feel a kind of irritation – even hatred may not be too strong a word. Its nam is Zō no onna. It’s used for the characters of exalted rank – the court lady in Burden of Love or the celestial being on Robe of Feathers.”

Yorikata picked up the mask and slowly extended his arms up and out, holding it level with his own face. It was the visage of a coldly beautiful woman, her cheeks tightly drawn. The sweep of the eyelids was long, and the red of the upper lip extended out to the corners of the mouth in an uneven and involved line, curving at last into a smile of disdain. A haughty cruelty was frozen hard upon the face, encasing it like crystals of ice on a tree.’

These two masks appear to represent Yasuko and Mieko who have a mysterious and complex relationship, one which appears to frighten Yasuko but from which she appears unable to escape. Or is she? This is a question which runs throughout the novel: which is the mask? There are so many: the Nō masks themselves which are highly representative objects; the masks of identity which both Yasuko and Mieko seem to wear, their ‘true’ identities hidden behind them; the mask of respectability which Ibuki wears, which slips when he enters into his illicit relationship with Yasuko. Which is the ‘mask’ and which is the truth? It is a question which Enchi opens up, but which she leaves you, the reader, to unpick as you will.

Ibuki and Yasuko enter into a sexual relationship, possibly at the behest of Mieko. Yasuko certainly seems to believe (or presents such a belief) it is the case. And it is Mieko, the silent unknowable woman, around whom this story pivots. All the intrigue, all the deceptions, all the psychological elements revolve around the older woman about whom each of the characters puzzle. As Yasuko describes here:

‘”It’s no game. Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets in her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the dark with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.”’

Alongside the presence of masks, Enchi also explores the concept of spirit possession. This is a concept which very closely aligns both with the story and the idea of ‘masks’. In the world of spirit possession, the body becomes a ‘mask’ for the spirit possessing it, hiding its true nature behind a human façade. All of the characters are in some way exploring or researching this idea, but it is Mieko who seems to have made the greatest, albeit secret, breakthrough. In his own research Mikamē discovers a paper that Mieko wrote many years early called ‘An Account of the Shrine in the Fields’ in which she explores the story of the Rokujō lady from The Tale of Genji. In the story, the Rokujō lady, a jealous lover of Genji’s, uses her spirit to attack his wife which eventually leads to the wife’s death. The character of the Rokujō lady is a minor one in the Tale of Genji, but Mieko writes a paper describing a more sympathetic interpretation of the story. Is this, too, because Mieko is a Rokujō lady herself, attacking the spirits of others either knowing or unbeknowing? When confronted about the significance of the paper, Mieko dismisses it, but you are left feeling that its importance is somehow the cornerstone of the whole story.

Further complicating the story is the discovery that Yasuko’s husband Akio had a twin sister who had been separated from him at birth and brought up separately. The sister, Harumē suffered some mental disability as a result of apparent abuses heaped upon her by her brother before they were born. Following Akio’s death, Harumē came to live with her mother, but her presence remained a secret. Harumē herself then becomes a ‘mask’, a puppet, in Mieko’s bigger plan (which is never really made clear) which involves tricking Ibuki into sleeping with her, believing he is with Yasuko. It is at this point that the question arises: how much is Yasuko being controlled, or how much is she implicit in the terrible acts that are being played out here?

It’s a complex novel, extraordinarily so considering its brevity. Yet there’s a sense that there is no word misplaced here, every step of the story has been cleverly and carefully crafted. I found myself, again, impressed by Enchi’s writing skill, her ability to craft a story without missing a beat. Masks is an intense read, it is intriguing and clever and deep. It is a highly sexual story, raising questions about gender relations, the motives that drive people and the nature of identity. That Mieko is somehow at the centre of it all is apparent, yet Mieko is the one character we never really get to know. As Yasuko says: “it seems to me she must be one of the last women who lives that way still - like the masks – with her deepest energies turned inwards.”

Enchi is a great writer, one who deserves to be mentioned alongside the other Japanese greats like Kawabata, Abe and Soseki. I find it quite depressing that so few of her works have been translated to English – only 3 out of 7 works. It is a similar situation to that of Yoko Ogawa who is similarly overlooked, despite being an extraordinary writer. Yet at the same time the shelves are bulging with works from writers like Murakami (both) or Taichi Yamada who aren’t fit to wash her socks. Such a shame. I’d like to think that gender wasn’t at play here, especially considering how ‘feminist’ Enchi’s work is, but I can see no other reason why she isn’t recognised as the astonishingly great writer she is.

Masks is a brilliant, psychological drama which draws you in right from the beginning. A short and somewhat shocking novel which will leave you thinking about it for days afterwards.

Saturday 24 January 2015

Ancillary Sword & Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Over the last year I’ve been reading books written by women and whilst I have made efforts to read both fiction and non-fiction, and to read books written by women writing in English as their first language and books in translation, I haven’t made a great deal of effort to read across genres. A recent internet argument brought it home to me that it is truly very difficult to read without inherent prejudice; there are so many books out there that whatever your selection method, there will be some preference which dictates the majority of your choices. Accepting that it is not possible to be truly universal in my reading, however much I would like to be, I do think that I ought to read as widely as possible in order to confront and challenge my prejudices, and also to offer myself the opportunity to find something new that I loved. It was in this spirit that I tracked down the Ancillary books by Ann Leckie.

The Ancillary books are science fiction, not my usual genre but one I have some experience with (being married to a sci-fi boffin being an obvious influence here). It is a genre which has, I think, a difficult relationship with women. There are some notable names in science fiction including Ursula K LeGuin (who I’m getting around to) and Doris Lessing who famously said that her science fiction was the work she was the most proud of. Yet as a genre it is dominated by men: both as producers and readers. I’m sure there are a host of social reasons lying behind this, none of which I will solve by means of this blog. What I can do, however, is read some science fiction written by women and I’m resolving to do more of this going forward. As a reader I enjoy science fiction, so when I happened across an article about this Nebula award winning book (the first book, Ancillary Justice) written by a woman, and found that they had it in my library (erroneously logged as ‘fantasy’) it felt like fate that I had to read it. And when I inadvertently reserved the second book (Ancillary Sword) first, it felt like fate that I had to read that too (there are three books but the third, Ancillary Mercy, is still in the course of being written).

Long story concluded. As I read both books, this review will cover both of them. So what are the Ancillary books about? This series is set in the Radch Empire, a race of humans called the Radchaai (literally: civilised) who are an imperialistic race who colonise (annexe) other planets using militaristic means. They are extremely successful at annexation due to technological superiority and a kind of ideological purity which is a little bit disturbing. Consequently most planets will surrender immediately once the Radchaai arrive. When a planet is annexed the Radchaai employ ships with artificial intelligence that use ‘ancillaries’ – human corpses whose intelligence is supplanted by that of the ship – which can act as its eyes and ears on the ground, be in multiple places at one time and carry out actions on the ship’s behalf. There are three key types of Radchaai ship: Swords which are used for offensive purposes; Justices which enforce post annexation law and order; and Mercies which are used for humanitarian purposes. The ships must follow the orders of their Radchaai crew, and their ancillaries are used to service the crew’s needs and requirements. However, the ultimate authority is Anaander Mianaai, ancient leader of the Radch. One other thing to know about the Radch is that they are genderless, consequently a Radchaai will refer to all others as female, and often has difficulty in distinguishing between genders when encountering a gendered race.

The story opens with the character of Breq, finding a body in the snow. The body turns out to be a Radch officer, Seivardan who had been believed to be killed two thousand years earlier when her ship the Sword of Nathtas was destroyed. Breq, a mere 21 years old, knows who Sevardan is because Breq is not who she appears to be. What she is is an ancillary, Justice of Toren One Esk the remaining intelligence of the ship Justice of Toren which was also destroyed in an incident following the annexation of the planet Ors. Perhaps that’s why Breq saves Seivardan, that they are both the sole remaining memory of their ship, though in the case of Breq she is the ship. This is something I found incredibly hard to get my head around.

Breq rescues Seivardan, discovering that Seivardan is addicted to a substance called kef which she has to help wean her off. Seivardan appears a reluctant rescuee, and there is a continued sense that Breq herself doesn’t quite know why she has rescued Seivardan. Neither is she honest with Seivardan about who and what she is. This delay and necessary subterfuge interferes with her plans which we soon learn are to destroy Anaander Mianaai, leader of the Radchaai, as she holds Mianaai responsible for the destruction of Justice of Toren. She is searching for a weapon that is invisible to Radch detection technology and was used by a race called the Garseddai to destroy one of the Radchaai ships. The result of the Garseddai’s assault was the destruction of their whole civilisation, an event which is pivotal to the events in this book.

The early part of the story skips between past and present, opening up the back story that led the Justice of Toren being trapped in a single body and hell bent on destroying the Lord of the Radch. What we learn is that something strange was going on in the annexation of the Ors and that somehow Anaander Mianaai is involved. This subterfuge results in the Justice of Toren being forced to kill her favourite Lieutenant, Lieutenant Awn. The result of this action was that the Justice of Toren turned her gun on the Lord of the Radch, killing her. This was something she shouldn’t have been able to do.

Confused yet? I’m sure you’re not alone. Leckie creates an incredibly complex universe, one which covers several races, several different types of social structure, different Gods, different languages, different technologies. An incredible amount of groundwork goes into the first book to establish the ground rules from which the story then flows. Consequently I found the book a little slow to get going, but I think this is necessary so that the rest of the story makes sense. It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is a trilogy, so the writer has a much larger canvas to work with than just the first book itself. That being said, I think Leckie does a great job of introducing the back story, establishing the universe in which the story operates, and creates something which is highly believable and consistent to itself. She also does a great job of introducing us to the characters; I grew quite fond of Lieutenant Awn, found Seivardan frustrating and Breq herself single minded (ha!) and deceptive.

There is, as is always the case, something unsettlingly familiar about the world that Leckie creates. Though it is alien, it is not completely unrecognisable. In the second book Breq is given her own ship, the Mercy of Kalr, which knows that Breq is an ancillary. They travel to a distant planet where the sister of Lieutenant Awn lives. Breq cannot tell the sister who she is, and to everyone not in the know she merely appears to be a, somewhat untypical, Radchaai Fleet Captain.  The planet around which the Radch station (another AI) orbits is used for tea production; the Radchaai have a real love of tea, it forms a basis for many of their social interactions. I think this was the point when I started to think about the Radchaai as the British Empire in space. There were many overlaps: the love of tea, the brutal colonisations based on technological superiority, the belief that they were bringing ‘civilisation’ to the people being colonised, the complex administrative structures they built to maintain control, the exploitation of the lands and people that they’d conquered. This aside, the second book is more intimate than the first. We learn more about Breq, less about Seivardan who seems to disappear into the background (a surprising move for such a key character), the story moves into the territory of strategy and intrigue, class warfare and exploitation of an ‘underclass’, created, of course, by those who hold influence and power.  

Ancillary Justice, and later Ancillary Sword, fulfil all those things that are great about science fiction. By this I mean that the unfamiliar setting is used to explore more familiar human moral issues and ask us to confront them with a degree of personal distance. Leckie covers a lot of issues in these two books including imperialism, the question of ‘I was just following orders’, gender, racism, class. She asks us to confront what it means to be ‘human’ – if we do not have gender, are we human? If we have consciousness but are technologically based, are we human? Breq seems a very human character, yet Leckie is very clear that she is not and towards the end of the first book you are forced to question how much of Breq’s actions are of her own making and how much is programming? Is Breq really as ‘human’ as she seems, or is she still a tool of the Lord of the Radch? It is a question that, as at the end of the second book, I am still not sure about.

I read both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword at breakneck speed. It’s a long time since I finished two books in four days, but that’s how engaging these stories are. It is complicated; I cannot begin to untangle the complexities in this short blog entry. It is vivid and realistic and it is extraordinarily true to itself. Alongside that is an engaging story, complex moral conundrums and a depth which leaves you a lot to think about afterwards. That’s what truly great science fiction does, and this is truly great science fiction. I’m very much looking forward to reading the third.

Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword receive an intrigued 8 out of 10 Biis.

Saturday 17 January 2015

Great books for kids: Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson

“And so Moomintroll was helplessly thrown out in a strange and dangerous world and dropped up to his ears in the first snowdrift of his experience. It felt unpleasantly prickly to his velvet skin, but at the same time his snout caught a new smell. It was a more serious smell than any he had felt before, and slightly frightening. But it made him wide awake and greatly interested.”

Moominland Midwinter is the story of the winter in which, unusually, Moomintroll wakes too early from his winter hibernation and so is thrust into a terrifying yet exciting new world. For no Moomin before has experienced winter.

If you haven’t experienced the Moomintrolls, let me explain a little about them. These are the creation of Tove Jansson (who you may be aware that I love, possibly), a family of hippo-like creatures and their extended friends and family. I was unfortunate not to experience the Moomins as a child, as all the Moomin books are magical reads. They are gentle and endearing, yet never once do they patronise and it is, perhaps, this quality which has resulted in those often-seen spin-offs like Moomintroll’s Book ofThoughts

In Moominland Midwinter, Moomintroll decides to strike out on his own having awakened early from his winter hibernation. Consequently he is thrust into a strange and uncertain land, filled with unusual creatures and scary encounters. This is the classic ‘coming of age’ story in which the protagonist must embark on some adventure of their own, to be challenged and found wanting, to rely on their own skills and capabilities, in order to discover themselves. In the beginning Moomintroll finds winter incredibly frustrating. He is angry, angry at himself for being awake, angry at the strangeness of the world, angry at the loneliness, the isolation, angry at the absent sun. He is unsettled by a world that doesn’t make sense to him. As he describes here:

“’Sing all you want,’ Moomintroll muttered, angry to the point of crying. ‘Sing about your horrible winter with the black ice and unfriendly snow-horses, and people who never appear but only hide and are queer!’

He tramped up the slope, he kicked at the snow, his tears froze on his snout, and suddenly he started to sing his own song.

He sang it at the top of his voice, so that Too-ticky would hear it and be put out.

This was Moomintroll’s angry summer song:

Listen, winter creatures, who have sneaked the sun away,
Who are hiding in the dark and making all the valley grey:
I am utterly alone, and I’m tired to the bone,
And I’m sick enough of snowdrifts just to lay me down and groan.
I want my blue verandah and the glitter of the sea
And I tell you one and all that your winter’s not for me!

‘Just you wait until my sun’s coming back to look at you, and then you’ll all look silly, all of you,’ Moomintroll shouted and didn’t even care about his rhymes anymore…”

Though Moomintroll wakes without his family, he is not alone. He is surrounded, instead, by a fascinating cast of characters like the wise and matter-of-fact Too-ticky, who is used to great effect here in helping Moomintroll come to terms with winter, without sentimentality. Too-ticky has the best lines, the greatest aplomb in the whole book and it is always wonderful when Too-ticky appears. Like here, as Too-ticky watches Moomintroll carry out a daring rescue:

“Too-ticky stood looking on for a while, and then she went inside the bathing-house and put a kettle of water on the stove. ‘Quite, quite,’ she thought with a little sigh. ‘It’s always like this in their adventures. To save and be saved. I wish somebody would write a story sometime about the people who warm up the heroes afterwards.’

Or here as Too-ticky explains about snow:

“’Tell me about the snow,’ Moomintroll said and seated himself in Moominpappa’s sun-bleached garden chair. ‘I don’t understand it.’

‘I don’t either,’ said Too-ticky. ‘You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.’”

Nothing is certain is classic Moomintroll wisdom. Truths delivered without window dressing, without dumbing it down. It is the matter-of-factness about Moomin stories which is often so enticing, endearing.

Along with Too-ticky, Little My (who I think is my favourite) is an unexpected companion for Moomintroll, also waking unexpectedly for winter. Little My is awesome! She is fearless, devilish, she does exactly what she wants exactly as she wants to. Unlike Moomintroll who struggles to accommodate winter’s strangeness into his comforting summer world, Little My confronts it, teeth bared, eking every new experience out of it that she can. Like here as she wakes from her winter sleep:

“Little My gave a snort and climbed out of the cardboard box. She closed the lid on her sister, who was still asleep, and went over and felt the snow with her paw.

‘So this is what it’s like,’ she said. ‘Funny ideas people get.’ She squeezed a snowball and hit the squirrel on the head with her first throw. And then Little My stepped out from the cave to take possession of winter.

The first thing she accomplished was to slip on the icy cliff and sit down very hard.

‘I see,’ Little My said in a threatening voice. ‘They think they’ll get away with anything.’

Then she happened to think of what a My looks like with her legs in the air, and she chuckled to herself for quite a while. She inspected the cliff and the hillside and thought a bit. Then she said: ‘Well now,’ and did a jumpy switchback slide far out on the smooth ice.

She repeated this six times more and noticed that it made her tummy cold.

Little My went back into the cave and turned her sleeping sister out of the cardboard box. My had never seen a toboggan, but she had a definite feeling there were many sensible ways of using a cardboard box.”

Winter is not all Little My takes possession of! 

Nothing very much happens in Moominland Midwinter. The threats aren’t really very threatening and the adventures nothing striking either. There is, however, a sense of Moomintroll entering a world that is strange and different, confronting a form of life of which he has no experience and in which he doesn’t belong. Through the darkness and cold of winter, Jansson shows us a child entering the adult world, facing the difficulties and responsibilities, confronting change and finding it emotionally difficult. It is a gentle and yet extraordinarily honest story, heaped with wisdom and unvarnished truth. In the end, Moomintroll makes winter his own, just as a child enters the adult world, through ordinary adversity and the aid of good, and wise friends.

Moomintroll Midwinter, along with all the Moomin books, is a fabulous read for children. Good for the independent reader, perhaps 8 years and older, or good for a bedtime story over several nights for the younger listener. And great for parents too, who may appreciate some of the complexities being explored through these delightful, soulful creatures.