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My Father’s Journal by Jirô Taniguchi

January 25, 2013 27 comments

Le journal de mon père by Jirô Taniguchi. 1995 Not available in English, I think.

TaniguchiAfter reading Max’s entry about a graphic novel, Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke, I remembered that the Japanese graphic novel Le Journal de mon père had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I decided to read it for January in Japan and let’s say it right away, this is the Japanese book I enjoyed the most, apart from South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Yochan lives in Tokyo when his sister calls to tell him that their father is dead. She’s still living in their home town Tottori. Yochan hasn’t been back for 15 years and, pushed by his wife, he decides to attend the wake which takes place the night before the funeral. The whole family is there and he gets reacquainted with them. It’s the opportunity for him to remember his childhood.

The family’s life was changed after the great fire which destroyed half of Tottori in 1952. Two-third of the city had been touched by the fire, which made more than 21000 casualties. Yochan’s father was a hairdresser and he lost his shop during the catastrophe. His wife’s parents lend him money to start again but he doesn’t like accepting a loan from them as they suspected that he married their daughter for her money. As a consequence, he starts working like a maniac to pay them back as soon as possible and this attitude will cost him his marriage. His wife meets someone else, follows her lover and leaves her children behind. For Yochan, this is the moment when he disconnected himself from his family. He resented his father for not keeping his wife, for separating him from his mom and he grew up with the idea of leaving his hometown. That’s what he did. He left to study in Tôkyô and only came back once.

Taniguchi2Taniguchi relates how Yochan slowly starts to understand his father and realizes that he never knew him, that he probably misjudged him and that he was beloved in his community. He also recreates the life in a Japanese town in the 1950s: the small shops and factories, the American soldiers and their food, the family businesses.

I really had a great time reading this graphic novel. It’s 270 pages long. The pictures are all black and white and beautiful. Each chapter starts with a one page image and then the story is told in a succession of images with dialogues or descriptions like a voice over. The characters don’t look Japanese, especially since they have Western eyes, like in mangas. The graphic form was a good medium to access Japanese culture. Things that are common and probably not described or explained in a novel are “given to see” in a manga. I looked at the clothes, the houses, the funeral, the city streets with interest. (Call me naïve if you want, but that’s what I did) I found the clothes interesting: some characters wear traditional Japanese clothes when others like Yochan and his wife wear Western clothes. His sister is more traditional: pictures of her marriage, she’s in traditional Japanese wedding gown. Picture of Yochan’s wedding, his bride is in a Western dress.

Taniguchi conveys a lot of emotions in his drawings and the accompanying narration. He shows us Yochan’s childhood memories, his feelings as an adult who hears things about his father that he never imagined.

Taniguchi1This story is partly autobiographical. Taniguchi comes from Tottori and has also spent many years away from his hometowns, his family and friends before coming back after a childhood friend had contacted him. For me, this is totally incredible. The idea of living in the same country as my family, only distant by one hour by plane and not visiting for more than a decade is unimaginable. I would never never do that and my parents would never accept it. They would play the guilt card until I give in and come to visit, or send a plane ticket or I’d see them coming to me, unannounced to see how I am or where I live. Different culture, I suppose.

It’s difficult to review a graphic novel, I hope I encouraged you to discover Taniguchi. As odd coincidences tend to multiply, there is an article about France and mangas in this week’s Courrier International. (A weekly paper that publishes articles from foreign newspapers in a French translation) Originally published in The Asahi Shimbum, this article explains how mangas are widespread in France and how it became fashionable in the 1980s thanks to cartoons on TV. I don’t know how it was in other countries but we watched A LOT of Japanese cartoons in France when I was little. It’s true you have shelves of mangas in bookstores. I’ve never tried any, simply because I didn’t know where to start but the article mentions several of them and I’m tempted to try. Unfortunately, I’m on a book buying ban. Sigh. This is so frustrating.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

May 21, 2012 18 comments

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. French title: Soie 1996

I’d heard of Silk before and as I was in an Italian literature mood, I figured I’d try it. According to the blurb at the back of my edition, it’s a cult novel by one of the most gifted Italian writers of his generation. Hmm. Not my kind of literary religion then.

The novel is set between France (the Vivarais, in Ardèche) and Japan around 1860. Let me tell you the thin plot. Hervé Joncour lives in a village whose main industry is silk. When European silkworms die from an unknown disease, Hervé Joncour is sent to Japan to bring back larvae for the business to survive. The villagers pay for his trip and he needs to come back with living larvae.

Silk is hard to describe. Hervé Joncour goes back and forth between France and Japan. Discovering Japan is a life-changing experience, probably but nothing is said. You just assume. It’s a novel with a strange character you don’t get attached to. He’s always called Hervé Joncour, never Hervé. It gives the impression of a man who never loses his tie and walks with a broom in his back. There are some descriptions of Japanese customs but you watch them without a clue, just like the main character.

The style is ristretto like an Italian coffee. I guess it’s supposed to be powerful. It didn’t work for me although I’m usually a good audience for this. I love short sentences with an unusual use of the language. The writer needs to be very good for me to enjoy paragraph-long sentences. Short books composed with short sentences can hit you like a fist. But it’s the prerogative of excellent writers as it is hard to say a lot in a few pages. Here, the effects seem fabricated. For example, each time Hervé Joncour travels, Baricco writes the same paragraph to describe his itinerary, like in fairy tales. Great idea on paper but it sounded fake like a trick learnt in a writing class. See:

Il passa la frontière près de Metz, traversa le Wurtemberg et la Bavière, pénétra en Autriche, atteignit par le train Vienne puis Budapest et poursuivit jusqu’à Kiev. Il parcourut à cheval vingt mille kilomètres de steppe russe, franchit les monts Oural, entra en Sibérie, voyagea pendant quarante jours avant d’atteindre le lac Baïkal, que les gens de l’endroit appelait : mer. Il descendit le cours du fleuve Amour, longeant la frontière chinoise jusqu’à l’Océan, resta onze jours dans le port de Sabirk en attendant qu’un navire de contrebandiers hollandais l’amène à Capo Teraya, sur la côte ouest du Japon He crossed the border near Metz, walked through Württemberg and Bayern, entered in Austria, reached Vienna and Budapest by train, rode twenty thousand kilometers through the Russian steppe, crossed the Ural mountains, entered in Siberia, and traveled forty days before reaching the Baikal lake that local people called: sea. He flew down the Amour river along the Chinese border till the Ocean, stayed eleven days in the Sabirk harbor until a ship of Dutch smugglers brought him to Capo Terya, on the West coast of Japan. 

I didn’t buy the Japanizing paraphernalia either. I found it a bit clichéd, the landlord, the geisha, the secret traditions. I also thought the double silent love story really hard to believe. Two women silently pining for dull Hervé Joncour? Come on!

I suppose it’s a go/no-go kind of book, like a Paulo Coelho. Either you fall for it or you don’t. Well, I didn’t but I understand that some do. I felt no emotion when it is clear that its aim was beauty and emotion. I expected better than that from such a praised writer. Has anyone read it?

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