Review: Natsume Soseki's 'Kokoro'

Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (meaning heart, getting at the essence of something) is a deceptively simple story exploring egoism, generational conflict and death. It is a character study of shame written in the turbulent shift from the Meiji era of Japan, symbolised by the death of Emperor Meiji and the subsequent ritualistic suicide of General Nogi Maresuke. This historical sequence is explored as a background narrative, an expert instance of literary morphasis in which something kept out of central focus in a story is thereby rendered with more emphasis by the author. The foregrounded story is, then, an attempt to tease out the meaning of General Nogi’s drama. The book assumes a basic understanding of this backdrop and an appreciation for its ramifications: General Nogi fought in the Seinan (Russo-Japanese) War and was one of Imperial Japan’s national heroes, but he lost the Emperor’s banner during the Satsuma Rebellion and sought to reclaim his honour through suicide. He was ordered not to by his junshi (master), the Emperor, and consequently waited for the Emperor’s own death to enact his own. ‘When did he suffer greater agony,’ Soseki’s novel muses, ‘during those thirty-five years, or the moment when the sword entered his bowels?’

Continue reading

Review: Julio Cortázar 'Multinational Vampire: An Attainable Utopia'

Part comic book, part novella, part epistolary literature, and replete with footnotes, Julio Cortázar’s fantastically experimental Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampire: An Attainable Utopia (translated by David Kurnick) is a majestic wonder in its sheer, resplendent weirdness. There’s even an appendix delightfully entitled, ‘A friendly piece of advice: read the appendix last, why rush things when we’ve gotten off to such a good start?’ And the first two chapters are prefaced, á la early modern literature, with proleptic summaries such as ‘Concerning how the narrator caught his train in extremis (and from here on we dispense with chapter headings, as there will be numerous beautiful pictures to punctuate and enliven the reading of this fascinating story).’ The mass destruction of all the world’s literature as a part of a vast conspiracy, famous authors threatened with death if they deign to write again, Susan Sontag amongst the cast, a hero who makes references to the surrealist film Un chien andalou and the revolutionary utopian Second Russell Tribunal all come together in a book that satirises the superhero genre so much better than the better known Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s The Watchman ever manages. The author stand-in Julio, opines on things such as that ‘the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.’ Or even that ‘history is like stake and potatoes, you can order it everywhere and it always tastes the same.’

Continue reading

Review: Octavia E. Butler 'Dawn'

I tell you that by your way of measuring time, it has been several million years since we dared to interfere in another people’s act of self-destruction. Many of us disputed the wisdom of doing it this time. We thought . . . that there had been a consensus among you, that you had agreed to die.

Continue reading

Review: Morgan Bell's 'Laissez Faire'

From fairytales to moments of pathos, from science fictions to parables, Morgan Bell’s Laissez Faire is similar to her earlier work Sniggerless Boundulations in that it collects weird and disorientating vignettes and microfictions, but feels more developed. Bell’s voice retains her witty absurdism, but it is complemented by a greater confidence that allows more depth of situation and character. With ‘The Glass Of Water’ a girl is navigating unfamiliar rules and craves ‘the family vibe, it didn’t matter whose family.’ Over and over, Bell places us into the heads of complex people robbed of belonging and purpose or merely appalled by the world: in ‘No Small Thing’ a woman loses her love for a man after learning how he ‘euthanized’ his pets and in ‘Juniper Bean’ another is literally torn by her opposing desires for the familiar and adventurous personified as a squid and pelican, ‘“Well girlie?” goaded the squid. “Your loyalty to kin and convention, or a whole heap of flapping around and some undefined potential to create.” “Do you wish to dwell or soar?” asked the pelican. “It’s a game of chance either way.”’ As the title Laissez Faire suggests, the interconnecting theme is that quite anything goes—anything can happen to anyone and the rules and parameters that help us make sense of existence are merely effective but restrictive illusions.

Continue reading

Review: Omar Sabbagh 'Dye and Other Stories'

Comfortable in any medium, but with a recognisable voice, Omar Sabbagh has already published essays (Disciplined Subjects and Better Selves), a novella (Via Negativa) and poetry (Square Root of Beirut and My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint). It is unsurprising, then, that these prose pieces are mature and developed. Literature, theology and his alter ego—personified in characters such as Omar Ghaleez or hinted in autobiographical traces—haunt Sabbagh’s work. Like his nonfiction, but even more spirited, Dye and Other Stories plays seriously with philosophical ideas, richer for their narrative ambiguities. And these ideas have much to do with interrogating selfhood in its metaphysical context, making the introspective mood appropriate. A consistent feature of Sabbagh’s writing is his engagement with other writers, especially from the modernist tradition and authors with an interest in self-identity. Here, writers of self-reflection make frequent appearances (Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov), but more explicitly authors of Confessional writing appear over and over too: Thomas De Quincey, Augustine, Franz Kafka. This genre, with all of its religious connotations intact, grounds the book.

Continue reading