I’m a few books down the line since I wrote anything about what I am reading. In this post I’ll just share my thoughts on two of the books that both happen to be translations in English.
Firstly I read an ‘advanced reading proof’ of Six Four by Japanese author Hideo Yokoyama that I got hold of as part of my involvement in Amazon’s Vine Voices programme. I don’t mention a lot of the stuff I review on this blog – it’s not appropriate and as I’ve mentioned before I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m sponsored by Amazon.
What I gather from the cover of Six Four and the publishers blurb is that it will be sold as a Japanese crime novel. If you are expecting something like a Japanese Jo Nesbo then you need to look elsewhere.
Although Six Four features the story of a kidnapping it really doesn’t spend a lot of time on it. It deals instead with the aftermath of the botched investigation fifteen years later. The book is actually more about the internal politics of the police force in a particular city where the criminal investigation division, the administrative division and headquarters in Tokyo all want control. The story is told from the point of view of Mikami the director of press relations an ex-detective with a daughter who has run away from home.
One of the main problems I had with this book is the multitude of characters whose names begin with ‘m’ and look very similar on the page – Mikami, Mikumo, Mikura, Minako and Mizuki all feature. There is actually a reason for this in the plot and when you get to that stage in the book you will go ‘ah…’ but then you’ll think like I did that it’s very coincidental that all these similar named people all know each other. Perhaps Japanese names like this are very common and it’s not a stretch I don’t know. It felt a bit ‘clunky’ to me.
At times the book plodded along with massive stretches of internal monologue like Haruki Murakami at his very worst and if Hideo Yokoyama is a best-selling author in Japan then I feel sorry for Japanese readers. The pacing in this book makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seem like a Dan Brown novel in terms of page turning excitement. Six Four is really quite tiresome for long stretches.
The book picks up towards the end but it is too little too late in my opinion and there is no real payoff at the end. The solution of the original cold case results in no arrests or convictions and the fate of Mikami’s daughter is not at all resolved. While the way the case is solved is quite novel this one unique bit of storytelling in no way mitigates the boredom I felt for most of the tale.
The book serves as an interesting insight into what makes a best-seller in Japan and also as a microscope on the office politics and obsession with hierarchical standing and the need to satisfy other people’s perception of how you conduct yourself in Japanese culture. It is not, as billed, a crime novel.
The book will be released in hard cover in March in the UK and then in two paperback volumes in 2017. At least that’s the plan as described in the back cover of the proof I got hold of. I really can’t see how splitting it into two volumes is going to work as there is no obvious junction point in the very boring middle section of the story. The publishers would better off just adjusting the typeface and lines per page and releasing it as a fat single volume.
The delightful Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov translated from Russian by George Bird is the opposite extreme to Yokoyama’s writing style. The deadpan prose is as clipped as you will find with every superfluous word removed. It makes Ian Fleming look like Mervyn Peake (more about him in a later post).
After the slog that was Six Four this was a breath of fresh air and an exhilaratingly quick read. The main character is an odd-jobbing writer called Viktor who keeps a pet penguin in his flat. He gets a new job writing obituaries for a newspaper but the subjects of the write-ups are alive… for the moment.
Viktor soon discovers that he part of a shadowy plot to remove certain people – most notably corrupt high ranking government and army officials – from power by assassination. His obituaries seem to spur on the efforts on the hidden group of men involved in the killings. Although I unfortunately have not yet read any Kafka it’s hard for me not to think that this modern Ukrainian tale is Kafkaesque.
To add to his troubles those that oppose the plot are out to get Viktor, he gets lumbered with looking after Sonya the young daughter of one of the plotters as well as his penguin and also begins a sexual relationship with Sonya’s nanny.
It is an entertainingly dark comic tale of one man’s dysfunction struggling to cope with ‘family life’ and his unwitting complicity in something that will change the shape of his nation. I thoroughly recommend it.