Sunday, February 28, 2010

Japanese Crime Fiction and Edogawa Rampo

The Black Lizard And Beast in the Shadows Edogawa Rampo's 1934 novelette The Black Lizard came bundled with a shorter one: Beast in the Shadows, and also with an introduction about the author and Japanese crime fiction in general. 

Edogawa Rampo (the pen name of Hirai Taro) was instrumental in bringing crime novels to Japan. His name is supposed to sound similar to "Edgar Allen Poe", as a homage to Poe, who Taro adored. 

Rampo's Black Lizard is a peculiar novel. The main purpose of the story is to demonstrate how two rivals, the black lizard (a female thief, as she is described, but I'd rather say a head of a mafia-like organization) and the master detective Akechi Kogoro try to out-whit each other. In complicated sequence of disguise and deception the black lizard manages to kidnap the daughter of a rich man, but Kogoro's foresight made it possible to free the girl in the process. This prompts an even more intricate plan, to not just kidnap the girl, but gain a precious piece of jewelry as well. This time, Kogoro counters with smarter disguise and quasi magical deception, and ultimately defeats her gloriously.

At lot of the peculiarities are probably an artifact of cultural differences, and the translation. For example,  "ha ha ha" accompanies jokes commonly to make sure, the audience understands it.  Also, especially in the beginning, the author explains to the reader complicated sections in the beginning of the following chapter, so that everything is clear. In the last third of the book, the speed of the story picks, the explanations become less obvious (more embedded into the story), and the whole writing becomes more interesting. However, the whole novel to me lacks characterization, and doesn't bring the individual players to life. I am curious, how this beginning of the Japanese section of the genre develops, and it made me interested in scooping out more modern novels. 

This is my first book from Asia for the Global Reading Challenge

Saturday, February 27, 2010

In the Graveyard

A lot of mystery and drama is buried in Olmsted's Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. A number of the rich and famous of their times have been buried here in large mausoleums, most notably in Millionaire's row. More interesting stories might be hidden behind the withered gravestones, gnarly trees, and overgrown graves tell stories of the forgotten inhabitants. The graveyard reminds me of Brahms' song "Auf dem Kirchhofe", based on a poem from Gustav von Liliencron, which has always been one of my favorite Brahms songs:
Liliencron: Auf dem Kirchhofe
Der Tag ging regenschwer und sturmbewegt,
Ich war an manch vergessnem Grab gewesen,
verwittert Stein und Kreuz, die Kränze alt,
die Namen überwachsen, kaum zu lesen.

Der Tag ging sturmbewegt und regenschwer,
auf allen Gräbern fror das Wort: Gewesen.
Wie sturmestot die Särge schlummerten,
auf allen Gräbern taute still: Genesen.

I'll attempt a translation:
The day was heavy of rain, and moved by storms,
To some forgotten grave I had gone. 
Withered stone and cross, with aged wreaths,
The names overgrown, barely to read. 

The day was moved by storms, heavy of rain,
On all the graves the frozen word: all over.
How dead of storms the graves were slumbering,
On all the graves it melted quietly: all healed. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

South Africa during Apartheid

A Beautiful Place to Die A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn

When I grew up, we boycotted all goods from South Africa. At one point, I got mad at my father for buying Kruger Rand coins, because their sale supported the regime.

When a theatre group from Soweto, a town ship close to Johannesburg, visited my home town and gave a performance in the local church, I was impressed by their energy, their beauty, and their determination to make their stories known. The performance was a combination of traditional African dance, and realistic theatre, to demonstrate live in the townships. I was a kid, and at that point, I didn't quite comprehend that the play was not telling just stories, but events that were happening in the present. 

Although the novel doesn't focus on the African community, and the townships were created a few years later, the crime novel "A Beautiful Place to Die" reminded me of these childhood memories. It is set in 1952 rural South Africa, a few years into the Apartheid regime/rules. A white (boer) police captain, a pillar of the community, is found murdered. The unraveling of this crime by a detective from Johannesburg reveals an intertwining of the "races", deeply ingrained in the people, that is in sharp contrast to the racial segregation laws of the National Party, the ruling entity in South Africa.

The setup of the crime aspect of the story is a bit too much Chandler like for my taste (lone damaged detective), but the setting in South Africa, the description of the different ways people are dealing with the new segregation laws, make the book not just an interesting and entertaining read, but also educational. It reminded me, that I know very little about African history. I was not aware of the parallels of the National Party of South Africa with the Nazi regime in Germany. Just like the latter, the South African party justified their racial atrocities pseudo-religiously (the one chosen volk).  Both enforced their power by establishing a omnipotent secret police force. It seems inconceivable that the South African regime lasted as long as it did, but then, they didn't start a Word War.

This is my first African book for the GlobalReadingChallenge.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Revisiting Sara Paretsky

I was an early fan of Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski crime novels, initially in German translation. At that point, I learned a lot about American culture and politics, the most shocking being the health system.

She took a break from Warshawski for a few years, which coincided with my first few years living in America, and I just forgot about her books, and pick her up again a couple of years ago starting with Hard Time, another very political book, amoung other themes touching on private security firms and  the atrocities committed in private prisons. 

Bleeding Kansas is a recent novel, which is nice to read, but to me lacks the intensity and speed of her Warshawski novels. On the other hand, it is an interesting portrait of the life and bigotry in rural Kansas.  

I recently finished reading Paretsky's autobiographical book Writing in an Age of Silence, yet another book from her, that is not just entertaining but also highly political. It's a collection with a lot of biographical information in the first chapters, and essays and speeches in the later ones. Includes essays about the development of the American individualism from the time of the early settlers, in politics and in literature; and about politics and individual freedom, women's rights, and the effects of the patriot act. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Books in 2010

List of books I read in 2010, including author, title, date published, country, continent, original language of author, gender of author. I'll update the list as time goes on.

  1. Mary Higgins Clark: No Place Like Home , 2005,  USA,  North America,  English,  Female
  2. M.R. Hall: The Coroner , 2009, California, USA, North America, English, Male
  3. David Downing: Zoo Station , 2007, Great Britain, Europe, English, Male
  4. Sylvia Maultash Warsh: Find Me Again, 2003, Canada, North America, English, Female
  5. Linwood Barcley: Too Close to Home , 2008, Canada, North America, English, Male
  6. Louise Penny: Still Life , 2006, Canada, North America, English, Female
  7. Jamie Ford: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet , 2009, Washington, USA, North America, English. Female
  8. Sara Paretsky: Writing in an Age of Silence, 2007, Illinois, USA, North America, English, Female
  9. Malla Nunn: A Beautiful Place to Die, 2009, South Africa, Africa, English, Female
  10. Edogawa Rampo: The black Lizard, 1934, Japan, Asia, Japanese (in English translation), Male
  11. Elisabeth Herrmann: Das Kindermädchen, 2005, Germany, Europe, German, Female
  12. Rhys Bowen: In a Gilded Cage, 2009, California, USA, North America, Female
  13. Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza: December Heat, 2002, Brazil, South America, Male
  14. Kel Richards: The second Death, 1997, Australia, Male
  15. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Last Rituals , 2005, Iceland, Europe, Female