[Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin

Asian

Some of the earliest writing in English that we have are Anglo-Saxon proverbs. These pithy statements are a good way to pass on wisdom because they are easy to remember.

Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share.

There are qualities that they obviously have in common: an urge to finality of utterance, For example, and to be irreducible and unchangeable. The urge to brevity is not perhaps as typical of poetry as we would sometimes wish, but the urge to be self-contained, to be whole, is perhaps another form of the same thing, or can be, and it is related to the irreversibility in the words that is a mark of poetry.

I love poetry’s brevity, though I think of it more as the language being condensed, reduced to its essence.

Two other things I love in poetry are its imagery or music, which he doesn’t mention. Yet his translations do have music of a sort. And in some, the proverb itself is an image. Take this one from Japan:

foot itches
he scratches the shoe

It’s not so much telling us about a literal action, but rather giving us a metaphor for the man’s common sense. Here’s another from Japan that contains a more explicit metaphor:

while they talk together
a thousand hills
rise between them

Or this one from China that struck me as one of the best descriptions of utter poverty I’ve ever read:

too poor
to keep rats

Some of these pithy statements seemed to describe our current political situation:

one dog barks at nothing
ten thousand others
pass it on

When they want to learn
what he’s like
they make him rich

And then offer a perspective on it:

nations die
rivers go on
mountains
go on

And of course there are those that advice on how to live a good life. Many Anglo-Saxon poems and proverbs describe the characteristics a wise person should strive to possess, offering counsel on how to treat others and how to obtain and use wisdom in life.

can’t have two points
on one needle

Let your children
taste a little cold
and a little hunger

And some that provide a startling insight:

ice comes from water
but can teach it
about cold

I like that Merwin includes proverbs not just from Japan or China, but also from other Asian countries, such as Korea and the Philippines. I’ll leave you with this one that captures the dilemma many poets face:

Eat first
poetry later

Share a proverb, perhaps one that your parents told you or one you like to tell your children.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

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Lee’s second novel is a multi-generational saga of a Korean family, beginning in the early 20th century in a tiny village in Yeong-do and stretching through Tokyo and Yokohama to the present, following one family through this tumultuous time in Korean history.

It starts with the arranged marriage of Hoonie, a good-hearted man who is disfigured by a cleft palate and club foot, to a much younger Yangjin and the birth of their daughter Sunja. While selling her mother’s kimchi at the market, the naive adolescent Sunja meets Hansu, a rich and powerful older man. Only later does she hear the rumors that he is a gangster.

With a sense of foreboding, we know what will happen next, but Lee makes these characters so individual, so particularly themselves that their story, however often told, feels new. Sunja’s stoicism, Hansu’s integrity and loneliness keep them from being stereotypes.

I felt this push-pull throughout the novel. Knowing the broad historical outlines often brought on that sense of foreboding. When Sunja and her husband Isak move to Japan to live with his brother, I knew—as they did not—the kind of discrimination they would face. I cringed in a later section when the brother decides near the end of the war to go to Nagasaki to work.

Yet the story engages your mind and heart right up to the end. It’s hard for a writer to find the right balance of having bad things happen to your characters and good things. Some experts say you cannot give them too many trials; after all, that’s what keeps us reading: to see how they will rise (or not) to each challenge. Yet as a reader I know how easy it is for me to suffer compassion fatigue. Lee finds the right pacing of successes and failures.

What I love about these multi-generational historical novels is the broad sweep of time, the chance to see choices played out in the lives of children and grandchildren, personal choices and historical events. However, this sweep is also a drawback. Moving between characters and across time as we do, we never really stay long enough with any one person to become as deeply invested in their story as we do in a story with a single protagonist.

This book starts slowly, with lots of narrative. I nervously fingered the bulk of remaining pages—485—and worried that I’d be too bored to finish it, even though it was my book club’s pick for the month.

Finally at the end of Chapter 2 we get a full scene when Isak arrives at Yangjin’s boarding house. As though released from the starting gate, the story takes off from there and held my interest for the rest of the book. What makes the difference is the good mix of dramatic scenes and minimal narration from then on.

As writers we are advised to start when something happens to begin the story—here, Isak’s arrival—so I would probably have chosen to begin there and fill in the previous information as flashbacks scattered through the present of the story.

However, in mitigation, I have to add that the first sentence–every writer’s bête noir–is magnificent. “History has failed us, but no matter,” Lee tells us, encapsulating the entire saga and what we will come to love about the characters.

I’m terrible at coming up with titles. Here, the pachinko game—a popular Japanese form of pinball that is peculiarly addictive—is a perfect metaphor for the capricious blows of fate and the stoicism of simply going on that mark these lives.

The trajectories of the pachinko balls are confined within the box of the machine itself, reflecting another aspect of this story. Much of the tension comes from the characters being constrained by society’s customs and politics. For example, in today’s culture Sunja’s pregnancy might not be the catastrophe that changes her life; without the privations and dangers of rebellions and wars Isak and his brother might continue to prosper; as Koreans in Japan Sunja’s sons might actually be able to find work other than in pachinko parlors.

I’ve always rebelled against society’s constraints, throwing myself into the counter-culture in the 1960s, then the women’s movement, single parenthood, a career in a male-dominated field. But this story make me realise that the ability to do so in relative safety is proof of my privilege.

What novel have you read set in Korea or helping you understand Korean history or culture?

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

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Writers agonise over the first sentence of their novels, relentlessly reminded that it is critical to gaining the reader’s attention. The first sentence of this novel couldn’t be simpler:

Hi!

What better way to begin the dialogue between the characters and the reader, between ultimately the writer and the reader?

The speaker, whom we will later learn is a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, immediately launches the sort of questions one might ask any new acquaintance, interspersed with her own answers. The first question, though, is odd; she asks us if we know what a “time being” is.

Thus we know right off that we are immersed in a story where words and phrases hold multiple means and can change chameleon-like depending on their context. We get further proof when we learn the young woman’s name: Nao, pronounced “now”.

Her first-person narrative is interspersed with the third-person narrative of an older woman, who finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach of the island in the Pacific Northwest where she lives with her husband Oliver. The woman, who is half-Japanese, is named Ruth, again a name with multiple meanings of her name not to mention the difficult pronunciation for speakers of Japanese.

The two stories intertwine as Ruth reads Nao’s journal, which is in the lunchbox along with some letters written in an outdated form of Japanese and another journal in French.

Nao’s voice is a stunning evocation of a teenaged girl’s idiom and headlong approach to handling her problems. The way she talks to her father, whom she blames for many of her problems, took me back to my own teen years and my fraught relationship with my parents. Ozeki manages to find a way to take us into Nao’s world and to make us care about her, despite what in other hands could be clichéd teen angst.

While I enjoyed Nao’s sections, I found myself most interested in Ruth’s story, perhaps because she is closer to me in age. Her tale is more nuanced, more complex. Ruth’s ways of dealing with her outsider status, her marriage, and her curiosity about Nao reveal a depth and care that I found irresistible. She sets out to learn about the letters and French journal, while also looking for proof that Nao is a real person.

Both stories are engaging and thought-provoking. This is a book about language and communication and ambiguity. Most of all it is a meditation about time. In the last third of the book, concepts of time and quantum theory begin to be reflected in the story, adding a further dimension of interest.

Everyone in my book club loved this book, a rare show of unanimity. We found much to discuss, particularly about the various parallels of character and plot, and about time itself.

Are you in a book club? Has your group read a book recently which everyone loved?