Saturday, February 27, 2016

William Boyd - Waiting for Sunrise

William Boyd keeps producing engaging, literate fiction, peopled with believable characters who have interesting stories. I was first aware of him in the early eighties, when I enjoyed his debut novel A Good Man in Africa. This blackly humorous tale of diplomatic disaster in a fictional African republic led to comparisons with Evelyn Waugh, and that was about right: Boyd had that same rather cynically comic detached voice. Since then, he has produced a series of memorable fictions, particularly his two big century-spanning epics, The New Confessions and Any Human Heart,  both of which bear comparison with Anthony Burgess's masterpiece, Earthly Powers. He has developed a particular line in espionage fiction, too, not only through being selected to write a James Bond novel by the Fleming estate, but through his own original work too. Restless was about the lifelong consequences of involvement in the world of cold-war espionage, a theme also entertainingly explored in Jeremy Duns's Paul Dark series.  Somehow, Waiting for Sunrise, Boyd's 2012 novel, set immediately before and during the First World War had passed me by, so I was pleased to find a copy at the excellent Chorlton bookshop the other day.

Waiting for Sunrise opens and closes with an anonymous second-person observation of the central character, Lysander Rief, as he goes about his business. This technique places the reader as an observer / voyeur and makes Rief a performer, which is apt: he's an actor, and will become a secret agent in time. As in Boyd's other historical fictions, real people intermingle with the fictional, though this is kept to  minimum here. Since we begin in Vienna in 1913, with Rief seeking psychological help for an embarrassing condition, Boyd must have been tempted to enrol his protagonist on Freud's roster of damaged psyches, but he avoids that, using an English disciple, Dr Bensimon, instead. In the doctor's waiting room, Rief encounters Hettie Bull, an impulsive and passionate young artist, to whom he is immediately attracted. The  consequences of that meeting will shape Rief's future, and plunge him into the dangerous world of international espionage. The narrative, apart from those two passages at the beginning and end, is divided between a third person narrator focalised through Rief, and Rief's own observations, written down in the journal of his thoughts that he advised to keep by Dr Bensimon. The chapters are very brief, for the most part, and given descriptive headings in, I suppose, a deliberately archaic style. The plot advances quickly, as Rief's love-life leads him into a situation where he is obliged to show his ingenuity in order to escape potential imprisonment in Vienna. Once free, he is doing his duty as a soldier at the outbreak of war, when the call comes to undertake a mission which will expose a mole at the heart of the British war machine. This central section of the plot, which takes place in Geneva, shows Rief as a resourceful and intelligent agent, whose astute appreciation of potential trouble keeps him one step ahead of the game.
But this is far more than a routine historical thriller. The characters and locations are fully realised, with an attention to detail that enables the reader to immerse themselves in pre-war Vienna or wartime Geneva. Boyd uses factual data well for his own narrative means: a Zeppelin raid on London, which hit the Lyceum theatre, for instance, is employed as a way of developing two plot lines, one about the personal life of Rief, and one concerning his suspicions about his mission. I think John Walsh, in his review of the novel in the Independent, hits the nail on the head: "He whizzes the story along...but lingers over evocations of people and buildings, so we feel we know their texture even as the plot gallops along."
In genre fiction --and this is far more than a genre piece-- a common failing is to make characters mere servants of the plot, forgettable and two-dimensional. The reverse is true here, from Rief, who has an actorly self-regard that manifests itself at inopportune moments, to his tough explorer uncle, who is unexpectedly and tenderly gay (did you know that 'musical' was an Edwardian code word for gay?) to Wolfram, the Slovene hussar with whom Rief shares lodgings, and whose technique for avoiding suspicion in a grubby regimental case of petty thievery gives Rief an insight much later in the narrative. And indeed, it is noticeable how, even in passages that seem to be local colour or background, details are embedded that will later prove significant. One lovely motif was the incidental snatches of Rief's poetry from his notebook, which start in sub-Edward Thomas mode, and develop into a voice not unlike Eliot's in The Waste Land.
So, I can't recommend this highly enough. Boyd holds the reader's attention through a complex plot, where often the reader's, and Rief's first impressions turn out to be wrong, and evokes the world of a century ago with verve and panache. Brilliant.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Big in Japan 7

View towards the western mountains from our friends' apartment
We said goodbye to Kanazawa, and headed back to Tokyo, where we changed to the suburban train to Fussa, where our friends were living. Fussa is a fairly ordinary place, a city of about 60,000 people west of Tokyo, but with a huge American air force base. And by 'huge', I mean really big - about a third of the city. It is, in effect, a small American town in itself, with schools, shopping mall, cinema, sports facilities and all the other conveniences of life in the USA. Our friends, who live outside the base, say some of the military families there never leave the confines.
Fussa is really part of the metropolitan sprawl of Tokyo. As you travel the fifty minutes or so from the capital, you don't see that much countryside. I suppose it's not unlike the metroland around London - commuter territory for those who work in the centre.
The presence of the air force base means that there are quite a few US-style diners in town, but you don't need to go far to find an authentic Japanese environment. It's a quiet, unassuming sort of place, but a good base for exploring. We had already visited Mount Fuji from here, and we decided to get some more value out of our Japan Rail pass to make a day trip to Kamakura, a seaside town south of Tokyo that was once, in medieval times, the national capital.
On arrival at Kamakura, we hopped on the local streetcar Enoden service, which winds back and forth along the coast, allowing visitors to explore the numerous  temples and shrines that are dotted around.
Waiting for the Enoden streetcar at Hase
The old fashioned electric streetcar was a great way to get about, as the day pass allows you to jump on and off whenever you like. We stopped first at Yuigahama, to have a stroll on the beach, where we were pretty much the only people there, except for a young woman who had decided to serenade the sea with her trumpet.
In the far distance, Mount Fuji was just visible on this clear, bright, November morning:

We moved on to our next stop, Hase, where we walked up the hill to the Great Buddha. This is an enormous bronze statue that was cast in 1252, and has remained standing, through earthquakes and fires, whilst the temples built to house it have perished. It's a popular spot for Japanese and foreign tourists.

Back in Kamakura, we took a local bus out to the Hokokuji temple, which is remarkable for its bamboo grove. A little path takes you around the temple and into the cool and quiet of the bamboo, and you can also admire the gravel gardens, very like the ones we saw on the Philosopher's path in Kyoto. In an area we couldn't access, some caves contained a little army of figurines.

We caught the bus back into central Kamakura, and had time for a stroll around the streets before setting off back to Fussa. This was a lovely, quiet day, supported by the brilliantly efficient Japanese railway system. Kamakura felt very different to the bustle of the big cities we had visited: peaceful, relaxed, with a sandy beach looking out over Sagami Bay. It was just what we needed to prepare for the last few days of the trip, which were going to be back in Tokyo.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


I'm trying to keep this space for book reviews, cultural matters and travel. I thought I would try Medium for musings on other topics. My first post there is now online. Next here will be the latest instalment of the Japanologue.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Big in Japan 6

Kanazawa railway station is quite something. After the Shinkansen glided in, coming to a stop at precisely the correct second, we were soon able to see its bold modern design, dominated by the Tsuzumi-mon gate, shaped like the traditional Japanese drums, but also, we thought, reminiscent of a temple gateway.

The main interest in the city is all to the east of the station. Our hotel was a few steps to the west, so we were well placed each day to walk through the lively station precinct and the Tsuzumi-mon gate to commence our sight-seeing.
This place had all the main essentials covered.
Kanazawa, in the northern central mainland of Japan, is worth a visit because of its historical interest. It has not been subject to the kind of modernisation enforced on other cities after war or natural disaster, so it preserves more widely than elsewhere the buildings and the culture of the past. We found the main sites within easy walking distance of the centre, and set off first to explore the famous Kenrokuen Garden via a stroll through the impressive grounds of Kanazawa Castle, of which more later.
Kenrokuen is a major tourist attraction, so the advice is to get there early. It opens at eight, and we were there not long after. Despite some rain, the first we had encountered in Japan, there were a good many people around first thing. Kenrokuen, which was originally the private garden of the feudal ruling family - which is why it adjoins the castle - is huge, varied and beautiful, with something to catch the interest at every turn. According to Japan Guide, "Kenrokuen literally means 'Garden of the Six Sublimities', referring to spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views, which according to Chinese landscape theory are the six essential attributes that make up a perfect garden." Even through a rather persistent drizzle, it was difficult not to be impressed by the trees, the plants, the fountains, the lake... Here's the obligatory Brit in raingear shot:
Really, though, nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for this place. We wondered around for quite a long time, at the end of which the promised hordes had indeed appeared, and it was getting quite crowded. We were glad we'd made it an early start. You can see literally thousands of photos of the garden taken in better weather here, so I won't post many of our rainy shots. Here are some items of interest, though:
This fountain, which looks quite modest, is claimed to be Japan's oldest.

This stone tablet contains a haiku by Basho, which goes
Aka aka to
Hiwa tsure naku mo
Aki no kazu
or something like "How brightly the sun shines, turning its back to the autumn wind." Again, it's a rather modest monument, but is much revered as it commemorates Basho's visit in 1689 on the narrow road to the deep north.
The gardeners were out in force, in outfits that hadn't changed much in three hundred years.
We left, slightly damp, but very content with what we'd experienced, as the rain stopped.

The castle, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1881, has been partially, and painstakingly, rebuilt, using the same techniques and materials as in the original. It was the first fortified building we had encountered in Japan, and it was clear that it presented a formidable obstacle to potential enemy forces.
Climbing up on the ramparts gave us a view of the city and showed how dominant the castle must have been when it was built in the late sixteenth century by the local feudal lords.
I especially loved the huge wooden gates that guard the entrances. They don't supply these at B&Q:

Exploring the main city, we chanced upon a coffee shop run by an American, from Seattle, and his Japanese wife. Sol was a really friendly and welcoming guy, who happily chatted about Kanazawa and recommended some sights and places to eat. Close to his shop lies the Omi-cho market, an extraordinary place crammed with stalls selling all kinds of food, but especially seafood. The creatures laid out for the shopper's delectation didn't look like anything I'd ever seen in a fishmonger's, and while we enjoyed the lively bustle of the place, we moved on quickly.
We headed out on foot to the former Samurai district, Nagamichi, to stroll around the various well-preserved houses from the Edo period. The narrow streets are defined by earthen walls, the construction of which was apparently a privilege only afforded to Samurai. The narrow lanes, which intersect with the Onosho canal, the oldest of Kanazawa's fifty canals, are perfect for a leisurely wander, with each former residence of a warrior clan just a few steps from the last.

No smoking, even on the streets in Kanazawa.

The residences were well-preserved, and beautifully presented.
The interiors were minimalist, with an emphasis on the rituals of domestic life:

The exteriors were simple, too, understated, yet demonstrating the status that the Samurai would have had compared to the ordinary people. These are substantial dwellings.

We wanted to look again at the area around Kenrokuen in better weather, so the following day we headed for the  Seisonkaku Villa, which adjoins the garden.

This villa, built in 1863 by the local lord for his mother, was yet another exquisite architectural gem. It's one of the finest of the Samurai dwellings in the city, and has historical displays of interest, but the main attraction really is just to experience the calm elegance of the interior, and the views of the garden in its autumn glory.

We walked down the hill back into town, where we had planned to visit the museum of contemporary art, which is a striking modernist building. When we arrived, it was really crowded (it was weekend) and as there were no exhibitions that really appealed, we decided to leave it, and make the most of the sunshine.

Unexpectedly, we came across a lovely little museum dedicated to Noh Theatre. On the ground floor, a Noh stage is laid out, and they encourage visitors to try on a Noh costume, and practise some classic gestures. Here's a goddess I happen to know:

After that interlude, we enjoyed some browsing in a very high-class craft shop attached to the museum, and walked to a quiet area where we could see the D.T. Suzuki Museum. Suzuki was an important Buddhist philosopher, and this memorial to him is a beautifully calm spot for contemplation.

I'm not reading the profound insights of Prof. Suzuki there, by the way: I'm working out the best route back to the castle.
We walked along the castle wall until we came to the Oyama shrine, built in 1599, and a curious mix of architectural styles. Bits of the shrine originated elsewhere, and the gate was originally designed as the portal to the castle. It's an impressive, sprawling place now, with some startling statuary:

Sol advised us to visit the Higashi Chaya district in the evening, when the street lanterns gave this area a pleasantly welcoming atmosphere. This area is where the geishas would entertain in the teahouses. It dates from 1820, and outside Tokyo and Kyoto is the largest of these pleasure districts in Japan. It's been well preserved and is now a magnet for tourists, particularly those wanting an atmospheric crepuscular stroll.
We arrived in the late afternoon, when it was still light, and did a circuit. The teahouses still function, and are supplemented by places selling souvenirs and gifts.
Later, when dusk arrived, the area felt  quite different, and it was worth a second circuit to experience the area in the lamplight.

We had the obligatory encounter with a cat:
After a while, we sought out Huni, the restaurant recommended to us by Sol at the coffee shop. He had described the location well, and he needed to, because from the outside, as he'd said, it looked just like a private house, and was off the beaten track. We could see a kitchen through a window, and when we entered, it became clear that the kitchen opened into the dining area, where a couple of tables were waiting, as well as some seats at the counter which marked off the kitchen. We sat at the counter and had a great chat with the owner, who spoke excellent English, and who was happy to rustle up a delicious vegetarian meal for us.
Afterwards, we walked around the quiet residential streets, and came across a curious little shrine, featuring more figurines in knitted outfits.

Even the car park next to our hotel had a guardian in a little hut:

All in all, a lovely evening. We arrived back at our top floor room which gave us a panoramic view of the city.

Kanazawa was a delight, full of unexpected pleasures. The following day we were travelling on the Shinkansen again, back to Tokyo.