Maple Steet Bookshop’s Uptown location(s) gained a new neighbor about a month ago. Formerly the location for Door’s Pub, the building at corner of Maple and Hillary has been gutted, refitted, and reshaped to become Kakkoii, a coolly lit little Japanese bistro. Personally I’ll take just about anything over a, um, “boisterous” college bar. A nice quiet cement block would be just fine with me were it the only other option (it could be painted a pleasing color!). However as it stands I’m excited to have a new meal option for my lunches on Maple Street. Even better, thus far everything I’ve picked up from Kakkoii has been nothing short of excellent. So in their honor, or maybe in the honor of the delicious niku udon that they served me the other day, I thought I’d write up a few recommendations of Japanese literature and briefly profile their authors (it’s raining today). It goes well with the food for what I think are obvious reasons, and being that I have a penchant for both, our new neighbor’s arrival seems like a good opportunity for me to share lunchtime musings.
I am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki
Natsume is considered one of the most widely influential Japanese authors since the dawn of the modern era. Writing in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, his work exemplifies a stark descriptive quality infused with an underlying satire, still massively present in the body of Japanese work since. The title of his book I am a Cat itself is a joke, though unfortunately lost a bit in translation, it should more literally be “We” are a Cat in a royal sense, though someone along the line felt that didn’t have such a poetic ring to it in English (personally I agree). Still, the book is very funny, chronicling the observations of a common house cat in the home of some pretentious middle class pseudo-literati, their silly habits and conversations. Furthermore and best of all, Natsume somehow manages to pace the whole thing in a lackadaisical manner, the kind you’d expect some sunning feline to tell the story in the first place. His other famous novels include Kokoro and Botchan, though I am a Cat remains my best and favorite introduction to his work.
In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
Tanizaki closely follows Natsume Sōseki in the world of Japanese literary acclaim. Though I highly recommend his fiction, the collected Seven Japanese Tales or Diary of a Mad Old Man, In Praise of Shadows remains my favorite work of his for a handful of reasons. Not being a wide reader of nonfiction I’d expected kind of a bore, but Tanizaki cooly and lucidly explains his take on the Japanese aesthetic and why he prefers much of its charm over what manifest as the Westernization of his country. Covering topics from basic lighting (as the title insinuates) to personal outhouse design, he makes strong arguments against the brash conveniences brought with Western industry and instead honors the quieter, more traditional ways of living. And he’s funny about it. In a way it’s kind of a fantastic roundabout reminder of why collapsing into a book at the end of the day is a whole lot more psychologically rewarding than Netflix.
No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai
Probably the author who had the most profound personal effect on me in this short list, in particular with the short novel No Longer Human, is Osamu Dazai. No Longer Human is another title in which the translation changes then meaning a bit. The Japanese title literally means “disqualified from humanity,” which is the self image held by the (according to all other accounts handsome, witty, wealthy and talented) title’s protagonist. Or at least the image he feels people at large should hold of him. So in light of this grand depression he sets off on a rapid downward spiral eventually leading to his demise (not a spoiler, this is revealed in one of the first passages in the book). The story however lies essentially in the mental journey, the main character’s failed quest to uncover his own worth at a slightly later junction in life than, say, Holden Caulfield, who in opposition leaves us with some hope. The only stipulation I feel need for mentioning regarding No Longer Human is that, much like the novel in which Caulfield stars, is that it could very well be one of those ‘particular time in your life’ kind of books, and if an early adulthood existential crisis doesn’t sound relatable or interesting then you may be better off reading one of his other titles- Blue Bamboo, a collection of stories based on Japanese fairy tales, or The Setting Sun perhaps, both of which are excellent in totally separate ways.
Typing this out I realize I could go on for pages and pages. The Bridegroom was a Dog by Yōko Tawada, a Japanese author who writes in not only her native language but also German and English, is one of my favorite collections of surreal short stories of all time. Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe is a Kafkaesque novel of nightmarish imprisonment that I will never forget. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Haruki Murakami, Sei Shōnagon, Masuji Ibuse…
Shoot. I’m getting hungry. Perhaps it’s time to choose what to order now. Well you can look into Kakkoii on the internet HERE, and the next time you drop by either of Maple Street Books’ Uptown locations, maybe take your book to the corner and start it with a beer and a salmon roll.
Also, if anyone is looking to start a Mexican place on this block, we can talk Latin American fiction too…