The Akutagawa Prize Reading Challenge

Copied from the Now Reading thread:

I finally finished 貝に続く場所にて! Only took me what, about 7 months?

grafik

I really don’t know what to say about this book except that I never really knew what it wanted to tell me. It’s about a Japanese woman from Sendai living in Göttingen, Germany where she encounters the ghost of an old acquaintance who passed away during the March 2011 tsunami.

From there one her memories interweave with the townscape, sculptures of planets, art history, religious figures, the ghosts of other people. There’s a truffle dog who digs up objects that hold a special place in people’s memories and the entire book is full of symbolism and never really states anything in clear words.

I’ve read other books where I enjoyed the poetic, kinda flowery language (風立ちぬ comes to mind), but here I just had no clue what I was even reading for paragraphs on end. It wasn’t a vocabulary problem and probably also not a language problem first and foremost. I think could’ve gotten a bit more out of the book if I had done a bit of research. Survivor’s guilt is definitely a big theme, but there’s just so many things flowing together that it’s really hard to say what else.

I bought the book because of its premise, but I really struggled to get into it. I’m glad that I managed to finish it, but I don’t think I’d do it again and will probably drop other books that I just feel I can’t get into from here on.

That why I also won’t judge the book. It just flew over my head. It’s not unusual that I don’t completely get literary works – I definitely did have my problems with キッチン and 推し、燃ゆ. But 貝に続く場所にて was on a whole new level.

Maybe I’ll try to read some reviews. If anyone else reads it, please tell me your opinions.

I also thought it would be a short read with only 160 pages, but the text is so dense that it’s about the same length (93k characters) as many 300 page novels, so you definitely shouldn’t assume this is a quick read. It took me about 4 minutes per page, significantly more than other books I read.

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I finished 沖で待つ (2005)!

Yet again a short story collection, with three very different stories, but I enjoyed reading them.

勤労感謝の日
This story is about unemployment and society‘s expectations regarding marriage, I’d say. However it did feel so, so short! It was 50 pages, but there were so many things hinted at, and I was really looking forward to reading the continuation of the story and to seeing the relationships develop a bit more. Which is why I don’t have much more to say about the story, really.
Language-wise, this story used quite an amount of more casual and colloquial speech, which I haven’t seen that extensively in many books yet. (乳と卵 being the exception)

沖で待つ
This one really felt more like a complete story. Work life is the focus here, but also friendships at the workplace are one of the main topics.
I really didn’t expect the ending of this story.
(General spoilers and thoughts I had in the beginning) The best friend/colleague of the protagonist is overweight and gets kind of bullied (?) for it? His nickname is 太っちゃん, and he gets comments at work, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He gets married to one of the デキる女 at work and nobody seems to understand why a guy “like him” gets together with her. These sorts of comments. Because of this “bullying” I expected the story to be about suicide and mental well-being. It’s strongly hinted at in the beginning and also in one of the conversations that the protagonist has with 太っちゃん.
(Ending sort-of spoiler?) However he does not commit suicide, which I really didn’t expect. It’s known from the beginning that 太っちゃん dies at the end, because the whole story is retold as a flashback, and I definitely think Itoyama wants you to think it goes in a certain direction. But in the end, it was kind of wholesome, really. It wasn’t a sad story, it just felt realistic and real.
You also see Itoyama’s previous experience working for a tile and sanitary manufacturer before becoming a writer. It’s really cool to read in such detail about the work life in a company, dealing with customers, architects, products, etc.

みなみのしまのぶんたろう
The title says it all, really. Warning: this story is written only in hiragana. Story-wise, it also feels like a children‘s book. The story is kind of absurd, with random details being thrown in that have no further relevance, and everything feels like it’s written for children.
The protagonist is the Minister of Electricity, and one day he decides to eat a delicious-looking bento that is sat on the table in one of the conference rooms. He doesn’t know whose bento it is, but whoever it belongs to, they can just eat his bento in exchange, right? However it was the President‘s bento, and the president, as a punishment, sends him away to an island in the south, where he is now supervisor of a power plant. The story then goes into a completely different direction, as ぶんたろう learns that he can talk to fish. His boring ひとりぼっち life changes completely and he spends time with his new fish friends every day, also rescuing some people along the way.
I always expected there to be some sort of lesson learned, some sort of moral of the story, that the character somehow shows signs of character growth (because I didn’t find him very likable; he‘s arrogant and egoistic – although to be fair, there is a bit of character growth: he stops eating fish once he befriends them), but almost everyone seems to like him. But maybe that is exactly what the author intended to portray: most people just lead their lives, with no karma coming their way to punish them for anything they might have done wrong.
I thought there would be a big twist, like his wife leaving him or forgetting about him, his friends never visiting because they actually were only interested in him because of his influence as Minister. But nothing like that ever happens, which made the story feel kind of simplistic and very linear.
It is a children’s story, really. I don’t think there’s a better way to describe the way the story felt to me. She even adresses the reader directly at some point: どくしゃのみなさんは、じゅうねんまえといえば、まだうまれてもいなかったでしょう。

I did realize, however, that even without kanji I managed just fine. Sometimes parsing takes a bit longer, but you get used to it quickly. The first page, I was like “this is gonna take ages”, but in the end I hardly even paid attention to the fact. Knowing lots of vocabulary definitely helps. :smiley:
ぶんたろうがだいじんになってじゅうねんのひびがすぎました。ぶんたろうからみたらこくみんたちはみんな、でんきのおんけいにあずかってしあわせにくらしているようにみえました。 ← imagine this for 50 pages

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Today I also finished 沖で待つ (2005), my second Akutagawa book (after a number of failed attempts) :tada:

I can wholeheartedly agree with everything @Myria said in her review. To add a little bit to it:

勤労感謝の日
For this story I very much liked how outspoken and even blunt the protagonist was in her thoughts, and thus in her criticism on the Japanese society. It felt very short, and I would have liked to stay with her some more.

沖で待つ
Really wholesome story, I liked it a lot. And I also thought this felt more like a book than a short story. Admittedly, it is the longest of the three stories, but not really by much (maybe 20-25 pages or so?). Interesting how different my perception was compared to the first story.

みなみのしまのぶんたろう
This was indeed a children’s story. I got lots of 小川未明 vibes. The tone was very similar (although the general setting was not), and it had this same rambly storytelling to it where you would never be sure what the story tries to aim at.
The hiragana was indeed pretty annoying at the start, but I got better and better at it over the course of the story. The only thing that was really hard was to find my reading position again after having looked up a word on my computer :joy_cat:

General thoughts
Generally speaking, all three stories surprised me in the way they unfolded. Or maybe in the way they didn’t unfold. :upside_down_face:

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I thought you might like to know that one akutagawa winner I read recently, 蹴りたい背中, I also didn’t find to be very confusing. It deals with the confusing themes of being a teenager, (not) fitting in, love etc. All the fun stuff. But the writing and happenings itself weren’t very confusing imo. :smiley:

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Ah yes sure, that’s why I said “sort of sticks that tag to it”. I know there are exceptions (沖で待つ also leans rather to the (language-wise) non-confusing side for the most part), but in my experience (looking at you, Harlekin) it is rather likely to happen with Akutagawa winners that at some point the language stays understandable - or so it feels - while the contents seems to be very confusing - or so it feels :rofl:

Hard to describe for me; it’s like when I know all the words and grammar points and still cannot make sense of what’s going on :woman_shrugging: Probably it’s just me and this will sort itself out over time with more reading practice, but it taught me to be a bit cautious aroud those books :grin:

Oh yeah, and that title sounded quite intriguing! :rofl: Did you like it?

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(2013年下)

Another Akutagawa book done! :white_check_mark:

The premise (woman moving to the countryside and falling into a hole) seemed weird and creepy, but in my opinion it was less creepy/scary than I expected. Yes, there are some weird things happening, and the author is very good at invoking this base-level creepiness throughout the (first) story.

Some of the creepy things involve the grandfather always watering the lawn day in day out, there being weird holes in the ground that some animal dug out, protagonist being bitten by a weird bug, everyone being very pale, no people ever being out on the street. Just a base level of these sorts of inexplicable and slightly weird things, really.

I liked the ending as well. I wish it had gotten a bit more specific other than „a lot of things the protagonist saw were just her imagining things, they actually never existed“. It did make for a nice twist, though.

The characters in the second and third story are the same, so I wouldn’t call them separate stories, but rather two chapters of one „story“. The second story, いたちなく, I probably enjoyed the most, the ending was interesting (a very short story-esque ending, but I liked it).

Language-wise, the author has some interesting quirks that made it a bit more difficult to read than your standard, say, 森 博嗣 or 小川 洋子. The author’s favorite expression is probably ~だの、~だの. She also loves listing several possibilities with ~か~か~か, which takes some time getting used to. But compared to other Akutagawa books, it’s not that difficult.

@omk3 in case you’re interested

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I found an interesting article about the Akutagawa / Naoki prizes
芥川賞・直木賞 第167回の候補10作、あなたへの1冊は

It said something interesting: 今回は芥川賞の90年近い歴史で初めて、全ての候補作が女性作家の作品となりました。 Which I find really cool!

One part of the article is a little questionnaire that gives you the Akutagawa / Naoki nomination that fits your interests best based on your answers.

There is an analysis of each nomination as well, like this:

ギフテッド

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