Archive for the ‘Literature’ category

The Name of the Rose

September 3, 2014

The delightful meta-irony of this book is that it depicts medieval monks laboring to pass on the written memories of an ancient culture, just like Umberto Eco himself did by writing this. The Name of the Rose is the kind of rediscovery of lost knowledge for which its own protagonists are yearning, and what is unearthed is the importance and relevance of medieval thinkers.

The exciting abbey murder mystery is the story’s engine, and I’m not going to spoil it for you. Instead of giving a play-by-play of the travails of Ye Olde Holmes and Watson and their groundbreaking scientific method, I’ll get philosophical, just like the author does for the majority of the pages (consider yourself warned).

A Game of Thrones has sparked a positive reassessment of medieval people’s intelligence, but our popular imagination of the era is still perhaps best captured by the video of Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance”. Hence Eco’s portrayal of an abbeyful of intelligent people dedicated to thought, and of continent-wide intellectual debates moderated but also censored by great powers with their own selfish ends, is exhilarating.

It is commonly believed that the West as a whole fell from the Roman Empire into darkness and then the Catholic Church kept them there. It’s true that much knowledge was destroyed and lost over the years of war and economic disruption that ended the western empire, and many Catholic leaders failed, but it’s forgotten that the educated Romans we admire were always a minuscule percentage of the people in Europe. Even Rome itself was full of unschooled slaves, and the infamous superstitions of medieval people preceded Christianity. Meanwhile, the Church, while conservative, also safeguarded knowledge and provided education to all on a scale unlike any institution that preceded it, while also using its moral authority to protect anti-establishment liberals like the Franciscans.

Let’s look at three major debate subjects of the story—heresy, poverty, and the Book of Revelation—and their relevance to today.

Heresy: As long as there are organizations that uphold certain values, there will be inquisitions, i.e. “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Eco provides us a valuable resource by helping us see how inquisitors thought and worked. Their interest in guilt by association, for example, reminded me of political articles like “X is connected to the Koch Brothers and thus is evil!” These sections must have been especially poignant in 1980, when the Cold War was still being fought and the Red Scare was only a few years back in the rear-view mirror.

Even more important than that, however, is the depiction of how people become heretics. Some are true apostates with a warped sense of divine mission (ISIS leaders), but others are merely lashing out at a society that has failed them by joining the nearest utopian anti-establishment organization they can find (the Taiping Rebellion). Hence crushing a heretical movement, either intellectually or physically, is not enough to prevent a reprise; institutions must also reform themselves to enfranchise the marginalized and keep them from becoming desperate.

Eco is also firm in his refutation of fanaticism, saying both the inquisitors and true heretics are guilty of the same sins, of wanting to burn the world down and trample people for their convictions. This warning was proved true in the 20th century just as it was in the 14th.

Poverty: Was Jesus poor? Did He even own possessions? At the time of this story there was a massive debate on this subject, which had great implications for how society should be organized and how secular rulers and the Church should conduct themselves. The Pope himself was on the wrong side, as several of the Franciscans point out; one character even says the Pope is the Antichrist, putting to rest any misconception you may have of the expansiveness of papal infallibility. (The politically motivated Papal Schism was not far away.) Ubertino’s disquisition on the nature of property is relevant today, and the dynamics of the debate between have-nots and their ideals holding forth against the haves and their control of the use of force is sadly familiar. It seems clear the inequality of medieval times stemmed not from ignorance of economic principles but rather from the rich’s desire to keep things as they were in order to stay on top. True Christians have always been threatened.

Revelation: After reading The Name of the Rose, I appreciated more than ever how important it was that the Bible contain the Apocalypse of St. John. It is not only comfort for the afflicted but also a scriptural safeguard against triumphalism and blind obedience to authority. Time and time again Eco’s characters refer to it to explain the suffering of the current times and to imply the authorities with whom they disagree are false prophets. Because Revelation is so easily read as prophecy, it also warns church leaders that history will not steadily and peacefully progress forward, but may instead be convulsed and wrecked by evildoers. Because it begins with admonitions to churches, it provides a platform for self-criticism.

Not to mention that on the artistic and literary side, the Book of Revelation gave religious license to surrealism that reverberates today.

The book’s apocalyptic frame, established very early by a vision by the narrator, Adso—who is himself a parallel of John in both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation—is a fitting metaphor for the emerging intellectual battle between the Aristotelians the Church condoned by recognizing the truth of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology and the Platonists to preserving beautiful ideals and respect for authority. The reasons for resistance to the new school of thought and fear of its consequences are amply explained and personified.

Eco upholds the values we now call modern but, crucially, also presents the point of view of the losing intellectual side, a modern parallel to the Catholic monks preserving the works of Muslim writers. This is a salvo against the tragedy of forgetting. That Western Europe had an officially protected and apolitical group preserving thought is a godsend, considering the much greater degree of historical and literary censorship in regions like China.

While showing characters that think like us (and why official historians would censor them from memory), Eco also respectfully portrays their cultural differences, so by reading this we can enrich our own knowledge of the palette of human experience. For example, he says of one scene: “I was not so much interested in ___ itself as I was to describe how a young monk would experience ___ through his cultural sensibility. So I made a collage of at least fifty different texts of mystics describing their ecstasies, together with excerpts from the Song of Songs. In the entire two pages that describe ____, there is hardly a single word of mine. Adso can only understand ____ through the lens of the culture he has absorbed. This is an instance of style, as I define it.”

This book is now inextricably linked to The Da Vinci Code. It’s a sad irony, as The Name of the Rose is roughly a million times better and more respectful of history. Eco himself has had a laugh about it: “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” The Name of the Rose doesn’t flow from scene to scene in the same way, but it doesn’t make any inventions that contradict with the historical record; it teaches about the past rather than heavy-handedly retrofitting the past to the present; and it encourages open-mindedness and skepticism rather than Gnosticism and faith in conspiracy theories.

So if you’re interested in the West of the 14th century, read this, and if you like a good mystery, even better.

And if you’ve already read this and want more fiction on monks preserving learning, check out A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and “The Library of Babylon” by Jorge Luis Borges.


1000 Words on Ron, Hermione, and the Widening Class Divide Between Them

February 3, 2014

SOOO JK Rowling just stated (in an interview for a magazine Emma Watson guest-edited) that she regrets pairing up Hermione and Ron, and that Hermione should have ended up with Harry instead. (As always she apparently didn’t have anything to say about Ginny.) This vexes me on multiple levels, and whether an artist can break through the fourth wall from the outside and change a piece after everyone’s already appreciated it (a classic philosophy of art debate question, and fwiw I think the reader’s agency/free will must be respected as well) is the -least- of them. ACCIO ESSAY:

1. To be honest I don’t think Rowling should have paired ANYONE up.
A. Aesthetic Reasons: Harry Potter was awesome when it was a fun magical detective story with plentiful parodies of modern life that starred good-hearted, well-rounded characters. As I wrote six years ago ( the first three books are the strongest because they’re the leanest and most faithful to the series’s natural strengths. The romances as she wrote them distracted from rather than strengthening the story’s themes, made the characters seem thinner rather than deeper, and should have been cut down or left out. (Protip: don’t get famous until you FINISH your fantasy series unless you have insanely incorruptible artistic integrity like Tolkien.)

How fun would it have been to go all the way through the story with flirting between all the characters and then let the fans keep chatting about who worked best together after that? When the author forces closure by tying together unnaturally, she limits the readers’ imaginations.

B. Moral Reasons: It’s so 16th century to think everyone needs to be paired up by the time the story’s over. Any of these characters could have had a perfectly fulfilling life as a single person as well (like Hagrid or ::cough:: Dumbledore), or met a special someone from the Muggle world off-camera. Students especially, the target audience of HP, are already full of anxiety about having to find someone to love by the time they graduate and these books reinforced that. Quick romantic pairings in epilogues also give the impression that love is easy or just happens when you’ve got things figured out when it’s actually a whole other huge lifelong adventure.

2. That said, she did pair them up, so what really makes Rowling’s new perspective depressing is how classist it is. Harry Potter and the Specter of Social Stratification? Harry Potter and Elite Self-Segregation? I know she doesn’t think of it that way but, especially after reading the Ross Douthat class warfare article from yesterday, this is how it looks to me:

What changed here is not the characters but JK Rowling herself. Once a single mother who wrote stories on napkins, she has now been one of the richest and most famous people in Britain (always a more stratified society) for 15 years, which means she’s spent years immersed in a totally different, wealthier world than the world from which this series sprang up. In other words, the J.K. Rowling who wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone no longer exists.

When the Muse wrote the books she chose Ron-Hermione and Harry-Ginny (now Rowling is making it look like she created Ginny just to give Harry a girlfriend, which is capital-T Terrible, but let’s move on.) 2014 Rowling describes Ron-Hermione as “wish fulfillment” that she wanted to be true but which couldn’t actually work. Harry and Hermione could definitely have worked! But so could Ron and Hermione. There’s enough chemistry and space between the lines for either relationship to be fulfilling, and for either one to be “wish fulfillment”.

What this latest statement looks like to everyone who reads it is “Ron isn’t good enough for Hermione (and Ginny isn’t good enough for Harry)”, not least due to its Hermione-centrism. How are Ron and Ginny not good enough, though? That case looks really classist to me:

Hermione is a genius and the only child of a pair of dentists. Harry grew up poor but is now a wealthy heir, a sports hero, and The Chosen One. (Also an only child.) Ron is the youngest son of a big, poor-and/but-happy (Catholic?) family and has a serious inferiority complex. Ginny is the youngest child of this family, is painfully shy, and isn’t “the best at anything” either.

The two elites in this group, in terms of achievements, money, as well as character traits associated with success, are obviously Harry and Hermione. But is the closest match/complement in these characteristics what matters for a relationship?

Not to be too maudlin, but I think of how loving the Weasley household is and how comfortable Hermione was staying there all summer (I wanted to be there too!). How Ron isn’t too intimidated of Hermione to make fun of her, but also how much he admires her and is supportive of her. How much integrity both Ron and Ginny had. Ron and Hermione had communication problems but so do people in every relationship! Who’s in love with each other? That’s the unpredictable and way more important thing, and if Ron and Hermione loved each other in JK’s imagination she doesn’t get to say years after the fact that they shouldn’t. (Besides, Adult Ron with things figured out would be at least as awesome as Young Adult Rupert Grint, right?

Why does all this matter? Because while the increasing intensity of social and economic stratification is undeniable, more and more “successful” Americans are looking for romantic partners who are their equals in these same categories and limiting their associations with those in the lower classes.

And even if, like me, you think success is defined by how far you carry a cross and not having nice jobs in the Ministry of Magic and sending your kids to a nice school like Hogwarts, you find that society perpetually pressures the “less successful” partner in a relationship and you appreciate any relief from that stress that you can get.

So, motion denied, J.K.

Two heroes of Japanese liberalism have passed over to the Grey Havens

January 3, 2013


Keiji Nakazawa
Asahi Shimbun Obituary

When Keiji Nakazawa was 6 years old, the Hiroshima atomic bomb vaporized nearly his entire family.

He portrayed this experience in a comic book.


As far as I know, Barefoot Gen is the most famous anti-war work in Japanese history. Search for it in Google Images and it will imprint itself in your mind as well. The art style, typical of fun adventures, makes what is depicted inside feel even worse. Perhaps if a book like this were required reading in American junior high schools, we would not declare another war of choice. Irrespective of America, Nakazawa’s work has doubtless been monumental in Japanese culture. My junior high school there had a student performance of it every few years.


Beate Gordon

Read the New York Times’ obituary. It’s one of those that’s so astonishing you wonder why you’ve never heard of this person before.

Beate Sirota Gordon introduced women’s rights to postwar Japan, writing the clauses specifically guaranteeing them into the Japanese Constitution, emancipating 40 million people, when she was 22 years old.

Gordon studied other nations’ constitutions and drew on her childhood experiences in Tokyo and wrote the articles in a week. A sleepless week. Imagine all your learning and moral training and ethical thought suddenly being put to the test, now, and you have to lay out the future legal status of millions of historically marginalized people.

And then she kept her role a secret for decades.

All she did in the meantime was introduce the West to every kind of traditional Japanese art and every style of Asian performance art she could find. It’s amazing to think of how little even Americans in the highest reaches of power understood of Japan when they began ruling the country after the war. And pre-WWII cultural globalization mostly meant Westernization. Ms. Gordon was very important to turning on the East-to-West cultural flows and contributing to the cultural relations between Japanese and Americans today.


With her parents and Kosaku Yamada in Tokyo in 1928 (source:

Mr. Nakazawa, Ms. Gordon, rest in peace. May our generation, too, have people as amazing as you.

Spain’s Most Successful Female Athlete: “My Parents Have Left Me With Nothing; I Don’t Speak With My Family”

February 7, 2012

Arantxa Sánchez Vicario with Parents in 1989Arantxa Sánchez Vicario with her parents in 1989

Spain’s Most Successful Female Athlete: “My Parents Have Left Me With Nothing; I Don’t Speak With My Family”
Arantxa Sánchez Vicario attacks her parents in her memoirs, accusing them of squandering her fortune and giving her equal treatment with her tennis-playing brothers Emilio and Javier
El País: “Mis padres me han dejado sin nada; no me hablo con mi familia”
J.J.M. reporting from Madrid February 5, 2012

“I was born into a family of tennis players, and I watched the sport ever since I was little. You may be born into something, but you have to work to keep polishing it and to become a champion. You sacrifice a lot in such a mental sport in which you have to know how to control your emotions,” says Arantxa Sánchez Vicario over the telephone from Moscow, where she has just finished her debut as coach of the Spanish women’s tennis team, which bowed to Russia 3-2 yesterday in the first round of the Federation Cup.

In 30 seconds, the ex-#1, winner of four major tournaments and four Olympic medals, has summarized the values of her whole life. In one breath, she has underlined the themes that marked a unique career: sacrifice, family, the mind, and emotions. These few phrases display the concepts at play in ¡Vamos! Memorias de una lucha, una vida y una mujer (Let’s Go! Memories of a Fight, a Life, and a Woman), her autobiography, which will be published tomorrow and which makes accusations against her family, according to the extracts published in El Mundo, which is publishing the work through La Esfera. “I don’t talk to my family,” writes the ex-player, married to businessman Pep Santacana since 2008 despite the “categorical” opposition of her family members. “They’ve left me with nothing.”

There are now two opposing books dedicated to one clan, the Sánchez Vicarios. The other is Forja de Campeones (Force of Champions), which was written by Emilio Sánchez and Marisa Vicario, the parents of Arantxa, Emilio (formerly #1 in doubles, #7 in singles, and an Olympic silver medalist), Javier (ex-#23), and Marisa; it speaks of the values that formed so many champions. The former player’s book, on the other hand, is the story of the destruction of these ties. There is a point of inflection. It occurred in 2010, when Forja was presented to the public. Arantxa did not attend: “the time had come to take off our masks and show that the myth of a united and happy Sánchez Vicario family was just that: a myth,” she writes. “My parents’ behavior has caused me a lot of suffering. In recent months, I have been through such difficult situations that there are still moments when I think I’m in a nightmare. What’s certain is that my relationship with my family doesn’t exist. How is it possible that everything I’ve obtained has disappeared, has ceased to be? (…) I’m the victim and the deceived.”

Dinero and discipline caused the rupture. “They’ve left me with nothing. I’m in debt to the Housing Department (she was condemned to pay €3.5 million in fines for paying taxes to Andorra while living in Spain), and my properties are very inferior to those of my brother Javier, for example, who has won much less than me over the course of his life. Could I accept this abuse and keep quiet? I wasn’t going to do it,” said the ex-tenista, who is 40. According to the WTA, which manages professional women’s tennis, Sánchez Vicario won about $17 million (some €12 million) during her career. The sponsorships she had during that time elevated her income to some €45 million by her count. Sources knowledgeable of the tennis world and her family are surprised by the insinuation of bankruptcy (“She has a boat, houses…”) and the elevated figure of her winnings: there are high taxes on tournament prizes (up to 35%), and Arantxa did not enjoy a large advertisement contract outside the tennis world (“like Sharapova’s style brands.”)

“My father has enjoyed full decision-making power over the management of my assets,” she said. “He has made the investments he considered opportune and administrated all my winnings. They gave me a certain amount of money every month, and I gave them a precise account statement; never for a moment did I worry enough to ask them about anything. I never doubted the way my father managed my money. Now I have nothing left,” she adds. “What happened with Housing was fatal. Establishing my residency in Andorra was my camp’s [their] decision.”

Arantxa, according to the book, which her parents’ lawyers are studying, was a girl who robbed a motorcycle to escape the tennis academy in which she was training. An adolescent whose her parents wanted her to go to bed early and leave her own birthday party. A champion weighed down by her “faithful shadow”, her mother – “for her, discipline and victory went before anything else, when sometimes what I needed most were caring words…I ended up doubting my self-worth and looking for help from psychologists to recover my self-esteem.” A tennis player who saw that her family managed everything in her life while her brother Emilio could make his own decisions from the age of 18. And a coach, finally, who yesterday only wanted to say of the Federation Cup, “I’m here because the players want me to be.”

My Autistic Brother John’s Essay about “Of Mice and Men”

January 30, 2012
Of Mice and Men: a Report by John Smyth

Of Mice and Men was written by John Steinbeck in the 1930s about the sad conditions of the poor migrant farm workers who ate and slept at apartments made for them on farms.  This was called a “bunkhouse” in the book.  When they didn’t have an apartment at a farm, then they slept outside and quietly experienced the weather for better and worse. A way of seeing what they were was as performers who always played a bit part in the farm economy and died in a poverty that was all-encompassing personally, economically, and emotionally. Even when they were successful, they were tragic figures. And this was the setting for Lennie and George’s self-destructive experience.

Lennie and George early saw each man as a complement to the other.  George was small and smart. Lennie was autistic and big and strong. He was raised by his aunt and abandoned when she died.  George became a brother to Lennie who had no family. They always were together and Lennie followed George’s advice. Sometimes Lennie’s intuitive side let him appreciate that something was not right, but George’s logic always trumped it. Really, the very plot of the book revolves around the demonic mental side of man’s existence and his spiritual intuition to surrender to the way of the heart. As the plot unfolds, a choice is made to betray brotherhood and friendship for convenience and the will of a misunderstanding mob. Everyone loses innocence except Lennie, who gives his life but keeps his heart and goodness.
From the beginning, Lennie is taken advantage of. Sometimes he knows it and sometimes not. He is always surrounded by smarter, more worldly people. Sadly, they attempt to use him for their advantage. This is the world he lives in. Even his friend George is like this.  Always self-centered and successfully controlling, George is the world. The story compares the simplicity and purity of Lennie’s world to the sophisticated dirtiness of George and every other person’s cheap angle on life. I am impressed by the contrast and see it as a biblical allegory even Christ-like except Lennie has no mission to redeem.  But he is a lamb led to slaughter.
The story was so sad that I wanted to cry and I passionately wanted to scream and yell that it wasn’t fair for Lennie to die. Everyone else ends up ok but Lennie and his ignominious way end. I learned that horrible things happen to autistic people.  Our world desperately needs the goodness, simplicity, and pure, child-like intent of Lennie.  There is a Lennie in each of us.  Everyone’s Lennie wants to express itself and our George and the crowd kills it.  We need to care for our Lennies in the world and in us.
This book released many fears in me, especially the fear that if something happened to my family, I would be vulnerable like Lennie. And I am more motivated to educate and help people understand about autism. Everyone thinks we can help what we do and we can’t. When we do what we do, we never intend the bad consequences. Autistic people like Lennie need understanding and help. For all of us, we need to do more. A succinct statement is that Lennie could be anyone. All of us are in need of understanding and love. 

“This Crisis is Counterspiritual”

January 20, 2012

Álvaro Pombo
Álvaro Pombo, winner of the 2012 Nadal Prize.

“This Crisis is Counterspiritual”
The recent winner of the Nadal Prize calls for people to “take to the streets to denounce institutionalized egoism”
El País: Pombo: “Esta crisis es contraespiritual”
Carles Geli reporting from Barcelona January 7, 2012

Here he goes. Tireless, he cites quotes from one philosopher after another early in the morning although it’s been just six hours since the conclusion of the award gala for the 68th Premio Nadal, which he won for El temblor del héroe (The Shaking of the Hero), about the worries (or lack of them, rather) of a certain Román, a retired university professor who isn’t the least bit concerned about the misfortunes of others, as dramatic as they may be, and which he criticizes in one way or another. “I’d thought about titling it El furor heroico (“Heroic Fury”), in honor of Giordano Bruno, for that delirium to achieve divinity, beauty, the good, but I left it as it was,” drops Álvaro Pombo (born in Santander in 1939), who has an aquiline nose and a beard on a booming chin, a face like a reflected half-moon from a reflective short story; he has defined “the poetry of the good”, and it pervades his almost thirty titles. And he’s not tired of it all despite the limited effect his sermons have had on Spain society. “Yes, my Román is tired and frustrated with the world; I am not, which might mean I’m an idiot; I have spikes, but I enjoy good health, and perhaps that’s what lets me keep thinking about the Platonic world: I believe that we should do good, otherwise we’ll be unfinished creatures; the problem is that today we’re really installed in a philosophy of unfinished business, of letting everything flow really quickly, everything on the Internet…what I don’t know is how to redirect this; that’s why I write, because the novel is fizzy with its dynamite: you can do emotional experiments without causing too much damage.”

Pombo admits, nevertheless, that he feels “pretty much alone” in his crusade in Spanish letters. “I see it more in English fiction, in Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene…in Spain, perhaps the person who’s closest would be Javier Marías.” It could be that what Pombo has denounced many times is not alien to him: the predominance of the paralyzed intellectual, like Román, who feels “blocked up” after his retirement, “without feedback, flirting with boredom” and also a young digital journalist for a site symbolically named The Non-Current, “which could interview me, as well…yes, the intellectual paralysis of Spain is notable, and in part it’s because of our politics, which have intervened badly: our political discourse is paralyzing, as well, with the repetition of slogans and over-discussion of topics; today, here and in Europe, the conservative discourse seems less paralyzing – perhaps because it’s not monolithic? – than the social democratic movement, which has not thought to rethink labor and the duality of the rich and the poor…”

“We don’t have any intellectuals like Ortega y Gasset.” The author of The Platinum-Iridium Meter, a reader of essays, drops Ortega y Gasset’s name twice; he quickly clarifies that he also monitors two or three other good authors – “Villacañas, Pardo, and Marina”, but he does so in the context of a society where “we cannot make exquisite culture, where everything has to be divulged because 50% of youth would need someone to explain Plato and the steam engine to them.”

The economic crisis has not facilitated the solidification of the liquid society that Pombo has already advanced (“much earlier than Kundera and Bauman”) in Relatos sobre la falta de sustancia (Stories on the Lack of Substance) in 1977. The crisis has accentuated this: “this crisis is counterspiritual; the philosophy of the personal salvation of the soul rules over that of the city, and is so distant from that of saying that I don’t save my circumstances, I won’t survive…we can see it now: Ortega continues to be seminal.” Solutions? “I can’t accept everything as it is; we have to take to the streets and denounce it, but we can’t leave the discourse like this either; we have to get up, and to get lively, and that’s why I joined Union, Progress, and Democracy; for that and for Fernando Savater.”

Hard times require a different kind of literature. Pombo admits that he has changed his way of writing, shortening it, as if it were dictation. “Now I make my works much more brief; in Spain we have constructed a very large and heavy kind of fiction; The Shaking of the Hero [which will be published February 2 by Destino] will be a short novel, 200 pages long, to avoid becoming a sprawling reflection; it’s a bit like the works of Henry James, following the Borgesian idea of having self control and a powerful image,” he says while, without realizing it, he shakes the table. Like he shakes his readers.

Winners of Akutagawa and Naoki Literary Prizes Announced; Mayor of Tokyo (a Former Novelist) Intends to Quit Selection Committee, Citing Idiocy of Submissions

January 19, 2012

Messrs. Enjō and Tanaka Win Akutagawa Prize; and Naoki Prize to Mr. Hamuro
Yomiuri Shimbun: 芥川賞に円城さん・田中さん、直木賞に葉室さん
January 17, 2012

The winners of the 146th Akutagawa Prize and Naoki Prize, hosted by the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature, were decided, announced, and honored the night of the 17th at Shinrakuchi, a 136-year old first-class restaurant in Tsuiji, Tokyo. The Akutagawa Prize [for best short story in Japanese by a new or rising author] went to Tō Enjō (39) for “The Clown’s Butterfly”, published in the July 2011 edition of Gunzō Magazine (a gunzō is a group of sculptures), and Shinya Tanaka (39) for “Eating Each Other”, published in Subaru (Pleiades) last October. Rin Hamuro (60) won the Naoki Prize [for best novel in Japanese by a new or rising author] for Chronicle of Evening Cicadas (published by Shodensha).

Mr. Hamuro, who has been nominated for the Naoki five times, was born in Kitakyushu. He debuted in 2005 and won the Seichō Matsumoto Prize in 2007. His prize-winning novel is about a samurai who passes the four seasons in hiding after being ordered to commit suicide by feudal enemies.

Committee member Jirō Asada said “it’s more complete than anything that came before it. It’s extremely well-designed and progresses from a setup that’s clear from the very beginning. It’s a mature piece that was written with care and attentiveness.”

The monetary award is 1 million yen. A formal presentation ceremony will be held in mid-February.

Akutagawa Winner Tanaka Displeased with Long Wait for Award: “I Obviously Deserved to Win This”
Yomiuri Shimbun: 芥川賞・田中さん不機嫌「私がもらって当然」
January 18, 2012

“Modern intelligence and old-fashioned thinking: we have both,” committee member Senji Kuroi commented about the contrasting careers and styles of the two Akutagawa Prize winners, both born in 1972.

Mr. Enjō was born in Sapporo. After receiving a doctorate in theoretical physics from Tokyo University and serving at various research institutes, he began to write “Eating Each Other”. The work, his third to be nominated for the award, is an experimental short story about a writer fluent in dozens of languages which examines the spoken and written word. Even the selection committee was divided about it.

Mr. Tanaka was born in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi. After graduating from high school, “because I couldn’t do anything else,” he randomly selected and read the works of writers like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima and free-wrote about them. His literary debut was in 2005. He lives in his childhood home with his mother. This was his fifth nomination.

His story is set in a Shimonoseki neighborhood in the much-beloved very late Showa period. Its protagonist is a high school student, living in a village that smells of rivers and fish, whose feuds with his father and sexual impulses are described in dense sentences.

The differences between the two authors were clear at the press conference as well. Mr. Enjō said “the prizewinning works are read by many people. If people don’t read mine, there’s nothing I can do about it, but I want to keep writing strange and mysterious tales,” he said gracefully.

Mr. Tanaka began his speecy by quoting an actress: “I obviously deserved to win this. That’s pretty much what I’m feeling right now.” He said with a displeased-looking expression, “Reading books, writing novels, and being an author is all I’ve ever done.” The press conference was a short one.

Tokyo Governor Ishihara Announces Intent to Resign from Akutagawa Prize Committee: “It’s Not Stimulating”
Yomiuri Shimbun: 石原氏「刺激にならない」と芥川賞選考委員辞意
January 18, 2012

Shintarō Ishihara, [once a novelist and now] Governor of Tokyo, announced his intent to resign from the Akutagawa Prize Committee after this award because it’s “absolutely unstimulating.”

Governor Ishihara said “I’ve been hoping that a young person would come up, make me shudder, pull me back into it, but nothing has excited me. It has no meaning for my life.”

The governor became a committee member in 1995.

Governor Ishihara: “All the Submissions are Idiotic”
Yomiuri Shimbun: 石原知事「バカみたいな作品ばかりだよ」とも
January 19, 2012

Regarding Tokyo Governor Ishihara’s announcement of his intent to resign from the Akutagawa Prize Committee, the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature which hosts the award said “nothing is decided as yet. We’d like to meet with him soon and talk about it.”

However, Mr. Ishihara emphasized to the press today that he could not be dissuaded: “I’m quitting after this award. I said that (at the meeting on the night of the 17th), and they’ve been asking me not to quit, but I’m quitting.”

After a regular committee meeting on the 6th, Mr. Ishihara said about the nominees, “I’ve been laboring through the reading, but all the stories are idiotic.”

At the announcement on the 17th, Mr. Shinya Tanaka (39), who won the award along with Tō Enjō (39), said, “If I refuse this award and took down that small-minded man, the government would fall into chaos. For the sake of His Excellency the Governor and the citizens of the capital city, I will accept this award.” The rippling across the Internet and media.

In response to Mr. Tanaka, Mr. Ishihara said on the 18th, “Now that’s a good one. It’s ironic. I rather liked his story, though.”

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