Contemporary Japanese Literature


Title: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Japanese Title: 寡黙な死骸 みだらな弔い
(Kamoku na shigai, midara no tomurai)
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 162

Ogawa Yōko is a writer of the fantastic who spins softly glittering tales of quiet desperation. In Japan, she’s known for her magical realism, which is so subtle as to be almost Todorovian in the uncertainty it generates. Nevertheless, her first novel to appear in English translation, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is about kind-hearted people behaving nobly in the face of senescence and overcoming emotional adversity by opening their hearts to one another. It’s a good book even despite its clinging miasma of Hallmark-style sentimentality, but the way the novel was marketed made it feel as if its publisher were trying to pass Ogawa off as the next Yoshimoto Banana, which she most…

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The Princess and the Goblin

About two years ago, I decided to pick up Weighted and Wanting, which for me has spawned a great interest in regard to George MacDonald.  I have since read many of his poems, a play titled Within and Without, The Princess and the Goblin, and I have almost completed Hope of the Gospel.  The ways he employs Scriptural ideas and themes in his works reinvigorates my faith.  The Princess and the Goblin, upon which this article will focus, employs ideas from the Gospels and the Pslams especially: God is a loving Father (something which receives particular emphasis in all MacDonald’s works), faith is logical though above reason, and evil beings fall into the very same traps they laid for the righteous.

The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin stands as my favorite work of his thus far.  In this novel, MacDonald manages to inculcate his themes without resorting to sermons–a weakness both he and his most fervent disciple, C. S. Lewis, share even in works of fiction.  This work focuses on the adventures of Princess Irene and the nefarious plot of the goblins to conquer a human kingdom–or the sun kingdom as they call it–by subterfuge.  The fairy tale MacDonald weaves for us combines elements of mystery, fantasy, and darkness.  I would say that the novel’s best parts involve Curdie’s efforts to spy on the goblins.  Since Princess Irene and Curdie met on one fateful evening, Curdie became my favorite character.  He stands as the most courageous character next to the king himself: he sings in the face of his goblin enemies and has no qualms about risking a crossbow bolt to warn the castle of the danger imperiling them.

I mentioned that Curdie sings in the face of goblins before.  This is because goblins and their enemies are so warped that they hate anything joyful.  In this regard one sees that MacDonald based them on demons, who are similarly warped and hate the light.  The goblins have small hearts and small statures with rock hard heads.  Their hard heads must symbolize their pride and hardness of heart.  They cannot repent or μετανοειν–“to have a change of mind” as the Greek word for repentance literally means.


On the other hand, the best characters in the story are often icons pointing to beings greater than them.  For example, the king’s conduct easily brings to mind MacDonald’s understanding of God the Father, Princess Irene is an excellent example of a faithful Christian, and Curdie’s mother of the ideal Christian wife–free in that her opinions have an influence on her husband and child and free in that her service and obedience to her husband and son ennoble her.  I am sure that Irene’s great-great-grandmother also symbolizes something greater than she appears, but I am not sure what.  A soul in paradise?  The scenes with her, some of the most fantastic in the work, tend to be happy and inspiring.

Some parts of the book strike one as very slow, but MacDonald inserts enough suspense that this only causes the reader to turn pages more energetically.  The lessons regarding faith, trust, and good cheer in difficult situations are particularly worth imbibing.  Now, I must read Phantasies and Lilith–otherwise my partner on this website will chide for not trying those books again by this point!

And, another way to enjoy The Princess and the Goblin is through this excellent cartoon movie made in 1991:

10 Great Quotations from Writers about Books

Interesting Literature

The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame. – Oscar Wilde

Why can’t people just sit and read books and be nice to each other? – David Baldacci

Books are a uniquely portable magic. – Stephen King

Books are the mirrors of the soul. – Virginia Woolf

When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. – Erasmus

Books old

A person who publishes a book wilfully appears before the populace with his pants down. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

A book must be an ice axe to break the frozen sea within us. – Franz Kafka

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. – Ray Bradbury

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the…

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The Ebb and Flow of Battle

I recently picked up a British soldier’s memoirs of WWI called The Ebb & Flow of Battle.  This particular British officer was named P. J. Campbell, and these memoirs were written sixty years after the events they describe.  Yet, the descriptions of his time in an artillery battery during the last year of the war sounds vivid enough to have been written as soon as he returned home.  He gives particular attention to the Spring Offensive–the last German major offensive campaign–and to the Allied counterattack which ended the war on November 11, 1918.  Over the course of this year of the war, Campbell is promoted from lieutenant to captain and transfers to another battery.


The main virtue of this memoir is how well it describes the people who fought beside Campbell.  Most of the attention naturally goes to Campbell’s fellow officers and the NCOs serving under Campbell.  During the bitterest moments of the war, their personalities would clash–especially when new commanding officers took charge–and Campbell often served as a peacemaker in the battery.  The officers ranged from people with aristocratic sensibilities, like Major Bingley, to officers who were renown for both their brusqueness and courage, like Major John.  We learn that the majority of the men in the battery hail from Yorkshire, which gives the unit a regional flavor.  All in all, he immerses the reader perfectly in the everyday life and struggles of the men in the battery.

I cannot say that he described the fighting or even its aftermath particularly well; but, he was an artillery officer.  Therefore, the closest he got to the fighting was a short engagement where he had to direct artillery fire from an exposed position during the Spring Offensive.  (This is perhaps the most exciting part of the book.)  However, we do see how wearying the struggle is on his body, and it is interesting to read how he dealt with the peril of mustard gas.  One sees how different this kind of war is from modern warfare both in the dangers offered by chemical warfare and that officers kept servants in their employ.  One is reminded of how Dumas’ famous musketeers also went to war with their valets, which is very hard for us moderns to imagine now.

The Ebb & Flow of Battle

And so, I heartily recommend this account of WWI.  Campbell makes the soldiers he fought beside very down to earth.  The peculiarities of how modern warfare blended with older forms of war may be seen in both the use of servants by the officers and that cavalry was still employed.  The pages turn very quickly!

Review of Latro in the Mist

I have just finished a famous two volume compilation, Latro in the Mist, which combines Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete.  Gene Wolfe achieves something beautiful in these two volumes.  They stand right next to Lord of the Rings in creativity.  The comparison is an apt one: where Tolkien relies upon archaic European languages and motifs drawn from medieval history and culture, Wolfe–also a Catholic–uses ancient Greek history, language, and mythology to immerse us into the world.  The immersion in the ancient world is so perfect that Wolfe makes us see it through new eyes.

Gene Wolfe has a great mustache, right?

Gene Wolfe has a great mustache, right?

The primary way in which he forces the reader to look at the ancient world with a new perspective is by translating the Greek place names to which we are accustomed.  This separates us from the notions we have of these places, and we come to view them from the perspective of the characters.  Athens is Thought; Spartans are Rope Makers; Salamis is Peace; Plataea is Clay; and Thermopylae is the Hot Gates.  The use of English translations for these places has the unique effect of making us feel as though the action takes place in a fantasy world.  This impression of fantasy is further enforced by the way Wolfe inserts gods, goddesses, nymphs, Amazons, and dead souls into the action.  The story begins after the Battle of Plataea, but the reader cannot view the tale as a historical fiction.  In the back of our minds, we know this story happens in history; but, we feel as though Gene Wolfe had created an original world.

Ancient Battle

None of the characters feel modern either, except for the people from Thought, i.e. Athenians.  This impression is helped by the fact that they are democrats and traders rather than subjects of a monarch.  Our hero, Latro, is particularly unique in that he suffers from both long and short memory amnesia.  This means that he knows little of his origins nor what occurred twenty-four hours earlier.  He relies heavily on his companions to tell him the truth and upon the scrolls he keeps as a diary, which is what the two volumes purport to be.  This can make things get tricky as people often attempt to lie to him.  Latro must keep his wits about him, though he often trusts people who appear genuine and accepts their version of events though he has no memory of them.  Even his most stalwart companions, Io and Seven Lions, need to be reintroduced to him daily.  As the reader, we need to keep a clear memory of events lest we get lost.

Latro in the Mist

Latro himself was in the service of the Persian king Xerxes as a mercenary during the Battle of Plataea.  His goal is to discover his origins and return to his fatherland or patria.  (We know he’s either a Roman or from another Latin tribe, though neither he nor his companions know about Italy.)  But, even people who recognize him are not forthcoming about his identity.

There is now one more book of the trilogy for me to read.  So far, the story has been a fun ride of divine encounters, political intrigue, philosophical discussions, and battle.  The friend who introduced me to the series claims that the last volume stands as the best.  And so, I greatly look forward to it and highly recommend the work to those of my dear readers who love fantasy and the Classical period.