I just finished two Asian novels – one from Japan and one from Vietnam. I can’t recall who recommended Shipwrecks, but I reserved it from the library the day I read the recommendation and I was not disappointed. Shipwrecks (by Akira Yoshimura) is absolutely spellbinding. Somewhere on the Japanese coast, a small village of fishing families try to eke out a living from the sea. The village is virtually untouched by modern civilisation and society is deeply rooted in traditional practices. The lives of the villagers revolve solely around food and meals are dictated by the seasons; jellyfish in the spring, fish in the summer, whatever they have managed to store in the winter. Each winter, the village lights fires on the beach to attract O-fune-sama, the merchant ships that carry cargo, onto the rocks where they founder. The villagers murder surviving crew members and take whatever the ship is carrying and either use it to live on or sell it to buy food. If no O-fune-sama come for a few years, family members are sold into bondage for periods of up to ten years so their families can survive. The book focuses on 14 year old Isaku who is the man of his household following his father’s departure on a three year bondage contract. In his father’s absence, Isaku, his family and the entire village are changed by the devastating consequences of a wrecked ship. Besides being a refreshing change from the usual setting of civilisation and material concerns, this novel was free from stereotypical characters and clichéd expressions. As far as I can remember, this is the first non-happy ending I have savoured in a while; the whole things was so simple, so subtle, so poignant.
I followed up Shipwrecks with another novel ending in ruined lives. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh is a novel about a soldier’s participation in the Vietnamese-American war and the profound effect it had on everything in his life that followed. I don’t usually like what I call ‘gritty realism’, preferring novels that end optimistically with promise for future happiness, but these two have caused me to rethink. Prior to reading The Sorrow of War, I never really thought much about war; I associate it with history, and history for me has strong connotations of boredom (and my history teacher who never shaved her legs). War is one of those things you can’t comprehend properly unless you have directly experienced it or been affected by it somehow. This novel succeeds in bringing home what war can do to a person and contains some horrifying accounts I assume are drawn from the author’s own experiences. Definitely difficult to read but compelling at the same time. I would never have picked it up if I hadn’t seen it and realised I hadn’t read anything from Vietnam yet – once again I am left wondering at the things I manage to read. What would I be reading if I wasn’t looking for books from a range of countries and cultures? The best thing about these two is that they fulfil something I had hoped to get out of reading literature from around the world – new cultures, new perspectives on life and what it means, a different outlook on the world. Like all exceptional books they made me question how I live, how I think, what I prioritise.