According to Sylvia Plath, August is an “odd and uneven time” so it’s all the more fitting that we’ve chosen Juan José Millás’ spectacularly surreal and cerebral novel, From the Shadows, as our Book Club selection this month. Millás is an author known for bringing existential thought into dreamlike spaces, and in this exemplifying work, the narrative carves a labyrinthine path through a mind withstanding both physical and mental confinements, and the language, rife with darkness and comedy, traces the fine walls of worlds both real and imagined with Kafkaesque soliloquy.
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From the Shadows by Juan José Millás, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, Bellevue Literary Press, 2019
“Every love story is a ghost story”: David Foster Wallace’s epigraph encapsulates the phantasmagoric search for love and acceptance in Juan José Millás’ From the Shadows, the author’s much-anticipated English debut. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, From the Shadows follows the story of Damián Lobo, an unemployed maintenance worker, who, in a strange turn of events, hides himself inside an old wardrobe and gets transported to the home of a young family. Instead of escaping from his physical confinement, Damián inhabits the space behind the wardrobe and becomes the “Ghost Butler,” a spectral being who tends to chores around the house in the daytime when the family is out and slips back to his hiding place in the master’s bedroom at night.
The Samurai by Shūsaku Endō, translated from the Japanese by Van C. Gessel, new edition by New Directions, August 2018
The Samurai is Shūsaku Endō’s 1980 historical fiction that won him the prestigious Noma Literary Prize in Japan in the same year. As stated by Endō himself, this novel’s purpose was not meant merely as historical illustration—it is the story of a spiritual journey through suffering and, in some ways, a story of Endō himself. The Samurai has been published in a fresh edition by New Directions, featuring Van C. Gessel’s original English translation.
The Samurai begins in a poor village in the marshlands of northeast Japan at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. Peasants slave in the fields to pay rice taxes to their feudal lords, often unable to keep any to feed themselves. The samurai, Hasekura Rokuemon, looks after the village dutifully and works alongside the peasants in the fields. Based on real historical events, the samurai is commanded by his feudal lord to leave behind his village and set sail to New Spain (now Mexico) as an emissary to establish trade relations. Along with three fellow Japanese envoys, an ambitious, Jesuit-hating, Franciscan missionary named Velasco, and a horde of Japanese merchants looking for profits, the samurai’s voyage takes him across the deserts of New Spain, Madrid, and finally to Rome, at the foot of the Pope. This voyage is modeled after the real historical journey known as the Keichō Embassy (1613-1620). This historic embassy was one of Japan’s last diplomatic outreaches before the Tokugawa shogunate enacted a strict isolation policy known as the Sakoku, which lasted for the next two hundred and twenty years.
Juxtapositions are rife in Intan Paramaditha’s enchanting story, “Visiting a Haunted House,” translated from the Indonesian by Stephen Epstein. To me it read almost like an incantation, the words constantly looping memory upon the story’s present. As a granddaughter visits her dead grandmother’s house, she paints a pointillist picture of her grandmother’s life, whose colors soon run into her own. A broken red lipstick, a cloudy mirror, vanished smells of Gudang Garam cigarettes—the world spins, and so do familial memories, ancestral souvenirs, and time.
The granddaughter is an eternal migrant, “dashing around in bus terminals and airports with a backpack.” She remembers how her grandmother had always wanted to go abroad but contented herself with the thrill of riding a minibus to market while dressed in a flowery cotton dress. The story is ostensibly a simple tale of returning to an ancestral home. But the narrator’s voice soon bifurcates like a snake’s tongue, each sentence describing the grandmother and the granddaughter both. When speaking of a kuntilanak, “a woman no longer here, in our world, but not ‘over there’ either,” is she describing the ghost, or herself?