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16 October 2013

Bad typography

Famously, you can't judge a book by its cover.

 But if you could, I'd probably think this was a good un. I like reading about translation, and this promises to be a light, non-technical study, although I think calling it an "amazing adventure" is optimistic. And I also don't like the review quote  - "Please read David Bellos's brilliant book". It's just too needy, where I'd prefer nerdy.

I'm also not crazy about the design: the way the translated titles are crammed in, requiring one of them to be printed upside down. I can also tell you, dear reader, that the titles on the left aren't continued on the spine of the book.

In all, it's a decent idea that wasn't very well executed. But compared to what's inside, it's excellent.

Here's the table of contents.

What the hell is going on here? Random italicisation and size changes make it a very uncomfortable page to look at. And there doesn't seem to be any point to it. Charitably one could consider it illustrates the way in which the same meaning can be conveyed in different renderings, but that, presumably, is what the whole book is going to be about.

And here, finally, is the first two-page spread of Chapter 1. Again, the random variation between upright and italic, but also that horribly ugly initial capital D. The right hand page, however, shows that the book designer isn't unskilled: within fairly tight space limits, it's lovely. So why the nonsense?

You can't judge a book by its cover or by its typography, but you can feel ill-disposed towards it. I'll probably enjoy this book, but it'll take me some time to forgive the whimsical, annoying design.

Murakami 2

I wanted to do a post on typography, but I see I've left a Murakami discussion hanging in the air. So I did finish Norwegian Wood, and found it less wowful than I expected. It's not giving much away to say it's a story of adolescent love and suicide, and probably also more generally about modern Japanese society. I've very little idea where it fits in to modern Japanese literature; all the idea I have comes from the translator's note placed helpfully at the end of the text.

It seems that the book was Murakami's first big commercial success. Published in 1987 it seems to have caught the imagination of young Japanese like little else, and I suspect that's because it treated sexuality with a frankness that was new. Perhaps this was the first time young Japanese had seen themselves portrayed in a way that reflected the changes in society since the second world war, or since the unrest of the 60s.

My big problem was the main characters are defined by the other characters estimation of them. It's a cliche for fictional characters to take time, probably early in the book, to look at themselves in a mirror and think about what they see, so that we, the reader, get to know what they look like. Here we are told what each character is like by what the other characters say about them. They all keep telling Watanabe, the narrator, what an unusual person he is, for example, and even with Naoko, the central tragic character, we largely have to rely on Watanabe's evaluation of her. I kept feeling that he must be seeing things in her that we don't.

In the previous post I mentioned that there's a lack of foreignness in the translation and I suppose I also feel let down that the form of the book is unchallenging. I'm not sure what I'd expect. As I've said, I don't know anything about Japanese fiction, but in its form, Norwegian Wood could have been written at any time since Flaubert. And also, nearly all the cultural references in the book - music, literature - are western. It would be stupid and presumptuous to attack Murakami for not being Japanese enough, of course. Presumably this is a fairly accurate reflection of the concerns of young Japanese in the period.

I suppose what I'm saying is that when I read a foreign book, I expect some kind of difference. If there isn't any, there's no point in looking through the misty window of a translation. Norwegian Wood is not that dissimilar to many an equally competent modern Bildungsroman. But, oh yes, it is extremely competent. And I'd have to admit I'm probably much too old to be swept up in the emotions of it. And the butterflies never turned up.

Should I try another book by Murakami? If this blog had any readers, I'd ask them for advice, and if, by chance, you've stumbled aghast upon this blog after a Murakami search, and you're a fan of his, please let me know what to try next.