Tag Archives: short stories

Tokyo Decadence

The protagonists in Ryu Murakami’s collection of 15 short stories Tokyo Decadence are not your average salarymen and housewives you would probably expect from a contemporary Japanese author.

The stories, competently translated by Ralph McCarthy as it seems (I don’t speak Japanese and can judge only from the language of the translation), are taken from five story collections originally published between 1986 and 2003.

They are depicting mainly the lives of Tokyoites that live outside the “average” world of offices of big corporations. The men are film directors, novelists, university drop-outs, painters, musicians, petty drug dealers, waiters, or truck drivers, the women frequently single mothers, hostesses and call girls and they are in all their weirdness not so different from “us” average people: they are looking for love and friendship, for a way out of their unhappiness and misery, and for something that is missing in their lives – or in Japanese society in general; hence their fascination with baseball (in the first four stories, taken from Run, Takahashi!), cinema (in the three stories from Ryu’s Cinematheque), or Cuba and its music (in the four stories taken from Swans). And when they can’t find any of these things they are in a more or less conscious way longing for, there is still enough left to fill in the gaps and the emptiness: sex (lots of it!), drugs, and the joyless joys of consumerism (as in one of the strongest stories of the book, Topaz).

Tokyo Decadence could be a depressing read with all these drifters, hoodlums, prostitutes, drug addicts and women on the verge of a nervous breakdown or beyond; the fact that Ryu Murakami was hailed by some media as an author in the mould of Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk seemed to suggest that I was to expect a book I would most probably not really enjoy very much. But it turned out that this book was a pleasant surprise.

Ryu Murakami knows the milieu about which he is writing obviously very well; he is a TV host and a film director and also a producer of Cuban music; therefore his descriptions of the world of media or about Cuban music that are central to several stories feel absolutely authentic. As a film director and script writer he knows also how to write gripping dialogues. They are frequently very interesting because they reveal the real character of most protagonists. In several of the stories we get to know a character as narrator of the story before in the next story, told by another narrator, the main protagonist of the previous story is depicted in a very different way. Although each story is a stand-alone story, the frequent links between the individual stories of each collection give sometimes a feeling as if we are reading a novel or novella written from the standpoint of different narrators. And when I said in a recent review of a Colum McCann novel that that author obviously cannot create interesting female characters, the opposite is true of Ryu Murakami. Several of the narrators and main characters in the stories are women, and Murakami shows great empathy in describing them in all their humanity.

Another element that I must mention here and that adds to the flavour of this story collection is the humor in most of the stories. The way how the unemployed macho truck driver in It All Started Just About a Year and a Half Ago finds his true – and more than surprising – vocation as a male transvestite hostess in a gay bar; and how his daughter finds out the truth about it: it is a hilariously funny story. Or when in The Last Picture Show the young narrator who was just evicted from his home starts to collect hydrangea leaves at night with a yakuza from the neighbourhood (dried and rolled they smell like weed); the whole “drug” selling is more like a prank of two kids. At the same time Murakami is revealing the soft side of the young yakuza who starts to shed tears when he is watching the movie The Last Picture Show in a cinema with his new acquaintance. This moment seems also to be the beginning of a friendship between these two young men.

There is hope in many of the stories for the protagonists that their life will change one day. One of them really makes it to Cuba. And in the final story At the Airport when we are left guessing as readers until the last paragraph if Saito, the regular costumer of the sex worker who is telling us her story, and who fell in love with her will really turn up to bring her to a place where she can pursue the training for the profession she really wanted to learn since a long time, the narrator is watching an old couple waiting nearby: he is having a cigarette in the smoking area, while she is folding the paper wrappers of some chocolate she is eating. When the old man is coming back, his wife leaves him her seat. Getting old together is maybe the best that life has in stock for some of us, and while watching the old couple, the narrator seems to realize that this is also something she could aim at with Saito – who is turning up just in time at the last moment. A hopeful end of this story and the story collection I truly enjoyed.

Ryu Murakami – not related to Haruki Murakami – is author of forty novels, a dozen short story books, several collections of essays and picture books, and also director of five feature films. Tokyo Decadence is an excellent opportunity to discover one of the best and most prolific Japanese contemporary authors. Highly recommended!

Ryu Murakami: Tokyo Decadence, translated by Ralph McCarthy, Kurodahan Press, Fukuoka 2016

Thanks to Kurodahan Press for the Advance Review Copy.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Fünf kurze Kurzgeschichten von Ugo Untoro

Dua lembar baju, celana, 3 celana dalam, dan handuk kecil kumasukkan
dalam tas. Lewat pintu belakang aku keluar, satpamku juga tertidur dekat
dengan kurungan herder. Tetapi terlelap.
Anakku, istriku kalau mau ketemu dengan aku tontonlah sirkus keliling.

Ich legte zwei Hemden, ein Paar Hosen, drei Unterhosen und ein kleines Handtuch in meine Tasche. Ich ging durch die Hintertür hinaus. Mein Wachmann befand sich neben dem Zwinger mit dem Schäferhund. Beide schliefen. Mein Sohn, meine Frau, wenn ihr mich sehen wollt, kommt und schaut euch die Zirkusvorstellung an.


Dasar aku memang klepto, aku di kamar kecil Kereta Api (Train Urinoir) dan aku mencuri papan yang tertulis “Pergunakanlah hanya waktu kereta jalan.” Tidak berhasil karena pecah, bautnya terlalu kencang, BAJINGAN!!

Ich bin wirklich ein Kleptomane, ich war im Zugurinal und stahl das Schild auf dem steht „Nur benutzen wenn der Zug fährt.“ Es ging schief, denn es zerbrach, der Bolzen saß zu fest. BASTARD!!


Telpon berdering.
“Halo, siapa?”
“Selli mas!”
Bekas pacarku dulu sekali, waktu aku masih ingusan dan pemalu banget.
Pegang jarinya saja sudah gemetar, ngomong juga jarang, jadi surat-suratan
“Berapa anakmu sekarang Sell?”
“Dua mas, cewek-cowok”
“Suamimu dimana?”
Dia ngomong lagi ngebor minyak di Riau. Kami janjian bertemu, dua hari
lagi. Di tengah hujan lebat, di bawah beringi, kutiduri ia dalam mobilku.
Aku tidak pemalu lagi.

Das Telefon klingelte.
„Hallo, wer ist dran?“
„Hier ist Selli!“
Sie war meine Freundin als ich noch ganz jung und schüchtern war.
Zu jener Zeit zitterte ich sogar, wenn ich nur ihre Hand hielt. Wir sprachen kaum jemals miteinander, aber wir schickten uns lange Zeit Briefe.
„Wie viele Kinder hast du jetzt, Sell?“
„Zwei, ein Mädchen und einen Jungen.“
„Wo steckt dein Mann?“
Sie sagte, ihr Mann wäre in Riau beim Ölbohren. Wir verabredeten uns für den übernächsten Tag. Im strömenden Regen, unter einem Banyan-Baum, fickte ich sie in meinem Auto.
Ich war nicht mehr schüchtern.


Anjing hitam tak tau apa yang harus dia perbuat ketika dilihat tuannya
mencari-cari tali, mengikatnya di kusen pintu dan meletakkan kursi rendah di

Der schwarze Hund wusste nicht, was er tun sollte als er sah, dass sein Herrchen nach einem Seil suchte, es dann am Türrahmen festband und einen Stuhl darunter stellte.


Nahkodanya kapal Nuh terlalu banyak minum Rum. Sebuah ombak besar
datang menghantam dan langsung tenggelam. Nabi Nuh tidak bisa berenang
dan semua binatang yang dikumpulkannya mati. Hanya sepasang Gagak
yang sempat menyelamatkan diri.
Mereka terbang dan mencari sarang. Beranak pinak, anak cucunya ada
yang kawin sama ikan, gurita, kerang, ubur-ubur, penyu, dan kitalah

Der Kapitän von Noahs Arche trank zu viel Rum.  Eine gewaltige Welle krachte ins Schiff und es sank sofort. Noah konnte nicht schwimmen und alle Tiere an Bord der Arche wurden getötet. Nur ein Krähenpaar hatte genug Zeit zu fliehen.
Sie flogen davon und suchten nach einem Nistplatz. Dann brüteten sie; einige ihrer Kinder und Enkel heirateten Fische, Tintenfische, Austern, Quallen, Schildkröten, und wir sind ihre Nachfahren.

Aus dem Indonesischen übersetzt von Thomas Hübner

Give Me a Cross

Ugo Untoro: Give Me a Cross, Ölfarbe und Kohle auf Leinwand, 150x100cm, 2008  (Photo Biasa Art Space)

Ugo Untoro: Cerita Pendek Sekali (Kurze Kurzgeschichten), Museum dan Tanah Liat, Bantul, Yogyakarta 2006

© Ugo Untoro, 2006-2008
© Biasa Art Space, 2008 (Photo) 
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Great Dream of Heaven

E.V. is the Remedy Man in the short story with this title that opens the collection Great Dream of Heaven. He is a kind of horse whisperer who is called by Mason, a farmer somewhere in the West of the U.S. when one of his particular wild horses cannot be tamed. E.V., a rather unassuming man, knows his trade and we readers witness how he is resolving the problem while chatting casually with Mason and inviting Mason’s son, who is also the narrator of the story to assist him. In the end we have learned a few things about horses and about life on an isolated farm in the West. So, what – you will maybe feel inclined to say.

But there is more to this story than just this. While usually the father, a well-meaning, but dominating figure is the one who sets the rules for the son (women are absent in this story), it is this one time E.V. who tells the son in a friendly, casual way what to do next in order to help him – while the father is a quite passive bystander, strangely skeptic about E.V.’s remedy man’s work that proves to be successful. For the son, this is a new experience: to see his father passive and another person being in charge. In the end, the narrator watches from a tree the evening and night sky:

“The whole ranch turned below me. I arched my head back and my mouth went open to the black sky. The giant splash of the Milky Way must have caused the high shrill squealing to burst out of me, just like someone had pulled a cord straight down my spine. My skin was laughing. I heard my dad come out on the screen porch and yell my name but I didn’t answer. I just hung there spinning in silence. I knew right then where I’d come from and how far I’d be going away.”

The heroes of these stories are frequently on the move, like the man who left his wife to live with his new love (in Coalinga ½ Way). He stops in some godforsaken place called Coalinga, halfway between the place he lived and the place he intends to live. It’s revealing that it is the perfect equidistance between the two important women in his life. When he calls his wife from there, she tries to convince him to come back, or at least meet somewhere to discuss what is wrong with their relationship in person. But even the fact that he is not only leaving his wife for good, but also his son who is still a little child, cannot make him change his mind.

“What about Spence? Are you going to tell him you’re not coming back?” – “Not right now.” – “When?” she says. – “I don’t know.” – “What am I supposed to tell him then?” – “Tell him I’ll call him.” – “When?” – “I’m not sure.” – Silence again. A high piercing shriek of a circling hawk. A Jeep roars past. A Jeep with no windows or doors, just the wind ripping across the wide-eyed face of the driver. – “Are you still there?”, he says to the phone. – “Where am I supposed to go?” she says. – “I don’t know.”

After he hangs up, he is calling his lover with whom he intends to live in the future. But this woman tells him not to come. It turns out she is moving to Indiana with her husband and considered the relationship with the narrator as a fling without much importance. The end mirrors the conversation he had just before with his wife, but with reversed roles:

“You’re flying out to Indiana to meet David?” – “Yes. I was just going out the door when the phone rang.” He hears the loud splash of the fat man hitting the pool outside. Then nothing. A distant siren. “Hello,” she says. “Are you still there?” – “Where am I supposed to go?” he says.

These two stories contain a lot of elements that are typical for this book. A man between two women, or a woman between two men. The physical distance, but also the rift between people in general, and the gulf that separates people from their true selves. The setting is usually in a small town, or somewhere on the road (like in Blinking Eye, where a young woman drives thousands of kilometers with the urn that contains the ashes of her mother). Men have problems with women and with themselves, frequently because they cannot find the right words to express their feelings or leave the important things unsaid. Paranoia is frequently just around the corner (The Company’s Interest), and when firearms come into the picture, things threaten to get out of control very fast (An Unfair Question).

There is also a dry humor in many stories (like in It Wasn’t Proust, or in The Door to Women). The dialogues (Betty’s Cats consists exclusively of dialogues) conceal the experienced playwright and film scenarist and seem to be written with an effortless ease. These are real people talking, and their loneliness is always present, just like in the paintings of Edward Hopper, of which they reminded me sometimes. Or as in the movie Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. And that’s no coincidence, because Shepard wrote the script of that film. (He is also a remarkable actor – The Right Stuff, Fool for Love, Homo Faber, Don’t Come Knocking come to mind.)

I enjoyed these wonderful stories very much. My favorite piece is the title story Great Dream of Heaven. But they are all very good, without exception.

Great Dream of Heaven

Sam Shepard: Great Dream of Heaven, Vintage, London 2003

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A remarkable debut

Miroslav Penkov’s “East of the West” is a collection of short stories written by the Bulgarian-born (1982) author that lives as an assistant professor of English in Denton/Texas. Penkov writes in English.

A grumpy old man (in ‘Makedonija’) in a nursing home in Communist Bulgaria, just outside of Sofia. He is taking care of his wife who is seriously handicapped after two strokes. Only the visits of his daughter and grandson give his life some structure beside the nursing home routine with its meager meals:

“Dear God, I remember eating better during the Balkan war.”

The radio – we write the year 1969 – reports the news that are sarcastically commented by the protagonist:

“The Communist Party is great again, more jobs for the people, less poverty. Our magnificent Bulgarian wrestlers have earned even more gold. Good night comrades, be safe in your sleep.”

What makes the story different and interesting from other stories of old people in similar circumstances is that the husband discovered recently that his wife was keeping a secret from him during all the years of their marriage. Hidden in a box she kept a diary in the form of love letters written by a young man whom she intended to marry in her youth. But the man perished in the fights of the Bulgarian komitatshi against the Ottoman Turks in the Macedonia of 1905.

The romance between this colorful war hero and the protagonist’s wife happened long before the narrator first met her. So technically there is no reason to be jealous. And yet – did she love him more than she loved her later husband (who blames himself to have always been a coward during his life)? An embarrassing question that even the young grandson raises once the protagonist decides to read the letters aloud to his wife. Yes, he is jealous and he wishes to be that other man who wrote such love letters to his wife while fighting so bravely against the Turks. The narrator feels a huge gap between himself and the war hero – he the peasant son always tried to avoid trouble, he who didn’t go to war (his brother went gladly), he who didn’t join the Communist fighters in 1923 that were preparing the so-called November uprising (his brother did and paid with his life for it), he who pretended not to recognize his dead brother and who forced his own mother to do the same because he was afraid of retributions if they did, he who stoically waited the regimes coming and going, just trying to protect his family from the cold hand of history.

But something strange happens to me as a reader here. While in the beginning I admire the war hero for his courage and devotion which seems to contrast very favorably with the alleged cowardice of the narrator, it dawns on me while the story is unfolding that protecting your loved ones, being there for them when they need advice or a strong shoulder to lean on (like the protagonists daughter whose marriage is falling apart), or taking care of your handicapped wife every minute of the day requires another kind of courage that maybe the war hero didn’t have. Sure, it is more glamorous to be a romantic war hero than to wipe your drooling wife’s mouth with a napkin when she tries to keep her food, or when you try to console your only child that is losing herself as a result of the failed marriage of hers with words and gestures that seem to be utterly inadequate but that as it turns out have nevertheless a soothing effect.

This first masterful story sets the tune in Penkov’s book. Many of the stories describe the life of Bulgarians in a time of transition. They make plans, like the young man in “East of the West” who grows up in a village on the Serbian border and who after he lost his whole family travels to Belgrade to finally marry the girl with whom he is in love since his youth. They learn English in order to provoke their communist grandfathers and use the first opportunity to run away to America (“Buying Lenin”). But their plans turn out to fail, or even worse: they can realize their (usually escapist) desires and end up as homesick emigrants in some small godforsaken town in rural Texas (“Devshirmeh”). None of them seems really happy, and when in one story everything seems to be fine for the protagonist and his Japanese wife (“A picture with Yuki“), fate is striking and from one moment to the next everything turns upside down.

There is a great sadness and melancholy in almost all these stories. A sadness and melancholy that is familiar to me and which seems so typical for many of my wonderful Bulgarian friends. But even in its sad stories, this book is not free of hope, a very nice humor, sometimes full of sarcasm but also of tenderness. And almost all stories teach you a lesson: sometimes you have to lose almost everything in your life – because this means that you also lose the ties that bind you to a place, to people, to situations that prevent you from being really free, from really embarking on to new horizons. Or as ‘Nose’, the hero of ‘East of the West’, the story that gave the book the title says after a terrible disappointment:

”I’ve never felt so good before,” I say, and mean it…I am no river, but I’m not made of clay.”

I very strongly recommend this wonderful book. If you want to get a flavor of Bulgaria, or just read a collection of touching, masterfully written stories, this is the book for you.

You can find additional information on the author’s website:


East of the West

Miroslav Penkov: East of the West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011

Other reviews:
Fiction Writers Review 
Electric Literature 
Full Stop
BYT Book Club 
largehearted boy

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.