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Sunday, July 4, 2010


Environmental literature

Preparations are now under way for the 76th annual International PEN Congress to be held in Tokyo this September, only the third time Japan has hosted the event. It promises to be a stimulating occasion with such guests as Chinese Nobel laureate in literature Gao Xingjian and authors from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Margaret Atwood will talk about her novel "Year of the Flood" and Sara Paretsky, about writing in an "age of silence" after 9/11.

The theme of the meeting, "Environment and Literature," is, if anything, timelier than ever following the eruption of a volcano spewing ash in Iceland and the oil spill endangering Gulf of Mexico ecosystems. The theme, however, is not limited to global warming or environmental destruction. According to the Japan PEN Club's English-language site, it encompasses human birth, aging, sickness and death as intimately connected to the natural world. Green Wiki defines the new genre of environmental literature as writing that comments intelligently on environmental themes, particularly as applied to relationships between man, society and the environment.

In comments to Asahi Shimbun, Japan PEN Club environment committee chairman Atsuo Nakamura reveals that the committee is experiencing some difficulty in applying such an amorphous definition to its task of selecting 100 volumes of Japanese environmental literature (kankyo bungaku) for a publication to accompany the congress. Should the post-apocalyptic manga "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" be included? What about Masuji Ibuse's Hiroshima novel "Black Rain"?

At a January symposium in Tokyo on environmental literature, Haruki Murakami's trilogy "1Q84" (pronounced ichi-kyu-hachi- yon, meaning 1984 in Japanese) was discussed in terms of its cultlike, self-sufficient agricultural communes. This story of two characters — each appearing in alternate chapters — living in parallel worlds set in George Orwell's year of 1984 has been a publishing sensation in Japan, selling over 3.6 million copies.

Surely Murakami's uncanny instinct for putting into words what people are unconsciously feeling makes him an environmental novelist in a wider sense, as he captures the surrounding temporal and societal "air" we breathe.

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