One Hundred Years of Vicissitude by Andrez Bergen

Rating 9.0/10
By turns educational, inspiring, traumatic and humorous.

Book of the Month

Vicissitude: A change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.

Charles Dickens collides with Haruki Murakami in a pulsating tale of history, redemption and revenge.

I have always - ever since my teenage days - had a fascination with Japan. The rich history, the customs, the honour, just the way in which everything is so wonderfully different from life in the UK. And the 2 weeks I managed to spend there a few years ago only served to double my interest in the country and so I always find myself helplessly drawn towards works of fiction that have The Land of the Rising Sun as a direct influence (Haruki Murakami's works have been a most welcome companion on my daily commute thanks to the wonder of audio-books).

Unfortunately, I no longer have as much time to read as much I would like so I only offer to read and review books that there is a very, very good chance that I will love. One Hundred Years of Vicissitude appealed to me straight away and, despite already having too many books on the pending list, I just had to ask for a copy. You just can't let good books pass you by.

So what is the story about? Well, to explain the sentence on the third line of this review: The Charles Dickens part is courtesy of the way the book flips between important historical events in the life of the two major characters, Wolram and Kohana, as we are shown events in a way reminiscent of Scrooge and the three ghosts. The Murakami part is due to a) the book being set in Japan and b) the author's detailed and loving telling of the character's lives. For me, Murakami, and another favourite of mine, Stephen King, are the best writers at giving ordinary people extraordinary life stories, and in One Hundred Years of Vicissitude Bergen is able to achieve the same, channelling his influences into one seriously great book.

Did I just mention influences? Any who have read King and Murakami know that these authors load their books with references to the music, books, films and people that have impacted upon their lives and Bergen does exactly the same here. By the end of it I had probably been on Wikipedia a dozen times to look up specific events, such as the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, and had a list as long as my arm containing books I must read and films I must see. And I think this is a great experience to have while reading and I found myself wiser in many ways after the last page turned.

But first back to the beginning, where the narrative is taken up by a man that has obviously ceased-to-be:

"First up, a disclaimer. I suspect I am a dead man. I have meagre proof, no framed- up certification, nothing to toss in a court of law as evidence of a rapid departure from the mortal coil. I recall a gun was involved, pressed up against my skull, and a loud explosion followed."

And from this point we journey into a kind of in-between-world, a limbo where restless spirits are able to reconcile themselves with their own memories, and thus begins a purgatorial tour through twentieth-century Japanese history with a ghostly geisha who has seen it all as a guide and a corrupt millionaire as her reluctant companion.

The phrase that remained with me long after finishing was "history is written by the victors". As a child growing up in the UK I was always given a very black and white history of the Second World War. Brits and Yanks = good, Germans and Japanese = bad. Nothing is ever quite this simple and I cherish books like this, and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, for showing the hardships suffered by the ordinary people in Germany and Japan during World War II, showing them as being no different from those on the "good" side.

This book is by turns educational, inspiring, traumatic and humorous. It is also one of the best books I have read this year. So, if you are looking for an extremely alternate take on a Christmas Carol this festive period, then Andrez Bergen's One Hundred Years of Vicissitude is an absolute must.

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About the author
Andrez Bergen is an expatriate Australian journalist, musician, photographer, DJ, artist, some-time filmmaker, wayward graphic designer, and ad hoc beer and sake connoisseur who’s been entrenched in Tokyo, Japan, for the past 10 years. Under the alias of Industrial Form, he dabbled with graf, then moved on to audio/visual art installations for events put on by pioneering Melbourne experimental electronic music label IF? Records (which he now helms). He currently creates music under the pseudonyms Little Nobody and Funk Gadget. Bergen has also worked as a journalist over the past 17 years for newspapers such as The Age in Australia and the Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan, and he’s written for magazines as diverse as Mixmag, Geek Monthly, Impact and Anime Insider.

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