Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru is the carefully crafted story of Kei, and her lingering attachment to the husband who disappeared 12 years earlier. She travels to the titular seaside town, Manazuru, on a whim, feeling somehow that it is connected to her husband, Rei. Beset by a ghostly companion who seems to know something of his disappearance, troubled by the distance she feels toward her daughter, Momo, and her married lover, Seiji, Kei continues on a vague quest for answers and solidity. Although it is intensely personal and internal, Manazuru avoids becoming bogged down with introspection, just as Kei herself avoids it, by escaping into sequences of memory and of fantasy. These sequences, and the way they blend seamlessly in with present reality, are the crux of this novel’s appeal. Everything is rendered in strangely precise, matter-of-fact detail – whether memory, fantasy, or not – all of it blended into a single, tangible experience:
In one corner of the quiet living room lay a few blocks, round and square, that Momo had been playing with that evening. The blocks were red, looked like things growing from the floor, and though I knew they meant nothing, they seemed to me like an ill omen. Rei. I called again. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was nine, and while every other time I had called him my voice, aimed into emptiness, simply vanished into emptiness, that evening I seemed to hear a voice in reply. Kei. I heard Rei’s voice, weakly, from the living-room ceiling.
The tangibility of the red blocks, the reliability of the clock and its keeping of time, and the solidity of the memory lend their reality to the voice in the living room ceiling, despite the fact that it is the voice of a man who has completely disappeared. In moments like these the reader can fully appreciate the presence of Rei in Kei’s mind, and the way her life revolves still around him. She endlessly circles around him, like a leaf caught in the eddy around a rock.
Michael Emmerich’s translation captures this unsettling, restless atmosphere just as Kawakami rendered it, in slightly off word choice, slipping punctuation; he creates a voice that encourages trust with its precision and human irregularity, but offers an hint of its own unreliability through its quirks and a strange, elusive quality born of its slips between the past and present, the real and the imagined. The disjointed and fragmented sentences, cut up by periods or commas and matched with flowing paragraphs of description, provide a visual map of Kei’s mind. One of the most beautiful moments in the book takes place at a bus stop, at which the ten minutes which Kei spends waiting for a bus seem to bleed out endlessly, over pages and pages, with a different sense of time and space:
At some point, more herons came, there is one, now, on the roof of each house. Plodding through the houses, I think of the herons, beyond the ceilings, above the attics and crawl spaces, perched. The herons, unmoving, white, isolated lights in a dark, still scene.
I called, and Rei came.
Kei slides restlessly amongst the various realms of her mind, but despite its distortion, the moment she spends waiting for the bus is enjoyable; the voice and its maneuverings are familiar in their eerie strangeness. The voice which Emmerich creates allows the reader – with some careful reading – to move deftly between these slips of time and normalcy, instead of floundering confusedly in them.
Readers may find themselves feeling, as Kei feels, that they have an “inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.” All possibilities are considered in regards to Rei’s disappearance, and the cause of the ghostly presences that follow Kei, but none of these possibilities can be latched onto. The mysteries that arise, the distant, unstable relationships that Kei ponders, are never addressed to a conclusion. For some readers, this aspect of the novel will lead to a feeling of severe dissatisfaction. The novel provides what might be called the illusion of movement. Kei restlessly paces between her Tokyo home and Manazuru, and up the beaches. Her mind is even more active, panning smoothly and quickly between the scenes before her eyes and those scenes she remembers or imagines. However, Manazuru moves very little in terms of plot. Despite this possible frustration, Kei’s well-crafted voice and her unsettling, tangible-yet-dreamlike experience of life provides a soft, winding but vibrant read which can be enjoyed, if not for its deft solution to the mystery, for its thoughtful rendering and characterization of Kei, a 40-year-old woman still unable to right herself after the upset of her husband’s disappearance, caught up in the the passage of time but still, like the “tiny fish” she observes with the ghost woman, “swimming in circles, frantically.”