One of the most pleasant surprises of the literary world in the past few years, at least in my opinion, is the success that Japanese author Yoko Ogawa has seen in the United States. Her breakout, modest hit The Housekeeper and the Professor received national attention and, more anecdotally, was a top-selling book for years (yes, years!) at my neighborhood indie bookstore the Brookline Booksmith. I don’t know if the Boston area just happens to be a particularly hot spot for Ogawa fandom, but thanks to bookseller and local book club love, The Housekeeper and the Professor has done extremely well in my neck of the woods. On top of that, her follow-up novel, Hotel Iris, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010.
I was lucky enough to review (glowingly, I might add) The Housekeeper and the Professor for this very website almost four years ago. The timing was just right; I had just finished reading it before starting as an intern for Open Letter, and the review was my first major contribution to the job. It was wonderful to publicly sing the book’s praises, and seeing the book’s subsequent success has made Ogawa’s minor triumph in the English-speaking world almost like my own.
A few months down the road, I jumped at the chance to review Hotel Iris, but found the novel to be a disappointment. After the sunny beauty of The Housekeeper and the Professor, the disturbingly sexual and gloomy Hotel Iris was a hard pill to swallow, made all the worse by thin characters whose backgrounds and motivations never seemed to coalesce into something that made any sense. Hotel Iris left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I began to wonder in which Ogawa’s path would lead next, and whether it was a path I wanted to follow. I desperately needed a tiebreaker.
So, I’ve been waiting with cautious optimism for the release of Revenge, Ogawa’s latest work to be translated into English. Two things made me anxious in the months leading to my actually reading it: first, Revenge was billed as “Eleven Dark Tales,” lining it up with the Ogawa I felt I wasn’t in tune with; and second, that instead of a novel, the tiebreaker was a collection of short stories. I love short stories and certainly have nothing against them, but for the purposes of breaking said tie that exists, admittedly, only in my mind, I was afraid that Revenge simply would be the oranges to Ogawa’s previous releases of apples. Instead of choosing a path at the fork in the road, it was going to veer off in another direction entirely, make me more lost than ever.
Therefore, I’m happy to report (knowing full well that I’ve been trying your patience until now, just wanting to know if the damn thing is any good) that Revenge is not only an unbelievably magnificent piece of fiction, but that it is in fact better than The Housekeeper and the Professor, and undoubtedly the best thing American readers have seen yet. Revenge is “Best Thing I’ve Read in a Year” material, and I say this coming off reading the new George Saunders that everyone is currently wetting their pants over.
But let me actually tell you about the book (yes, I know we’re five paragraphs into this thing already). Revenge is not simply a collection of short stories—it’s more of a novel-in-stories kind of deal, an assemblage of interconnected stories that play off each other in various, haunting and beautiful ways. It starts quietly enough: a woman goes into a local bakery to buy a cake. It’s a normal, beautiful kind of day; the only thing wrong is that there’s no one in said bakery, including behind the counter. Eventually, another woman joins her, and they strike up a conversation: how good the bakery is, how strange it is that there’s no one around. The first woman reveals that she’s come for a strawberry shortcake:
“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”
“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”
“Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”
And just like that—quietly, suddenly, matter-of-factly—we enter Ogawa’s dark, beautiful world.
The stories that follow are all dark, but the title Revenge belies the kinds of stories actually on display. Revenge isn’t the macabre, bloody collection you might think it will be. While it does contain a few murders, betrayals, and maybe even a ghost, the stories are often eerie and creepy in a much more evocative way, hinting at the evils more than ever showing them. In “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” a woman is questioned by the police in connection to a murder that had taken place on the floor above her, and later finds herself at said museum, where an old man gives her a tour of authentic torture devices, lovingly describing their actual use. One of the more bizarre artifacts is a simple funnel:
“It’s just a funnel,” I said.
“Yes, but a special one. The victim is immobilized on his back, and the funnel is used to drip cold water on his face, one drop at a time.”
“And that’s torture.”
“It most certainly is—one of the most brutal, in fact.” He picked up the funnel and held it carefully in both hands. It was made of a dull silver metal almost the same color as his hair. “For a torture to be effective, the pain has to be spread out; it has to come at regular intervals, with no end in sight. The water falls, drop after drop after drop, like the second hand of a watch, carving up time. The shock of each individual drop is insignificant, but the sensation is impossible to ignore. At first, one might manage to think about other things, but after five hours, after ten hours, it becomes unendurable. The repeated stimulation excites the nerves to a point where they literally explode, and every sensation in the body is absorbed into that one spot on the forehead—indeed, you come to feel that you are nothing but a forehead, into which a fine needle is being forced millimeter by millimeter. You can’t sleep or even speak, hypnotized by a suffering that is greater than any mere pain. In general, the victim goes mad before a day has passed.”
Ogawa’s greatest achievement in Revenge is the strange ways her stories turn, defying expectation and at the same time making each story fit perfectly in the entirety of the work. She never has to resort to a cheap trick to shock the reader; instead she revels in her slow, methodical reveals, masterfully building tension and absorbing the reader into her surreal, twisted world. In one of the highlights of the book, “Sewing for the Heart,” an expert bag maker is tasked with his most difficult challenge yet: creating a bag designed to protect a human heart precariously attached to the outside of a beautiful woman’s body. But other stories work equally well, without the threat of violence, and the darkness that pervades the atmosphere is that of melancholy instead. “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger” follows a woman as she goes to confront her husband’s mistress, only to witness instead the final moments of a dying pet tiger. In “Fruit Juice,” a high school boy accompanies a girl from school through an awkward lunch with her estranged father.
All of these stories connect in surprising ways. Incidental characters from one story become the stars of another; scenes and places from one story collide in the next; inanimate objects become important markers throughout the text. The effect is dizzying, awe-inspiring, electrifying. Revenge is a panorama of people, places, and things that come in and out of focus, tying the work together in unbelievable ways. The stories themselves are short, almost ethereal, and loose in detail, yet they come together into something much more than just the sum of its parts. Amazingly, the problems of Hotel Iris become a strength in Revenge, which, combined with Ogawa’s keen eye for beauty in sadness that characterized The Housekeeper and the Professor, make Revenge a stunning piece of fiction. Really, the only complaint I have is that of the title itself. The theme of revenge is certainly one that filters a handful of the stories, but certainly not the whole, and as a title just feels kind of generic. The original title, which could be translated as “Silent Corpse, Improper Funeral” is much more evocative (and evokes the scene that ties the whole book together), though it doesn’t have quite the same ring in English as the original Japanese: Kamoku na shigai, midara na tomurai.
Already I can see that Revenge is getting some wonderful attention in some influential places, and Ogawa, and particularly this work, is more than deserving. Ogawa is a writer positioned perfectly in the sweet spot of literariness and accessibility, and Stephen Snyder, who has translated all of Ogawa’s major releases in English, has done his job perfectly in nailing the haunting and bewitching tone that makes this book so compellingly readable. Ogawa has many, many novels left to be translated, and in a few years, I could see her having the kind of success that few international authors receive. And with the kind of marketing push Picador has been giving her, I think they think so, too. I sincerely hope she does. Revenge is a career-defining work, and one that readers of international fiction must pay attention to.