I have to admit right upfront that I was disappointed by this book. I had such high hopes based on all the people involved, the fact that it’s a 2008 Reading the World title, the pretty cover (which Picador is plastering everywhere these days), the blurb from Kenzaburo Oe, etc. In the end though, this just simply isn’t my sort of book. (Although I do want to applaud the spectacular job Stephen Snyder did in translating this.)
According to the flap copy, Yoko Ogawa is the author of over twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, which makes me curious as to why Picador decided to introduce her with this collection of three novellas. And “novellas” is a bit of a stretch . . . each piece is pretty short—around 50 very white-space heavy pages long—and all three read more like short stories than novellas.
Not that there’s a distinct difference between a long short story and a novella, although to me a novella is more complicated thematically, structurally, etc. This is a real broad generalization, I know, but one of the things that bugged me about this book is the singular focus of the plot and characterization.
A good example of this can be found in the title story, which is about a young woman whose parents run an orphanage, and a young man she has feelings who is a diver. The story itself is very constrained and well-crafted with a sinister touch (more on that in a minute), but the constant references to diving get a bit tired. Sure, there’s a subtext to all of their conversations about diving, but when they meet up late at night and “share a moment,” this starts to get a bit ridiculous:
“For some reason, when I’m washing my suits and the house is still, I can think about diving.”
“I go over the dives in my head—the approach, the timing of the bounce, the entrance.” His hands went on with their work as he talked. “If you picture a perfect dive over and over in your head, then when you get up on the board you feel as though you can actually do it.” [. . .]
“You love to dive, don’t you?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I do,” he said. Two words, but they echoed inside me. If I could have just those two words all to myself, I felt I would be at peace.
Uh, OK. And this by itself might be fine, but this is probably the fifth diving conversation in thirty pages . . . And then, two pages later, they share a memory of diving into the snow that blew in through cracks in the roof and filled the hallway. . .
This same thing happens in “Pregnancy Diary,” in which the main character’s sister is characterized almost exclusively by her relationship to food throughout her pregnancy.
All three of these stories are told by overlooked characters: a girl with parents growing up in an orphanage, a woman whose pregnant sister and husband come to live with her, a woman whose husband is paving the way for their relocation to Sweden. And all three stories have a sinister undertone, generally involving the idea of the main character poisoning someone. (The final line of “Pregnancy Diary” encapsulates this demented undercurrent: “I set off toward the nursery to meet my sister’s ruined child.”)
This controlled creepiness is the best aspect of the book, and really comes to the forefront in “Dormitory,” the last novella, and by far the best. Much more ambiguous and disturbing than the previous two, it points to a more sophisticated, intriguing style of writing that may well be evident in Ogawa’s other books.
And it’s completely possible that her other works aren’t quite so representative of what’s boring about contemporary realistic writing. Contemporary Japanese Writers Vol. 1—produced by the J-Lit folks and featuring tons of Japanese writers—has a nice overview that includes a bit on Hotel Iris a “sensual, sadomasochistic” novel about a decrepit old man and a young girl that sounds in keeping with what I liked about “Dormitory.”
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in _Morse, My Deaf Friend_— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .