10 MAY 2018 | KAREN KAO
Japanese author Yoko Ogawa has been publishing fiction since 1988 though only a handful of her novellas and short fiction have been translated into English. Revenge is her collection of Eleven Dark Tales. If the title isn’t enough of a hint for where these stories are headed, then imagine carrots shaped like human hands and a mountain of kiwis hiding a corpse.
Here’s the opening scene of the first tale, “Afternoon at the Bakery.”
It was a beautiful Sunday. The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight. Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement. Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings.
On this lazy day, a woman walks into a pastry shop to buy a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday, just as she has every year. But the child is dead and the mother clearly insane.
Long after I had realized that my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.
“Mold can be quite beautiful,” I told my husband.
Loss punctuates Revenge but it’s the aftermath that interests Ogawa. Her characters suffer in silence, sometimes for years. But beneath the calm surface boils a desire for revenge .
That interplay between control and chaos feels uniquely Japanese. No other society has raised the art of concealment to such aesthetic heights. But Japanese authors have long known that appearances deceive. Doggedly, they pick at the smooth scab to expose the suppurating wound below.
One such novelist is Ryu Murakami. The title of his novel, Coin Locker Babies, refers to a wave of incidents in the 1980s in which babies were found abandoned inside Japanese train station lockers. Murakami imagines the lives of two babies who survive that ordeal. It isn’t a pretty picture.
Yoko Ogawa is another Japanese novelist who isn’t fooled. She can see loneliness behind the mask of complacency. Her translator Stephen Snyder has compared her work to the other Murakami (Haruki) for the treacherous unpredictability of her stories. The reviewer for NPR begs to differ.
So, really, it’s not just Murakami but also the shadow of Borges that hovers over this mesmerizing book. And in that telltale heart, one may detect a slight bow to the American macabre of E.A. Poe. Ogawa stands on the shoulders of giants, as another saying goes. But this collection may linger in your mind — it does in mine — as a delicious, perplexing, absorbing and somehow singular experience.
No doubt, Ogawa owes a debt to many authors who came before her. But she works in a register all her own.
Ogawa has inspired me for years, even before I started writing my own fiction. The sparseness of her prose. The dark themes juxtaposed with gorgeous images: a bridge covered in tomatoes, a dying tiger, a glockenspiel.
The bell in the clock tower began to ring. A flock of pigeons lifted into the sky. As the fifth chime sounded, a door beneath the clock opened and a little parade of animated figurines pirouetted out – a few soldiers, a chicken, and a skeleton.
That image bookends these interlocking short stories. Characters reappear. Even the fruits and vegetables get in on the game.
These recurring motifs come to a crescendo in the middle story, “Welcome to the Museum of Torture.” The strands of the earlier tales are pulled tight. Characters are recast as instruments of torture. Revenge is the only consolation.
The last stories wind down to a quiet denouement. We return to a field filled with poisonous plants and the death that incited this cycle.
a japanese character
What struck me in this reading was how un-Japanese the setting felt. The glockenspiel seems more at home in a village, say, in Germany. The food, on the other hand, is uniformly French: bouillabaisse, tomato salad and the ubiquitous strawberry shortcake. There are no geisha girls or Zen temples to call attention to the fact that we’re in Japan.
Ogawa uses instead the most subtle of touches to give her stories their unmistakably Japanese flavor. The occasional bow. A laundry list written in characters. The lightest of ink washes to fill in the contours of each boldly sketched story.
Or perhaps a better metaphor for these dark tales is Ogawa’s own: a bag for the heart. The bag must made of the softest seal skin to protect from injury by the outside world yet also insulate the wet and tender flesh. Such a bag is complicated, strange, a work of art.
A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object that we ask it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you. To me, a bag is patience; a bag is profound discretion.