Extending my stay in Japan a little longer, my second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list novel is Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally published in the US under the more literal (and more sensible) title The Briefcase in 2012, the novel first appeared in 2001, winning the Tanizaki Prize in Japan, and was also short listed for the Man-Asian Literary Prize. As far as I can tell it is the second of Kawakami’s novels to become available in English, the first being Manazuru. Yoko Ogawa and Kawakami not only share their nationality but their gender (both are female) and are not dissimilar in age.
Strange Weather in Tokyo is a traditional love story in all but the ages of its characters. Its narrator, Tsukiko, is a woman in her late thirties who becomes reacquainted with a much older teacher, whom she refers to throughout the narrative as ‘Sensei’ (teacher). They meet in a bar and it’s worth pointing out that this is not a novel for a recovering alcoholic as drink is consumed on almost every page. (When the characters decide they have drunk enough sake, it’s simply means it’s time for beer). After that first meeting, they encounter each other haphazardly in the same bar, sometimes ending up at Sensei’s house for a final drink. Eventually they meet up outside of the bar environment: to go to a market, and, later, mushroom picking (when they aren’t drinking, they are usually eating).
Rather like two icebergs scraping against each other, most of their developing relationship takes place beneath the surface. Only when Sensei invites Tsukiko to the annual school cherry blossom party does she begin to suspect her feelings for him. When an old classmate at the party shows an interest in her she finds it difficult to forget her former teacher:
“Sensei flashed through my mind for an instant but I immediately chased his image away.”
“Sensei would never have said such a thing. Abruptly remembering Sensei, I was startled.”
At heart, then, this is an old fashioned love story. It has an unlikely couple who increasingly seem to want to be together; it has much more suitable rival; and it has its fair share of misreadings and misunderstandings. Though at one point Tsukiko complains, “No matter how I tried to get closer to him, Sensei would not let me near,” we discover more about him than we do about her, in particular about the wife who left him. There are also some symbolic idiosyncrasies: his collection of used batteries that he cannot bear to throw out hinting that he is not used up yet; the two chicks he buys at the market so that one can be a companion for the other showing that he doesn’t accept he will always be alone. Tsukiko, on the other hand, seems a void unless she is with Sensei.
I found this novel slow moving at times (particularly given its brevity) but I can say that I understood Tsukiko’s attraction to the character of Sensei who is certainly the best thing about it. Of the two Japanese novels I prefer Revenge (and I didn’t think that would make the shortlist) with its craft and cleverness, though I have found both maddeningly superficial – a symptom, perhaps, of my own ignorance of Japanese literature. Hopefully I will fare better elsewhere in the world.