When Stu at Winstonsdad announced a Pushkin Press fortnight, I assumed that (as usual) I would have plenty of suitable and suitably unread Pushkin titles in the piles of books which surround me (as I write this – I don’t carry them around). That this was not the case is, I think, a tribute to the titles Pushkin publish as it seems I get them to them in well below average time. Luckily I did have the recently published Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami, the first of a series of Japanese novellas that Pushkin intend to publish in the months ahead. This was not my first exposure to Kawakami as I read her most famous novel, Strange Weather in Tokyo, when it was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014. Ultimately I found that a little bland, but that was certainly not the case this time.
Record of a Night Too Brief, at sixty pages, is probably also too brief for a novella, and comes with another two short stories of similar length, ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’, all three translated by Lucy North. It certainly has the best title, but is also the strangest, and I can’t help but feel the publisher is taking a risk by placing it first – though not with me as it immediately dispelled any fear of timidity I might be harbouring after my experience with Strange Weather. The story records a night in nineteen brief chapters, presumably linked by their narrator but falling into two distinct types. The even chapters are united by a girl who becomes the focus of the narrator’s attentions; the odd are just that, disparate and singular, though frequently referencing animals.
The girl is first sighted in a crowd of people who are all heading in the same direction. She offers the narrator a ticket; it transpires that the crowd has gathered there to see a singer. When the singer begins to perform, however, the people begin to disperse in different directions:
“’The chaos has started,’ the girl said to me, joining a stream of people going by her. I watched as she was borne away.
I joined the same stream of people and pretty soon caught up with her.”
“Now a part of the chaos, alongside the girl,” it goes on, “I entered the night.” That we are entering not only the night but a dreamscape can be seen both in the narrator’s acceptance of everything that happens, and in the increasingly surreal events. Two chapters later the narrator awakes to find that “the hair of the girl who had been carried along with me had grown down to her hips.” When he kisses the girl she begins to ‘wilt’ – “In my arms, gradually she became lighter and more transparent” – until he is holding her in the palm of his hand. (Yes, I realise I have automatically assumed the narrator is male). This is a facet of Kawakami’s writing which I love in this volume – the representation of emotional dynamics using physical transformation.
As I said, this already strange tale is interrupted by alternate chapters each one of which reads like a disturbing dream. Frequently they feature animals – the macaque that roars at the narrator to “Apologise!”; the loaches thrown onto the ground by a child; the man with a coatful of moles. It seems to me a foolish endeavour to attempt to impose meaning on all these inexplicable occurrences: the joy is in imagination unleashed, and I suspect that’s where the idea of the night being ‘too brief’ originates – not in reference to the night itself, but to the licence it gives us, even when it comes to reality.
The other two stories are more focussed but also happily embrace fantasy. ‘Missing’ tells of a family where members are prone to disappear:
“Since disappearances happen all the time in my family we got used to it pretty quickly.”
When the narrator’s older brother goes missing, her other brother simply takes his place in the marriage that is being arranged. The only problem is that the older brother is not entirely gone:
“My brother no. 1’s presence would come and go: at times it was intense, at times quite faint… Often he would sit on my chest in the middle of the night and I would wake up feeling the pressure of his weight.”
The situation becomes difficult when he interferes with the wedding.
‘A Snake Stepped On’ is also about relationships. When the narrator steps on a snake it turns into a human – “a woman in her early fifties” – and walks off. When the narrator returns home that evening the snake is in her apartment. The story revolves around whether she can – or indeed wants to – get rid of the snake.
I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, though I find myself having to resist the need to impose allegory on anything which breaks the bounds of realism. Once I have put that to one side, I can relax and take pleasure in the imagination of Kawakami’s vision.