Posts Tagged ‘Hiromi Kawakami’

Record of a Night Too Brief

February 18, 2017

record

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.

Strange Weather in Tokyo

March 13, 2014

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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.”

And:

“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.