The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 13 July 2017


Hello Gentle Reader

The short story is a minority in popularity. This often makes the genre less sustainable in comparison to its more popular and lucrative relation. Consolation is given to the short story, when compared to poetry and the poem. At least—in the case of the short story—its head is above water; while the poem has been left to either drown or forcefully claw at the water’s surface, for a momentary breath of fresh air. All the while the novel is stranded on a deserted island. Despite the gross disparity between the three; the short story is not something to be pitied. It’s fussy and picky. It has standards and it has expectation; a rather rigid code of conduct, bylaws and codified set of policies. Its vetting process is vigorous, and for those who do not meet its righteous and self-indulgent measures, the door did not lock or change its place. So with every suitor who comes to propose some arrangement romantic or business oriented, the short story inquired (or interrogated) with ruthless set of ethical principles, and creative perspectives that most were turned away. So it remains passed over and forgotten. The short story is now a spinster who remains unapologetic; and even enjoys its self-righteous martyrdom.

Like a lunar eclipse every so often, there is renewed interest in the short story. In two-thousand and thirteen, after Alice Munro became a Nobel Laureate for being a: “contemporary master of the short story,”—the year was dubbed the year of the short story. For the briefest of moments, there was the revitalization and renewed interest in the genre. Writers were releasing new collections, publishers were re-publishing old collections, and many praised the format for its creative inducing restraints. After the revelry and celebrations had died down, the short story was safe once again to retreat to the attic; where in neglect it spun, knitted, crocheted and weaved without interruption. After all, the ivory tower is already occupied by poetry, and it’s long overdue for renovations.

There has always been (personal) hesitation with regards to Yoko Ogawa. Japanese literature sits beneath the overcast shadow of Haruki Murakami and his international success. Murakami has surpassed Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, Jun'ichirō Tanizakiand even contemporary and Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe, in popularity and success in the west. Haruki Murakami is different though from his literary forbears. Murakami is greatly influenced by western literature; specifically speaking European and American literature; with a certain enjoyment of crime literature. His work has completely shrugged off Japanese identity. His characters eat spaghetti, or instant ramen noodles; his themes revolve around urban existentialism, and cheap philosophy, all wrapped up in surreal plots, landscapes and stories. A dear friend once said that reading Murakami was like a acid trip, only to wake up the next day with a sense of enlightened change, but without able to grasp the change or manifest the enlightened thoughts.

Since Murakami’s popularity has grown there has been an increased criticism towards the writer. Many applaud and lobby that Haruki Murakami deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. Others disagree with the reasoning’s behind Murakami being nominated and speculated as a contender for the prize; they state (and I agree) he’s a pop novelist who offers cheap philosophical discussions, with a great deal of sex, urban existentialism, wrapped in a magical realist setting; and has not shown any maturation from these earlier themes. Others are more kind and realistic towards he writer, confessing that they enjoy his work, but admitting he does not compare to previous laureates—Japanese or not.

My contestation with Murakami has always been the fact he is paraded as some high literary master, when in reality his work often appears to be a slightly altered version of previous work: the same surreal scenarios, the blend of reality and fantasy, the youthful dissatisfaction, meaningless sex, disappearing women; and so on and so forth. Credit is owed though for the fact that he is an easy read and even enjoyable; but this does not equate high literature. Though he offers moments where he showcases his talents, they are not as often nor as brilliant as they once were. My greatest annoyance stems from the fact: that everything to do with Japanese literature today is always under Murakami’s shadow. There is always the mention of Murakami’s influence on some writer or on some novel; and sadly this appears true. Whenever some lower or outsider of societal norms, has a conversation or thought about economic disparity, or the lack of ability to find deeper connections within an urban context, there is Murakami’s cat slinking away. This often leads me to look at contemporary Japanese literature with an attitude of: why bother? If everything is touched by Haruki Murakami, and I’ve already feel like I have had my fill of him, why should I read anything else if it has elements of him?

With that in mind, Yoko Ogawa, was always treated with suspicion and trepidation. Her novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” was marketed with the hallmark sentimentality and the air light prose of Banana Yoshimoto. Needless to say I glanced over the novel with great skepticism and it was settled: I had no interest or desire to read it; despite many praising the novel as a grand example of understating prose, quiet domestic drama, and the unique lives which are often overlooked by many, and who could the people, who ride the bus alongside us or may even live next door. Yet every time I looked down at the novel, it reminded of something written, with the sole goal of soliciting the readership of house wives or young women, with romantic’s dreams and notions. Not really my cup of tea. Then when Yoko Ogawa had more works translated into English, and I began to research her more, the shadow of Murakami always creeped about the peripheral. She was praised for her use of understated prose, her characters being slightly adrift or common place people, while the fantastic and the macabre was hidden in every crack. I remained unconvinced of Yoko Ogawa’s merits (if there were any).

Every year when it is time to begin Nobel Speculations for the year, I am always on the hunt for an alternative to Haruki Murakami; a writer who has been passed over because they are not actively participating in Murakami’s universe or showing signs of his influence. This has often proposed to be more of a challenge, of the most impossible nature, as no alternative seems to present themselves. Yet, one writer named continuously floated by in mention, though only in mention, and never with elucidation: a certain Yoko Ogawa. Once again I would return to research the author and could find little about her biography; other then she has a degree in English literature, married, worked as a medial secretary before becoming a writer, and since 1988 has been a full time professional writer. Then there were the comparisons between herself and Murakami, and there were very few articles presented to argue against the Murakami comparisons. As I had done before I passed Yoko Ogawa over, with hesitation and trepidation; but more out of concern with a lack of information with regards to the writer or her work, styles and themes. The most information I could find about Yoko Ogawa, came from French language blogs. It appears in France; Yoko Ogawa is revered and quite popular. To my knowledge her work is in abundant translation into the French language, by the French translator Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle. It is thanks in large part to these French language readers, bloggers, and websites, which encouraged me to put aside my suspicions of Yoko Ogawa. Now I have taken the chance on Yoko Ogawa, and my thoughts remain: ambivalent at worst; while at best they are warm and inviting.

“Revenge,” seemed to be the best place to start with Yoko Ogawa. It eschewed the sunshine sentimentality of “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” but avoided the pitfalls of “Hotel Iris,” with its warped sexual scenario, and lacking of character development. “Revenge,” turned out to be quite a treat to read.

There are issues with “Revenge,” though—and it’s more about how the book was marketed, more than anything. “Revenge,” is marketed with the subtext of: “Eleven Dark Tales.” The cover is designed to look like skin or leather being sliced into it, to create the title; and the praise specifically pointed out comes from Joe Hill—who if you did not know is an author of horror fiction, stories and novels, as well as comic books, and is the son of Stephen King. It were to appear that the publisher was attempting to market Yoko Ogawa’s revenge as a collection of gory or horror filled stories, which recount and describe the depraved concepts of death and revenge being arbitrarily enforced upon others. For those expecting gore, blood, guts, graphic murders, and cold calculated ideas of revenge, this book would have been a rather disappointing read. While others who casually glanced at the book and the praise, would have been turned away, because of the sense it would be riddled with cheap and bloody tropes of slasher horror. What Yoko Ogawa accomplishes in this collection of short stories, is not what it has been marketed as. Even the title: “Revenge,” betrays the actual unique presentation the short story collection wishes to present. In fact the original Japanese title is: “Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai,” which is roughly translated into English as: “Reticent Corpse, Improper Mourning,” (or “Dirty Mourning,”). The attempt at a more literal translation certainly sounds a lot more unique or even poetic then the English edition which overly simplifies and misses the mark.

It has been mentioned that Yoko Ogawa has more connection to the traditional Japanese ghost story or macabre story, then most contemporary Japanese writers; and “Revenge,” certainly cements this assertion. Its populated with odd and strange elements, rotting food, unique and unfortunate medical conditions, a few murders, depleted and apocalyptic landscapes; food in particular plays a strange role. Be it a post office filled with boxes or mountains of kiwis, or strawberry shortcake which is observed to slowly rot, in the memory of a deceased child; or an accident on the highway and spilled tomatoes all over, to carrots which are shaped like hands.

Ogawa’s stories begin innocently enough, depicting normal and mundane scenes; such as the first short story: “Afternoon at the Bakery,” where she describes a perfect Sunday, populated with families and tourists. The narrator of the story steps into a bakery, where she plans on purchasing a Strawberry Shortcake for her son. It is here the story makes its adjustment. Yet it’s not shocking or out of place. Rather it is described with understated and matter of fact prose. The narrator’s son is dead; and she is purchasing the cake to commemorate his immortal age of six, on this fine Sunday. The narrator is not wallowing in grief or hysterical with sadness—rather she is completely detached for the most part, looking at her new childless life and situation without emotional attachment; which in part makes these stories eerie (but thankfully avoids exaggerated emotions, to create forced sincerity and melodramatic pyrotechnics). What is uniquely odd is how the narrator watches a cake spoil and fall into inedible ruin:

“First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. 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.”

The story continues the procession as the narrator waits in the bakery to place an order for her cake; and recounts her now dissolved marriage, her son’s death, and her memories of him; though she fixates solely on his death, how he was found in a refrigerator in a field, curled up into himself where he died of asphyxiation. Death in this case is: the end all be all.

In “Fruit Juice,” we encounter a young man (or student) studying in the library, when he is approached by a female student who is shy and cautious. She hesitantly speaks to him and proposes or rather asks, if he would like to join her for lunch. He reflects on her an individual and the lack of contact he has had with her. He finds her someone who is not intentionally alienated or ignore, but rather someone who would rather live off in the peripheral edges of school society, dutiful and studious but easily overlooked, and someone who works hard to retain that concealed identity.  It is in this story we discover the abandoned post office and the mountains and boxes of kiwis, and how the girl consumes the kiwis in an attempt to consul herself, with the inevitable death of her mother, looming on the horizon. And it is here, we are offered an odd moment to ponder: as we reach the end of the short story, we realize this young woman went on to become a baker; could she be the same way in the previous story who was discovered weeping, as she was on the phone?

As “Revenge,” continues, there is a continual cascading effect of déjà vu, with inclinations that scenarios, themes, characters, are re-occurring with their own personal and ethereal touches in later stories. “Revenge,” is not simply a short story collection, it is greatly interconnected within itself. The curator of “The Museum of Torture,” is a drifting dandy of an uncle to a young boy who once looked forward to his visits; though his uncle had a precise and perverse talent for allowing things to crumble and fall apart the moment he got involved or touched anything—and perhaps even enjoys watching everything fall apart or flee from his presence. Even his final and heartwarming gift, a beautiful fur coat which protects the nephew from the cold winter’s night, also falls apart as he is left deserted in the snow covered night. This same coat was once a pet Bengal tiger, belonging to twin eccentric heiresses, who were obsessed with torture.

Yoko Ogawa did not just write a short story collection, where each short story is a standalone glimpse into a life. Instead she created a short story cycle, salt and peppered with reoccurring images (food is a big one), themes, and characters: such as the uncle, or the step-mother authoress; or even characters reading short stories which have been read prior, but are now proclaimed as property of a character; in doing this, Yoko Ogawa comments on her own authorial voice, when a character reads: “Afternoon at the Bakery,”:

“The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge in again and again.”

It was a landscape from the last story: “Poison Plants,” which sticks out with me the most. When the elderly narrator goes for a walk and gets lost, she discovers a field of abandoned refrigerators. Ogawa is not a landscape writer, and merely depicted the scene at face value, in which she states it’s a field of abandoned refrigerators—but in my mind, I could imagine the field in a summer night twilight, with the pastel colours of a setting sun and the haze. The field itself forgotten and depleted, overgrown with weeds and grass. The refrigerators in varying stages of rust and decay; while off in the distance there is the drone and hushed calls of cars zooming and zipping down a highway. It is in this story, the narrator discovers herself curled up in the refrigerator: dead.

“Revenge,” was marketed with distasteful inaccuracy. It’s not riddled with gore and blood and guts. It’s not a novel of horrors, reminiscent of cheap horror films; it’s quite the opposite. “Revenge,” is a grotesque and macabre book, but its riddled with the gentle sting of melancholy, loneliness, and times passage. The characters shift from story to story; their cameos often made just by mentioning them; be it by a detective working on a case, or a page over a public address system, or by making a bold appearance in a story in the flesh, but leaving shortly after. The worlds of the characters are not private, they are not solitary or secluded, rather: they are connected and attached by the most unfortunate circumstances and private horrors, in which they share each other’s shock grief and even guilt.

Yoko Ogawa’s prose is impassive, to the point its lack luster, and is very plain. There is no lyrical language, or large space dedicated to landscape depictions. This works to her advantage, but at the same time it is disappointing. The impassive language, however, does allow Yoko Ogawa to avoid the pitfalls of forced emotions and melodramatic situations and scenarios. Nothing is more crude then false sentiment and exaggerated and excessive emotional language. Still the language did not have to be bleached, boiled, and starched to the point it lack any creative or linguistic flair, it came as plain as porridge. It was nice to see the menace of the stories did not take centre stage in action; rather it was left on the sidelines and only made mundane appearances at best; such as a heart which has grown outside of the body, rather than in its designated cavity; or a tongue which slips outside of a lab coat pocket is only marked with impartiality, and mundane observation. There is no hysterics. This allows for the menace and the macabre to overshadow the work in sensation rather than in actual presence. That Sunday afternoon may have been sunny without a cloud in the sky, but as the story progressed, shadows appear and lurk, out of every corner.

I found the language as already pointed out plain, though this did work towards Yoko Ogawa’s advantage for the most part. I am still suspicious of any influence Haruki Murakami has over Ogawa, as she herself has admitted it would be impossible to say that Murakami has had no influence over her. Despite this though she is not Murakami nor is she Banana Yoshimoto. Yoko Ogawa is something different and unique; though it would be difficult to grasp any real substantial understanding of her body of work simply by this short story collection; and I have no interest in reading “The Housekeeper and the Professor.” She is remarkably popular in France, as well as her native Japan; and even Kenzaburo Oe has praised her for her work in which she can clearly depict the subtle workings of human psychology. Praise only goes so far, and there is still a lot of suspicion I hold towards Ogawa; but she does seem to be an interesting writer. Though I do think English language publishers have tried to market her off as some female Murakami or a more macabre Banana Yoshimoto, where in fact, Yoko Ogawa is a writer of her own merits and themes. It’s just a shame there is a complete under representation of them in the English language; as the publishers are more concerned and interested to find a new Murakami like author to push onto the scene with lucrative success.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

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