MANY OF US in the United States were introduced to the Japanese fiction writer Yoko Ogawa through a short story in The New Yorker in 2004, “The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain,” in which a young woman answers a knock on her door and finds a man and his three-year-old son standing in the rain. She’s afraid they’re cult members or missionaries, and after some awkward conversation, the man suddenly blurts out, “Are you suffering some anguish?”
It’s a question the reader has been asking, too, as we’ve watched her unpack boxes, hang a spice rack in the kitchen, and paint her bathroom. She’s just moved into the neighborhood and is about to get married, but her parents disapprove of the man she’s chosen and have cut her off. On top of that, her fiancé lives elsewhere, and she is fixing up their new house on her own. There’s no phone, so at one point he sends her a telegram saying, simply, “Good night.”
It is in this context that our narrator stares at the strange man in her doorway. “Do I have to answer?” she asks him. “I’m here, you’re there, and the question is floating between us — and I don’t see any reason to change anything about that situation.”
This line expresses something essential about Ogawa’s fictional world. Her characters live at an emotional distance from each other, uncertain about their connection to even the most intimate people in their lives. Help, when it comes at all, is unpredictable and arrives from unexpected places, a form of serendipity.
But the line also says something about Ogawa’s approach to storytelling. She aspires to the lightest of touches, avoiding both direct statement and tightly defined resolutions. Often, her stories don’t end so much as continue to float between writer and reader, their elements vibrating sympathetically.
Much of “Cafeteria,” for example, is taken up with an incident from boyhood of the man at the door, when he went with his grandfather to see an abandoned chocolate factory in an unfamiliar part of town. Something about the oddness of the excursion, coupled with the sweet scent of chocolate still clinging to the rusted machinery, made the anxiety he suffered back then — the “anguish” — suddenly, miraculously vanish.
“Cafeteria” turns on that odd but simple anecdote. The man and his son walk off, and our narrator ends by telling us:
I suddenly wanted to read my “Good night” telegram one more time. I could feel the exact texture of the paper, see the letters, feel the air of the night it had arrived. I wanted to read it over and over, until the words melted away.
It is a lovely, intuitive moment that hangs in the air like a suspended note — or an unanswered question.
It is hard for foreign writers to gain a foothold in America, and especially hard for Asian writers. Only about three percent of the books published in the US each year are translations, and most of those are from European languages. Japanese novelists who do make it into translation tend to be marketed to readers with a special interest in Japan, rather than to a broader audience. Even Nobel Prize winners like Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo haven’t been able to maintain the visibility here that their work merits.
Ogawa is lucky to have avoided that fate, but even with four books published in English in the eight years since “Cafeteria” appeared, we are seeing only a sliver of a much larger and more complicated career, most of which remains invisible to American readers. Since her debut in 1988, Ogawa has published more than 20 books in Japanese, across a broad, even quirky, range of interests, including nonfiction books on Anne Frank, and on the intellectual beauty of mathematics.
While Ogawa’s fiction, too, explores diverse subjects, some basic patterns are discernible. She prefers first-person female narrators with simple, almost naïve voices that balance a sense of intimacy with a paradoxical emotional reserve. These narrators are often, like the young woman in “Cafeteria,” going through some kind of life change that leaves them in between things, disconnected from familiar routines and people. Often, these women come into contact with mysterious men who are wounded in some way, but who nevertheless serve as teachers for a time, before being taken from them. The result is usually bittersweet: a sense of loss mixing with a renewed awareness of the self and its possibilities in the world.
Ogawa finds richness and variety within this territory. The Housekeeper and the, Professor published in 2009, is about a woman who falls in love with a man who has only 80 minutes of short-term memory; its subject is thus the fragility of human connection and the fleeting nature of time. Hotel Iris, which came out in 2010, is about a teenage girl ruled by an unfeeling, despotic mother, who begins a sadomasochistic affair with a man grieving for his dead wife; more broadly, it is about the self seeking a shape through pain. Two of the three novellas in the 2008 collection The Diving Pool offer an interesting variation, in that they are both narrated by isolated young women who try to poison people close to them with tainted food — acts of violence that feel like twisted attempts at intimacy.
The third novella in the collection, “Dormitory,” represents Ogawa’s taste for the surreal. The story’s unnamed narrator has quit her job in order to join her husband in Sweden, but can’t make herself take the last step and get on the plane. With nothing much to do, she winds up renewing her friendship with the manager of the dormitory she lived in as a college student — a man of mysterious self-possession who can perform any household task, even sew on a button, despite missing both arms and his left leg.
Our narrator soon learns that the manager is dying, and the dormitory rotting around him in a postmodern version of Poe’s House of Usher, with inky blue tulips sprouting in the garden and a low, ominous hum filling the building. All of this may, or may not, have something to do with a dormitory resident who has disappeared. The mysteries multiply, never quite connecting, until the story’s final paragraph finds our narrator shining a flashlight into the crawl space in the ceiling, where she discovers a gigantic colony of bees. “The sound of wings filled my ears as I stared at the hive,” she tells us in the very last line. “I reached out for it. The honey flowed on, somewhere beyond the tips of my fingers.”
If the mystery isn’t resolved, it’s because that kind of resolution isn’t the point of the story. An answer, Ogawa seems to say, is the honey dripping just beyond our fingers.
Japan is a small island country with a declining birthrate and lot of anxiety about its cultural future. It has a thriving literary scene and a vast publishing industry, but many Japanese writers seem to feel that they can’t afford to turn their backs on globalization — that the conversation that really matters is happening on the international level.
Ogawa, like her hugely popular contemporary Murakami Haruki, seems to respond to this anxiety by reaching for what might be called an international style. Like Murakami, she scrubs her work clean of Japanese cultural references: her characters eat pot roast and potato salad; sleep in beds, not futon; sit in chairs, never on cushions or tatami. The settings feel generic, too — either “city” or “suburb” — and could be pretty much anywhere (or more truthfully, nowhere, given the continuing fact of locality in human experience, despite all the talk about globalization).
This shift takes place on the linguistic level, as well. The Japanese writers who dominated the scene in the decades after World War II — Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Oe — wrote complex and demanding prose that was exceedingly difficult to translate into English. But Ogawa’s work, like Murakami’s, makes the jump surprisingly well, in part because she avoids the ambiguity and indirection, as well as the long, loose sentence structure, so natural to the Japanese language. Her style prioritizes clarity and simplicity, and while it reaches for a conversational feel, it has nevertheless been cleansed of all the markers of her narrators’ individuality: linguistic eccentricities, pop cultural references, dialect, slang.
This sounds like a loss, and on some level it probably is, but Ogawa turns it into a strength. Combine her simple, one-dimensional prose style with her penchant for deadpan narrators, and what you have is a clean, somewhat bland verbal surface that stresses the trustworthiness of the storyteller and the essential reality of what we are seeing, even as strange situations and surreal events create a dreamlike undertow, challenging our sense of security. The result is a profound unease that spreads out and permeates the narrative. Kafka is, of course, one of the great disseminators of this technique, and Murakami also uses it, but Ogawa makes it her own, with excellent results.
And yet despite her aspirations to an international style, Ogawa is ultimately a prisoner of the same paradox that claims us all: the more she struggles to escape the confines of her culture, the more she is claimed by them. I think one can argue, for example, that Ogawa’s interest in the surreal, and her taste for horror and the grotesque, have less to do with Western touchstones such as Kafka and Borges than with the 19th-century Japanese writer Izumi Kyoka, a Poe-like figure who wrote stories of the uncanny and the erotic, drawing inspiration from the long Japanese ghost tale tradition. Kyoka’s influence on modern Japanese fiction is surprisingly strong, and in recent years he has been back in vogue.
Ogawa’s newest book, Revenge, fits neatly within Kyoka’s legacy, as it circles themes of death, obsession, murder, isolation, and madness — all connected to Ogawa’s abiding interest in food, with its connotations of the feminine and the domestic, nourishment and desire, abjection and decay.
The opening story, “An Afternoon at the Bakery,” is about a woman who still buys cupcakes for her son’s birthday, years after he was discovered dead in an abandoned refrigerator. “Fruit Juice” is about the baker who, when she was a young girl and her mother was dying of cancer, found a closed-up post office full of kiwis and “ate through her sadness.” “Old Mrs. J” is about the source of those kiwis: an old woman who seems to have a magical green thumb, and is in the end arrested for having killed and buried her husband in the garden, where she grows carrots in the shape of hands.
Revenge harks back to Japanese literary tradition formally, too, as a collection of linked pieces. Though linked stories have been a commonplace on the American scene for many years now, Japanese literature has been interested in making large-scale works out of small discrete units ever since Sei Shonagon wrote her collection of micro-essays, The Pillow Book, in the 11th century. The epitome of this cultural trend may well be renga, the ancient Japanese linked-verse form in which a group of poets takes turns adding verses to a single long poem consisting of many links. Renga poets try to connect their verses in what Emily Dickinson would call a “slant” relationship, looking to advance the poem on the level of image or theme, rather than just narrative. The effect is kaleidoscopic and open, full of unexpected shifts and surprising turns.
The connections between stories in Revenge may be the best thing about the book. The linkages are deft, particularly because each story is narrated by a first-person observer other than the subject, and takes a little time to circle around. Because the stories are short and often feel unresolved, the overall focus is on the flow of characters and images from one story to the next, which creates a wonderful sense of motion, of pattern visible in complexity. It is a very renga-like feeling.
Author’s Note: These days, a new Ogawa translation seems to come out every year or so, and it’s incredibly heartening to see how she has, along with Murakami, become part of the mainstream of fiction in the United States. American readers would benefit from having that opportunity extended to other Japanese writers of her generation, such as Kawakami Hiromi (Manazuru and The Briefcase) and Tawada Yoko (The Bridegroom was a Dog and The Naked Eye), both of whom have books in English translation and deserve larger audiences.
Robert Siegel will be a Fulbright Fellow in Taiwan for the 2013-2014 academic year, studying Chinese and writing about East Asian literature.