Twilight: The Vague Darkness of Yoko Ogawa’s Short Fiction

June 9, 2013   •   By Stefan Kiesbye


Yoko Ogawa

I HAVE ALWAYS ADMIRED JAPANESE ACTORS — the way feelings are portrayed in a series of quick flashes, one seemingly unconnected to the next. Where much of Hollywood seems to bridge emotions by spreading one thin, and then thinner, until the next one sets in, Japanese movies often seem to exist in the gaps between defined points. Actors let go of one moment and then fully embrace the next, not knowing where it might take them.

Something similar happens in Yoko Ogawa’s dark tales in Revenge. A woman trying to buy strawberry shortcakes finds herself spying on the weeping baker; a young woman abandoned by her boyfriend quickly enters the Museum of Torture; an author searching for quietude is besieged by her landlady and given hand-shaped carrots. The protagonists shift shapes in a matter of a few lines; stories take new, bewildering and yet altogether plausible turns.

Ogawa’s language, in Stephen Snyder’s translation, is spare, quiet, content with being nimble rather than dwelling on beautiful phrases. It’s a language that doesn’t announce its own frugality and refuses to make a minimalist’s daring and obvious cuts. The seeming ease is the outcome of hard work, but it doesn’t make the reader sweat. Ogawa moves swiftly; she has the power to move. In a few brief lines she can bring to life a senseless, mundane tragedy and leaves us with a sense of wonder and (I admit) a strange delight:

I had a friend once who was dumped by her boyfriend because he didn’t like a coat she had bought. It was a very nice cashmere coat, but for some reason it disgusted him to see her wearing it.

Tragedy strikes quickly, but the blow is always a sucker punch: you never see it coming. The reader becomes engrossed in the tales just as a narrator becomes infatuated with the stories of abused, dead children:

An eleven-year-old girl who was raped and buried in a forest. A nine-year-old boy abducted by a deviant and later found in a wine crate with both of his ankles severed. A ten-year-old on a tour of an ironworks who slipped from a catwalk and was instantly dissolved in the smelter.

The 11 stories speak of death, of abruptly ending relationships, and, yes, of revenge. A severed tongue makes an appearance, as does a heart that beats outside a woman’s chest — and is sliced off. Most stories deal with loss — of lovers, children, youth, sanity, and life — and with the bereaved attempting to regain their footing, or, if not, then to make life miserable for others as well. In “Old Mrs. J,” a woman achieves miraculous harvests by killing and burying her husband in the orchard. In “Poison Plants,” an aging woman dallies with, and is discarded by, a much younger man; by the story’s end, she finds herself as gutted and dead as thrown-away appliances at the garbage dump.

At the center of Ogawa’s stories — which are set in and around the same, nameless city — is a clock tower, the only location described at some length:

The bell in the clock tower began to ring. A flock of pigeons lifted into the sky. As the fifth chime sounded, a door beneath the clock opened and a little parade of animated figurines pirouetted out—a few soldiers, a chicken, and a skeleton. Since the clock was very old, the figurines were slightly discolored, their movements stiff and awkward. The chicken’s head swiveled about as if to squawk; the skeleton danced. And then, from the door, an angel appeared, beating her golden wings.

The tower reappears often, the keeper of a crooked time, pointing much more to the past than the present. Many of Ogawa’s characters live, like these figures, in a diminished present, reliving some moment in the past again and again. Those moments might have defined who they are, and now they are condemned to relive them — they will never escape their tiny infractions, crimes, and tragedies.

The effect of her stories can be ascribed to Ogawa’s mastery of striking scenes and images. A woman who has lost her son recalls the day he was found dead in a refrigerator:

An old woman I had never seen before was standing nearby, looking dazed, and I realized that she must have found him. Her hair was disheveled, her face pale, and her lips were trembling. She looked more dead than my son.

A girl eating a mountain of fresh, perfect kiwis in an abandoned postoffice is described by her helpless companion:

For a long time, she stood there eating kiwis, one after another. She consumed them like a starving child, dizzy with hunger. Her carefully ironed blouse and her beautiful hands grew sticky. I could only watch and wait until she ate through her sadness.

And a bag maker whose only companion — a hamster — has died disposes of the animal at a fast food joint:

I could barely eat half the food on my plate, and the coffee was almost undrinkable. When I went to throw away the trash, I slipped the hamster out of the pouch, on the tray next to my food, and slid him in the bin. I don’t think anyone noticed.
            He must be covered in ketchup by now.

Yet there is something facile about these tales, their darkness never moving beyond a medium gray —  as though the author had shied away from thinking to the end what she herself set in motion. Ogawa draws characters and situations quickly, efficiently, but then seems to lose interest in her sketches. In moments when the characters should be forced to confront the consequences of their actions, they are spared by their creator’s indifference. Even the city that looks at the clock tower and is the site of so many tales of failure and death is never described in much detail: buildings needed for the narrative appear at random, orchards and dumps are inserted into a general urban fog.

This lack of specificity extends to the narrators’ voices as well. At times I wasn’t sure who I was listening to: man or woman, old, middle-aged, or young. And they seem to express the shared bleakness in the same terms and with the same hopelessness as their fellow travelers.

The stories are connected, but the connections are for the most part without consequence. Instead of shedding new light on characters and incidents, they merely reiterate what the reader already knows. The few instances in which characters or situations make a second appearance are more confusing than enlightening.

There are also careless repetitions of images and formal devices. Narrators tell their stories by weaving a past occurrence into their present-day goings on. Old people seem younger than they are, and fruits and vegetables are asked to take on too much symbolic weight — and wither in the process. A recurring tiger is at once too obvious and too oblique. Ogawa’s grace is looking for a challenge, and doesn’t find it.

Then there are meta-references to Ogawa’s own work — or, presumably, the work of a female author who makes several appearances in these stories. I am still enamored with tales that reference themselves, that play with the construct of story and truth. When successful, they open secret hallways and dark passages into the text: Paul Auster’s City of Glass turns from peculiar detective novel to a discussion of literary theory, and Carl Einstein’s Bebuquin at least gets a truly funny joke out of it.

In this tradition, Ogawa’s narrator in “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” reads “Afternoon at the Bakery,” the first story of the collection, and something remarkable happens, something I usually dread even though it fascinates me: Ogawa looks at her own story and critiques it. At that moment I held my breath — it’s one of these moments in which the author invites critics’ cynicism. She bares her neck to sharp knives, potentially sacrificing the reader’s trust and the integrity of the story. She writes:

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

With this assessment she dodges some bullets, but doesn’t do herself any favors. The assessment is true enough, and yet Ogawa’s other works available in translation — including the exquisite novels The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris — weave a more intricate web. They too have icy currents, but don’t rely too heavily upon them to engage the reader. The Housekeeper and the Professor turns on a simple yet utterly intriguing conceit — a female housekeeper is hired to take care of a math professor who has lost much of his memory in a car accident. His past he can still access, but everything after the accident is erased every 80 minutes. The professor takes joy in the dealing with the housekeeper and her young son, but every 80 minutes she is a new person to him. Each time, he introduces himself by asking her shoe size.

This may sound gimmicky, but it isn’t. It’s merely an extraordinary situation that allows the author to mine the ordinary. It’s a wedge driven deep into life, and we look with astonishment at what it is able to expose. A similar device is employed in Hotel Iris: Mari, a teenager, falls in love with one of the hotel’s guests by hearing his voice. Though the man, a widower, might be dangerous — and he certainly can be unpleasant — she follows him into his personal darkness.

The introduction to the characters is again almost brutal, the conceit clear, but it’s the intricate play of ever-developing characters that kept me spellbound. Mari and the widower are quick, unpredictable, and yet their decisions follow a strange kind of logic. Here too, Ogawa operates with efficiency and ease, and yet the characters make lasting impressions.

Spending time in Revenge, by contrast, is a pleasure, but an ephemeral one. The characters in Ogawa’s book do make the quick, strikingly beautiful breaks of emotion, just like the best actors of Japanese film. But the camera doesn’t stay on them long enough, and we miss the full breadth of their art. You won’t mind inhabiting this book’s rueful landscape, you will compelled by its disembodied voices and their tales of loss and confusion, but you might wish for a sharper, more enduring pain.


Stefan Kiesbye is the author of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, and Next Door Lived A Girl.