Sunday, April 20, 2014

Best Served Cold

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the more commented-on aspects of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was the decision to never show the face of the said baby. Rightly so, for dread, when left to the imagination, is more palpable than when every detail is depicted. This is what comes to mind when reading Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, a collection of 11 dark tales, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Ogawa’s stories don’t depend on the satanic, but on the malevolent forces that lurk in the heart of the everyday.

Revenge is one of the six titles on the recently-announced Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist, an award that recognizes the author as well as "the importance of the translator in their ability to bridge the gap between languages and cultures".  For the first time, two female writers from Japan appear on the list, the other being Hiromi Kawakami for Strange Weather in Tokyo (which appears to be a Murakami-style meditation on love and loneliness).

The particular eeriness of Ogawa’s interlinked tales comes from the contrasts between the subject, her quiet language and the unhurried release of information. Her characters are people whom life has pushed to the margins: an unassuming student whose mother is dying of cancer; an unfairly jilted beautician; a wife separated from her family and trying to be a writer; a mother who’s dealing with the loss of her young son. In many cases, the stories have a similar structure, first person narratives that start with a period of waiting – on a train journey, in a bakery, in a hospital – which is then intercut by distressing memories from the past.

The linkages between them are ingenious and carefully structured. In one story, we read of an abandoned post office filled with kiwifruit, an oddity explained by the actions of a character in the next. In another, a character throws a dead hamster into the trash, spotted by another in the tale that follows. Sometimes, characters are linked by location, as when one of them speaks to her boyfriend of a murder in the flat above, an incident that forms the submerged climax of another story. In yet other cases, a story is revealed to be one that’s written by an earlier character.

Ogawa’s metaphors go a long way in adding to the oddness. Most of them are drawn from routine objects and sounds: a mis-struck violin is “like the cry of a small bird”; a carrot is “in the shape of a hand”; a laundry cart rolls down a corridor “as though pushed by an invisible hand”; a dried-up plum emerging from a pocket “looks like a testicle”. (Ouch.)

A passage in one of the stories, during which a bag-maker muses on her profession, could well be a metaphor for Revenge’s act of creation. When she makes a bag, she says, she first pictures how it will look when it’s finished. Then, she sketches each imagined detail, “from the shiny clasp to the finest stitches in the seams”.  Next, “I transfer the design to pattern paper and cut out the pieces from the raw material, and then finally I sew them together”. As the bag takes shape, “my heart beats uncontrollably and I feel as though my hands wield all the powers of the universe”.

The bag-maker’s story, arguably the most chilling of the lot, moves away from the quotidian and exists at an angle to reality. She’s depicted as obsessed by one of her customers, a nightclub crooner who, because of a congenital defect, has her heart outside her chest. Another such story portrays the curator of a domestic museum of implements used for torture, who cares for a Bengal tiger in his garden.These are exceptions that veer towards the fantastical, but what is common to the collection lies in the words of a character who, when conversing with another, notices the “icy current running under her words”. The iciness of Ogawa’s vision reinforces the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold.