I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, each day we should be striving to achieve something new, however I did have plans in early January to get through a few Japanese books as part of Tony’s Reading List’s January inJapan “challenge”. Unfortunately life got in the way of my reading intentions and I only managed to read two Japanese works for the month. Yukio Mishima’s “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” and one of the two “read along” works. Hiiromi Kawakami’s “Manazuru”.
In 2013 I reviewed “the briefcase” by Kawakami, which was later to be called “Strange Weather in Tokyo” and was longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, under the latter title, it had also been shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2013. That work was a female narrator, first person, exploring loneliness, love and emptiness.
“Manazuru” is six years older than “the briefcase” however the themes are very similar. We have a first person female narrator, who is a single mother, living with her daughter and mother (three generations of women). Our novel opens with our narrator heading to the village of “Manazuru”, being followed by a “ghost” and reminiscing about her husband, Rei, who had disappeared without a trace twelve years earlier. She is “involved” with a married man who has three children:
I’m settled now, I think. I don’t recall how I lived the first two years after he disappeared. I asked Mother to let us stay with her, accepted any work that came, and gradually I had a life to live. That was when I met Seiji. We became involved almost immediately. What does that mean, anyway? We became involved.
When Momo was born, as she fed at my breast, I thought: She is so close. How close this child and I are. She is closer now, I thought, than when she was inside me. She was not adorable or loveable, that wasn’t it. She was close.
To become involved is not to be close. It isn’t exactly to be distant, either. When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation.
This novel is written in sparse, very matter-of-fact language, you become removed from the characters emotionally. As the story evolves and we learn more of her mystical “follower” he missing husband, her lover, her relationship with bother her mother and her daughter and her impulses to visit Manazuru she becomes more and more unhinged. This “distant” feel makes you wonder if there is going to be resolution or salvation for our narrator, or if some strange mystical enlightenment is simply going to intervene.
Rei drew me in, but with Seiji I can remain just as I am, endlessly, drifting. I am not lonely. Whether it is he who embraces me, or I who embraces him. And so, all the more, I remember the old loneliness.
“You look so forlorn,” Seiji tells me.
So I look even more forlorn. I do not mean to, but I am pulled back, deeper and deeper, into the lighthearted loneliness of the time, long ago, before it all happened, before I met Rei, when I knew nothing of the world beyond the cradle of my parents’ hands.
Personally I found it very difficult to become connected with a character who shows such emptiness, whilst similar is style to “the briefcase” the emotional separation here left me rather cold.
Did it always feel this way, such a lack, of presence?
I have been wandering now, for a long time. From the beach, I climbed a slightly steep hill, prayed at a shrine to Sarasvati. A few statues shone dimly in the dark wooden building. There is something in these remote areas, in the place where a god lives, even in the midst of decay, that soothes. You feel that you are in a place you recognize.
I huddled for a while, wondering if something familiar would come, but nothing did.
I grew cold, and walked on. I descended the stairway, skirted an isolated cluster of houses, gazed at the threes in their neat, well-kept gardens. The windows of all the houses were shuttered. There is no feeling of presence here, at all. I climbed the steps, putting all my weight on them, slowly, one at a time, to Chigo Shrine. Here, too, no sense of presence, wither within the shrine itself, or in the space around it.
Something I actually felt with this work itself, no sense of presence, no sense of presence at all. To me this work felt less assured than “the briefcase”, whilst still exploring emptiness and loneliness it was too detached for my involvement. I am glad Kawakami has matured as a writer and hope she continues to do so.