Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Eleven intertwined stories jigsaw into a puzzle of haunting perversions.
Yoko Ogawa (小川 洋子) has written more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction and won some of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, including the Akutagawa, the Yomiuri and the Tanizaki Prize.
Stephen Snyder has translated works by Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, Miri Yu and Kafu Nagai, among others. His translation of Revenge was shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Warning: this is not a novel for the faint of heart—in part because it’s not a novel at all but a series of linked stories. The format of Revenge makes it an ideal beach book, one you can pick up and read in bite-sized chunks before grabbing a sparkly beverage or diving into the sea. And yet you might find it has the emotional weight of a novel, that it pins you to your lawn chair, leaves you lingering in the shade to catch one more story. The link between each piece is strong and fine as a silk thread: sometimes it’s an object, like a pair of strawberry shortcakes, or a highway full of spilled, ripe tomatoes. Sometimes it’s a character, like the mysterious baker whose lonely past unfolds in a later story, or the murderous craftsman whose obsession fades into a passing visit to a museum of torture. And sometimes it’s a moment in time, like the freak spring snowstorm that traps a train full of people heading to their future lives. Some of those lives are sweet, but most are rotten inside.
Each character is wrapped up in his or her own dark desires, even as they watch each other with furtive, voyeuristic hunger. In the opening story, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” a woman buys cakes for a son who died 12 years ago. Traumatized, she acquires strange grieving habits, like buying his favourite dessert on each anniversary and collecting news clippings of children’s tragic deaths to read aloud. In “Old Mrs. J,” an aspiring writer spies on her eerie, widowed landlady’s nocturnal activities, only to discover the woman’s a suspect in her own husband’s disappearance. In “Lab Coats,” two hospital secretaries itemize blood- and organ-spattered coats as one complains about her lover and the other offers a sympathetic ear, even as she lusts over her beautiful coworker’s every move. In “Sewing for the Heart,” a bag-maker crafts a unique sheath for a woman who was born with her heart on the outside, and he aches for every chance to be near her pulsing organ. In “Poison Plants,” a wealthy matron pays for the company of a poor young musician, until she becomes too possessive and finds herself abandoned in the night.
The book’s title is a misnomer, because vengeance only features in a couple of the stories. The stitching between these pieces is much more complex than anything as straightforward as “revenge” (blame the publisher for the bad name, not Snyder, who deftly renders the author’s style into a subtle, creepy English afterlife). The most consistent narrative arc is that of the unnamed, struggling writer, a character that first appears in “Old Mrs. J.” She reappears in “The Little Dustman,” the story of a young man on his way to a funeral for his stepmother. She was a writer whose most notable publication is a book about a landlady who murders her husband—a book that reappears in “Poison Plants.” The figure of the writer emerges yet again in “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” this time as a paranoid older woman who claims her manuscripts were stolen and published under a false name. Before long it’s hard to know what is real and what is fantasy: the mysterious writer, her plagiarizing double or even Ogawa herself.
Ogawa writes with the lightest touch, zeroing her lens on the most intimate details, like the texture of the woman’s exposed heart: “From close up, the sinews and folds of muscle seemed to conceal a mysterious code.” Reading these stories feels like unravelling a code, or following a psychological scavenger hunt, each clue imperfectly mapping onto another. This collection is a cache of freakish objects whose seemingly random narratives come together to form a spooky work of art.
More by Yoko Ogawa
translated by Stephen Snyder
The Diving Pool
This Shirley Jackson Award-winning book features a trio of novellas about love, fertility, obsession and how even the most innocent gestures may contain a hairline crack of cruel intent.
The Housekeeper and the Professor
A traumatic injury leaves a brilliant mathematician with only 80 minutes of short-term memory in a novel that explores what it means to live in the present.