Record of a Night Too Brief

Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Japanese Title: 蛇を踏む (Hebi o fumu)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 1996 (Japan)
Press: Pushkin Press
Pages: 158

Record of a Night Too Brief collects three short stories that the book’s cover copy describes as “haunting” and “lyrical” in their depiction of young women experiencing “loss, loneliness and extraordinary romance.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it in no way describes the actual stories in question, which are less “haunting” than they are grotesque and less “lyrical” than they are unapologetically strange. Instead of trying to treat them as romance, I believe it’s much more fulfilling to approach their absurdity in the spirit of intellectual play.

The title story, “Record of a Night Too Brief,” is a sequence of nineteen of the unnamed narrator’s dreams. Each of these dreams is two or three pages long, and they are linked only in that every other scenario features a young woman whom the narrator is either pursuing or in the process of merging with. If there is a unifying theme or plot, it is lost on me, but the power of these dreams comes from their vivid imagery. To give an example (from page 11):

Several dozen ticket collectors stood in a row, and once we passed through, showing our tickets, the tall object came into view.

It was a singer, who stood as tall as a three-storey building. From where I was, I had a clear view of the beauty spot under her jaw, and the rise and fall of her breasts.

“The beauty spot is artificial,” the girl informed me, gazing up at the singer, enraptured.

The singer was producing notes at different pitches, as if she were warming up. When she sang high notes, flocks of birds took flight from the branches of the ginko trees. When she sang low notes, the earth heaved, and small furry creatures emerged from underground and crawled about.

…and so on. It’s all very random, but one can’t help but become swept up in the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting parade of surreal images.

The next story, “Missing,” is set in an apartment complex that functions according to its own arbitrary and bizarre set of customs and rituals. One of the rules of this community is that each household can only have five members. If a sixth member is added for any reason, then someone has to disappear. This recently happened to the narrator’s family after her older brother was engaged to be married. Because his fiancée would have become the sixth person, he disappeared, and the narrator’s other older brother stepped in to fill his position. His fiancée, Hiroko, has no idea that this has happened, as the rules are different in her own apartment complex, where certain members of certain families literally shrink. Meanwhile, the narrator continues to hear the voice of the older brother as he (or his spirit) skulks around the apartment. No explanation is given for any of this, as everyone takes these occurrences for granted.

The final story, which provides the title of the original Japanese publication, is “A Snake Stepped On.” This story is about a young woman who one day finds herself living with a snake. This snake takes the form of an older woman who insists that she is the narrator’s mother. As she accustoms herself to life with a snake, the narrator begins to realize that many of the people around her are also living with snakes, including the local Buddhist priest whom she thought of turning to for an exorcism. Following the conventions of magical realism, the tone of this story is mundane, with the possibility of being devoured by a snake – or becoming a snake oneself – treated as merely another everyday occurrence.

Record of a Night Too Brief is a short collection of curiosities that are fascinating in their novelty. The fantastical qualities of each story allow for various interpretations, and they will no doubt intrigue different readers for different reasons. As contemporary fairy tales, the stories in this collection spark and inspire the imagination.

Manazuru

Title: Manazuru
Japanese Title: 真鶴 (まなづる)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 218

To return to the issue of sexism in literature (hopefully for the last time before laying it temporarily to rest), I think that, even as a book written by a man should not be automatically dismissed as sexist, so should a book written by a woman not be lauded simply because it was written by a woman. Take Manazuru, for instance. I love Kawakami Hiromi. For example, I think her 1998 collection of short stories, Kami-sama, was an imminently enjoyable exercise in magical realism, successful not only in its popular appeal but also in its critical reception. Her 1996 debut novel, Hebi o fumu, easily deserved all of the attention (like the Akutagawa Prize) that it won. Manazuru, on the other hand, is just plain boring.

The premise of the novel seems promising. Its protagonist is a writer named Kei, who lives in Tokyo with her mother and teenaged daughter. Her husband vanished twelve years ago, and now Kei finds herself inexplicably drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru. She is lead not only by her intuition but also by the ghost of a woman who occasionally appears and has conversations with her, albeit in a mostly antagonistic and cryptic way. Even though Kei is having an affair with a married man, she is still haunted by the memory of her husband, and she believes the key to his disappearance lies somewhere in Manazuru. Meanwhile, her daughter starts spending more and more time outside of the house, finally running away to meet someone whose identity she will not reveal. From this description, it would seem that several mysteries are afoot, each as compelling as the next.

Unfortunately, Manazuru is not the least bit interested in resolving any of these mysteries. What happened to Kei’s husband? We never find out. Who is the ghost that follows Kei around? We never find out. Who did the daughter run away with? We never find out. Answers are suggested in Kei’s garbled stream of consciousness narration, but then they are just as quickly dismissed. Did Kei kill her husband? Is the ghost that follows her around her husband’s dead lover? Did Kei’s daughter meet the ghost of her father? Maybe… But probably not.

In Manazuru’s defense, its plot is not its raison d’être. Its focus instead lies in the depiction of the mind of its protagonist in all of its complexity and confusion. Kei does not seem to know what she wants but is still searching for something, all the while immaculately and poetically detailing her experiences of drifting through life. Her thoughts give weight and meaning to the mundane, and she turns activities like riding the train into an art. Most of the novel is concerned with the details of her everyday life, like putting away her family’s winter clothes with her mother:

Handling so many different fabrics, heavy clothes, light clothes, makes my palms feel silky. I rise quietly, take the folded material from here to there. Bend down, lay it in a box. Fabric brushing against fabric, making the merest sound. Two women, one getting on in years, one starting to get on in years, pacing among the fabrics. With the tips of my fingers, I tear off the paper tag the cleaners stapled to the label last year. Replace the paper that lines the drawer, fold the old paper, throw it out. Straighten the new paper in the drawer, pile in the different materials, layer upon layer.

The same attention to style and detail is carried over into more dramatic moments, such as when Kei wanders around Manazuru, lead by a ghost in the middle of a storm. Such a narrative style drains such scenes of any sense of urgency, however, especially since Kei never seems to accomplish anything. The back of the book describes the novel as “a meditation on memory – a profound, precisely delineated exploration of the relationships between lovers and family members.” Indeed, if you’re into contemplative prose about the love and family lives of women, I suppose it doesn’t get much better than Manazuru.

Even if the front of the book didn’t declare it a “Recipient of the 2010 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature,” I think I still might have gotten the feeling that this book was published because of its close proximity to the stereotype of Japanese women’s writing: meandering novellas about the feelings of women who pay more attention than is absolutely necessary to flowers, plants, and the changing seasons. Kawakami has written work that is playful, creative, and fiercely intelligent. I wonder, then, why such a very very serious and very very emotional and very very “literary” (in a very, very outdated sense of the word) book of hers is the first to appear in English translation. Michael Emmerich is a brilliant translator, as always; but, after his 2009 translation of Matsuura Rieko’s wonderfully subversive The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, I feel that his talent has been somewhat wasted with a boring and rather vacuous book like Manazuru.

To return to the issue of fiction and gender, I was thinking about creating a new category for my reviews: “Women Writers.” However, reading Manazuru has convinced me that a writer should not be judged according to his or her gender; and, furthermore, that the reification of the gender of an author is not something I particularly wish to engage in and perpetuate. For the time being, then, I am going to hold off on the creation of this category and allow female writers to stand on equal ground with their male counterparts without being branded as “Women Writers” and having to bear all the cultural baggage that comes with the label.