The Briefcase

Title: The Briefcase
Japanese Title: センセイの鞄 (Sensei no kaban)
Author: Kawami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 176

Kawakami Hiromi’s novel Manazuru, translated by Michael Emmerich and published in 2010 by Counterpoint, is a strange, dreamlike story told from the perspective of an otherworldly and unreliable narrator. Manazuru is about pain and bitterness, and broken hearts and broken families.

Kawakami’s newest novel in translation, The Briefcase, is a far cry from the atmospheric surrealism of Manazuru. Its narrator, Ōmachi Tsukiko, is a single woman in her late thirties who is firmly grounded in reality. The Briefcase is about her daily life and centers around her encounters with her former Classics teacher, Matsumoto Harutsuna, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Two decades after graduating from high school, Tsukiko meets Sensei by chance at a neighborhood bar, and the two strike up an easy friendship. Each of the ten-page chapters in The Briefcase details an episode in this friendship, such as a trip to an outdoor market or a mushroom hunting excursion with the owner of the bar Tsukiko and Sensei frequent. Seasons change, but not much else does. Nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected happens throughout the large majority of The Briefcase, and the novel’s close attention to detail provides much of its charm.

Although it doesn’t become apparent until a little more than halfway through the novel, Tsukiko gradually develops romantic feelings for Sensei. I would love to say something along the lines of “despite the significant age difference, the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei blossoms beautifully;” but, in reality, it’s quite awkward. Not only is the situation itself awkward, but both Tsukiko and Sensei are awkward people. They’re not charmingly awkward, or amusingly awkward, or so awkward that want to hug them – they’re just awkward. Still, the gentle progression of their relationship is entertaining in its earnestness, and Kawakami describes it from Tsukiko’s perspective with commensurate delicacy:

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a holf on this sense – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.

The quiet normalcy of The Briefcase is satisfying in and of itself, yet there are some disturbing undercurrents running through the novel. Why is Tsukiko alone? Why is Sensei alone? What happened to him? Why does he always carry around his briefcase? These uncertainties serve to make the story more intriguing, however, and don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis until the very end of the novel, when Tsukiko undergoes a startlingly surreal experience. During two of the final chapters of the novel, Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei, as well as her fear of his rejection, are explored in a strange sequence titled “The Tidal Flat – Dream,” which may or may not have actually happen. This chapter is a unexpected break from the regular mundane atmosphere of The Briefcase, but it pulls the novel together thematically in a creative and unexpected way.

Allison Markin Powell, who also translated Dazai Osamu’s Schoolgirl, deftly conveys the lightness and humor occasional strangeness of Kawakami’s prose. Although Powell’s English is flawless (with the possible exception of a few out-of-place Britishisms), her style of translation leaves the reader with no doubt as to the Japanese setting of the novel. Passages like…

“Yes, today is a tomobiki day. But tomorrow is a red-letter day, a konoe-tora!”

…and…

Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered. Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen.

…are not uncommon. It’s an interesting style of translation that emphasizes the novel’s focus on peaceful daily life in a richly detailed environment, and it’s fun to read. The culturally specific words scattered throughout the text can be largely ignored if you’re not feeling up for a hyperlinked adventure on Google, though, so they shouldn’t be distracting for the reader.

The Briefcase is a gentle and quiet novel that’s enjoyable both for its story and for its atmosphere, and it’s much more accessible than Manazuru (which is not to say that Manazuru is bad, just very weird). It’s literature that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

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.