Revenge

Revenge

Title: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Japanese Title: 寡黙な死骸 みだらな弔い
(Kamoku na shigai, midara no tomurai)
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 162

Ogawa Yōko is a writer of the fantastic who spins softly glittering tales of quiet desperation. In Japan, she’s known for her magical realism, which is so subtle as to be almost Todorovian in the uncertainty it generates. Nevertheless, her first novel to appear in English translation, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is about kind-hearted people behaving nobly in the face of senescence and overcoming emotional adversity by opening their hearts to one another. It’s a good book even despite its clinging miasma of Hallmark-style sentimentality, but the way the novel was marketed made it feel as if its publisher were trying to pass Ogawa off as the next Yoshimoto Banana, which she most decidedly is not. Messages of hope and moral fortitude are few and far between in Ogawa’s work, and her next novel to appear in translation, Hotel Iris, is about ephebophilia and sadomasochism in a decaying seaside town. The novel is quite short and, given its subject matter, an odd choice for translation, but perhaps its publishers saw a faint connection to Yoshimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi, which explores similar themes (albeit in an infinitely more upbeat and chipper manner).

I am therefore interested in the way in which Ogawa’s newest work to appear in translation, Revenge, is pitched to potential readers. Short blurbs from Junot Díaz and Hilary Mantel appear on the back cover, but the writer who bears the honor of having his praise appear right in the middle of the front cover is Joe Hill. Joe Hill is the author of several novels, comic books, and Kindle singles, and he’s known as a writer of grisly and violent mystery fiction. Hill’s debut work, 20th Century Ghosts, is a collection of stories that contain more subtle disquiet than they do splattered blood. My favorite is “Voluntary Committal,” in which a seriously disturbed man builds an elaborate crawl-through maze of cardboard boxes in his basement, which eventually becomes a portal to another dimension. 20th Century Ghosts has won all sorts of awards, from the Bram Stoker Award to the British Fantasy Award, but Hill is still considered a horror writer; and, by association, Ogawa is positioned as a horror writer as well. As if Hill’s name alone were not enough to convey the message, the cover of the North American edition of Revenge is designed to resemble dead skin stitched with rotting thread.

Despite the implications of its cover, Revenge is less about hideous creepy crawlies lurking at the foot of cellar stairs than it is about the small disturbances in daily routine that hint at the madness waiting patiently on the edges of human civilization. For example, the first story in collection, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” opens with a scene of a peaceful town on a Sunday afternoon:

Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, enthralled. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms.

You could gaze at this perfect picture all day – an afternoon bathed in light and comfort – and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.

What you might notice, however, is the author’s focus on children and families. The detail out of place in this scene is a solitary mother who enters a quiet bakery to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday. The catch is that her son is dead and has been for many years. He died when he was six years old, and his mother responded to the tragedy by piecing together a scrapbook of newspaper articles about other children who died in similarly upsetting circumstances, which she describes in loving detail for the benefit of the reader. The physical deterioration of the cakes she continues to buy for her son’s birthday serves as an analogy for her own decaying sanity, something that used to be as fresh and wholesome as a young boy but now resembles nothing so much as rotting flesh:

Long after I had realized my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, straining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.

“Mold can be quite beautiful,” I told my husband. The spots multiplied, covering the shortcake in delicate splotches of color.

“Get rid of it,” my husband said.

I could tell he was angry. But I did not know why he would speak so harshly about our son’s birthday cake. So I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.

The above passage is the dramatic high point of the story, which is otherwise sedated and subdued. The horror Ogawa offers her reader is not the terrified panic of a boy clawing vainly for air as he suffocates in the dark or the emotional turmoil of a distraught mother sobbing wildly in her grief, but rather the unsettling certainty that people who are irreparably damaged walk among us within a world that is constantly growing as filthy and old as we will one day become.

The eleven stories in Revenge are very loosely connected, with each almost fitting into the next like a section of a puzzle box that has been warped by humidity. The major theme connecting the stories is ultimate futility of the attempt to outlast the relentless march of time through creative endeavors or the preservation of a material legacy, and the collection is filled with unremarkable deaths, lonely rooms stuffed with junk, and putrefying fruit and vegetables. It’s dark stuff, to be sure, but Ogawa’s language and narrative skill, rendered beautifully in Stephen Synder’s translation, allow the reader to experience the horror of the stories in Revenge as so mundane as to be almost comforting.

NPR listed Snyder’s translation of Revenge as one of the best books released in 2013, and it’s in good company. Despite Picador’s gruesome cover, Ogawa’s stories have much more in common with her listmate Karen Russell’s debut collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves than any of the recent work by Joe Hill or Peter Straub – or any of the recent work of Murakami Haruki, to whom many reviewers feel compelled to compare Ogawa for some inexplicable reason. Ogawa has her own style of haunting and meticulously crafted fiction, and I can only hope that more of her short stories find their way into English translation, the sooner the better.

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle

Title: The Goddess Chronicle
Japanese Title: 女神記 (Joshinki)
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野 夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 309

The protagonist of The Goddess Chronicle, Namima (“Woman-Amid-the-Waves”) lives on a small and richly vegetated island called Umihebi (“the island of sea snakes”). Umihebi is located somewhere in the island chain south of the kingdom of Yamato (i.e., Japan), and it is known throughout the Ryūkyū seas as a place where the gods come and go. The cape at the north end of the island is sacred and marked by a huge black boulder called “The Warning,” beyond which no one but the high priestess of the island may walk. On the eastern side of the island is the Kyoido (“Pure Well”), and on the western side is the Amiido (“Well of Darkness”), and only adult women are allowed to approach them. Between these landmarks grow plantain trees, banyan trees, pandan trees, and all manner of flowers. The water surrounding the island is filled with fish and sea snakes, which the island men take on their boats to trade with the people of other islands.

Namima’s grandmother, Mikura-sama, is Umihebi’s high priestess. She embodies the energies of light and life and protects the island from harm as she prays for prosperity. Because light and dark alternate, Mikura-sama’s daughter is dark, while Mikura-sama’s oldest granddaughter Kamikuu is light, thus entitling her to become the island’s next high priestess. If Kamikuu is light, then her sister Namima is dark; and so, if Kamikuu is to become then next high priestess of light and life, then Namima must become her dark counterpart, an outcast warden of darkness and death. While Kamikuu is fated to live at the top of a hill and be provided with generous quantities of nutrient-rich food as she prays to the gods and generates offspring from the seed of the young men on the island, Namima is fated to live in the shadow of a cliff, eating dregs and shunning the company of all save the corpses of the island’s dead, which she must watch decay in order to ensure that their souls pass on safely. Although Mikura-sama explains this to Kamikuu, the kind-hearted Kamikuu does not have the heart to tell her sister, so the teenaged Namima is outraged when she is hauled kicking and screaning down to a cave by the shore to take the place of Mikura-sama’s dark counterpart, who has vanished. Namima is immediately visited by her lover Mahito, the son of a family ostracized because of its matriarch’s inability to produce a female child, and the two escape the island on a small boat. Namima dies at sea, and that’s when the book really begins.

Namima, who dies with deep regret in her heart, is not allowed to move on to the world beyond death but instead finds herself in the underworld, a dark and formless landscape of unhappy souls presided over by Izanami, who is both a creator goddess and a goddess of death. Having died while giving birth to a fire god, Izanami found herself in the underworld. Her consort, Izanaki, came to retrieve her, but he was so appalled by the pollution and impurity of the underworld that he fled from his former lover and symbolically sealed the entrance to the underworld with a giant boulder. In her rage, Izanami vowed to end the lives of a thousand humans every day. In response, Izanaki vowed to erect a thousand birthing huts so that the human population would never decline.

Izanami, who has spent aeons under the earth, sees a kindred spirit in Namima and therefore draws Namima’s soul to her to act as an attendant and companion. The Goddess Chronicle is an account of how Namima rails against and finally settles into this role as she comes to understand and sympathize with Izanami’s suffering and the burden that the goddess has assumed. Over the course of her story, Namima returns to Umihebi as a tiger wasp and sees the religious and human drama of the island through the eyes of an outsider. Izanaki himself eventually enters the story and makes his own trip to Umihebi, so the reader sees the island from yet another perspective that further emphasizes how terrifying yet compelling its religious landscape and rituals are. The experiences both Namima and Izanaki have on Umihebi cause them to return to Izanami for closure and salvation.

In the end, however, there is no redemption for Izanami herself; there is only eternal hatred. I don’t want to give away certain plot developments; but, in light of these developments, it seems as if there would be so many other paths open to the goddess at the end of the novel. Moreover, although Namima can leave at any time, she decides to stay with Izanami, not as her friend or equal, but rather as the priestess of her pain. The novel ends with these lines, spoken by Namima:

I, who was once a priestess of the darkness, feel that serving here at Izanami’s side I am able to accomplish what I was unable to finish on earth. For, as I said earlier, Izanami is without a doubt a woman among women. The trials that she has borne are the trails all women must face. Revere the goddess! In the darkness of the underground palace, I secretly sing her praises.

I’m not sure if that’s a happy ending or not. So all women are united in a shared oppositional relationship to men? All women are united in their hatred, and in the fact that their destinies are shaped by the carelessness of men? Why do women have to harbor so much hatred? Why can’t men just be normal people instead of the shapers of the destinies of women? Why does there need to be an dualistic and antagonistic relationship between Woman and Man on such a deep mythical level?

In other mythological revisionist novels written from a feminist perspective, such as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Ursula Leguin’s Lavinia, there are layers of depth and meaning and subtle characterization added to mythological personages who were relatively flat in the original sources. In The Goddess Chronicle, the gods remain flat, and the human characters aren’t granted much depth either. The story told by the novel is fascinating, and the writing and translation are beautiful, but in the end there is almost no resolution or character development. Perhaps the point of the story isn’t to give human characteristics to nonhuman entities, however, but rather to provide the reader with an entryway into the conceptual geography of the existential questions religion and myth seek to address. In this latter purpose, The Goddess Chronicle succeeds spectacularly.

Kirino Natsuo is an extremely dark writer; and, while she never offers any feminist solutions to the problems she raises, she excels in bringing the reader’s attention to the sexism and hypocrisy that exist in mainstream narratives about women. By showing the reader the other side of the story, Kirino deftly illustrates the anger of the otherwise voiceless women who have been left out of most stories, but it is ultimately up to the reader to find hope in the situation and to figure out how to use her or his newfound anger to change the world for the better. In The Goddess Chronicle, Kirino encourages the reader to see one of the keystone tales of Japanese mythology from the perspective of darkness, and the perspective of those not showered with glory, and the perspective of those left behind. Such a perspective can be upsetting and frustrating, but it’s also an invitation to the reader to formulate her or his own interpretations, as well as her or his own ideas concerning the further adventures of these characters and their relevance to the modern world.