Author Photo via trendy.nikkeibp.co.jp
The original title of Yoko Ogawa’s surreal novel in eleven stories was Kamoku na shigai, midara na tomurai, which might be translated as Unspeaking Corpse, Unsuitable Interment, a much more appropriate, or at any rate a less distracting, title. Active revenge figures only intermittently in Ms. Ogawa’s book, though it often crosses the minds of her characters. Even a cursory reading indicates that these stories are connected, with characters, incidents, themes, images and even physical objects recurring and reverberating forward and backward through the linked narratives that make up the collection.
Closer study of the book reveals a more cohesive structure. These eleven stories are really a single harrowing tale, told in one voice, though the eleven protagonists represent various ages and both sexes. The shared flat affect of the unnamed narrators at first seems an oddity or a flaw. In fact their single voice is the key to the book’s form, and a vital clue to decoding its meaning.
Ogawa leads you through a slightly askew world in these stories, all of them set in the same dream landscape that consists of a town square, a zoo, a resort hotel, a disused post office, a crumbling mansion turned museum, a boarding house with a hill of fruit trees and a field of junked appliances. Her characters move through these designated spaces, following each other’s tracks like the little sculptures that emerge from the clock tower in the town square every hour.
Start with “Afternoon at the Bakery.” The titular store stands in the town square, with its cuckoo-style clock tower and its straggling figurines: a soldier, a chicken, a skeleton and an angel. Inside, the baker, a tiny woman, cries as she talks on the phone in the kitchen. A customer orders a strawberry shortcake in honor of her dead son. It was his favorite treat, before he trapped himself in the family refrigerator and suffocated, at age six. “He had curled up in an ingenious fashion to fit between the shelves and the egg box, with his legs carefully folded and his face tucked between his knees.”
Later the customer goes home and locks herself inside her refrigerator to try and feel what her son felt. This image, of a body curled between the freezer and the egg tray, opens and closes the book. Along the way, reiterations of it illuminate the path through the other eleven stories like the lighted houses strung along the curve of a beach at night.
In the second story, “Fruit Juice,” a young man is invited to lunch with a schoolmate and the father who abandoned her many years ago. Her mother, dying of cancer, has arranged the meeting. The father is a prominent local politician, and he sends a limousine to pick them up. The restaurant is expensive, but the meal is formal and pedestrian. They eat strawberry shortcake for dessert. The old man offers his help. But he’s a stranger.
The friend pauses as they walk through the city streets later, “like a wind-up toy that has run down.” Later, they find themselves in a closed post office at the foot of a hill planted with fruit trees. The big empty chamber inside is filled with piles of ripe kiwis. The young man watches as his friend gorges herself. Years later, she studies culinary arts and eventually becomes a baker. When the narrator finds out the politician has died he calls his friend at work to tell her. She is crying on the phone when a woman comes into the shop to order a memorial portion of strawberry shortcake.
“Old Mrs. J” introduces us to the old woman who owns both the fruit trees and the old post office. Death has marked her life, too. She’s a widow and takes in boarders, including the young tenant who narrates this story. Stray cats make their first appearance here, wrecking her garden. The tenant suggests spreading pine needles to keep them away. In the course of their conversation he tells her he’s a writer, a piece of information she finds oddly disturbing. He watches her harvesting the kiwis and carrying them down the hill in boxes. She also grows carrots. Somehow she has cultivated them into the shape of human hands. When her husband is dug up in the orchard by the police, his hands have been amputated.
“The Little Dustman” features a children’s orchestra playing this Brahms piece on a snowbound train. Both the spring snow storm (the flakes look like blossoms) and the music recur as the book goes on. This narrator is on the train going to “Mama’s” funeral. In fact the woman was his step-mother for just two years, when he was a little boy. She left when he was twelve. He recalls a trip to the zoo during a raging snow storm like the one outside the train window. She was a writer, and the trip was research for a novel about the zoo. At the time of her death, Mama hadn’t written anything in ten years, but she carried a manuscript with her wrapped in a scarf, apparently afraid someone was going to steal it. Finally the stepson reads one of her stories, about a woman who grows carrots in the shape of human hands.
“Lab Coats” concerns two secretaries at the local hospital. They are sorting lab coats for the laundry. One of them is in love with a married doctor, a resident in respiratory medicine. When the doctor goes to reveal the affair to his wife, his train gets stuck in a springtime snowstorm. The angry secretary doesn’t believe it; her friend reminds her: “Freak snowstorms happen.” Later they are typing color-coded labels for a medical presentation and the secretary uses color #608, instead of #508. She blames her friend, but #508 is her apartment number. She murdered her doctor boyfriend there. Later sorting out lab coats again, they find his bloody white jacket, with his tongue in the pocket.
“Sewing for the Heart” concerns a bag-maker hired to construct a bag to enclose a woman’s heart, which is located outside her body, just above her left breast. She is a jazz singer, at a local nightclub. He goes to hear her perform after examining the beating heart at her house. He’s explains: “I simply wanted to see her heart in the outside world.”
The image of a heart beating unprotected and visible arrives at the book’s midpoint, along with a description of the bag as a work of art that could just easily be about the stories, themselves: “A bag has no intentions of its own, it embraces every object you ask it to hold.”
He has made all kinds of bags, including one for carrying his pet hamster, which dies in the course of the story. He dumps it into the trash at a hamburger joint. He has no further use for the hamster’s bag, and the singer’s intricate heart-bag winds up on the floor as well, “like a dead animal” when the singer agrees to an operation that will insert her heart back into her chest cavity.
The thought of his masterpiece going to waste drives the bag-maker mad and he winds up attacking the woman in her bed, as the hospital PA system pages the missing Dr. Y from respiratory medicine.
He cuts out the heart and carries it away in the sealskin satchel he created.
The woman in “Welcome to the Museum of Torture” is linked to the other characters and situations by many threads. A doctor was murdered in apartment #508 in her building; the policeman interviewing her wonders if there’s any connection to the woman whose heart was cut out in a mysterious attack at the hospital the day before. And she describes the embrace of her boyfriend in a way which by now feels downright ominous: “I have the ability to squeeze into any little space he leaves for me. I fold my legs until they take up almost no room at all, and curl in my shoulders until they’re practically dislocated. Like a mummy in a tomb. And when I get like this, I don’t care if I never get out, or maybe that’s what I hope will happen.”
Thinking she is amused by the murder upstairs, her boyfriend breaks up with her and she winds up wandering through the same city dreamscape the other characters inhabit: through the town square, whose cuckoo clock characters are falling apart –even the angel’s wings are detaching themselves. She finds a dead hamster in the trash. Eventually she winds up at the museum of the title, a stone house on the edge of town. An elderly gentleman shows her around, pointing out various gruesome exhibits, including a torso crusher created by a bag-maker. The old man tells her the bag maker invented this horrific corset to use on himself. Love and torture seem a perfect match to the jilted lover.
“Everything my uncle touched seemed to fall apart at the end,” the narrator of the next story, “The Man Who Sold Braces,” tells us. Of course he wasn’t a real uncle, any more than “Mama” of “The Little Dustman” was an actual mother. All family ties in Ogawa’s world are confused and tenuous.
Uncle brought the boy in the story presents, and made him search through his pocket for them. Once he helped the boy build a model airplane, which promptly fell apart, losing its wings like the clock angel. Uncle and nephew remained close as the child grew up and the older man launched himself onto a baroque series of failed business endeavors, including a brace that was supposed to help short people grow taller. The uncle winds up as the curator of a museum of torture and the caretaker of the Bengal tiger kept by the twin old women who originally owned the house. How did he tell the two ancient ladies apart? He couldn’t, and there was no need to: in essence they were the same person, as interchangeable, one can’t help thinking, as the narrators of these eleven stories. The brace he designed winds up in the museum – and falls apart, of course.
The narrator finds his uncle dying in his little apartment, under a collapsed shelf, among a hoarder’s mess of random objects. His uncle tells him the tiger died and gives him a fur coat, which he realizes is stitched together from the animal’s pelt. He leaves, walking out into a bizarre springtime blizzard. Even as he grasps the nature of his coat, it starts to fall apart, molting off him, scattering its pieces on the snow.
The wife of Dr Y, specialist in respiratory medicine, is driving into town to confront his mistress, as “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger” begins. This story seems to takes place before the murder; or perhaps she is just as yet unaware of it. She crosses a bridge covered with spilled tomatoes from a farmer’s overturned truck, driving over them greedily, feeling like she’s crushing human organs with her car wheels. She never gets to apartment #508. Instead she winds up in the backyard of the Museum of Torture, where the old curator is comforting a Bengal tiger in its death throes. Driving home across the bridge, she finds the tomatoes are gone.
The penultimate story in the collection, “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” opens with a small woman and her big dog sitting on the protagonist’s hotel bed when he checks into his room. He convinces her to leave, but she crosses his path often in the days that follow. He sees her trying to sell a load of tomatoes she found scattered a bridge to the hotel chef, and she sits with him the next morning while he eats an omelet engorged with tomatoes and a salad stuffed with them. He’s a writer, staying at the hotel to review it for a travel magazine. The resort features a dolphin-watching cruise, but the dolphins are dead, from some internal parasite that brings to mind the maggots whose swarming movements made the dead hamster seem alive for a moment to the narrator of “Welcome to the Museum of Torture.”
When the old woman sits next to him on a bench, he remarks, “Her tiny body fit right next to mine,” echoing the dead child in the refrigerator, and the girl from the Museum of Torture, molding herself to her boyfriend. It soon becomes clear that this old lady is “Mama” from the “The Little Dustman.” Of course she had died in that story.
So she is a ghost, or something else, the central consciousness that animates all these tales, the reflected and refracting facets of the gem stone, the blood diamond, she keeps turning and turning in her hands.
She re-tells the story of the snow bound trip to the zoo, but fills in the end. She and her son got lost, and almost died in the blizzard. They were rescued by a man driving a car, so much like the lost father’s car in Fruit Juice. The man who saved them looked exactly like the young journalist. He also reminds her of her son. “I seem to have all the parts in your story,” he says. He asks her about the bundle and she tells him it’s her manuscript. She carries it everywhere for fear of having it stolen. She’s not paranoid. It’s happened before. An old woman stole her work once – her novel Afternoon at the Bakery, about a woman buying a birthday cake for her dead son. The plagiarist had the nerve to say of the book, “It was the product of destroying the world she’d built in her previous works.”
The journalist takes photographs of Mama in the hotel library, recalling the photograph of his own lost son and a picture of Mama with old Mrs. J, holding up hand-shaped carrots for a local newspaper. He finds mama’s book in the library. The dust jacket photo shows old Mrs. J, and claims the author disappeared fifteen years before. She’s gone from the hotel the next day, but he finds her bundled manuscript.
The pages are blank.
In the final story, “Poison Plants,” an elderly painter hears a young man singing “The Little Dustman” in a concert, and is so impressed she offers to help him with his career. She secures a tutor and a music scholarship for him in return for a bi-weekly progress report at her house. The boy’s news doesn’t interest her; all she cares about is hearing his voice. He reads to her, a bizarre (but familiar) story of a hill full of kiwi trees, carrots shaped like hands and a dead cat found in an abandoned post office, under a mountain of fruit.
She had a daughter who died at age nineteen. “My past is full of ghosts,” she tells him. She shows him her paintings, he plays piano for her. She tells him a little more about her life. She met her husband when he hired her to paint the poisonous plants in his garden. By this time in the book, that seems like an entirely reasonable courtship. She throws the tarot for him and sees his girlfriend’s death in the cards, though she doesn’t say so. Their brief friendship comes to an end when she insists he visit on his girlfriend’s birthday. He reads to her on that last visit and the story shifts. Is she hearing it, or living it, remembering it or making it up?
The events are familiar by now. The old woman scrambles up a hill of fruit trees and then down into a forest, finally out into a field of rusting discarded appliances. She opens the door of a refrigerator and sees her own body: “In this gloomy, cramped box I had eaten poison plants and died, hidden away from prying eyes. Crouching down at the door I wept. For my dead self.”
And the book ends there, a dream of grief, a lesson in life’s revenge on us, for the crime of living. All these characters sound the same because they are the same, one soul caught in the Museum of Torture, lost in the snow, strapped into the brace, watching everything fall apart, even the wings of angels. Her manuscript stolen or made up of blank pages, or both, its metaphors nevertheless persist in her mind, poisoning her like toxic fruit, colonizing her like maggots in the dead hamster, or the intestinal disease that killed the hotel dolphins. The images are surreal: the sealskin bag perfectly fitted to a human heart, the human tongue in a dead man’s lab coat pocket. They serve the highest purpose of surrealism, to enlarge and distort the truth so that we can finally recognize it.
Mama’s child is dead. She’s dead, too. Any parent who has lost a child, or suffered the loss in a nightmare, or lived a moment or two of it in a crowded place when a little boy wandered off, knows the feeling. Has Yoko Ogawa suffered in this way? It’s impossible to tell. Though Ogawa has published more than twenty books since 1988, and won numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa prize, she lives a life of absolute privacy, out of the public spotlight, as mysterious as the blank pages of her character’s manuscript.
We may know little about the author, but we do know what those empty pages might have contained: the entwined fever dreams of rage and sorrow that make up this small strange masterpiece.
Like the afflicted jazz singer in “Sewing for the Heart,” Yoko Ogawa wears her heart outside her chest — a remarkable, disturbing, beautiful book.
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, where he has been a contributor and contest winner, his work has appeared at Salon.com and The GoodMen Project, as well various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.