It’s so hard to wrap my head around it. It’s so weird to think of you being pregnant. I mean, I’ve never heard you say anything about love or marriage. That’s why it was such a surprise to find out that you’ve been…getting out there, you know? Having a life.
A void can mean so many things. An emptiness. A longing. A life.
It could also mean “avoid.” Like what Shibata does to keep from cleaning up the coffee cups which have gone cold, and are filled with cigarette butts smashed into the liquid, so that they smell terrible. It is expected that a woman should clean up the mess, and so she says she can’t because she’s pregnant.
At first, Shibata stuffs her clothing with padding to carry on her ruse. But, as the story progresses, so does her pregnancy, such that near the end, even the doctor is pointing out the baby at the ultra sound.
Of course, there is no baby. And so, the novel raises many questions, like: what is the role of women in society; do doctors even know what they are doing; how does what we tell ourselves effect what we believe?
Shibata tours the factory where she works, which makes hollow cores to be used as paper toweling tubes, for example. As she watches them turn out, we read this paragraph:
Words summoning more words, making space for a new story to come into the world. Solemnly, modestly, reverently. And inside the core a void. Ready for whatever story was going to fill it.
Again: a void. Again: what story will fill it?
This was a fascinating novel, and even though it has few pages, it has many themes. None of which are easily answered.
I am hoping to see it on the International Booker Prize longlist this year.
I remember how as a young bride I enjoyed staying at home and caring for my husband. We lived in Germany at the time, and I would walk to the Konditorei for bread to make us lunch which I would then carry to where he worked.
It was an idyllic time, yet I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to teach when the new school year came. Could I have been happy being a homemaker forever? It is something I’ll never know, for I taught until I retired, occasionally yearning for the privilege of “only” caring for the home; having one job, instead of two.
Maybe it is as simple as wanting what we cannot have, for when Asahi’s husband is transferred to a small village, she, too, gives up her job in Tokyo. Which is not something she loved in the first place, being a part time employee. Yet she and a colleague fantasize about the prospect of not having to go to work any more. Until it becomes a reality for her.
I’d wake up a little before six, pack my husband’s lunches, make his breakfast, see him off, go shopping, clean the house, or maybe run the laundry – but, after that, I didn’t have anything to do. Living the dream? Really?
One day, her mother-in-law calls from her work to ask Asa if she will make a deposit at the bank for her. The bills and deposit slip are waiting on the counter, where she forgot them that morning. So Asa sets off in palpable Summer heat, I can feel it through the description on the pages, and suddenly falls into a hole.
The hole felt as though it was exactly my size – a trap made just for me.
It is a hole she did not see, could not anticipate, and therefore could not avoid falling into. A metaphor for the life she is now living in a remote village, with no job, no friends, no entertainment, and a husband who is only described as either sleeping or scrolling though his cell phone.
I knew what I was getting into. But that doesn’t mean I knew everything.
When do we know everything? We blindly go forward, making the best choices we can, and some of us pray for wisdom along the way to guide us. But now, added to this “simple” story, Asa begins seeing strange animals. Meeting strange people, like the Sensei at the 7 Eleven, and children flipping through comics who don’t look at her. She encounters her husband’s brother, whom she didn’t even know existed, and he warns her of a sleeping animal’s fangs when he points it out at the bottom of another hole.
“Fangs? That kind of animal had fangs? Then again, how would I know? I didn’t know anything.
And so we encounter a discouraged wife who also seems to be seeing things, or at least imagining them, and reality is mixed with a bit of surrealism. Still, I found plenty to ponder in this slim volume packed with powerful observations.
People always fail to notice things. Animals, cicadas, puddles of melted ice cream on the ground, the neighborhood shut-in. But what would you expect? It seems like most folks don’t see what they don’t want to see. The same goes for you. There just be plenty you don’t see.
“It takes a writer of great talent to mold the banality of the everyday into the stuff of art, and to build an entire world around a metaphor other writers might quickly deploy and cast aside, but Oyamada is in complete control of her talent. “
The Holeby Hiroko Okayama, translated by David Boyd, won the Akutagawa Prize. It is a short book, which I read in one afternoon and highly recommend.
I must admit to feeling equivocated about this book. I loved the cover, as if that matters, and the concept of two people struggling over the course of one night to discover why their guide died during a mountain trek they had taken. They each suspect the other of murder, as neither was in the other’s line of sight when he fell to his death.
But, it took me almost a week to read 204 pages because I just couldn’t engage with it.
Actually, the story ended up being more about these two, Aki and Hiro, than about the death of their guide. We don’t even know how he died, exactly, other than Aki’s suppositions at the end. What we are embroiled in is the relationship between Aki and Hiro, their combined memories, and what they mean to each other.
It was a little confusing, at first, as they both speak in the first person, and I wondered who it was that was telling me their perspective. The chapters alternate between each voice, so after awhile it became clearer. But, as far as Japanese literature goes, and especially a book from Riku Onda, I felt it far from thrilling.
I am going on now to The Holeby Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd, which won the Akutagawa Prize.
Ever so slowly, Keigo Higoshino leads us precisely through the murder investigation which begins with a man named Takeaki Aoyagi stumbling down the sidewalk as though drunk, and then dying at the foot of a kirin statue on the Nihonbashi Bridge.
When a young man in possession of Aoyagi’s wallet is struck by a car as he’s running away, it is assumed he was the killer. After all, he had called his girlfriend before he was struck to leave this message:
“I’ve done something awful…Something terrible’s happened. I don’t know what to do.” Those were his exact words…He sounded hysterical.
But, that would’ve been too simple.
Instead we learn that these two have the same workplace, Kanaseki Metals, and that terrible accidents have been covered up. Is this the cause for murder? One major headline in the news reads:
Did Aoyagi order the cover-up of workplace accidents? Factory manager reveals all.
But then, why are hundreds of folded origami cranes left at shrines, most particularly the Suitengu Shrine which is where people pray for the safety of babies as well as protection from drowning…?
We have reason to believe that Mr. Aoyagi was a regular visitor to Suitengu Shrine. Offering up origami cranes one hundred at a time. Does that ring any bells…
The pieces of the puzzle seem obscure, and unrelated, but Detectives Kyoichiro Kaga and his cousin Shuhei Matsumiya are brilliant sleuths, able to find the cause and resolution of a most heartbreaking death.
This was a fascinating thriller, pleasing in more ways than having an interesting plot. Like all of my favorite novels, there is much deeper meaning, and application, to the lives of the father, Aoyagi, and his family than a typical American mystery provides. It proves once again why Kiego Higoshino is my favorite Japanese crime writer.
I wondered if there would be an interest in hosting the Japanese Literature Challenge for the sixteenth year, and so I threw out the idea on Instagram last evening. It seems that there are, in fact, a few ardent fans for whom the event still holds great interest. As it does for me.
And so we shall begin in January, reading such literature as catches our eye and leaving links, if you so desire, to a sticky post which will be at the top of my blog. Let’s hold the event for January and February, giving us two months to indulge this passion.
I will be reading, and hosting a few give-aways for, the following books:
Already, I can feel the excitement building within my heart. Can you?