Tuesday 12 February 2013

Book Review | Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart. The place is immaculate but there is no one serving so she waits. Another customer comes in. The woman tells the new arrival that she is buying her son a treat for his birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake; even though he died in an accident when he was six years old.

From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters. In the tradition of classical Japanese poetic collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.


Consume them independently at your own peril, but taken together, the eleven dark tales contained in Revenge by Yoko Ogawa make for a single, delectable dish. One best served cold, of course.

Behold the beauty of the quote below. Know, though, that there's something very wrong with this picture:
"It was a beautiful Sunday. The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight. Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement. Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings. 
"Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off in the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, entranced. 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." (pp.1-2)
So begins Stephen Snyder's sublime translation of Yoko Ogawa's 1998 short story collection, originally published in Japan as Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, and "Afternoon at the Bakery" is an ideal opener. It isn't about much at all, if the truth be told—an anonymous woman reminiscing about her son whilst waiting in a bakery to buy the strawberry shortcake she always orders on the anniversary of his untimely and doubly discomfiting death—yet this exacting introduction to the motifs and ideas which recur throughout Revenge does a great deal to prime readers for the unsettling efforts ahead.

"Fruit Juice" follows. It chronicles the fleeting first meeting of a distant father and daughter from a characteristically uncertain external perspective. Out of the blue—they're certainly not friends or anything—the daughter invites our narrator, whom Ogawa once more disdains to name, to accompany her to a French restaurant for this excruciating reunion. Afterwards, they hang out near an abandoned post office inexplicably stuffed full of fruit. Kiwis, even!

This is the first of several symbolic threads which run the length of Revenge, though the story it arises in is again fairly forgettable in itself. However the next narrative—namely "Old Mrs. J"—is effective even absent the chilling context of the stories surrounding it. Old Mrs. J is the landlady of a quiet apartment surrounded by gorgeous orchards, and it should come a little surprise to you that the author only allows us to glimpse her from a distance.

(That is to say the author of "Old Mrs. J," not the author who moves into this beautiful building—recommended to her, incidentally, by the editor of an arts and crafts magazine who dies at the outset of the subsequent story—and observes her attending her kiwis.)

Old Mrs. J also grows carrots, if you can credit it: carrots which to a one take the shape of "amputated [human] hands with malignant tumors, dangling in front of us, still warm from the earth." (p.36) Soon enough a reporter is dispatched to the apartment to write an article about these vile vegetables, and in the aftermath of its publication an appropriately depraved discovery is made, the repercussions of which ripple through the remainder of Revenge.

Oh, and the photo accompanying the aforementioned reporter's story proves pivotal to the narrator of a later tale... a narrator who may have appeared in a deceptively incidental role in Revenge already.

As one character wisely advises, "Even if something seems pointless at the time, you mustn't take it lightly. You'll see how useful it is later on. Nothing you study will ever turn out to be useless. That's the way the world is." (p.108)

To wit, almost everything is connected in this incredible collection, to the point that those things which are not seem far stranger for their isolation. As indicated, occasional people reappear, seemingly at random, yet rarely compared to the images the author summons up in one narrative after another. Some of said are sumptuous, others appear absurd; all are in service of the same resounding result, for Ogawa's tendency to delight is adequately matched by her impulse to disgust. See for example the stories at the dark heart of this awesome volume: "Sewing for the Heart" and "Welcome to the Museum of Torture."

Indeed, in a sense, reading Revenge is not dissimilar to torture of a sort.
"For a torture to be effective, the pain has to be spread out; it has to come at regular intervals, with no end in sight. The water falls, drop after drop after drop, like the second hand of a watch, carving up time. The shock of each individual drop is insignificant, but the sensation is impossible to ignore. At first, one might manage to think about other things, but after five hours, after ten hours, it becomes unendurable. The repeated stimulation excites the nerves to a point where they literally explode, and every sensation in the body is absorbed into that one spot on the forehead—indeed, you come to feel that you are nothing but a forehead, into which a fine needle is being forced millimeter by millimeter. You can't sleep or even speak, hypnotized by a suffering that is greater than any mere pain. In general, the victim goes mad before a day has passed." (pp.93-94)
This device describes the overall impact of Revenge: a sterling ensemble of short stories about darkness, death and depression, by way of love, loss and, at the last, blinding new life. As yet another of Ogawa's arrayed narrators notes, "The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy undercurrent running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again." (p.148) You should, too.

Though only a few of the stories collected in Revenge impress as individual entities, they gain far greater power and persuasiveness when read together, and recollected afterwards as a single, shocking thing.

It's taken 15 years for the first of Yoko Ogawa's uncanny collections to be rendered into exquisite English, and obviously this is no overnight process. I wouldn't want to lose the lens of Stephen Snyder, either. Be that as it may, I hope you'll join me in wishing that we see subsequent efforts from the rising international star... somewhat sooner.


Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
by Yoko Ogawa

UK Publication: January 2013, Harvill Secker
US Publication: January 2013, Picador

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  1. I read this a couple of weeks ago and I'd agree with pretty much all of what you've said here. I got the UK edition (the one to the left there) which gives far less of a clue to the real nature of what's inside.

    It creeps up on you, I started out thinking it was just a little weird with a touch of magical realism. It was only when I got halfway through 'Welcome to the Museum of Torture' that I realised it was now straight up Horror.

    You'd have thought the title of that story would have tipped me off, but no. It was the tweezers that did it for me. Oh god, the tweezers...

  2. I just read this and agree about its power. Some stories did not wow me, but others - such as Welcome to the Museum of Torture or Sewing for the Heart - were stunning.