Snakes and Earrings (translated by David James Karashima) is the debut work of Hitomi Kanehara, one which won her the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2004, at the age of just nineteen. Like many Akutagawa-Prize winning works, it's a fairly short piece, clocking in at a rather spaced-out 118 pages, and it's one that seems designed to be sped through.
It's the story of Lui, a nineteen-year-old woman enjoying life on the Tokyo night scene. Her life changes when she gets together with Ama, a man with a slightly unusual appearance. It's not his red hair, his tattoos or his piercings which attract Lui though - it's the fact that his tongue has been split in two, like a snake's...
Initially hesitant to commit to Ama's world, Lui quickly gives in to her curiosity, and soon she is on her own path to a snake's tongue. Shiba-san, the owner of the tattoo parlour where she gets her initial studs, also talks her into getting a tattoo on her back, and it isn't long before she senses that the tattoo artist has his eye on her as well. Can Lui cope in this new world? And just who has the forked tongue around here?
Snakes and Earrings is an interesting look at a sub-culture which, to put it mildly, I'm unlikely to ever get close to in real life. Lui acts as the reader's introduction into a world which, behind its facade, is actually fairly ordinary. Our initial view of Ama as a bit of a weirdo is softened by our repeated views of his domestic life, his appearance hiding the fact that he's just a normal bloke:
"He wasn't bad-looking. I mean, all right, his eyes do have a kind of constant menacing stare that can be uncomfortable, but in general I'd still say he falls into the good-looking category. Still, with the tattoo and a face full of piercings, I guess it was difficult to really tell if he looked good or bad."In fact, Ama is a tricky character to pin down. At times, he definitely lives up to the image his cosmetic alterations suggest...
p.49 (Vintage Originals, 2005)
The theme of not judging a book by its cover is an important one in Snakes and Earrings. Every character we meet has their flaws, and it is up to the reader to give them enough time to discover whether those flaws are skin deep, or whether they go closer to the core. This is as true for Lui as it is for the men she hangs around. A bored freeter, one of the new generation who won't commit to a restrictive work life, Lui spends her days drinking, waiting for Ama to get home from work, and her nights having sex or doing the odd spot of casual entertaining.
In fact, Lui comes to be the character we feel most sympathy for. Although she doesn't really have any problems, neither does she have anything to live for. It's going to take something special to snap her out of her downward spiral, a wake-up call. We're just not sure what that wake-up call will be...
Snakes and Earrings is a smooth, polished, quick read, and David James Karashima's translation is a good one (certainly, nothing really stood out at all - which is always a good sign!). Despite this though, it's a book I liked, rather than loved. It all seems a bit like a tame attempt to shock, as if the mere mention of split tongues and giant tattoos is enough to warrant being given the Akutagawa Prize. In fact, when you hear that Kanehara was one of two winners on that occasion, the other being Risa Wataya, another nineteen-year-old, you begin to suspect that the judges were focusing just as much on the writer as on the story (some cruel souls - including me - have speculated that the caricature Fuka-Eri in Murakami's 1Q84 is a hybrid of Kanehara and Wataya...).
Still, it's an enjoyable read with a twist in the tale and slightly more to recommend it than may appear at first glance. And if you do like it, Autofiction, Kaneharas' only other work to have been translated into English, is even better. It's just as messed up though :)