Thursday 31 January 2013

'The Briefcase' by Hiromi Kawakami (Review)

Well, we've just about made it to the end of our month of Japanese delights, but there is one more stop before we say farewell to the land of the rising sun.  The last day of January brings the reviews of our chosen group readalong, and happily it is a good one.  Don't believe me?  Well, the judges for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize (who chose it for their short-list) beg to differ ;)

Hiromi Kawakami's The Briefcase (translated by Allison Markin Powell) is a brief but powerful novel about the development of a rather unusual relationship.  Set in present-day Tokyo (largely in a Japanese bar, or 'izakaya'), it tells of a chance meeting between Tsukiko, a single woman closing in on forty, and her old Japanese teacher Harutsuna Matsumoto - the man she simply calls 'Sensei'.

What begins as occasional drunken conversations in the bar turns into a much closer friendship.  The odd couple go for long walks, embark on shopping trips, have dinner together, and later even go mushroom hunting.  The two enjoy their friendship, but with an age gap like theirs, surely there can't be romance here - can there?

The Briefcase is a bitter-sweet love story, a development of the rather unorthodox relationship between two people who stand out a little from the crowd.  Sensei is retired and divorced, an old man, but one who is always dapper in his suit (and with his briefcase ever in hand).  Beginning as a figure of fun, his character is sketched out a little more with each appearance, allowing the reader to get to know him just as Tsukiko does.

Tsukiko though is very different from the good-natured former teacher.  She is reclusive, spiky, and adept at avoiding affection.  Her life is empty, virtually devoid of meaningful relationships, as she realises when she tries to analyse her connection to Sensei:
"When I tried to think whom I spent time with before I became friendly with Sensei, no-one came to mind.  I had been alone.  I rode the bus alone, I walked around the city alone, I did my shopping alone, and I drank alone."
p.25 (Counterpoint Press, 2012)
In fact, while the reader initially struggles to accept the May-to-December nature of the relationship, later on it is Tsukiko's (in)ability to surrender her independence which is of more interest.  Can she even allow herself to enter into a real, mature relationship?

The Briefcase is an enjoyable novel to read due to the episodic nature of the text.  The story is divided into seventeen chapters of fairly equal length, taking us unhurriedly through the build-up of the relationship (in fact, it is very similar to The Old Capital in this regard...).  There are three two-chapter sections (Mushroom Hunting, The Cherry Blossom Party, The Island) spaced out over the novel, each one a turning point in the relationship.  It all makes for a very smooth read.

Of course, the success of the novel hangs entirely on how believable Sensei and Tsukiko's relationship is, and Kawakami handles this very well.  Before starting, I thought it might be a little like Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor (a book I liked but didn't find particularly special), but that wasn't the case.  The relationship progresses naturally, convincing us not only that it is possible, but also that it is natural, and the addition of a catalyst in the shape of Kojima, Tsukiko's old classmate, helps to push the story along when it is in danger of drifting.

The way the story is written means that the reader experiences events through the eyes of Tsukiko (Sensei, even as we learn more about his past, remains fairly enigmatic to the end).  It is tempting to look at Tsukiko and wonder why she is so attracted to spending time with Sensei - and why she is so alone in the first place.  She drifts by without analysing the relationship much, at least until the stay on the island:
"Since when had Sensei and I become close like this?  At first, Sensei had been a distant stranger.  An old, unfamiliar man who in the far-away beyond had been a high school teacher of mine.  Even once we began chatting now and then, I still barely ever looked at his face.  He was just an abstract presence, quietly drinking his saké in the seat next to mine at the counter." p.126
In many ways, she is rather childish and immature, often blurting out the first thing that comes into her head.  Of course, there is another, more disturbing way to account for her behaviour.  Perhaps she is merely unable to sacrifice her personality for a partner in the way the patriarchal Japanese society demands...

All in all, The Briefcase is an excellent book, well drawn out and thoroughly believable.  There are a few moments of kitch, and a little melodrama towards the close of the novel, but Kawakami rescues it nicely with the ending.  I'll certainly be getting myself a copy of Manazuru at some point, and I'm already looking forward to the new one in English (Strange Weather from Tokyo), out from Portobello Books later this year - as you may have gathered, this was just a retitled UK version of The Briefcase :(.  All that remains to say is that if you haven't read this, you could do worse than give it a try...

...oh, and good luck to Kawakami for the Man Asian Literary Prize :)

You've read my thoughts on the book - why not see how others found it?
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