Thursday, 17 April 2014

'Revenge' by Yoko Ogawa (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 12)

Well, we've left the Middle-East behind, and today's leg of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey takes us to Japan, where we'll be enjoying some carrots, tomatoes and strawberry shortcake.  Don't get too comfortable though - in the hands of today's writer, any meal is likely to leave a bitter aftertaste...

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa - Harvill Secker
(translated by Stephen Snyder)
What's it all about?
Revenge is a collection of eleven stories, beautifully written in Ogawa's (and Snyder's) usual simple, clipped language.  Everything is set out precisely, and yet the reader always has the sense that the serene surface is hiding something:
"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."
'Afternoon at the Bakery', pp.1/2 (Harvill Secker, 2013)
And right from the start, the writer is mocking us, telling us that something is not quite right.  But let's face it, we should expect that - Ogawa is the queen of the slightly askant...

What follows are a collection of tales where ordinary people going about their daily lives are shown to be somewhat other than normal.  From the woman waiting to buy some strawberry shortcake for her dead son ('Afternoon at the Bakery'), to the bag maker with an obsession for perfection ('Sewing for the Heart'), the writer casually introduces her cast onto the stage, gently setting them off walking, knowing all the while that just around the corner... well, you know.  She must be a *very* cruel woman...

There's a lot more to Revenge than isolated stories of oddballs and psychopaths though - as soon as the reader moves on to the second story ('Fruit Juice'), they realise that Ogawa has a slightly more complex idea in hand.  You see, each of the stories takes something from the previous one and runs with it, with minor characters suddenly appearing in the spotlight, their actions now centre stage.  Even better, the deeper we get into Ogawa's world, the more tangled the web of connections becomes, with people and objects harking back to several earlier stories.  By the time we get to the last of the eleven tales, 'Poison Plants', it's no surprise that the central character leads us back to the start of the book, completing a circle.

With this in mind, the reader is always on the look out for recurring themes, spotting reappearances by former characters and speculating on the significance of such innocent items as carrots, bags, clocks and strawberry shortcake.  Every action has to be analysed for similarities with previous (or future) events:
"When I'm curled up in his arms like this, I can never tell how my body looks to him.  I worry that I seem completely ridiculous, but 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 exactly what I hope will happen."
'Welcome to the Museum of Torture', p.82
A sweet description of a lover's embrace?  Hmm.  There are echoes there of a similar, less romantic scene from the very first story...

As with other Ogawa works, the central idea here is that people are strange and that it is impossible to see what lurks beneath a smiling face or within a beautiful body.  The idea of being 'normal' is held up to the light and examined, distorted, until it becomes hideous and unbearable.  Revenge goes one better, though, in the way that it also explores the interconnectedness of our society (one thought that popped into my mind is that it's like a dark, twisted version of The Beatles song 'Penny Lane'!), and one reading is nowhere near enough to uncover all the links between the stories.  This is a book that demands to be reread - possibly backwards ;)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Oh, yes.  This is easily the most impressive of the books I've read since the longlist announcement, one I devoured in a matter of hours (having started it about half an hour after it dropped through my letter box!).  It's a superb book, well written, with an excellent translation (I'm a big fan of Snyder), and another piece of what should become an impressive Ogawa legacy in English - with over twenty books published in Japan, we have a lot of treats yet to come.

Just one thing puzzles me, though - how on earth did The Housekeeper and the Professor get translated before this?!

Why did it make the shortlist
Because it's an excellent book, a clever collection of stories which is more akin to a novel really, and with the IFFP crying out for female writers on the shortlist, it's little wonder that Revenge made it.  And do you know what?  It stands a very good chance of taking out the whole thing too ;)

Next up on the itinerary is Germany, as we head back in time to Berlin in the fifties.  A woman with two children living in the country, a joyful, idyllic tale...

...sorry - I lied.  More doom and gloom coming up next week :(