Given the success of the few books by Hiromi Kawakami that have made it into English, it’s little surprise that someone would get around to her Akutagawa-Prize-winning stories at some point. Of course, it’s the ‘at some point’ that may raise an eyebrow or two; you see, the stories I’m looking at today came out back in 1996. Record of a Night Too Brief (translated by Lucy North, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is a collection of three longish stories/novellas, all of which diverge greatly from what we like to call ‘reality’. Each of the pieces is narrated by a woman to whom strange things happen, yet in Kawakami’s world, when your world turns upside-down, you simply keep going, hoping for the best, and making the most of the new reality.
This is particularly true of the title piece, the longest of the three stories, which recounts a series of dreams experienced by the female narrator. Beginning with a sense of the darkness becoming viscous and tangible, the story takes us on a ride through this darkness into a world where the unusual becomes almost commonplace:
As I collided with the man, several moles fell out of the front of his jacket.
“Oh, bother! Bother!” the man said, desperately trying to rake them together with his hands.
I walked on by, pretending I hadn’t noticed. Nothing good ever comes of getting caught up with people you meet in the night.
‘Record of a Night Too Brief’, p.31 (Pushkin Press, 2017)
Animals frequently occur in these dreams (if that’s what they are), with every second piece featuring an encounter with elephants, monkeys, lions and even inquisitive kiwis, many of which (of whom?) have a bone to pick with the narrator.
However, the even-numbered sections tell a very different story, focusing as they do on another woman. These nine mini-stories appear to describe a relationship of sorts, but in the manner of dreams, the closeness of the two women is exaggerated and twisted, with the narrator making the ‘girl’ shrink (literally) from her kisses, finding her locked in a smooth, white box (smashing her to pieces in an attempt to free her), and even creating copies of her – which then turn on the narrator viciously.
Kawakami has a style all of her own, yet those with more than a passing knowledge of Japanese literature will see similarities with the work of other writers. You can’t go past Haruki Murakami, of course, particularly his short stories, and I was also reminded of the work of Tomoyuki Hoshino (although, with this collection now being old enough to order a beer in a Japanese bar, she may well have influenced them…). However, the biggest influence here must be Natsume Sōseki’s Ten Nights Dreaming, a classic example of dream writing – while Kawakami’s own dream diary has nineteen parts, if you take out the nine sections with the girl, that leaves… (I’ll let you do the maths).
The second story, ‘Missing’, revolves around the disappearance of the narrator’s older brother, or rather, ‘my brother number 1’. Quite apart from the worry the family feels about his disappearance, there’s the small matter of his impending marriage to a young woman he recently met. Still, that shouldn’t pose too many problems – you see, ‘my brother number 2’ is perfectly capable of stepping into the breach…
‘Missing’ is a clever short piece that acts as a parody of traditional Japanese culture. Kawakami introduces bizarre rules and family traditions (the five-person family, polishing a giant heirloom) that have the effect of keeping people in check. Once again, there’s a dreamlike way to how the characters simply carry on despite the bizarre events happening around them, and for an Englishman it’s oddly familiar how people soldier on when things go wrong:
“Do you often have family members who shrink?” my father asked, when it was all nearly over.
“We do – often,” Hiroko’s grandfather replied, in a confidential tone.
My father and my mother exchanged glances.
“Members of our family disappear,” my father declared.
Hiroko’s grandfather nodded gravely. “Every family has something about it, doesn’t it?” he said.
Now, what was that quotation about happy and unhappy families?
That brings us to the prize-winning story itself, ‘A Snake Stepped On’, which continues the trend of young women confronted by bizarre occurrences. In this story, it’s a moment of clumsiness while walking to work that is the catalyst for later events:
Its body slowly started to disappear, and then it was gone. Something indefinable, like smoke, or a fine mist, hung for a few seconds in the space where it had been. I heard it repeat:
“It’s all over.”
I looked again and saw a human being.
“Well, you stepped on me,” the human being announced, “so now I don’t have a choice.”
And with that, the snake-turned-human being walked briskly off, in what seemed to be the direction of my apartment. As far as I could tell, she was a woman in her early fifties.
‘A Snake Stepped On’, p.106
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this isn’t the last that poor Hiwako will see of the snake and, sure enough, the snake/woman is waiting for her with dinner when she gets home. However, too tired to cause a fuss, the young woman decides to put up with her uninvited guest, and when she talks about her experience at work the next day, she discovers that it’s not as uncommon as she might think…
Interestingly enough, translator Lucy North (who does a wonderful job here, by the way) recently provided translations of a couple of comments by the judges for the Akutagawa Prize back in 1996, and I loved what writer, former Mayor of Tokyo, and well-known right-wing politician Shintaro Ishihara had to say about the story:
“I have absolutely nothing good to say about it. I have no idea what the snake is supposed to be a metaphor for. I can only say that the fact that such stuff and nonsense can be awarded a longstanding and illustrious literary prize is demonstration of the decline of Japanese literature today.”
As people have commented, for many readers, that’s actually a glowing endorsement!
I can’t say I have much more of an idea than poor Ishihara, but like all of the main characters in these stories, Hiwako seems to be going nowhere and has trouble letting people under her skin, and the snake could be a metaphor for just that, letting go and giving yourself to someone wholeheartedly. Then again, it could represent death, or it might be a struggle with lesbian desires… OK, I think I’ve shown that it’s best to just let you decide for yourself.
All in all, Record of a Night Too Brief is an excellent showcase of Kawakami’s early work, albeit one that may puzzle readers who’ve only read her gentle romantic novel The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo. The truth is, though, that Kawakami has always had an off-beat slant to her writing, as a glance at a couple of online stories, ‘Mogera Wogura’ (translated by Michael Emmerich, from The Paris Review) and ‘In the Palace of the Dragon King’ (again translated by Emmerich, from World Literature Today), will quickly show. This is what happens when a writer’s image falls into the hands of clever/manipulative overseas publishers…
Happily, Pushkin have finally brought this into English, but that’s not all they’re doing. Record of a Night Too Brief is just one of a series of four short contemporary Japanese works that the press is bringing out over the next few months, with some beautiful series cover branding going on. I have another of the books on the shelves, and I’m sure it won’t be too long before I’m tempted to make another literary journey back to Japan. Perhaps you should join me next time, too 🙂