It’s been a while, but I’ve finally found the time to look at two more selections from Keshiki – new voices from Japan, a series of eight chapbooks released by Strangers Press (a project associated with the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia and supported by the Nippon Foundation through Writers Centre Norwich). Today’s post features works by two writers I hadn’t previously encountered, and despite the differences in setting – one urban, one slightly more rural -, there’s a connection in the rather sinister slant they provide on the world. Oh, and they’re both very good, of course 😉
Aoko Matsuda’s The Girl Who Is Getting Married (translated by Angus Turvill) is a fairly simple tale of a woman visiting a friend, a girl who is, well, I’m sure you can guess. The story alternates between what seems to be the world’s longest walk up a flight of stairs to a fifth-floor apartment and memories of the time the two friends have spent together, the writer telling us more about the relationship between the two women with every step in the direction of the apartment.
So far, so good, yet there’s far more to the story than that. Despite its simple, breezy nature, The Girl Who Is Getting Married conceals far more than it reveals. Gradually, the reader begins to doubt the veracity of the narrator’s statements as the contradictions, first small, then more troubling, begin to pile up. As we get closer to the top floor of the apartment building, we start to feel that what we’ll find there is not what we initially expected…
It’s a very clever story in which Matsuda plays with the reader, and the writing is key. The writer uses fairly simple language, with a lot of repetition:
I met up quite recently with the girl who is getting married. I had not seen the girl who is getting married for a year and when the girl who is getting married appeared at the north entrance of the station I thought how well she looked. The girl who is getting married came through the ticket barrier and when she saw me standing beside the bronze nude statue she smiled, waved and broke into a little run. There was not the slightest tension in the smile of the girl who is getting married. I smiled back, as I always do.
p.12 (Strangers Press, 2017)
It’s all rather innocuous at first, but it slowly begins to grate, like drops of water on your forehead, drip, drip, drip, until it starts to annoy you. Turville’s excellent work on the translation brings this sensation across into English, with every word another small step towards a rather unsettling whole.
Each individual section of the story is fairly mundane by itself, and it’s only when seen in the context of the other pieces that it has the desired effect. The writer is (very) subtly critiquing a society where human relationships are breaking down by telling the story of a woman (the narrator, not the girl who… well, you know) whose bonds with her friend might not be as close as she claims. What we end up with is a sad tale of a woman who can’t help but talk about her life, even though we haven’t really been told anything…
Just as creepy, but in a more obvious way, is Masatsugu Ono’s At the Edge of the Wood (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter). This one contains two short stories connected by the characters and setting, focusing on a man and his son living in a house on the edge of a wood. The man’s wife has gone back to her parents’ house for the birth of a baby girl, leaving the rest of the family to wait for her return.
The writing here is smoother, with longer, more complex sentences than in Matsuda’s story, but the NQR factor is just as high. Alarm bells are triggered by the boy’s reluctance to go for walks in the wood, and they only get louder when the man becomes increasingly concerned by the strange noises coming from the wood:
Then, for the first time, I had a feeling that I knew what the sound was. No wonder it made my heart ache. It was the sound someone makes who’s sick at heart. It sounded like coughing. A rope unevenly tied in knots, trying to strangle you from the inside. Escape is impossible. Countless hands grip the ends of the rope and never give up. Whenever the hands approach, drive them away by coughing, that’s all you can do.
p.11 (Strangers Press, 2017)
And you thought it was just the wind… This certainly isn’t your normal suburban residence.
The book is divided into two fairly equal parts. ‘A Breast’ sees the boy come back home with a visitor, an old woman wearing nothing but a dressing gown, while in ‘The Pastry Shop at the Edge of the Wood’, the father encounters something even more surprising, and unusual, on his doorstep. With no-one to turn to, he must cope with the intruders as best he can, worrying all the time about the effect the strange events are having on his son.
These are a couple of excellent pieces, all the better for JWC’s usual flawless work. I’d love to know more about the background of the stories as I’m not sure if they’re just two related pieces or something more; they certainly have the feel of the start of a collection of linked pieces, or even a novel. There’s a definite sense of the other-worldly to them with several large nods in the direction of a certain famous Japanese writer (whether that’s a good or bad thing is for you to decide…).
I hadn’t heard of either of these writers before, but after reading these tasters of their work, I’d love to try more. I did a quick search online, and while I can’t find much else by Matsuda in English (her profile on the Strangers Press site does point to some stories published in other collections), it appears that Ono has a book (Lion Cross Point) coming out from the excellent Two Lines Press next April. Consider that duly noted in the diary – more to look forward to very soon 🙂