‘Parade’ by Hiromi Kawakami (Review)

Whenever you enjoy time spent in a world created by a writer, it can be hard to leave it, and the people you’ve met there, behind, hence the popularity of sequels and series, I suppose.  However, in most cases, once you close that final page, apart from the prospect of a reread, that’s all you’re ever going to get (a sad thought…).  But what if we could go back and take just a quick peek at what happened behind the scenes, a glimpse of a day in the life of a favourite character?  Well, it doesn’t happen too often, but today’s choice does just that, allowing us to revisit some old friends and spend a sunny afternoon listening to a good story, too 🙂

While Manazuru was the first of Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami’s books to make it into English, it was The Briefcase (US) / Strange Weather in Tokyo (UK) that brought her to most people’s attention.  A touching, whimsical story of the relationship between a woman in her thirties and an elderly ex-schoolteacher, the novel introduced readers to two unusual yet realistic characters whose self-imposed loneliness gives way to a friendship that enriches both of their lives.  The UK version was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (the spiritual predecessor of the current International Booker Prize), and its success has seen three other works by the writer subsequently translated into English.

It’s unsurprising that Kawakami would have wanted to check back in with Sensei and Tsukiko, and she did so back in 2002 in the form of Parade (translated by Allison Markin Powell, review copy courtesy of Soft Skull Press), a short companion piece to Strange Weather…  Neither a prequel nor a sequel, it’s more of an ‘inquel’, a short story set somewhere between the story-like chapters that make up the parent book.  While it’s only a brief tangent from the main work, and doesn’t really affect the story, it still makes for a welcome return from our Tokyo friends.

We join them on a sunny summer day at Sensei’s house as they prepare, then eat, a substantial lunch.  After a post-prandial snooze, they start chatting, and eventually Sensei makes an idle request:

“Tsukiko, tell me a story from long ago,” Sensei said as he tapped on my palm.
p.14 (Soft Skull Press, 2019)

Rousing herself from her torpor, Tsukiko does so, and it makes for a very interesting tale of an unusual childhood experience.

One day, young Tsukiko is startled by the sudden appearance at her home of two tengu, mythical Japanese creatures (who have a liking for margarine…).  Initially, the young girl is scared of what her mother might think, but she surprisingly takes it in her stride, confessing that she also had unusual companions when she was young.  On arriving at school, Tsukiko is able to see that some of her classmates have friends of their own, now visible to her thanks to the arrival of the cuddly tengu.

However, there’s another, more disturbing, aspect to the story.  One of the other girls in the class, Yuko, falls victim to a sudden, senseless bout of ostracisation which spreads a feeling of unease throughout the classroom:

Even as the shunning got worse and worse, Yuko never once cried.  During class, she would look straight at the teacher, and raise her hand often.  Whenever Yuko answered a question, half of the students would coldly turn their heads away.  Sometimes one of the girls even murmured, “Jerk,” under her breath.  Her voice sounded terribly nasty.  Whenever I imagined someone speaking to me in that tone, it made shivers run up and down my spine. (p.48)

It’s not just the children that are affected by the behaviour, with one of the Tengu falling ill.  Poor Tsukiko, just a child, is bewildered by what’s happening at school and wonders how to cope – and how she should approach Yuko…

Parade, then, is a story within a story, using the frame of our two friends to tell a very different tale.  The sense of magical realism pervading the story might surprise some, but not those who have read Kawakami’s work before (e.g. the dark novellas making up Record of a Night Too Brief, or her fantasy story ‘Mogera Wogura’, available online at the Paris Review).  Even Strange Weather… itself has its more fantastic moments, such as the dream sequence at the heart of the novel, and it’s something Kawakami obviously delights in, creating these off-kilter sequences in the middle of a more mundane tale.

The story of Tsukiko, Yuko and the Tengu is interesting enough, touching as it does on the way children can be both innocent and very cruel at the same time, but I suspect most readers will be more interested in what surrounds it.  Luckily, Parade doesn’t disappoint there, either, featuring all the hallmarks of the book it has sprung from.  It’s marked by its beautiful depiction of two people enjoying each other’s company with no need for the outside world, along with the leisurely meals, and drinking, that were an important part of the original novel.

On my latest reread of Strange Weather…, what I noticed most (and what I’d forgotten) was that it’s a very funny book.  One of the strongest aspects is the frequent interplay between the old-fashioned, but occasionally crude, Sensei and the blunt, tactless Tsukiko.  Having become familiar with each other, they no longer stand on ceremony, and some of the banter that ensues is wonderful:

“Well, look at that.  The tatami print is quite clearly marked on your skin.”
“Isn’t it?”
“On a much younger person, the marks would quickly disappear, but not on you Tsukiko.”
“That’s a rude thing to say.” (p.14)

In many ways, the two are like an old married couple, and perhaps that’s exactly what Kawakami is showing us here, a simple, happy day from after the two have got closer.

Parade may just be a short, one-sitting read, but for Kawakami fans, it’s certainly well worth checking out.  Markin Powell, Kawakami’s usual translator, continues her excellent work in catching the unmistakeable tone of Strange Weather…, with its deadpan humour and the sleepy Sunday vibe, while Takako Yoshitomo’s original colourful pictures are scattered throughout the book, abstract pieces that (perhaps) have a hint of Tengu about them.  All in all, it makes for an enjoyable little book that can best be described as fan-fiction, but by the original author.  I think we can all agree that that’s the best kind 😉

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