While several female Japanese authors have had major success in English-language translation over the past few years (take Mieko Kawakami, Yu Miri and Sayaka Murata, for example) one writer whose work has slipped under the radar is Kyōko Nakajima. Back in 2019, her excellent novel The Little House (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) was published, to very little fanfare, by Darf Publishers – which is a shame as it’s an excellent book that many readers would appreciate. Fortunately, Nakajima’s getting a second chance in English, and this time around we’re treated to a collection of stories, enjoyable pieces with many a twist in the tale – and, as you’ll see, a few brushes with the supernatural, too.
Things Remembered and Things Forgotten (translated by Ian McCullough MacDonald and Ginny Tapley Takemori, review copy courtesy of Sort Of Books) brings together ten of Nakajima’s stories in a wonderful collection. It’s a shared endeavour, with the two translators responsible for five stories apiece, and with a high standard of writing throughout, there’s no perceptible difference in style. As was the case for me, I suspect you’ll need to check the credits to find out who worked on what 🙂
The collection opens with the title piece, a two-strand story that opens with an old man visiting his even older brother in a nursing home before jumping back to their youth in the post-war era. The story instantly seemed oddly familiar, and (of course) it was, as it was actually featured in the excellent Granta 127: Japan anthology. It was certainly worthy of the inclusion, a wonderful little tale of fraternal bonds with a clever twist on the last page.
These endings are a common Nakajima trait, and several stories save a little surprise for the end. One example is ‘Childhood Friends’, a slow-moving story in which a retiring bar owner tells a customer her story of love, a relationship where not all is as it seems. Then there’s the engaging ‘The Life Story of a Sewing Machine’, a look at twentieth-century Japanese history with a focus on a sewing machine and its (mis)adventures. We’re introduced to the battered item in question at the start of the story, and it’s only at the very end that we discover the reason for the machine’s missing ‘heart’.
Like this one, many of the stories included in Things Remembered and Things Forgotten mixes past and present, with Nakajima contrasting the two eras, in effect reminding present-day Japanese of their not-so-distant past. Another nice example of that here is ‘The Pet Civet’, which begins with a woman visiting her late aunt’s house, only to discover an unknown visitor – one who appears to know more about the old woman than she does:
“But it’s completely different from the image I had of my aunt. How can I put it… she was a bit like a withered old tree, a spinster with nothing remotely sexy about her or any hint of having had any male friends.”
“A withered old tree?”
He was clearly offended, and Saya realised she’d said too much.
‘The Pet Civet’, p.159 (Sort Of Books, 2021)
The younger woman realises that there’s a whole side to her aunt that she was unaware of, and it’s a message to the reader that the past should be seen as a living time, just like ours.
On the whole, the stories here are notable for their gentle nature. In the slow-burning ‘When My Wife Was a Shiitake’, a widower discovers a new side to his late wife through following her recipes in a book he discovers after her death, and ‘Global Positioning System’, one of several stories with a frame narrative structure, is similarly restrained. This one kicks off with a story of two young sisters hoping to get on a ride at a fun fair without adult supervision, but this is merely the introduction to the actual tale, one of a family facing up to the father’s dementia.
All fairly normal material, then, but one feature making the stories stand out is Nakajima’s liking for the supernatural, meaning the worlds of the dead and living are presented as being cheek by cheek, and often blur into one another. It’s a major feature of ‘The Pet Civet’, and there’s also a distinct uncanny edge to (the frankly Murakamiesque) ‘A Special Day’, in which a student new to Tokyo, lost on a long walk, finds herself outside an old building in an unfamiliar part of town:
Kaya completely forgot about finding a station and peered through the glass at the interior. An old man on reception dressed like a hotel doorman in a gold-striped unform and cap smiled broadly at her and waved to indicate she should enter. Seeing her hesitate, he made a point of coming to open the door for her. “Please, do come in,” he said, then added pleasantly, almost imploringly, “Isn’t this place wonderful?”
‘A Special Day’, p.127
She decides to go in (it wouldn’t be much of a story if she kept on walking…) and ends up experiencing several art exhibitions, and encountering some rather unusual people…
However, several of Nakajima’s protagonists experience even closer encounters with the past. ‘Kirara’s Paper Plane’ has a youth who died in 1951 making one of his periodic reappearances to look after a young girl neglected by her mother, while ‘The Harajuku House’, another frame narrative, is nicely set up by a talk given at a party:
At one point a rather taciturn older man, greying at the temples, got up to speak. He was the manager of a small machine parts factory in Oita, Kyushu, in Tokyo on a business trip, and staying the night in my friend’s house where the party was held. I’ll call him W.
“I don’t really believe in ghosts and stuff,” he said by way of starting. “But it’s possible I may actually have met one. I don’t really like to call her that, though.”
‘The Harajuku House’, p.184
This story has much in common with ‘A Special Day’, with another student in the big city finding an unusual building. However, the protagonist here has a far longer adventure, and a relationship with a rather peculiar woman to boot.
The themes and style all come together in the closing piece, ‘The Last Obon’, telling of a family assembling at their dead mother’s old house to celebrate the annual festival for the last time. In what is just about a novella, Nakajima creates a tale that is part historical, featuring descriptions of Obon rituals, and part ghost story, again filling the story with strange visitors who are not what they seem. Yet there’s nothing scary about the ghosts featured here – instead, they act as warm, welcome, familiar reminders of the past.
Things Remembered and Things Forgotten is quite simply a joy to read. Nakajima’s elegant stories, simple but with depth, are told wonderfully, ten pieces bound together by their focus on ordinary people now made to reflect on the past. Here’s hoping the collection gets the audience it deserves – for anyone out there with a liking for Japanese literature, this is certainly a book to add to your wish list 🙂