Thursday, 9 February 2017

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

After The Nakano Thrift Shop it seemed natural to continue on with the recently published Record of A Night Too Brief, by Pushkin Press as part of their interesting mini series of translated Japanese novellas, in a translation by Lucy North, the collection was awarded the Akutagawa Prize back in 1996.

The opening story - Record of a Night Too Brief is the story that consumes the most pages, just under seventy, and through those it perhaps represents a change in the way some English readers might perceive Kawakami, here Kawakami is in much more of an experimental mode, the story is broken down across nineteen chapters which in places induce within the reader the impression that they are reading a short story collection within the one. Feeling sequential, although they feel like they can be read individually, the story sprawls the subject, or concept of night, which in one chapter transforms from an itching sensation on a narrator's back, in another, from a swirling cup of coffee, the story in places breaks it's own supposed sequence, a dancing couple begin to notice mushrooms sprouting from themselves as they age, a girl who seems to be in various stages of disintegration remains the fragmentary clue, or narrative landmark linking the pieces together, the question arises perhaps - is the narrator the same one across the chapters?. The story incorporates surrealistic episodes and instances and an attempt at replay and repair for the broken girl. Record of a Night Too Brief is a mini sprawl of refreshingly imaginative chapters, full of minutiae of all sizes, recalling perhaps in places Landolfi, some incorporating concepts of theoretical physics, another a vivid scene from a strange formal dinner, but the surrealism and allegory don't let up even as dawn approaches, and the reader is given a moment to recollect themselves briefly before moving on to the next story.

The second story, Missing feels much in the same vein, although being more subdued with more space for the explorative, the central plot line is narrated by a sister of two brothers, who are named through the story as brother no. 1 and brother no. 2, brother no. 1 through an intermediary, named Ten, is set to marry Hiroko in what appears to be an arranged marriage, although the dilemma is that he has gone missing, the family, the narrator relates has a history of members going missing, a great - grandmother in the past. At random though, brother no. 1 it seems appears to the narrator at various points like a visitation, in his place in the marriage brother no. 2 steps in, as much of the marriage arrangements are conducted over the phone. Entwined to this main plot line a number of surrealistic episodes and diversions occur, the incident with the jar containing the spirit of Goshiki, (an older ancestor), there's also the balancing of the family numbers being equal, Hiroko moves in, but doesn't settle well with the family and begins to shrink, each family has it's own ways - as another member observes. Underneath the strangeness, there's some interesting observations and allegories occurring in Missing, the presence of it's characters fading in and out, diminishing literally in size, is telling, a cryptic critique, and it's occurrences of strange rituals make it fascinating reading.

As mentioned the last story A Snake Stepped On was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, as with The Nakano Thrift Shop there are not that many characters to the story, narrated by Hiwako who works at a small shop producing prayer beads and supplies for local temples, finds life irrevocably transformed after stepping on a snake, there's a mist, and Hiwako hears a voice saying 'It's all over' and sees a woman walk away in the direction of her apartment. An impression of the story, and Kawakami's writing as a whole, is her ability to mix the ambiguities and unkowns of modern life and blend them with the sense of older myth and folklore, in the three stories of the collection the frontiers of each erode away and intercede, creating fascinating narratives that bring the two worlds into forming exacting allegories. The woman reappears in Hiwako's apartment posing as her mother, although Hiwako's mother lives miles away, she calls to make certain she's there, who is the snake woman?, an imposter making absurd claims, a mother figure of a different sense?. As the story proceeds the revelation comes that Hiwako is not alone in having to live with a snake/human, as her boss's wife Nishiko reveals that she is in the same circumstance, with the snakes calling for them to submit and join them and make the transformation. In places the story shares the same claustrophobic fervor of Abe Kobo's 1949 short story Dendrocacalia and at moments visually it brings to mind Junji Ito's terrifying Uzumaki with spiralling snakes. Underneath this there remains the allegorical study of the transformative power of mankind's darker nature, a fascinating culmination to an engrossing collection.

Record of a Night Too Brief at Pushkin Press

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