Snakes and Earrings is a short novella written by Hitomi Kanehara and it has won the Akutagawa Literary Prize in 2003, one of the most prestigious and well-recognised literary prizes in Japan. The story revolves around Lui, a nineteen-year-old girl who, after meeting Ama, a guy whose body is full of tattoos and who also has a snake-like forked tongue, becomes mesmerised by this body transfiguration process and embarks on a journey to evoke it on her own body as well.
I was initially quite excited to read this novella, as the plot sounded rather intriguing and I had also heard it being praised by some literary people I admire and respect. Haruki Murakami’s brother, Ryu Murakami (whose writing is rather darker and more provoking than his world-famous brother’s) was a member of the critics team who chose the Akutagawa Prize winner and he characteristically said that Kanehara’s story was immediately recognised as the best among all works that had been submitted for the prize that year – a statement which certainly creates some expectations and raises the bar at a rather high level.
To my own disappointment, however, this book was nowhere near as good and gripping as I expected it to be. The writing seemed flat and immature, the dialogues were rather poorly written (one could argue that they were ‘realistic’) and I could not like or even empathise with a single character throughout the entire story. There is some mystery towards the end of the book, when a murder occurs and the plot gets a bit more complicated, but it sadly was not anything mind-blowing.
I understand that this book is targeted towards and tackles the issues of a specific generation of Japanese youth, but it just did not work for me. Instead of feeling the struggles of the characters and the hardships they had to overcome I only kept thinking how all the characters in this book belong to a specific category of people (the ‘rebels’ or ‘non-conformists’ or however you want to call them) who had nothing to do in their lives and just let their time slip away with drinking, having sex and the like.
Another issue I had with this book were the descriptions of the processes of getting different parts of your body pierced or stretched or, even worse, split, like Ama’s forked tongue. Now, I’m a very squirmish person when it comes to graphic descriptions of the sort, and so I really did not appreciate the way in which the author seemed to describe those processes, as if she was talking about a simple recipe or something.
Since it is a very short book (my edition was 126 pages) and not difficult at all, it makes for a very quick read. I can see why this book may have caused an uproar as a shocking tale, but I believe it had more problems than redeeming qualities for it to become such a best-seller and a prize winning novel. I admit it kept me thinking about the events and the characters for a quite a while after I read it, but the feelings it left me with were pretty much those of sadness at the realisation for one more time that this world can be such a dark and desperate place and disappointment because I expected so much more from this story.