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‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Characterised as a science-fiction novel reminiscent of Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty Four, but with a dreamlike Kafka-esque quality of the fantastic, Yoko Ogawa’s newest English-translated novel, The Memory Police, embodies the sheer horror of loss and the inevitability of preventing it. The novel was originally published in Japan in 1994 and has been beautifully translated into English by Stephen Snyder. 38058832._SY475_

The novel is set in a fictional and unnamed island (one can’t help but presume it uncannily brings Japan itself to mind), where different things such as hats, ribbons, birds, fruit and later on even certain body parts start disappearing from people’s memories. Having no recollection of those things whatsoever, the people are then required to destroy all remnants of the thing that has disappeared from their memories, something that the Memory Police of title is there to supervise.

However, some people are unable to forget and they try to preserve not only their memories of what has disappeared for everyone else, but also some mementos of the things themselves. The Memory Police, as a ruthless invigilator, stricly punishes whoever does not destroy every trace of the things that have disappeared, and they often take the people that cannot forget away, never to be seen again.

Our protagonist is a young writer whose parents have both passed away and she is left with an old family friend and her typing teacher, with whom she also maintains an intimate relationship. When her teacher is forced to go into hiding lest he be taken by the Memory Police, our protaginst does everything she can to protect him and keep him as close to her as possible. How can a person stay the same, though, when their memories and experiences associated with certain things are in danger of fading away from one day to another?

“People… seem capable of forgetting almost anything.”

-The Memory Police, location 96

As usual, Ogawa’s prose is stark and clear and creates an eerie atmosphere befitting of her novel’s theme. Although there is a very vivid plot throughout the novel, it does feel at times like the story does not move forward at all, but it instead focuses on the feelings and musings of the characters. The totalitarian-like regime that is described is terrifying, presenting a society on the verge of collapse and almost famished. Although the disappearances are never really explained, leaving this fantastic element aloft, they do seem to rather represent a disappearance of culture, of the self, of one’s identity.

Ogawa’s apocalyptic magical realism is exactly my cup of tea, and so I devoured this book is just a few days. I loved the tranquil and stark writing style, I loved the world and character building, (I disaggreed with some relationships between characters, but that’s a personal issue) but at some points, the story felt a little lacking. Like it had become absorbed in its own created universe a little too much, or like it was itself a fragment of a memory unable to be forgotten.

The taste the ending leaves is bittersweet, just like the theme it explores. Memories are fickle yet precious, they are proof that some things and experiences have truly existed, they are what makes us, us. Without our memories, can we still remain the same people, or are we bound to disappear and dissolve into nothingness like our very own memories?

The Memory Police is a wonderful and terrifying book that certainly provides its readers with plenty of food for thought. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of the fantastic and literary fiction alike, as I’m sure both groups will find something to relish in between its pages.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘The Diving Pool: Three Novellas’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, is the only outstanding work of Yoko Ogawa’s which is currently available in English, which I had not yet read.  Although a prolific author, very few of Ogawa’s works are available in English at present, and I can only hope that this is rectified in the near future.  I find Ogawa’s fiction entirely beguiling; it is strange, chilling, surprising, and oh so memorable.  This collection has been translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Guardian calls this tome ‘Profoundly unsettling, magnificently written’, and believes Ogawa to be ‘one of Japan’s greatest living writers.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that Ogawa ‘invests the most banal domestic situations with a chilling and malevolent sense of perversity, marking her out as a master of subtle psychological horror.’  This collection, promises its blurb, is ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant.’
9780099521358

The Diving Pool includes the titular story, as well as ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’.  They were originally written during 1990 and 1991, and made available in English for the first time in 2008.  As with much of her other work, these stories err on the dark side of human nature.

In ‘The Diving Pool’, a ‘lonely teenage girl [named Aya] falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool’.  Aya surveys him secretly, and then goes out of her way to scurry home, to the orphanage which her parents run, before he finishes his shower, so that he is unaware of her presence.  Ogawa writes: ‘I spent a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool.  I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well.  I’m not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don’t seem to have any reason to be here at all.  I just sit and look at Jun’s wet body.’  She elaborates further: ‘Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower.  I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.’  The unsettling sense one gets here manifests itself both in the building of the story, and within certain character descriptions.  The narrator of the tale describes her mother, for instance, who is barely mentioned afterward, like so: ‘Her lips were like maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers.’

‘Pregnancy Diary’ is written from the perspective of a young woman whose sister is pregnant.  It is a ‘sinister tale of greed and repulsion’, and certainly crosses boundaries of what is acceptable.  At the outset of the tale, the narrator, who appears rather self-important, wonders ‘how she broke the news [of the pregnancy] to her husband.  I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around.  In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all.  They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker.’  When she goes on to describe the ultrasound photograph, Ogawa makes a fitting yet unusual comparison: ‘The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long.  The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.’  The suspense has been built brilliantly in ‘Pregnancy Diary’, and heightens when the narrator takes such unadulterated pleasure in the pain which her sister undergoes as a result of her condition.

‘Dormitory’ deals with a woman visiting her old college rooms in Tokyo, which her cousin is hoping to move into.  At first, she feels nostalgia about her experience there, but she soon begins to notice the darker elements which have crept in since she moved on.  In the dormitory building, she ‘finds an isolated world shadowed by decay, haunted by absent students and the disturbing figure of the crippled caretaker.’  The woman is aware of a noise which she can sometimes hear, and which becomes more and more troubling to her as time goes on.  The story begins: ‘I became aware of the sound quite recently, though I can’t say with certainty when it started.  There is a place in my memory that is dim and obscure, and the sound seems to have been hiding just there.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was hearing it…  It was audible only at certain moments, and not necessarily when I wanted to hear it.’  She goes on to say: ‘To be honest, I’m not sure you could even call it a sound.  It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb.  But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound – its source, its tone, its timbre’ remained vague.   The way in which she goes on to describe her old college building, and how she finds it just six years after graduating, is chilling: ‘Still, it wasn’t exactly a ruin…  I could feel traces of life been in the decaying concrete, a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin.’

Despite these novellas being little more than long short stories, really, we learn an awful lot about each protagonist.  Their narrative voices feel authentic, and the way in which Ogawa has been able to pen three stories, all with young women at their core, but has made them so different, shows what a masterful and versatile writer she is.  The first two narrators have something quite sinister at their core, which are not apparent at first.  The third narrator seemed more innocent, and therefore the darker elements of the story came almost as more of a shock.  It feels throughout as though Ogawa wished to lull her readers into a false sense of security with these stories.

The imagery which Ogawa creates is at once startling and vivid.  In ‘The Diving Pool’, for instance, the narrator begins by saying: ‘It’s always warm here.  I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.’  There is certainly a dark edge to each of the tales, which is present at the outset and builds toward the end.  Throughout, there is a focus on the minutiae of life, and how things are often far more sinister than they appear at first glance.

There are no satisfying conclusions here; rather, the stories end at points of heightened tension, buzzing with unanswered questions and a lack of resolution.  Regardless, The Diving Pool makes for compelling and compulsive reading, and is, I think, the most unsettling of Ogawa’s books which I have read to date.  There is an almost grotesque edge to each of them, and all are taut and masterfully crafted.  Collected in The Diving Pool are the best kinds of stories: ones which promise to stay with you for a long time to come.

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The Book Trail: From Edith to Iris

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with one of my most highly anticipated reads, Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.

 

1. Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith 27282871
As Edith Howland’s life becomes harsh, her diary entries only become brighter and brighter. She invents a happy life. As she knits for imaginary grandchildren, the real world recedes. Her descent into madness is subtle, appalling, and entirely believable.

2. The Book of Repulsive Women by Djuna Barnes
Originally published in the chap book series by Bruno of Greenwich Village in 1915, this renowned volume of poetry presented portraits of women of the period -a mother, prostitute, cabaret dancer, and others-which were wildly radical in their day dominated as it was by Victorian mores. But there is still in these “rhythms” a seething beat of sexuality and vice, whipped up into a delicious sense of perversity by Barnes’s art. On the evidence of Barnes’s numerous other works, most of which included art that was interleaved with her writing, Messerli has restored the drawings-which in the Bruno edition appeared in the back, after the poem’s-to the front of the book so that they can create an interplay with the texts.

4045323. Mysteries of Small Houses by Alice Notley
Alice Notley vividly reconstructs the mysteries, longings, and emotions of her past in this brilliant new collection of poems that charts her growth from young girl to young woman to accomplished artist. In this volume, memories of her childhood in the California desert spring to life through evocative renderings of the American landscape, circa 1950. Likewise, her coming of age as a poet in the turbulent sixties is evoked through the era’s angry, creative energy. As she looks backward with the perspective that time and age allows, Notley ably captures the immediacy of youth’s passion while offering her own dry-eyed interpretations of the events of a life lived close to the bone. Like the colorful collages she assembles from paper and other found materials, Notley erects structures of image and feeling to house the memories that swirl around her in the present. In their feverish, intelligent renderings of moments both precise and ephemeral, Notley’s poems manage to mirror and transcend the times they evoke. Her profound tributes to the stages of her life and to the identities she has assumed—child, youth, lover, poet, wife, mother, friend, and widow—are remarkable for their insight and wisdom, and for the courage of their unblinking gaze.’

4. In by Natsuo Kirino
R is the other woman. Labelled simply with one initial, her identity in the famous 1940s novel that recounts the damage she did to her lover’s family remains shrouded in mystery. The novelist who carried out an illicit relationship with her, and then used her as material for his work, became a celebrated writer. But R never had the chance to put her side of the story.  Tamaki is determined to find out who R really was. A writer herself, she is working on a book about R and begins to uncover clues about the real story behind the novel, and the great tragedy of the novelist’s life. While she throws herself into her research she’s aware that her own imperfect relationships are also up for scrutiny. Her ex-lover, Seiji, is gravely ill in hospital and her reminiscences about their long affair strike echoes with the subject of her work.  In this compelling and moving novel, prize-winning author, Natsuo Kirino explores the themes of love and death, and the significance of fiction.

5. Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta 1401908
This compelling novel, widely acclaimed for its perceptive portrayal of the everyday lives and struggles of Japanese women, struck a deep chord with readers throughout Japan. In 2005 it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, awarded semiannually for the best work of popular fiction by an established writer.  Sayoko, a thirty-five-year-old homemaker with a three-year-old child, begins working for Aoi, a free-spirited, single career woman her own age who runs a travel agency-housekeeping business. Timid and unable to connect with other mothers in her neighborhood, Sayoko finds herself drawn to Aoi’s independent lifestyle and easygoing personality. The two hit it off from the start, beginning a friendship that is for Sayoko also a reaffirmation of what living is about.  Aoi, meanwhile, has not always been the self-confident person she appears to be. Severe classroom bullying in junior high had forced her to change schools, uprooting her and her family to the countryside; and at her new school, she was so afraid of again becoming the object of her classmates’ cruelties that she spent most of her time steering clear of those around her.  The present-day friendship between Sayoko and Aoi on the one hand, and Aoi’s painful high school past on the other, form a gripping two-tier narrative that converges in the final chapter. The book touches on a broad range of issues of concern to women today, from marriage and childrearing to being single and working for oneself. It is a universal story about both the fear and the joy of opening up to others.

6. Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami
In the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, here is a new classic about the bride who’s no longer sure what to think. All families have their own rituals, secrets, and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you’re marrying into a household. If its’s a Japanese one with a history, the brace yourself: some surprising truths lurk around the corner.

9227137. Autofiction by Hiromi Kanehara
Rin is flying back from her honeymoon. She’s madly in love with her husband, Shin, and the future looks rosy. Then Shin disappears to the bathroom while he thinks Rin is sleeping and she starts to imagine that he has gone to seduce the flight attendant. As her thoughts spiral out of control the phrase ‘madly in love’ takes on a more sinister meaning.  Prizewinning author Hitomi Kanehara’s sensational novel, Autofiction, follows Rin’s life backwards through time from this moment so that we see her when she is eighteen, sixteen and finally fifteen, and a picture of the dark heart and violent past of this disturbed young woman gradually develops.

8. Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
A tale of twisted love from Yoko Ogawa—author of The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper and the Professor.  In a crumbling seaside hotel on the coast of Japan, quiet seventeen-year-old Mari works the front desk as her mother tends to the off-season customers. When one night they are forced to expel a middle-aged man and a prostitute from their room, Mari finds herself drawn to the man’s voice, in what will become the first gesture of a single long seduction. In spite of her provincial surroundings, and her cool but controlling mother, Mari is a sophisticated observer of human desire, and she sees in this man something she has long been looking for.  The man is a proud if threadbare translator living on an island off the coast. A widower, there are whispers around town that he may have murdered his wife. Mari begins to visit him on his island, and he soon initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure, a place in which she finds herself more at ease even than the translator. As Mari’s mother begins to close in on the affair, Mari’s sense of what is suitable and what is desirable are recklessly engaged.  Hotel Iris is a stirring novel about the sometimes violent ways in which we express intimacy and about the untranslatable essence of love.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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Reading the World: ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

I had read two of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s books before making my foray into Hotel Iris: The Housekeeper and the Professor (review), and Revenge (review). The Times Literary Supplement writes that in this particular novel, ‘Image by perfect image, we are led down into a mysterious and gripping universe, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying’.  The Independent goes on to say: ‘This is a brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected… but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender’.  Hotel Iris was first published in Japan in 1996, and in its English translation in 2010.

Hotel Iris, the third of Ogawa’s books to be translated into English, centres upon Mari, a seventeen-year-old who works on the front desk in a ‘crumbling, seaside hotel on the coast of Japan’.  One night, a middle-aged man and a prostitute are ‘ejected from his room’.  Mari finds herself infatuated with the man’s voice.  Just so you, dear reader, are warned, what follows is rather harrowing.  After several clandestine meetings, Mari is drawn to his home, where he ‘initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure’.9780099548997

Mari is as perceptive a narrator as Ogawa is a writer; of the prostitute, she observes: ‘Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks.  Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone.  Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches.  She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels’.  When her male companion first appears, the following is described rather lyrically: ‘The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel.  It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger.  Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn’.

The novel is told from Mari’s perspective, and we learn an awful lot about her.  At first, she comes across as a little naive, but she is soon cast under the translator’s spell, and allows him to do whatever he wants to her: ‘Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became – like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl’.  Like the Professor in Ogawa’s aforementioned novel, we are never given the man’s first name; rather, he is identified only by his profession, and known therefore as ‘the translator’.  The passages which include him tend to be rather sinister at times: ‘The translator’s hand was soft.  So soft it seemed my hand would sink completely into his.  This hand had done so many things to me – stroked my hair, made my tea, stripped me, bound me – and with each new act it had been reborn as something different’.  He is a peculiar and rather complex character, who made me feel uncomfortable throughout.  Ogawa has included an interesting contradiction when writing about him; whilst he revels in violent acts with her, his correspondence to Mari expresses a real tenderness.

As in her other books, some of Ogawa’s prose in Hotel Iris is deceptively simple.  The novel feels markedly different from The Housekeeper and the Professor, which has a wonderful, quiet beauty.  There is violence in Hotel Iris, and I found a couple of the scenes incredibly disturbing, something which I was not expecting.  Perhaps it just asserts what a diverse and skilled writer Ogawa is that she can write two very different novels in so confident a manner.  Hotel Iris is, I would say, far closer in its themes and occurrences to Ogawa’s short story collection, Revenge.

Hotel Iris is a continually interesting and unsettling novella, which becomes rather disturbing in places.  I tend to shy away from such novels, and whilst I did enjoy this overall, and have rated it highly, I cannot help but be glad that my usual reading fare is unlike this.  I found the reading process rather exhausting, despite the fact that I easily read it over a single afternoon.  Well plotted and multilayered, with a cleverly rendered ending, Hotel Iris is well worth seeking out, but it’s not something which I would recommend for the faint of heart!

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One From the Archive: ‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder.  Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’. 9780099553939

All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next.  Strings of plot meander their way through the whole.  Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.

Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday.  When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead’.  Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example.  Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective.  Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.

Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care.  Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’.  She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits.  The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.

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7

‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder.  Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’.

All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next.  Strings of plot meander their way through the whole.  Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.

Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday.  When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead’.  Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example.  Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective.  Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.

Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care.  Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’.  She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits.  The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.

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