I’ve been hearing about Yoko Ogawa for a few years now, but I haven’t read her books and really didn’t even know what they were about. But there was something striking and terrifying about her new book Revenge (Kamoku na shigai, 1998; tr. from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, 2013). Time to find out more about Ogawa.
Presented as “Eleven Dark Tales,” Revenge is a collection of short stories, of sorts, but in truth they begin to refer to one another in strange ways, finally coming together toward the end. While each story stands on its own, a large part of the enjoyment is finding out how the stories’ characters and themes come together.
The first story, and for me one of the most disturbing, is “Afternoon at the Bakery.” A woman goes into a bakery to purchase some treat to celebrate her son’s birthday. Strangely, the bakery, which usually has a line going out into the street, is empty. It’s open, but no one is attending the woman. Eventually another woman enters the bakery, remarks how strange it is that no one is there, and sits to chat with the first woman. Through their conversation, the second woman learns it’s the first woman’s birthday. How old is he, she asks. “Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”
The story quickly becomes a horrific tale of loss:
He died twelve years ago. Suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant lot. When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was dead. I thought he was just ashamed to look me in the eye because he had stayed away from home for three days.
After losing her son, the woman can no longer function. Her marriage crumbles, and she doesn’t really care. Obsessed with death, she clips any article she can find about children dying. She replays her son’s terror in her head until:
The door that would not open no matter how hard you pushed, no matter how long you pounded on it. The screams no one heard. Darkness, hunger, pain. Slow suffocation. One day it occurred to me that I needed to experience the same suffering he had.
While for me this was the most successful story, I still found myself racing through the rest of them, wondering why the stories seemed to pointlessly point to one another, obsessively underlining these references and thinking about them. For example, in the second story, “Fruit Juice,” we find out what happened to the young woman who was working at the bakery the day it was empty. She’s in the back on the phone crying.
Perhaps one reason the first story worked so well for me is because the death it deals with is, for me, the most terrifying, the most personal, the most innocent and accidental. The rest of the stories tend to deal with someone dying of natural causes or, even more prevalent, with someone being murdered or being the murderer. For me, those aren’t as visceral, though the intrigue surrounding them is thrilling.
Best of all, almost all of the deaths happen slightly off-screen, our characters dealing with them from a vantage point that is slightly removed. There’s a murder in room 508; one character lives just below, one is looking for the physician who was killed, another is talking to the woman who killed him. In some stories, as the characters go around, they see car wrecks where, by the state of it, it’s obvious someone died. The characters are surrounded by and think constantly about death. The woman in the first story is not the only one to find some fascination with stories about the dead.
In the end, we come back around to that abandoned refrigerator. We have loads of questions, but it is oddly satisfying.