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Yoko Ogawa: Revenge

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.

Review copy courtesy of Picador.

Review copy courtesy of Picador.

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.

10 thoughts on “Yoko Ogawa: Revenge

  1. Scott W. says:

    I’ve liked the half-dozen Ogawa books I’ve read, though for me they rather run together (an exception is her novella La Petite Pièce Hexagonale, one of the contemporary novels that I’d most like to see made available in English). This does, though, sound like something of a departure – still with lots of loss and melancholy and sobbing – but quite a bit more dark. How does “revenge” fit in?

  2. Trevor says:

    How does “revenge” fit in?

    Good question. There are various motives at play here, and I didn’t think revenge was the most prominent. Interestingly, if you good translate the Japanese title, it is “indecent dead quiet funeral.” I have no idea what that means, but for some reason it feels more correct than “revenge.”

  3. Fascinating, and from the sound of it rather disturbing. When I was a kid we had public information films on the dangers of abandoned fridges. They were generally terrifying, less for what they showed and more for the clarity of how awful it would be to be locked in one.

    I’ll note this Trevor, thanks.

  4. stujallen says:

    I ve just posted on this like you it was my first by her it remind me of the old dahl ,I did like the way she used bits of each story in the next or other stories ,all the best stu

  5. Scott W. says:

    Interestingly, if you good translate the Japanese title, it is “indecent dead quiet funeral.”

    A literal translation from Japanese of the entire book, while it surely would be a disrespectful mess, might also be a lot of fun.

    I’ve yet to come up with a suitable English translation for the title of Ogawa’s K?ritsui ta kaori, which, in the French translation I read, was called Parfum de glace. Somehow, “Flavor of Ice Cream” doesn’t quite seem to capture the nuances that come across in the literal Japanese, which I believe is something more like “Isolated Frozen Scent.”

  6. tolmsted says:

    Nice review Trevor. I absolutely adored this books. Particularly the subtle connections between the stories. I’m looking forward to reading more Ogawa (Revenge was my first) and am making a pilgrimage to NY on Monday to scour the bookshops for her books.

    The google translation of the title is very interesting – it makes me wonder if they couldn’t have found something better (and more appropriate) than REVENGE. I had a bit of a hard time with that title for the entire collection.

    There’s a lovely article by Pico Iyer on the Japanese author Natsume Soseki in the 2/7 issue of the NYRB. It’s relevant to all Japanese authors – really worth checking aout.

  7. Trevor says:

    Thanks, Tara, and I’m anxious to see how you like anything else by Ogawa. This is my first and so far only as well.

    Also, thanks for mentioning the piece on Soseki. I just read The Gate and loved it and am anxious to continue to get to know him as well get a better sense of Japanese literature (I’m depressingly ignorant as it stands). This will help!

  8. Lisa Hill says:

    I agree with those who’ve queried the title here: I suspect either that the concept of revenge has some other connotation in Japan which remains opaque to me, or that it was chosen as a marketing device, to lure readers of the macabre.
    I’m not keen on short stories, I like the novel but found this an interesting book not least because it felt so ‘Japanese’ to me and yet there is nothing in the settings to make it so. Not even a chopstick, in that restaurant scene in Fruit Juice the father uses a knife.

  9. Brian Bergstrom says:

    ????? ?????? (Kamoku na shigai midara na tomurai) should be translated as ‘Reticent Corpse, Indecent Burial.’ There’s no comma in the original title, but there is a space between the two adjective-noun pairs (a significant choice, as Japanese does not use spaces between words).

    Anyway, yes, I agree that “Revenge” is a dismayingly generic and thematically unsuitable re-titling of the collection, though Stephen Snyder’s translation of the text itself (like all his Ogawa translations) is wonderful. If you especially liked this one, I would recommend the first collection of her work Picador put out, “The Diving Pool: Three Novellas.”

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