Oh, shelf of unread books! What treasures do you hold? Seriously. Stuff gets buried in there for so long that I forget all about it. Then years go by and I’m digging around for something to read one day and far below the latest treats from Japan, underneath that academic book on subcultures that I swear I am totally going to read one day is a novel that I completely forgot I even had. That I bought from the author herself. Which she signed for me. At a workshop. Where I spent a week with her and eight other translators trying to come to a consensus on how to render her work in English. (Conclusion: Be glad translations are generally not done by consensus. It takes a lot longer.)
And this was a book I was really looking forward to reading three years ago when I got it. The power of the shelf of unread books to hide things is seriously impressive. But it is a nice surprise to find something so deserving of my eyeballs hidden in the dusty edges of that shelf. And unlike much of the stuff I read here, this was also published in English as The Bridegroom Was a Dog, translated by Margaret Mitsutani so you know it is going to be a great translation. She was the leader of our unruly band of literary translators, and she handled problems we encountered so deftly, like she had some kind of language magic. This book definitely requires a translator of her caliber. Shit gets weird.
The book is actually made up of two novella-length stories, “Persona” (which apparently is not in the English The Bridegroom was a Dog) and the titular “Inumukoiri”. “Persona” grabbed me from its first lines: “Seon Ryon Kim could never have done such a thing, everyone was in agreement in the beginning. Michiko of course thought so too.” You don’t actually find out just what this thing he could never have done is until the story is almost over. And the point of the story is not this thing that Seon Ryon is accused of doing. It is a walk through Michiko’s mind and life and how she sees that life, how she sees herself. It drifts, the way your mind does when you’re not trying to focus on one thing or another.
Michiko lives in Germany, a Japanese student sharing a flat with her younger brother Kazuo. He is firmly Japanese, insisting he can tell if someone is Korean or Vietnamese because they are taller and injecting a kind of casual racism into conversations with his sister. This unthinking racism shows up over and over in “Persona”. The Japanese woman whose daughter Michiko tutors in Japanese and who speaks barely a word of German despite living there for several years remarks offhandedly that the Korean tofu might be good for boiling or something. A German neighbour informs her that Japanese people don’t have body odour because they don’t eat garlic. And throughout, Michiko sees her own in Seon Ryon’s Korean face, she seeks herself in the Eastern Europeans in their rundown neighbourhood.
Although I don’t think it was intended to draw this comparison, given that the Japanese title of the movie is totally different, I couldn’t help thinking about Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona (one of my favourites and yes, I am a pretentious asshat). But there is something about Michiko’s wanderings through the town, the way she thinks about herself “as if it was someone else” that brings back Elisabet’s mute stoicism and Alma’s rambling chatter. Michiko looks for herself in the people around her, and yet feels alienated from them at the same time.
“Inumukoiri” kicks things up a notch on the weirdo scale. Mitsuko Kitamura runs a cram school in a rural feeling part of Tokyo. The narrative voice shifts around, so that at first, it’s distanced and you hear about Mitsuko through the filter of rumours and gossip from the mothers of the children who attend the cram school. Everything seems fluid, nothing is certain. Some of the children tell their mothers about a story Mitsuko told them, about a princess who is promised in marriage to a dog, a story with some fairly graphic details. The mothers are flustered and not sure how to react, but are reassured when one among them says that it’s actually a folk tale. They breathe a sigh of relief, it’s legit, it’s education.
This rumour-mongering gradually coalesces into a narrative very nearly from Mitsuko’s perspective when one day, a man who identifies himself only as Taro shows up on her door. “Did you get my telegram?” he asks, before proceeding to strip her naked and give a good deal of attention to her lady parts. We dart in and out of Mitsuko’s head before stepping completely back into hearsay again for the rest of the story. It’s a narrative that’s hard to get a grip on, you’re never sure where it’s taking you, and when you get there, you’re surprised you were ever anywhere else
Tawada uses breaks and dialogue in ways that I’ve never seen in Japanese literature, more like the way people tell a story out loud, rather than the way we usually write one down. But with a formal distanced tone, so you always feel separate from the characters and the action. This could be a bad thing, keeping you from actually connecting with the characters, but it creates a weird empathy, working somehow to let the reader both watch and be the protagonist simultaneously. I’m glad I dug up another of her books from the recesses of the shelf of unread books when I found this one. I want more.