Record of a Night Too Brief: Hiromi Kawakami (trans. Lucy North)
Ms Ice Sandwich: Meiko Kawakami (trans. Louise Heal Kawai)
Spring Garden: Tomoka Shibasaki (trans. Polly Barton)
I feel like novellas are enjoying a resurgence of sorts in the last few years. Too long to be a short story, too short to stand alone as a novel, these tales have so often been relegated to short story collections, that big-ass story that rounds out the collection, the meal after several tiny appetizers. And while I’m not necessarily opposed to that approach—after all, it’s the publishing of the book that costs the most; adding more pages is pretty cheap comparatively—novellas have never really sat too nicely in that setting for me. They’re standalone works that deserve the pages and binding to sit and breathe alone, without being crowded by shorter pieces with a fundamentally different feel and structure. Plus a novella is the perfect length for whiling away an afternoon reading. You start it and you finish it in a couple hours, and end up feeling accomplished and refreshed. If there are more pages in the book because the publisher wanted to round the volume out with some short stories, it takes a bit away from both of those things.
But some publishers, mostly science fiction/fantasy and small presses, are taking up the novella as a work in and of itself again. Tor’s been consistently putting out some incredible novellas like JY Yang’s Tensorate series and Martha Wells’ Murderbot books, and Pushkin Press put out this lovely sextet of Japanese novellas. Other publishers should really jump on board with this sort of thematic novella publishing, if only because book nerds like me will squeal with delight at the matching book design and feel compelled to get them all so they look beautiful on their bookshelves. The designs are honestly lovely—simple, colourful, evocative. My only complaint, of course, is that they put the name of their own press on the cover instead of that of the translator. This is especially vexing because the publisher’s name is pretty much never on the cover of a book. A quick check of my own shelves reveals only one volume with the publisher’s name on the cover—This Little Art by Kate Briggs. Which leads me to wonder if it’s an indie UK publisher thing? Either way, the translator’s name should be on the cover alongside the original author’s.
Especially because they managed to score some truly excellent translators for this series. The deft magnificence of Louise Heal Kawai’s excerpt from Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs still takes my breath away every time I read it, and she has returned to Kawakami’s work in this series with the slimmest of the three volumes currently in my possession. I read “Ms Ice Sandwich” when it was released as one half of the book Akogare, and the whole time, I was imagining the titular character as Ms Ice Cream Sandwich. Is “ice sandwich” the British version of that summer treat? Regardless, this choice of English shook up my view of the story in a welcome way.
The unnamed narrator, a boy in grade four, becomes obsessed with the woman working at the sandwich counter at his local supermarket one summer and goes to buy a sandwich from her every day. Because her face fascinates him—more specifically, her enormous eyes painted with an icy blue shadow. But he can only get a really good look at her when she’s making his sandwich, so he gets an egg salad sandwich and cherishes those few minutes when he can gaze upon her freely. At home, he draws pictures of her and tells his semi-comatose grandmother all about her, while his mother conducts her mysterious business in the front room. His dad died when he was little, and he’s stuck in this weird in-between place in so many aspects of his life. Kawakami’s writing is as sharp and evocative as ever, straightforward rather than sentimental, but breaking my heart in the most powerfully good ways.
Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief is maybe the polar opposite of Ms Ice Sandwich. Made up of three shorter stories (so not a really novella at all), this volume is surreal, drifting, wondering and wandering. The titular story is a trip through a night that is actually too bizarre rather than brief, a series of metamorphoses and a possibly failed love affair, although it’s hard to tell what success is when one of the partners is made of silver or has no mass. It’s more like reading a dream than a conventional narrative, but Kawakami is such a vivid dreamer that she’s like that one friend who tells you about her dreams and you’re not annoyed by it because her dreams are just so incredibly wild.
“Missing” is another tale of transformation, but this one steeped in tradition. Families are restricted to groups of five, so when one marries in, someone must move out. Everyone lives in giant apartment blocks with their own separate cultures and conventions, and these clash in strange ways. But in the protagonist’s family, sometimes people just disappear and live in some kind of liminal space alongside the rest of them. When her oldest brother follows in this family tradition, the narrator is adrift in a way, but also resigned to this fate, the new world she lives in where her other brother steps into the eldest’s shoes and marries his fiancée.
Kawakami loves metamorphoses, so the last tale in this collection gives us the story of a snake made human, who moves in with the protagonist and tries to convince her to come to the snake world, all the while making her delicious meals and keeping her house tidy. Kawakami has a way of combining the fantastical with the everyday that doesn’t feel precious or forced, but merely natural. Like, when you step on a snake, of course it turns into a person claiming to be your mom and moves in with you. Lucy North handles this serious fantaticism perfectly. Her translation is exactly the right blend of matter-of-factness and wtf-ness. I would gladly read more from this combination of writer and translator.
The final book in this trifecta is Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki. A couple years ago, I ended up interpreting for far too many authors at a book fair in the United Arab Emirates (long, weird story) and Shibasaki was the only Japanese author attending that I didn’t interpret for. But she was there longer than any of the other authors, so we ended up seeing each other a lot and I felt bad that I hadn’t actually read any of her work. So I was glad to finally rectify that with Polly Barton’s translation of her Akutagawa Prize winning novella.
Taro lives in a block of apartments on the verge of being torn down, in which all the flats are named after the signs of the Chinese zodiac rather than numbered. He’s kind of a weirdo in that he ground up the bones of his father with a mortar and pestle, after he was cremated in the usual Japanese way, and he can’t bear to get rid of the mortar and pestle because some of his father’s bones might still be stuck in the grooves. Also, he wants to live in a place with too many couches and arm chairs. He ends up hanging out with a woman who also lives in the block who’s obsessed with the house next door, a weird blue thing that was built by a celebrity couple in the seventies, who published a book of photos of them in their weird house.
It’s a moment in time, a small snapshot of their lives coming together before they pull apart again. I love stories like this, where people move in and out of each other’s lives, fulfilling often a very specific need that they didn’t know they had. The obligations and debts we incur as we move through this life. There is a constant thread of gift-giving in this book that felt so right to me, a thing that annoyed me when I first moved to Japan, but now seems like the perfect encapsulation of how we are tied together whether we like it or not. Taro’s coworker gives him a gift upon returning from a trip—standard Japanese office practice—but Taro is not so fond of this particular food gift, so he gifts it to a neighbour in thanks for returning his keys to him. But then the neighbour brings him a gift later to thank him for his gift, and so it goes, round and round, gifting to gift to pay back the gift to appreciate the gift.
And maybe this is the throughline of all three of these slender volumes. The connections we have give rise to unexpected and unintended consequences, new relationships. All we can do is ride it out and see where we end up.