"The Diving Pool" by Yoko Ogawa (50 pages, 1991-translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder) is the lead story in a collection of three short stories by Ogawa under the title The Diving Pool. The Professor and the Housekeeper also by Ogawa has to be one of the most blogged about Japanese novels of the last year. Everyone loves it. (Sadly, I have yet to find it in a book store here in Manila but I was so happy when I saw The Diving Pool in a local book store. As soon as I read the quotation from Kenzaburo Oe on the cover ("Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in a prose that is gentle yet penetrating") I knew it was a must read for me.
The central character and the narrator of "The Diving Pool" is a teenage girl. Her father is a Christian minister in a Protestant church in Japan in the early 1990s. He and his wife, the mother of the narrator, run and live in an orphanage for children in most cases abandoned by their parents. Most of the children find adopted homes as infants. A few with special needs stay on in the orphanage. Our narrator grew up among children who had no real parents. We see relayed in very subtle ways how this has shaped her psyche. The narrator loves to watch a boy, a bit older than herself, who has been in the orphanage about ten years (older orphans are rarely adopted from the home) diving from high dive into the diving pool. She loves the beauty of his body and of the dives. She some how has kept a mental collection of all the dives by Jui, who she sees as a step-brother, in her mind. Clearly she is feeling sexual desire and love mixed together. There is a mentally disabled girl at the orphanage. This girl, Rui, is several years younger than our Narrator and seems to very much look up to her. For reasons that are not on the surface clear, our narrator does something very cruel to this girl. One would think under these circumstances the narrator would be appreciative of her parents. Instead, she wishes they were, in her darker moments, dead so she could also be an orphan. I somehow wondered if the father's love for the church and the doing of good deeds had turned him away from his duties as a father. The narrator feels no real human connection to any one but the Jui, the diver and she does not understand what those feelings are and they are further confused by the fact that Jui is her step- brother. Jui is a person of near saintly temperament. When he is asked if he is upset that his parents abandoned him because of drug addiction he says no they could not help what they were. We wonder how he found such a kind wisdom so young and we wonder what is behind his obsession with achieving a perfect form in diving. We see the loneliness of the narrator and we also must wonder how the parents became involved in the Christian ministry in a country in which Christians are a very small minority. We wonder if this cutting off from traditional religious roots through the adoption of an alien religion is in any way behind the angst of the lead character. Is the seeming emptiness of the life of the narrator a commentary on Christianity as a religion brought into Japan as a result of its defeat in war? The imagery of the novel is very beautiful. There is clearly a powerful artistic intelligence at work here. There are two other stories in this collection and I look forward to reading them.
Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962. She has written over twenties books but only a few have yet been translated. One of her novels was made into a movie and she has won numerous Japanese literary prizes.