Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Revenge-Eleven Dark Tales" by Yoko Ogawa

"Revenge-Eleven Dark Tales" by Yoko Ogawa (2013, 174 Pages, translated by Stephen Snyder)

 Yoko Ogawa  (1962) is one of Japan's highest regarded of contemporary writers of fiction.  I have posted on her award winning novel, The Professor and the Housekeeper and three of her longer short stories from  her collection, The Diving Pool.   I was very delighted to be presented the opportunity to read a brand new collection of her short stories, all centering around revenge.  The title is more than honest when it says these are dark tales.  After reading many post WWII literary works I am convinced the defeat of Japan in the war lead to the destruction of much of the Japanese value system and this destruction lead a society with a propensity for order and regulation into a confrontation with its own darker side from which it has never fully recovered and this is what these stories reflect.

My procedure in posting on collections of short stories is to look individually at at least half of the stories and only upon completing this to generalize about the collection as a whole.  I will say I loved this collection but it is very stark and looks some horrible things in the face and they look back.  Sometimes they smile and sometimes they don't.

"Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies"

"Afternoon At the Bakery"

The lead story in the collection, "Afternoon At the Bakery" sets the tone perfectly for the collection.   We enter bakery shop, which for most of us, I know for me, is a fun safe feeling place to spend sometime and money.  I do not expect pain or a glimpse of something very tragic to be found within the confines of such a delightful place.  There is no one in the shop when the narrator enters.  She looks around and the place is so perfectly orderly and everything looks and smells delicious.   At first she thinks it is rude no one is there to wait on her but she shrugs it off and decides to buy two strawberry short cakes.  A another customer enters and says she can go out and find the owner if the woman is in a hurry, but no she can wait.  It turns out the other woman supplies spices to the bakery.   The narrator tells the other woman that she is there to buy short cakes for her son's birthday and says he will always be six because he is dead.  To her surprise the woman does not at all respond to this information.  They begin a conversation about the beauty of mold.  Just as we knew it would, the conversation takes a very strange turn.  We learn about the child and how he died.  We see in this simmering tale how a few bad minutes can change a life for ever and sometimes make it seem better for it to be over.  The ending is very painful and very real.  This story lets us see the terrible power of obsessions.

"Mrs J"

Owaga is very skilled at starting a story in a seemingly very calm safe place, like a bakery shop or a boarding house run by an eighty year old widow, and gradually letting us see the horror below the surface.  Many, very many, lives have a horror behind the smiles and I think this is one of the core themes of Revenge.  The story starts out with some observations on the very dull seeming life of the landlady, Mrs J.  She does not like cats and I admit because of this I do not like her.   The narrator slowly becomes her favorite renter and they become friends of a sort.  We learn the widow has no love for her passed husband.  Of course we know the story will soon meander to the macabre and we are not at all disappointed.  I do not want to spoil the plot of this marvelous work so I will leave the rest of the plot untold.

"Lab Coats"

One of the anomalies you notice, even in the fiction of women seen as strongly into women's issues, is that the interesting women in the stories are normally described as beautiful, the not so intriguing ones do not get this tag.   It is almost as if being a ugly woman was a crime even a devoted feminist could not forgive.  This story is set in a hospital.  There are two onstage female characters, hospital clerical administrative type workers.   Part of their job is to inventory the gowns that come back from surgery, remove anything from the pockets and send them to the cleaning department.  It is very boring work and sometimes nasty as the gowns are often covered in blood.  The women get to talking to pass the time.   At first they just talk about the gowns, the odd things they have found in the pockets, including body parties then they begin to talk about their lives.  The narrator of the story keeps thinking about how beautiful her coworker is, about her white skin.   One does get a feeling her interest is more than purely aesthetic.  The beautiful woman reveals she is having an affair with a married doctor who does not think the time is right to tell his wife about her.  We listen to her story and we think, another woman deluded by a man using her for sex then we learn how dangerous that can be.

"Welcome to the Torture Museum"

"Welcome to the Torture Museum" starts out with a random list of people who died today.    The narrator does not just think about dead humans, she also notices a dead hamster in a garbage can at a fast food place.  (This begs the question of how he got there in the first place!)   The plot action begins when a detective knocks on her door to tell her the man who lives in the apartment directly above her was violently murdered.   He was a doctor at a hospital, in his residency.  The detective shows her a picture of the man's body and asks her if she knows him.   He questions her about what she might know about the man.   It turns out a patient at the hospital where the man worked was also killed and the police are looking for a connection.    We get to know the woman and her boyfriend a bit.  She tells him about the visit from the police detective.   Somehow the boyfriend thinks she is treating this matter as a joke and he storms out.She decides to go for a walk to reflect on what just happens, she is not real upset it seems over the possible loss of a boyfriend.  She stops in front of an old stone house with a sign that says "Museum of Torture" and decides to go in.    Now the story gets really fascinating as she converses with the old man who is the curator of the museum.  He loves his work.   Now the story gets really fascinating and I will leave it unspoiled.

"Poison Plants"

I loved these lines, spoken by a rich older woman living alone in a mansion, "but bored as I have been by the silence in this house for so many years, I find myself absorbed by the stillness, now that he was near me".

There are two main on stage characters in this marvelous story.  One is an older woman, evidently wealthy and the other is her musical school protege who she supports through a private scholarship.  As a condition for her sponsorship he is to come to her house every other Saturday night and have dinner with her and report on his progress.   The conversations between the woman, the story is told in her person, and the boy, maybe mid-teens, are really interesting.  He marvels at the things in her house.   She tells him piano has not been tuned in thirty years.  Her daughter used to play it but she died long ago.  Everyone she really knew is dead now.   She in her mind calls the boy, "The Prince".  The ending of the story is very strange and made me rethink the whole story.

There  are six other stories, all simply a great pleasure to read.   All of the stories have a "low key" tone, none screams out "horror coming" at you but that just makes them all the more powerful.  These stories have the capacity to disturb in that they can bring us to confront our darker side.  The conversations in the stories are wonderfully done.  I have no ability to say if the translation is well done or not but the stories read beautifully.

I am reading this in Participation in the Japanese Literature Challenge 5

There is more information on the title at the publisher webpage


me. said...

I'm looking forward to reading these stories, although I'd like to read a longer novel from Ogawa one day, but these all sound really interesting.

Can't wait to read them, thanks for posting on them.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Mel, the same as Me, this is one I definitely want to read.

Patty said...

your review is just great. Thanks for introducing me to such a great writer!

Unknown said...

I'm hoping to get a copy of this soon. Dark seems to be her style, which is why the decision to bring out 'The Housekeeper and the Professor' as one of her first in English looks more and more like a publishing stategy...

Mel u said...

me-I hope you get the opportunity to read the authors novels and some of her short stories-the stories in The Diving Pool are longer than those in this collection-thanks as always for your comments and visits

Parrish-I think you would enjoy this book-thanks very much for your comments

Patty-I hope you will come back and let us know how you like this writer -thanks very much for your comment

Tony-thanks for hosting January in Japan-I hope to read Hotel Iris one of these days-I am read The Golden Pavilion now and hope to post on it soon and will link to your event-thanks for your comment and visit

JoV said...

You are way ahead of us on Yoko Ogawa. I can't wait to read this, although I thought the disturbing bit was what I feel hesitant a little to read her next book. I will still give it a go.

I didn't want to read too much into your review because I want to read the book but thanks for the review.