Revenge by Yoko Ogawa – Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Today it’s Jacqui’s second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize review. I have to say I’m very keen to read this now.

When the independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist was announced in early March, I was thrilled to see Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge among the contenders. Ogawa is one of two female writers from Japan to make the cut this year; the other is Hiromi Kawakami for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo which both Naomi and I have already reviewed for January in Japan, an annual focus on Japanese literature hosted by blogger (and fellow IFFP shadow-judge) Tony Malone (My review; Naomi’s review.)

Revenge is a stunning yet unsettling collection of eleven interlinked short stories; while each individual tale works as a short story in its own right, they are elegantly connected by a set of recurring images and signifiers threaded through the stories. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective has changed. It’s all very cleverly constructed and part of the satisfaction in reading Revenge comes from spotting the connections between characters, scenes and narrative fragments throughout the collection.

To give you an example, the collection opens with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ in which a woman visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. At first the bakery appears to be empty, but then the woman notices the patissier standing in the kitchen sobbing gently while talking to someone on the telephone. This story ends before we learn more about the patissier but she reappears in the next tale (‘Fruit Juice’) where we discover the source of her sadness.  And strawberry shortcakes crop up again in a later story (‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’) when another girl buys cakes (from the same bakery, as it happens) for a dinner with her boyfriend.

The stories in Revenge explore some pretty dark themes, and in this respect there’s a clear connection to Ogawa’s earlier collection The Diving Pool, which Naomi and I both read earlier this year. In Revenge we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way. Many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness:

She was an inconspicuous girl, perhaps the quietest in our grade. She almost never spoke in class, and when asked to stand up and translate a passage from English, or to solve a math problem on the board, she did it as discreetly as possible, without fuss. She had no friends to speak of, belonged to no clubs, and she ate her lunch in a corner by herself. (pg 15)

Ogawa often describes characters in a way that suggests a certain fragile quality to their persona. They seem delicate, yet easily shattered or damaged:

The woman fell silent again and sat as still as a doll. In fact, everything about her was doll-like: her tiny figure, her porcelain skin, her bobbed hair. Her wrists and fingers and ankles were so delicate they seemed as though they would break if you touched them. (pg 132)

Desertion or rejection is another theme. In some stories Ogawa uses a forgotten building (like the abandoned Post Office we visit in ‘Fruit Juice’) to illustrate this feature; in others the characters themselves are the rejected ones:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique. (pg 124)

This all leads to some very disturbing behaviour indeed. Some of the stories explore the dark, sinister side of desire and how rejection or jealousy can precipitate acts of revenge.  There are some chilling scenes in this book, and one or two of them appear almost out of nowhere which makes them all the more disquieting…

And there are some very macabre images, too. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Torture and in another story, ‘Old Mrs. J’ (one of my favourites from the collection), Mrs. J unearths from her garden a carrot in the shape of a hand:

It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and long finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist. (pg 31)

Ogawa uses some of these images to explore the theme of decay and death. We see dilapidated buildings which have faded over the years; tomatoes squashed and splattered on a road following an accident involving a lorry; and a strawberry shortcake is left to rot and harden, growing mould in the process:

‘It was like breathing in death’ (pg. 6)

And I wonder if some of the motifs running through these stories are coded references to bodily secretions. After all, as a character in ‘Lab Coats’ remarks ‘It’s amazing all the stuff that can ooze out of a body’(pg. 56)

Revenge is an excellent collection of short stories, each one adding new layers and connections to the overall narrative. On the surface Ogawa’s prose is clean and precise, beautifully captured by Stephen Snyder’s crystalline translation. And yet there’s an unsettling chill rippling through her work, an undercurrent of darkness if you like, which I find strangely alluring. Some of her stories have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, almost ethereal in their tone. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche and how chilling acts of darkness can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. In this respect, her work reminds me a little of some of David Lynch’s films, especially Blue Velvet which opens with its lead character making a gruesome discovery in a field. And others, including Natalie Haynes one of the judges for this year’s IFFP, have likened Revenge to some of Angela Carter’s stories. High praise indeed.

So, what about its chances as a contender for the IFFP? Well, this is one of my personal favourites thus far, I must admit. Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award going and Revenge – her fourth book to be translated into English – has a great chance of making the IFFP shortlist.

Revenge is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.
Source: personal copy.

0 thoughts on “Revenge by Yoko Ogawa – Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

  1. What a great review! I read Revenge last year and immediately went and ordered all her books. I’m currently reading Hotel Iris for March Madness. Do you mind if I link to this review when I post about it?

  2. When I first picked up Revenge, I was so “disappointed” (not the right word…shocked might be better?) in the difference between this collection and The Housekeeper and The Professor which I loved. I could not finish it, and now I wish that I had if only to see the connections drawn between the stories. I so clearly remember the refrigerator in which the boy died, and the potato fingers in another story (or were they carrot?) Anyway, her descriptions were quite graphic. And, to me, unsettling.

  3. Thanks for visiting here, Bellezza. I haven’t read ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ but it does sound quite different to ‘Revenge’ (and ‘The Diving Pool’). Yes, there are some very unnerving images and aspects to the stories in ‘Revenge’…the stories with the refrigerator and carrot hands will stay in my mind for quite some time, I think.

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