Manazuru – Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Michael Emmerich)

I read Manazuru as part of Tony Malone’s January in Japan. You can read more about J-Lit month by clicking the picture above.

We meet Kei in Manazuru, two hours from Tokyo, where she has spent the previous evening.

I never planned to come and spend the night here. I had to meet someone at Tokyo Station, we had an early dinner, it was seven when we finished. I was headed for the platform of the Chūõ line, when, unbidden, my feet turned and led me instead to the Tõkaidõ line, a train came, I got on. I’ll go as far as Atami and then turn back, the Chūõ line runs pretty late, I’ll be fine, I told myself, and all of a sudden I felt so alone, I endured the loneliness as best I could, and then, unable to bear it, I got off the train. Manazuru was where I disembarked.

Kei has a fifteen-year-old daughter, Momo, who Kei’s mother looks after when Kei has to stay away for work. She tells us though that she doesn’t usually leave without warning as she has this time.

Kei’s husband/Momo’s father, Rei, has been missing for twelve years. Although she has a lover – a married man called Seiji – the memory of her husband seems to be present often. Kei is being followed by a presence throughout the novel which keeps drawing her back to Manazuru. Initially she wonders if it is ‘some spirit of the sea’ because ‘My husband loved the sea’. Eventually the presence is revealed to be a woman who might hold some clues as to what happened to Rei.

Much of the novel considers Kei’s relationship with her teenage daughter. It’s as fractious as you might expect between the two of them as Momo exerts her own developing identity and begins to disobey her mother.

Only Momo can wound me like this. She is merciless. She presses, unconcerned, into the softest places. Ignorant of the oozing pus, the scars. Because with her, I can reveal only the softness. The parts of me I ought to cover, crust over, protect. I remember how, very long ago, she was of my body, and I am unable to raise a barrier, rebuff.

It’s interesting that Kei admits to feeling this way about Momo as otherwise she’s quite distant and gives the idea that she’s always kept something of herself back in relationships. She says she had difficulty calling Rei by his first name for a long time and she makes these remarks about Seiji:

We became involved almost immediately. What does that mean, anyway? We became involved.

When Momo was born, as she fed at my breast, I thought: She is so close. How close this child and I are. She is closer now, I thought, than when she was inside me. She was not adorable or loveable, that wasn’t it. She was close.

To become involved is not to be close. It isn’t exactly to be distant, either. When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation.

Manazuru looks at what it’s like to feel lost within relationships and within the self. The novel’s at its most interesting when it’s considering the dynamics between Kei and Momo and Kei’s mother.

There are some really interesting passages – like the one quoted above – but I found some of the writing stilted. The first quotation I’ve used, for example, consists mostly of simple sentences linked by a series of commas. The problem with this style is that it appears simplistic. I found it irritating on first reading but on returning to it, I wondered whether it was Kei distancing herself from the reader.

The novel does have some sort of resolution for Kei and Momo but I’d have liked a bit more of a resolution to Rei’s story. There are possibilities as to what happened to him but it’s difficult to tell whether they’re real or something Kei’s imagined – she is a writer after all.

Manazuru is an interesting read but if you’re looking for somewhere to begin with Hiromi Kawakami, I’d recommended Strange Weather in Tokyo first.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

Yesterday, while I was still overexcited about the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist was announced. Those of us who champion women’s fiction have every reason to be thrilled with the shortlist as there’s a 50/50 gender split from a longlist that was 33/66 in favour of books written by men. Part of that is to do with the low numbers of books by women that are translated into English which makes it even more encouraging that the judges think those which do make the transition are some of the best pieces of translated literature available.

Brilliant guest blogger Jacqui has already reviewed two of the three shortlisted novels by women and her final review for The Mussel Feast will be up tomorrow. If you click on the titles below, you can read her other reviews.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Shortlist:

Hiromi Kawakami Strange Weather in Tokyo (Japanese; trans. Allison Markin Powell) Portobello Books (And my review.)

Yoko Ogawa Revenge (Japanese; trans. Stephen Snyder) Harvill Secker

Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast (German; trans. Jamie Bulloch) Peirene Press

Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (Arabic; trans. Jonathan Wright) Comma Press

Karl Ove Knausgaard A Man in Love (Norwegian; trans. Don Bartlett) Harvill Secker

Hubert Mingarelli A Meal in Winter (French; trans. Sam Taylor) Portobello Books

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

Last week, when I was getting all excited about the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist, another corner of my bookish internet was animatedly discussing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.

‘The Prize honours the best work of fiction by a living author, which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom. Uniquely, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize gives the winning author and translator equal status: each receives £5,000.’

Following a number of bloggers who specialise in writing about translated fiction has led me to become more interested in it and I’d already committed myself to reading more books in translation this year than I have previously. Unfortunately, fewer books written by women are translated into English; a huge shame considering those books that do make it through are usually very good indeed.

What it was good to see when the longlist was announced was the inclusion of five female writers. Although that’s only a third of the total, it’s an increase on 2013 and 2012 when there were two. I’ve already read and reviewed two of them – Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir and Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. However, the clash between the timing of the IFFP and the Bailey’s Prize means that I can’t shadow them both; that’s where the bloggers’ shadow jury and in particular Jacqui (@JacquiWine), comes in.

Every year Stu (@stujallen) who blogs at Winston’s Dad, chairs a shadow jury for the IFFP and is joined by a variety of different bloggers. The rest of this year’s panel consists of Tony (@Tony_malone) at Tony’s Reading List, Tony (@messy_tony) at Messengers Booker, Dan (@utterbiblio) at Utterbiblio, David (@David_Heb) at Follow the Thread, Bellezza (@bellezzamjs) at Dolce Bellezza and Jacqui.

Unfortunately (I say that because she’d be superb at it), Jacqui doesn’t have her own blog and so will be guest posting her reviews on other members of the shadow jury’s blogs. Except her reviews of the books by female writers, which I’m delighted to say I’ll be hosting here throughout March and April. Jacqui’s an astute reviewer and reviewed Strange Weather in Tokyo over on Tony’s January in Japan blog earlier this year. I’m looking forward to what she, and the rest of the shadow jury, make of the longlisted books.


Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist (females first):

Julia Franck Back to Back (German; trans. Anthea Bell) Harvill Secker

Hiromi Kawakami Strange Weather in Tokyo (Japanese; trans. Allison Markin Powell) Portobello Books

Yoko Ogawa Revenge (Japanese; trans. Stephen Snyder) Harvill Secker

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir Butterflies in November (Icelandic; trans. Brian FitzGibbon) Pushkin Press

Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast (German; trans. Jamie Bulloch) Peirene Press

Sinan Antoon The Corpse Washer (Arabic; translated by the author) Yale University Press

Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (Arabic; trans. Jonathan Wright) Comma Press

Sayed Kashua Exposure (Hebrew; trans. Mitch Ginsberg) Chatto & Windus

Karl Ove Knausgaard A Man in Love (Norwegian; trans. Don Bartlett) Harvill Secker

Andrej Longo Ten (Italian; trans. Howard Curtis) Harvill Secker

Ma Jian The Dark Road (Chinese; trans. Flora Drew) Chatto & Windus

Andreï Makine Brief Loves that Live Forever (French; trans. Geoffrey Strachan) MacLehose Press

Javier Marías The Infatuations (Spanish; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) Hamish Hamilton

Hubert Mingarelli A Meal in Winter (French; trans. Sam Taylor) Portobello Books

Jón Kalman Stefánsson The Sorrow of Angels (Icelandic; trans. Philip Roughton) MacLehose Press

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami (Translated by Allison Markin Powell)


His full name was Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, but I called him ‘Sensei’. Not ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’, just ‘Sensei’.

He was my Japanese teacher at secondary school. He wasn’t my form teacher, and Japanese didn’t interest me so much, so I didn’t really remember him. Since I finished school, I hadn’t seen him for quite a while.

Several years ago, we sat beside each other at a crowded bar near the train station, and after that, our paths would cross every now and then. That night, he was sitting at the counter, his back so straight it was almost concave.

And so begins an oddly beautiful love story.

Tsukiko Omachi and the man she calls Sensei meet regularly – without arrangement – at a bar near the train station. She’s 37 and jaded; he’s in his late 60s, a retired widower. He considers her to be unladylike; she thinks he’s old-fashioned. But they drink together; they go on walks together; he recites to her fragments of the poetry he swears he taught her at school.

When the novel begins, the idea of a relationship between this odd pairing resides on the edge of stomach churning. A teacher and a former student? Ick. But the relationship progresses very slowly over a number of years and it is obvious that there is genuine affection between the pair.

Tsukiko does have several dates with a man her own age – Takashi Kojima, a former classmate, married and now divorced, who she meets at a cherry-blossom party. In contrast to Sensei, he wants things to move quickly and this is the catalyst Tsukiko needs to confront her feelings for Sensei.

The novel’s told in episodes with seemingly constant references to the moon and the weather, giving it a dreamlike quality. It often feels difficult to work out exactly how much time has passed and it gives the sense of Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship existing out of time. Interestingly, this is brought to an abrupt end in the final chapter, a chapter that frames the whole book and the relationship beautifully.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a lovely little book in which little seems to happen, but isn’t it those moments in which little seems to happen which make a relationship?