Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami (Michael Emmerich, trans.). Counterpoint. 219pp, $25.
Hiromi Kawakami’s novel Manazuru makes for an interesting comparison to another recent translation from the Japanese—Yoko Ogawa’s book Hotel Iris. Ogawa’s novel is about a young woman who locates and cultivates her identity through the discovery of her sexuality in a small coastal resort town. Kawakami’s book, on the other hand, is about how an abandoned (or widowed?) woman finds her identity by leaving Tokyo for a small resort town. The connection is only arbitrary, of course, but the way in which these two works balance, reflect, and refract each other allows an insight into the fascinating work that contemporary female Japanese novelists are doing. Like a song or melody that gets stuck in your head, Manazuru has been weighing on me for weeks. Falling into Kawakami’s (and Emmerich’s) spell is at once disconcerting and exhilarating.
Born in 1958 in Tokyo, Kawakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. She burst onto the scene in 1994 with her first short story which won the Pascal Short Story Prize for New Writers. Her novel, Manazuru, was published in Japan in 2007. It tells the story of Kei, a middle-aged Tokyo mother trapped in the confines of a rhythmic, if slightly off-kilter, life. She and her daughter have lived with her mother for 12 years, since the mysterious disappearance of her husband, Rei, who may have run off with a woman or instead may have met a nefarious end. In the 12 years since, Kei has never learned anything about her husband’s disappearance, and while the truth of it is elusive, for Kei it has become wholly internalized. One day in a moment of spontaneity she boards a train for the small fishing village, Manazuru, where she and her husband had spent their final weekend together before his disappearance.
Manazuru is a short train ride from Tokyo but it might as well be another world. A stone’s throw from Kamakura, Hakone, and other ancient historical cities that have a radically different vibe than urban Tokyo, Manazuru’s quiet pace and lulling seashore are hypnotic, both to Kei in her dream-state and to the reader, who is lulled and rocked by the tone of Emmerich’s translation. Indeed, the sea itself is the conduit between time and space, and it is the sea that allows Kei to live in the past, the present, and the future simultaneously. Even the name, Manazuru has an especially poignant and ironic etymology: tsuru [Zuru] is the word for crane in Japanese (“mana” means true or real), and in the novel this small city along the coast represents an otherworldly escape from the strictures of real life. It is in Manazuru that Kei is able to reflect on the events in her life that have caused her no small amount of despair and self-doubt.
Manazuru is about connection and disconnection, location and dislocation. After becoming involved with a married man whom she keeps at a distance, Kei is unable to find (for lack of a better term) “closure.” And because her husband’s disappearance is still an open question she chooses to revel in it, hover over it, obsess on it. Unable to trust, unable to believe her own senses, she lives in a quiet panic, prevented from connecting to her daughter, her mother, or her lover. The only real connection she has is to “the woman” who may be a ghost or may be a figment of Kei’s warped and deluded vision of herself. And it is this woman who both pulls her to Manazuru and causes her isolation.
Kei has a complex relationship with her past. When she thinks of the life she had with her husband, she is unable to blame him or find fault with what she imagines he must have done:
When drowsiness eddied around him like a haze, straddling that threshold, his voice like a child’s. Kei. When he said my name, there was sweetness deep in his voice, a hint of moisture, so that for some reason I heard him, beneath the family adult male skin, as someone on the cusp of manhood, a boy, or perhaps a young man, it was hard to say which. My husband vanished, leaving nothing behind.
The sensual writing that Kawakami does so well distracts from the starkness of her point. Of course, he had left something behind: his wife and young daughter.
As noted, the town’s name, Manazuru, and its crane symbolism is ironic. Cranes represent monogamy, since they are believed to mate for life. Yet they are also famed for their longevity and are said to live 1,000 years. As Kei basks in her memories in this town, time seems elongated; and time itself is what Kawakami plays with:
Sometimes I feel my age. Ten years have gone by since I met Seiji. The same accumulation of time ages us differently. He grows older at his pace and I grow older at mine, and our times keep time separately. We do not flow in the same way.
Part of these differences has to do with the places that Kei and Seiji are in their lives: Seiji is married to another woman, and though he has had a long-term relationship with Kei, it has long been a substitute relationship for him. For Kei, too, the relationship is substitute, but only insofar that she can’t move on and forget her missing husband. The wound is still fresh for Kei, and no time seems to have passed. Seiji offers her little, and Kei, like she does with everyone else in her life, keeps him at a distance.
Time also operates in a way that disconnects Kei from those around her: from Momo, her daughter, from her lover, from her mother. For Kei, time exists only through the past. Narrative itself seems unbounded, and as we read about Kei we float in and out of a timeless haze, sometimes in the past, sometimes in the present, often in an imaginary time where reality seems just slightly out of reach.
As Emmerich has noted, one challenge in translating Manazuru was capturing Kawakami’s tone and the novel’s “terse, resonant, and subtly strange prose.” And his translation does, indeed, have a unique tone with a dream-like flow to it, something that, while not copied from the original, certainly is a noble attempt at mimicking its unique language.
The things that come and follow me don’t interest me. I don’t care. Whether or not they are there makes no difference to me. I feel like a scale with no weights resting in its pan. The weights have been removed, the scale rocks. You can’t tell from the rocking which side was heavier. All you can say for sure is that gradually the rocking will subside. I feel lonely.
This typical passage from Kawakami reflects a complex and sensual metaphor, leading to an easy and banal truth. But truth, as one suspects, is tricky here: highly subjective, changeable, avoidable. And always told through the inextricable voice of Kawakami’s protagonist. Unlike Kawakami, Ogawa keeps a firm distance between her and her characters. We know what they experience but we know little about the reasons they do what they do. Kawakami is interested almost wholly in why her characters act and what processes they must go through in order to overcome the past.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Raised in Idaho, he now lives in Montreal.
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