Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)
Let’s say that my relationship with Hiromi Kawakami’s work is evolving. I first read her back in 2013, when The Briefcase was the group read for the first January in Japan. I was going to join in, but – well, I just didn’t get it. Looking back, and to be more accurate, I simply couldn’t see what I was reading. The Briefcase was listed for the IFFP last year (under its UK title, Strange Weather in Tokyo), and I re-read it as part of the shadow judging. This time, I noticed a ritualistic quality to the relationship between the protagonists; that made me feel closer to unlocking the novel, but I still didn’t quite find the key to it.
So, when I saw that an earlier Kawakami novel was lined up as one of this year’s January in Japan group reads, I was a little apprehensive. I needn’t have been, because I really liked Manazuru – to the point that I think I’ll have to revisit The Briefcase some time.
We first meet Kawakami’s narrator, Kei, on a visit to the seaside town of Manazuru; it’s a quiet place, with its own rhythm of life – two hours from Tokyo, but it could just as well be a world away. Something keeps drawing Kei back here: it may have to do with the disappearance of her husband Rei twelve years earlier; maybe Kei could find out, if only she could grasp what seems to be hovering on the fringes of her memory.
Manazuru is a disconcerting combination of the precise and the hazy. Its structure is fragmented, sliding easily between past and present, between reality, memory and fantasy (Kei is followed by a woman-figure who may be some sort of spirit – or even a version of Kei herself – but often seems as real as any of the protagonist’s human interlocutors). But, even as those categories start to blur, the emotional detail remains pin-sharp and striking (a delicate balance achieved by Michael Emmerich in his translation).
Here, for example, is Kei describing how her mother felt about Rei:
She never tried to look at him, at Rei, the man I was married to, except through a sort of fish-eye lens. I don’t mean she saw him from a prejudiced perspective. She was unwilling to regard him as a man with a form. She preferred to peer through her lens at his distorted, bulging toes, or at his ballooning head. Nothing else. She didn’t dislike him enough to look away. She didn’t hate him enough to stare. She chose to keep him indistinct. (p. 46)
Images of bodily form and perception of others recur throughout Manazuru. Kei tells how she always used to feel the edges of her body blurring, until she started her affair with Seiji, a married man (“I don’t blur with Seiji. My shape is always the same, contained,” p. 71); Kei’s relationship with Seiji is constricting and distant in some ways, but it fulfils a need. Kei may have felt close to Rei when they were together; but, reading his diary now, she realises that there was a side of him she didn’t know; looking at old photographs of herself and Rei, their relationship suddenly starts to seem real to Kei, as though it somehow wasn’t previously. Kei comments that her daughter Momo can hurt her more deeply than others can (“she presses, unconcerned, into the softest places,” p. 30) because, knowing that Momo came from her body, Kei is unable to erect her emotional defences. But it doesn’t necessarily work both ways, as Kei finds that the teenage Momo can be distant and inscrutable. So the novel continues, with these nuanced, shifting patterns of emotion.
Kei’s perception of reality is fluid as well: for example, she has a vivid memory of following Rei and seeing him meet another woman – but apparently it’s a false one. In the end, Manazuru is a portrait of a woman lost between the elusive past and the seemingly unreachable future – and whether or she finds her way is open to interpretation.