- Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
- Picador, 176 pp.
Ogawa Reveals the Macabre
Underpinnings of Our Lives in ‘Revenge’
Yoko Ogawa is a household name in Japan. She has published over 20 books, short story collections, novels, and works of non-fiction. She has won five prestigious literary awards in Japan, and in 2008 was awarded the Shirley Jackson Award for “The Diving Pool,” a novella contained in the collection The Diving Pool. Only four of her works have been translated into English. Her most recent short story collection, Revenge, is likely to garner her attention from English-speaking fans of literary fiction, Japanese fiction, and horror alike. The collection has been described repeatedly as “Japanese Gothic,” a label which captures some of the atmosphere of ominous mystery in the stories, but which fails to convey the sense of almost sterile anonymity of her characters, or the precision with which Ogawa slowly builds a sense of horror to a crescendo by the precise description and accrual of detail after detail. Ogawa begins by showing her readers the apparently boring, normal face of human society, and then slowly lets this face of normality slide back to reveal decomposition, death, and emptiness.
Ogawa is masterful at depicting a seemingly normal scene with a tinge of fear that all may not be as bland and routine as it first appears. She establishes this atmosphere in the opening paragraphs of the first story, “Afternoon at the Bakery”:
It was a beautiful Sunday. The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight. Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement. Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings.
Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off in the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, entranced. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere a car horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms.
You could gaze at this perfect picture all day—an afternoon bathed in light and comfort—and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing. (1-2)
As in Ogawa’s other writing, such as The Diving Pool, food becomes a focus for displaced love, but holds within it not a substitute for human affection and closeness, but excess without the possibility of satiety. In “Fruit Juice,” the narrator is invited by a classmate to have dinner in a French restaurant with her and her father, whom she has never met before. After the dinner, the two classmates come across an abandoned post office. They break in to find it filled with kiwis:
Indeed, they were kiwis, just like the ones they sell at the grocery store. But the scene before us was grotesque and dizzying. We moved slowly into the room, which was cluttered with shelves and desks and cardboard boxes. A pencil sharpener, a red ink pad, and a dusty scale sat on the counter. But the rest of the space was filled with kiwis, enormous heaps of them. The air was both sweet and sour. She reached down to pick up a piece of fruit. I watched, afraid she might disturb the pile and bring it tumbling down on us.
The kiwi was perfect, not a bruise or a blemish anywhere.
“Don’t they look delicious?” she said, gazing at the mountain of fruit. “More than you could ever eat!” Then she bit into the one in her hand. I could hear her teeth sink into the flesh.
For a long time, she stood there eating kiwis, one after another. She consumed them like a starving child, dizzy with hunger. Her carefully ironed blouse and her beautiful hands grew sticky. I could only watch and wait until she ate through her sadness. (23)
Ogawa changes narrators from story to story, but they all share a sense of isolation and displacement from their surroundings and fellow characters. In the third story in the collection, “Old Mrs. J,” the narrator describes her peculiar relationship with her landlady. The apartment is located on the top of a hill with an idyllic view of the town below. The hill is covered with fruit trees, including kiwis; “The kiwis in particular grew so thick that on moonlit nights when the wind was blowing, the whole hillside would tremble as though covered with a swarm of dark green bats. At times I found myself thinking they might fly away at any moment.” (25) Mrs. J is even more unsettling than the kiwis, as she makes frequent visits to the narrator’s apartment, carrying gifts from her garden that grow more and more peculiar:
“Look at this!” Mrs. J called as she came barging into my apartment one day.
“What is it?” I asked. I was in the kitchen making potato salad for dinner.
“A carrot,” she said, holding it up with obvious pride.
“But what a strange shape,” I said, pausing over the potatoes. It was indeed odd: 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 a longer finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist.
“I’d like you to have it,” Mrs. J said. (30-31)
As the story continues, the narrator feels ever more trapped by her proximity to Mrs. J, perplexed by her landlady’s increasingly odd behavior, and unsettled by the carrot hands that proliferate in Mrs. J’s garden.
As the collection continues, the details in Ogawa’s stories become even more macabre. In several stories, a Museum of Torture figures prominently. The collection of torture implements, all which the caretaker swears have been used, is held in a mansion, where dining room tables and overstuffed armchairs share their space with chains, stocks, and other torture devices. Ogawa sets the scene in the following passage from “Welcome to the Museum of Torture”:
We were standing in the living room. The furniture included a pair of couches; a claw-foot cabinet; a long, narrow table like something from a church; a rocking chair; and a record cabinet. There was a real wood-burning fireplace at the end of the room.
It was a fancy room for a rich man, the kind of place I’d like to live in myself. But there was one strange thing about it: every bare space was covered with some devise for torture.
They were crammed in the cabinet and lined up on the table, stacked in the bay window, on the mantel, under the chairs, behind the curtains. Even hanging on the walls. (88-89)
At this late stage in Revenge, Ogawa has moved horror directly into a home. The characters do not have to break into an abandoned post office or dig in a garden to find the macabre. It is on display in plain sight, used just as a table or a chair or a record player.
Throughout Revenge, Ogawa’s technique of linking her stories together, first by small details (for example, a bakery selling strawberry shortcakes makes several appearances), and later by subsequent revisiting of characters and places, provides an additional sense of growing tension and fear. As the perspective and point of view change from story to story, the reader feels ground shifting constantly. The result is a collection that is unsettling, destabilizing, and alienating, written with a spare elegance that makes Ogawa’s conjuring of gruesome details all the more effective. In Revenge, Ogawa introduces us to the ultimate horror, not confined in a haunted house, but surrounding us every day.