Tales from the Dark Side

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Sunday, February 17, 2008


By Yoko Ogawa

Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Picador. 164 pp. Paperback, $13

These three quiet novellas, composing the first of Yoko Ogawa's books to be translated into English, share an eerie quality of nightmare, the precarious sense that beauty and distress are equally possible at any moment. Ogawa's fiction reflects like a funhouse mirror, skewing conventional responses, juxtaposing images weirdly. Depending on the viewer, it can induce wonder or a vague nausea.

In the title story, teenaged Aya is the only non-orphan in residence at the Light House, an orphanage run by her minister father. "I can never hear the words 'family' and 'home' without feeling that they sound strange, never simply hear them and let them go," she muses. Aya craves the freedom and purity epitomized by her foster brother, Jun, whom she watches obsessively at diving practice; and yet she is shockingly cruel to Rie, a toddler new to the Light House. Ogawa places the sublime alongside the repulsive, as if to prove how little may lie between them.

The single woman who narrates "Pregnancy Diary," winner of Japan's prestigious Akutagawa Award, is another remote observer, somehow detached from normal human interaction. Her sister is pregnant, but as the pregnancy progresses, the aunt-to-be feels not excitement but disgust: "Her whole body is swelling before my eyes," she thinks, "like a giant tumor." Discovering that her sister adores grapefruit jam, she makes it by the vat, while pondering recent reports of toxic pesticides used in citrus production. Suffused with ambiguity, the story is structured as a diary, which reduces nine months to a series of disconnected moments, the writer's attention repeatedly hooked by odd preoccupations: egg yolk dripping from a fork "like yellow blood," or the resemblance of her sister's chewing lips to "the thighs of a sprinter."

Though "Dormitory" follows a clearer narrative arc than the other two, it is also the most uninhibitedly bizarre. A young wife revisits her college dormitory, run by a courtly triple amputee. The crumbling building seems to pulse with a strange force, "a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin." Returning repeatedly to care for the ailing Manager, she is transfixed by his account of a beloved student who has disappeared. Ogawa lets the story veer toward a conventionally sinister explanation, then swerves suddenly toward the outre.

Like her better known compatriot Haruki Murakami, Ogawa writes stories that float free of any specific culture, anchoring themselves instead in the landscape of the mind. Her hallucinatory, oddly barbed stories snag the imagination, and linger.

-- Janice P. Nimura is a critic and essayist based in New York.

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