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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Revenge - Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder) - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

To be honest I really don’t know how to start this review, or actually how to write this review. I toyed with the idea of a long homage to Karl Ove Knausgaard and writing a diatribe about the importance of writing a decent review, interspersed with coffee and cigarette breaks as I contemplate the style. I thought the raw emotional style would suit, then I decided that actually that would fit better with an emotive work.

I toyed with comparisons to Ogawa’s “The Diving Pool”, her dark, bleak musings on human frailties, death, decay, the human form and its fragile state. Then I realised this is a stand-alone work and I’m judging it on its contribution to this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize list. I didn’t compare Karl Ove Knausgaard to volume one, I didn’t compare Jon Kalman Stefansson’s “The Sorrow of Angels” to “Heaven and Hell” and their recent works are part of a larger release (both being part two of longer bodies of work). So if I didn’t do that why on earth should I compare Ogawa’s work to an earlier release of hers, one which isn’t even related?

Does this introduction get me any further in the quest to review Ogawa’s latest work? Not at all, should I have another cup of coffee, contemplate it and start again?

I know the reason for my struggle, it lies in the fact that I wasn’t overly blown away by the eleven stories in this collection. That’s not to say I don’t think it is a good work, I just think they were formulaic. Clever? Yes. Memorable? Maybe. Enjoyable? Sort of. Worthy of inclusion on the shortlist for the Prize? In my opinion, no. You watch it take out the main gong now I’ve said that.

Ogawa gives us eleven interconnected tales. Gothic in style and content. Each story contains references to decay (generally fruit), whether it be the strawberries on a cake, kiwi fruit, ageing bodies, decrepit abandoned buildings. Each story contains references to the weather – in some it is stifling hot, others it snows – so we know these interconnected stories happen over all seasons, but the mystical quality alludes to them happening concurrently. Each story is a first person narration, and almost a-sexual, a couple of times I found myself startled that the narrator was in fact male (or vice versa) sometime into the story. And of course each story contains some sort of macabre death, carrots that grow like the form of human hands and we discover there’s a body in the garden which has had the hands hacked off, people who are living with their heart outside of their ribcage are done away with in a hospital, lovers feuds, children – why list them all? There’s eleven.

This is where I thought this was a lesser work, it is as though Ogawa had a set of cards, each with a theme (death, decay, weather etc.) wrote up eleven different approaches, shuffled them and wrote the stories, sure to include each theme and at least one reference to another story. Even the mundane becomes subjects for her musings:

Now, you may be wondering why I get so excited. You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which you put other things. And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them so extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object that we ask it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you. To me, a bag is patience; a bag is profound discretion.

Please don’t take my views as being critical of this work, it is a fine collection of Edgar Allan Poe (esque) style works, with the macabre always bubbling in the background of each story. A museum of torture implements? But we have the human frailties are uncertainties all bubbling along too:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somewhat comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique.

If you haven’t read anything by Ogawa before this would be a nice introduction to her mysterious world of evil. Personally I thought the longer form of three stories taking up 55 pages each in “The Diving Pool” allowed deeper exploration of the human frailties, the slow mood of decay and death. The shorter works seeming pressed to put all those themes onto the page.

This wasn’t in my top six books from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list for the above reasons. Not saying this is a bad work, or one that is flawed, I just thought she has written better material.

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