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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

the briefcase - Hiromi Kawakami (aka Strange Weather in Tokyo) - Man Asian Literary Prize 2013 - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

Here’s a challenge for you, write a novel about loneliness without becoming boring. Write one about emptiness without being melancholy, how about deep love without sentimentality? “the briefcase” is a moving sparse and deeply emotional tale of loneliness, emptiness and love but in a style that that is removed and scant enough to elicit a sadness that lingers long after the final page has been read.

This is the story of Tsukiko, in her late 30’s, a loner and a food aficionado who crosses paths with her former high school teacher, 30 years her senior, at a local eatery, she simply refers to him as Sensei (“Teacher”).  Their common love of food, saki and beer but their extreme yin/yang opposites is highlighted simply but effectively on page one:

Taking my seat at the counter, I ordered “tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root, and salted shallots”, while the old man next to me requested “Salted shallots, lotus root fries, and tuna with fermented soybeans” almost simultaneously.

A novel that explores the Japanese food culture, with a hint of barfly behaviour as well as moving seamlessly through the seasons we become engaged with the first person narrative of our female lead through her thoughts, despair, awkwardness and speech (which is not always acknowledged with inverted commas, sometimes it just slips onto the page).

Her chance meeting with Sensei leads to further companionship through their shared love of the seasonal foods, mushroom hunting, and of course alcohol. Not all the seasonal changes are made as obvious as mentioning the weather, at times it is through the consuming of certain seasonal fish or vegetables or through the observations of the birds in empty or full blossoming trees. However the passing of time is understated enough for the reader to know it is significant without becoming laboured. The real story here is love but unacknowledged love whilst still suffering loneliness and emptiness:

It seemed strange to be surrounded by so many living things. When I was in Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel I was always alone, or occasionally in the company of Sensei. It seemed like the only living things in Tokyo were big like us. But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru was always there, along with the crowd of familiar faces. And I never acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same complicated life as I was.

I am not in anyway an expert on Japanese culture or writing and don’t understand enough of haiku to comment accurately, but I’m sure there are numerous meters and patterns throughout this novel that draw on traditional Japanese themes. Some sections are quite sparse and empty with just enough hint of relevance to the story to obviously delve into the lonely theme.

Old bastard, I said to myself, and then I repeated it out loud. “Old bastard” The old bastard must be taking a brisk walk around the island. I should just forget about him and go soak in the little outdoor hot spring at the guesthouse. Since I’m here on this island anyway. I’m going to enjoy myself on the trip whether Sensei is with me or not. I’ve managed on my own until now anyhow. I drink by myself, I get drunk by myself, and I have a good time by myself don’t I?

This is a difficult novel to review as I don’t want to give away the outcome of the deepening relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei. A short book (my edition is 176 pages) the awkwardness of a younger female having a relationship with an older man is not explicitly addressed whilst their deepening concern and love for each other becomes more apparent throughout, as does Tsukiko’s justification for her irrational actions (why remain lonely and empty when you have love on your doorstep?).  

I had given up worrying about Sensei’s intentions. I wouldn’t get attached. I wouldn’t distance us. He would be gentlemanly. I would be ladylike. A mild acquaintance. That’s what I had decided. Slightly, for the long term, and without expectations. No matter how I tried to get closer to him, Sensei would not let me near. As if there were an invisible wall between us. It might have seemed pliant and obscure, but when compressed it could withstand anything, nothing could get through. A wall made of air.

The title of the novel refers to Sensei’s constant companion “the briefcase” its relevance only becoming clear in the last sentence of the novel (and I’m not going to give that away). A moving but sad novel that covers an awkward subject matter, not just an affair between two people of different generations but the depth of Tsukiko’s emptiness and loneliness. Not my favourite novel of the shortlist to date (at this stage it goes to “The Garden of Evening Mists” just a smidgin in front of “Narcopolis”) but one I would highly recommend, a great shortlist this year.

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1 comment:

JacquiWine said...

Lovely review, Tony. That's a great point about unacknowledged love coupled with loneliness and emptiness. That's very much the essence of the tone and feel of the story, isn't it?

By the way, I also loved 'The Garden of Evening Mists - probably one of my favourites from 2012.