I will go back to all those books I finished long ago and never managed to speak about here, but I have to say a word right NOW about the book I finished yesterday, so moving and powerful it was. I nearly finished the book in tears and I’m still sad this morning, as if I’d lost a real person and not a fictitious character.
I owe SilverSeason a great “thank you!” for pointing me toward Yoko Ogawa again, a prolific Japanese female writer I’d read years ago but a little neglected of late. It’s easy to dismiss Ogawa’s books because it’s always very subdued: characters aren’t shouting at you for attention and plots aren’t dazzling you with clever tricks and turns. They are subtle, a bit slow, always very polite, slightly apologetic, and never wish to disturb you, just like perfect Japanese manners would require.
But disturb you they actually do, because of the bizarre circumstances that characters seem to consider banal and the accumulation of small touches that eventually build a cruel, moving, fantastic world. In this novel, the narrator is a young woman, a novelist, who lives on an island where things disappear.
Regularly, the inhabitants discover that something, may it be an object, an animal or an emotion, are disappearing from their lives and their memories. The remaining objects are to be destroyed or rid of and people don’t even remember the name of the disappeared thing. At the beginning it’s small “useless” “stuff”: candy, perfume, music boxes, then it moves on to flowers, birds, calendars, books. People who can’t forget are rounded up by the police. In this Kafkaian totalitarian world, people aren’t very unhappy, they have a melancholy tone and a numbness that goes with not quite living normally, but they make do and always remain polite and disciplined. They are more worried about the lack of food and the continuous bad weather (“has spring disappeared too?”) than by the ever-diminishing pool of things and feelings they are allowed to keep, because they aren’t even aware of what they miss. That’s heart-wrenching.
The young woman who tells the story is no rebel, but she knows that her publisher, a man who remembers way too much, will sooner or later get arrested, and she just knows that she has to have him near (Ogawa’s characters aren’t prone to self-analysis). She decides to hide him in her home with the help of an old man, friend of her family. The relation between these three characters is full of respectful gentleness, which softens the cruelty and incredible darkness of the world Ogawa creates.
The reader is increasingly aware that there’s no way out in this plot, as things that go missing get closer and closer to what make people humans. Their hearts, devoid of memories and emotions, are more and more full of cavities (as Ogawa say), and soon they even lose limbs, making Ogawa’s world even more absurd (dark humor and morbid. The published tries to rekindle memories and emotions in the young woman but his attempts aren’t quite successful.
It’s definitely not a book to read when you’re melancholy, but the poetry and the beauty of the descriptions of banal disappeared objects, the gentleness, the sheer humanity of these odd characters make it a precious and deeply original experience.