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Strange Weather in Tokyo

Arts & Events, Books - by Jenni Kauppi

Strange Weather in Tokyo
By Hiromi Kawakami, 2013
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
Portobello Books

An eerie and quietly enigmatic love story by Japanese novelist Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo lures the reader in to its strange atmospheric pressure with its delicate, dreamlike quality.

But it’s not the same kind of strange as that invoked in a Haruki Murakami novel, with its canny cats and parallel worlds, though the similarities will almost certainly occur to readers of both. Where Murakami creates a kooky atmosphere of other worldliness, Kawakami’s is a strangeness much more earthly in quality.

Tsukiko, a late-30s office worker and consummate loner, is drinking sake alone at her local when she has a chance meeting with an old high school teacher. Calling him Sensei when she cannot immediately recall his name, the pair strike up an unlikely companionship. As the two become becoming drinking buddies through a series of further unplanned meetings, an unexpected tenderness and intimacy forms.

Kawakami is a renowned essayist, short story writer and novelist in Japan where the novel was released as The Teacher’s Briefcase (Sensei no Kaban), and shortlisted for Man Asian Literary Prize in 2013. She burst onto the Japanese literary scene with her 1994 short story Kamisama (God) which won the Pascal Short Story Prize for New Writers, and a subsequent novel in 2007, Manzuru (incidentally, also about an emotionally isolated woman), was met with popular and critical acclaim.

In Strange Weather, the story takes place over 17 chapters that feel much like episodes or discrete short stories linked by the incremental closeness of the pair’s relationship. The book’s uncanny tone places it in a vaguely surreal realm, even while its banal yet somehow delightfully precise details tether it firmly to the real. The pair’s natural frisson – he, the even-tempered aging teacher; she, the fiercely independent young woman – makes for an interesting dynamic and their dialogue has the texture of a conversation experienced in real time. Sensei’s thoughts on tofu, for example, apropos of nothing in particular: “Tofu is quite special…it’s good warm. It’s good chilled. It’s good boiled. It’s good fried.  It’s versatile.” The book is littered with such non-sequiturs, and yet the cumulative effect is a casual intimacy, a feeling of being present with the pair, while also illuminating the banalities into something meaningfully prescient.

Its stripped back style of writing suggests the translation by Allison Markin Powell honours the spirit of the original Japanese text, maintaining the stark simplicity and economy of expression for which the language, and parts of its culture, are known. But it’s a style that brings into high relief the often heartbreaking descriptions of Tsukiko’s personal loneliness and for the tenderness growing between them. It’s when emotions are engaged, that Tsukiko’s language, otherwise so concrete and literal in her logic and expression, becomes abstracted:

“At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a hold on it – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would sneak back up on me…Wasn’t a sensation just that kind of indistinct notion that slips away, no matter how you try to contain it?”

On Sensei’s part, a brief and abrupt description of his wife and her abandonment of him and their son is all we, and Tsukiko for much of the novel, have on Sensei, and he remains as mysterious and compelling to us as to Tsukiko.

In many ways, Strange Weather is a love story for modern Japan – the ubiquitous young  office-worker drinking alone and opting out of the marriage-and-family convention. But in a culture where social lives and loves increasingly take place by proxy in cyber space, Kawakami’s candid alternative paints a picture filled with humour, hope and a surprising type of romance.

Note: while it’s not orthodox book review practice to include mention of the cover, the striking work of Natsumi Hayashi, known for her eerie and evocative levitating self-portraits, warrants an exception. You can see more here: http://yowayowacamera.com/

Strange Weather in Tokyo
By Hiromi Kawakami, 2013
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
Portobello Books

By Jenni Kauppi
Writer and bookseller

 

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