Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami is a collection of three novelettes which, according to the back cover blurb, won the Akutagaw Prize in 1996. This is their first translation and publication in English by the wonderful Pushkin Press who continue to bring fascinating, offbeat translated work to the public.
The opening piece, which provides the book with its title, is surreal and experimental and yet utterly accessible. The story has the most eye-catching of openings:
What was that itch on my back? I wondered. And that it was the night – the night was nibbling into me.
It wasn’t that late, still only twilight, but the darkness seemed to have collected just above my shoulders. A black clump of it had fastened onto me, eating away at my back.
Four hundred words later and our point of view character has transformed into a horse – as you do. And yet on the following page the protagonist is walking with a crowd of people, swept along with the flow where she will meet a girl, heading in the same direction, and a singer who happens to be three stories tall. Is this narrator the same person who became the horse? Is that a question I ever imagined asking myself? The novelette is broken up into 19 sub-sections, each with a single word title – Newt, Lion, Chaos – and while some of these vignettes do (sort of) connect it’s better to treat them as individual slices of beautiful surrealism. Like our narrator(s) the reader is far better off being swept along with the rest of the crowd than attempting to parse any deeper mysteries. And Kawakami, superbly translated by Lucy North, allows you to fall deep into her eccentric world. The writing is evocative and beautiful and, importantly, uncomplicated. If I was someone who had time to re-read I would quite happily jump in and out of these strange vignettes.
The remaining two stories – ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’ – are more straightforward in that they both have a single narrator and a clear beginning, middle and end. But they still maintain that lovely and lyrical surrealist tone. In the magnificent “Missing” my favourite piece in the book, a family must deal with the disappearance of their eldest son, who has literally vanished into thin air. His sudden absence is an inconvenience, rather than a horrible perversion of the laws of nature, because he was about to be married off and now the family need to train-up the second son so he’s capable of whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the intended. The story is tremendously funny – and a tad discomfiting… the eldest son does pop up now and again (and can only be seen by his sister) – as Kawakami pokes fun at family customs and traditions.
In the uncomfortable “A Snake Stepped On” a woman steps on a snake which then promptly moves into the woman’s house pretending to be her mother. This is not a unique occurrence. There seems to be a preponderance of snakes, masquerading as people’s relatives or their wives (the snakes seem mostly to be female). This is not a story for those who are bothered by slithery reptiles. Take this excerpt:
Suddenly, without a sound, the drawer of the gold-latched cabinet slid open, and from it dozens of little snakes came slithering out. Each glided across the floor to the priest’s wife, who picked them up one by one, and deposited them into the bosom of her kimono. A moist, warm breeze was blowing all around the temple. When she’d stowed all the snakes away, the priest’s wife slid smoothly over the floor, going first to Mr Kosuga. She wrapped herself around him, and gave his head a lick. Then she came and did the same to me.
It’s ick, but it’s a wonderful and giddy sort of ick.
I know surrealism isn’t for everyone, but in doses this small, with a tone that is tongue planted in cheek, but also honest and a tad disturbing, it makes for a delightful departure from genre novels that sometimes take themselves too seriously and literary novels that revel in misery.* I look forward to reading more of Kawakami’s work.
*hashtag – not all literary novels