Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa is one of my favorite Japanese writers. Her novels are more often than not bleak, she describes worlds and lives where usually things tend to go wrong. And there’s a kind of sadness throughout her narratives; a sadness that somehow manages to make the reader smile. Reading a Yoko Ogawa story is like watching a House M.D. episode as Dr. James Wilson announces to a patient that he’s going to die and the latter thanks him for it.

Revenge (out on January 29, 2013) is the first short story collection by the author that comes out in English, even though I am not quite sure I can call it so. The eleven tales included in this volume are in one way or another connected with each other. The author plays with voices and the timeline, as she takes the reader from head to head, from situation to situation.

For some reason there are no happy endings in these stories, and maybe that’s exactly what makes them so special. We read about everyday lives, but highly unusual ones. We get to visit a garden where carrots that have the shape of hands grow, a museum of torture, a deserted zoo, a hospital, and a high-end hotel. As we follow the heroes from place to place, from sorrow to sorrow, the interest mounts, making us feel that desperate people are doomed to lead desperate lives.

“The room smells of death and disinfectant,” we read in Lab Coats, but the truth is that the whole book smells of death. There are no heroes here, only antiheroes. As they traverse from tale to tale, and narrate their own sad stories, death seems to follow their every step. Most of them are eccentric. One is an inventor of sorts that somehow becomes a museum curator; another is a painter, and one of the most important ones is an author. And somehow they all seem to have reached a dead end in their lives.

Maybe it’s the city, the hectic pace of life that makes them feel at a loss, but maybe not, as they do find the time to go places, sit still in a bakery and reminiscence, spend some time at a hotel, or even take care of a Bengal tiger.

The author has a unique way of placing people together at one place or another, at connecting the dots of their lives together, without even showing that she’s doing that. It’s as if she’s trying to say that we are all fragmented people, leading interconnected lives.

The prose is as beautiful as it could be, and having read some of Ogawa’s books both in Greek and English I can say that Stephen Snyder did a great job with the translation, since the stories at hand read like they were originally written in this language. This tome was a joy to read and I’m certain that I’ll return to it in the future.

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