The translation of Haruki Murakami into English has been wonderful for Haruki Murakami, but questionably less beneficial for contemporary Japanese fiction as a whole. How else to explain that “The Diving Pool” is Yoko Ogawa’s first published English-language book, despite the fact that she’s been writing since the early ’90s and has, according to the book flap, reaped “every major Japanese literary award?”
While a couple of Ogawa’s stories — including “Pregnancy Diary,” part of the collection here — have appeared in The New Yorker, she has been largely ignored by the English-language publishing world. So it is welcome that Picador has begun releasing Ogawa’s work more widely, with her smash hit “The Professor’s Beloved Equation,” or “The Housekeeper and the Professor” (Hakase no aishita suushiki), now also in print.
Ogawa’s prose calls to mind that of a Truman Capote or the later Junichiro Tanizaki, capable of pairing beautiful metaphor and vivid description with the coldest and most grotesque of human thoughts and behaviors. The collection’s title novella concerns a teenage girl who becomes infatuated with one of the orphans housed at her parents’ foster home, a boy named Jun who is an expert diver. As her desires become more pronounced without reciprocation, however, she finds other outlets for their expression — a too-cute little girl, for example.
The second story, “Pregnancy Diary,” takes the form of 10 months of journal entries by a young woman whose older sister is expecting a child. In the course of the story, the potential of a “great joy” becomes filled with greater anxiety, as the pregnancy becomes less and less a matter of routine. The pregnant sister begins getting irregular “check-ups” from her doctor, and then develops a bottomless appetite for a jam that’s been prepared with possibly toxic grapefruits. All of this is relayed to us in a detached ease by the narrator, whose name, age and motivations become cloudier by the day, while her sister’s thoughts and fantasies begin to seep into the diary entries as well.
The collection’s third and final story, “Dormitory,” is framed around the bizarre relationship between a largely empty dorm, its severely crippled manager, and the narrator who, having returned to the building to find her cousin a cheap place to stay, begins to investigate the unresolved disappearance of a former resident.
Tonally, the three novellas vary in subtle ways, but all display Ogawa’s powers of sensual description that helps to build a mood of dread. Human textures are given a detail that is both imaginative and subtly revealing. In “The Diving Pool,” the narrator silently watches Jun take ten-meter dives every day while holding her breath for when “he reappears out of the foam, the rippling surface of the water gathering up like a veil around his shoulders.”
While observing a little girl play in a sandbox, the narrator notes with sly contempt that “the tiny legs protruding from the elastic hems of her pants looked like pats of smooth, white butter.” Other senses are layered and developed to provide a cumulative effect on the reader. In “Pregnancy Diary,” smells of bacon fat, grease, egg and pork, or of the “acid odor of fruit mixing with the rain,” repulse and delight the pregnant sister with devastating results. And the sounds of “Dormitory,” “steady hum, a fixed wavelength,” permeate the haunted spaces of the abandoned building and grow in intensity throughout.
The three stories are also unmistakably framed by Ogawa’s approach at an ironic interiority — ironic because, while the stories are presented in the first person by female narrators, remarkably little is revealed by their thoughts alone. Rather, we learn about them by the simultaneously minute and monstrous actions that they themselves barely register, not because they aren’t conscious of their cruelty, but possibly because they don’t realize — as Ogawa frequently questions — the incomprehensible reasons for how or why people treat and mistreat each other.
Ogawa’s method of revealing her ordinary women’s sinister actions leads us down paths where ostensibly recognizable people are rendered odd, opaque, even mysterious, and where normally charitable actions become warped in the most deleterious ways. Her world is at first sensual, but ultimately proves itself sterile and full of dashed possibilities, revealing to us the dark and unfathomable bottoms of the human heart.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)