It seems there is always a need in the market for a quirky, left-field Japanese novelist, and with the decline in the number of Banana Yoshimoto books being translated (one in the last seven years), Hiromi Kawakami has made that space her own. Her output is substantial, encompassing non-fiction and short stories as well as novels, but I will focus here only on the books that have so far been translated into English.
A native Tokyoite, her first book was a short story collection called Kamisama (“God”) that has yet to be fully translated, but it was Hebi wo fumu (1996) that brought her to widespread attention and scooped the coveted Akutagawa Prize that year. It was published in English as the three-story collection, Record of a Night Too Brief (Pushkin, 2017) and beautifully translated by Lucy North. The award-winning story centers around Hiwako, who steps on a snake that then turns into a middle-aged woman who acts like Hiwako’s mother. Like the other two stories in the collection, “A Record of a Night Too Brief” and “Missing,” it is surreal, twisted and allegorical — pushing the reader onto unsafe, uncomfortable ground and never granting us an explanation. It also set the scene for the experimental turns her fiction would take, where poetic, fantastical passages carry the reader along a drifting stream of unfolding experience rather than a torrent of plot.
Known as either Strange Weather in Tokyo (Portobello, 2014) or The Briefcase (Counterpoint, 2012) depending on your territory, Sensei no kaban (2001) is delicately translated by Allison Markin Powell and was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It tells of a slow burning relationship between 40-year-old Tsukiko and her former school teacher, now in his 70s, built around a love for Japanese seasonal dining. This is a book that makes you hunger for the delicious food described in mouthwatering passages, while making you relish the shifting appetites of a burgeoning romance.
Kawakami avoids the easy reveals because it isn’t the details of life that matter, but the moods and rhythms.
Also known as The Nakano Thrift Shop (Portobello, 2016), Furudogu nakano shoten (2005) unfolds slowly, charting the daily lives of a group of people working — or more often chatting — in the titular store. Kawakami’s wry wit blooms in this novel, as the store owner’s chaotic love life lands him in trouble and the protagonist, Hitomi, navigates a dysfunctional relationship with introverted driver Takeo. It’s a 21st-century story where friends and coworkers take the place of family members, offering emotional support while the “real” family is only there for financial needs. It tails off a bit towards the end, but by then you are so immersed in their small world that it hardly matters. While the story is one of Kawakami’s most realistic, her innovative techniques are in full flight here. Dialogue often goes unmarked, showing how speech and thought interact with each other, producing a sense of unreality for the reader. Allison Markin Powell showed why she is one of the most respected translators at work today by bringing these touches alive in English.
The book that tends to divide Kawakami fans is Manazuru (2006, translated by Michael Emmerich). The story of Kei — whose life is caught between memories of the husband who walked out on her 12 years earlier and life with her current partner with whom she has developed a humdrum routine — her relationship with her own mother and her young daughter. It is, depending on who you ask, a meditation on memory and existence or a shapeless tale where nothing keeps on happening. For my money, it’s a great exploration of an inner world, the kind of thing only the novel form can really get to grips with. Kawakami’s avoids the easy reveals because it isn’t the details of life that matter, but the moods and rhythms.
There are many more Kawakami books out there waiting to be translated and it should only be a matter of time before they are, since she’s a proven draw in the bookshops and a prize winner. In addition to the Akutagawa, she’s won the Tanizaki Prize (2001), been honored by the Ministry of Education (2007), won the MEXT Award for the Arts (2007), the Yomiuri Prize for Literature (2014) and many more. Her empathetic explorations of real lives in unusual, unconventional forms and styles appeals to readers and critics alike, guaranteeing her a place in publishing schedules for years to come. Her status as one of Japan’s great writers is also assured.