Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami (transl. Lucy North): Three strange stories

Cover imageHiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming tale of a young, slightly awkward woman and her eccentric colleagues, The Nakano Thrift Shop, was one of my books of last year. It’s written in the same understated style as the rather more melancholic Strange Weather in Tokyo, a style of which I’m particularly fond. Unsurprisingly, I was hoping for more of it from the three stories that comprise Record of a Night Too Brief but these somewhat disconcerting tales, first published in Japan over twenty years ago, are very different.

In the titular story a woman begins her long night, irritated by the itch of darkness around her shoulders, opening her mouth to rail against it but finding herself only able to whinny: she’s become a horse. It’s the first of several transformations in this increasingly bizarre night which includes encounters with a singer as tall as a three-story building, a kiwi firing irascible questions and a man spilling moles from his pockets who turns out to be one in a suit. Our narrator is accompanied on her journey by a girl she seems to love, lose, consume and destroy by turns – her alter ego, perhaps, or maybe not. In comparison, ‘Missing’ seems almost prosaic. A young woman’s brother disappears but no one else seems much concerned. When her middle brother marries his sibling’s fiancée, things begin to go awry in a strange and unexpected way. The third story sees Hiwako stepping on a snake on her way to work, opening up a terrifying world in which snakes use their sinuous wiles to seduce humans into coming over to their side. Resistance it seems comes at a high price.

Of the three, ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ is the most surreal of these richly imaginative, sometimes perplexing stories. The dreamer inhabits an Alice in Wonderland world in which she frequently becomes something else, finds herself discombobulated or is the butt of unjustified annoyance. Both the gentle humour and understated writing familiar to me from Kawakami’s novels are more apparent in ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’, although the effect is to make the fantastical turn these stories take all the more striking: ‘Since disappearances happen all the time in my family, we got used to it pretty quickly’; ‘The thought of raw fish prepared by a snake was simply too creepy to take’. Quite a challenging translation job for Lucy North, I imagine. Not what I was expecting then, but I’m glad I read these strange yet beguiling stories. The book’s biographical notes suggest that Kawakami has written many more novels and short stories which leaves me wondering how many others are characterised by the same surreal style.

17 thoughts on “Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami (transl. Lucy North): Three strange stories”

    1. This one’s very different, Resh. Takes you into very strange world. I loved Strange Weather Tokyo, too. Perhaps the success of that and The Nakano Thrift Shop will persuade the publisher to commission more translations of her work.

    1. I think forewarned may be forearmed! I was a little taken aback at first but once I’d put Strange Weather and Nakano out of my mind I began to enjoy the weirdness of it all.

  1. I have to be in the mood for it, but this Japanese brand of surrealism (both Murakamis can be a bit like that too) can be quite appealing. Good to hear that more authors are getting translated, too.

    1. I’m a big fan of one Murakami but not the other although I’ve only read In the Miso Soup which I remember as a wee bit gruesome.

  2. I’m currently reading this – just finished Record of a Night Too Brief and it is, indeed, very strange.
    My first surprise was that there were three stories as I thought this was part of a series of Japanese novellas.

    1. Record.. is certainly the most surreal of the three as you may have discovered by now. I would be interested to know whether these stories or the two novels are typical of the rest of her work. Either way it would be good to see more of her work in translation.

  3. This sounds like an interesting read and I wonder if Kawakami was influenced early by the works of Kobo Abe who writes in a similarly surreal style. My reading of Japanese literature is that works are either melancholy, understatedly beautiful or bizarrely surreal and Murakami, perhaps, is the bridge between the two. Of course there is the lurid crime which transcends cultural boundaries! Yet that might just be the kind of literature which is translated for a western audience and perhaps there is much more to Japanese literature than we see.

    1. Murakami has his feet nicely planted in both camps although it would seem that Kawakami does too from these stories. After reading In the Miso Soup I’ve steered clear of Japanese crime – I’m far too squeamish to cope with it!

  4. Pingback: The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie (transl. Geraint Howells): Memory and friendship | A life in books

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