Hiromi 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.