I seem to have been on a bit of a Oneworld roll recently: first They Know Not What They Do – not without its faults but worth reading – then The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, which looks set fair to be one of my books of 2017, and now Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Someone there has a very sharp editorial eye. Sukegawa’s fable-like novella is about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. From its jacket and premise you might be forgiven for expecting a sweet treat but it’s much more than that.
Sentaro is assembling dorayaki ready for the morning rush when Tokue comes into his shop. In debt to Doraharu’s owner as the result of a spell in prison, Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay what he owes and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue steps into the shop, eager to make her own version of the paste, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed – but she offers to work for next to nothing. Soon, sales are steadily climbing. Sentaro sees a speedy way out of his debt and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems, quietly offering advice, despite Sentaro’s remonstrations. All seems well until sales begin to fall. Rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – have spread, bringing to the surface a deep-seated prejudice and fear. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. A bond grows between these two outcasts, joined by Wakana, the young girl who unwittingly triggered the bakery’s decline.
Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening through the disparate characters of Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana. As he makes clear in his author’s note, there’s a conscious vein of spirituality running through the book illustrated in Tokue’s urging Santaro to ‘listen’ to the world – to pay attention – but it’s never laboured. Their friendship transforms Sentaro from an automaton with his eyes on the exit into someone who has discovered a belief in himself but it’s Tokue who’s the star of the show: gentle, perceptive and completely lacking in the bitterness her experience might have engendered. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this tale which reminded me of Linda Grant’s 1940s-set The Dark Circle about tuberculosis in my own country. How pleasing it would be to assume that those were more ignorant times but a similar stigma raised its head again during the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s and is still alive and kicking around mental illness today. As Sentaro thinks to himself, struggling at the prospect of meeting Tokue’s fellow inmates: ‘They were just people’.
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.
Three years ago I reviewed Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, praising the publishers for its splendid jacket and I’m delighted to see that they’ve used the same designer for The Nakano Thrift Shop. It’s not the only thing this quietly charming novel has in common with Kawakami’s previous book: it’s also narrated by an introverted, slightly awkward young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances.
Mr Nakano’s shop has been open for over twenty-five years. Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes quiet but there’s always something to keep Hitomi occupied, whether it’s speculating about the regular customer who turns out to have eloped with a schoolgirl years ago or selling the many household bits and pieces acquired by Mr Nakano and Takeo. Hitomi is a little socially awkward but in comparison with the taciturn Takeo whose most likely utterance is ‘Sorry’, she’s a shining example of confidence and self-possession. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Mr Nakano has his own romantic troubles, although at times he seems blissfully unaware of the emotional damage he’s wreaking. As the year wears on, Mr Nakano becomes increasingly entangled, Masayo pops in regularly exerting a magnetic attraction for customers, Takeo keeps himself awkwardly to himself and Hitomi wonders about everyone else’s love life while finding her own increasingly perplexing. A few things are bought and sold.
Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging. Mr Nakano has a tendency to launch into sudden gnomic pronouncements, a continuance of his internal monologue, often eliciting a dumbfounded ‘What?’ from the astonished Hitomi. Masayo sagely offers romantic advice despite her own troubles while Takeo is both enigmatic and exasperating. The star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Over the course of a year, these four become woven into the fabric of each other’s lives. It’s an episodic novel, held together neatly by a series of objects which provide the focus for each chapter. There’s a nice little catch-up in the final chapter, three years after Hitomi’s year in the shop, and the ending is all you could wish for. I loved it – a welcome antidote to the twenty-four-hour misery cycle that is our news at the moment, and a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.