[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
We get precious little science fiction, fantasy and horror in translation, which means most of our reading is Eurocentric and a lot of it, though enjoyable, is anything but challenging. That’s why, when I saw Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, Yoko Ogawa’s book of linked, strange stories, on my library shelf I snatched it up. And I’m glad I did, because these stories are odd, elegant and exciting.
The book begins with “Afternoon at the Bakery,” which starts prosaically enough with a description of a beautiful Sunday in a park, complete with a man twisting balloon animals for children. But a tinge of uneasiness appears when the narrator mentions that one could look at the scene all day “and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.” What’s that about? We start to find out when the narrator enters a bakery and finds no one there to sell her the two strawberry shortcakes she came in for. She takes a seat to wait. Another woman arrives, and they wait together. The narrator informs the other woman that she’s buying the shortcakes for her son’s birthday. And that’s when the story turns dark and painful, and that beautiful park an impossible dream.
We begin to see Ogawa’s method in “Fruit Juice.” In this story, also told in the first person but by one who is entirely different from the narrator of “Afternoon at the Bakery,” a classmate asks the narrator to accompany her to a French restaurant on the following Sunday. The narrator can’t quite figure out if this is a date at first, but he soon realizes that she simply needs someone she can trust, because she is meeting her father for the first time. The three share an awkward meal, made even stranger when the young woman gorges on kiwis she and the narrator find in a deserted post office on the way back to school. Twenty years later, the woman has become a pastry chef who works in a bakery — a bakery we recognize.
And so the stories continue, with a piece of the last story always lodged in the next. One hates to say too much about the individual stories, because they are relatively short on incident and long on mystery, and need to be discovered by each reader afresh. The stories are never explicitly fantastical, despite such oddities as carrots shaped like human hands, a woman who lives with her heart outside her body, and a museum of torture. But they are not quite realistic, either. They make the reader feel off balance, as if gravity is suddenly grabbing one’s feet at an angle instead of straight down. One finds oneself looking for the bit from the last story, wondering how Ogawa will do it this time, watching the stories bend and stretch. It’s not gimmicky; instead, it seems to show that we are all linked, through our tragedies, one to the other.
This small book is a dark jewel, with an able translation by Stephen Snyder. Reading the stories feels like eating poisoned chocolates, delicious but deadly. If you let them, these stories will twist you up — and you’ll enjoy it.