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Infinite Reflection

By (May 1, 2013) No Comment

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales

by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
Picador, 20131

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is a story collection born out of ancient Buddhist philosophy and into the fragments of the modern world; it is a whole, beautiful tale of humanity in grief over its perceived brokenness. Revenge is a short story cycle, but it doesn’t belong in the recognizable tradition of, say, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or James Joyce’s Dubliners. It is only similar to collections like these insofar as each story is complete and coherent if read out of context, but each is also clearly tied to the other tales. Revenge is defined by its overwhelming number of internal connections and replications, which themselves replicate one of the core principles of Buddhist philosophy. This is a book about structure; it is a story about the structure of reality itself.

Revenge embodies what critic Forrest Ingram describes as the “one and many” structure of all story cycles, but does so in a uniquely sophisticated way. Its complex frame is rooted in essential questions about what it means to be human: in the myriad complexities of interpersonal relationships. The architecture of human relations that exists both beyond and deep within the murkiest parts of our everyday lives, as Ogawa imagines it, is described in one of the oldest and widely known Buddhist philosophies—the Hua-yen school. Buddhism has been one of Japan’s primary religions since the sixth century, and 70% of Japanese still identify as Buddhist; further, Hua-yen’s influence on Buddhism as a whole, and therefore on Japanese Buddhism, cannot be underestimated. Indeed, as Francis Cook notes in Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, almost all manifestations of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism “look to Hua-yen for their philosophical foundation. This is particularly true of Zen, which is now the most widely spread form practiced.”

2Cook notes that because “Buddhism did arise in the East…there is a tendency to see things as described by Hua-yen;” Buddhism’s central tenets and images inflect Japanese cultural expression the same way Christianity and Judaism infuse Western culture. The “image which has always been the favorite Hua-yen method of exemplifying the manner in which things exist” is at the heart of Ogawa’s complex literary experiment; Cook sums up:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net…[stretching] out infinitely in all directions…[There is] a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number…If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring…[This] symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeating interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos.

To what purpose, what effect(s), does Ogawa draw on and reproduce this Buddhist metaphor for reality and relationship? If form and content are bound up in one another, then what is this collection about in a tangible, everyday sense? What does it mean that in Revenge, everyone and everything continually reflects one another?

A traditional plot summary is impossible with a book like Revenge, in part because Ogawa refuses, as she regularly does, to give her characters names. To provide plot descriptions would require too much space—and the point of this book isn’t plot anyway. Briefly, every story connects each to the other and not only one-directionally. For example, the bumbling, itinerant uncle from “The Man Who Sold Braces” is the curator in “Welcome to the Museum of Torture.” In “Braces,” he is at the isolated and impoverished end of his life. The narrator of “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger” is the wife of the murdered doctor from “Lab Coats,” going to confront her husband’s mistress while he’s away (in fact, dead). She gets lost and ends up in the backyard of the Torture Museum with the curator/uncle from the preceding two stories. Another representative set of connections, but certainly not all: “Afternoon at the Bakery” is a story within “Tomatoes in the Full Moon,” and “Old Mrs. J” is both a novel read in “Poison Plants” and the relation, at least in part, of “real” events in “The Little Dustman.” The question then is, what is “real” and what is “fiction,” within the parameters of this book? It’s not simply that all the tales after “Old Mrs. J” are fictions within it. There is, in fact, no origin or source story giving birth to other fictions in Revenge; all its stories are originary—and issues of “truth” and “fiction” become subsumed in larger concerns about autonomy and dependence.

Alongside these defining leitmotifs, a number of other key themes crop up in almost every story, such as grief, loneliness, modern ennui, desire, and miscommunication—but none predominate. There is no frame narrative to reveal any overarching narrative design. The book’s title, Revenge, doesn’t yield much either, as acts of and desire for revenge are rare. The hospital secretary in “Lab Coats” enacts murderous revenge when her boyfriend reneges on his promise to leave his wife. Old Mrs. J appears to have murdered her husband, but the reason is not clear. And the narrator of “Welcome to the Museum of Torture” dreams of revenging herself on her boyfriend by plucking out all his hair, one follicle at a time, but is never given the opportunity to do so. The remaining eight stories—even “Sewing for the Heart”—do not explicitly address revenge. If anything is being avenged here, one might argue that it is the terrible fact of others’ autonomy. The grief of disconnection infuses all Ogawa’s tales; connections between the many individuals peopling Revenge are too easily damaged or broken. Yet, the strengthening of these bonds occurs precisely through the threat of their dissolution: if all beings are reflected in one another and all Ogawa’s characters’ lives are connected, then of course their struggles are also essentially similar. And what is more basically human than to struggle with the problem that is other people?

3In “Sewing for the Heart,” a singer commissions an artisanal bag-maker to construct a custom container for her externalized heart. He becomes obsessed with her heart; denied the opportunity to touch it during the final fitting process because she decides upon a risky surgery to repair it, he goes to the hospital (where “Lab Coats” is set) to cut it out. The bag-maker in “Sewing for the Heart” does not seek vengeance upon the singer because she decides against the bag in favor of surgery; he cuts out her heart because the “beauty of the heart oppressed [him],” and he aches for union with it and her:

I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone…her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contains hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

4The pain of separation renders the bag-maker unable to recognize another’s right to determine the course of her own life.

No, revenge is not central to Ogawa’s book. Indeed, the original Japanese title of this collection is, romanized, Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai—or, according to the reviewer at Three Percent, Silent Corpse, Improper Funeral. Translator Stephen Snyder, in response to my query about this wrote, “yes, that’s an accurate literal translation of the Japanese title—though ‘improper’ is the most ‘proper’ rendering of the adjective midara na—it’s probably something closer to ‘lewd.’” The original Japanese title reflects the book’s exploration of humanity’s cyclical, shared reality. “Poison Plants” is the final tale in Revenge; it tells of a failed May-December romance in which an elderly female painter patronizes a beautiful young music prodigy; in exchange for her paying for his music lessons, he must visit her every two weeks and keep her company. He eventually backs out of his commitment, however, and the narrator goes wandering in her grief and becomes lost. Trying to find her way home, she discovers a body in an abandoned fridge; what she sees is a body improperly laid to rest:

I opened the doors—and I found someone inside. Legs neatly folded, head buried between the knees, curled ingeniously to fit between the shelves and the egg box.

“Excuse me,” I said, but my voice seemed to disappear into the dark.

It was my body. In this gloomy, cramped box, I had eaten poison plants and died, hidden away from prying eyes.

This body is not, or not only, her body, however. It is also the body of the dead boy in the cycle’s first story, “Afternoon at the Bakery.”

In this opening tale, the bereaved mother recounts to another bakery patron how her son died. Her language echoes that used by the narrator of “Poison Plants:”

An old woman I had never seen before was standing nearby, looking dazed, and I realized that she must have been the one who had found him. Her hair was disheveled, her face pale, and her lips were trembling. She looked more dead than my son.

“I’m not angry, you know,” I said to him. “Come here and let me give you a hug. I bought the shortcake for your birthday. Let’s go back to the house.”

But he didn’t move. He had curled up in an ingenious fashion to fit between the shelves and the egg box, with his legs carefully folded and his face tucked between his knees. The curve of his spine receded into a dark, cramped space behind him that I could not see.

The narrator of “Afternoon at the Bakery,” like that of “Sewing for the Heart,” finds the agony of separation simply unbearable. She tries to re-create her connection with her dead son through her annual purchase of his favorite birthday cake; but she also attempts to achieve final union with him soon after his death:

The door that would not open no matter how hard you pushed, no matter how long you pounded on it. The screams no one heard. Darkness, hunger, pain. Slow suffocation. One day it occurred to me that I needed to experience the same suffering he had.

First, I turned off our refrigerator and emptied it: last night’s potato salad, ham, eggs, cabbage, cucumbers, wilted spinach, yogurt, some cans of beer, pork—I pulled everything out and threw it aside. The ketchup spilled, eggs broke, ice cream melted. But the refrigerator was empty now, so I took a deep breath, curled myself into a ball, and slowly worked my way inside.

As the door closed, all light vanished. I could no longer tell whether my eyes were open or shut, and I realized that it made no difference in here. The walls of the refrigerator were still cool. Where does death come from?

Her attempted suicide is horrific, loving mimicry of her son’s last moments; it also reflects “Poison Plants”’ narrator’s vision of her own death in the refrigerator, as well as her pain at losing her protégé to the concerns of youth.

5This replication speaks to the non-teleological nature of experience and reality, another central Hua-yen concept. What is universally true for Ogawa’s characters is this: they are tied not only by circumstances and physical proximity, but their heartaches are also reflected constantly in one another’s excruciating isolation. Yet, this terrible isolation is drawn by a mild hand continually bringing the broken into contact with one another. This gentle interconnectedness resides powerfully in the Uncle from “The Man Who Sold Braces.” As the strange curator from “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” he takes pride in ensuring that the torture devices on display have seen active use. But he’s also a gentle, good-natured man, the favorite uncle of the narrator of “Braces.” Looking back on Uncle’s visits to his childhood home, the narrator of “Braces” remembers him most for his physical affection and generosity; he “looked forward to my uncle’s visits with impatience—primarily because he never failed to bring me some rare and unusual present…’Now where could it be hiding?’ he would say, picking me up in his arms and rubbing his cheek against mine.” “Braces” is an elegy for an uncle, once full of life, but now on the verge of death, alone, in the filthy squat where his nephew pays him a final visit. Concerned for his well-being, the narrator asks:

“Do you have a heavier blanket? You need to keep warm.”

“I’m fine like this,” he said. “You’re the one who’ll catch cold. You should wear this home,” he said, plunging his hand into the mound next to him and pulling out a fur coat.

“It’s wonderful,” I said. “You should use it for a blanket. I don’t need it.”

“Don’t say that. I want you to have it. It’s the only thing I have to leave you.”

“Well then,” I said. “Thank you.”

He closed his eyes again and a look of satisfaction spread over his face.

His uncle emanates this kind of profound gentleness again in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger,” when he brings the wife of the dead doctor from “Lab Coats” into a quiet, heart-breaking circle with him and the museum’s dying tiger:

“There now,” the man [said], wrapping his arms around the tiger’s neck and rubbing his cheek against its face.

The roses swayed in the hot breeze. Tiny insects danced above the lawn. Spray from the fountain misted down on us.

“I’m afraid I’m disturbing you,” I said, realizing that I was intruding on their last moments together.

“Why would you say that?” the old man said, a hint of reproach in his tone. “You must stay with us. We need you here.” Then he looked back at the tiger, his eyes full of pity.

The tiger’s breath grew fitful. Its throat rattled; its fangs clattered together. The tongue looked rough and dry. I continued to rub its back; it was all I could do.

The old man held his cheek against the animal’s head. The tiger’s eyes opened and sought his face. When it was satisfied that he was still nearby, the eyes shut again in relief.

The curator/uncle inhabits the interconnectedness described by Hua-yen philosophy. He enacts and embodies it by unselfconsciously bestowing the same gesture of affection on the tiger that he used to bestow on his nephew. His last moments with that nephew re-enact this scene with the tiger, but with the roles reversed. The fur coat he gives his nephew with which to brave the snowstorm is, inevitably, made from the remains of the tiger.

This never ends. Revenge is more than a collection of stories—it is a literary monument to the mysterious labyrinth of shared human experience. Character studies, thematic analysis, and plot construction make sense only in light of the book’s structure. But because the structure folds in on itself so frequently and in so many ways, writing a review essay about Ogawa’s tome is an act doomed to remain forever incomplete. The examples I’ve chosen to quote here could easily have been replaced with any number of others; they are both representative and incomplete. But this is, given the essence of Revenge, as it should be—no beginning, no end. Only mirrors, reflecting infinitely.

Colleen Shea is a freelance writer and recovering bookstore owner living in Toronto. She blogs at Jam and Idleness.