Hiromi Kawakami: Manazuru (2006)

Manazuru is the first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that is available in English. She has been one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists since her first short story came out in 1994. I have read another one of her novels a couple of years ago. Many of her books are available in German and in French. (If you love literature in translation, especially Japanese literature, and you are able to read German and/or French, you have much more choice. I have for example read Hotel Iris by Yôko Ogawa, that came out last year in English, in a French translation almost ten years ago.).

The first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that I read is called Herr Nakano und die Frauen (Mr Nakano and the Women.) It’s a wonderful novel. A lot of what I liked in Herr Nakano is present in Manazuru too, still I wonder why they chose this novel to introduce Kawakami to English-speaking readers. Mr Nakano would have been a much better choice as it is much more typical for her writing. There are supernatural or dreamlike elements in Manazuru which are not present in her other books and which reminded me more of Murakami.

Manazuru is not easy to describe. It’s a mysterious book, filled with a dreamlike mood, shifting realities. Something very soft and gentle pervades it.  Still it’s very realistic. The story is told by Kei, a young woman who lives with her daughter and her mother in an apartment in Tokio. The three women live a very peaceful live, they share many intimate moments, cooking and eating together, stitching and knitting. They treat each other kindly but each of them leads her own life, of which the others know nothing. Kei thinks a lot about her relationship to her daughter and how unique it is. How she doesn’t love anyone like her with so much awkwardness. She thinks about what it means to have a child, physically. To feel her emotions because they once shared a body.

Kei’s husband Rei has disappeared ten years ago. Although she has been in a happy relationship with a married man, she has never forgotten her husband. She wonders always where he has gone, why he left or what has happened to him. At the beginning of the novel she decides to travel to Manazuru, a little seaside town where Rei has disappeared. When she arrives she feels a strange presence. A woman follows her, a woman who seems to be a ghost, whose density changes constantly. Sometimes the woman is just a shadow, sometimes Kei can touch her. She thinks this woman knows what happened to Rei.

Kei takes many trips to Manazuru all through the novel. Sometimes with Momo, her daughter, mostly on her own. Whenever she arrives there, she is in a dreamlike state that brings her very close to Rei. During her last trip she finds another village that is like a ghost village. Cranes are sitting on the dilapidated roofs (Manazuru means crane btw..) The houses have been abandoned. She thinks about the fact that an empty house is at first just empty but then, after several years, it gets a life of its own. Ivy will grow inside. Weeds  and many other plants will take over. It’s a bit like Kei herself after Rei abandoned  her. At first there was emptiness and loneliness and then she became someone else.

I liked Manazuru a lot because of its mood and because of the importance of moods. Kei doesn’t so much analyze her feelings or thoughts as describe her moods. They shift ever so lightly, just a little bit. They have the subtlety of scents, the same fleetingness.

What I love in Kawakami’s writing in general is her ability to capture those intimate moments in which hardly anything happens or is said, those moments during which people are sitting together, without talking and it still feels intimate and meaningful.

Hiromi Kawakami is one of the best authors  to start with for someone who isn’t familiar with Japanese writing because she is such a gentle writer. Her books are lovely and even tragic elements are toned down. We know her characters will make it in the end, move on, find meaning and all that stays from a tragic event is a feeling of bitter-sweet regret but no despair.

I read the book in German. I really love the cover. The woman is blurred, only the little flowers, (Immortelle, I think) at the bottom of the picture are in focus. It captures the mood of this novel much better than the English one in which the focus is on the woman.