Reading The Briefcase, from the vantage point of one who has very little experience with Japanese fiction, it seems to me that it’s a bit like Japanese food. You either like its elegant simplicity and the artful way that very restrained flavours are arranged, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you may think this book rather lacking, in the way that you might prefer the robust flavours of Italian cookery or the complex artistry of French cuisine.
Well, I quite liked The Briefcase. It’s been longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, but (like Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House) has been nominated long after it was first published, because it’s only just been translated into English.
The plot is very simple: it’s a May-December relationship between Tsukiko, a single woman of 38, and Sensei, a widower who long ago was her teacher of Japanese at high school. It’s a very controlled, aloof sort of relationship, told from her point-of-view in first person narration. They meet by chance in a bar, they have desultory meetings and a minor falling out over what seems like nothing at all, she tries to get by without him, and they end up having an affair. She always calls him Sensei, which means ‘teacher’. It’s all very low-key: two lonely people coming together, meeting each other’s needs in ways that are barely perceptible.
It came as a surprise to find – about one-third of the way into the novel – that Tsukiko has a family. She seems so self-contained, and so disassociated from other people that it almost seemed incongruous.
Even though they were in the same neighborhood, I rarely visited – I just couldn’t bear going back home to the boisterous house where my mother lived with my older brother and his wife and kids. At this point it wasn’t about them telling me I ought to get married or quit my job. I had long ago gotten used to that particular kind of uneasiness. It was just dissatisfying in some way. It felt as if I had ordered a bunch of clothes that I had every reason to think would fit perfectly , but when I went to try them on, some were too short, while with others the hem dragged on the floor. Surprised, I would take the clothes off and hold them up against my body, only to find that they were all, in fact, the right length. Or something like that. (p54)
Reading a passage like this made me wonder why it is that this novel ‘works’ for me, when Another Country by Anjali Joseph, also longlisted for the Man Asian did not. (See my review). On the surface they are both about women negotiating relationships. Both women are egocentric. They are entirely preoccupied with themselves. Neither of them are ‘likeable’; they seem selfish and carelessly unkind. But Kawakani has rendered Tsukiko intriguing whereas Leela in Another Country is merely vacuous.
Kawakani reveals little about the origins of Tsukiko’s reserve but scanty hints conspire to make the reader curious about her. Perhaps the absence of a father in this household explains her attraction to a much older man? And is there something rather odd about her belief that other people should fit themselves around her, rather than she make some adjustment towards them?
It surprised me that these two drank so much. Every other moment, they seemed to be drinking sake by the bottle. Clearly they are both very inhibited characters, and perhaps they were in the habit of drinking alone in these bars to relieve their loneliness. Perhaps Tsukiko goes drinking in bars to assert her modernity. (The Spouse, who has been on a business trip to Japan, says that he never saw women in the restaurants he was taken to, except as wait staff. Neither of us have any idea whether this is normal in contemporary Japan or not).
Perhaps Tsukiko and Sensei both needed the sake in order to relax with each other. But even with the sake there are niceties to be observed and they rarely relax those. She, apparently, doesn’t pour the sake in an elegant way, and so he likes to pour his own. He is very stiff and formal, wearing his tweed suit when they go mushrooming, and carrying his briefcase everywhere. In a novel as restrained as this, the moment when he is empty-handed is pregnant with possibility…
There’s a lot about food too. Eating seems to sustain this relationship in a way that is significant (sorry about the pun). Tsukiko doesn’t have anything except food to talk about with her mother … and on her own in her apartment, on the one hand she forgets to eat and on the other she considers herself a gourmand. Food is clearly more than nourishment, it’s associated with emotion, with the passage of the seasons and time (which Sensei does not have to spare) – and with sexual politics.
With a previous boyfriend, cooking was tied up with Tsukiko’s rejection of male dominance:
I had no particular interest in packing lunches for him or going to his place to cook for him or inviting him over for hom-cooked meals. I was always afraid that doing so would put me in a compromising position – trapped in the kitchen so to speak. And I didn’t want him to think that he was the one that had put me there either. It may not have mattered whether or not I found myself trapped there, but somehow I couldn’t manage to make light of it. (p. 56)
But eating out in bars, or spending a frosty morning out searching for mushrooms with Sensei is different. The food they share together isn’t loaded with ideas about masculine oppression.
On the other hand Tsukiko not only tolerates Sensei ticking her off for her minor indiscretions, she seems to delight in the way he is control of the relationship. There is a childlike element in her relationship to him, but it’s so gently controlled by the author that it’s not creepy.
Although this story seems slight at first glance, before long I found myself fascinated by Tsukiko and the way she seems to be trapped in a Japan that is not as contemporary as she is. She lives an independent life, she has a demanding job and she has a sense of self that would seem perfectly normal for a woman of her age in the West. She would like a boyfriend to assuage her loneliness, but is not prepared to trade her independence to be a traditional Japanese wife. She fears emotional intimacy yet she longs to love. She opts for a father-child relationship almost as if setting aside her adulthood is the only option left to her. A very complex character indeed.
Killing two birds with one stone, I also read this book for January in Japan, coordinated by my ‘copinaute’ Tony of Tony’s Reading List. You can check out other reviews of Japanese literature by clicking the link and following
#januaryinjapan on Twitter.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury. To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.
Author: Hiromi Kawakami
Title: The Briefcase
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
Publisher: Counterpoint, 2012 (first published 2001)
Source: Personal library
Fishpond: The Briefcase