Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2013

Revenge (1998), by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

RevengeEvery now and again I feel a bit guilty about not being fond of short stories.  Not because they don’t get reviewed here, because they do, thanks to guest reviews by my dear friend Karenlee Thompson.  No, I feel mildly guilty because short stories require great skill and imagination to write, and many of my favourite authors have laboured long and hard over collections of these little gems.  Bloggers whose opinion I respect and admire love them  – Sue at Whispering Gums, for instance, writes enticing reviews about them and a whole article about them as well.  (Update: thanks to Sue, for providing the URL for Musings about Short Stories).  Karenlee, an author herself, writes reviews that show me just how cunningly these collections are crafted.  But because I know from having read more than a few, that short stories just don’t work for me, I stubbornly refuse to buy or read ’em.

Well, no, that’s not quite true.  When my very favourite authors publish a collection I do buy it. I always buy anything my favourite Aussie authors write, to encourage them to keep writing.  (Sales=money+confidence=motivation,  I always hope.)  But the book languishes reproachfully on the TBR, until eventually I admit to myself that no, I’m not going to read it.  This usually happens when the favourite author has Done The Right Thing and published a delicious new novel for me to read, a book for me to get lost in, a book that makes me surrender to its world instead of jerking me out of it and into a new one every thirty pages or so.  And that is why if you look at the long list of short story collections reviewed by Karenlee here at ANZ LitLovers, you will see some out-of-print collections by David Malouf, Marion Halligan and Carol Shields among the books that are currently available.  They were on my TBR and I have finally sent them to a more welcoming home.

So why did I break my own rule and try Revenge by Yoko Ogawa when the opportunity arose?  Well, it was because I have read so little Japanese literature. I enjoyed The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakani when I read it for the Shadow Man Asian Award Jury and Ogawa is admired by Kenzaburō Ōe, who won the Nobel prize for Literature.  According to GoodReads

Kenzaburō Ōe has said, ‘Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.’ The subtlety in part lies in the fact that Ogawa’s characters often seem not to know why they are doing what they are doing. She works by accumulation of detail, a technique that is perhaps more successful in her shorter works; the slow pace of development in the longer works requires something of a deus ex machina to end them. The reader is presented with an acute description of what the protagonists, mostly but not always female, observe and feel and their somewhat alienated self-observations, some of which is a reflection of Japanese society and especially women’s roles within in it. The tone of her works varies, across the works and sometimes within the longer works, from the surreal, through the grotesque and the–sometimes grotesquely–humorous, to the psychologically ambiguous and even disturbing.

So it sounded intriguing, and although the book has not made a convert to short stories of me, I found it interesting.

The stories are not especially ‘Japanese’ in setting.    In an interview at (US) Pan Macmillan, Ogawa explains why this is:

My work begins at the level of images that form in my mind; from those images, settings and characters take shape.  But it’s not particularly important to me what country the story is set in or what language the characters are speaking.  My goal, in fact, is to create people and places that exist solely in and for the world of my novel.  If the result of this process is that my work can be read and appreciated by people in other countries, then nothing could please me more.

But unlike Murakami whose novels cross over easily into Western culture, the Revenge collection seems to me to be ‘Japanese’ in its preoccupations.  There is a sense of characters suffocating in their inability to express themselves, and lashing out in extraordinary ways because the cultural restraint that binds them into suppressed angst, boils over.  Just when I was starting to think, how could such a polite people ever have been so ill-mannered as to start a war and viciously ill-treat its POWs, Ogawa pierced her character’s shell and all that suppressed emotion hurtled into violence.

I think this is why I preferred the first story, The Bakery.  There was no macabre murder in this story, indeed, no revenge that I could see.  A mother goes to buy a cake for her dead son’s birthday. He died aged only six many years ago and she does this every year in his memory.   Her marriage ended because her husband failed to comprehend the depths of her grief and she has never resolved her loss.  And as she waits to be served, she observes that the young woman at the back of the shop is crying…

In this story, the girl’s crying seems to have no relevance, except to show that the older woman is so enmeshed in her own suppressed emotion that she cannot show any empathy or compassion to the young woman.  If this were me, waiting in the wings, I would be thinking about how to approach this young woman and gently ask if everything were okay, without intruding.  This woman is thinking about asking for her strawberry shortcakes.

But it turns out that this young woman is the link between The Bakery and the next story which is called Fruit Juice.  In this story there is an element of revenge, but it’s a very tasteful one compared to the grotesque ones that follow.  The unnamed narrator is invited to accompany the still nameless character who in this story is an adolescent girl, to a meeting with her estranged father, an important man.  Her mother is dying of cancer and it is her dying wish that her daughter should get in touch with her father.  These three have an expensive meal in awkward silence at a Western restaurant.  The father’s attempts to spark conversation fall flat and her passive-aggressive attitude shows the daughter’s contempt.

Afterwards there is an odd scene in which the girl gorges herself on kiwi fruit.  The narrator makes vague promises to visit the girl’s mother but he never does.  But years later when he sees an obituary for the father, it triggers the phone call to the young woman, now working in the bakery.  And now she cries, as she never could after the meeting with him.

And so to the third story, in which kiwi-fruit features.  Each story has some link with the others as they spiral into more and more macabre forms of revenge, of which I think Sewing for the Heart is the nastiest.  (I am not a fan of bizarre murders in any context.)  But macabre or not, all the stories are permeated by melancholy, alienation, and disconnection.   Kim at Reading Matters noted that there are ‘huge gaps in understanding between the old and young, men and women’ and this is true, but I wondered if this is meant to be a commentary on Japanese culture in general, because although I have read very little Japanese literature, it seems to be a common thread.

As to the writing, it is clear and unpretentious, but I found the jigsaw effect gimmicky, and the recurring motifs of food as some kind of incipient threat mostly irrelevant.

Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes, Tara at Book Sexy and Stu at Winston’s Dad have reviewed it too.  Karenlee Thompson found it ‘kind of creepy, sometimes scary, occasionally downright weird, [and] … a wildly thought-provoking work written, I believe, by someone who is no stranger to grief’.

Author: Yoko Ogawa
Title: Revenge, Eleven Dark Tales
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Harvill Secker/Random House, 2013.  (First published 1998)
ISBN: 9781846555022
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House Australia

Fishpond: Revenge


  1. Well, good for you for reading the collection Lisa. It sounds very Japanese … alienation and melancholy seem to be common themes in the contemporary Japanese literature that I’ve read. The country seems very go-ahead (though this is slowing a bit now as everywhere) but are these stories/novels suggesting that there are unresolved issues? Or is this part of the Japanese psyche? I’ve read a good smattering on Japanese literature but not broadly enough to make a call on this.

    Do you mean this short story Musings post from 2011:


    • Yes, thank you, Sue that’s the one I meant and I’ve added it above.
      Reading translated fiction always makes me wish that I had a country-by-county version of the Pelican Guide to English Literature. There’s 8 volumes of that, so I wouldn’t want that much detail, but it would be nice to have a resource that provides guidance about world lit … (in a bit more detail than what can be found on Wikipedia).


  2. Lisa, I love the short story form. Maupassant, Somerset Maugham, Paul Bowles, Steinbeck. I haven’t read any Japanese writers, but the Haiku can say so much.


    • Ah yes, Maupassant, I haven’t got to him yet. Strangely I do enjoy Balzac’s short stories but I think that’s because he recycles his characters so often that reading La Comedie Humaine is more like reading a very long novel in instalments. I didn’t even know that Steinbeck wrote them, I’ve read most of his novels and loved them, he is my favourite American author.


      • I have an old battered copy of The Long Valley by Steinbeck. A collection of thirteen short stories. Including The Red Pony, considered by many people (back cover notes) the finest story he has ever written.
        Please drop everything and read Maupassant’s short stories. He is the master. Also Paul Bowles. I haven’t read Balzac.


  3. I suspect that we’re kindred spirits in relation to short stories, Lisa.


    • Good. We can be recalcitrants together!


  4. Can’t wait to get my hands on this one. Unlike Lisa, I’m ‘rather keen’ on the macabre and grotesque. The fact that we’re talking about shorts and there’s plenty of ‘melancholy, alienation and disconnection’ thrown into the mix, well, it sounds pretty good to me.


    • *chuckle* There’s even a bit of magic realism thrown in, Karenlee!


  5. I have read one of Ogawa’s books and have another here to read. Eventually I will get to this one.

    I go through phases with short stories. I haven’t read any for a few months though.


    • Did you review it Marg? And which one have you got, Marg? (I don’t know why but I don’t always get email notification of your posts, I think sometimes BigPond’s Spamkiller steals them.)


      • No, this isn’t one of the books I reviewed.


  6. I like the recurring motifs in this lisa and agree it is very much more japanese in feel than Murakami books ,all the best stu


    • Ah, Stu, I’d forgotten you’d reviewed it too, I’ll add the link above now.


  7. Ah Lisa – I’m so glad you took a chance on this book. I absolutely loved everything about it, and am just getting ready to start one of her novels because of it.

    I’ve always considered Cannery Row & Sweet Thursday as collections of linked short stories, despite their being always being classified as novels. But I don’t know of any other short stories Steinbeck wrote?

    “As to the writing, it is clear and unpretentious, but I found the jigsaw effect gimmicky, and the recurring motifs of food as some kind of incipient threat mostly irrelevant.” had me laughing out loud… you sound so irritated!

    Great review, as always.


    • *chuckle* I’m sprung! Well, really, that daft scene with the kiwi fruit …


  8. I love your “a book that makes me surrender to its world instead of jerking me out of it and into a new one every thirty pages or so”. I did two books of short stories a couple of weeks ago and while they were very good in their own way, your comment exactly explains my overall feeling of mild dissatisfaction.


    • That’s what it is for me, Tom, though I should qualify it by explaining that a short story of longer length can sometimes overcome the problem. Balzac’s stories usually do that for me, and so do Henry Lawson’s and Barbara Baynton’s. But I have yet to find it in contemporary short stories.


  9. […] agree with Lisa Hill when she writes in her review at ANZ LitLovers that the Revenge Collection does seem ‘Japanese’ in its preoccupations, despite not being […]


  10. […] [Review from ANZ LitLovers] […]


  11. […] Review from ANZ LitLovers […]


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