by Hiromi Kawakami (translated from Japanese by Allison Powell)
Counterpoint, 2012 (originally published in 2001)
"But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru was always there, along with the usual crowd of familiar faces. And I never really acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same kind of complicated life as I was."
I've wanted to read this book for years, but I didn't realize it was actually released on this side of the pond with a different title and I've been spending a lot of time waiting for the book Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami to make it over here. Turns out it's been released for a couple of years in North America as The Briefcase. Either title is apt. Glad I finally found it.
Of course, as is always the case with books that one waits ages for, I'm not sure this one quite lived up to the hype in my head. I think part of that was the translation, which didn't seem quite as... lyrical as I'd hoped and expected, but a little more workmanlike. Which is fine, and may reflect the style of the original writing, but wasn't exactly what I was hoping for when someone compared this to one of my all-time favourite books, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa - the only things in common I see between the two is that they are by contemporary female Japanese authors, and feature a female first person narrator.
The Briefcase is, however, as advertised by its UK title, strange, and once I was rolling with it there was a lot to like about it. Tsukiko, our narrator, is a Japanese salarywoman - we never hear exactly what it is that she does - she is single, she is idiosyncratic, she is emotionally detached, and she knows it. She struggles to connect and yet she's not really all that interested in connecting. She drifts around but she's not really interested in putting down roots. She's inexperienced, emotionally and in most other ways, but she's not really interested in getting experience, other than because she thinks she probably should.
It is also a love story; Tsukiko meets the man she thinks of as Sensei, a retired high school teacher, at the local bar, where she often spends her evenings. It might complicate things that he used to be her high school teacher, but they are both well beyond those days (Tsukiko is in her late thirties, Sensei in his seventies), and didn't much like each other back then if they thought about each other at all. It is Tsukiko who finally breaches the gap between them, who declares herself, much to her own chagrin and even surprise. They are both terribly awkward and somewhat wounded, though Sensei doesn't appear to let either of those things bother him at all.
If anything, this is a study of loneliness and quiet, and the difficulty of connecting with others in the world. It's not depressing, is the interesting thing, or sad. It is melancholy and contemplative, but it's also a little bit funny at points, and it celebrates certain aspects of life - food, mostly, and the brief, transitive connections we do manage to make. Tsukiko is frustrating as a narrator, but she's frustrating in a believable way, and she's interesting, despite the fact that she herself would certainly deny that characterization. The reader hopes for the best for her, even as we realize that she's probably going to sabotage herself. It might not be serious sabotage; but it will be a sort of sabotage that always leads her back to her dreary, lonely status quo. There is something strangely poignant in that.
In the end, I don't quite know whether to recommend this or not. It has stuck with me, since I finished reading it months ago (took notes! hooray!) and I found it a relatively quick read. There's not much plot (always okay by me) and the character development is... elliptical, might be the best word, though Tsukiko's character is strong and unique. The language is workmanlike. But it's unusual, and a little haunting, and probably worth a read if you're interested in contemporary Japanese fiction.