Wednesday 20 July 2011

Beautiful, disturbing, exhausting: the fiction of Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool comprises a trio of novellas entitled “The Diving Pool,” “Pregnancy Diary,” and “Dormitory.” As in Hotel Iris, the writing and translating are stellar, and Ogawa's observations on human pain and desire are excruciatingly astute. The following interaction between the narrator and Reiko, a resident of the narrator's parents’ orphanage, occurs in “The Diving Pool”; reading it the first time was like being kicked in the gut. Reiko ends up in the Light House as a teen because her parents go insane in quick succession, leaving her with no one to care for her:
            “I wish they would miss me,” she said. Closing the magazine, she sat up on the bed and took off her glasses. “I'd be glad if they did.” With her glasses off, her eyes were so small it was hard to tell where she was looking.
            “And that's what makes you so sad?” I asked.
            She blinked nervously but said nothing. Her vacant stare confounded my efforts to understand what she was feeling. Her lips were pursed in what might have been a faint smile, but it might also have been a wounded frown. There were several seconds of icy silence.
            “The hooks have all come undone,” she said at last, as if talking to herself.
            “That's right. The ones that kept my mother and father and me together. They've come undone and there's no way to get them fastened again.” Sometimes she spoke like a young lady from a good family.
            I wondered what sort of sound was made when the hooks holding together a family came apart. (pp. 22-23)
Many plot details after this point!
Just crushing. But it is Ogawa's characters' twisted obsessions with bodies that is (still) most striking to me. In “The Diving Pool” she shows that this focus on the flesh need not be as lurid or obviously disturbing as that described in Hotel Iris. The narrator of this tale is the only child in the Light House who is not an orphan; this difference makes her feel as unhooked from others as not having parents makes others feel, and her generalized sense of loss and yearning becomes exclusively focused on Jun, an orphan who's been there since they were young children. She, of course, never tells him of her longing for him; she simply spends every day after school at the pool, secretly watching him practise his diving, focusing on absorbing every detail of his beautiful body.

Her frustration at being able to do nothing but watch him begins to come out sideways and twisted in her increasingly dangerous abuse of an 18-month-old baby in her parents' care, abuse which includes placing the child in a giant urn she is too small to get out of by herself and watching her cry for help, and feeding her a mouldering pastry just to see what will happen. The narrator knows there's a connection between her desire for Jun and this outrageous behaviour, but doesn't understand what it might be; she also tries to diminish its significance, even though the baby almost dies:
            I returned to the pool as soon as I could. It seemed all the more precious after I'd tasted deeply of my own cruelty. The ripples reflecting on the glass roof, the smell of the water, and above all the purity of Jun's glistening body—these things had the power to wash me clean. I wanted to be as pure as Jun, even if only for a moment.
            In the end, Rie had gone on to the hospital. They said she vomited until there was nothing left and then slept for two days, as still and cold as a mummy. My mother went to the hospital to take care of her and came home with long reports. I wondered whether they'd found any trace of the cream puff.
            I'm not sure how I would have felt if Rie had died, how I would have made sense of what I'd done. Because I had no idea where the cruelty came from, I could look at Jun's arms and chest and back without feeling the slightest remorse for having hurt Rie. (pp. 42-43)
Her pure enjoyment of Jun's body is not allowed to continue, however, for he confronts her about her actions:
I pictured the scene in her hospital room from the one visit I’d paid her: the walls decorated with crayon drawings, the stuffed Mickey Mouse on her bed, and Rie herself stretched out lethargically on the wrinkled sheets.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” His tone was so matter-of-fact, so unchanged, that I didn’t understand immediately. “You did that to Rie, didn’t you?”
The voice was the same, but this time the words began to sink in, as if they’ve been replayed at a slower speed. There was no hint of blame or reproach in his voice, yet I felt a chill come over me.
“You knew?” My voice was hoarse.
“I was always watching you.” This could have been a breathless declaration of love or a final farewell. (pp. 51-52)
What strikes me about this interchange is that Jun admits to seeing the narrator abuse Rie but has never intervened—and I've been racking my brain about why. It seems to me that what’s important about this scene is the revelation that her watchful obsession with him has been shown to be less committed, less complete than his watchful obsession with her. For not only has he known all along that she's been his devoted and daily companion at the pool, he's been there when she wasn't thinking of him. And in this total, single-minded, disturbing vision of early adolescent desire, she should always have been thinking of him; that she hasn’t somehow diminishes the purity she feels in her desire for him.

I'm not going to discuss the other two stories in this collection because I think you should probably just go read this book. I will say that I find Ogawa's lurid, sensual, heavy emphasis on bodies—their weaknesses and disfigurements, but also the power they have over others and how grotesquely present they are, even when they're beautiful, to be almost overwhelming. When I was reading both Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool, I found myself taking notes on every single page; Ogawa’s work is dense and unrelenting in its thick sensuality and while literarily satisfying, it is also utterly exhausting. I am looking forward to The Housekeeper and the Professor but I think it'll be a good while before I have the energy for it.


nicole said...

Even if it does take a while for you to get to it, I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on The Housekeeper and the Professor. Perhaps it was the order I read her books in (H&P, The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris), but I never put together this fixation on bodies that you elaborate so well. I won't say it is not there at all in the other novel, but if it is still there, I think it is very different (depending on how well memory serves, since this wasn't really something I was reading for). Anyway, it just makes me wonder if I had a wrong/anomalous reading of H&P because I didn't really know Ogawa yet, or if it really is a different and possibly unrepresentative work.

Great post!

Bookphilia said...

Maybe it was the order...or maybe Ogawa's concerns change. Perhaps I won't wait *very* long to check out The Housekeeper and the Professor...

Bellezza said...

Love this line in the beginning of your post: "...Ogawa's observations on human pain and desire are excruciatingly astute." Wow, I wish I could have written that. It's so spot on! I felt exactly that way after I finished The Housekeeper and The Professor as well as Hotel Iris. I'm looking forward to reading Asleep which I received as a present last year.

@parridhlantern said...

great review, I thoroughly enjoyed this book & The housekeeper & the professor, I also have hotel iris sat on my shelf waiting to go.

Bookphilia said...

Bellezza: Asleep? I hadn't heard of this one! I'm so glad to hear that more of Ogawa's work is being translated into English. :)

PL: Hotel Iris is pure insanity, exquisitely written. This combination messed with my head a bit; I'll be interested to know what you think of it.