Manazuru – Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Michael Emmerich)

I read Manazuru as part of Tony Malone’s January in Japan. You can read more about J-Lit month by clicking the picture above.

We meet Kei in Manazuru, two hours from Tokyo, where she has spent the previous evening.

I never planned to come and spend the night here. I had to meet someone at Tokyo Station, we had an early dinner, it was seven when we finished. I was headed for the platform of the Chūõ line, when, unbidden, my feet turned and led me instead to the Tõkaidõ line, a train came, I got on. I’ll go as far as Atami and then turn back, the Chūõ line runs pretty late, I’ll be fine, I told myself, and all of a sudden I felt so alone, I endured the loneliness as best I could, and then, unable to bear it, I got off the train. Manazuru was where I disembarked.

Kei has a fifteen-year-old daughter, Momo, who Kei’s mother looks after when Kei has to stay away for work. She tells us though that she doesn’t usually leave without warning as she has this time.

Kei’s husband/Momo’s father, Rei, has been missing for twelve years. Although she has a lover – a married man called Seiji – the memory of her husband seems to be present often. Kei is being followed by a presence throughout the novel which keeps drawing her back to Manazuru. Initially she wonders if it is ‘some spirit of the sea’ because ‘My husband loved the sea’. Eventually the presence is revealed to be a woman who might hold some clues as to what happened to Rei.

Much of the novel considers Kei’s relationship with her teenage daughter. It’s as fractious as you might expect between the two of them as Momo exerts her own developing identity and begins to disobey her mother.

Only Momo can wound me like this. She is merciless. She presses, unconcerned, into the softest places. Ignorant of the oozing pus, the scars. Because with her, I can reveal only the softness. The parts of me I ought to cover, crust over, protect. I remember how, very long ago, she was of my body, and I am unable to raise a barrier, rebuff.

It’s interesting that Kei admits to feeling this way about Momo as otherwise she’s quite distant and gives the idea that she’s always kept something of herself back in relationships. She says she had difficulty calling Rei by his first name for a long time and she makes these remarks about Seiji:

We became involved almost immediately. What does that mean, anyway? We became involved.

When Momo was born, as she fed at my breast, I thought: She is so close. How close this child and I are. She is closer now, I thought, than when she was inside me. She was not adorable or loveable, that wasn’t it. She was close.

To become involved is not to be close. It isn’t exactly to be distant, either. When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation.

Manazuru looks at what it’s like to feel lost within relationships and within the self. The novel’s at its most interesting when it’s considering the dynamics between Kei and Momo and Kei’s mother.

There are some really interesting passages – like the one quoted above – but I found some of the writing stilted. The first quotation I’ve used, for example, consists mostly of simple sentences linked by a series of commas. The problem with this style is that it appears simplistic. I found it irritating on first reading but on returning to it, I wondered whether it was Kei distancing herself from the reader.

The novel does have some sort of resolution for Kei and Momo but I’d have liked a bit more of a resolution to Rei’s story. There are possibilities as to what happened to him but it’s difficult to tell whether they’re real or something Kei’s imagined – she is a writer after all.

Manazuru is an interesting read but if you’re looking for somewhere to begin with Hiromi Kawakami, I’d recommended Strange Weather in Tokyo first.