Record of a Night Too Brief
by Kawakami Hiromi
Pushkin Press (2017)
Review by Harry Martin
Kawakami Hiromi’s writing is well known for its original and detailed descriptions of everyday life portrayed with splendid artistry and trade-mark, off-beat style in her most famous novels, The Nakano Thrift Shop and Strange Weather in Tokyo. Her fascinating explorations of secret lives and relationships and the often nocturnal and crepuscular activities of her characters capture the imagination and draw readers into a world unique to Kawakami’s work. Record of a Night Too Brief is a late addition to her translated works, having only been released to the English speaking world in 2017 despite its Japanese publication in 1996, over 20 years ago! Originally released under the Japanese title Hebi wo fumu (A Snake Stepped On), the book incorporates three short stories of an abstract and surreal nature which the translator Lucy North has managed to capture in this well thought-out and ambitious translation.
The three stories are distinctly different from one another but follow a unifying theme of yearning, desire and longing in the minds of young women in three very different states. The first story (Record of a Night Too Brief) is a surreal, complex journey through the dreams and subconscious thoughts of a young woman who follows a mysterious and ethereal being through interwoven dream worlds where animals talk and objects and people have no defined mass or state. The delicate textured prose transfers the reader from dream to dream with seemingly no relevance or connection between them other than the driving force of the protagonist’s lust and desire. The second story (Missing) explores the complex emotions and effects of grief, focusing on a sister’s desire to see her lost brother again; and the third (A Snake Stepped On) is a profoundly unique story of a girl’s relationship with a shape-shifting snake who infiltrates her life, incorporating an almost biblical theme of temptation and enticement.
Fans of Kawakami’s other works may find these stories somewhat removed from her more familiar focus on the everyday and often mundane aspects of suburban life, as these seem to draw much more heavily on traditional Japanese folklore, mythology and superstition. The notion of shape-shifting is very prominent in Japanese myths, as is the personification of animals and natural objects which play recurring and important roles in this work. In all three stories transformation, whether from human to animal, physical to abstract or large to small, features heavily and contributes largely to the intangible nature and dreamlike feel of the book.
A Snake Stepped On seems the most traditional and endemic in its inspiration, as snakes adopting female form is a widespread mythology through much of Japan; however, its setting in a contemporary Tokyo context creates a delightfully anachronistic aspect and contrast. Missing adopts a far more universal theme and can perhaps relate to a wider audience as it covers grief and longing in a way which transcends cultural boundaries. The loss associated with the change in human state from physical to spiritual may be universal, but Kawakami still manages to infuse a uniquely Japanese slant by setting the sense of loss among the complex negotiations of traditional wedding arrangements between families. The first story is perhaps unique in this theme, as there is a multitude of shapeshifting beings which seem to have been drawn from Japanese mythology yet also Kawakami’s own imagination. There is something almost Alice in Wonderland-like about the abstract and disjoined fantasy and anthropomorphism of horses, moles and monkeys.
In some ways this is a typical Kawakami work, with the expected eccentricities any fan is likely to enjoy; but in other ways the work stands apart from her others, and with characters continuously changing form, shape and size, this is a truly fantastical story which requires thorough reading, yet rewards with rich imagery that will challenge anyone’s powers of imagination.