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Head over to Words Without Borders for my review of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge

If an enterprising reader were to map the through-lines linking the quiet, twisted (and subtly interconnected) tales of eccentric strangers and mysterious deaths in Yoko Ogawa’s new collection, Revenge, the resulting diagram would likely look something like a spider-web: Delicate, spindled, and perfectly designed for entrapment. The experience of reading Revenge is like getting caught in a beautiful, lethal web—or maybe, like wandering through a labyrinthine haunted mansion. These stories’ charm lies in their treacherous unpredictability. In each tale, it’s impossible to anticipate just what particular nightmarish turn the plot will take, or to guess what shadowy character or tiny detail from an entirely separate tale will reappear (a dead hamster left in a trashcan, a brace designed to make the wearer taller, a three-digit number used in a report). There is a spooky fun-house quality to this collection.

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I reviewed Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl for Words Without Borders.

Written in 1939 but only now translated into English for the first time, Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl—a slim, precocious novella narrated by a schoolgirl of indeterminate age—was stylish and provocative in its time. Almost three-quarters of a century later, its prescience seems eerie; hardly anything about this book seems to have aged, least of all the narrator herself, who is perfectly preserved somewhere along the road to adolescence. Though she’s still young enough to entertain herself with nonsensical songs and inventive daydreams as she walks home from school (“I thought today I will try to pretend that I am from somewhere else, someone who has never been to this country town before”), she’s old enough to know her childhood is fast coming to a close. “It made me miserable that I was rapidly becoming an adult and that I was unable to do anything about it,” she reflects.

The full review is here.   It’s also definitely worth spending some time with the rest of this month’s Words Without Borders issue (which happens to be all about sex).

As I was waking up for work early yesterday morning, on the other side of the globe Japan was observing a moment of silence for the victims of its twin natural disasters.

When I arrived at the office that day a month before, 32 people had been killed from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. By the time I left work that day, the estimated death toll was between 200 and 300– a nearly tenfold increase.

Just one week later, the number of people dead or missing from the disaster had risen to more than 20,000– almost twice the population of my hometown.

Now that number is closer to 25,000, and I’m no less stunned by the effects of the disaster.  In the past weeks, The Takeaway has heard from nuclear experts, relief workers, professors of Japanese culture, and even Yoko Ono, but there’s no getting around the basic incomprehensibility of the damage.

Yesterday as I was thinking about how the story has unfolded, I stumbled on this moving poem by Tadashi Nishimura:

“It’s safe, but” / they say over and over / that’s worrisome

Watching the story develop in the role of a journalist, my eyes have been trained on the facts (many of them numerical in this “level 7” disaster).

But poetry cuts past the numbers — the thousands dead or missing, and many more without electricity or water, a home or word from their families; the hundreds of millisieverts of radiation being emitted; the billions of dollars in economic losses — and pierces the heart of the catastrophe’s uncertainty.  It emerges from the rubble of destruction, confusion, and misinformation to describe the very things which evade measurement: loss, blame, guilt, fear, upheaval, meaninglessness.

Another thing about poetry is its eerie timelessness.  From an anthology compiled in 13th century Japan:

Like a driven wave,
Dashed by fierce winds on a rock,
So am I: alone
And crushed upon the shore,
Remembering what has been.