The 151st Akutagawa Prize, for early 2014, went to Shibasaki Tomoka 柴崎友香, for “Haru no niwa 春の庭” (Spring gardens).
Shibasaki was born in 1973, and debuted as a writer in 1999; this was her fourth time as a finalist for the A-Prize, and the first time was in 2006. In other words, she’s not a new writer, not by a long shot. She already has quite a following, so as with Kashimada Maki, this is a case of the Prize machinery recognizing an established writer rather than launching a new one.
It’s a longish story, 140 pages in book form, long enough that the book doesn’t need a bonus story to fill it out. It’s told mostly in the third person, and mostly from the point of view of a thirty-something guy named Tarō. For long stretches, though, we’re actually inhabiting the point of view of his neighbor, Nishi, as she narrates episodes from her life with minimal interruption from Tarō. Then, at the end, Tarō’s elder sister comes in and starts narrating in the first person, so smoothly that it makes you wonder if we are supposed to understand everything that went before as being the sister’s account of Tarō’s life. But then Tarō, we’re made to understand, doesn’t say much, and there’s no indication that he tells his sister most of what we learn through the narrative. So what’s really happening is that the narrative point of view is shifting without warning. And retrospectively that encourages us to think of Nishi’s stories not as reported speech (they’re not set off in quotation marks) so much as just another shift in point of view. The novel is experimental in that sense, but not in a confusing way. The reader is never lost in personlessness.
Tarō lives in an old, tiny apartment in a wealthy section of Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; his building is surrounded by large old houses, many built in a Western style. Tarō’s building is going to be torn down soon – his lease is almost up, and he won’t be allowed to renew it, and one by one the other tenants are leaving, and their units are left empty. It’s a picture of a neighborhood in constant renewal, in a city that’s in constant renewal – there’s always something being torn down, always something new being put up. Everything’s temporary, and therefore everything’s superficial, including relationships.
Tarō is divorced and living in a very detached manner. His interactions with his coworkers and neighbors are kept at the level of good manners, meaning arm’s length. He’s constantly exchanging gifts with them, but on his part at least they’re never particularly heartfelt; they’re usually regiftings. He’s been divorced for three years, and it’s clear that he still has the scars; his father, meanwhile, died ten years ago, and he’s plainly still grieving. He keeps the mortar and pestle, with which he ceremonially ground his father’s bones at the funeral, in his kitchen cupboard.
Tarō gets to know two of his neighbors. One is Nishi, a single woman the age of Tarō’s older sister who lives on the second floor of his building. The other is known only as “Mi” or Snake – the units in this building aren’t numbered, they’re labelled according to the Chinese zodiac, a hint at the depersonalization that city living brings. (Nishi is “Dragon” and Tarō is “Boar.”) Mi is the age Tarō’s father would have been, so Tarō, who’s from Osaka, is in Tokyo surrounded by surrogate family members. Who he keeps at arm’s length.
Nishi is the source of most of the action in the story. She’s a mangaka and book illustrator, and has a sort of mischievous side to her. She’s obsessed, it turns out, with a large Western-style house that she can see from her veranda. It’s a typical Setagaya mansion (in the English sense, not the Japanese) from the postwar years: wrought iron gates, stained glass windows, all the pretenses at Western-style fine living. Of course it’s a glaring contrast to the tiny rooms she and Tarō live in, but it’s more than that to her. We gradually learn that she has been aware of this house since her high school years in Nagoya, because it was once inhabited by a famous director of TV commercials and his stage-actress wife, who published a coffee-table book of photos of the house and themselves. When Nishi moved to Tokyo she ran across the house listed on a real-estate site, and while of course she couldn’t afford to buy it she managed to find an apartment overlooking it.
That’s stage one of her obsession. Stage two is creepier. A young family moves in, parents and two small kids, and Nishi finds the daughter in the street one day crying. She returns the kid to the house, and uses that as an opportunity to make friends with the family. The mom is from Sapporo and doesn’t know anybody in the city, so she’s happy to meet Nishi, but Nishi is really only interested in exploring the house. But of course she doesn’t tell them this – she only tells Tarō, over long drinking sessions at a local bar. He limits himself to one, she has seven or eight at a time.
To say she’s stalkerish is fair, although she never does anything particularly dangerous. She’s just a little creepy about it. Tarō doesn’t call her out on it, and in fact even allows himself to be dragged along in her obsession, visiting the family for dinner one night with her. And at the end of the story, when Nishi has moved out of the condemned apartment building and the family in the Western house have suddenly been transferred to Kyushu, Tarō sneaks into the backyard and buries his father’s mortar and pestle in the garden…
Set out like this, a few clear themes emerge. First is Tarō’s wounded state. His divorce has left him damaged enough that when Nishi makes a clear offer of friendship (and perhaps more), he hardly pursues it, but then again can’t be bothered to reject her. And his grief over his father’s death – well, it really only manifests itself in his reminiscences of his father, but then he goes and buries the mortar and pestle, and we realize that all this time maybe he’s been looking for closure. …This theme is clear, but it’s presented in a very muted way. We get Tarō’s thoughts, but never his feelings. And that, of course, is a tried and true literary technique, but it works best when the power of the unspoken feelings is transferred onto something else, as in Kawabata’s work. Poetry, scenery, something. That doesn’t really happen here. There’s no outlet for Tarō’s emotions, and no back access to them for the reader. Maybe that’s the point. But it means that this work, which could have great emotional depth, stays mostly at the surface. I think of it as iyashi-kei in a way: it’s clearly dealing with wounds, but not in such a way as to disturb the reader’s placidity. It’s calming.
Another theme is the transiency and anonymity of life in Tokyo. Especially for the non-wealthy. I read Tarō’s choice to bury his father’s mortar and pestle in the garden of the Western house as being a way for him to give his father a little bit of permanence (that house won’t be torn down), as well as a little bit of glamor and beauty that would otherwise be unattainable for him. Meanwhile Tarō himself remains as anonymous as his name, and the little community of Snake, Boar, and Dragon is totally dispersed at the end of the book. But this theme, too, is handled with such calmness that it leaves the surface of the reader’s emotions wholly undisturbed. We’re not encouraged to be angry about this, or even particularly saddened – anonymity and transience might be precisely what Tarō wants and needs in life.
I found it a bit of a puzzling book. I’m not sure what level it’s supposed to work on. It doesn’t seem to connect to any contemporary social issues. Its portrait of urban anomie is hardly new, and not particularly powerful. Its treatment of grief is determined, but not particularly eloquent. The book reads as assured, the work of an author who knows what she wants to do; but it didn’t really move me. Your mileage may vary.