People from My Neighborhood: Stories, by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Ted Goossen (Soft Skull, 176 pp., $15.95)
Hiromi Kawakami has won numerous literary awards in Japan and international acclaim for the novel Strange Weather in Tokyo, a unique approach to the May-December romance. People from My Neighborhood, her recently published collection of 36 short, fantastical, and at times fabulist tales, has been compared with Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. This is a fine compliment, of course, but Kawakami’s stories are not as dense as Kawabata’s prose poems—heavy, somber tales, sometimes only a few hundred words long, that at times become aphoristic. Kawakami writes with a much lighter touch. Her stories, at least in Ted Goossen’s English translation, are playful and humorous, told with a sense of mystery, of trying to understand, from a child’s perspective, the human predicament.
A bachelor wins three wishes in “The Empress,” and, of course, makes “the same sort of stupid mistakes you see in fairy tales. His first wish was for the most beautiful woman in the world,” which leads to a bit of social chaos, with one neighborhood kid observing that “the stuff grown-ups do to each other is amazing.”
The collection does not constitute a short story cycle, in the more formal sense of creating a novel-like experience through a collection of independent tales. But with all the tales set in the same neighborhood and the recurring appearance of characters—almost like repertory theatre, with actors playing multiple roles in multiple dramas—People from My Neighborhood provides a sense of wholeness in composition.
The narrator’s good friend, Kanae, plays a substantial part in a half-dozen stories, and Kanae’s older sister is just as active. In narrative this short, usually no more than three or four pages, there is not much room for character development. And yet, with characters revealing varying aspects of themselves in successive stories, the reader comes to understand more fully each personality.
Some characters, however, are seen only once. In the first story, “The Secret,” a fitting introduction for what is to come, the narrator meets a child-like, but not human-like, figure who will become the narrator’s life-long companion. In “Chicken Hell,” a one-eyed farmer torments both children and his chickens, but he will not kill his chickens nor eat them when they die of natural causes.
The stories, though set in Japan, portray the universality of human experience. My first thought upon reading People from My Neighborhood is that Kawakami’s world is not much different from where I grew up, in a small, central Illinois farm town.
In “The Shacks,” Rokuro discovers dilapidated buildings where ghosts are rumored to dwell, and he dares another boy to search for them by himself. “Isn’t summer the season for tests of courage?” the boy asks. “Not in modern society,” Rokuro answers. “These days, that stuff happens in early spring.”
“The Juvenile Delinquent” reveals how, in junior high school, Kanae becomes a “total stranger” to the narrator, joining a biker gang and engaging in “impure relations” with boys. Children are children, wherever we go, with the difficulties of maturation not far behind.
The eeriness in Kawakami’s stories comes from the mysterious encroaching upon the commonplace. We meet the principal of a dog school, who, as a boy, presented a girl he liked with his collection of chicken bones. Kids skip school for a few hours to play in the park during a “no-gravity event.” In “The Bottomless Swamp,” Kanae gets accepted into the School of Sweets—where kids can eat all the candy they want—without even applying. Her sour disposition is what gains Kanae entry to the school, but she declines, saying, “You can’t drink sake and eat sweets at the same time.”
The taxi driver of “The Tenement” motors around town with the ghosts of three women who lived in the building when it was an 1868 restoration project, yet current city records reveal the building to be nowhere near that old. “Baby” reads as the inverse of Dante’s Divine Comedy, describing the years-long process by which human life comes to be, with the experience of purgatory and hell leading to the paradise of birth.
The losers of a local lottery must care for the child of an impoverished family for three months in “The Hachiro Lottery.” When this family wins a more traditional lottery, providing substantial financial relief, it resumes care of Hachiro, but not without complications.
Kawakami adds dashes of the macabre and the mordant. The previously mentioned sister of the unnamed narrator’s friend, Kanae, is intimidated by Kanae, but one day in “Brains” shows the narrator how she mutilated one of Kanae’s dolls. Yoko One and Yoko Two are “The Rivals,” sisters with nothing but contempt for one another throughout their lives. But Yoko One becomes extremely annoyed when she steals the heart of Yoko Two’s husband and Yoko Two calmly accepts her loss, which leads to intriguing permutations of vengeance.
Kawakami’s surrealism never takes the reader too far from the literal world. We might be wading on a beach, on the sands of reality, with the waters of irrationality washing ashore, but the waves are small and the water is warm.
With more sense of humor, Kafka could have written “Pigeonitis,” in which townspeople who contract the disease sound “like a pigeon when they try to talk.” Those with mild symptoms are urged to “avoid detection just by keeping their mouths shut” because, for those diagnosed, the food served in the isolation wing (italics mine) is vile.
Those more seriously affected take on physical and psychological aspects of the bird—defecating at will, eating “all the bugs we want,” and making “all the babies we can.”
“Bass Fishing” comes across as satirically allegorical before becoming a contemplation of the divine. A diplomat is described by the taxi driver as having “a human shape in my mirror, but that’s all I can remember. His face, his clothes, his voice—nothing registered.” The community then loses its sense of civic responsibility in arguing about the reality of the diplomat. “Crime soared,” “young men resisted military service,” and people took “shelter in caves and cellars.”
I’m not sure if “The Magic Spell” is an inside joke or a straightforward comment, but when a family returns from having spent time in America, the daughters bring back the term “oops” with them, a word the neighborhood kids had not heard before.
The stories in People From My Neighborhood remind me of W. P. Kinsella’s best baseball writing, in which he gently blends the real with the irrational. Kawakami has even titled one story “The Baseball Game.”
That these stories can be so short yet so complete owes to Kawakami’s deft use of fantastical elements to share truths that could not be expressed so succinctly, or in such an understated yet elegant fashion, without creating her dream-like atmosphere. People from My Neighborhood will only add to her stature.