Hiromi Kawakami: Manazuru (2006)

Manazuru is the first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that is available in English. She has been one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists since her first short story came out in 1994. I have read another one of her novels a couple of years ago. Many of her books are available in German and in French. (If you love literature in translation, especially Japanese literature, and you are able to read German and/or French, you have much more choice. I have for example read Hotel Iris by Yôko Ogawa, that came out last year in English, in a French translation almost ten years ago.).

The first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that I read is called Herr Nakano und die Frauen (Mr Nakano and the Women.) It’s a wonderful novel. A lot of what I liked in Herr Nakano is present in Manazuru too, still I wonder why they chose this novel to introduce Kawakami to English-speaking readers. Mr Nakano would have been a much better choice as it is much more typical for her writing. There are supernatural or dreamlike elements in Manazuru which are not present in her other books and which reminded me more of Murakami.

Manazuru is not easy to describe. It’s a mysterious book, filled with a dreamlike mood, shifting realities. Something very soft and gentle pervades it.  Still it’s very realistic. The story is told by Kei, a young woman who lives with her daughter and her mother in an apartment in Tokio. The three women live a very peaceful live, they share many intimate moments, cooking and eating together, stitching and knitting. They treat each other kindly but each of them leads her own life, of which the others know nothing. Kei thinks a lot about her relationship to her daughter and how unique it is. How she doesn’t love anyone like her with so much awkwardness. She thinks about what it means to have a child, physically. To feel her emotions because they once shared a body.

Kei’s husband Rei has disappeared ten years ago. Although she has been in a happy relationship with a married man, she has never forgotten her husband. She wonders always where he has gone, why he left or what has happened to him. At the beginning of the novel she decides to travel to Manazuru, a little seaside town where Rei has disappeared. When she arrives she feels a strange presence. A woman follows her, a woman who seems to be a ghost, whose density changes constantly. Sometimes the woman is just a shadow, sometimes Kei can touch her. She thinks this woman knows what happened to Rei.

Kei takes many trips to Manazuru all through the novel. Sometimes with Momo, her daughter, mostly on her own. Whenever she arrives there, she is in a dreamlike state that brings her very close to Rei. During her last trip she finds another village that is like a ghost village. Cranes are sitting on the dilapidated roofs (Manazuru means crane btw..) The houses have been abandoned. She thinks about the fact that an empty house is at first just empty but then, after several years, it gets a life of its own. Ivy will grow inside. Weeds  and many other plants will take over. It’s a bit like Kei herself after Rei abandoned  her. At first there was emptiness and loneliness and then she became someone else.

I liked Manazuru a lot because of its mood and because of the importance of moods. Kei doesn’t so much analyze her feelings or thoughts as describe her moods. They shift ever so lightly, just a little bit. They have the subtlety of scents, the same fleetingness.

What I love in Kawakami’s writing in general is her ability to capture those intimate moments in which hardly anything happens or is said, those moments during which people are sitting together, without talking and it still feels intimate and meaningful.

Hiromi Kawakami is one of the best authors  to start with for someone who isn’t familiar with Japanese writing because she is such a gentle writer. Her books are lovely and even tragic elements are toned down. We know her characters will make it in the end, move on, find meaning and all that stays from a tragic event is a feeling of bitter-sweet regret but no despair.

I read the book in German. I really love the cover. The woman is blurred, only the little flowers, (Immortelle, I think) at the bottom of the picture are in focus. It captures the mood of this novel much better than the English one in which the focus is on the woman.

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42 thoughts on “Hiromi Kawakami: Manazuru (2006)

  1. It is too bad that her other books are not available in English. My college French is so rusty I wouldn’t even attempt to read an entire novel. I’ll be on the lookout for upcoming translations though.

    • This is a very good book too, it’s just not so typical for her. I think they often translate the latest book of an author and then add others when that was a success. It’s still possible. I’m glad, I still got one in German left to read.

  2. I’m happy to see this listed on US Amazon and another of her books is due out at the end of the month. I’ve read very little Japanese literature–except the Endo last year and a crime novel a few years back. I like gentle reads even when not much happens. I still want to read Tanazaki this year, and maybe now something by this author, too.

    • There are a few I can recommend, Banana Yoshimoto, as well as Taichi Yamada but she is certainly going to be one of my favourites. I’m going to have a look which is the other one they will publish. I’ve been on amazon fr the other day and have ordered quite a few authors that looked interesting. Last year, two of my favouritebooks were Japanese. Of course, there will be Black Rain in August but that will but as bleak as the Endo I’m afraid.
      I just checked and saw that the one that is due is The Briefcase which was the first to be translated to German and is said to be great.

  3. Well, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, English-language publishers are just awful at getting translated fiction out there ;)

    I’ve still got a lot I want to read before I need to turn to German translations though…

    • Tony, I wonder whether it is not the public in general that is not open…
      I can understand that you don’t want to read a Japanese book in German but in my case as a French/German native speaker it’s different. I’d rather read in French or German anyway before I pick up the English translation.

  4. Thank you for introducing Hiromi Kawakami. I have read most of Murakami’s books, and two by Banana Yoshimoto, so there is definitively room for more Japanese literature in my library! Kawakami sounds like an author I will love to read.

    Not very long ago I watched Naoko Ogigami’s “Glasses” at the cinema. Its a fantastic film, and the atmosphere might be a bitt similar to the one you describe in Kawakami’s book – even if there is a lot of humor in this film.
    http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117935869/

    • You are welcome, Sigrun. I think you might like her, she has a way to write that feels very intimate, very subtle. The way she describes her feelings for her daughter for example were so different from anything that I’ve ever read before. She reminded me of both, Yoshimoto and Murakami but is still very different. You may find her older books in Norwegian.

  5. Thank you for introducing me to this author, and this novel. Reading your review reminded me of the film Maborosi. There is are scenes and a sense of atmosphere in that movie that have stuck with me since I first saw it over 15 years ago.

    • You are welcome, Gavin. The second book that will be published by the end of this month should be very good as well.
      Thanks for mentioning Maborosi, I will have to look it up.

  6. Great review, Caroline. It sounds like something I’d like to read–thank you for the heads-up.

    If you like gentle novels by Japanese authors, I suggest The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa and The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama. Both excellent.

    • Thanks, Carole. Yes, I like that floating feeling, the dreamlike mood. I didn’t like Ogawa’s Hotel Iris so much but it seems the one you read is quite different. Thanks for the suggestions.

    • Yes, I was thinking that could have been a possibility. But it may have been pure timing. I think they often try the latest first and if it works then they publish the earlier ones like they seem to do with her. In any case, apart from that supernatural, ghost-like presence there is’t such a big similarity with Murakami.

  7. This title sounds as though I would love it! I’ll get a hold of it asap.

    I’m already dreaming about my 2012 Summer Reading Binge, which will begin in early May. I hope I read this one before spring arrives.

    Desperately trying to get back into blogging–I so regret not being able to participate in the Literature and War readalong. The topic is at the heart of my interests.

    I do hope you are well. Europe is experiencing extreme cold now, am I right? I hope you’re toasty warm wherever you are.

    Best wishes,
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Hi Judith, she is a wonderful writer and maybe you can even start with The Briefcase which is due ot by the end of this month. I noticed you were not blogging much. Iguess it is necessary to have a break occasionally. Maybe you can still join me for the one or the other title in the Literature and War Readalong.
      It’s extremely cold here (-15°C) I stay in as much as I can and drink tea. Thanks for the thoughts.

  8. I’ve read very little Japanese literature, but found what I have read intriguing.I used to be very interested in dreams and dream states in novels for academic research purposes, so this sounds interesting in some ways.

    • The supernatural elements in this novel are certainly a way to symbolize a psychological dimension. I’m very interested in dreams and dream work but that was not the appeal of the novel. It’s rather her treatment of moods and how they change in a subtle way. I think you would like Japanese literature and Kawakami’s other novels would be great to get into it.

  9. Thank you for introducing me to this author. I’ve not heard of her before – probably due to having only one of her titles in English translation. I look forward to finding this one in my library since it sounds like something I’d be interested in reading.

  10. Thank you for this Caroline, I have never heard or noticed her in the library before. I might have seen her but never really paid attention to it. It is always fun to discover new J-author and this book sounds like something I could enjoy…you did mention a kind to Murakami.

    I am planning to visit the library this coming Thursday.

    • You are welcome, Novroz. I hope you will find it. I liked her very much. I hope they will traslate the one that is called Mr Nakano and the Women in German. That was such a great book.

  11. *sigh* It sounds as though another Japanese author is getting translated only because of her Murakami-like style of writing. I’m beginning to get tired of the way everyone raves about Murakami when there are so many other fantastic authors in Japan. It is such a shame that her other books have been overlooked, but hopefully we’ll get them all here in the end.

    • I should have emphasized that she has her own style, I just thought that because she doesn’t usually have supernatural elements that it may have been because of that similarity with Murakami that this book has been chosen… I hope her other books will be translated. As much as I like Murakami, she speaks far more to me.

  12. Sounds good Caroline. Sometimes I think publishers pick a particular title over others for translation launch because they think it’ll be more successful in the current market ie: topical or along the same veins as another recent hit.

  13. Wonderful review, Caroline! I haven’t read much of Japanese literature, except for a couple of Yoko Ogawa books (which I loved) and one by Natsuo Kirino (which I liked, but which was very dark). From your review, ‘Manazuru’ looks like a wonderful book. It is sad that the publishers didn’t translate ‘Mr.Nakano and the women’ first. I liked the covers of both the English and German editions, but the German edition does look more beautiful and haunting. ‘Manzuru’ reminds me of Taichi Yamada’s ‘Strangers’ because of the supernatural elements in the story. Thanks for this wonderful review. I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list.

    • Thanks Vishy, it’s a lovely novel. I hope you will enjoy it. Yes, there is a bit of a similarity with “Strangers” but not too much. Her book is much more gentle. I like the German cover a lot. I’m really glad that I already have The Briefcase which is called “The Earth is Blue, Heaven is White” in German. How much more different can two titles be?

  14. I think the Japanese title is Sensei no kaban, which in English would be The Teacher’s Briefcase, so perhaps the English title is a little closer to the original, but I’d have to agree that the German sounds more poetical!. I really enjoyed Manazuru, I’m contemplating begining to read novels in French, thanks for a great review.

    • Thank you for your kind comment and for visiting. Yes, indeed, the English seems closer. The choice of Japanese novels in French is really great. I’m looking forward to reading The Briefcase very soon.

  15. Pingback: Hiromi Kawakami: The Briefcase – Sensei no kaban (2004) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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