“Old Mrs. J”
“Old Mrs. J” is from Yoko Ogawa’s new story collection, REVENGE: ELEVEN DARK TALES (Picador/St. Martin’s Press,2013). Yoko Ogawa is the author of THE DIVING POOL, THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR, AND HOTEL IRIS. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award.
Alan Cheuse, writing for NPR, said this about Ogawa’s collection: You certainly get that feeling of being haunted by Haruki Murakami when you begin reading the “Eleven Dark Tales,” as she calls them, in this story cycle by Yoko Ogawa. The situations seem made for Murakami’s particular blend of the real and the fantastic. In the opening story, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” a customer comes into a shop to buy strawberry shortcake for, as it turns out, a child who died years before. Or there’s the story “Old Mrs. J,” in which the narrator’s landlady grows carrots in her garden in the shape of human hands.
But as you read along, you find Ogawa ascending into an orbit of her own – one that’s at least as high as Murakami’s – as in the story “Sewing for the Heart,” which features a bag designer whose customer is a woman with her heart growing on the outside of her chest; or in the flatly told but utterly bizarre trio of linked stories “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” “The Man Who Sold Braces” and “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger.”
The links between stories lead you, the reader, to recognize a strange and eccentric truth about this collection. Ogawa makes each of the stories seem like odd, if convincing, standalone works of short fiction and at the same time like metafictional products created by the characters in several of the stories. Are you reading about a trip to the zoo in a novel by one of the characters, or a trip to the zoo in a story by Ogawa? By the time you begin to recognize this paradox as the guiding principle of the stories, you’re in too far to stop.
So, really, it’s not just Murakami but also the shadow of Borges that hovers over this mesmerizing book. And in that telltale heart, one may detect a slight bow to the American macabre of E. A. Poe. Ogawa stands on the shoulders of giants, as another saying goes. But this collection may linger in your mind – it does in mine – as a delicious, perplexing, absorbing and somehow singular experience.
The book is translated by Stephen Snyder.