Six volumes in and Pushkin Press' acclaimed Japanese novella series continues to be an illustrative and inclusive enterprise, showcasing exemplary works of modern Japanese literature to the well-versed enthusiast and the less experienced reader who has ventured little further than the fiction of Haruki Murakami.
The latest volume is "The End of the Moment We Had" by Yokohama-born playwright and novelist Toshiki Okada.
As with the other books in the series, it is short and slender, and as such offers a bite-sized sample of Okada's oeuvre rather than a hearty helping. However, this one comes with a stamp of approval from Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, and its two quirky tales, though little more than 50 pages apiece, are so richly layered and strangely beguiling that we are left craving more.
The title story is based on an award-winning play by the author titled "Five Days in March." Day implies daytime, but most of the story's drama and destabilizing effects unfold after dark or in a hazy twilight realm where time is out of joint.
Six drunken men crash and stumble into Tokyo's SuperDeluxe nightclub. After an offbeat open-mic session filled with vacuous opinions about the impending Iraq war and excruciating silences ("you could hear the bubbles in the beer") one man peels away from the group and heads off with a woman to a love hotel.
There they remain holed up for four nights, developing a unique intimacy yet never disclosing their names, and cocooned from sunlight, news and clocks. "Time," muses the woman, "felt like it'd been unplugged and we had been given a reprieve."
The second story, "My Place in Plural," is less substantial but still weirdly striking. On a day in September 2005, a 30-year-old woman lies on her futon complaining about her surroundings, from the spider webs and cockroaches to the stench of mold, impractical vinyl flooring and lack of light. While grumbling about the condition of her home, she reflects on the state of her marriage. Soon she is replaying a recent argument with her husband, imagining what he is up to at work, and pinpointing his chief faults and her main woes.
According to the book's biographical note, Okada is renowned for his hyper-colloquial dialogue. Samuel Malissa's translation has fizz and verve, and each slangy meditation or exchange rings true. Unfortunately, the more vapid utterances grate: "I guess she was my girlfriend, whatever — but then she texted me that she couldn't make it, and I was like that's cool."
The stories are at their best — and their most baffling — when Okada topples our expectations and proceeds by way of surprise steps and wrong turns. He shuttles between perspectives, hops from one idea to another, splices together random scenes and leaves loose ends. Not all adds up, and not everyone makes sense, but the disorientation is half the fun.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The End of the Moment We Had
By: Toshiki Okada, translated from the Japanese by Samuel Malissa.
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 122 pages, $13.95.