Title: The Diving Pool – Three Novellas
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador, New York (2008)
ISBN: 978 0 312 42683 5
The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
The compassion Yoko Ogawa shows her protagonists, despite their flaws, consistently surprises me. These three early novellas – and novella seems a bit of a grandiose term for what are, essentially, three unrelated short stories – each feature a first person, female narrator. They are collected under the title: The Diving Pool, which is also the title of the first novella. The three women, aging from early teens to mid-thirties, are not the most likeable of characters. In fact, much of what we learn about them seems designed to repulse us.
Ogawa has an affinity for the first person narrator. Like her 2013 book of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales – The Diving Pool exclusively uses the “I” perspective. The writing is disturbingly confessional in tone. Taken together, these two characteristics make it tempting to classify Ogawa’s work as part of the Japanese I-Novel tradition.* Ogawa’s protagonists disclose their darkest secrets to the reader. They reveal shameful actions, though not always the motivations behind them. They are perhaps the most reliable of narrators in that they tell us things we don’t wish to hear.
The Diving Pool is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three novellas. It’s also the most difficult to summarize. The narrator, a teenage girl, grows up neglected by her parents as they tend to the needs of the many foster children they have taken into their home – an orphanage called The Lighthouse. Lonely and increasingly isolated, she develops a crush on one of her foster brothers and secretly spends her afternoons at the swimming pool watching him practice his diving. If this were another writer I’d say that the situation escalates, but “escalation” is too aggressive a word to apply to Ogawa. The girl does a terrible thing; in truth has a history of doing terrible things. The story is a perfect coalescing of the themes which obsess Ogawa – loneliness, isolation, everyday acts of desperation and cruelty.
Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn’t there, that she’d been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart’s content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.
I stopped reading and put this book away for 6 months after finishing The Diving Pool.
Slightly less devastating, Dormitory features a woman in her early thirties who is waiting to join her husband in Sweden. He has found work there and has gone on ahead to settle their living arrangements. She spends her days alone, seldom leaving her home. “My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season…. I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” One day a younger cousin calls asking for her help finding a place to live. He is beginning his first semester at university and knew from other family members that she’d been happy with the dormitory she’d stayed at while in school. Six years have passed since she’d graduated, but she offered to contact the manager. “That was how I came to renew my ties with the dormitory.”
“There’s one thing I forgot to mention,” I said, finally bringing up the subject that had been on my mind all day. My cousin turned to look at me, waiting expectantly for me to continue. “The Manager is missing one leg and both arms.” There was a short silence.
“One leg and both arms,” he repeated at last.
“His left leg, to be precise.”
“What happened to him?
“I’m not sure. An accident, I suppose. There were rumors – that he’d been caught in some machine or was in a car wreck. No one could ever manage to ask him, but it must have been something awful.”
“That’s for sure,” my cousin said, looking down as he kicked a pebble.
“But he can do everything for himself – cook, get dressed, get around. He can use a can opener, a sewing machine, anything, so you won’t even notice after a while. When you’ve been around him, it somehow doesn’t seem to be very important. I just didn’t want you to be shocked when you meet him.”
“I see what you mean,” my cousin said, kicking another pebble.
Her cousin moves into the dormitory, in fact seems to be the only student staying there, and through him the narrator also renews her acquaintance with the dormitory manager. A strange friendship forms between them, the narrator and Manager. Through a series of visits a semblance of a plot begins to emerge – but Dormitory seems more of an exercise in atmosphere and sensory exploration. Like many of Ogawa’s stories it is incredibly cinematic. She layers sound, visual images, dialogue, even cuts in and out of scenes. It’s easy to imagine Dormitory being made into a short, noir-style film… perhaps by a student film-maker. The final image is profoundly haunting, – and this in a story filled with haunting imagery.
Pregnancy Diary, actually the second in order of appearance, is structured pretty much as the title implies. A woman, living with her sister and her sister’s husband, begins keeping a diary to track her sister’s pregnancy. As the weeks progress it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right here… though I could never quite put my finger on what.
Unapologetically, Ogawa puts her damaged characters on the page and confronts us with their actions, using the first person perspective like a weapon to force our complicity. By exposing these women so completely it would be easy to think she didn’t care, but there is a definite protectiveness to her portrayals. She doesn’t hold them up for judgement, in fact I’d say it is just the opposite. She treats them with gentleness and dignity – handling them more carefully than she does her readers. There is also a visceral quality to her writing which reminds me of Naja Marie Aidt (who I’ll be reviewing next week) and other women writers I admire. Physical cruelty, the emotionally abhorrent, the grotesque – Yoko Ogawa’s writing doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of biology or human nature.
*As far as I know, and my understanding of the Japanese I-Novel has never been very good, the I- or True Novel genre requires an autobiographical narrative. So in A True Novel by Minae Mizumura the author places herself into the story as a character and as part of the framing device. Ogawa, again as far as I know, never places herself into her narratives. Though her narrators for the most part remain unnamed.