“Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales”

Revenge 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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Yoko Ogawa’s 1998 novel built with short stories. I read my library’s 2013 Picador paperback translated by Stephen Snyder.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1.

The Plot:

Eleven first-person stories interweave to tell the dark events of a city.

Ogawa builds her stories on refreshingly simple language; short and to the point with touches of darkness, poignancy and surrealism. The reality within the fiction is challenged in fascinating ways (some stories are “written” by other characters, but those fictional characters interact with other “real” ones). It has a clever Pulp Fiction vibe without feeling showy or derivative.

An interesting thing about Ogawa’s style, which I didn’t notice until typing these notes: no characters are given names. At most we have a “Mrs. J” and “Dr. Y.” Otherwise, Ogawa sticks to simple pronouns or family positions (he, the woman, the father, her son, etc), which adds to the campfire, ghost story feel.


[1] “Afternoon at the Bakery”

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A woman waits at a bakery to order strawberry shortcake for her dead son’s birthday.

[2]

“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”

“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”

“Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”

(p.4)

[3]

The strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies.

(p.6)

[4] Reference:

“You remember, we did Man of Flame. He played Van Gogh, and I played his brother, Theo.”

(p.11)

I can’t find a play with this title.


[5] “Fruit Juice”

3 out of 5 stars.

 The Plot:

A young woman asks a classmate to come along for her first meeting with her father.

[6]

She wasn’t disagreeable, just easy to ignore.

(p.15)


[7] “Old Mrs. J”

4 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A writer’s encounters with her landlady grow increasingly bizarre.

[8]

She had a flat nose, and her eyes were set widely apart in a way that gave the middle of her face a strange blankness.

(p.28)

[9]

Just as I could see everything that went on in her apartment, she missed nothing in mine.

(p.30)


[10] “The Little Dustman”

4 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A stepmother is longingly remembered after her death.

Ogawa is unconcerned with letting us know the gender of her narrators. It might come up once per story, it might not come up at all. I spent most of this story assuming the narrator was a woman.

[11]

My biological mother had died shortly after giving birth to me. She had scratched a pimple inside her nose and it had become infected.

(p.40)

[12]

“It’s strange to think about it now, but even a ten-year-old has a certain kind of common sense.”

(p.41)

[13] Reference:

My father gave Mama a cloisonné pendant.

(p.41)

 

Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments (cloisons in French) to the metal object by soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. These remain visible in the finished piece.

[14]

“I suppose they learn to live with them somehow, but if I were a giraffe, I’d want a normal neck.” She sounded terribly sad.

(p.46)

[15] Reference:

“ ‘The Little Dustman’ by Johannes Brahms.”

(p.49)

This children’s song is also known as “The Little Sandman” in English. From musicmatterschoir.blogspot.com:

“The Little Sandman” is No.4 from Brahms ‘Volks-Kinderlieder, WoO 31 (Folksongs for Children) (…) It was written in German, named “Sandmannchen”, but was set to English words by W.G. Rothery.


[16] “Lab Coats”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A hospital employee is fascinated by her beautiful, cruel co-worker.

The only story told in present tense.

[17] Reference:

Nephrology, one short.”

(p.51)

 

Nephrology is the study, care, and treatment of the kidneys.

[18]

I imagine her naked. The doctor’s fingers running over her skin, her hair, the wet places. I picture her tongue licking the edge of the blue envelope. Who wouldn’t want her?

(p.57)


[19] “Sewing for the Heart”

2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A bagmaker is given a peculiar task.

This is one of only a couple of stories that doesn’t work on its own. The narrative is poorly developed and relies on the context of the bigger picture to function. It’s the only story where we’re in a murderer’s head leading up to a murder and I don’t believe the turn.

[20]

Now, you may be wondering why I get so excited. You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which to put other things. And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them so extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object that we ask it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you. To me, a bag is patience, a bag is profound discretion.

(p.61)

[21] Reference:

Next comes a woman carrying a Boston Bag.

(p.62)

In an August 29, 2016 post on her site (“That Most Excellent Accessory, The Boston Bag”), Patti Bender does an excellent job outlining the history of the Boston Bag. From her post:

About a foot long and a foot high, it had a flat bottom, short handles, and a strap closure.

[22] Odd word use:

“I suppose you should baste it together first to make sure everything matches up.”

(p.65)

From sew4home.com:

In sewing, basting is a temporary straight stitch used to hold layers together until a final stitch is sewn.


[23] “Welcome to the Museum of Torture”

2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

After her neighbor murders a man, a woman finds herself taking a tour of the Museum of Torture.

[24] Incredible first line:

Lots of people died today.

(p.77)

[25]

Why was everyone dying? They had all been so alive just yesterday.

(p.78)


[26] “The Man Who Sold Braces”

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A difficult but loved uncle is remembered after his death.

[27] Reference:

“The cold makes my neuralgia act up.”

(p.113)

 

Intense, typically intermittent pain along the course of a nerve, especially in the head or face.


[28] “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”

2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A woman gets lost on her way to confront her husband’s lover.

[29] Reference:

My husband’s specialty is respiratory medicine, specifically the treatment of a syndrome called pulmonary infiltrates with eosinophilia.

(p.121)

 

A pulmonary infiltrate is a substance denser than air, such as pus, blood, or protein, which lingers within the parenchyma of the lungs.

Eosinophilia is an increase in the number of eosinophils in the blood, occurring in response to some allergens, drugs, and parasites, and in some types of leukemia. (Eosinophils are a type of disease-fighting white blood cell.)

[30]

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started (…) I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique.

(p.124)


[31] “Tomatoes and the Full Moon”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A writer at a resort keeps encountering a strange woman and her dog.

[32] Characters overlap between stories and Ogawa uses this to show how memory is different for us all. The stepson’s point of view, from “The Little Dustman” (note [10]):

“Why do you suppose giraffes have such long necks?” Mama said (…)

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It seems absurd, doesn’t it?” I nodded vaguely, not quite sure what “absurd” meant.

(p.46)

Mama’s point of view, from “Tomatoes and the Full Moon”:

“He asked me why the giraffe’s neck was so long. He said it was ‘absurd.’ How did a ten-year-old child know a word like ‘absurd’?”

(p.140)

[33] Revenge is a misleading title. A few stories deal with revenge but more deal with memory, loss, grief and even food. This following bit made me wonder if Afternoon at the Bakery was the original title:

“This [book] is mine – one that managed to escape the burglar,” she said, handing it to me.

Afternoon at the Bakery. The book was slender, and as tattered as her bundle.

(p.47)

Revenge‘s copyright page lists Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai as the original Japanese title. The website Numero Cinq, in a March 2013 article titled “A Heart in the Outside World: A Review of Revenge, Eleven Dark Tales, by Yoko Ogawa – Steven Axelrod” says:

The original title of Yoko Ogawa’s surreal novel in eleven stories (…) might be translated as Unspeaking Corpse, Unsuitable Internment, a much more appropriate, or at any rate a less distracting title.

I wholeheartedly agree with Axelrod.

[34] Reference:

The aquarium was said to own a dugong.

(p.149)

 

The dugong is a medium-sized marine mammal. It is one of four living species of the order Sirenia, which also includes three species of manatees. It spans the waters of some 40 countries and territories throughout the Indo-West Pacific.


[35] “Poison Plants”

2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

An aged painter takes an interest in a young man with a beautiful voice.

[36]

“Everyone I know has died. My past is full of ghosts.”

(p.154)

[37] Reference:

“Something by Liszt,” I said. “The ‘Liebestraum,’ if you don’t mind.”

(p.155)

 

Lieberstaume (German for Dreams of Love) is a set of three solo piano works by Franz Liszt, published in 1850.


Recommended not just for fans of horror but for those who enjoy cleverly overlapped novels (books like Cloud Atlas and Company K). Most stories are strong enough to stand alone but if you read any of them, you should read them all. I’ll definitely be seeking out more by Ogawa.

And (maybe a strange compliment) I am damned pleased that Ogawa doesn’t use rape or genital violence to achieve her unsettling mood. Modern horror leans depressingly hard on rape (especially toward women and gay men; I’m looking at you, American Horror Story). Rape shouldn’t be used for shock value alone. If you have rape in your story, your story better deal with it, not use it as lazy shorthand. Ogawa creates intense, creepy, poignant, sad, disturbing situations without cheap tricks.

Next week, Samanta Schweblin’s absolutely incredible Fever Dream.

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