Short Stories by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
(1998) 2013 / 162 Pages
You might not realize it at first, but as you read through the eleven stories that comprise Revenge, Yoko Ogawa’s prose will slowly but persistently chip away at your psyche. These bizarre “dark tales” first present scenes that are slightly askew but not overtly horrific, such as a mother grieving over the loss of a son, or an old woman whose garden yields carrots in the shape of human hands. But the stories gradually build to a disturbing crescendo, and you will likely find yourself rattled and nervous – contemplating the terrifying yet magical world that Ogawa has penned.
Revenge is categorized as a collection of short stories, but they’re all so intricately and expertly connected that it feels more like reading a novel. Characters appear, disappear, and reappear like phantoms, which, by the end of the book, will give you an unavoidable sensation of being haunted. And long after you finish the collection, you will likely notice these characters invading the sacred spaces of your subconscious. I dreamed about Ogawa’s characters two nights in a row after reading Revenge, and I sometimes find myself absently wondering about what it would be like to visit a museum of torture or to enter a post office filled with kiwis as Ogawa describes. It’s a little disturbing, yes, but it’s also a testament to Ogawa’s powerful descriptive abilities. If you can vividly see yourself interacting with characters, then an author has succeeded in a way that ensures the permanence of their literary relevance. In that regard, it’s also necessary to point out how perfect the translation is. Stephen Snyder’s delicate expertise in language and prose is truly remarkable.
For me, the most memorable tale in the collection depicts a young woman who lives with an external heart – the delicate organ is on the outside of her chest, and she seeks the services of an expert bag maker to sew a custom bag that will support her unique medical condition. In the process, the bag maker becomes utterly obsessed with this unusual client:
The beauty of the heart oppressed me, but my hands were steady as I worked. I had manage to make a thing that no one else could have made.
As this obsession becomes more and more consuming, the bag maker devises a sinister plan that will guarantee permanence in his relationship to the organ. And this is really what the themes in Revenge boil down to – obsession, desire, compulsion, and passion – human emotions that are completely natural, yet have the potential to become incredibly dangerous. Perhaps this is why the stories in Revenge are so consuming. Ogawa has the ability to pinpoint the exact moment when such sentiments turn dark and sour. And the fact that readers may see themselves so naturally reflected in these characters is even more terrifying – because even though we’d all like to think of ourselves as noble and good, we all have the potential to embody such deviance and darkness.