Vegetables in the shape of hands—carrots that can and do resemble the appendage so much that the very thought of dicing them means that you eat a thumb or munch on a pinkie. A salad composed of one of man’s most innate fears: the loss of an appendage. Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales offers such a thought, one that stands close to the macabre, yet somehow comes across as so honest, so real that it cannot be horror. These tales offer the reader a first person glimpse into the lives of eleven characters as they navigate the difficulties of both modern day life and Japan. But this is not your typical short story collection, for each tale overlaps both transfixing and haunting the reader. Originally published in 1998 in Japan, Stephen Snyder thankfully brought it to the English language in 2013 through Picador, and while I was unable to find it at my local bookstore, Amazon has it at the ready.
Digging into the text, tale-by-tale the reader is drawn in by the subtle overlaps—each of these characters and their universes are not unique, are not separate, but actually coconspirators in the same game. A doctor’s mistress grows angry and threatens her lover while later a doctor’s wife goes in search of her husband’s mistress, searching for her marriage’s nemesis. These women seek to emasculate the men (or is it man) in an effort to remove the vein of passivity from their lives. A murder is described by the assailant in such a casual, blasé manner, that one would think it was not only a common but acceptable act, yet the very same crime divides a couple, breaking them into two as the boyfriend cannot handle the girlfriend’s intense interest in the crime’s media attention. It is at this moment that the reader self-reflects, questioning whether they two would do an interview, whether they would smatter social media with the event in order to seek their moment of fame.
Despite having an eerie tone at times, the collection rings with emotion. Mothers mourn the loss of children, staring at rotting birthday pastries in memoriam; writers guard their manuscripts with their lives, clinging to the loose papers as if they were crying children in need of love; tigers show human emotion as they cry out in their death; and the reader witnesses two separate, unique deaths at the hand of abandoned refrigerators—machines refitted into being makeshift coffins. Such events force the reader to consider central questions: do we believe in torture and what qualifies as such an act? Would we seek the affections of an illegitimate father in the wake of our mother’s untimely death and how would we deal with our investable rejection? Is a Zoo a place of joy or sadness, especially in dead of a snow filled winter?
Written with simple prose, the pages turn, the hours melt, and the reader is transported into a heartfelt, haunting visage of Japan. We may not fully understand the culture, yet we are given a taste, a tempting taste. Such temptation forces this closing thought: never before have I been so inspired to learn Japanese and submerge myself in this land’s culture, if and only if, I could read this text the way it was intended.