28 July 2011

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories (Kōno Taeko)

Kōno Taeko, 85 years old, must be the grand dame of Japanese letters. Her outputs were praised, most deservedly, by writers like Ōe Kenzaburo ("At once the most carnally direct and the most lucidly intelligent woman writing in Japan.") and Endo Shusaku ("Kōno Taeko is the female writer I most admire among all the Japanese authors. Her unsparing gaze penetrates the depths of human nature; and she sets forth what she finds there with absolute precision."). The blurbs came from the back page of Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, a collection of ten short stories, all translated by Lucy North (except for the last, translated by Lucy Lower), and published in 1996 by New Directions. All the stories were originally written in the 1960s (1961-1969) and concerned women and their unstable or uncertain marital relationships. Kōno's genre of writing was classified as transgressive fiction owing to her use of elements of sadomasochism and aberrant behavior. The stories were often open-ended, which are really the best kind of stories; and they were propelled by ordinary details made to seem odd and entirely new, as if the outcome of the story was dictated by the way the characters think through these once-familiar details. In each story, the main character was either a middle-aged female (an obsessive, or on the way to becoming one) or a couple in a strained relationship. The story's telling will unravel a relationship or spell a kind of doom for the woman (wife or female partner). The writer was deconstructing the story through strange deployment of metaphors and symbols circling around a tragedy waiting in the wings or already hinted at even before the story started. For Kōno, it's either the "shock value" of stories was revealed behind the scenes (all the more shocking and unsettling for being untold) or the partial or incomplete shock was displayed in full in all its gross profundity, in front of a well-lit stage (all the more shocking for being brazen). The intelligence of the "shock" stories derived from their ability to transgress the boundaries of narrative convention and to achieve unpredictability beyond the mechanical relationship between the sexes. We were somehow given a restrained ending when we were perhaps expecting something explosive, or we were treated to something nauseating when we were bracing for a tame plot development. The uncertain feeling was perhaps summarized by this paradoxical passage from the first story, "Night Journey":

   Fukuko realized that she'd been in a particular mood for some time now, a mood that would keep her walking beside Murao into the night, walking on and on until they became the perpetrators - or the victims - of some unpredictable crime.

That "particular mood" hovered in every story in Toddler-Hunting, a mood that either implicated the reader as the guilty party or rendered him a hapless victim of the story. A seemingly harmless mood that suddenly turned into a murky plot, twisting along a maze of menace and sick psyche. The reader of Kōno will relish the gradual shifts of focus in a story's limited duration, the bombs being dropped very slowly but surely, the monomaniacal tendencies of narrators faced with their own dissembling, and the exploration of the issues of femininity and sexuality: motherhood, infertility, marriage, family ties, and fidelity in relationships.

Kōno's intelligence as a novelist was recognized in her country where she was a multi-awarded writer. However, with only a single collection of hers appearing so far in English, she was certainly under-translated and under-appreciated. Her transgressive short stories, superior in many respects to the ones put out by Murakami Haruki, deserve to be assimilated and widely talked about. They are fleeting stories that leave lasting aftereffects, very like the afterglow of sparklers in "Full Tide":

   The children set about lighting their sparklers. Each time she brought a flame to the tip of one, the girl's fingers would tremble slightly. She had to be careful: she could never tell exactly where the first sparks would shoot out. Then the darkness suddenly would be ablaze, and transfixed, she would be in another world. The sparkler would make fiery, spitting sounds, fizzling away before her eyes. In those few seconds, though, she knew the sparkler was living for all it was worth - fiercely, keenly, in a beautiful world of color and light. Even when everything became dark and still once more, the girl would be sure that she still saw something there, glowing and fizzling away.

The internal combustion in a Kōno story was lighted by the same inner explosions, the darkness and its recesses uncovered for a brief moment by blazing fireworks. The sparklers' glow never receded without being indelibly imprinted in a child's imagination.

For a sample of a Kōno story, here is a full story that recently appeared in TWO LINES Online of Center for the Art of Translation:

"An Odd Owner", translated by Goro Takano


  1. thanks so much for introducing a lot of us, including me, to this new to me writer-and thanks so much for providing a link to her story-great post-if Kenzaburo Oe likes her that is good enough for me to read her soon!

  2. Will echo Mel here & offer a hearty thanks for the intro to an author not heard of, yet praised by the likes of Endo & Oe, definitely one to track down.

  3. Likewise, Gary. One novelist's enthusiasm leads to another. A lovely vicious cycle. :p

  4. I just read last week "Toddler Hunting"-it is included in the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories-as you said it is a very open ended story-I kept waiting for something terrible to happen-I see now why Kenzaburo Oe liked her

  5. The "mood" of a Kōno story is really something, isn't it? I also have that Oxford anthology. Lots of favorite writers in that book, Mel.