Friday, August 5, 2016

WITMonth Day 5 | Strange Weather in Tokyo / The Briefcase - Hiromi Kawakami | Review

It honestly felt like I was one of the last people to read Strange Weather in Tokyo (The Briefcase in the US edition, translation by Allison Markin Powell). The book had been extremely popular a few years ago, with almost everyone in the literature-in-translation crowd reading and loving it. Somehow, it escaped my interest for a long time and then... well, then I read it.

It's an odd novel, made odder by the fact that I liked it without really liking it much. It was simple: simply written, simply translated, simply engaging. I read it quickly and didn't dwell on it too much, one a sign that I enjoyed what I was reading, the other a sign that I didn't really like it all that much. The book lingers in my mind warmly enough, but it's a fairly empty space: since it's basically a collection of scenes and smaller pieces of a story, it's easy to remember bits while entirely forgetting others.

I struggle to define this as a book I liked largely because its central theme is supposed to be a love story, and it left me cold. Both characters - narrator Tsukiko (who is large
ly apathetic about most things, and very upfront about it) and former teacher Sensei are... well, they're distant. It's a significant part of their characterization, in fact. There's a carefully crafted separation between both Sensei and Tsukiko, and Tsukiko and the reader. Their relationship feels like it's locked up at the end of each chapter, each mini-story, each distraction.

So the story progresses slowly on the one hand (with small locked boxes at the end of each chapter), but also swiftly as the boxes accumulate. The book jumps lightly from season to season, tracking Tsukiko's growing infatuation and her almost self-destructive attempt to transform it into a fixed relationship. In this regard, I commend the book for playing so nicely with distance and emotional dissonance, but it's just not my thing.

Other reviewers found the book sweet, tender, sensitive. All words found on the back cover of my edition. None of these are words I would ever use in this example. There's a bittersweetness in the book's ending, yes, but it's wrapped in deliberate coldness and apathy. Hiromi Kawakami explicitly looks at a couple brought together by their love of getting drunk alone-together, brought together by unsympathetic and odd experiences, brought together by a significant age-gap and culture-gap. The end result - for me, at least - was equally uncomfortable. Not tender or warm. Distinctly cold. Emotional separation.

But again. There were aspects I couldn't help but love. I thought the slow build was marvelous and I loved the way the chapters fit together to make a whole. The flow was successful. The distance was effective. Tsukiko was the right kind of dry and interesting. I enjoyed reading the book and I enjoyed thinking about it. The problem is that I'm a reader with a clear preference for an emotional response, leaving me somewhat unsatisfied. I can certainly understand how the book became a bestseller and why other readers have liked it (even if I remain baffled by the descriptors they have used...), but for me: cold is cold.

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