Don't turn your head. Keep looking at
the bandaged place. That's where the
light enters you.
And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself. – Rumi
This short verse from one of my favorite poets kept resonating with me as I read Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru, translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich. Twelve years after Kei’s husband disappeared, she is still haunted by the loss. But that’s not the only thing haunting her. As she makes regular visits to the small seaside town called Manazuru, she finds herself constantly dogged by a mysterious spirit. Kei doesn’t know what is in Manazuru that draws her nor does she know what it is about her that draws the woman. In this restless year, Kei allows the reader a glimpse into the chaotic memories that invade her quiet, contained life.
It is easy to say that Kei is looking for closure. She remains adrift, trying to make sense of why her husband Rei left, uncertain whether to divorce him or have him declared legally dead. She still bears her husband's name though she lives with her mother (both surnames appear on the nameplates in front of their home). She has a long-term affair with a married man. She is unsure of how to deal with the changes in her teenage daughter. Rei lingers in every relationship that Kei has, and thoughts of him still follow her even when she escapes to the secluded fishing town of Manazuru provides a good backdrop for Kei's introspection.
There is an aimlessness to this whole novel. If the prose was meant to have that almost disjointed yet still poetic quality, then Mr Emmerich’s translation succeeds: 'As we were paying at the desk, I suddenly pictured the daybreak tangle of our bodies, and became wet. The rainy season was unusually long that year. We sauntered through a light rain, sharing an umbrella. Nesting dolls were arrayed on a glass shelf in a souvenir shop(p60).' From sex to rain to Russian matryoshka. I actually liked this strange jumble of images, as if I were joining Kei flit from one thought to the other, from the remembered to the tangible. I thought that this seeming incoherence and meandering underscored the surrealism in the text. You tend to ask yourself what is real and what is imagined, almost an echo of Kei's own questions about what had happened to her marriage.
I'm not sure if this is a characteristic that will be well-received by other readers. In the opening scene, Kei stays at an inn run by a family named Suna, which means sand. For me, the image aptly establishes the tenuous links between the events in this story, but I still found myself looking for something to anchor my reading experience. In the end, I found it in Kei's relationship with her daughter Momo. There is something so broken and disconnected and convincingly real about them, apart and together, and I was really invested in what happens to them. Many things are left unanswered (like who the woman is or what really happened to Rei), but then maybe that's not the point. Maybe the point is that closure comes not as door slamming shut, but as a boat disappearing into the horizon, gradually drifting away until you are no longer aware where it is. Or maybe that's just my overly simplistic way of making sense out of a very complex journey.