Review: Manazuru

Manazuru is an excellent example of when language and style make up for any shortcomings in plot.

by Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by Michael Emmerich

There comes a point in every reader’s life when they come across a book, read the first chapter or so, and their initial, purely gut reaction is: This book is weird.

Maybe your reaction would be a little more eloquent than mine, but what it boils down to is that the thing in your hand is simply the kind of book that is written so differently than any other book you’ve come across, that you just don’t even know what to think of it. For some people in the near future, that book might be Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami, translated into English by Michael Emmerich.

At first, you might not even realize that Manazuru might be one of those books. If someone were to read the summary on the back cover, they would know the book is about Kei, whose husband suddenly disappeared twelve years before, begins to take trips to a nearby coastal town to fight, from what one might assume from just the back cover, is some kind of depression. The reader opens to the first page, and is then immediately caught off guard:

I walked on, and something was following.
Enough distance lay between us that I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. It made no difference, I ignored it, kept walking.

After that, the narration comes back to earth, describing the very normal inn in a very normal coastal town just a train’s ride away from Tokyo. But that feeling of tension doesn’t go away, even though it takes another nine pages for the narrator to mention the “thing” that follows her again.

There is a palpable sense of dread, and murkiness, that infects every word of the rest of the novel, with Kei trying to navigate through her life of taking care of a teenage daughter and an affair with a married man, while still caught up in the mystery of her husband’s disappearance. Memory and reality start colliding, and pretty soon the reader can’t even tell when Kei is talking aloud or talking to herself, as she jumps back and forth between what happened in the past and what is happening now.

It is this murkiness of the narrative voice that makes Manazuru both fascinating and maddening to read. The plot, such as it is, meanders along, constantly being sidetracked by Kei’s memories, to the point where I started to ask: “Where is this going?” If you’re looking for a mystery to be solved, that is, the question of what happened to Kei’s husband, you might end up disappointed. But in Manazuru‘s case, the old cliche stands: it’s about the journey, not the destination. Thus there are times, especially towards the end, where Kawakami’s idiosyncratic style just suddenly clicks, and even despite all the criticisms I just had, the prose is just suddenly beautiful and somehow works perfectly.

Translator Michael Emmerich assuredly had his work cut out for him with this novel. And Manazuru is a perfect example for exploring how complex the relationship between text and translator can be. One could easily wonder while reading this book: Is Manazuru stylistically weird because Kawakami wrote it that way? Or is Emmerich a terrible translator, and any stylistic oddities are his fault, his failure as a translator? I say this all rhetorically of course, because Emmerich is an excellent translator, and his translation of this book won the 2010 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, a prize given by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University for the best translation that year.

In fact, I think we should be impressed with the skill at which Emmerich can emphasize the weirdness without making Manazuru hard to read, and alternately make those moments of beauty transcendent. Because that’s when translation is the hardest: fighting the fear that anything that sounds strange might be seen as a flaw in the translation, and allowing the book to be the strange little book that it is. On a story and/or structural level, Manazuru is not a perfect piece of fiction, and it is certainly not for everyone. But it’s just so unique and the translation so impressive that I find it hard not to recommend it.


Originally published December 30, 2011.


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