January in Japan: Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

January in JapanInspired by Bellezza’s Japanese literature challenge and Tony’s January month of J-Lit wonders, I have pledged to read more Japanese literature throughout 2014.  I kicked off with Natsuo Kirino, who impressed me so much with her novel of low-wage drudgery and desperation ‘Out’.

However, although the lives of the four women working at a bento factory seemed grim and cheerless, that novel was saved by a certain degree of empathy that we could feel for the protagonists. ‘Grotesque’ is more challenging in that respect, because the characters are uniformly unlikable.

This has been advertised as a crime novel, but crime fiction lovers will barely recognise it as such. It follows none of the conventions of the genre, although it certainly shows a bleak outlook on life as a Japanese woman, so perhaps it could be called a noir of sorts. The novel is structured in eight parts and features four narrators, all equally unreliable. The comparison with Kurosawa’s Rashomon is perhaps inevitable, and, just like in the film, there are no clear answers as to whose account of events is to be trusted or whether the truth will ever be fully known.

The story revolves around the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo less than a year apart. There is not much focus, however, on finding out who killed them. The murderer, a Chinese labourer called Zhang, has already been arrested and is about to go on trial. He has confessed to killing Yuriko but denies killing Kazue. There is a bit of a mystery about what happened to Kazue, but the main focus of the story is why these two women, who had attended an elite secondary school in Tokyo and seemed destined for promising futures, would end up as the lowliest of prostitutes on the streets of Shibuya.

grotesque (1)The unnamed main narrator also attended the same school as the murdered women. In fact, she is a classmate of classmate of Kazue and the older sister of the glamorous Yuriko. Yuriko and her sister are ‘halfs’, i.e. the product of a mixed marriage. Their father is a Swiss importer of cheap sweets, their mother a Japanese who felt compelled to pander to her husband’s desire for a Polish sauerkraut specialty called bigos, although she hated making it. Yuriko was blessed with almost eerily good looks, but her sister is average at best. Sibling rivalry is a factor in this disturbing psychological study of envy and bitterness, but it is about much more than that. The snobbishness and bullying at the girls’ school and the excessive competitiveness of the Japanese educational system are described with an immediacy which made my stomach turn. The scene with the hand-embroidered Ralph Lauren logo on the socks will stick in my mind for a long time.

While the book offers no explanation for the women’s descent into prostitution, there are numerous chilling descriptions of discrimination against women both in the workplace, as well as the callousness of relationships between men and women (not only the predilection of Japanese men, as the author shows us by introducing a number of domineering and ruthless foreign male characters). The women in the novel have resorted to manipulating their bodies, men and each other in an effort to regain control over their lives, in an effort to become or at least feel important and real. 

Natsuo-KirinoThe results are perhaps too painful and grotesque for this reader to sympathise with: I could feel only horrified pity, rather like watching a Greek tragedy or a traffic accident unfold. Yet the author has a deliberately unemphatic style of cold, factual description. Even the graphic scenes of violence or sex do not display colourful fireworks, but instead hint at the profound bitterness of human emotion.  This makes the story perhaps even more devastating, and I can see why her ‘flat’ style has been described as feminist noir. It is difficult to make judgements about her style, however, based on translations, especially when much of her novel has been edited and cut for the purposes of Western consumption (and to allow it to be marketed as crime fiction). For a detailed discussion of the problems of translation, I found this thesis by a student at the University of Oslo truly enlightening.

So, all in all, a bleak novel, with very little hope or humour to redeem it, but a fascinating insight into the darkness beneath the picture-book prettiness of Japan. I would recommend reading it when you have a very strong stomach and/or nerves.