Yoko Ogawa has long been recognized as one of Japan’s best writers of the postwar generation. Yet this prolific author has never received a major English translation of her work, despite an oeuvre that includes more than twenty volumes of fiction and nonfiction. Stephen Snyder has finally undertaken this task, superbly rendering Ogawa’s spare yet intimate style for stories in the New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. The Diving Pool, also translated by Snyder, is the American debut of three of her award-winning novellas.
The title novella tells the story of Aya, a teenager struggling with a growing sense of alienation from her family. The leaders of a religious group, her parents have raised their only child alongside the impoverished foundlings their church has taken in. The photographs in their family albums are crowded with row after row of orphans. “And there I am,” Aya explains, “lost among them.” The only one of the children to whom she feels connected is a boy her age named Jun. Aya watches him at his weekly diving practice. Though she enjoys the purity of his body in motion, the impossibility of taking her desire further leads her to experience an unknown malevolence within herself, and she discovers an almost carnal pleasure in tormenting one of the youngest orphans under her care.
The strength of Ogawa’s writing lies in its visceral content: Emotions that might cause recoil instead draw one in by their very familiarity, and she can make cruelty seem desirable, even pleasurable. For Aya, the eroticism of a boy’s body and the contortions of a toddler’s face become the counterweights that keep her balanced. Ogawa, however, delights in tipping her characters over to reveal the consequences of their indulgence and to expose the reader’s enjoyment of their wickedness.
The other novellas likewise showcase the author’s gift for mining tiny seams of cruelty. In “Pregnancy Diary,” a woman recording the difficulty of her sister’s pregnancy delights in her own appetite: “I think about her, curled up in bed, surrounded by all those odors, and then I open my mouth wide to take in the darkness with my bite of stew.” Ogawa here uses a potent device, often employed in children’s stories: the juxtaposition of comfort with terror, of the warm hearth with the flash of teeth. In “Dormitory,” this coupling of the domestic and the dangerous is particularly riveting, as a woman arranges for her nephew to live in the dorm she occupied while in college. Small mysteries that she only brushed against many years ago begin to widen for her, and the place that she once considered a second home now seems utterly strange. “I had the feeling that I had somehow been lured into this unlikely predicament,” the woman tells us, “but I tried to remind myself that. . . the world would return to normal.” However, as the narrator climbs into the secret of the dormitory, the collection ends with this mysterious reminder: that deep realms await us, just beyond the reach of our fingertips.