You are on page 1of 3

Yoko Tawada Goes to the Dogs: A Review of The Bridegroom Was a Dog (1998) I found this lovely and

eccentric triple-braid of novellas by the celebrated Japanese prosateuse Yoko Tawada on my usual thrift store peregrinations, and knew instantly this was one to keep and not to sell. It's a first edition of this work, published (and printed) in Japan by Kodansha International press. Charming line drawings by Ryuji Watanabe adorn the title page of each story. The cover art is decidedly odd: above a rather minimalist abstract landscape of silvery gray cloudy banding (an abstraction of morning fog) is a white sky...and what looks like a Weimaraner to me is standing there in sartorial splendor, bow tie and all, licking his chops. This is the dust jacket art. The hardcover underneath has the same minimalist landscape, minus the anthropomorphic Weimaraner. So I guess somebody thought that was a good marketing tactic for wherever this book was sold. This cover art confused the kids who stock the shelves at the store, who had placed it in the children's books (my favorite section of books anyway). Here is the bio the book gives for the author: "Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960 and educated at Waseda University, and now lives in Germany. She made her debut as a writer with "Missing Heels," which was awarded the Gunzo Prize for New Writers in 1991. In 1993 she received the prestigious Akutagawa Prize--Japan's equivalent of a Booker or a Pulitzer--for "The Bridegroom was a Dog." And in 1996 she won the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, a German award to foreign writers recognized for their contribution to German culture. She has also been given the Prize in Literature from the City of Hamburg (1990) and the Lessing Prize (1994)." So how does this triad of novellas strike one contemporary American reader? Well, I should state first off, the style is clearly "magical realism." The book avoids this term, and tries to claim (predictable move) that the author has created a new genre, or new style. The front matter states: "In these three stories, an ingenious Asian writer has created a new kind of fantasy, playful yet vaguely sinister, laced with her own brand of humor: a blend of the earthiness of certain fairy tales and the absurdity of much of real life." This is a fair enough description, but the writing does not really represent a new style, or "new kind of fantasy." The erotic components of these stories are treated with a naturalism one has learned to expect from Japanese literature, but which might titillate readers unfamiliar with the same. The first and best of these stories is the title piece. The back cover of the book has a quote which succinctly gives you the underlying fable: "Once upon a time there was a little princess who was still too young to wipe herself after she went to the lavatory, and the woman assigned to look after her was too lazy to do it for her, so she used to call the princess's favorite black dog and say, 'if you lick her bottom clean, one day she'll be your bride,' and in time the princess herself began looking forward to that day..." This fable is actually a story that a teacher verging on spinsterhood tells her young charges. Miss Kitamura runs the Kitamura school, which is a sort of preparatory or pre-school for youngsters, out of an old house she has somewhat mysteriously acquired from a farming family. She tells the children other questionable things, such as wiping one's bottom with kleenex that has been used to blow one's nose is rather a delight, and the parents of these children pretend not to notice the oddity of these pronouncements, preferring to see hidden morals such as "the importance of thrift" in them. One day, a man who arrives at her front door (when classes are not in session) asks if she has received the telegram he sent her, while quickly moving her into another room as he undresses her and then penetrates her, all in a matter of

minutes. The narrator, who seems to experience life rather as a dream anyway, goes along with this experience completely, only occasionally questioning it. From that moment forward these two are a couple, but quite the odd couple. The man turns out to be the exact human embodiment of the dog in the fable, making love to her in, to put it succinctly, "doggie-style." This doesn't just refer to a particular position. He is in love with her smells and is often gripping her legs and nosing towards her backside. Somehow this doesn't come off as comical so much as openly erotic and exciting, which is how the narrator perceives her strange new lover. This relationship awakens a whole new olfactory world for Miss Kitamura herself, who now becomes acutely aware of other people's vicissitudinous smells and even her own, from which she learns to intuit her own moods. She realizes, for instance, that sleeping pills leave an odor of discontent on the user's breath. The strange relationship between Miss Kitamura and Iinuma (she only learns his name when she learns the secret of his hidden past from the mother of one of her pupils) stirs up controversy in the community. The lovers rarely speak and Iinuma's only semblance of usefulness (besides sex) seems to be his commitment to cleaning Miss Kitamura's house in an almost obsessive compulsive manner. He is often on the floor polishing the floorboards, presumbably on all fours like a dog. He sleeps all day, and vanishes every night until morning, in true canine fashion. The story takes a gay (or more properly, bisexual) turn near the end, which precipitates major changes in the lives of four characters, including Miss Kitamura. It is true that this story (like all three stories) walks that fine line between dream and reality. It is preposterous enough that it could be reality, but it has a strange logic in the imagery that is distinctly dream-like. Tawada's stories often eroticize passivity, yet they don't seem to be about sex so much as they are about solipsism. The more important characters in her stories don't really seem to believe in the world; the world is just a style these characters are somehow projecting onto the unfolding phenomena around them called by convention a "world," like the narrator in Bridegroom, who is amused by what she perceives to be her own excesses, even when these include acts by others (or herself) which seem to shock more "rational" people around her, who, in true solipsist fashion, only exist as part of her unfolding narrative. In short, the author (and her characters) seem to believe it beneath us, infradig, to apologize for the dream which is our life. The first novella is an enjoyable read, and I tried to leave some essential plot twists out in case you should choose to read this somehow liberating work. Memorable sentences you want to copy out somewhere for easy accessibility later do abound in this book (respect is due to translator Margaret Mitsutani). The second story, which won Tawada her first major literary prize, is less satsifying in the long run, in terms of giving the reader pleasant, lingering aftereffects, but is still a quite enjoyable read. A woman arriving in an unspecified foreign country steps off a train and loses a heel in the process. The imbalance this small event occasions never leaves the narrator of the story from this point on. Perhaps this is too obvious a metaphor for entering a foreign culture and the inevitable experiences of the unexpected (and often the alienating) one encounters at every turn on the street. Tawada does a clever thing. She waits quite some time before telling us that the narrator we are following down these unknown streets is not a tourist or a traveling businesswoman, but actually a mail-order bride seeking her new household. When she does finally find this strange house she is to live within, her new husband turns out to be practically a ghost, for he never shows himself to her. She hears his retreating footsteps at times, she finds warm tea and money

laid out for her upon awakening each morning, but she never catches a glimpse of the man except in dreams, where he changes constantly to fit various expectations the narrator has for a husband. There is a central metaphor here involving squid, and their ability to navigate fluently in all directions, which really takes the tale in a classically surreal direction as it progresses. One gets the impression that the Japanese proverb about squid which is at the heart of this tale is not really translatable, or that it would have interrupted the tale for the translator to have put one of those annoying footnotes in, but one senses one has missed something because of just such a lacuna. This tale again has wonderful passages one wants to transcribe into a notebook of memorable quotes. Here's a sample. The bride has finally decided to discover her husband's secret, and has called a locksmith to open the room with the black door which is forever locked: "On the way, he asked me what my husband did, and I told him without thinking, 'He's a novelist," at which he nodded, muttering, 'I guess guys like that spend a lot of time shut up in their rooms.' When we stopped in front of the house, I almost lost my nerve, realizing that, through ignorance and impatience, I could well be ruining a perfectly normal marriage. That lingering sense of a hidden part of life on which the curtain never rose, that hint of joy which always slipped away, out of your grasp, until all the other odds and ends grew into a mountain, filling your days--wasn't this waht every couple experienced? And if this was the case, I thought, there was no reason to destroy it; but then, seized with a desire to pry open my husband's room, grab him, and stare him in the face, whether he was a child, an old man, or a corpse, I urged the locksmith on: 'Come on, his room's on the second floor.'" The truth turns out to be weirder than any of those three possibilities. The last tale was actually written by the author in German originally, and is set in Switzerland. "The Gotthard Railway" sort of fuses German literature with Japanese literature and this is her most personal tale, seemingly about the ambivalent feelings of love and fear she feels towards a German writer and friend, probably her lover, but ostensibly about the titular mountain with the railway running right through the heart of it, a black tunnel the author delights in exploring. The author makes it clear in time that she is writing an apologia for the distance she feels towards the world and its social conventions. It is beautifully childlike at times, and has some sublime moments, but is the least well-written of the three stories here. It's still better than most stories one encounters in even the best fiction magazines. It made me think of the Kurosawa segment "The Tunnel" from his Dreams although of course there the director had other intentions...but I'm thinking of the way he realized the archetypal nature of tunnels on film with those atmospherics. Tunnels seem to be an archetype in Japanese literature and film, and of course they are a part of daily life there, so it's natural that they would enter the grain of literature. All in all, I have no problems recommending this book to readers. If one were only going to read one tale, it should be the first one. If only two, then the first two. But now I am waxing lecturesome and that means time to shut up! Sayonara. This review originally appeared on my blog, Joe Brainard's Pyjamas. Come visit me! You may reproduce any of my writings anywhere as long as you credit me and/or my blog and as long as you aren't making any money off me, you carpetbagger!

Related Interests