No matter how much I poured into the cup, it never filled. And then I realized that the liquid I assumed to be coffee had, unbeknownst to me, turned into night.
Peering into the night as it poured into the cup, I could see tiny stars and gases whirling near the surface, and down at the bottom, something laughing. In dismay, I took the cup to a sink, and tipped it so that all the night it contained would spill out, but as long as I held it there, the night kept on flowing, interminably. – ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’
It’s finally happened: Hiromi Kawakami has come out with a book of fiction so fantastical and surreal, I don’t know how to feel or even where to begin. I know I don’t dislike it, because Kawakami’s writing never fails to captivate, but this latest work was a challenge for me, and tested both my affection for magic realism and my capacity for the absurd.
Record of a Night Too Brief is a collection of three short stories, with its first offering – and the title of the book – being the most dreamlike and puzzling. Its structure is made up of a series of shorter and somewhat loosely-connected pieces, most of which centers on the narrator and her unnamed female companion existing in an endless night. In between, there’s an encounter with an angry talking macaque, a man ‘loaded with moles’, and a quest for an Elephant of Eternity.
The second tale, entitled ‘Missing’ is probably the most lucid out of the collection. In it, the main character’s eldest brother mysteriously vanishes just before their family is about to welcome the man’s wife-to-be into their home. Unbeknownst to everyone, the main character is the only person who can sense, and at odd times, see her elder brother. Aside from the nods to Japanese folklore, the story also makes light of obscure family traditions, in particular, the household and wedding rituals. After the eldest son disappears, the parents scramble to put a second son in his place.
Hiroko and my brother no.1 had always murmured sweet nothings to each other over the telephone. The telephone was located in the central room of our apartment, which was not large, and we heard the things brother no. 1 used to say to Hiroko. My brother no. 2 said exactly the same things, in a voice that was indistinguishable from my brother no. 1’s, and Hiroko showed no sign of catching on that my brother no. 1 had left the picture. Not surprisingly, it didn’t occur to anyone in the family to let her know. – ‘Missing’
In the last story, ‘A Snake Stepped On’, a woman named Hiwako accidentally steps on a snake. The snake immediately takes on a human form and imposes itself on Hiwako by moving into her apartment. The two manage a strangely domestic coexistence until the snake begins trying to convince Hiwako to ‘come over’ to the snake world. As she wrestles with the proposition, Hiwako learns that relations between snake-kind and humans aren’t as uncommon as she thought.
For a Kawakami book, the English translation of Record of a Night Too Brief felt more heavy-handed than her other works, though that may not be the fault of translator Lucy North, but due to the depth of eccentricity in the material. I’d warn anyone looking to start reading Kawakami to instead pick up either The Nakano Thrift Shop or Strange Weather in Tokyo first, followed by Manazuru, which I believe gently prepares the reader for the gentle acid trip that is this latest book.