Yoko Ogawa: “Old Mrs. J”

02/01/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, February 2012.

[Translated, from the Japanese, by Stephen Snyder.]

A lightly macabre story, with an unshakable feel of Poe or the vignettes in the Japanese film 3 Extremes, in which a writer discovers that her garrulous old landlady, Mrs. J, may be harboring a dark secret in her garden. Our first hint that something is amiss comes early (at least, it does if you’re one of those readers who assumes [or demands] that everything be relevant in some way), with a hillside of kiwis that “tremble as though covered with a swarm of dark-green bats” being mysteriously plucked under the cover of darkness. What follow are some subtler hints: cats scrounging in the garden, for which our narrator recommends laying down pine needles (“Cats hate prickly things”), a difficult husband for Mrs. J (“He gambled away everything I made and didn’t even have the decency to die properly. He was drunk and went missing down at the beach”), and some extremely strong hands on this old gardener/masseuse (“She cracked her knuckles and the noise was so loud I thought she might have broken her fingers”). And then, like a tell-tale heart, Mrs. J starts pulling up hand-shaped carrots out of her garden: “Scrubbing turned it bright red,” “The carrots looked even stranger in the [newspaper’s] photograph, like amputated hands with malignant tumors. They dangled in front of us, still warm and dripping with blood.”

All this is fine stuff, and there’s a particularly creepy section in which our writer protagonist first observes Mrs. J transporting box-loads of kiwis to an abandoned post office and then later using her supernatural strength to give her an ever-tightening massage: “Her fingers were cold, and I felt no trace of skin or flesh. It felt as though she was massaging me with her bones…. If she went on much longer, her fingers would scrape away my skin, rip my flesh, crush my bones.” But the transitions are perhaps a little too jarring in their speed; while I understand that they’re supposed to be unsettling, the story feels as if it’s skipped a few grooves, jumping from a newspaper article (“HAND-SHAPED AND FRESH FROM GRANNY’S GARDEN”) to a scene in which our hero is being interviewed by an inspector (“Did she tell you he was dead?”) and then to a final, too-tidy conclusion in which the hand-less, strangled corpse of Mrs. J’s husband is found in that pine-needle covered garden (a cat’s body is found in the post office, under a mountain of kiwis). There’s very little takeaway from this, and because of the brevity of the scenes, a second read shows you exactly how Ogawa has constructed each moment to hint at this inevitable end, all without ever explaining motive or developing character.

Why have the police suddenly arrived? Where has Mrs. J gone, and how did she know they were coming? More importantly than these unanswered and perhaps irrelevant plot questions, how did any of this affect the narrator? As is, it sure doesn’t affect the reader.

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