Winner of the 2014 Akutagawa Prize
Translated from Japanese by Polly Barton
From one beautiful cover to the next – Pushkin Press certainly know how to package their goods! But. While The Disappearances had me page-turning from the start, I can’t say I found Spring Garden so rivetting. But once I accepted that this is a quiet novel and a slow burner, I began to appreciate it a little more, even if I never really warmed to it.
Taro, a young divorcé, who has decided that he can no longer share his space, lives alone in an emptying apartment block in Setagaya, a middle class suburb of Tokyo. The landlord has decided to demolish the building and sell the land for redevelopment. Taro is one of the last renters in the block. He has no friends, and spends his time, when not working, lounging on the floor brooding about his recently deceased father. The ever increasing void around him doesn’t perturb him unduly. He’ll find somewhere new to live when his lease expires.
One day he notices one of his remaining neighbours spying on the sky-blue house opposite the apartment block. A casual friendship develops between him and Nishi, the older women “spy”. Her fixation on the house began years before when she found a coffee table book entitled “Spring Garden” with this house and the life lived by its then inhabitants as its subject. The life seemed ideal, the couple happy, and yet they, a famous commercial producer and his actress wife, divorced only a couple of years after the publication of the book. Nishi has analysed the photographs for clues as to their unhappiness to the nth degree, but does not understand. Her objective is to see the whole house from the inside. When the opportunity arises, she takes it, but needs Taro’s help to complete her quest in its entirety.
I use the word quest purposefully, because to Nishi, it is just that, even if it doesn’t seem much of an adventure to me. And so much of this novel seemed off kilter in other ways. There is a mystery surrounding the celebrity couple, that turns out to be a non-mystery. Those remaining in the apartment block – particularly Taro – seem stuck in a state of permanent stasis. Are they paralysed by the non-stop change of the city in which they live?
Because I have to say there doesn’t seem to be much character development or even story-arc. That’s not to say that there aren’t character studies. It’s just that they didn’t run particularly deep for me, and I couldn’t decide whether Taro was grief-stricken or simply lacksadaisical. Perhaps the objective of the piece is to simply to document the realities of urban life in contemporary Tokyo; loneliness, chance encounters and the resulting fleeting friendships, the temporariness of our place in the world. This latter point emphasised by fine observations from nature.
Spring Garden works on this thematic level. But it falls apart when I start looking at details. What is the purpose of that change of narrator 4/5ths of the way through the novel, for instance. To help us see Taro through sympathetic eyes, those of his sister? To endear him to us? It didn’t work. And as for that plot device in the final scene in the Spring Garden house. My eyes rolled. (Honestly I remember using it myself in a primary school story.)
Given that Spring Garden won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, I will assume that Japanese tastes differ widely from mine, and that I am blind to this story’s virtues. I wonder, though, whether the same would be true of the other titles in Pushkin Press’s Japanese novella series. Has anyone read them? Are they worth picking up?
This read, a rare fail, completes my Round the World With Pushkin Press reading project. Or rather, it would have done, had I not had so much fun visiting 10 countries on my first circuit, that I’ve decided to add a second!
Next stop: Australia