In an essay that was originally featured in the companion booklet to her and Stephen Snyder’s discussion of The Diving Pool at the Idlewild bookstore in New York City, Allison Powell talks about Ogawa, the themes of the author’s work and speculates about the riveting and twisted imagery and obsessions one finds in it. This post is part of our ongoing book-club discussion of Ogawa’s Diving Pool, so do join in with your responses to this and the other posts, which can be found at the bottom of this page—Editors
Reading something by Yoko Ogawa, I am often haunted by a sense of strangeness that seems to pervade her writing and linger after I’ve put down the book. This collection is no different. The melancholy loneliness that is so vividly portrayed in the title novella, The Diving Pool, is not as unfamiliar as the cruelty of the narrator and her candor about it. I wonder about this cruelty—it’s not as if the news isn’t full of shocking brutality—but there is something about the callous innocence on display that is unsettling in its blunt affect.
The story revolves around the teenage Aya’s infatuation with Jun, who is the longest-staying orphan at the home called the Light House that her parents run. He is on the diving team at her high school, and every day she surreptitiously watches him practice at the pool. Recently, Aya has begun tormenting the youngest child at the orphanage, Rie, who is about a year and a half old. She does things to upset Rie and then relishes the sound of her cries. Aya feeds her part of a rancid cream puff that sickens her so badly Rie ends up in the hospital.
Aya’s longing for an ordinary family leads her to actually envy the other children. At the Light House, she is the only one who isn’t an orphan; she alone has no hope that her family situation will change or improve. This longing for a family different from one’s own is typical enough—I am reminded of Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—and it is hard not to wonder about how Aya’s parents’ benign neglect may have engendered the tendency for cruelty that seems to well up inside her. At one point, Aya says about Rie, “I wanted to pet her, to spoil her, but I didn’t know how to do it.” It is easy to imagine that Aya’s parents never wanted to single out their own child for affection amongst the poor orphans, and thus Aya never experienced the security of her parents’ love nor developed a sense of her own worthiness.
Jun is the perfect orphan. Kind, polite, responsible, and grateful, he symbolizes goodness for Aya. The character for his name literally means “pure,” and Aya’s longing for Jun is entwined in a desire to be purified of her cruel actions. But she sabotages herself with her malicious treatment of Rie, which Jun has observed without Aya’s knowledge, and thus eliminates any possibility for what was already an unattainable relationship. I wonder, though, if Jun truly is as pure as his name suggests and as Aya insists. Everyone has their faults (and secrets, for that matter), so in a way, Aya’s vision of him was always mere fantasy.
I remember hearing someone remark in a seminar about Japanese literature that perhaps it was the relative safety and conformity of Japanese society that created such a vast array of violent and disturbing—not to mention overtly sexual—books, manga, and anime (and the regularity with which one can observe such things being read unabashedly in public). Perhaps the stark contrast between reality and the imagined worlds of these art forms was so clearly delineated that fantasy could simply be acknowledged as just that.
“The Diving Pool” is constructed squarely within the realm of what could be considered “normal” or “everyday” life, however the added twist of Aya’s parents being Christians in Japan and running an orphanage sets the story off in a way, making it somehow unusual. One of the stereotypes about Japan is the homogeneity of the society. I’ve often heard the adage, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Yet, despite the bracing pressure of a rigidly structured social order and the superficial uniformity of salarymen, office ladies, and schoolchildren in their uniforms, as evidenced by these novellas by Yoko Ogawa, it appears the Japanese have just as many varieties of misery as any other culture.
Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator and editor in New York City. She has worked in the editorial departments of American and Japanese book and magazine publishing, and she is the guest editor of the forthcoming Japan issue of Words Without Borders (May 2009). Her published translations include the manga series Eyeshield 21; the novel Only the Ring Finger Knows by Satoru Kannagi; and a biography of Hideki Matsui written by the novelist Shizuka Ijuin. She is currently translating the novel Sentimental Education by Kaho Nakayama, to be published by Vertical, Inc.
Previous posts in this series:
Amber Qureshi’s introduction to Yoko Ogawa
Stephen Snyder’s interview with Amber Qureshi
The video from the Idlewild discussion of The Diving Pool
Austin Woerner blogs about the Idlewild discussion.
Amber Qureshi discusses “Pregnancy Diary” in her second post for our online book club.