Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

Source: Goodreads
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas
Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder (from Japanese)
Originally 1990, I read 2008
164 pages, suspense, horror

This collection of three novellas by Yoko Ogawa touch on different emotions.

"The Diving Pool" tells the story of the frustrated protagonist, the only non-orphan living in her parents' orphanage. She has fallen in love with one of the foster children, a boy who has been in the orphanage for about a decade, and especially with his athletic body when he practices diving. But she feels unable to tell him about her infatuation, and her repressed feelings lead her to be cruel to one of the other orphans.

"Pregnancy Diary" describes the evolution of the narrator's sister's pregnancy. The narrator is confused - her sister does not seem to be very interested in her child, she does not seem to be getting much bigger, and she refuses to talk about it. The narrator tries to help as much as possible, but what exactly is going on?

"Dormitory" recounts the story of a young married woman returning to her college dormitory with her cousin. She reignites her acquaintance with the one-limbed manager of the building, whose health has deteriorated since her time there. But then she hears about the disappearance of a student from the building a few months ago, and she hasn't seen her cousin recently, and what is that buzzing sound?

Read a sample or buy on Amazon:
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas

The theory of the short story

This collection demonstrates a superb understanding and development of the short story form. As I read each of the stories, I was brought back to some of the literary theory I learned in English class and elsewhere. Each of the stories is a particularly good example of a combination of two theorists' descriptions of the genre. I'm going to put my teaching hat on for a moment to discuss how Yoko Ogawa has combined the ideas of short story writing from Edgar Allen Poe and Rabindranath Tagore. 

Most Americans are probably familiar with Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)'s understanding of the short story as creating a single emotional "effect" in the mind of the reader (this is from his essay "The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale"). Like a painting, Poe used every word and incident in his stories to create a single emotional overtone that united the piece. 

Yoko Ogawa's novellas create a similar feeling in the reader. The tone of each piece is perfectly tuned so as to convey an emotion unique to that story. "The Diving Pool" is one of anger fueled by sexual and social repression. "Pregnancy Diary" is full of distanced confusion. And "Dormitory," like many a good horror story, conveys anxiety and trepidation that makes the reader want to discover what is really going on. 

This is where Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)'s theory of the short story comes in. Tagore was a major Bengali intellectual and polymath during a critical time in India's pre-Independence history. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first non-European to win the award. As well as being a poet, playwright, author, composer (and the list goes on), Tagore's essays on literary theory had an enormous impact on Bengali literature. 

One of Tagore's major contributions to literary theory was a new conception of the short story. Like Poe, Tagore believed that emotion was essential. But what really made a short story was the ending - the writing ends, but the story continues. What he meant by that was that the reader should continue contemplating the story even after they finish reading it, because they are so caught up in its emotional affect. 

Again, Yoko Ogawa's three novellas beautifully demonstrate this method of writing. None of the stories are neatly tied up at the end; in fact, apart from the first one there are no real conclusions to any of them. But this is where they derive some of their power. They leave you guessing, trying to decipher what is happening and caught up in the emotion of the narrator, even after the story itself is over. 

Ok, teaching hat is coming off now. Here are some other things about this collection that I thought were important. 

The female experience

The three novellas in this collection are all narrated in first person by a female narrator. They are not the same individual, but they do increase in age and stage of life, from a high-school student to an unmarried young adult to a young wife. Through these narrators, Yoko Ogawa explores examples of how different outlooks and emotional temperaments can be at different life stages. 

For example, in "The Diving Pool," the narrator is a sexually repressed teenage girl. Despite strong attraction to her foster brother, she feels completely unable to tell him about it. In fact, she feels like she has no agency over her life whatsoever, a feeling that leads her to take out her anger on the only person in the house who is more helpless than she is. This description of helplessness reminded me of Neil Gaiman's novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Amazon link), in which the narrator focuses on the helplessness of children in an adult's world.

A question for my readers: would it be taboo in Japan to have a relationship with one's foster sibling? 

The narrator of "Pregnancy Diary" is not married and has never had children. She cannot understand her sister's relationship with her husband, or the physical or emotional effects of pregnancy. She stands idly on the sidelines, attempting to do what she can to make her sister comfortable through morning sickness by not cooking bacon or anything else in the house. But she is not really connected with her sister's experience, a fact that is emphasized by how reticent the couple are to talk about the baby in front of our narrator. 

"Dormitory" demonstrates another life stage when a married woman is reunited with her much younger cousin. She has not met him since he was a small child, and at first she does not recognize him. Then she agrees to help him out, but she's not quite sure whether she should have a motherly or sisterly attitude towards him. They end up primarily reminiscing about the time they spent together, more than ten years earlier, because they have no connection in the present moment.

The out-of-place person

A theme that recurs in each of these stories is the person who is out-of-place in some way, either emotionally, physically, or socially. Yoko Ogawa explores the way these out-of-place people react to their situation and, importantly, the ways in which they are made to feel out-of-place.

The narrator of "The Diving Pool" is the first out-of-place person. Apart from being a misunderstood teenage girl (a very common trope), she is the only child at the orphanage who is not an orphan. Her parents run the orphanage, and she has never had them to herself. She is also denied the possibility of being adopted, and obtaining her own family in that way. This leaves her in a social limbo, where she feels like an orphan without technically being one.

As I pointed out before, the narrator in "Pregnancy Diary" also feels out-of-place because she cannot empathize with her sister's experience of pregnancy. At the same time, she is made to feel that way by her sister and brother-in-law's actions. Although the text is ambiguous, it seems that they are excluding her from any discussion of the pregnancy or the coming baby, and she is kept around only in order to help her sister with her idiosyncratic food demands.

"Dormitory"'s narrator also feels out-of-place because she is just waiting to move to Europe for her husband's job. However, the real out-of-place character in this last story is the dormitory Manager, who is a triple amputee, with only one leg. Despite his disability, he has historically been able to keep the dormitory in fine condition on his own by using his chin and other body parts as a replacement for those that are missing. The narrator finds him to be in much worse health, partially because he has used his body in a way that it was not made for. In the end, it seems that this character that already occupied the margins of society because of his physical limitations has become even more marginal, as illustrated by the empty dormitory.

Overall, these three stories were utterly breathtaking. A brilliant read for anyone who likes suspense or horror.

Where I found it: Half Price Books, Hamilton, OH, USA

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  1. Thanks for your in-depth review :) This was actually one of our chosen readalong books for last year's January in Japan. I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure everyone was 100% in favour :)

  2. I really liked it. :) So do you know if it would be taboo in Japan to have a relationship in the first story? In the US I'm not sure it would be a problem.