Kawakami’s gentle yet compelling romance between middle-aged singleton Tsukiko and her former high school teacher, only referred to as Sensei for most of the novel, starts quietly and works under your skin, until after a time you cannot remember when you started reading it, nor do you want it to end. Stages in the relationships are marked by the passage of the seasons, and as with all things even the seasons have their end; but as to whether it concludes as Tsukiko devoutly hopes, or simply comes to a halt, is something you’ll have to read the novel to discover.
Kawakami is better known in Japan than in the English speaking world, where she began as a science fiction author in the 1980s, and is currently a member of the Science Fiction Research Association. However The Briefcase, also known as The Teacher’s Briefcase, or Strange Weather in Tokyo in the UK edition, represents a different path for her, into more mainstream literary work. Since publication it’s received the Tanizaki Prize in Japan, as well as being shortlisted for both the Man Asian Literary Prize (2012) and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2014).
What makes this story work is the brittle, yet surprisingly tender relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei. Each, you suspect, are broken in their own way, though as narrator Tsukiko spends little time talking about her own troubles. Sensei, we discover, has endured a failed marriage. His bohemian wife, fond of magic tricks, cheated on him repeatedly, finally moving away; the ultimate disappearing act. Now retired, he spends his days in lonely isolation, occasionally making side trips to local markets, or adding to his small collection of tchotchke. Reading between the lines, Tsukiko has much the same problem, though without the tchotchke. She is unhappy with her lot, yet lacks the direction, or the will, to change it. It’s only when she and Sensei meet, entirely by accident, at a local bar, that things begin to take shape, that she comes to understand what she needs, and what they both might have to offer to each other.
They begin cautiously to negotiate each other, never quite admitting what’s going on, but never denying it either. They never make arrangements to meet at that bar, regularly, irregularly, or otherwise. It just happens. Then it happens with increasing regularity. Things sometimes get fraught, often on Tsukiko’s side, but somehow never so disastrously as to indicate a permanent split. Then Tsukiko’s friend Kojima, a former school mate much closer to her in age than Sensei, makes his move, and Tsukiko has to decide what it is she really wants.
Ultimately it’s the fragile humanity of the characters that makes this novel work. As a plot, the romance novel is a well-tilled field, and it would be easy to see this story as more of the same. Yet it isn’t, and this is in no small part thanks to Tsukiko, the woman who feels as a sister to the reader; someone who can be frustrating, muddle-headed, just plain wrong, and yet still compel affection.
It’s odd to think that, though one of the two main characters, Sensei remains a bit of an enigma, even after the final page is turned. Yet we find out so much about his life, his former love, his joys and sorrows. As a reader, you begin to wonder what Tsukiko and Sensei’s ex-wife, the carefree conjuror, would have made of each other. One of them positive, risk-taking, determined to get what she wants, the other hesitant, unwilling to admit even to herself what’s going on, muttering under her breath, ‘don’t get your hopes up, don’t get your hopes up.’ Yet that meeting can never take place, for one is gone, the other alive. It’s tempting to color this with a bright layer of Japanese folklore, particularly given Kawakami’s science fiction past, but this isn’t that kind of story. No kitsune here. Just people, trying to get by.
Here’s hoping more of Kawakami’s work makes its way to the English language market. Currently this and Manazuru, about a woman trying to reconstruct her past, are the only two novels of hers to have had an English translation. She’s also had a hand in The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction (various authors), which has a distinctly more fantastical bent than The Briefcase/Strange Weather. I’d recommend The Briefcase/Strange Weather to anyone who enjoys losing themselves, for however long, in a book’s inner workings and world. Particularly if they are romantics!
Karloff - 13/01/2016