Record of a Night Too Brief, Hiromi Kawakami: Book Review

An unsettling, dream-like collection.

record of a night too brief hiromi kawakami bookr reviewPushkin Press/Huffington Post
Record of a Night Too Brief Book Cover Record of a Night Too Brief
Hiromi Kawakami
Adult Fiction, Contemporary
Pushkin Press
January 26, 2017
160

In these three haunting and lyrical stories, three young women experience unsettling loss and romance.

In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous monkeys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

Hiromi Kawakami, best known for her off-beat works of contemporary Japanese fiction, received the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1997  for the strangely dream-like short story, “A Snake Stepped On”, which appears in Record of a Night Too Brief. Named after a lengthy short story separated into bizarre, alternate chapters, the short story collection features three works of fiction that are awe-inspiring to say the least. Peculiar, yet enlightening, Kawakami explores love and loss through the use of magical realism and surreal circumstances in the delightfully absurd Record of a Night Too Brief.

This review contains spoilers and quotes from the book.

“Record of a Night Too Brief”, the collection’s namesake, is an incredibly bizarre account split into 19 sub-sections that follow a woman as she encounters the ever-present darkness of night. Told with different themes in mind and varying slightly in style, the sub-sections of this short story feature alternating, yet interwoven chapters as a woman battles with darkness in different ways. From encounters with different types of animals, including a horse, monkey, and mole, to a deteriorating relationship featuring the narrator and a girl from her past, “Record of a Night Too Brief” is packed full of metaphors that detail the emotions and events experienced throughout an individual’s lifetime.

Out of the 19 vignettes, three stood out as intense, emotion filled accounts of love, loss and memory. In “The Big Crunch”, the narrator recounts an intimate moment with a girl as time shifts around them. The narrator, noticing that time has seemingly stopped for her, approaches a girl with long hair, who appears vibrant and full of life. Drawn to her beauty and compelled by the scent of fresh flowers, the narrator kisses the girl, who begins to wilt, as if she were really a delicate flower.

I kissed the girl on the lips, as if to suck her breath inside me. When I did this, the girl wilted, ever so slightly. In my arms, gradually she became lighter, and more transparent. The smell of lilies rose up, filling my breast, overwhelming me. The taste of the kiss was so sweet, I couldn’t stop – even though I knew she would go on wilting if I continued. The girl was wilting by the instant, and something thick and strong was filling my breast.

– excerpt from Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief

After their kiss, which continues for sometime, the narrator finds that the two of them have become entwined, which begins Kawakami’s commentary on the idea that we never truly forget the ones we love. Similar to Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, the theme of unforgettable love continues through each alternating chapter, in which the narrator finds herself face to face with the girl, whose form varies.

Shifts in style accompany the love story in “Decimation”, which takes on a surreal aspect when neither character has a tangible mass, but their declarations of love create life forms in a fashion similar to the Japanese creation myth of Izanagi and Izanami that is found in the Kojiki. After creating different versions of the girl, one metal, one silver, and one perfect aside from a tail, the failed attempts at creation are put to a stop by the girl, who claims that false proclamations of love have resulted in the mutations.

I was about to say “I love you” a fourth time when the girl put out her hand and stopped my mouth, gently. Her hand as she touched my lips smelt of the night. I didn’t want it there, and grasping her wrist gently, I moved it away.

“Why?” I asked.

“You know why. Because it’s a lie,” she replied.

– excerpt from Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief

For those unfamiliar with the Japanese creation myth, two gods, Izanami and Izanagi, set out to populate the newly created world, which involves a brief ritual. Izanami, the goddess of creation, speaks first, which leads to numerous failed attempts at creation. Kawakami plays on the traditional mythos to demonstrate the importance of words as incredibly powerful tools of emotion where love is concerned.

In “Schrodinger’s Cat”, Kawakami explores the possibility of love changing over time. In a similar style to Men Without Women, the vignette uses the scientific theory of Schrodinger’s Cat in relation to the girl. Presumably, the narrator and the girl have fallen out of love, but memories and tender feelings keep them together.

As the narrator wanders around in the darkness, she comes across various skins that the girl has shed that lead her to a box that is sealed. As the box is polished and has no hinges, the narrator does not know whether her lover is alive. Unable to live without her partner, she smashes open the box, only to realize that she has broken the girl with it.

Why did I smash the box? I thought bitterly. But how could I have stopped myself? How could anyone endure such a state, of having someone there and not there – not there and there – at the same time?

– excerpt from Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief

Surrealism mixes with different takes on tradition and family in the second short story in the collection. Titled “Missing”, the story follows a somewhat unreliable narrator that finds herself wrapped up in strange family affairs following the mysterious disappearance of her older brother. Seen as a natural family occurrence, as the narrator’s great-grandmother disappeared in the past, the disappearance of her brother is considered normal and only poses a problem as he was about to go through with an arranged marriage.

Although strange, the disappearance is meant to be visual only. In fact, the narrator can still feel and see her brother’s presence from time to time and develops a strange, intimate relationship with him. Meanwhile, the second oldest brother of the household takes the place of the oldest brother as far as the arranged marriage is concerned.

Some days I can clearly recall my two missing brothers, but others I wonder was I just imagining them from the very start?

– excerpt from Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief

After a number of mysterious circumstances and family rituals, it is revealed that all families have secrets. As the narrator struggles to come to grips with reality, her world is turned upside down when her family shows no recollection of the disappearance of her brother. Full of quirky moments, interesting family traditions, and small tangents due to the stream of consciousness style, Kawakami questions the everyday actions of family life in “Missing”.

In the Akutagawa Prize winning short story, “A Snake Stepped On”, Kawakami employs elements of magical realism to stress how everyday situations have the ability to affect every aspect of daily life.

While walking to work one day, the narrator, Hiwako Sanada, absentmindedly steps on a snake. The snake transforms into a woman before her eyes before walking away. No questions asked, Hiwako continues walking and carries on with her day.

That night, she is greeted by an older woman when she returns home. To make matters worse, the woman seems to know everything about her and claims to be her mother. Startled and confused, the narrator calls her mother, confirming that the woman in front of her is not her real mother, but the snake that she stepped on earlier in the morning.

At first things seem normal, but the narrator’s life transforms as she finds herself struggling to stay afloat as snakes infest her house. Able to hear their thoughts and feel their movements, the battle begins in an unforgettably eerie short story that demonstrates Kawakami’s talents as a contemporary Japanese author.

Full of various styles and themes that transcend Japanese literature and tradition, Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of Night Too Brief is an entertaining collection that showcases Kawakami’s incredibly unique talents. Fans of the more absurd aspects of Japanese literature and culture will definitely want to pick up the collection as soon as possible.

Have you read any of Hiromi Kawakami’s works?

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Melissa Ratcliff
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.