It’s disturbingly beautiful, and beautifully disturbing. Yōko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, had me trapped completely in its quiet eeriness while I was marveling at the absorbing writing. This was my very first try at reading Yōko Ogawa and already my third one at Japanese literature, though I wouldn’t say that I’ve finally been able to wrap my mind around it. Even now, I’m still finding it difficult to fully catch the very basic idea that lies beneath every narrative written by Japanese authors. This may be an evidence of my low understanding of Japanese literary art, but I can assure you that it doesn’t stop me at all from thoroughly enjoying it.
In the first novella, of which title is also used as the book’s title, Ogawa tells a story of a teenage girl who lives in an orphanage. The dreadful loneliness that surges through her comes from the fact that she, as the only child of the orphanage’s owners, cannot have her parents’ love and attention to herself, while she cannot possibly cut ties with them to join the ranks. The heavy burden of that loneliness on her shoulders becomes more intense as she falls in love with one of the orphans her parents take care of, Jun. For some reason, she cannot tell anyone, even Jun himself, about her feelings for him. She is so caged in her own secret love that she consciously, or not, does bad things to someone else weaker.
The second story sees a single woman’s keeping record of his sister’s pregnancy every so often, if not regularly. In this novella entitled Pregnancy Diary, instead of talking about the growth of the baby, the woman seems more interested in capturing her sister’s changing mood, seemingly endless morning sickness, strange food craving, psychologically disturbed condition, the husband’s doting attitude, and their reluctance to talk about their baby. Oddly enough, as the narrative moves forward, the single woman doesn’t appear to feel any sympathy nor empathy for her sister. She may not understand how it feels to be with child, but her nonchalant attitude makes the reader wonder if she ever cares about her sibling at all.
Dormitory is the simplest yet the most mysterious story of all. It tells about a woman who comes back to the dormitory she lived in all those days of her study at the university, her intention being helping her much younger cousin register and get a room there. She feels a rush of memories and that nothing has changed, physically. However, the fact is that there isn’t a single student living there anymore, and the Manager, a disabled old man with a weakening body, lives all alone to keep the building. Every once in a while, the woman goes to the shabby dormitory to visit her cousin. But instead of meeting him, she always, and only, gets to meet the Manager. Through their frequent encounters and long conversations, she comes to know what drives people to leave the place and not to come back forever: a boy has gone missing, and everyone throws their suspicion at the Manager. No one knows where the boy has gone, and why. It remains a mystery, and the Manager remains lonely in his last critical days.
All the main characters of the three novellas feel, and present, the same thing: loneliness. At least, that’s what I got throughout reading them. They seem to be isolated, unattached to anything and anyone, despite their familial relationships. They are also unbearably gloomy, depressed, sad in some ways… All the words that can possibly describe them seem to lead the reader to anything but social and happy. It makes me wonder, is this the basic idea? The sense of loneliness? Isolation? Unattachment to anything and anyone? Or is it their response to those senses? However, what I noticed most was that they have quite different characterizations. Thus, in turn, the nature of their actions and deeds differ from each other. While Aya tends to be abusive, and the single woman aloof, the lonely married woman in Dormitory seems to err on the side of caring.
The Diving Pool is very nice to read, very easy to devour. Despite the eerie atmosphere and cryptic message, all the three novellas are so beautifully written in great detail that readers will not miss a thing. Every inanimate object, every token, every scene are depicted as meticulously as possible, allowing the reader to have a clear picture in their minds and follow the plot without difficulty. The pace set by Ogawa for every single story is comfortably steady and not too hasty, and the tone she immerses into it resonates very much strongly even from the simplest word or sentence. Yōko Ogawa has presented us with a writing of profound beauty, with gripping characters to boot. And, surely, I have to thank Stephen Snyder, the translator, for the smooth translation so I could enjoy that writing.
So, despite my lack of intelligence in fully comprehending the prose style of Japanese literary works, I can say that I did enjoy The Diving Pool. Perhaps its cryptic, enigmatic nature is a part of its charm and attraction. At some point I even thought that the stories in it are more mysterious than any mystery novel I read recently.