A
Literary Saloon
&
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.



Contents:
Main
the Best
the Rest
Review Index
Links

weblog

crQ

RSS

to e-mail us:


support the site



In Association with Amazon.com


In association with Amazon.com - UK


In association with Amazon.ca - Canada


In 
Partnerschaft 
mit 
Amazon.de


En 
partenariat 
avec 
amazon.fr


In association with Amazon.it - Italia

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ

by
Ogawa Yoko


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author



Title: 猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 368 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Le petit joueur d'échecs - France
Schwimmen mit Elefanten - Deutschland
Nuotare con un elefante tenendo in braccio un gatto - Italia
Bailando con elefante y gato - España
  • 猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ has not yet been translated into English

- Return to top of the page -



Our Assessment:

B+ : effectively presented fantastical story

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 7/9/2013 Peter Urban-Halle


  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Spiel selbst aber muss nicht nur gewonnen, sondern auch schön sein. Erst dann ist es gelungen und gleicht dem «Schwimmen mit Elefanten», wie der Romantitel auf Deutsch lautet. Da erkennt man, dass Yoko Ogawa mit dem Schachspiel auch die Literatur meint. Der Junge spielt, wie sie schreibt: Sie will weder überwältigen noch blenden, scheinbar kunstlos bewegt sie ihre Figuren, wohin diese wollen. Das ist Yoko Ogawas «Vorstellung von Unendlichkeit», wie es irgendwo heisst, das ist ihre Vorstellung von Literatur." - Peter Urban-Halle, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -



The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the German translation of 猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ by Sabine Mangold, Schwimmen mit Elefanten.]

       猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ ('Holding a cat while swimming with an elephant') is an odd life-tale -- Murakamiesque, on the one hand (down to the feline presences), but with much that is original and distinctive as well. The unnamed protagonist is unusual from birth: he is born with sealed lips, and although an opening is cut, he remains someone who rarely opens his mouth -- he doesn't ever talk much. He also stops growing when he is eleven years old, remaining diminutive-sized his entire life -- traumatized by the death of the man who was his mentor, a compulsive eater who grew fatter and fatter, and so from early on the young boy's philosophy is that growing (larger, older) is a tragedy.
       The boy's parents divorced when he was young, and his mother died, and he and his younger brother are raised by their loving and devoted but poor grandparents. The novel opens describing the excursions to a local department store that the boy enjoyed, the grandmother taking him and his brother, and while the two of them looked at all the wonderful goods on offer there, the boy retreated to the roof, where there was both a children's playground -- not that they could afford even the cheap rides -- and a memorial plaque: for over thirty years an elephant had been kept up there. The elephant, Indira, was brought to the department store for publicity, as an attraction for the kids when it first opened, but it was such a hit that when they finally got around to trying to send it to a zoo, as originally planned, it was already too big for the elevator, and so it spent it's entire long life on the roof. The boy is fascinated by the story, and by the few leftover traces, such as the ring that had held the elephant chained fast, limiting how far it could move about. He fantasizes about the animal, and feels a strong connection to it and its story.
       There's also a legend about a girl that supposedly vanished in the narrow space between the house the boy lives in and next door and still haunts it, mummified. She is the boy's imaginary friend, someone he talks to when he goes to bed -- calling her 'Miira' (ミイラ, Japanese for 'mummy', which is what he overheard people calling the girl). In the small house his accommodating grandparents allow the boy to sleep in a closed alcove that he makes his retreat -- a claustrophobic space for anyone else, but the only place where he feels comfortable.
       The imaginary Miira is his only friend, but he's not an unhappy child. He comes across a large man living in a bus with a cat, and he learns to play chess from the man -- becoming completely captivated by the beauty of the game. Here, too, the boy takes an unusual approach, finding he's only comfortable playing when he sits under the chessboard; stroking the cat helps, too.
       Learning from the master, the boy doesn't see chess so much as a contest but an artistic give and take. Even when he becomes an expert player, he always adapts to his opponent, trying to make even a beginner's game a poetic back and forth (rather than just crushing his opponent, as he easily could). When he learns more about the game and famous players, he's especially taken by Alexander Alekhine, the 'poet of the chessboard'; eventually the boy is nicknamed 'Little Alekhine', the only name by which we know him.
       Little Alekhine's unorthodox, under-the-table playing style isn't appropriate for the fancy chess club which the master tries to get him in, but eventually a place is found for him, in an alternative chess-space in the bowels of the same building, 'At the Bottom of the Sea', the disused old swimming pool in the cellar. Someone has constructed a life-like doll sitting in front of a chess board, which is then set up in this space; the diminutive Little Alekhine is the perfect talented player to hide within the device and play against all comers. It's essentially Wolfgang von Kempelen's 'Mechanical Turk' (see, for example, Tom Standage's The Mechanical Turk). And the girl who is the assistant at the games -- clearing the board where the mechanical doll can't -- is another lost lass in whom Little Alekhine immediately recognizes Miira. She isn't the actual Miira, of course, but that's what he sees her as being.
       The mechanical chess-player is a great success, and Little Alekhine finds satisfaction in his role -- and in the quiet, delicate attentions of Miira after the exhausting time in the cramped space. For a decade, he plays the part, until he is twenty-five, but eventually he is led to pack up the doll and take a position in a retirement home (for chess players), where he continues to play the part, but in a completely different environment. A loose but deep connection with Miira remains, even as they have only haltingly reached out to each other all this time.
       The master from whom he learnt to play already showed Little Alekhine chess notations -- the way game-records are kept -- and these written records are repeatedly alluded to. Significantly, Miira is the one who records Little Alekhine's games 'At the Bottom of the Sea' -- and when they are apart after he leaves the city they communicate by mail, wordlessly, exchanging only moves in chess notation. The notations are like poetry, the games like full-fledged poems. Little Alekhine is not word-less, but his ideal, of beauty and perfection, is found only chess, and in the chess-notations; only a single one of his game-notations survives him, the only proof of his existence .....
       It's an odd, gentle story -- almost surreal in feel, even as Ogawa presents much of the material matter-of-factly, as if there was nothing odd about it. For all its symbolism and allusions, from the elephant to the Miira-variations, to the cats, and sealed lips (and the transplanted bit of skin of his new lips) and enclosed spaces, Ogawa never pushes these too hard. Significant for Little Alekhine, they remain subtle presences -- often merely in memory or imagination: he never saw the actual elephant, his conversations with the imagined Miira are barely presented, the (original) cat soon disappears and its replacement is a carved one. Yet this quiet presentation is also powerful: 猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ is almost all strong undercurrent.
       Many of the significant characters are presented as fairly simple -- not showing any great ambition, satisfied in simple, routine tasks, taking (and fully feeling) small pleasures -- but Ogawa's presentation of them is always generous and warm: there is never any sense that they are failed or disappointed human beings. There is some darkness, but even this is accepted; the characters tend to be philosophical (though not resigned), and satisfied with their lots and with the world. As in the chess games Little Alekhine plays, the poetry and beauty is in the give and take -- adapting to a situation and making the most of it, rather than bitterly and loudly contesting everything, and pushing oneself to the fore and into the spotlight.
       A great deal here is obviously meaning-full, but Ogawa doesn't try to expound on that meaning: readers can take from it what they will. So also the action, which in a sense is often almost anti-climactic; Ogawa's story is built on so many familiar tropes, but she artfully turns ever so slightly away from meeting any of the usual expectations; from one small turn to the next, the story proceeds with the unexpected, down to its melancholy but appropriate conclusion.
       It's an odd novel, agreeably subdued -- especially in not taking what can seem like too-cute quirkiness (the sealed lips, the elephant, and much else) too far -- and moving, and very nicely done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 August 2018

- Return to top of the page -



Links:

猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ: Reviews: Other books by Ogawa Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -



About the Author:

       Japanese author Ogawa Yoko (小川 洋子) was born in 1962.

- Return to top of the page -


© 2018 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links