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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

やさしい訴え

by
Ogawa Yoko


general information | our review | links | about the author



Title: やさしい訴え
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996
Length: 285 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Les tendres plaintes - France
Zärtliche Klagen - Deutschland
Los tiernos lamentos - España
  • やさしい訴え has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : lists towards the maudlin, but has its charms

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the German translation of やさしい訴え by Sabine Mangold, Zärtliche Klagen.]

       やさしい訴え is narrated by Ruriko, a woman in her mid-thirties who, after twelve years of marriage, finally walks out on her husband. The decision seems to have been building for some time -- it was not a happy marriage (he sometimes was violent towards her; he had a mistress) -- but the final breaking point comes quite suddenly, and she takes off without so much as leaving a note. She does have somewhere to go, her mother's country house where she and her family spent much of her childhood, and the novel covers the transition-phase months she spends there before she is ready to move on with her life.
       Ruriko's husband is a busy ophthalmologist, while Ruriko is a calligrapher -- not so much of the traditional Japanese kind, but more commercial and (as she says) Western: she creates restaurant menus, greeting cards, wedding invitations, or does the writing for the occasional book, a special edition of Mother Goose, for example. Among the projects she is working on when she flees to the countryside is a commission to create a one-off bibliophile edition of a ninety-six-year-old English lady's memoirs -- a (ridiculously) colorful life-story of triumphs and tragedies (including a period of long term blindness (caused, and then eventually reversed, by a blow to the head)).
       Ruriko truly retreats -- to this country-house, and into herself. The only one who knows her there is the helpful local innkeeper, a roly-poly and very jolly woman who remembers Ruriko from her childhood. Ruriko does, however, soon also make the acquaintance of her neighbors, Nitta, who builds harpsichords here, and his apprentice, a young woman named Kaoru.
       Nitta and Kaoru are also damaged souls. Nitta was a pianist-prodigy, but found himself unable to play in public -- indeed, in front of anyone. Married for over twenty years, he's also been divorced for three years now. Kaoru lost her husband shortly after she had married -- finding him brutally murdered, it turns out -- and has also seemingly broken with most of her ties to the past.
       Ruriko is fascinated by their work -- and by Nitta's refusal or inability to play in front of anyone. She is drawn to Nitta, but also sees that there is obviously some intimacy between Nitta and Kaoru. Ogawa handles the delicate balance between these three characters -- as Ruriko also becomes friendly with Nitta, and frequently spends time in their company -- well, as they mostly cautiously proceed. Much remains merely surface -- not superficial, as they can all sense their various depths, but treading carefully and not intruding, and, when one character acts out too much, not making too much of it.
       While there is some mutual probing, it's often second-hand, Ruriko asking Nitta about Kaoru, and Kaoru about Nitta, rather than more directly forcing the issues. So too Ruriko keeps a certain distance, not saying all that much about herself or, for example, making much of her occasional trips to Tokyo. Each of these characters is processing a great deal of personal hurt and cautiously trying to connect with others, but they keep most of their hurt and confusion to themselves. What is revealed to each other is often little more than information; what opening up there is is, for the most part, controlled and carefully dosed -- and when too much bursts out into the open, everyone pretends more or less nothing happened.
       Ruriko's marriage is definitely over, and her brief meetings with her husband are calm dealings with the unwinding of it. Her husband has easily moved on -- with his mistress at one point making an awkward visit to Ruriko, yet another scene of calm exchange, despite all the emotional tension behind it -- and by the end of the novel the divorce has been finalized.
       The stay in the country house is a time of transition for Ruriko, with Ogawa quite clearly delineating it. Beside the divorce, Ruriko finishes the writing of the old woman's memoir (that book closed very appropriately with the author's death just as Ruriko finishes), sells her apartment, and accepts a job offer back in the big city. Appropriately, too, the country home is sold -- somewhat oddly, Ruriko's mother apparently not mentioning that she had put it on the market to her daughter --: Ruriko doesn't seem in need of that final push back into a new life, but it certainly makes things easier, too.
       Nitta and Kaoru's progression is not quite as neat -- there's a harpsichord fisaco at one point -- but culminates too in a finished piece (to which Ruriko contributes a design-element), as well as more clarity regarding Nitta's inability to play publicly, as an accident renders him physically incapable as well. Nitta does not mourn the loss -- for him it's always been clear he will never play for others -- but it does make it easier for Ruriko to finally accept it.
       The title of the novel comes from the Jean-Philippe Rameau piece for harpsichord, 'Les tendres plaintes' (generally translated as 'tender sorrows'), and it echoes through the book repeatedly, along with other classical music. The novel is very much one of atmosphere -- nature, work, observation --, the presentation subdued. The incidents tend to be small -- a drunken local mistaking Ruriko's home for his own late at night is close to the extent of the excitement -- and even the more dramatic (Nitta's accident; Ruriko's hysterical demand of Nitta at one point (she threatens to kill his dog ...)) is, at least after the fact, underplayed by the characters.
       やさしい訴え does come close to the maudlin at times -- saved from that only because Ogawa's narrator doesn't go in for self-pity (as, indeed, none of the characters do, even though, given their circumstances, you'd think they'd have good reason). The elements Ogawa uses feel a bit obvious at times too -- the focus on careful craftsmanship in the construction of the harpsichords, for example -- but she is also careful to dose it: while Ruriko seems to spend considerable time working at her calligraphy, that element isn't over-emphasized or -analyzed. Smaller bits, such as the fact that she first met her future husband by coming to him as a patient, with a phantom eye-issue that dissappeared as inexplicably as it had appeared, do work well; Ogawa is very good on the small details that make for the larger picture.
       A fairly quiet, simple story, やさしい訴え isn't particularly noteworthy, but it's quite well-crafted and certainly has some resonance, a portrait of some damaged lives getting on with their lives but without all the loud and endless introspection that would inevitably accompany such a story in a Western setting. It's a bit of a mish-mash, Ogawa throwing in a variety of (perhaps too many) elements -- music, nostalgia, nature, creaking floors, the overweight innkeeper, the aging dog, among much else -- almost as if to see what sticks, but she shows enough restraint in how she deploys most of this for it to mostly work.
       A minor novel, perhaps, but quite satisfying in its simplicity and limited ambition (even as it tries a bit too hard in smaller ways).

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 January 2019

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Links:

やさしい訴え: Reviews: Other books by Ogawa Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

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

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© 2019 the complete review

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