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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mrs. Murakami's Garden

Mario Bellatin

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To purchase Mrs. Murakami's Garden

Title: Mrs. Murakami's Garden
Author: Mario Bellatin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 112 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Mrs. Murakami's Garden - US
El jardín de la señora Murakami - US
Mrs. Murakami's Garden - UK
Mrs. Murakami's Garden - Canada
Le jardin de dame Murakami - France
El jardín de la señora Murakami - España
directly from: Deep Vellum
  • Oto no-Murakami monogatari
  • Spanish title: El jardín de la señora Murakami
  • Translated and with a Note by Heather Cleary

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing faux-Japanese fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today . Winter/2021 Kit Maude

  From the Reviews:
  • "The contextual sleight of hand reflects the psychologies and motivations of the characters; although the reader knows precisely how everyone ended up, they are continually left guessing at how they came to be there." - Kit Maude, World Literature Today

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.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mrs. Murakami's Garden begins more or less at its conclusion, the opening sentence revealing that, after the death of Mr. Murakami: "Mrs. Izu Murakami's garden would soon be dismantled". Much of the novel is, however, retrospective, looking back at how Mrs. Murakami's garden came about -- and how Izu became Mrs. Murakami.
       Mrs. Murakami's Garden has the feel of a Japanese novella, beginning with its restrained prose but especially in its references, including the use of Japanese terms and specifics, often explained in a footnote. That Mrs. Murakami's Garden isn't quite what it seems is already suggested in those arguably overly-solicitous footnotes: the second one, for example, explains what 'kimono' means ("Traditional garment typically made by women"), and many of the terms are similarly familiar. Despite all the Japanese references (and Japanese names), the locale is evidently not Japan: there are several mentions of Japan, but it is always described as elsewhere; Izu is also described as having skin typical of the Ochun region -- "A region set squarely in the middle of the country, which produces women known for having remarkably well-delineated figures" -- which does not appear to correspond to any Japanese locale.
       Throughout the novel, there is a tension between the traditional and the new. So also at university, when Izu was a student there, where there were two competing factions, the Radical Conservatives and the Adamantly Modern -- whereby:

The Radical Conservatives had controlled the department since its creation. They wanted to protect their ancestral past without the incursion of foreign ideas or contemporary techniques for preserving the country's patrimony.
       At that time, Mr. Murakami had a: "prestigious though not particularly large, collection of traditional artwork in his home"; he inherited most of it from his father -- promising to look after the legacy and: "to continue to build the collection until it was the most important in the country". At school, Izu is assigned to write a paper on the collection and asks for (and gets) an invitation to see it. Her essay then is, however, quite critical of the collection. Her professor is impressed and suggests an abridged version could be published in an art magazine -- as it then is.
       Mr. Murakami seems to have been quite taken with the student when she visited, and woos her with gifts for a while, which all gets to be a bit much for her. Between sending the last one back and the publication of the critical article, Izu seems to have burnt her bridges with Mr. Murakami -- but, in fact, he comes to woo her again, while she drops her studies. They get engaged, and then married -- with Mr. Murakami selling off his art collection in its entirety, as well as his house. He commissions the building of a new house -- "completely Western in style,, and without any space dedicated to works of art" --; he also agrees to Izu's request that she can have a garden on the grounds.
       The marriage is not a very happy one -- down to Mr. Murakami's hurtful delirious final pleas to see the breasts of Izu's longtime servant/chaperone, Etsuko -- and there's a sense that Mr. Murakami only entered into it to get back at Izu for her appraisal (and, by extension, what amounted to the dissolution) of his art collection. Certainly, he trapped her into having to cut off basically all of her ties to her own family, and cut short any independence she might have aspired to: the article is the only one she ever published, and he even only permits her to take a single book with her from her study to the marital home, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō' In Praise of Shadows, long her favorite (but then yet another thing she lays aside in her new situation). Mr. Murakami is not very attentive -- or even present, much of the time, despite Izu dutifully assuming the role she finds herself in. He also leaves her little in his will. The destruction of the garden is a final closing of this chapter -- a conclusion that is the culmination of Mr. Murakami's painfully drawn-out revenge-plot, but also an ending that is a beginning, Bellatin suggests (as he already did in beginning his novel with mention of it).
       There's a great deal of tradition and what amounts to ceremony in Mrs. Murakami's Garden, including things such as Izu's daily routine with her ailing father. The tension between new (and change) and the old is a constant throughout, as well, often just beneath the surface, but no less strong for that. Bellatin's atmospheric not-quite-Japan setting is particularly effective here, the undefined place superficially reässuringly familiar (in its references and feel) and yet disturbingly different beneath the surface.
       Textually, Mrs. Murakami's Garden is also an appealingly playful work. As noted, Bellatin offers footnotes -- often for very familiar items. They are not exactly scholarly-rigorous, especially in their presentation: the first footnote refers readers to another, later one ("See footnote 5"), in a reversal of the usual order of things, while at one point he has three footnotes in a row regarding food-items, and notes, in the first ('sushi'), that these are: "Typical dishes, the description of which would add noting substantial to the story", with the subsequent two footnotes , for 'ramen' and 'mategeshin', then empty ones (despite the latter being unrecognizable to readers, as several of the terms Bellatin uses are, in fact, his own invention).
       There's also an appendix, an: 'Addenda to the Story of Mrs. Murakami's Garden', consisting of twenty-four observations and questions about the text, such as: "Why is it never established whether Mr. Murakami knows how to drive ?" These highlight small facets of the story, shifting emphases and nudging readers to reconsider parts of their reading of the story
       Mrs. Murakami's Garden has the feel of a faux-Japanese text, and Heather Cleary pushes this further in her concluding Translator's Note, continuing the fiction. She treats Bellatin's text as itself being a translation, rather than an original novel, and conjures up a: "misguided scholarly article" criticizing the work. She also cites the original and compares it to Bellatin's version, in flat-out Borgesian imitation (straight out of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"). (The footnote-example mentioned favorably above also seems, in fact, to be Cleary's doing: the Spanish original -- at least the edition I was able to access -- does not footnote each of the three food items separately, but rather only the one; there are no blank footnotes there.)
       One can ask whether the translator's fictional expanding of the text in this way is necessary, but it seems a mostly harmless (and, in part, quite amusing) joke, and Bellatin's novel also stands well on its own here. In any case, Mrs. Murakami's Garden is a neat little work of fiction, a lot roiling beneath its smooth and polished surface.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 May 2021

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Mrs. Murakami's Garden: Reviews: Other books by Mario Bellatin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Mario Bellatin was born in 1960.

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© 2021 the complete review

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