Hiromi Kawakami has, in Strange Weather in Tokyo, written a fairly plot-free novel that charts the deepening friendship between Tsukiko, a late-30s woman, and Sensei, her teacher from years ago. They meet in a local bar – food and drink is key to the novel, bonding agents made of sake and mushrooms – and what follows is the story of pendulums going in and out of sync.
The characters aren’t drawn with a lot of complexity, but there’s enough to have a sense of them as real people. Sensei is every slightly stentorian teacher you’ve ever had: he remembers the topics Tsukiko has forgotten he taught, and has the ability to bring the past into focus. He’s a baseball fan and – as teachers often are – a shit-stirrer of a level that’s not appreciated until the student reaches adulthood. Tsukiko is a busy woman with a solitary existence who drinks a bit much and works too hard, and who is surprised at the vicissitudes of her emotions.
Strange Weather in Tokyo captures lonely city life very well. There’s moments when, aided by alcohol or fly agaric mushrooms, the action turns a little fabulous, but for the most part the prose is restrained, elegant. It’s more fragmentary than Murakami’s prose, and seems elegantly clean. There’s occasional descriptive decoration, but for the most part the plain language conveys the drift of lives and the way people come to know each other with spare simplicity.
Though it straddles the seasons, there’s an autumnal feeling throughout, perhaps in deference to Sensei’s age and encroaching death. In line with the former teacher’s profession, there’s many references to Japanese classics, salting the narrative with elements to explore. There’s a lot of information conveyed with very little, which I enjoyed. The landscape, emotional and physical, is clearly communicated: I could feel myself walking behind the characters on their peregrinations.
What’s weird about the translation of this work is the title change. In Japanese, the book is known as Sensei no kaban, or The Teacher’s Briefcase, which is much more apt, particularly by the end of the work. I suppose to sell a Japanese writer to non-Japanese readers the work had to hook into some kind of wanderlust, or travel interest – but it seems a shame, given the weight the book places on tiny things, on personal items. There’s an idea in Japanese culture of the faithful duty that old items have performed, and that they be accorded respect. This is highlighted in Sensei’s collections of almost-flat batteries, kept because they were the first set used in a calculator, or because they powered a radio playing a favourite symphony. The spirit of the book – though changing of seasons is important – is really about highlighting the way little things mean a lot, and contribute a lot to the texture of our lives, so to move a title away from that seems a misstep, especially as other translations have kept the title.
Translation niggles aside, this is a good read if you’re familiar with Tokyo (or Japanese bars, really) and don’t mind a story with no particular place to go. Remember, our lives only appear grand narratives from the zoomed-out view: every day’s decisions on what to eat, and thoughts we have are seemingly random, and love develops in these motions, not through an overarching tented-finger thought process. This is a diverting look at the smaller parts of the machine; those you might forget, but those you need to live.