‘The Memory’ by Mitsuyo Kakuta, translated by Polly Barton

Kakuta’s narrator says of a certain celebrity model who happens to be the same narrator’s sort-of stepdaughter: “In the end, her beauty terrifies them. Her looks are not the kind to enthrall or impassion. When people look into her eyes, they feel like they are being seen through, stolen away, sucked in toward some kind of terrible misfortune.”

Terrifying beauty. Carnivorous, destructive beauty. This is the paradox of the sublime (says Kant, of whom more below). Sublimity is easy to spot in certain art and landscapes, sharks and octopuses. But in a human? How, with just a look, can a human whirlpool another human towards terrible misfortune? I’m suspicious of the ‘windows to the soul’ trope. The notion that someone’s eyes can reveal their inner perverseness, holiness, or emptiness sounds practically phrenological. Yet Kakuta’s narrator insists some inner secret is the dark fount of the model’s physical sublimity. Could the secret lie not with the model but with the narrator—she who’s so insistent that this other woman is sublime? We’re told that this young woman believes herself to be guilty of a horrible crime. Why, then, does she choose the life of a celebrity model? Once you ask yourself that question, Kakuta’s story changes color. Personally I suspect the narrator of feeding the young woman the ‘memory’ of her guilt in order to conceal the narrator’s own part in the tragedy and create the opportunity for the narrator to play the magnanimous stepmother. But see what you think. A single event broadcast-spawns how many memories, each possessed of self-destructive malleability?

Published here in Words Without Borders, March 2015

‘Bucket of Eels’ by Mitsuyo Kakuta, translated by Wayne P. Lammers

This is a quietly easily moving narrative, where years pass and the mystery of a marriage is noted; indeed the narrator’s own relationships are at the heart of the story. I visited Japan a couple of years ago, and was surprised and delighted to find a similar portrayal of the neighbourhood I stayed in. The story embodies some of the sense of intrigue and bewilderment, as well as charm, I felt about the country. For all its gentle social etiquette or maybe because of it, certain things eluded me. This story illustrates the dichotomy between public and private modes of Japanese life which intrigued me, an emphasis on the sense of ritual and the domestic, which are behind all the vast technological advances for which Japan is well known.

First published in English in Granta, 2014 and available to all to read here