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An Introduction to “The Diving Pool” by Yoko Ogawa

By Amber Qureshi

Amber Qureshi jumpstarts the discussion of Yoko Ogawa's Diving Pool with an introduction to the author, her work and contemporary Japanese literature. Amber will be posting her impressions of The Diving Pool on a weekly basis throughout January and we hope all of our readers, and the attendees of our event at the Idlewild book store, will join in with comments, questions for Amber and your own impressions. You can find Amber's interview with Stephen Snyder over here.—Editors

I've never believed anyone, and you shouldn't either, who tells me that he knows all there is to know, or in fact anything there is to know, about Japan. More so than any other society I can think of, the more you learn about it, onion-like, fractal-like, the more you find that there is to unpeel, and the more dauntingly complicated you realize it really is. I have never heard such wildly divergent generalizations about a place as you hear about Japan, again generally from those self-styled experts. They're closed off and hate foreigners. They are obsessed with foreign culture and welcome you with open arms. They seem nice but that's just "saving face," they hate you secretly. Their way of running a business is pointless and unfair. Their way of running a business is cooperative and productive. Their strict delineations of society keep everyone apart. The integrity of those parameters allows for a freedom that Westerners don't immediately comprehend. (my opinion).

It is both within, and without, those parameters that the work of Yoko Ogawa is best appreciated. To enter her world is to visit a reality untroubled by any preconceptions of propriety, order, even narrative style. Lest she ever be typecast, her characters range from a teenager involved in S&M to a housekeeper learning about mathematics, from an insolent sister on a murderous mission, to an innocent young boy with a frank and charming love of baseball. The only thing her characters have in common, with each other and with their author, is a freshness of perspective, free of societal norms, and an obstinate, tenacious yen to explore. Is this unusual for a writer born in what's said to be a relentlessly homogeneous society that encourages uniformity at any cost? Her originality seems so effortless. Reading her, at times I find her nationality irrelevant to my understanding of her writing, and at other times I find a generosity of spirit, having something to do with the freedom within parameters I mention above, that makes me suspect that this writer could come from nowhere else.

This is what I mean by generosity, and freedom: Ogawa enters the thoughts and hearts of her characters without fear, judgment or anticipation—she lets them speak to us on their own terms, one of the hardest things for a writer to do. And I think that she's able to do this because underlying her writing is the purest and most penetrating kind of love. She teaches us that however atrocious our innermost thoughts are, we are worthy of love and of being loved. Her sympathy precisely and methodically destroys the lines between cruelty and tenderness, and in her forgiveness we find hope. With gentle force, Ogawa suspends all our own preconceptions to guide us into her hyper-reality, bathed in fractured light, muted sound, and ethereal, delicate, rhythmic, and horrifying imagery. Prepare yourself for something utterly unique, and utterly compelling. Watching her create reminds me of Jonathan Safran-Foer's description of the painter R. J. Kitaj: His work was work: he strove to repair the world, to fill out the spaces with words and images, to make paintings like bandages to cover the wounds, and paintings like wounds to make the injuries visible.

What Ogawa offers us, onion-like, God-like,is an entire universe, with its own religion and choreography, and with an exuberance that, to its eternal credit, is not immediately visible. It is a body of work that, like her home country, gets more complicated and yet more fascinating the more you look at it. Believe this hype: rare and powerfully inspired, hers is a talent that will last.

Over the next few weeks, we invite you to share your thoughts, comments, and impressions upon reading the extraordinary work of Yoko Ogawa, as I have above and as her translator also shares with us in the Q&A here. What have you learned from the read, how was it different from what you might have expected, and what does she incite you to explore further?

Published Jan 9, 2009   Copyright 2009 Amber Qureshi

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