Monday, April 13, 2009

I finished reading Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque over the Easter weekend. In fact, I finished reading the 467 page book in two days. It's not that I loved the book. I much preferred Out, her earlier novel, and, the first one of hers to have been translated from Japanese into English.

Warning: Spoilers ahead if you're planning to read Grotesque

Grotesque, like Out, is a commentary on Japanese women and the pressures society exert on them. There are four women in this story: Yuriko, Kazue, Mitsuru and the narrator, whose name is never given and whom the reader knows as Ms. Yuriko's elder sister. Yuriko and Kazue, both prostitutes, have been murdered, and, at the time the story begins, the trial of their murderer, Zhang, is just starting. We are taken through the story from a number of different perspectives: Yuriko's journal, Zhang's written testimony, and Kazue's journal, interspersed with Sis' narration.

All four women attended Q High School for Women. Monstrously beautiful Yuriko strolls through life, not having to work at all as men and women both are fascinated by her beauty. She is a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, and seduces her uncle, and a family friend before she enters junior high. Her sister is the complete opposite of her, not having her looks, and hates her as a result. To get by, Sis relies on the power of her maliciousness, not just towards Yuriko, but to the world in general, and "polish[es] it everyday." Yuriko's death does nothing to ease Sis' dark nature. Kazue, Sis' classmate, possesses neither beauty nor natural talent and works extremely hard to get what she wants, but doesn't recognise any of her own weaknesses or deficiencies. The only likeable character among the four is Mitsuru, top student of the school, who strives to and succeeds in attending Tokyo Medical University, only to fall under the influence of a cult after she graduates, and, participates in the gassing to death of several civilians.

That last statement should tell you just how likeable the other three women must be.

Yuriko and Kazue are both murdered when they are in their mid-thirties, their murders taking place one year apart. Of the two, it is Kazue's story, based on the 1997 murder of a 39-years-old lady who worked as a reearcher for Tokyo Electric Power Co. by day and as a prostitute by night, which gathers the most attention. After all, she had a respectable job as a researcher in a prestigious engineering corporation. Why would such a woman become a prostitute?

Kirino's response is this: Kazue did so because she was brought up to believe that if she puts in sufficient effort, she can achieve anything she sets her mind to. However, no matter how hard she tries, she never quite seems to get what she wants. She is unable to beat Mitsuru in school, she doesn't ever get invited to skate in competitions even though she's a paying member of the school team (the only reason she's in the team is because her team-mates want access to her notes), the object of her affections never returns her feelings, and, as it turns out, she got her job because her father worked in the company, and not because of any recognition for her calibre. As a result, the only way she can feel some sort of control over her life is to sell herself. She gleefully states that she can make money not only by working in a prestigious company, but also by selling her body, thereby implying that she has both intelligence and beauty, when the truth is that she has neither.

Zhang, being the only non-Japanese in the story, is a stark contrast with his story of hardship when growing up in rural China, and who lost his moral compass when his beloved sister drowned on the way to Japan, where they were planning to make their fortunes. For a brief moment, he appears as the most sympathetic character, telling the judge about how much he loved his sister, and how he killed Yuriko in a moment of madness, when he felt she was defiling his sister's memory. However, we find out later that all is not what it seems, and, let's just say that there's incest involved.

I didn't particularly like Grotesque because all of the main characters are just so unlikeable. With the exception of Mitsuru, who plays a minor part in the story, all the characters are brutally ugly in one way or another. It doesn't help that the translation doesn't quite flow either, as the translator has slipped in some Americanisms which just do not sound right coming from a Japanese, "southpaw" being one which springs to mind. It is a fascinating enough story though. We don't ever know if what we have just read is the truth, as it's clear that one, or perhaps, all of the narrators viewed the same incident differently.

And, as a woman, I do agree that it can be difficult to accept that you can't actually do everything you set your mind to, although I don't necessarily agree with how Kazue dealt with it. I did certainly feel that pressure when I was working, fully recognising the negative impact that having a family would have on my career, particularly given the driven work environment of my industry, but it was more to do with the myth that all females who have been brought up in a Western environment have been fed: that it is, in fact, possible to have it all - the successful career and to also be a loving mother who will always be present at her 2.4 children's significant moments.

But that's a whole 'nother topic, and doesn't have anything to do with Grotesque, so I'll just end off here.

Related link:
Theme Magazine's interview with Natsuo Kirino

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