Kikuko Tsumura, Wandering Spirit in Brazil, Bungeishunju, 2016

Tsumura begins her first story in this volume, “The Water Tower and the Turtle,” with a man standing outside a temple and realizing that udon is flowing through the gutters. Steam is rising from the hot water carrying the udon past his feet, but he is not taken aback, simply noting that the gutters carry less udon than they had in his childhood. The explanation for this strange phenomenon is simple—there is an udon manufacturer across the street—but it is characteristic of the uncanny flavor of Kimura’s stories. This story, for which she won the 2013 Kawabata Yasunari Prize, essentially serves as fair warning of what is to come in the seven stories making up this volume.

In the title story, “Wandering Spirit in Brazil,” Mita dies of heart failure at age 72, but instead of joining his wife in the afterlife as he expects, he finds that he is still wandering as a spirit in this life. He had been planning to travel to the Aran Islands with other men in his neighborhood association, and this unmet desire seems to have tethered him to earth. Unfortunately, he discovers that he can’t actually get on planes and trains himself. To assuage his disappointment, he decides to take advantage of his invisibility to visit the women’s section of the public baths, but every time he goes, all the women are his age or even older. With so much time on his hands, he drops in on the neighborhood association meetings and ends up getting sucked into his old friend Nakai’s ear. When that proves boring, he makes several other jumps until he makes it to the ear of a wealthy Brazilian businessman, Ronaldo, and travels with him back to Brazil. Ronaldo has so many girlfriends that Mita’s modesty is quite overwhelmed, and he has to jump back and forth between Ronaldo, his doorman and his housekeeper. After all this back-and-forth, he is ready to join his wife, which he doesn’t seem able to do until he can make it to the Aran Islands. Luckily the Olympics are being held in Brazil, giving Mita the chance to find an Irish athlete.

A poster made for a book signing event with Kikuko Tsumura, showing Mita departing someone’s ear.

The only story without this element of fantasy and strangeness is “Aitor Velasco’s New Wife.” In this story, Tsumura writes from the perspectives of both a bully and a bystander, about two decades after the incident. The narrator recognizes her former classmate Yukiko in the picture of the new wife of an Uruguayan soccer player. This sets off memories of Yukiko’s bullying at the hands of her classmates, all masterminded by Aya. Aya had recognized the baseness in her classmate’s hearts and simply encouraged them to to let it out. She was particularly skilled at identifying the weakest members of the class and authorizing others to torment them, who rewarded her with their gratitude. The narrator remembers how the world inside the classroom felt like a microcosm of the entire world at that age, impossible to escape.

The narrator’s recollections are interspersed with the problems Aya faces in the present day as an adult with her own daughter. Compared to Tsumura’s other stories, this one feels spare and straightforward, almost as if any embellishment would diminish the horror of Aya’s behavior and the knowledge of our own.

I was happy to return to Tsumura’s whimsy with the story “Hell,” which begins as Nomura and her childhood friend Kayo are killed instantly in a bus accident. Everyone else is rescued, but Nomura is killed when she is hit on the head by the sharp edge of a tin box of rice crackers she had bought on their trip. They find themselves in hell, although they are shepherded to different sections by the devils assigned to them. Kayo is being punished for talking too much, while the narrator is there for her gluttonous consumption of stories in all their forms. At her peak, she had watched at least three soap operas and one documentary a day, consumed three movies a week, read ten novels a month, watched sports avidly, including the Tour de France, barely slept during the Vuelta a Espana, and eavesdropped on other people’s conversations in cafes. Writing novels was her profession. The demon in charge of her would set up situations in which she would be killed, over and over, as punishment for watching so many crime dramas. Another typical punishment was to read a 400-page novel only to reach the end and find that the last page was missing!

With the exception of “Aitor Velasco’s New Wife,” there is a sweetness to these stories. The newly retired man in “The Turtle and the Water Tower” rides his new hybrid bicycle to the supermarket chanting “beer, beer” (it is much catchier in Japanese, something like “bii-ru, bii-ru”) to the point that the rhythm takes over his brain and he forgets what he meant to buy (other than beer, of course). Then there’s the fondness between the two old school friends in “Hell,” who find ways of helping each other in that grim setting, even sending encouraging text messages to each other (yes, apparently cell phones even follow us to hell). Mita yearns for his wife in the title story, and in “Individualism” the narrator is genuinely concerned for her friend when she trades in her beige wardrobe and begins showing up to school in an afro wig, Aloha shirts, and a jacket with a skeleton print.

Tsumura’s characters are also quite nonchalant about their predicaments. When told that the previous tenant died in the apartment he has just moved into and, by the way, would he take in the deceased tenant’s pet turtle, the narrator of “The Water Tower and the Turtle” shows no discomfort. In “Hell,” Nomura expresses no sadness at her own death, simply regrets that she hadn’t had the metal box of rice crackers that killed her mailed to her house instead. Mita figures he has had a long life and is ready to join his wife anyway, but since he’s stuck on earth he might as well try to get a glimpse of nubile young women in the baths while he can.

Kikuo Tsumura herself Source: Kodansha

Although Kikuko Tsumura has won many prizes for her work, including the Dazai Osamu Prize, the Akutagawa Prize and the Oda Sakunosuke Prize, and was named as of one of the best young Japanese novelists by Granta in 2016, as far as I can tell none of her work has been translated into English. This is a shame, as she has a quirky sense of humor that kept my eyes glued to the page so as not to miss any of the incongruities she hides in her words.