Books that challenge traditional social norms and beliefs are the ones I always look forward to read. They not only widen your horizons but also make you think in an unconventional way. In the similar way, breaking all the stereotypes, Toddler-Hunting & other stories by Taeko Kono, is an underrated short stories collection of unhappy women in post-war Japan.
About the author
Taeko Kono(1926-2015) is one of the most significant writers of Japan. Most of her writings appeared in the 1960s, which established her reputation as a remarkable writer and an acerbic essayist. Oe Kenzaburo, Japan’s Nobel Laureate, described her as the most “lucidly intelligent” woman writers writing in Japan. By the end of her life she was a leading presence in Japan’s literary establishment, one of the first women writers to serve on the Akutagawa Literary Prize committee. Her works left an immeasurable impact on the aspiring contemporary women writers.
This book is of interest for
- Contemporary Fiction Readers
- Japanese Literature lovers
- People looking for women centric short story collection
- Psychological Fiction lovers
Premise of the book
If I describe this book in just three words, it would be- disturbing yet mesmerising. Translated by Lucy North, this collection of ten short stories, being out of print for twenty years, got re-published in paperback, last year (2018).
If I talk about the theme of the book, each and every story offers an insight on the lives of women, being psychologically oppressed in the post-war Japan. Each story unfolds a new layer bringing forth the hidden fantasies of the women, written with visually stunning clarity. I was mesmerized by all the stories in this book. But I have shortlisted some of my favourites which I would like to talk about.
- Night Journey
The first story and surprisingly one of the best ones from the book. A married couple, have invited their friends- a couple for dinner. But, this time unexpectedly, the couple doesn’t turn up. Getting curious about their absence, the couple decides to visit their home at night. As the back-story unfolds, an uneasiness permeates the story. What was supposed be a night walk, turns out to be something more dark and creepy. Through this story, Taeko Kono, teases you by creating a questionable atmosphere, leaving the reader with an abrupt ending.
“Fukoko realized that she’d been in a particular mood for some time now, a mood that will keep her walking beside Murao into the night, walking on and on until they became the perpetrators – or the victims- of some unpredictable crime.”
The story which speaks a lot from its repelling title. The protagonist- a woman in her 30s shares an unexplained hatred towards young girl child between the age of three to ten and on the other hand adores young boys. What makes it more queer is that, the lady doesn’t want any child of her own, but she eyes on young boys and buys beautiful dresses for them. She loves to see them dress and undress. This attitude of the lady, will definitely make readers detest her to the core.
Taeko Kono has powerfully portrayed a caricature of a woman, that could act in an unfeminine way. At the same time she breaks the misconceptions of the people that all Japanese Women are supposed to be submissive and fragile from heart.
This is the longest story of the book. A woman recalls her troubled relationship with her step-mother. Being an illegitimate child of her father, she always got abused and detested by her step- mother. As a result of which, she is scared of getting married now. When her boyfriend tells her about his transfer to a snow country, the memories of her past lingers on her mind.
She has a love-hate relationship with- “Snow”. As when it starts snowing, she starts experiencing pins and needles in her head. This unnamed illness( most probably migraine) is something that her step-mother also suffered from. So even if, she wants to hate this “snow”, it’s the only thing that binds her together with her mother. A nameless bond, a suffering that both of them could share. In a way, she feels that she is paying for all the unhappiness she has caused to her mother because of her existence. A satisfaction, she can’t share with anyone.
A woman, lives alone, separated from her husband who works in Germany. One day, on her visit to opera, she encounters a young couple, in which the man is a humpback. Seeing the strange couple so madly in love, looks oddly satisfying to her. Therefore, she doesn’t lose a chance to visit their home on being invited. So, what was just her observation and curiosity in the beginning, reaps into an obsessive relationship of her with the couple.
Kono shows how desire needs just a bait to reveal its true nature. The lonely woman, who desired for friendship, didn’t miss a chance when a hand was offered. And what followed was inevitable. This is the story, that you will read and try to predict. A spine-chilling tale, indeed.
- Bone Meat
This story was translated by a student, Lucy Lower, as a tribute to Taeko Kono. In this story, an unhappy woman contemplates on her relationship with a man, who left her for his selfish interests. His decision to abandon her, not only affected her mentally but also physically. They both shared a common love for bone meat. And now when the man is gone, her taste is also gone.
“They were a single organism, a union of objectively different parts, immersed in a dream. Sometimes both would sigh simultaneously from the excess of flavour and then laugh so much that they had to put down the food they were holding. The woman, now grown thin realized that she longed only for the taste of those dishes. It was not only herself and his belongings that the man had deserted, but that taste as well.”
This story has a dream like quality, when you are not able to predict whether the woman is dreaming or not. A nameless desire to burn all the left out bones with the belongings of the man. The subtle significance of the food and her body, is something only Kono could write about.
In one of her essays, Kono cited Jun’ichiro Tanizaki as a literary influence, whose writings explored male-centred fantasies. Even though, I have not read Tanizaki yet, I would love to read some of his works after reading Kono.
Kono’s work has been quoted as “demonstrating that reality and fantasy are not so clearly distinguishable from each other.” This was present in stories like Bone Meat and Theatre. Also the theme of sadomasochoism or featuring uneasy sexual preferences of the women, who didn’t mind getting “Whipped” during sex. Yes, Whipped!! This could be seen in her stories such as Toddler Hunting, Ant Swarm and in also her Akutagawa Prize-winning short story Crabs. At the end, I will definitely like to applaud the frankness of Taeko Kono, for bringing out such stories for women, which generally are written by male writers. Her stories talk about the ordinary people, living mundane life, but with desires which might look dark. No matter, how much uneasy or disturbing these stories might look, they definitely bring out the truth that most of the time remains hidden.
What are your thoughts? Will you read something out of your comfort zone, just to get the taste of truth?