Friday, 5 January 2018

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

Why use a paragraph when a sentence will do?

Pushkin Press have recently published a handsome set of novellas from Japanese writers less well known in the UK. Although authors such as Tomoko Shibasaki and Hideo Furakawa have won literary prizes and praise in Japan their work remains outside the mainstream of Japanese language fiction in translation but that could be about to change.

Mieko Kawakami is an Osaka born, Akutagawa Prize winning writer who came to literature, with her ground breaking novella My Ego Ratio, My Teeth and The World (2007), from an earlier career as a singer songwriter. Like many Japanese novels Kawakami writes about feelings of isolation but this is not to say that her work is overly melancholic. There is an existential loneliness that runs throughout a great deal of writing from Murakami to Yoshimoto that can seem unattractive to readers in translation but I would argue that this is what makes Japanese writing so compelling. 

Ms Ice Sandwich is the story of an unnamed boy who becomes obsessed with the lady who works behind the sandwich counter at his local supermarket. Though he is observant of all his idol's habits and nuances he is deeply introverted and struggles to interact with the woman he has become infatuated with. As his classmates begin to joke about girls and about sex Ms Ice Sandwich becomes a untouchable symbol to idolise from afar. His energy becomes focused on painting a portrait of Ms Ice Sandwich which he ultimately delivers to her at work.    

Though he is surrounded by female figures, such as his elderly grandmother and workaholic mother, it is Ms Ice Sandwich with her 'thick layer of electric blue' eye make up that causes our narrator to wake up to the intricacies of the relationships around him. This is most notable in his friendship with classmate Tutti which matures throughout the story. In one tender scene he breaks down into uncontrollable sobs when he shows the portrait to his grandmother, "she looks kindly into my face and there's a little trembling glow in the pupils in her eyes"..."Don't cry" she says.

Like her peers Mieko Kawakami is succinct and pithy in her prose. Why use a paragraph when a sentence will do? But Kawakami's prose is particularly lyrical and no doubt influenced by her experience as a poet and songwriter.  Louise Heal Kawai does a sterling job as translator bringing Kawakami's prose to life in English.

Being hailed by the great Murakami as one of Japan's greatest young writers will do Mieko Kawakami no harm at all. If Ms Ice Sandwich is anything to go by we have much to look forward to. As is stands reading this quirky coming of age novella was one of the best hours I've spent in sometime.

Once again, I'm in awe of the pop art cover design by Nathan Burton Design which really pops on my bookshelf! 

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) published by Pushkin Press, 96 pages.     

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1 comment:

  1. Hello. I really appreciated this excellent review of Ms Ice Sandwich, particularly your comment that Mieko Kawakami's prose is pithy and lyrical, an observation I agree with 100%. Would it be possible to get a mention somewhere as the book's translator, and therefore the one who recreated that prose in English?