In the latest issue of contemporary Japanese literature anthology Monkey Business Volume 3, Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami writes of roses, post-earthquake malaise and a friendship that never quite consummates.
We first encounter the narrator, who inexplicably calls herself Bianca, as she stands on her porch tending to her bed of roses.
By her own admission, Bianca’s days are filled with nothing—“I don’t work. I’m not pregnant. I don’t watch TV. I don’t read books. Come to think of it, I do absolutely nothing.” What she is, however, is a wife—a loaded title for a Japanese woman with its implications of duty and decorum. Yet she wants more—much more. What exactly, she isn’t quite sure.
Stuck in the doldrums of her daily existence, she thinks and rethinks the simplest decisions, her inner monologue playing out like T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” (“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”) What little volition she has is spent on tending to her plants, a hobby she developed after the earthquake, perhaps as an outlet for her nurturing tendencies, or, more likely, as a reminder that life was returning to normal after the shaker and its ensuing chaos.
Little by little, Bianca begins to notice the sound of her neighbor Terry playing the piano, the broken melody seeping into earshot like a welcomed intruder. Before we know it, Terry has invited Bianca over and the two women are going through the motions of neighborly formality, smiling, bowing politely, Bianca dutifully procuring overpriced sweets from a fancy department store.
Terry asks Bianca if she would listen to her play piano and this simple request quickly yields a regular routine of private piano recitals.
Terry is accustomed to practicing alone. The act of playing in front of Bianca feels eerily intimate yet the two women remain insulated by their thoughts, buffered only by Terry’s consistently flawed rendition of Liszt’s “Dreams of Love.” Eventually Terry makes it through the entire piece, performing it without error for Bianca, which marks a natural and unspoken end to their meetings.
After her regular meetings with Terry come to an end, Bianca finds herself right back where she started: alone in her apartment, reminded again that even when “Dreams of Love” is perfectly rendered, love itself remains imperfect, elusive, a dream.
We rarely feel fully convinced that Terry is much more than an abstraction, maybe because we never get a true taste of her point of view. For all we know, she could be a figment of Bianca’s imagination, existing solely as a distraction, a temporary salve to the insufferable pain of her tedium and frustration.
Most striking about this piece is how astute Kawakami is in capturing not only the loneliness and boredom of daily life, but the paradox of how absurd life is and how, ultimately, it’s also really no big deal. Bianca resumes her life of nothingness, dreaming of love, etc., the “etc.” presumably encapsulating a universe of possibility, forever out of reach.
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