“His full name was Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, but I called him Sensei. Not Mr or Sir, but Sensei”
THE original title of this off-beat romance was The Briefcase which as I read it is titillating bait. Which way does this story go? What has the weather got to do with anything? It might also have been called Drinking Sake at Bar Saturo. Or Sensei. I am loath to let slip too much plot here, so carefully is it woven. It charms in the way it builds.
Tsukiko, a thirty something office worker – no details of that side of her life are given at all, she paints herself as just a manga girl in a bar – bumps into her former schoolmaster over tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root and salted shallots. They drink (a lot) and eat which lends their conversations a certain intimacy. They pay their own bills. Sensei reveals the first of many idiosyncrasies, he collects railway teapots.
Great fiction is often buoyed by a writer’s enthusiasms – think of Hemingway with the sea, the bullfights, the eating and drinking etc. Japan has its own mysteries to explain which might have sustained us here but Kawakami goes a little deeper, a coming together of old and new, pupil facing teacher, mushroom hunting instead of going to the shops. And also the food and drink, little tidbits to go with the sake.
“He delicately poured vinegared miso over the last morsel of dried whale…”
And in Japanese style there is a leaning towards a haiku, very simple little poems as paragraphs, very literal, but very swift passages of descriptions that keep the story moving and always set in time and place.
“The late afternoon sun shone on Sensei’s upper body. A child was scattering popcorn on the path…dozens of pigeons would flock over….”
Plus Kawakami is clever in the way she diverges every now and then, to follow a thread and leave the plot to one side for a moment to pick out a detail, a thought, a vignette.
He is inscrutable, serene, notionally the wisdom. She is a hard drinking loner whose language could belong to a crimo where his is, obviously, poetry.
There are some explosive, singular surprise episodes that populate the whole book and deliver something rather lovely and unusual.