Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: The Cat in the Coffin

Marika Koike. Translated Deborah Boliver Boehm. NY: Vertical, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-932234-12-1 (1-932234-12-8)

Michael Sedano

Masayo, a simple country girl who grows up wanting to be a painter gets a dream job, nanny to a renowned artist's girl, ten year old Momoko. The little girl suffers her mother's recent death with stony silence. The child's only friend is a cat named Lala. Gradually, Masayo finds a way to build a grudging bond with her charge, a strange triangle of Momoko, Lala the cat, and Masayo against the world.

Enter papa's new love interest, the fatuously westernized Chinatsu, divorcée of a US officer in the first decades after occupation. Jealous of the cat's hold on the child's affection, Chinatsu drowns Lala in a particularly gruesome scene.

Marika Koike / Deborah Boliver Boehm have a way of stringing the reader along as Koike builds her narrator. Masayo comes off at first as a simple country girl-awestruck art student, but as she patters about one thing or another, a more complicated woman emerges, coldly calculating in some ways, humbly flexible in others. Early in the story, for example, Masayo's breathless account of Goro's critiques of her work goes on and on when she says, "I trusted Goro, and his his words meant everything to me. That would have been true even if I hadn't been in love with him."

After a number of such revelations, it's clear Masayo's got a bit of a twist to her. Which makes her ideal company for the sad, intense little girl. When the darker side of Masayo's temperament leads her to inform the child of the cat in the pond story, the results come both as predicted from an early scene near an abandoned well, and the darker aftermath. You won't be as tough on Chinatsu as you felt earlier.

Not everything works, but The Cat in the Coffin makes a good day or evening's reading, for sure near a glowing fireplace. It's a story within a story but that hardly matters in the dual ironies that turn the story around at the end.

There's the United States theme. Goro lives like the "Americans" in the nearby enclave. Koike highlights the U.S. presence in Tokyo in a side story that doesn't connect with the Lala - Chinatsu nexus. Perhaps some element disappears in translation in those segments dealing with non-Japanese culture, on Goro's Western ways and lifestyle, the "Americans" firing off firecrackers at Christmas and other occasions. Is Momoko's emotional emptiness somehow linked into her father's Western lifestyle, in Chinatsu's glamorous gaijin-ness?

The Cat in the Coffin makes a fun addition to holiday stockings, that less-than-well-known gem. Japanese noir? For sure, why not?

That's the penultimate Tuesday of the penultimate month of the year. The holiday season officially kicks off Thursday. Eat. Drink. Be Merry, I dare you. Thank you for visiting La Bloga on this Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here.


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1 comment:

Viva Liz Vega! said...

Have you read the Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, it's not Japanese noir, but it's japanese and would make a nice pairing with this one. Also a fast read. Highly recommend it. It's a beautiful book. I will now go and find The Cat in the Coffin. Gracias Amigo! or I better say Arigato!