Illusion: The Mystery of Normal Life

Japanese women writers are sure to have a moment right now. The recent popularity of the books by Yoko Tawada, Miku Kawakami, and Kyoko Nakajima is proof of this. What unites these novelists—who possess somewhat distinct styles—is their female characters who either exist as anomalies in their environment, or struggle to make sense of the absurdity of the world in which they live.

Sayaka Murata burst onto the literary mainstream after her novel Konbini Ninjin was translated into English as Convenience Store Woman and became a bestseller with millions of copies. It is the story of a young woman who is seen as eccentric because she refuses to abide by the rules of Japanese society. But with her second translator work, Earthlings (from the original Japanese Chikyu Seijin), Morata carved a niche of her own. Earthlings is a charming, confusing novel that deals with difficult topics like murder, child abuse, and cannibalism with the kind of dry humor that Morata can’t do.

In his wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of a Character, Stephen King writes that “in many cases when a reader puts aside a story because it ‘gets boring’, boredom arose because the writer became so infatuated with his abilities to describe and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” .

Morata’s newest book, Ceremonial Life: Stories, definitely keeps the ball rolling, and how. Translated from Japanese author Sheimeishiki, this collection of 12 short stories is her most subversive work yet, as it shakes the status quo, question societal taboos, and dismantles our natural perception.

Sayaka Murata’s collection of short stories takes on weird concepts, but makes them believable and humorous the way she writes them.

In the eponymous tale, funerals are replaced by rituals called “ceremonies of life” in which loved ones of the deceased feed on the corpse, usually in the form of hot miso stoves. This is followed by the search for a partner in insemination, based on the idea of ​​”the birth of life from death”.

In one scene, the protagonist has to cook human meat for the first time for the party of his friend’s life, and the narration goes into gory details about how the meat is prepared. In the hands of a less strident writer, this would have been a disgusting read, but Morata handles it with caution, rather than driving them away from it, keeping readers’ curiosity intact.

In the world of “first class material”, it is a norm to reuse human parts after death for fashion items and furniture. These two longer stories are the strongest of the bunch as they depict a world where taboos are now part of everyday life and the protagonist learns to accept them.

However, short stories usually consist of a whimsical idea that is not mined with maximum effect and appears to be the product of an incomplete idea the writer has, but has forgotten to return to. In these tighter stories, the writing doesn’t do the full justice to the characters’ narrative arcs.

One such story is A Magnificent Spread, in which a family collides about their specific eating habits. This story had a lot of potential, but it suffers from a lack of character development. However, it does offer insight into our relationship with food and how trust is key when it comes to our decisions about what we put in our mouths. As one character notes, “Eating meant brainwashing from the particular food world, and I couldn’t bring myself to eat food from my sister’s precarious illusory world.”

Morata’s brilliance lies in the fact that she takes outlandish concepts that defy all the standards of our world, but writes them in such a way that her stories are believable, not free, to read. In fact, she grounds them in a sarcastic sense of humor that makes situations in which characters find themselves more relatable.

One of the most relatable pieces in the collection is “Hatchling,” which may resonate with many readers. It’s about Haruka, who has different personalities that she puts on to match her social surroundings – “I just wore whatever dictated the personality my surroundings created for me.” When she’s about to get married, the collision between her different selves threatens to spoil her wedding day.

Haruka starts school as “Prez”, a hardworking straight student, then becomes a graceful Air Chief “Princess”, and moves on to “Haruo”, a boisterous tomboy. She’s aware of her chameleon-like transformation, but apparently has no control over it. Over time, she realizes that this stems from her desire to blend in or be loved, but sees this as a rational response to her environment. In the end, her unease grows when she begins to wonder if there is a void behind her various masks.

“The Time of the Large Star” is a charming story of a city in which there is no concept of night, so people do not sleep. In the morning, when the “big star” comes out, people go home, and as soon as the sun goes down, the city comes back to life. A young town girl and her friend are deeply fascinated by sleep and discuss ways to induce it, only to experience unconsciousness.

Ceremonial life walks brilliantly on the fine line between realism and absurdity. It’s weird enough, but not horrible enough to disgust. I think Hollywood filmmaker Tim Burton is at his best. The implicit perception of this group is the ambiguity of what constitutes normal; As one of the characters in the honorary tale points out, “Normal is a kind of madness… the only madness allowed by society is called normal.”

References Karachi-based book critic, writing for several international publications

Posted in Dawn, Books & Author, November 13, 2022

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: