Japanese female writers are definitely having a moment right now. The recent popularity of books by Yoko Tawada, Mieko Kawakami and Kyoko Nakajima is testament to that. What unites these novelists — who have fairly distinctive styles — is their female characters who either exist as an anomaly in their environment, or are struggling to make sense of the absurdity of the world in which they exist.

Sayaka Murata burst on to the mainstream literary scene after her novel Konbini Ningen was translated into English as Convenience Store Woman and became a multimillion-copy bestseller. It is the story of a young woman perceived as an oddball since she refuses to adhere to the norms of Japanese society. But with her second translated work, Earthlings (from the original Japanese Chikyu Seijin), Murata carved out a niche for herself. Earthlings is a mesmeric, deranged novel that handles tough topics such as murder, paedophilia and cannibalism with the sort of dry humour only Murata is capable of.

In his remarkable book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes that “in many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring’, the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

Murata’s latest book, Life Ceremony: Stories, definitely keeps the ball rolling, and how. Translated from the Japanese Sheimeishiki, this collection of 12 short stories is her most subversive work yet, in which she sets out to disturb the status quo, question societal taboos and dismantle our perception of normal.

Celebrated Japanese author Sayaka Murata’s collection of short stories takes on outlandish concepts, but makes them believable and humorous in the way she writes them

In the eponymously titled tale, funerals are replaced by a ritual called “life ceremony” where the deceased’s loved ones feast upon the dead body, usually in the form of miso hotpots. This is followed by a hunt for an insemination partner, based on the idea of “birthing life from death.”

In one scene, the protagonist has to cook human flesh for the first time for his friend’s life ceremony and the narrative goes into gory detail about how the meat is prepared. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have been a revolting read, but Murata handles it with a levity that, rather than turning them away, keeps readers’ curiosity intact.

In the world of ‘A First-Rate Material’, it is the norm to repurpose human parts post-death for fashion items and furniture. These two longer stories are the strongest in the collection since they depict a world where taboos are now part of quotidian life and the protagonist learns to accept them.

The shorter stories, however, usually consist of an eccentric idea which is not mined to maximum effect and it almost seems like the product of an incomplete idea that the writer had, but forgot to come back to. In these more compact stories, the writing does not do full justice to the characters’ narrative arcs.

One such story is ‘A Magnificent Spread’, where a family clashes on their specific eating habits. This story had a lot of potential, but suffers from a lack of character development. Nevertheless, it offers insight into our relationship with food and how trust is key when it comes to our decisions about what to put in our mouths. As one character observes, “eating meant being brainwashed by the particular world of the food, and I just couldn’t bring myself to ingest food from my sister’s unstable, fictitious world.”

Murata’s brilliance lies in the fact that she takes outlandish concepts that defy all the norms of our world, but writes them in a way that makes her stories believable, not gratuitous, to read. In fact, she grounds them in ironic humour that makes the situations in which the characters find themselves more relatable.

One of the most relatable pieces in the collection is ‘Hatchling’, with which many readers might resonate. It is about Haruka, who has different personas that she puts on to match her social setting — “I just wore whatever was dictated by the character my surroundings had created for me.” When she is about to get married, though, the collision of her various selves threatens to ruin her wedding day.

Haruka starts school as “Prez”, a diligent straight-A student, then becomes the vapid airhead “Princess”, transitioning to “Haruo”, a brash tomboy. She is aware of her chameleon-like transformation, but seems to have no control over it. With time, she realises that this stems out of her desire to blend or be liked, but she sees it as a rational response to her environment. Eventually, her uneasiness grows as she starts to wonder if a vacuum lies behind her various masks.

‘The Time of the Large Star’ is an enchanting tale of a town where the concept of night does not exist, so people do not sleep. In the morning, when the “Large Star” comes out, people go home and, as soon as the sun goes down, the town comes alive. A little girl in the town and her friend are greatly intrigued by sleep and discuss ways of inducing it, just to experience the lack of consciousness.

Life Ceremony deftly walks the fine line between realism and absurdity. It is quirky enough, but not macabre to the point of revulsion. Think Hollywood filmmaker Tim Burton at his best. The implicit conceit of this collection is the ambiguity of what constitutes normal; as one character in the titular story points out, “normal is a type of madness … the only madness society allows is called normal.”

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2022

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