Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa is the literary equivalent of an Escher drawing. Beautifully executed in sharp detail and largely free of ornamentation, Ogawa’s stories are both mesmerizing and confounding. They take sudden, ghastly turns. Time loses direction as the past leaks into the present, one narrative into another. Finishing a story, the reader is compelled to return to an earlier one to glimpse where a character has already appeared and how the whole structure fits together. It doesn’t. Or it does, but only in a glancing way. Yet the overall effect is more entrancing than frustrating, perhaps because the vivid, often sunlit reality that Ogawa invents is so eerily inviting.
“It was a beautiful Sunday,” the first tale begins, “…Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement…. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man in a corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, entranced…. Somewhere a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry.”
In a bakery, two women, waiting to be served, discuss strawberry shortcake.
“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”
“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”
“Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”
The blow is swift and the details dreadful — a vacant lot, an abandoned refrigerator — but the tone remains level as Ogawa, in a few pages, portrays a mother deranged by grief. But why is the girl in the bakery kitchen crying? We find out when we meet her, as a schoolgirl, in the second story. And the old lady, barely mentioned, who discovers the dead child? The final tale, Dickensian in its pathos, is hers. Nine stories lie between the two that form the collection’s tragic circle; a couple of them poignant vignettes, all of them oddly still and muted, even when filled with action.
In “Old Mrs. J,” for example, a novelist observes the bizarre activities of her elderly landlady, who stashes her harvest of kiwis by night and grows disturbing hand-shaped carrots. A murder will come to light, yet mundane details hold the greatest force. “A single curtain hung in her window,” the tenant notices, “the other was missing…. Whenever I looked up from my desk, I would see that orphaned curtain.” With similar acuity, the leatherworker in “Sewing for the Heart” observes of his creations, “A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object…. To me, a bag is patience…” When he is asked to fashion one to enclose a living heart, that organ reminds him of “a small slumbering animal.”
Melancholy tenderness suffuses even the most macabre tale. There is the doctor, murdered by his mistress, whose severed tongue falls out of his discarded lab coat. The sinister curator of a museum of torture instruments and the love-scarred beautician he inspires. The Bengal tiger dying in the museum garden. “Even lying prostrate, it seemed to be coiled and ready to attack; the paws looked heavy…. Every bit of the tiger seemed to have a purpose, to be ideally suited to the hunt.” Ogawa’s characters, however ferocious, are fragile. Artfully placed by their creator within the web of this collection, they seem powerless but never diminished.