Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai

It is always interesting to see what sorts of books capture the imagination of people in other countries. Best sellers and prize winners aren't always translated into English so those of us who do not read in another language don't have access to them or the insights they might give about the culture out of which they sprang. So it's always cause for curiosity when something relatively celebrated is finally translated. Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama! is one such book. Written in 1986-7 as short pieces for magazines and then published as a complete novel, this is the second of the Mejiro novels (named for the neighborhood in which the books are set) and it won the Women's Literature Award in 1998. There is something ineffably foreign about it, a tone or construction, or focus, it is unmistakably Japanese.

Tama the cat is pregnant and her owner, Tsuneko, is also pregnant. As Tsuneko has intentionally disappeared, someone must care for Tama as she waits for her kittens. Alexandre, Tsuneko's mixed race half-brother, a model and sometime porn star, takes the cat to his friend Natsuyuki's home with the intention of leaving her there with the currently unemployed freelance photographer. Complicating matters is the fact that Natsuyuki could potentially be the father of Tsuneko's unborn child. But he's not the only one. In fact, his long-lost older brother, Fuyuhiko, who he only meets as a result of the situation, could also be the baby's father. Sounds complicated and bananas, right? The mystery of where Tsuneko, who has asked the potential father candidates for money, has disappeared to is not even really at issue here in this essentially plotless novel. The bulk of the story is taken up by Natsuyuki's dysfunctional friends and brother moving in and out of his house while Tama observes their philosophical discussions and bewildering behaviour.

The novel has, perhaps, far more of a Japanese sensibility than I understand from my own cultural vantage point. And without the cultural frame of reference that its original audience had, I entirely missed the allusions and parodies. The characters are quirky but aimless and I felt swamped by the slow moving, meandering story. I completely missed the humor that is supposed to be abundant here and am not sure if it is dependent on knowledge of the area in Tokyo where Natsuyuki lives or on an understanding of their generation within Japan or something else entirely. Even situations that are important and life-altering, like the revelation of Fuyuhiko as Natsuyuki's brother, are relayed with flat affect and treated as fairly unremarkable. Even Natsuyuki's mother dismisses the discovery of her oldest son by her youngest as unimportant. Baffling for sure. This has the feel of a stage play with its constant comings and goings and swirling conversations over art and literature, photography and film, fashion and cats. Those who have a deeper appreciation for Japanese literature than I do will likely enjoy reading this brief, almost absurdist novel more than I did.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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