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• Friday, June 15th, 2018

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1958. She is a 1980 graduate of Biology from Ochanomizu Women’s University in Tokyo, where her degree thesis was on “reproduction in sea urchins”. In 1982, Kawakami worked for four years as a biology teacher at Denenchoolori High School. She stopped working in 1986, became a housewife after her marriage and childbirth and because of her husband’s work involving living in another region of Japan. She divorced in 2009.

In 1994 she won the Pascal Short Story Prize for New Writers for her first book, Kamisama, God.
She became well known in 1996 for her book Hebi Wo Fumu, Record Of A Night, which won the Akutagawa Prize that year.

The Briefcase, Sensei no Kaban, published in Japanese in 2001 and English in 2012, won the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize, one of Japan’s much sought-after literary awards. It was a best-seller, translated into several languages and was adapted for television. Kawakami is known as a haiku poet, a literary critic and a provocative essayist. She is one of the most acclaimed writers in Japan.

The narrator of The Briefcase, Tsukiko, is a solitary thirty-seven-year-old liberated woman who likes to eat and drink sake and beer at her local bar. She is an office worker and lives alone in an apartment in Tokyo. One night she goes to her usual local bar and sits at the counter next to a man who stares at her, a conversation ensues.

She discovers that the man sitting next to her is Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, her former high school teacher, but now a retired widower in his seventies. In her school days, she used to address him as Sensei (teacher) and will continue to call him Sensei throughout the story.

With random ones to follow, this fortuitous meeting will lead to an unusual relationship which develops calmly and unobtrusively into an attachment that grows stronger with time to become deep affection. Tsukiko and Sensei drink and eat in the same place, alone or together. They go shopping on Saturdays, go wild mushroom foraging in the mountains with their local barman and his brother, on a Sunday. They even spend a weekend in each other’s company in a spa. They nevertheless respect their mutual privacy and freedom.

Whenever and whatever place he goes to, morning or evening, Sensei always carries his inseparable briefcase. Hence the title of the novel and the last chapter heading.

The Briefcase evokes several themes: loneliness, subtle romance and tasty seasonal food. It also underlines the beauty of nature in every season. Like the picnics in the spring to admire the spectacular show of cherry blossom (Sakura), the weekend excursion to an island in a small guest house with a scenic view over the sea in the summer. The mushroom picking in the woods including the spectacular starry nights in the autumn. Moreover, the enjoyment of a warm sake in the harshly cold winter. The array of dishes described represent a gourmet reference to Japanese seasonal, tasty food, loved and appreciated by the two protagonists.

The Briefcase is a bitter-sweet story written with a good deal of sensitivity and interspersed with some Japanese haïku (unrhymed Japanese poems). The novel is charming as well as compelling in its simplicity, its straightforwardness with no chain of events nor suspense, like a Japanese print whose beauty relies on its purified, minimal art style. The author focuses on the relationship between the two solitary, unsuited people, Tsukiko and Sensei. They are different from each other in every aspect but succeed gradually to discover one another. Their feelings evolve slowly at the same rhythm as the changing seasons to become a selfless love-relationship that surpasses the age gap and conventional traditions.

At the end of the novel, we unexpectedly discover that the whole story has been a flashback, a sweet melancholic reminiscence by Tsukiko about her short time with Sensei before he died. His desolate absence, leaving her disconsolate with his empty briefcase – which used to be an essential part of him – lying next to her dressing table. It is a moving ending to a refined, poetic novel.


Category: Book Reviews
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