This is the last review I’ll be posting as part of the Shadow Jury for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. Sorry for the delay—these last few weeks have been a little hectic, and I haven’t had time to write these up.
As Tsukiko is eating dinner one night in a cheap diner, she realises that the man she is sitting next to is her old high school literature teacher. She strikes up a conversation, and the two reminisce about old times. Over the next six months, they meet again and again, forming a relationship that rapidly becomes hard to define.
It’s hard not to compare The Briefcase to Ogawa Yoko’s work , The Housekeeper and the Professor. They even came out at a similar time—Ogawa’s in 2003; Kawakami’s in 2001. Both tell the tale of an unlikely friendship between an older man and a younger woman. Neither have any hint of romance in them, and in many ways, both are actually more about the man than the female narrator.
What I love about The Briefcase, though, is its simplicity, and Kawakami’s almost stubborn refusal to try and spice up the plot with some action or huge conflict. These two people—Sensei and Tsukiko—meet up every now and then, usually not on purpose, and share small parts of their lives. For Tsukiko, this is a chance to leave her otherwise isolated life (she lives alone, and finds her family a little annoying), to take part in conversation with someone. People talk about Murakami Haruki being the great chronicler of isolation in contemporary Japan, but he is not alone in this. It’s a project undertaken by many modern Japanese authors, who often do it—dare I say—much better than Murakami ever could.
There is no coherent through-line to follow. Instead, each chapter is a different encounter—I’d call them dates, but that doesn’t seem quite right, particularly since hints of romance don’t really appear until much, much later in the novel. But with each encounter, some more of the hidden background of each character is revealed.
With Sensei, for example, there is a sense, right from the beginning, that he is a widower—when Tsukiko visits his house for the first time, she remarks on his beautiful garden. When he replies that it was his wife, the implicit subtext is that his wife is dead. I mean, come on—elderly man refusing to talk about his wife? The obvious answer is that she passed away, and that he loved her very much. When we find out several chapters late that she actually left him, it comes as a bit of a surprise. It leads us to re-evaluate our understanding of the character—if she chose to leave him (already surprising in a country whose divorce rate is something like 10%), then why? What is it about him that she couldn’t stand?
The Briefcase is a novel about the smallness of human connection, and the huge importance of that smallness. It is about two people finding love and comfort in the most unlikely of places. It is not large, it is not showy, but it is a deeply humane book.