August 21, 2014

A Train Journey

This hot Sydney summer, I spent some time reading a new author while on the train. Getting to and fro anywhere in Sydney is uncomfortable. I sweltered in trains that were heated in spite of the heat, stations that were humidified in spite of the humidity and worst of glasshouse-like trains that lacked both functioning air conditioning and operable windows. Still, it was a good opportunity to distract myself with a good book.

I picked up Yoko Ogawa as a recommendation on Amazon; I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami and Ogawa shares a similar interest in unusual psychology and the dark side of strange characters.

I first read the gentle, guileless book The Housekeeper and the Professor”, about a man with severe anterograde amnesia and his new, determined housekeeper. I have followed on with her brilliantly disturbing short story collections Revenge” and The Diving Pool”.

Yoko Ogawa and I share something in common; a strange fascination with writing dark, uncomfortable emotions. Obsession, cruelty, regret, guilt, deep depression, delusion. They are the barely acknowledged demons of our id; liminal, universal and quietly hushed up. Strangely, perversely pleasurable and yet painful, almost unbearable. With a deft, subtle move, Ogawa strikes you in the solar plexus with a sucker punch, leaving you winded.

In the titular story of The Diving Pool”, a girl with psychopathic tendencies ends up receiving the one possible punishment that is quiet, entirely appropriate but also, for her, world-shattering. Yet her story is also sad. There is an unthinking cruelty of emotional neglect that has created this abnormal personality. An emptiness created by the bland, ordinary disregard of parents who are otherwise essentially good people. It is difficult not to empathise with her anger, her frustration, her despair and even her sickening cruelty while enjoying, as readers, in our own voyeuristic, malicious way, her undoing.

I have always been drawn to stories like this.

My earliest memory of these uncomfortable feelings is this:

We- my parents, brother and I, on a trip in the US- are on a train in mid-winter at night on our way to Merced where we will apparently change to a train to get us to Yosemite. It is pretty cold outside- around 4°C- and it has been raining on and off. My father and I have just turned 40 and 4 on this trip, my brother is almost 3 and my mother is 34. I’m wearing a long khaki coat that I call my Tin Tin coat” (this coat makes an appearance in my short story Martha’s Coat”).

We’re reading one of my favourite books, The Lively Little Rabbit”. They don’t write children’s books like this anymore. It’s the tale of a family of rabbits that is plagued by an evil grumpy old weasel that is eating them whenever it gets a chance. In they hatch a cunning plan to scare off the weasel, resulting in him not just being scared but falling down a hill and ending up badly maimed, too injured to eat the rabbits anymore.

I remember that uneasy mix of emotion. Elation, relief that the good guys won. A deliciously cruel glee at the twisted end of the villain. And then a strange, sad guilt at feeling that joyful cruelty.

Rereading it now it’s hard to really see why it affected me so intensely at the time. The cunning plan is ridiculous, the weasel and his injuries are of course cartoonish and no real harm is done, except to the lively little rabbit’s great grandmother. The mind of a small child is a strange place.

They just don’t write children’s books like that anymore.

And so there it is, encased in my mind, this still scene, like a fly in amber- me, my parents and my brother, huddling on a train in the cold American winter, far from home, laughing and smiling, reading stories in the dim electric light, while the train plunges into the dead of night.

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