Monday, July 24, 2023

Book Review: Dragon Palace by Hiromi Kawakami

As I watched him lie there, that familiar desolation hit me again—the feeling that I was a lonely blade of hoarfrost poised to break through the surface.

To all my friends who think Haruki Murakami is weird, wait till you read Hiromi Kawakami (Not to be confused with Mieko Kawakami). I read this upcoming collection of eight bizarre and offbeat short stories from the Japanese writer, titled Dragon Palace. Netgalley and the publisher were gracious enough to send me an advanced eBook copy, which is translated by Ted Goossen, in exchange for honest feedback. I have read an excellent short story of hers in the anthology, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin and Murakami. Thus, even though I can claim that I am no stranger to the works of the writer, I was totally blown away by the stories in this collection.

Dragon Palace has eight stories that compete with each other in a contest of surrealism. All the stories have heavy doses of fantasy with elements of magical realism. I also found the stories to have an ambiguity and texture that is usually found in folktales—not the ironed-out versions that cater to the moralistic needs of modern sensibilities, but the real dark and brooding tales that old grandmothers used to tell during pitch-black nights decades ago.

Though the stories offer enough scope for the reader to interpret them as per their taste, perception, and understanding, I believe there are certain elements common to all or most of these stories that stand out. Every story in this book features transformation as an important motif. The change from one form to another is difficult and often resisted, and this resistance ends up being the backbone of most of them. From the wild to domesticated is the most recurring mode of transformation that I could identify. Men, women, children, and even different animals are tempted or sometimes forced to conform and become different from what they are. Sometimes people transform into different species or different sizes to accommodate the needs of a dominant figure.

In most of the stories, the characters are seemingly in a constant search for satisfaction—through sex, love, or possessions. On some occasions, they receive it, and sometimes they fail. But even after attaining their needs, satisfaction seems to elude them, making them want to explore more in a different place, at a different time, or with a different species. The stories seem to be in constant strife with modern ideas of individuality and free will and, at the same time, with traditional ones like domesticity and conformance.

These stories are magical and unreal in the sense that we interpret them in accordance with our normal existence. But Kawakami juxtaposes the dreariness and desolation of the customary life with her magical backgrounds, thereby creating a unique melancholic narrative that mirrors life and muddles the reflection simultaneously.

Humans are so filled with loathing, yet so lacking in ways to let it out.

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