Bonus Post: 2 International Novels

Spring Garden     Tomoka Shibasaki    (2014)

Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton     (2017)


In bustling present-day Tokyo, Taro is a loner. He’s in his thirties, divorced, and living in an apartment building that will be torn down as soon as the leases of the last few tenants expire. Taro’s entire neighborhood is undergoing change, with other buildings slated for demolition and with constant construction work at the commuter train stations. As people in his building move out, the only remaining inhabitants besides Taro are a comic-book artist named Nishi and a retired woman whom Taro calls “Mrs. Snake,” after the zodiacal designation on her apartment door. Despite Taro’s resistance to social interaction, the three neighbors get to know each other, exchanging small gifts in the Japanese custom. Nishi reveals to Taro her obsession with a large sky-blue house nearby, and she gives him a copy of a photography book, called Spring Garden, that was published many years previously about the house. Very gradually, Taro also becomes interested in the house and its current residents. That’s the basic story, and every element of the plot’s unfolding is delicately and purposefully executed. 

The lovely house serves the purpose of getting Taro out of his isolation to some degree. Writer Tomoka Shibasaki is finding a way to tell us about Taro’s deep unhappiness. His beloved father has died, his marriage has collapsed, and even his physical surroundings are disintegrating. He’s so sad that he doesn’t realize that he’s sad. Even if you live in one of the world’s most exciting cities, even if you have a decent professional job and friendly colleagues and neighbors, you can feel alienated and depressed.

This wisp of a book—a novella really—won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan. It’s been artfully translated by Polly Barton, retaining the spare feel of a Japanese garden but rendering the dialogue in idiomatic English. You can read it in a couple of hours, but it will stay with you for a long time.

Three Floors Up     Eshkol Nevo     (2015)

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston     (2017)


From the suburbs of Toyko in the book reviewed above, we go to the suburbs of Tel Aviv for Three Floors Up, a trio of linked novellas about the residents of another apartment building. This is an upper-middle class neighborhood, mockingly called “Bourgeoisville” by some.

Arnon, on the first floor, is a businessman who is obsessed with the possibility that an elderly neighbor who often babysits for the family has sexually assaulted his young daughter. This obsession gets tangled up with Arnon’s relationship with his wife and his sexual attraction to the neighbor’s teenaged granddaughter.

Hani, on the second floor, worked as a graphic designer until her two children were born. Now she’s a stay-at-home mother who is stifled by the role, especially because her husband travels internationally for his work and is frequently away. The defining event for Hani is the appearance of her husband’s brother at her door, on the run from creditors and the police.

Devora, on the third floor, has recently been widowed and is estranged from her son. A retired judge, she’s casting about to find meaning for the remaining years of her life, so she marches in a political demonstration and meets characters who lead her in directions that she never anticipated. Devora has been reading Freud, and (speaking, of course, for the author) she gives us a Freudian interpretation of Three Floors Up:  “The first floor, which he [Freud] called the id, contains all our impulses and urges. The middle floor is the ego, which tries to mediate between our desires and reality. And the uppermost level, the third floor, is the domain of His Majesty, the superego, which calls us to order sternly and demands that we take into account the effects of our actions on society.” (211)

Each story in Three Floors Up is told in first person, with the person speaking to someone else—Arnon to an old Army buddy at a restaurant, Hani to a childhood friend in a long letter, and Devora to her late husband through an old answering machine. I found this approach somewhat contrived until I read the explanation, which is contained in Devora’s further analysis of Freud:  “I thought that he made one mistake. The three floors of the psyche do not exist inside us at all! Absolutely not! They exist in the air between us and someone else, in the space between our mouths and the ears we are telling our story to. And if there is no one there to listen—there is no story. . . . alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on, and he is doomed to grope in the dark for the light switch.” (281)

I recommend that you read each segment of Three Floors Up in one sitting; ideally, read the entire book in one sitting so that you catch all the tiny links. Novelist Eshkol Nevo deftly probes the profound and yet tenuous connections between family members, neighbors, friends, and total strangers. At the end of the book, you may question how honest the three speakers were in telling their stories, you may think about what their next steps will be, and you may wonder how you would handle their predicaments.