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Ogawa's Cafeteria in the Evening

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , ,

Benjamin Chambers writes:

Following Martin’s example, when he used the random number generator to select Profiles to read from The New Yorker’s vast archives (his first was a three-part series on Chicago by A. J. Liebling from 1952), I decided to use it to find a short story to read from the archives.

The random number generator came up with “2004” (year “79” out of 84) and then the “36th” story out of 54 published that year: Yoko Ogawa’s story, “The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain.”

I’d not heard of Ogawa before. She’s had two stories appear in TNY (both translated by Stephen Snyder), the most recent in 2005. I’m always curious about what tides of opinion and chance conspire to make a writer a frequent contributor to the magazine or a short-lived one, and of course it’s usually impossible to know. However, according to Ogawa’s Wikipedia entry, very little of her work has appeared English, although she’s written quite a lot. (Obviously, Snyder was trying to rectify that, so it’s not clear if the problem was really one of supply.)

In any case, the story’s narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who is about to marry an older man (“the difference in our ages was excessive”). They have selected a house together, partly to accommodate their dog, Juju. The woman is living in the house alone for the three weeks prior to their wedding, getting it ready, when a man and his 3-1/2-year-old son visit one afternoon.

The man’s behavior is odd and she takes him at first for a missionary before realizing her mistake. “Are you suffering some anguish?” he asks “abruptly.” Rather than turn him out on his ear, she considers the question seriously. He leaves after she finally observes that she doesn’t feel like answering:

Do I absolutely have to answer? I’m not sure I see any link between you and me and your question. I’m here, you’re there, and the question is floating between us—and I don’t see any reason to change anything about that situation. It’s like the rain falling without a thought for the dog’s feelings.”

The guy repeats her simile thoughtfully and then says, “I think you could say that’s a perfect response, and I don’t need to bother you anymore. We’ll be going now. Goodbye.”

She runs into the pair again while out walking her dog. The man’s staring in the window at the behind-the-scenes operation of the highly-mechanized school cafeteria, which prepares lunches daily for over 1,000 children. Once again, they have a slightly bizarre conversation.

She finds herself drawn to him, hypnotized a little by the stories he tells, and she begins to look for him when she’s out walking. It’s never clear what he does for a living though he speaks as though he has territory to cover, and at the end, that he and his son are “moving on” to another town the next day. (Because of this, he finally appears to be a bit unreal, a kind of good angel/therapist designed by the author to confront the character with riddles that will help her resolve her own internal—unstated and possibly unacknowledged—doubts.) The lack of detail about the narrator and the ordinariness of those that are supplied contrast strongly with the precise detail of the man’s own stories, making the piece reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s work, and similarly intriguing.

The things the man says are dense and obscure as parables, and they nearly defeated me. (As the British novelist Nicholas Mosley says in his autobiography, Efforts at Truth, “The power of parables is that even then you still have to figure out everything for yourself.”) I ended up hanging the meaning of the story on its final paragraph:

[The man and his son] walked off in the fading light. Juju and I stood watching them until they became a tiny point in the distance and then vanished. I suddenly wanted to read my ‘Good night’ telegram [from my fiancé] one more time. I could feel the exact texture of the paper, see the letters, feel the air of the night it had arrived. I wanted to read it over and over, until the words melted away. Tightening my grip on the chain, I began to run in the opposite direction.

In other words, the “anguish” she’s been feeling is apprehension over her impending marriage. The man represents, in part, a different life, different choices. In the end, she runs toward marriage and away from the disconnected anomie represented by the man and his son. His mysterious “work” is done because he knows (how?) that she’s resolved her doubts.

Overall rating: worth a look, especially since Ogawa’s not a household name.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree