The Word Book
Author: Mieko Kanai
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Kodansha Ltd.
Translations: French, English
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Country Languages Publisher Title ISBN Translator Affiliate Link
France French Le chambre japonaise Le Livre des mots 978-2919567003 Isabelle Sakai
United States English Dalkey Archive The Word Book 978-1564785664 Paul McCarthy


This is a collection of 12 short stories. Like fine wines, each with its own idiosyncrasy, or like a set of twisted pearls, each story displays an entirely different appeal when viewed from a different angle, and reading them through is no simple task.

The curiously titled Choriba shibai (Kitchen Play) can be read as the tale of a boy getting on a train with instructions from his mother to deliver a letter to a certain house. She puts a black leather box in his inner pocket and fastens the pocket flap firmly closed with a big, shiny, silver safety pin. (What the box contains is unspecified.) Besides the box, the boy is given a letter, an apple, chocolate, sandwiches, and motion sickness pills.

Inside the train, a woman wearing a gray tweed traveling outfit seats herself in front of him. She opens up a film magazine with a cover photo of a smiling Maureen O'Hara in long green gloves with a matching velvet evening bag, and begins to read. The boy, his head reeling from her musky smell, falls asleep. When he wakes, the safety pin is unfastened, the box gone.

When the boy (the narrator, "I") gets off the train, a thought suddenly comes to him: "I'm grown up now." Thinking that his mother may actually be dead, he nevertheless keeps his promise to her and buys a one-liter bottle of milk on the way home. It is perhaps not the "I" of the present who feels compelled to do so, but the little boy of the past whose black leather case was stolen.

At some point the protagonist boards the train again, encounters the woman in tweed, and has physical relations with her. Ultimately the new protagonist, or perhaps the original little boy, remembers "definitely going" on the train long ago with his father and little sister, carrying their mother's ashes to a grave in a town by the sea.

In this story, the pronoun "I" shifts meaning without continuity or consistency. Even the gender of the person referred to is never certain, but switches back and forth. Time progression is not straightforward, either. Drawn in by the author's unique sensibility, the reader is confronted by the uncertainty of existence.