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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ogawa Yôko

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Title: 人質の朗読会
Author: Ogawa Yôko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 256 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Les lectures des otages - France
Lecturas de los rehenes - España
  • 人質の朗読会 has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : unusual framework, but effective both piece by piece and as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Imparcial . 18/12/2016 J. Pazó Espinosa
La Presse . 30/4/2012 Éric Clément

  From the Reviews:
  • "Los ocho rehenes desgranan ocho historias que son ocho voces remotas y atávicas de su pasado. Esas ocho historias sí son Ogawa en estado puro: hechos menores, casi perdidos en una memoria sacada de su contexto, aislada en una cabaña, pero que allí destila verdades del ser, que el mismo ser ignora. De alguna forma, sus historias son un paradigma de lo que es ser japonés: pertenecer a una memoria colectiva en la que uno es una gota de imágenes con un sentido extrañamente coherente." - José Pazó Espinosa, El Imparcial

  • "Elle évoque ce monde beau et fragile qui nous entoure et qu'elle voit hypothéqué par la folie des hommes. Avec son écriture détaillée, simple et qui distille une philosophie ancrée dans la vertu et le sens du geste, Ogawa sème l'émotion dans ces pages. Ce roman -- qui n'est sans doute pas son meilleur -- est toutefois un bel hommage aux traces que chacun laisse derrière soi, un hommage à la vie et au respect de la vie." - Éric Clément, La Presse

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: 人質の朗読会 has not yet been translated into English; this review is based on Martin Vergne's French translation, Les lectures des otages (2012); all quotes are based on that translation, in my translation from the French.]

       人質の朗読会 ('the recitals of the hostages') is another work by Ogawa, like Revenge, that is only very loosely a novel and is composed of a series of essentially distinct stories -- nine of them. The set-up, or framing device, is quite striking -- bizarre even - and naturally colors the reading of the pieces themselves: a short prefatory section explains that a minibus with seven tourists, their guide, and the driver, travelling somewhere on the other side of the globe, was attacked by a group of local anti-government guerillas while on its way to visit some local ruins. The tourists and their guide were taken hostage; negotiations went nowhere, and after more than three months the government launched an attack against the rebels; the hostages were all killed in the rescue attempt. Two years later recordings from their time in captivity were made public, recording of each of the eight hostages recounting a story or memory they had written -- a task they had been able to focus on in their otherwise so difficult situation.
       The rest of the book then consists of these eight recitals by the hostages, one for each evening. Each piece has a title -- 'The Walking Stick', 'Biscuits Yamabiko', etc. -- and then gets straight to the (often meandering) tale; only at the conclusion of each night's recital is the speaker/writer briefly identified, by profession, age, and their reason for taking the trip; one, for example, is a writer, doing research for a book, another on his way back from an ophthalmological colloquium, etc. Finally, a ninth entry is the account of one of the young members of the anti-terrorist brigade who had been charged with listening in on the hostages on the clandestinely smuggled in listening device that also recorded their stories, who finds himself following, at least in this story-telling respect, their example; this closing entry returns again to the unusual circumstances in which the stories were originally recounted, as well reminding of the extreme otherness -- of place, of culture -- in which the hostage-taking took place. (The hostages are all Japanese, and the stories-from-their-lives are all domestic; only the young soldier is a local -- though his story from his childhood involves another group of Japanese foreigners.)
       The stories the hostages tell tend to focus on a specific event or person from years earlier, often a person they only meet once or a few times. The stories tend to be of turning points in their lives -- yet often quite subtle ones, pebbles in the water whose small ripple effects continue on and on. One involves a widowed office-worker, who encounters a young athlete, a javelin thrower, and takes the day off from work to watch him train for a couple of hours, fascinated by the spear, its flight through the air, and the athlete's training-routine but never even exchanging any words with him; she never learns his name or sees him again -- and after this experience her life settles back into her usual routine, the 'monotony of the quotidian'. For others, there is sometimes more of a change to their lives. Common to all, however, is a sort of ordinariness to these events, which nevertheless are, for them, in some way extraordinary (and certainly memorable).
       The events are very personal, and have been harbored and savored as such; unsurprisingly, they don't seem to have shared these stories previously with others. In some cases, the secrecy has been part of the point: one man recounts how he was left at home when he was eight years old, and firmly instructed by his mother not to answer the door -- and then immediately letting in a neighbor who asks to borrow the kitchen, in order to cook a consommé, soup for an old woman who the boy had previously observed mummifying (as he puts it) next door. It's a typical odd situation presented in these stories: the woman has no ulterior motives but spends several hours at the house cooking away; when she is finished, everything is tidied up so there is no trace of what has happened, and when the boy's mother returns she remains none the wiser, the boy not letting on what took place that afternoon, wanting to save that memory for himself.
       Typically, too, the consommé-story involves death, as the narrator adds a brief coda, noting that the old woman whom the boy had already previously imagined to be dead does then pass away soon later. There are deaths in some other of these stories as well: a suicide that one narrator feels guilty about, or the death of the landlady of another of the narrators; one story is even titled 'The Dead Grand Mother' (in which there are, in fact, several -- and in which the narrator notes, that, being childless, she herself will never be a dead grand mother ...) -- but then this is a collection over which death constantly hovers, readers having been told at the outset that none of these hostages survived. And, indeed, a sense of destiny and fatalism pervades their stories, a suggestion even in each of these otherwise off-topic-seeming tales from their pasts that they accept what fate will deal them.
       The most obvious instance of encounters that are transformative comes with a young ophthalmologist who had not wanted to follow in his father's career footsteps but whose few encounters with a man who sold 'bizarre, enigmatic' plush-toys lead him to the realization that 'this was what he had to do'. But his is only the starkest example of a sense of destiny and fate; if elsewhere cause and (life-determining) effect are not necessarily presented as obviously, so each of the stories nevertheless feels like a significant turning point in its narrator's life.
       Ogawa has a charmingly off-beat way of presenting these tales -- beginning with the first, which starts off with the narrator's memories of the steelworks that she grew up living opposite but then shifts to a summer-vacation encounter when she was eleven with a worker in a public park who has fallen and injured his leg; much of the story involves trying to find a cane he can use to walk on and get help -- events that then come back to her, more than a decade later, after she is involved in a car accident. The almost delicate connection, here and in the other stories, give the a neat sense of both mystery and inevitability, without Ogawa ever forcing the issue.
       The final story, by the young soldier charged with monitoring the hostages' situation (while they were still alive ...), is also somewhat roundabout, and eventually leads to his own childhood memory, of his first encounter with a group of Japanese foreigners -- the first time he ever saw foreigners --, entomologists who ask to be allowed to listen to the radio, where they want to hear the Nobel Prize lecture a Japanese scientist is about to give. Typically, 'the radio broadcast wasn't at all interesting' -- but the encounter still makes a strong impression on the young boy. His experiences with the hostages -- including the sound of the Japanese language, which he does not understand -- bring this old memory back to the fore, and reïnforce both a sense of its significance for him, as well these seemingly largely unassuming episodes the hostages recounted.
       人質の朗読会 is, in a way, a story-collection -- the chapters even less connected than those in Revenge -- but they do build to a larger whole -- yet impressively without it ever feeling forced. These are stories about fate, destiny, and the small events that turn out to play such an enormous part in our lives, but Ogawa never hammers any of that home or forces connections; instead, she builds up a delicate sort of net. The stories themselves are varied, in voice and plot, and appealing in and of themselves. The strong -- and impossible to forget, at any point -- premise, and the knowledge that all the story-tellers (except the unexpected final one) are dead helps sustain a sense of unity to the work as a whole from the start -- even as it is also a bit disorienting (with the hostage experience left practically entirely unaddressed in the actual stories themselves).
       A strong and appealing work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 November 2019

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人質の朗読会: Reviews: Other books by Ogawa Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ogawa Yoko (小川 洋子) was born in 1962.

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© 2019-2023 the complete review

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