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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ogawa Yoko

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Title: 沈黙博物館
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 376 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Le musée du silence - France
Das Museum der Stille - Deutschland
  • 沈黙博物館 has not yet been translated into English.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : feels rather simple, but quite effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 18/4/2006 Leopold Federmair

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vieles ist seltsam in diesem Roman, der betont unscheinbar beginnt und bis zuletzt darum bemüht bleibt, nicht allzu sehr von den Gesetzen realer Erfahrungswelten abzuweichen. (...) Über weite Strecken kann das geheime Vergnügen bei diesem leicht zu lesenden und spannenden Roman in der Suche nach einer Antwort auf die Frage bestehen, wo dieses Dorf denn nun eigentlich liegt. Am ehesten, so die Vermutung, in einer nordamerikanischen Gegend wie Vermont oder Massachusetts. Aber eigentlich ist die Frage müssig, Yoko Ogawa will uns bewusst im Unklaren lassen." - Leopold Federmair, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

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:

       Ogawa Yoko's 沈黙博物館 ('The museum of silence') is narrated by a young museum-expert who travels to a remote town for a job. He has an audience with the ancient woman -- she looks to be a hundred -- who is considering hiring him, but doesn't think it goes well and already has things packed to leave the next day. The old woman's very young adopted daughter assures him, however, that that's just the way the old lady is and that, in fact, the job is his.
       What exactly is expected from him isn't entirely clear to him immediately, either: the old woman wants to build her own museum on her property -- but not of the junk her well-to-do family has accumulated over generations, but of the specimens she's been collecting for decades now. Yes, the old woman has a pretty creepy hobby: whenever someone in town dies she takes a keepsake -- but not just any old thing: it has to be defining for the person, something that truly reflects who they were. Part of the challenge or fun is collecting the specimens: she basically steals them, since these are things that family members often may well not want to give away; they are often of a very intimate nature and don't necessarily show the person in the best or most respectful light. She's been doing this since she was eleven years old, and has accumulated quite a haul; now she wants to put them on display in her own 'museum of silence'.
       There's a large stable on the property that can be converted into a museum-building, and the narrator is the expert in the field that is supposed to help organize everything properly. While he has his doubts that this is the sort of museum that would ever attract any crowds (or, possibly, anyone), the museum-professional in him still is drawn to the project, which poses its own interesting challenges. He gets to to work, cataloging the artifacts with the help of the old woman and her daughter -- to every piece there is a story, which she recounts -- and eventually he is also the one who collects new specimens as people pass away in town.
       Ogawa does a good job in establishing an unsettling feel in the narrative. The naive narrator goes about his business straightforwardly, despite the off-key things all around him, barely aware of or acknowledging the sinister atmosphere enveloping him. None of the characters are named, so even as we get to know them fairly well they remain partially veiled; not coincidentally the old woman is generally wrapped up in layers and layers of clothes, and for a while the girl's face is hidden, too. There is a considerable sense of isolation: aside from the old woman and the adopted daughter there is only a gardener and his wife on the property; when other workers come to help they barely figure. The narrator also has little contact with the villagers, and while he keeps sending letters to his brother -- who is expecting his first child when the narrator begins his job -- he oddly never hears back from him .....
       Among the few other characters the narrator deals with is a novice at a local monastery where all the monks give up speaking; as a novice he is still allowed to speak, but over the course of the story he too withdraws into silence. The girl and the novice have a relationship of sorts, but it is doomed to reach a state where communication also becomes limited and then practically impossible.
       Meanwhile, the town is not quite as placid as one might have expected. A bomb explodes, killing one of the monks and injuring many other people; later, there is a murder -- the first in town since a prostitute was killed decades earlier -- and then another, and another, in each case the female victim's nipples cut off, just as the prostitute's had been so long ago (and those, the narrator can't help but think, exactly the intimate sort of souvenir that the old lady would want for her museum). Soon enough the narrator finds himself a suspect in the murder spree, too.
       The narrator came to town with barely any luggage; among the few personal items he brought are a microscope and a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank which had belonged to his long-dead mother. He reads from the book practically every night. He turns to the microscope repeatedly, too, seeing what is not discernible with the naked eye; too bad he doesn't look more carefully around, at the bigger picture: for all his focus on the trees he definitely misses the ominous forest he is losing himself in (and, yes, there is an actual forest in this story, too).
       The narrator hopes to visit his brother at one point, to take a short vacation before the next stage of the museum project gets underway, but it doesn't work out: someone in town dies, and he's needed to collect the artifact for the museum. By the time it dawns on him that he's in far deeper -- in the abyss -- than he could have imagined it is, of course, too late for him to do anything about it.
       The naive narrator and his straightforward, even simple narrative are effectively juxtaposed with the creepy goings-on, and Ogawa uses both the museum and the monastery and the ideas behind them very effectively. Enjoyably unsettling, 沈黙博物館 is a surprisingly layered and nuanced work with considerably more to it than the surface might at first suggest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 September 2010

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沈黙博物館: 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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© 2010-2024 the complete review

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