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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ogawa Yoko

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Title: ことり
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 256 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Petits oiseaux - France
Der Herr der kleinen Vögel - Deutschland
  • ことり has not been translated into English yet

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rich, small life-tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

[This review is based on the German translation of ことり by Sabine Mangold, Der Herr der kleinen Vögel.]

       ことり (pronounced: kotori) is an unusual and largely uneventful life-story. It begins with the end, the discovery of the corpse of the protagonist, the 'little-bird man' (ことり translates as: little bird(s)). His actual name is never mentioned, and even this appellation is only one from his later years, given to him when he started taking care of an aviary at the nearby kindergarten some twenty years earlier. His familiarity with the aviary dates back much longer however, his older brother having introduced him to it when they were young boys.
       The brother was seven years older, and at age eleven began speaking in an invented language; the much younger boy who became the 'little-bird man' grew up around him and understood it completely naturally -- but no one else did. The older brother withdraws into this birdlike-language -- tonal, a language that doesn't exist in writing (and that the one academic linguist their mother consults dismisses as mere noise). Their mother dies when the 'little-bird man' is still in his teens, their father nine years later; the brothers are twenty-two and twenty-nine, respectively, when they find themselves on their own. The 'little-bird man' then supports both of them, with his job as an administrator/custodian at a company's historical guest-house, ten minutes away by bicycle.
       The older brother is arguably stunted in some ways, the world he inhabits closer to that of birds than humans, and outsiders presumably consider him disabled, in a way, but the younger brother understands him, and their domestic life, while very basic, is, in its own way, entirely normal. The younger brother comes home to prepare their lunch daily, as they live a life of very simple routine. The older brother does mostly stay at home, rarely venturing out -- other than to visit that aviary -- and he shies away from bigger undertakings; his younger brother accommodates him in whatever ways are needed.
       The one place the 'little-bird man' returns to throughout his life is a local shop-cum-drugstore, Aozora. Already as young children, the brothers would get their lollipops there, a small ritual in their life; the older brother also would glue together the wrappers to sculpt little bird figures out of them, one of which he turned into a brooch by attaching a safety pin, a much-treasured birthday present for their mother.
       Ogawa presents some scenes in great detail, but also makes big leaps: this doesn't remain a story about two brothers and their lives together: they lived this way for twenty-three years -- and then, not much more than a third of the way into the novel, the older brother dies, at age fifty-two, and the younger brother is left all alone.
       It is at this point that he volunteers to take over the care of the aviary his brother loved so much, a task he performs dutifully and lovingly, finding great peace there. He avoids the little kindergarten kids -- or tries to --; for him, it's about the connection to the birds -- and, by extension, his brother, whose memory lives on in them.
       The director of the kindergarten is supportive but not intrusive, giving the 'little-bird man' his space. The 'little-bird man' interacts with others reasonably well -- he has to, at his job, which he is very good at -- but prefers a clear demarcation of roles and expectations. He does not connect well when faced with unpredictable -- so, for example, having noisy, curious little kids underfoot.
       The 'little-bird man' spends a great deal of time in the library, always seeking out books on birds, and he attracts the attention of a young librarian. A connection and bond forms, and eventually he even brings her to see the aviary -- yet she disappears from his life as suddenly as if she, too, had died.
       Already many years later, he makes the acquaintance of a man who also sits in the park, obsessed with animal-sounds as well -- in his case, the chirps of a cicada in a small soundbox. Yet he too disappears from the 'little-bird man''s life, as suddenly as he appeared in it .....
       One night, coming home from the park, the 'little-bird man' encounters a young girl gazing at the aviary, reminding him in every way of his brother; because it's late he offers to accompany her home, but she wanders off by herself. When he reads in the newspaper about a young girl who was apparently snatched and possibly abused before being found again, he wonders if it is that same girl -- and finds that he is suddenly a suspect, at least to the locals. Here finally, Ogawa reveals why the novel's title is written in hiragana -- phonetically -- rather than the usual kanji, ことり rather than more evocative 小鳥: as the pharmacist at Aozora explains, the calls of kotori, kotori refer also to the word's homonym -- written: 子捕り, and meaning 'child-snatcher' (usually as a game, but still ...).
       The shadow of suspicion upsets the 'little-bird man''s life: the new kindergarten director puts a lock on the gate and explains that the care of the aviary will be taken care of in-house from then on; he is literally shut out from what had given him the greatest fulfillment. Even when the man who actually snatched the child is arrested, a cloud of suspicion remains hanging over him. Change comes more rapidly now: the aviary quickly falls into neglect, the guest house where he works changes its mission and function, and he retires from those duties as well; even Aozora -- the one place he always returns to -- is far from what it used to be. The end, of course, was revealed at the start, and it's only a question of the final details.
       ことり is an odd life-tale, of a man with a deep, close connection to his brother -- and then with birdlife, in which his brother lives on for him -- who otherwise makes only fleeting connections of any depth. The novel is actually terribly sentimental, yet Ogawa's clear and unemotional presentation keeps it from being mawkish -- so also, for example, in her presentation of death and change as part of the whole; not entirely unremarkable, but part of a continuum, as in the brother's memory living on in 'little-bird man' hardly less meaningfully than when he was alive.
       The 'little-bird man' is part of a community, with connections to various individuals and groups, yet always also remains apart; Ogawa's picture of society is closer to that of the birds than the more intimately and intricately connected human life as we usually find it portrayed in fiction.
       In summary, much of ことり can seem abrupt and almost random, but Ogawa spins her seemingly modest story very well, making for a lovely read and an ultimately very moving story, fairly still (if not silent -- the sound of birds is everywhere) waters running very deep.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 November 2017

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ことり: 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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© 2017-2023 the complete review

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