The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Sometimes when I call out, Sensei, I can hear a voice reply from the ceiling above, Tsukiko

Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Briefcase” is a silent and unique meditation on nature of love and loneliness which thrives in tandem. It’s quite simply a story of a rather unusual relationship between an older gentleman and his younger student from the bygone times.

Set in contemporary Tokyo, Tsukiko, a single woman in her forties has a chance meeting with her old Japanese teacher Harutsuna Matsumoto – whom she simply calls ‘Sensei’. Friendship eventually flourishes into love, but their relationship is devoid of passion and silliness – two emotions commonly attributed to the feeling of “being in love”. Instead, their relations are marked by want and need for unadulterated companionship of each other. There is integrity and warmth in their camaraderie despite immense age difference. In the swarm of Tokyo’s rapid lifestyle, these two lonely souls are threaded together, providing solace to each other’s loneliness.

Tsukiko

I had long ago gotten used to that particular kind of uneasiness. It was just dissatisfying in some way. It felt as if I had ordered a bunch of clothes that I had every reason to think would fit perfectly, but when I went to try them on, some were too short, while with others the hem dragged on the floor. Surprised, I would take the clothes off and hold them up against my body, only to find that they were all, in fact, the right length. Or something like that

The character of Tsukiko is portrayed as a recluse who is adept at steering clear of affectionate advances of others. She lives an empty life, bereft of meaningful relationships and has even deliberately distanced herself from her family who happens to live in the same neighbourhood as her.

But had I really enjoyed living life on my own until now? Joyful. Painful. Pleasant. Sweet. Bitter. Sour. Ticklish. Itchy. Cold. Hot. Lukewarm. Just what kind of life had I lived? I wondered.

Tsukiko is an astute observer, which allows her to intersperse profound personal thoughts with deep examination of her surroundings. Emotional isolation begets reflection as shown through Tsukiko’s account of her relationship with Sensei which she often compares with the brevity of previous relations. Having started off as drinking buddies their association gradually blossoms into reciprocal yet complicated adoration and love.

That was quite a discovery for me, the fact that arbitrary kindness makes me uncomfortable, but that being treated fairly feels good

Sensei

I feel pity for these batteries that worked so hard for my benefit, and I can’t throw them away. It seems a shame to get rid of them the moment they die, after these batteries have illuminated my lights, signaled my sounds…

A lonely widower and a retired teacher, Sensei’s oddities are reflective of Tsukiko’s unspoken requisites for companionship. He is sagacious and compassionate, a quality highly valued by Tsukiko who had moved from one relationship to another in pursuit of being fairly treated as a mere human.

With Sensei, his benevolent nature seemed to originate from his sense of fair-mindedness. It wasn’t about being kind to me; rather, it was born from a teacherly attitude of being willing to listen to my opinion without prejudice. I found this considerably more wonderful than just being nice to me

Having lived a solitary life for so long, he is empathetic towards Tsukiko’s need for space. Yet the beginning of their platonic relationship is jarring at times owing to considerable attachment with his past. Having lost a wife and son he dearly loved, venturing into a romantic bond seems like an apprehensive task to undertake, especially at his age. Initially, Sensei distances himself from Tsukiko intentionally but eventually resorts to inherent desire for love and affection.

A person can learn all manner of things, no matter where he finds himself, provided his spirit is determined

Owing to his mature demeanour, his paternal instincts are apparent in regards to Tsukiko. He is protective of her. There is also a magical allure to his unexpected appearances whenever Tsukiko calls out his name. Their meetings are often fortuitous, running into one another on the street whilst going about their own personal business – but every chance encounter leads to drinking and dining together.

Even a chance meeting is the result of a karmic connection.

On Friendship and Love

My head hurt a little. There was no sign of anyone else in my room. I tried to revive that indefinite sense of Sensei without much success.

Given enough time, platonic veracity transforms into tacit love and fondness for the all too functional and perfunctory Tsukiko and her Sensei. Much like their extraordinary friendship, replete with bouts of anger and self-imposed distances, their love too endures hardships of unrequited love and calculated impositions of aloofness from one another.

“It grows because you plant it.” This was a phrase often repeated by my great-aunt when she was alive

To soften the blow of a lonesome existence, Tsukiko is in pursuit of a sense of protection which emanates from those who are carefree, selfless and willing to lend an ear to her silence. Her trivial involvement with a prospective like-minded lover Kojima ends due to his excessive advances to win her heart blatantly.

With the distinct feeling of the tatami weave on my cheek, I thought about the vague sense of discomfort I experienced when I was with Kojima—it was faint yet inconsolable

Tsukiko had lived the entirety of her young life alone and did not seek validation for her existence. This is why her feelings for Sensei persevere through hard times. His acquaintance did not require her to leap into another skin or assume a role she found disagreeable, which is why their compatibility as both friends and lovers is rife with ease and general contentment.

And even when I was with Sensei now, I didn’t feel any different than when I did these things on my own. It seemed, then, that it didn’t really matter whether or not I was with Sensei, but the truth was, doing these things with him made me feel proper

On Loneliness

I suppose it wasn’t loneliness that I felt. Physical pain inspires the worst kind of helplessness

The feeling of loneliness is a tangible reality. Irrespective of our daily engagements and confidence in relationships, this feeling will always sneak into our moments of vulnerability. Both our characters are susceptible to the nature of loneliness, whether it is self-imposed (as shown through Tsukiko) or a consequence of a bygone tragedy (exemplified through Sensei’s past).

Loneliness is symbolised through many seemingly trivial instances in the story. Both characters are shown to have an extremely limited social circle.

Sensei nodded again seriously. “That makes sense. I think it would be good for me to see one or two people.” “Two might be difficult.” “Two would be the limit, I suppose.”

Since both characters are comfortable in their own space, they always pay for their own share of food and wine.

We had established a practice of never encroaching on each other’s food or drink. We ordered on our own. We poured for ourselves. And we paid separately.

It’s important to share here that more often than not, their food and drink orders would be similar. So would be their proclivity to take walks or enjoy voiceless conversations. This goes on to elucidate the point I made earlier of love not requiring grandiose commitments but rather being accepting of each other with silent understandings. In much the same way, loneliness need not be confronted by ostentatious display of companionship amidst idle chatter or a pressing need to indulge in each others’ interests to satisfy social norms.

On Detachment

It was far too soon for me to have Sensei so capriciously endanger the comfortable distance that existed between us

Sense of loneliness which prevails throughout the novel is sometimes overshadowed by the portrayal of intense detachment despite enjoying close relationships.

It wasn’t as though I had returned to my high school days, but neither did it feel like I was actually in the present—all I could say was that I had caught a fleeting moment at the counter of Bar Maeda. It seemed like we had ended up within a time that didn’t exist anywhere

Inextricably linked to loneliness but dissimilar to its notions, detachment has roots in fear and guilt. Whenever Tsukiko felt susceptible to the pitfalls of amorous love, she would strive to become indifferent to her object of affection.

If someone were walking toward us, we would each break off to the left or to the right to make room for the person to pass. Once they had gone by, we would resume walking closely side by side. “Don’t go to the other side, Tsukiko, come my way,” Sensei said after the umpteenth person headed toward us. But I still broke off from Sensei and went “to the other side.” For some reason, I just wouldn’t huddle over with Sensei

In keeping aloof and reserved, sense of security for one’s identity is fortified. This was a crucial matter for Tsukiko from which no doubt distances arose but which also led to her relationship with Sensei become more wholesome.

I was thinking about Sensei. He had never once referred to himself as “old.” Aside from the fact that he was old enough not to make light of his age, it just wasn’t in his nature to talk about it. Standing there on the street right then, I felt very far away from Sensei. I was keenly aware of the distance between us. Not only the difference between our age in years, nor even the expanse between where each of us stood at that moment, but rather the sheer distance that existed between us.

Patriarchy 

Held this way, I felt as though Kojima were manipulating me like a doll

The word “allure” seemed old-fashioned to me, but then again, the fact that it’s always the woman who is expected to pour, and to have “allure” when doing so, seemed antiquated too

The story from Tsukiko’s viewpoint is also littered with patriarchal dispositions of men in her life which she chooses to ignore time and time again. This is an important aspect of her personality and distinct identity which gradually moulds Sensei’s affections towards her. Every now and then, he would reprimand Tsukiko mildly for her inability to conform to lady-like mannerisms, and Tsukiko takes no heed of his rebukes.

The rain had softened to a drizzle. A raindrop fell on my cheek. I wiped it away with the back of my hand as Sensei looked on disapprovingly. “Tsukiko, don’t you have a handkerchief?” “I do, but it’s too much trouble to get out.” “Young ladies these days . . .”

Either owing to old age or traditionalism, Sensei is quick to notice Tsukiko’s unruly behaviour and give voice to his opinions, be it either on her lack of knowledge or dearth of vocabulary or table manners. His paternal and teaching instincts surface quickly through their earlier phase of friendship, but eventually wear out due to Tsukiko’s stubbornness.

“Are you enjoying the food, Tsukiko?” Sensei asked, as if he were indulging a grandchild with a voracious appetite.

Contrasts

There are many contrasting feature of the novel. Old age values are set against norms defined by younger generation which the former may not be entirely at ease with. Sensei’s acquiescent nature conflicts with Tsukiko’s stubbornness on account of difference of age. Similarly, their notions on maturity and immaturity differ greatly.

I had been very much the adult when I was in elementary school. But as I continued on through junior high and high school, on the contrary, I became less grown-up

For Sensei, sensibility and responsibility are signs for maturity but for Tsukiko experience and time is what defines it.

I could not get warm. A grown woman would know how to get warm in a situation like this. But, for the moment, I was a child and helpless

Regardless of these varied contrasts, both characters are incredibly accommodating of each other which leads to their fruitful relationship.

Effortless Prose and Imagery

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a hold on this sense—I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.

The translation of this novel is presented in incredibly easy prose. Tsukiko is an average storyteller, but she still manages to charm the reader with her unembellished account of a relationship she cherished.

Strict realism is employed in this slim book which takes us through the development of an unassuming relationship, its snags and happy resolutions, shrewd observations and introspection. Nowhere does the story lag or drift away from the crux. Minor characters are used as catalysts, such as Kojima or Satoru, to facilitate the missing pieces of Tsukiko’s life.

The story is divided into seventeen chapters of more or less equal length which give it a serialised quality. Each successive chapter accelerates our understanding of their refined relationship. Episodes such as hunting for mushrooms, attending a party or taking a trip to the island ferment their relationship one step further.

The cherry blossom party guests seemed to steadily spread out, like a plant’s leaves unfurling as its bud blooms.

Owing to the ease of narrative prose, imagery employed by the author is evocative but subtle.

All the trash and empty cans had been completely cleared away, and the ground looked as though it had been swept clean with a bamboo broom. Even the garbage cans on the embankment had been emptied of the refuse from the cherry blossom party. It was as if the party had been nothing more than an illusion or a mirage.

The patter of rain, chugging on beer and tasting raw mushrooms, the calm of Sensei’s house, the imprint of tatami mats on skin, the discomfort of cold and warble of morning birds – all add to a heightened sense of inclusion with Tsukiko’s story.

It wasn’t just that the ground was moist—all around me, it felt like it was bursting—with the leaves on the trees, the undergrowth, the countless microorganisms under the ground, the flat bugs crawling over the surface, the winged insects flitting through the air, the birds perched on branches, even the breath of the larger animals that inhabited the deeper forest.

Concluding Thoughts

“The Briefcase” is a study of solitude and the innate desire for companionship. When two resolutely lonely individuals are drawn together, their loneliness is assuaged considerably.

I could feel the warmth radiating from Sensei’s body. The stirring of emotion returned. The hard sofa with bad springs felt like the most comfortable thing in the world. I was happy to be here like this with Sensei. I was simply happy.

It’s an unassuming and simple interpretation of love, of circumstances in which it fares well and self-perpetuates. Highly recommended for anyone fancying a quick albeit fascinating read.

Once I wake up I never get back to sleep. The ticking of my watch by the pillow rang in my ears. Just when I thought it was so close, it would recede. But the watch was always in the same place. How strange.


Excerpts:

  • Even when he turned to lecture to his students, he would still hold on to the eraser, as if it was attached to his sinewy left hand
  • I’m a bit of a gourmand, so when I’m not able to take the time to indulge my tastes as I please, I begin to lose a certain vitality, as was reflected in my pallid complexion.
  • The passage of time had been evenly distributed for Kojima, and both his body and mind had developed proportionately
  • Whenever Kojima and I came to Bar Maeda, I always had the feeling that I didn’t belong in a place like this. With its jazz standards playing low, its counter polished to a high gleam, its spotlessly clean glasses, the faint scent of tobacco smoke, and the perfect hum of activity—everything was flawless. It made me feel ill at ease.
  • There was only a hint of a glow lingering in the western sky.
  • I had no idea why the gleam of the knives elicited such a feeling, but I missed him intensely.
  • So, Toru, I hear that you enjoy Sawanoi saké,” Sensei said. With his seatbelt fastened, Toru twisted himself around to face the back. “That’s right, I sure do!” he replied cheerfully. “But saké from Tochigi is still better,” Satoru added, turning around at the same angle as Toru. The car had started up the mountain road. Just as Sensei and I each let out a cry, the front end of the car scraped up against the guardrail.
  • but since Satoru kept turning all the way around whenever he spoke to us, Sensei and I made sure not to seem too interested in eliciting small talk.
  • I had stood and waited for him at the guesthouse’s front door. He had returned, his footsteps light and not the least bit uncertain in the dark.
  • Yes. Well. These were the catalog of sounds I uttered while on the phone with Sensei. My voice got smaller and smaller and, although I was happy to hear from Sensei, all I could think about was how soon could I get off the phone.
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