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Mario Bellatin: El jardín de la señora Murakami (Mrs. Murakami’s Garden)

Mrs. Izu Murakami (before she was Mrs. Murakami) studied art history at one the best universities, with the intention of becoming an art critic. As part of her studies she visited Mr Murakami’s private collection. His father had amassed a very fine collection of works of art and he had continued it to a certain degree but not all that much. However, he was very much interested in the arts.

When she visited the collection, she went in a kimono, instead of her normal Western dress style and was accompanied by her saikokú, Etsuko (saikokú is defined, by the author,: the role was understood in imperial times: something between a servant, a housekeeper, and a chaperone. Saikokús performed all these functions and, at the same time, none).

However, when she wrote her essay on her visit, she was fairly critical. The exhibit seemed thrown together, she declared, according to the whim of someone who suddenly found himself in a position to satisfy any desire he might have. She was taught by Kenzo Matsuei, a man who represented in the university the Adamantly Modern Group, opposed to the Radical Conservatives, who controlled the department. Matsuei suggested her article should be published, not least because it was unusual, in their country, to read such a critical article.

After her visit to Mr Murakami, he started to woo her, sending her gifts and asking her out. She resisted. She had had two previous suitors, one of whom died, the other who went to the United States and never returned. She was now helping her mother look after her seriously ill father. He and his family had owned a department store. In the basement people played the game of three white stones against three black stones. It may be a variation of Go but is different in at least two aspects. Firstly, it was very violent – people got injured playing the game – and, secondly, it was secret and illegal. In fact, two people did die in the store playing this game and her father was prosecuted and briefly went to prison before paying off the family of the victims. It was this that helped bring on his debilitating illness.

At this point I should mentioned that, while on the face of it, the book seems to be set in Japan and has numerous references to various aspects of Japanese culture, one of the beauties of this book is that nothing is what it seems. The people and culture are all Japanese but more than once we are given indications that the country is not Japan. For example, we are told that the father’s store imports goods from Japan. There are several other casual remarks indicating that the country is not Japan. Bellatin makes numerous references to Japanese culture – the game of three white stones against three black stones and saikokús, mentioned above, are just two of the many examples. These may exist in Japan but I can find no evidence for their existence. In short, it would seem that Bellatin has created an imaginary Japan or, perhaps, even a Japan in a parallel world. It is more or less modern as phones, Formica and other modern items exist.

Once her essay was published Mr Murakami stopped the presents and stopped contacting her. Meanwhile she is being dragged (not entirely unwillingly) into the politics of the university, particularly the dispute between the Adamantly Modern Group and the Radical Conservatives, by Matsuei and Aori Mizoguchi, editor of the magazine where her essay was published. (Note that I am giving names in the Western style, i.e. first-name-last name; the text of the novel uses the Japanese style, i.e last name-first name). They suspect Mr. Murakami is allied to the Radical Conservatives and want to bring him down. Indeed, they find some scandal attached to his name (sex; rich men) and want this to come out to besmirch the Radical Conservatives.

We know what is going to happen, both from the title and from the opening part of the book, which involves Mr. Murakami’s death and Izu’s reaction. For reasons that are not entirely clear (revenge? lust? desire to have a wife? – he is a widower), Mr. Murakami tries to resume the relationship, while Izo is more or less willing, despite the opposition of her mother, again for unspecified reasons (career not going well? need for husband as her family has little money? company? the university politics getting too murky? blackmail?)

The marriage is not a happy one. He is often not there. He has sold his house and built a new, Western-style one where she is allowed only to have the eponymous garden. It seems he might have been having an affair with Etsuko. On his deathbed what he most wants is to see Etsuko’s breasts. He has also used a traditional marriage contract, (which Bellatin calls a formoton asai, another word I cannot find anywhere else) which gives the wife very limited rights. In short, she does very badly and, at the start of the book, we see her having the garden demolished, after his death, partially because she wants the money but also because she sees his ghost there.

The basic plot seems to be young Japanese woman wants to breaks the Japanese tradition and have an intellectual career, which women, on the whole, did not do. She gets caught up in the politics of the university and, by behaving decently and honestly, pays a price. She marries a man who has good cause to dislike her, as she has criticised his art collection. Her marriage is miserable and he dies, leaving her with very little. However, as we have seen, it is more complicated than that.

Bellatin leaves us with more questions than answers, including the motives of both Izu and her husband, the location of the novel and the nature of Mr. Murakami’s will.

The novel ends with the word Otsomuru – A term that refers to an ending that is, in fact, a beginning. But the novel does not end there. Bellatin gives us a series of end-notes (which he calls Addenda to the Story of Mrs. Murakami’s Garden), which contain some explanations but he also gives us cryptic comments such as the true motivations of the story’s protagonists will never be known as well as several indications that the plot is not what we might have thought it was.

To add to our confusion, the translator throws in an equally cryptic commentary (which is not, of course, in the original Spanish), implying that the novel was not original but a novel Bellatin had translated from some other language, presumably though not necessarily Japanese.

If you like your plot straightforward and conventional, then this may not be for you. However, if like me, you like a bit of mystery, uncertainty and attempts by the author to throw the reader off track of what is going on, then you will find this a superb work. It is relatively short, but Bellatin packs a lot in. In many post-modernist works, the author not only tells a story but questions the telling of it and Bellatin certainly does this. He also leaves us wondering what it is we have just read. It is taken twenty years for this book to be translated into English and we must be grateful to Deep Vellum and Heather Cleary for finally allowing us to read it.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Tusquets
First English publication in 2020 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Heather Cleary