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Hiroko Oyamada: いたちなく (Weasels in the Attic)

Hiroko Oyamada’s modus operandi is exploring the odd corners of modern Japan and she certainly does so, as the title immediately indicates. I cannot recall ever reading a book where weasels play a significant role.

The book consists of three linked stories, featuring, more or less, the same set of characters and more or less, the same themes.

We open with the unnamed narrator. He is married and in his early forties. He and his wife have been trying to have a baby – naturally she is more enthusiastic than he is – but they have not succeeded. This issue will run through the book. He has just received a phon call from his friend Saiki to tell him that Shuzo Urabe had died. He had met Urabe only once. Urabe was the son of a rich man so had never had to work for a living. Eventually his father had bought him an exotic fish shop and that had succeeded for a while but then failed. He now lived above the shop but had kept many of the fish. Urabe had invited the two men to celebrate a new addition to his family or something. The narrator assumed it was a baby but Saiki rejected the idea and assumed it was a new fish. Saiki had been a keen fish enthusiast but had given up as it was too much work.

When they get there, it turns out that the narrator is right. Urabe has a young wife and a baby daughter. While the wife and child do get a look in, with the narrator briefly holding the baby and feeling envious, the focus is on the fish, in particular the interesting mating habits of the discus fish, which Urabe is studying and a passing nod to the bonytongue, a much rarer fish that we will meet again later. Urabe has run out of snacks to fed his guests so he gets some dried shrimp, usually used to feed the fish, and they eat that.

As we know Urabe has died, the narrator and his wife are still trying for a baby. Saiki, however, has, to the narrator’s surprise, has got married. As he works from home, he has moved to the country, which he is beginning to regret, particularly as the eponymous weasels are getting into his attic. He traps them and dumps them fifteen miles away but still they come.

The narrator and his wife visit the couple. It turns out that the narrator’s wife’s family had had the problem of weasels when she was a child and they had found a way, albeit cruel, to deal with the problem.

The third story is more or less the same scenario, only a bit later. Yoko, Saiki’s wife, has had a baby, with the help of the narrator’s wife. This time we see that Saiki has once again shown an interest in fish and now has several fish tanks with discus fish and one with the rare bonytongue. As it is snowing, the narrator and his wife have to spend the night and they sleep in the room with the fish tanks. Bonytongues can jump three feet.

The first point to make about this story is the role of women. Nearly all the women in this book have a role of wife and mother and not much else. The narrator’s wife works but we know little about her job. Even the female fish are there to breed and the female weasel to protect her family. Only Saiki’s neighbour, an elderly widow, has a slightly different role but she does follow traditional female roles in providing food and gossiping.

Clearly fertility is the key theme, Both Urabe and Saiki have shown little interest in marriage and sex but, when they do marry, a child is produced fairly promptly, while our narrator and his wife struggle throughout the book to have a child, though the fact that they are older may be an issue. The fish and weasels seem to have few problems in this area.

One of Oyamada’s skills is that while, on the face of it, things seem straightforward, she puts in many little episodes that are more disturbing. Why and how did Urabe die and why did he die seemingly alone? There is the issue of the removal technique of the weasels by the narrator’s wife’s family, the eating of the fish food and the associated story,the role of the slightly odd neighbour of Saiki and Yoko and the behaviour of the fish, particularly the jumping bonytongue. All give us a sense that things are not quite as they should be

The book is short but certainly a fascinating view of life in Japan that we do not normally see in novels and an interesting story.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Shinchosha,
First English translation in 2022 by New Directions
Translated by David Boyd