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Yōko Ogawa: 余白の愛 [Love at the Margin]

This was Ogawa’s first novel-length work. Our unnamed heroine/narrator (only one character is named in this book, and it is not her) has hearing problems. When we first meet her, she is in the ENT part of the F clinic. From her room she can see an old hotel. Two days later she is in the hotel attending a round table organised by a health magazine . They have a series of discussions with people who have had medical issues and discuss with them how they got them treated and the impact of the issues on their life and mental wellbeing. The one our heroine is attending is, of course, on hearing problems, in particular concerning those who have had a sudden loss or impairment of their hearing. The title is This is how I recovered from my unexpected hearing disorders.

As she has only just left the clinic, she was concerned that she would not be able to identify sounds properly but she seems to manage. The very first sentence of the book tells us that it is here that she will first meet Y. Y turns out not to be a fellow sufferer but the stenographer who is continually taking notes throughout the session. She becomes somewhat obsessed with his long fingers as he types.

Our heroine struggles a bit. Everything was white inside my head, she says, and Since I got sick, I had the impression that my ears were no longer an organ that was part of my body, but something abstract.

She listens to others who have similar but different problems from hers. She tells them that it occurred when she woke up one morning and heard what sounded like someone playing the flute but no-one was playing a flute. The journalist conducting the session asks a variety of questions and then, finally, asks whether was any trigger factor in their life that might have set off the problem as unexpected deafness can be caused by some traumatic life event. It is only now that we learn that her husband left her the day before she had the problem. You may not believe me, but I had the presentiment of the disease. Not a premonition. A simple presentiment.

She tries to speak to Y at the end but he quickly leaves. However, the session had had a harmful effect on her and she is soon back at the clinic. She seems to spend much of the time there simply dozing. However, to her surprise, her husband turns up. Thinking that she would not be able to hear him, he has written out, in a notebook, in considerable detail, everything he wanted to say to her. Basically, he will continue to support her financially, till she has recovered but he still wants a divorce.

Two thirteen year old boys play a key role in her life. When she. was thirteen, she was at school with an (unnamed) thirteen year old boy. They had known each other when they were younger but now became closer. He plays the violin that she enjoys very much. One day they went to a museum together where they saw one of Beethoven’s hearing trumpets. This made a big impression on her and she will remember it now that she has hearing problems. The thirteen year old boy, however, disappears from her life.

The second thirteen year old boy is the only named character. He is Hiro, the only son of her husband’s older sister. He will visit her frequently, usually without his mother or uncle knowing.

She also meets Y, the stenographer, again. Indeed he seems to look after her. At one of their earliest meetings, they wander round the hotel. It had been the house of a marquis. In their wanderings they find the place almost empty and find various odd items in the hotel. Y tells her the history of the place.

In their relationship, she continues to have an obsession with his fingers. He says My fingers are part of me, but I don’t fully understand them. They have their own law.. What he does do is, at her request, to take notes of what she is saying. We learn of his complex filing system and he stores her notes there as well. When she asks for just one page of the notes, he adamantly refuses. I think it’s impossible to give them to you, he explained to me reluctantly. I’m not saying that it’s because I don’t want it in a sentimental way, that’s why I use the word impossible. The problem is much more fundamental and delicate. I’m sorry I can’t explain it more

While their relationship is continuing, she looks for a job but nothing seems to work out so she gives up. She wanders around and gets lost though accidentally finds the museum with Beethoven’s ear trumpet. However, is it really what it seems and, more to the point, who really is Y? Does he even exist? or is she lost in the meanders of her memory?

This is a very fine first novel, dealing with a common theme in Ogawa’s work, that of the issue of memory, what it is, how it affects us, how much is real and whether we can in any way control it. Sadly, it has not (yet) been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published in 1991 by Fukutake Shoten (Benesse Corporation)
No English translation
First French translation in 2005 by Actes Sud
Translated by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle