The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw
I have always found reading Japanese fiction—admittedly in translation—to be something of an out-of-body experience, as if one were watching a reflection in a pond. When one reaches out to touch it, it shimmers and disappears. I do not know whether that is a function of the language, or an artifact of translating the language, the literary culture, or my imagination.
This exact feeling permeates The Snow Kimono, the stunning and hypnotic new novel by the Australian writer Mark Henshaw, who hasn’t had a novel out in twenty-five years. This anglophone recreation of the feel of a Japanese novel in translation is not mimicry: I don’t know what it is. The result is astonishing.
The story of The Snow Kimono is so intricate, so chronologically disordered, the narrators so unreliable, that it is impossible to summarize except through platitudes and evasions. The narrative is framed in Paris where a Japanese gentleman—a former law professor by the name of Tadashi Omura—invites himself into retired Inspector’s Auguste Jovert’s flat to tell him the story of his life in Japan and that of his friend, the one-time writer and, it appears, criminal Katsuo Ikeda. Three women, three generations, all beautiful, float though this narrative like apparitions.
There is a second narrative. Jovert has just received a letter from a woman in Algiers who claims to the be his daughter which, together with the jolt from Omura, requires Jovert to confront his own repressed memories and past. Henshaw’s chameleon-like ability to take on the skin of other literatures doesn’t stop with Japan: this quarter of the novel, set in Paris and Algeria during the War for Independence, reminds me of French writer Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul, at least, again, the translation. The French and Japanese merge seamlessly where they meet.
The stories are told in flashbacks within flashbacks, piece by piece with—in the Japanese part of the narrative—innumerable false openings and mirage-like impressions, which are perhaps the result of imperfect memory, perhaps deliberate deception. There are several twists and turns along the way including the sort of multi-dimensional 180-degree twist that I have come to expect in Japanese fiction. Omura tells Jovert of his father’s fascination with jigsaw puzzles
Ours is a distinct tradition... Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray... In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truth about the world.
This might be the author describing his aspirations for his novel. Omura then describes the time his father bought, for the first time, a 5000-piece Western puzzle. When he finished it, he realized that the picture matched that on the box.
No matter where you start, he said, you always end up in the same place. And you always know beforehand.
* * *
In spite of the plot twists and the fact there is a crime and a policeman, this is not a crime novel; indeed, the crime seems almost beside the point. There are also mysteries, but this is not a mystery. The book cover calls The Snow Kimono a “psychological thriller”, and while it has those elements, that appellation also seems simplistic. Henshaw has rather written a deep reflection on life, memory, love and loss—which indeed sounds platitudinous—encased in an extremely clever structure that traps reader for the duration of the novel.
This Henshaw does not just through intricate plotting but also with writing that that is astoundingly evocative. Jovert is taking refuge in a café on Bastille Day when the fireworks start going off. A young woman slides past him to the café window to watch.
... she leans across his table again. Perhaps it is the effect of the wine, or the combination of her black dress and the darkness of the café, but with her suspended above him like this, it is difficult to tell where her body ends and the night begins. It is as though he is looking through her into the star-clustered heavens above.
Other passages are ineffably sad. One of the young women in the book befriends a younger boy who—Henshaw doesn’t pull his punches—has had his eyes picked out by a crow. She comes to say goodbye to the now blind boy before she leaves her hometown.
Forever? he asks.
Perhaps. For a long time, in any case.
He is silent. His head is still. He could be looking out across the marketplace.
I remember, he says, almost to himself.
He raises his hand, searching for my face. I kneel and he touches my cheek. His hand drops. His head starts to move back and forth again, and I know he’s no longer there.
It’s a fair guess you won’t read another novel like The Snow Kimono this year, or perhaps for many to come.