HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 July 2013
From the opening page of this simply narrated story, author Hiromi Kawakami establishes characters who, in their disarming complexity and iconoclastic behavior, shatter the expectations that many western readers of Japanese novels may have come to expect. Tsukiko Omachi, the thirty-eight-year-old narrator of this novel, describes her meeting with Mr. Harutsuna Matsumoto at a crowded bar after she finishes work. Tsukiko, an aggressive businesswoman, is drinking alone, and the man she meets is not a contemporary trying to pick her up. Accustomed to living her life without interference from anyone else, and not looking for a relationship, she nevertheless joins Matsumoto for dinner. About thirty years older than Tsukiko, Matsumoto taught one of her high school classes years ago, but though he remembers both her first and last names, she remembers him only as "Sensei." She did not enjoy his class, was not a good student, and has no residual affection for him.
Five bottles of sake later, however, she sees him somewhat differently. They have a similar tastes in food, and a similar rhythm, or temperament, and despite the age difference, she feels much more comfortable with him than with friends her own age. They continue to meet at the bar occasionally after that, always by chance, and on occasion they go to his house afterward, though he remains formal. Divorced for fifteen years, Sensei lives in clutter, with mementoes of his past piled up everywhere - including a collection of "railway teapots," used on trains in the 1950s and 1960s, and a large collection of dead batteries which he says he cannot throw away because he "feels [symbolic] pity" for them: "I can't throw them away [at] the moment they die," he remarks. "These batteries have illuminated my lights, signaled my sounds, and run my motors."
Sometimes months pass without Tsukiko and Sensei seeing each other. She sees other people but finds men her own age shallow and uninteresting. Sensei continues the same lonely life he has lived for years. As the seasons change over the course of two years, the relationship changes, not just for Tsukiko but for the reader, too, as the author, with great care, introduces minute changes in their thoughts and behavior. Almost imperceptibly, the two begin to share a bit, though they remain determinedly independent, with neither giving up personal autonomy. Eventually, thanks to the author's careful introduction of thoughtful detail, the two find themselves at a kind of "middle place, perhaps a borderline" in the relationship, or perhaps not.
Though some readers may become frustrated by the excruciatingly slow pace of the relationship, with long months often elapsing between key events, the author's ability to show the minute changes which occur between these two strong and independent people will delight lovers of precise writing and careful development. Sometimes Kawakami accomplishes this magic through her use of obvious symbols, sometimes through quiet observations made by her characters themselves, and sometimes through such precise descriptions of a character's behavior that the reader fills in the blanks and draws his/her own conclusions. The writing is clean - pristine, even - with every word, every event, and every psychological nuance presented clearly. Rarely have I seen a novel of such psychological acuity, and the emotions it evokes, especially toward the character of Sensei, are strong and empathetic. Inspiring in its honesty and integrity, The Briefcase, a major prizewinner in Japan, is already on its way to becoming a literary classic.