This review was published in The Star on 30 March 2008.
By Hitomi Kanehara
Publisher: Vintage, 216 pages
A WORK of auto fiction is defined as a fictional autobiography, or an autobiography with fictional elements. So one has to wonder how much of author Hitomi Kanehara’s real life is mirrored in her latest book when she calls it Autofiction.
The book’s protagonist, a young girl called Rin, is an author who has made a name for herself. Kanehara herself became famous when, at just 21 years old in 2004, she won one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Akutagawa Award, for her debut novel, Snakes and Earrings. One wonders, indeed....
Snakes and Earrings shows Tokyo’s darker side, and features a character who wants to split her tongue and who delves into the culture of skin piercing and mutilation. Those who fancy Ryu Murakami’s works might feel at home reading it – which, perhaps, explains why Kanehara won that award, as Murakami was one of the award’s judges.
Kanehara has written a number of books since her debut work, but only that and, now, Autofiction, has made it to the English-speaking world. And like Snakes and Earrings, Autofiction depicts Kanehara’s obsession with the more sinister side of Tokyo.
We first meet Rin on an airplane with her husband, Shin; they are flying back from their honeymoon in Tahiti. It’s obvious she is head over heels in love with him, and all looks rosy ... until a stewardess comes along offering drinks, and Rin plunges into wild jealousy.
When Shin goes to the toilet and is delayed returning to his seat, Rin imagines he’s cheating on her with the stewardess right there, and has angry thoughts of committing suicide, even praying the plane would crash. When he returns, though, her emotions turn about face and she regrets her dark thoughts. She’s soon back in her lovey-dovey state, and Shin and the stewardess never catch on to her turmoil.
This quick change of emotional states is just one of many that we will see in Rin in the rest of the book, along with her disturbing propensity to talk to an imaginary friend when she feels that Shin is neglecting her, and her tendency to sleep with anyone who’s conveniently around.
We soon discover why Rin is the highly flawed and disturbed individual that she is, and the way Kanehara sets about revealing this is certainly interesting: the book’s four chapters follow Rin’s life backwards in time.
We are introduced to Rin, the successful and married author; then we see the bimbo who barhops through Tokyo, dependent on the measly handouts of men in exchange for sex; then the secondary school girl who’s determined to drop out; and finally the troubled 15-year-old dependent on painkillers and depressants.
Why I suspect that Autofiction might have elements of Kanehara’s life in it is because it succeeds so well in realistically depicting a young girl’s troubled life.
In one chapter, Rin is shown living on scraps while her boyfriend gambles his money away at Pachinko parlours, and the intense and confused feelings that Rin shares with us feels so real and convincing.
However, sometimes the realism gets a bit too heavy-handed. Because the novel is written in a first-person stream-of-consciousness style, Rin frequently sidetracks from her narrative and left me wishing she would get back to propelling the plot forward.
But because of Kanehara’s undoubted word-weaving skills, I was eager to keep reading and discover what made Rin the way she is. The last chapter ties almost everything up, and reveals the mystery of why Rin is such a flawed character, but like all good stories, Autofiction leaves a few mysteries for readers to mull over and try to solve for themselves.
Despite being quite a short read at only 216 pages, I highly recommend Autofiction, especially to fans of Murakami and other writers of his ilk. And I hope the rest of Kanehara’s oeuvre will also be translated into English soon.